Occupy and Democracy Reforms: A Match Made in Heaven?

by Dorothy Scheeline // Published October 19, 2011
occupy boston

The Occupy movement has gone national and even international after its start near Wall Street. It has pretty much every organization with a pet cause trying to ride its coattails right now. Whether you’re an environmentalist, anti-capitalist, pro-capitalist, union member, or even an election reformer (!) you’re trying to figure out how you can capitalize on Occupy for your issue’s gain. Now, this is understandable because Occupy has a unique energy, and it’s a forum that’s very open to discussion and new ideas.  One of the reasons for this is that there are people in the Occupy movement who are supportive of a plethora of different issues, and the whole point of Occupy is for them to be able to express their viewpoints.

I don’t like the way some organizations are looking at Occupy with hungry eyes, salivating over all those potential volunteers. However, since I’m an election reform nerd, I’m going to do my best to make the case to Occupiers around the country why democracy reforms, specifically proportional representation or “fair voting” and ranked choice voting (instant runoff voting), are ideal issues for Occupiers to support.  

We’ve seen several videos, tweets, blogs, and forum posts from Occupiers in the past few weeks supporting proportional representation and instant runoff voting. In Portland, OR, the Occupy Portland General Assembly recently voted to support instant runoff voting.

There have also been various discussions and teach-ins about proportional representation and instant runoff voting in other cities like Boston as well. It makes a lot of sense for anyone with dissenting political views with an interest in electoral politics--the winner-take-all wall can be a rigid barrier.

Now, as I said, there are obviously just as many tweets, blogs, and videos from Occupiers supporting other issues. But democracy reforms have the unique ability to challenge the status quo in a way that fits in very well with the goals of the Occupy movement. It’s a nonpartisan solution to inequality that challenges corporate influence in politics by changing the system to focus more on the voter and less on the candidate. I think a lot of people, not just those in Occupy, feel that right now our political structures aren’t set up for our voices to be heard. Changing the structure of our electoral system is the first step to creating a space for more voices and points of view within our political process. Maintaining the system we currently have- a stilted, two-party system with low voter turnout isn’t an option any more.

Democracy reform would also provide an alternative for Occupy itself. Right now Occupy in most cities is run by consensus. If the cities want to connect to be a larger movement, running a nationwide organization by consensus seems extremely difficult. Using a proportional representation system within the Occupy movement would be a great alternative to a traditional top-down, winner-take-all decision-making model traditionally used by unions, environmental organizations, and other non-profits that are becoming extremely interested in the Occupy movement. Having proportional representation within Occupy would also be a safeguard against what a lot of people are starting to fear: that the movement gets co-opted by the Democratic establishment for the upcoming election.

Conventional wisdom right now is still that Occupy is a fad. I don’t believe that at all. If you’re buying into the notion that “there is no clear message” and “they’re just a bunch of hippies in a park” I recommend that you listen to the beginning of this excellent podcast that has a lot of interviews from people occupying Wall Street. 

I think that Occupy will morph into something huge, even if the way that it looks a year from now is very different from the structure in place now. Occupy has the chance to create a model for the ideal American democracy. After all, in Occupy there’s no Electoral College, no campaign finance laws, no single-member districts, and no history of a structure of elections that keeps people out instead of bringing them in.