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A Mediator Looks At Elections

Excerpt from Kenneth Cloke, Conflict Revolution: Mediating Evil, War, Injustice, and Terrorism, due April, 2008, Janis Publications

Every election year we witness the spectacle of candidates and parties engaged in character assassination, meaningless polarization, trivialization of serious issues, false and slanderous advertising, manipulative rhetoric, and corruption of the political process through that modern form of bribery known as campaign financing. These tactics create a political culture that isolates and alienates the majority of the electorate; reinforces competitive, destructive, adversarial behaviors; generates chronic conflicts; and de-emphasizes interest-based options. English writer G. K. Chesterton commented:

The average man votes below himself; he votes with half a mind or a hundredth part of one. A man ought to vote with the whole of himself, as he worships or gets married. A man ought to vote with his head and heart, his soul and stomach, his eye for faces and his ear for music; also (when sufficiently provoked) with his hands and feet. If he has ever seen a fine sunset, the crimson color of it should creep into his vote… The question is not so much whether only a minority of the electorate votes. The point is that only a minority of the voter votes.

Many years ago, a journalist from China visiting the US during an election year was asked which presidential candidate he thought might win in China. He responded immediately that none of them would even be qualified to run for office. When the shocked reporter asked why, he responded that anyone who would brag about themselves and what they had done would be immediately disqualified. I thought, “how civilized,” and began considering how our political culture actively encourages egotism, unethical behavior, dishonesty, deception, dirty tricks, unrealistic promises, and hypocrisy.

The electoral process has become distorted and adversarial not only in the US, but increasingly in other countries as well, largely due to the domination of campaign financing by wealthy donors. Those who lack significant wealth are simply marginalized or excluded from the political process, causing the democratic principle of “one person/one vote” to be distorted into “one dollar/one vote.”

Interest-based conflict resolution techniques suggest that better results can be achieved through inclusion, equality, participation, and consensus. These values suggest that the platform writing process could be broadened to include large group facilitation, informal problem solving, public dialogue, collaborative negotiation, prejudice reduction, and similar conflict resolution methods. The selection of party platforms could then be linked to mass media and home computers to allow registered members for a particular party to directly influence its policy decisions, as a number of corporate leadership teams have done regarding lesser issues with great success.

Purely from the point of view of prevention, what would change if we were to apply interest-based approaches to political elections? In Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution, I identified several strategies for transforming elections that I have updated based on published research and the experience of recent elections. Here are thirty ways elections can be made more mediative:

1. Approach elections as consensus building efforts that identify potential solutions to important public problems by organizing discussions around shared values, common vision, problem solving, or strategic planning

2. Facilitate community public dialogue sessions in advance of elections to discuss key questions, explore disagreements, unite around common strategies, and participate in dialogue sessions with other communities

3. Restructure and democratize the electoral system to increase diversity, participation, and broader representation of interests

4. Provide free public campaign financing for all candidates, remove soft money bribery from politics, and reduce incentives for graft, corruption, and politically motivated appointments

5. Prohibit campaign contributions and expenditures in excess of minimal agreed-upon amounts, and impose fines or disqualify candidates, contributors, or lobbyists who exceed them

6. Equalize access to media and provide free television advertising, with fines or disqualification for negative or dishonest ads

7. Create a Voter Bill of Rights, or a Constitutional right to vote

8. Establish national minimum standards for local elections

9. Establish a shorter number of days for state primaries to reduce costs, media hype, hypocrisy, and opportunistic appeals to narrow sectional interests

10. Institute nonpartisan election management teams

11. Provide for automatic, universal, lifetime voter registration linked to social security numbers, or opportunities for election day re-registration

12. Establish an election day work holiday, as is done in Puerto Rico

13. Extend the right to vote to everyone who is taxed, including recent immigrants and former felons

14. Prevent the removal of voters from voting lists without ample advance notice to those impacted, offer opportunities to appeal, and impose penalties for partisan elimination of voters

15. Require voting machines to be reliable, publicly owned, and tamper proof, with an easily accessible paper trail to confirm results

16. Formulate party platforms as vision statements drafted in professionally facilitated local citizen assemblies and agreed upon by consensus

17. Focus on issues rather than personalities by scheduling sustained, meaningful, long-term public dialogues regarding social, economic, political, and environmental issues

18. Require candidates to publicly mediate ground rules for debates and campaigns in advance, and to publicly indicate the kind of campaign they intend to run

19. Arrange for multiple, facilitated, in-depth public dialogues; include independent candidates, write-ins, and “fringe” political parties; eliminate political “stacking” of audiences; and encourage public participation in the dialogue

20. Schedule open discussions of divisive political issues in mediated public policy forums and televised town hall meetings, facilitated by professional mediators, with audience participation

21. Eliminate the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries by using judges, nonpartisan officials, and balanced, community-based citizen commissions to draw nonpartisan voting boundaries that give minority constituencies a voice

22. End winner-take-all elections using proportional representation, instant runoff voting (i.e., allowing second choice votes to count) and fusion voting (i.e., allowing two or more parties to nominate the same candidate)

23. Decentralize campaigning, allowing candidates to be elected electronically from homes, workplaces, and publicly accessible computers using social security numbers to prevent fraud

24. Publicly mediate and arbitrate disputes between candidates who violate ground rules regarding dishonesty and negativity, and censure, fine, or disqualify those responsible

25. Require multilingual ballots and poll workers who are fluent in languages used by voters at each polling place

26. Require polling places to be wheelchair accessible and ballots to be printed in Braille and large print, and in audio

27. Eliminate the Electoral College and make the popular vote conclusive

28. In the event of close outcomes, recount, or repeat the process from scratch

29. Continue to conduct dialogues following elections among all candidates, regardless of who wins, and include losing candidates in newly elected governments

30. Publicly evaluate the process afterwards, and agree on improved procedures for the next campaign

Until we overhaul the electoral system, stop rewarding conflict-generating political practices, and eliminate corrupt campaign financing, there is little we will be able to do to avoid abuses or redesign the political process as a whole, and thus to solve global problems without resort to conflict-generating power- and rights-based processes. In addition, pursuing interest-based electoral approaches will enable us to achieve greater political unity, increase collaboration, learn from diverse ideas and approaches, and develop more complex, integrated solutions to global problems. We may then be able to return politics to its original purposes, and transform it into a search for social justice, ethical self-improvement, and the common good.


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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