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Free Form Friday: Jill Stein and the fight for the right to be right

Free form Friday is my weekly non-Bowie post (though this one does include a Bowie reference at the end). For more Bowie, come back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Bowie writer Chris O’Leary. You won’t want to miss this one!!!

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Holy false equivalence, Batman! After a recent visit to my home town of Albany, New York, by Vladimir Putin’s dinner companion, Jill Stein, a columnist for the local paper wrote that state Democrats are attempting to restrict democracy by making it harder for Stein and similar candidates to access the ballot. But despite the local angle, the question of what constitutes a threat to democracy is not limited to New York.

The columnist questioned President Biden’s claim that democracy itself is a central issue in the 2024 presidential election, despite his opponent being the guy who is on trial for using subterfuge to win in 2016 and political violence to try to illegally retain control in 2020, and oh yeah, who pledged to be a “dictator for a day” and is arguing in the Supreme Court that he should forever and eternally be immune from prosecution. Nothing to see here. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole. What’s more interesting is the columnist’s contention that the state’s Democrats’ 2020 move to up the signature requirement for candidates to petition their way onto the ballot is the real threat to democracy in New York. Is it?

Without getting into all of New York’s arcane election laws, the state has historically been notoriously easy in terms of ballot access. In 2018, for instance, ten parties placed the names of gubernatorial nominees on the ballot. Now, that doesn’t mean that there were ten candidates — New York allows for multiple parties to nominate the same candidate. The traditional result of this arrangement has been that some parties leverage their ballot line for either policy or patronage concessions by major party candidates in exchange for their endorsement. The other consequence of what’s known as “fusion voting” is that some candidates have taken advantage of the easy ballot-access laws to create their own minor party lines so that their names can appear next to a phrase on the ballot like, “Tax Cut Now” or “Stop Common Core.” But, there have always also been minor parties that nominate their own, separate candidates.

So,in 2018, five candidates were on the ballot. The three who were not the Democratic or Republican nominee received a combined total of just over 4% of the vote.

As the columnist pointed out, that became tougher to do in 2022 when, with the backing of state Democrats, the Legislature, “increased the number of required signatures needed to petition onto the ballot from 10,000 to 45,000 [and] the rules were also toughened for party qualifications.” The 2022 ballot included only four parties nominating a total of two candidates between them. The columnist’s conclusion was that the change of law constituted “an effort [that] blatantly aimed at limiting the range of choices available to voters.” That, according to this columnist, is the true threat to democracy.

So what’s wrong with this argument?

“Democracy” is actually a somewhat difficult term to define. The Economist Group publishes an annual “Democracy Index” rating the world’s countries, based on an evaluation of 60 criteria covering the categories of electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. Other groups use different criteria, but none rely solely — or heavily— or at all— on the number of petition signatures that are necessary for a candidate to get on the ballot in a state or province.

The definition of democracy is difficult because the concept, at its most abstract, is easy to understand but impossible to fully realize— democracy is government by the people. Why is this impossible to realize? Well, to start, not all of the people participate in their own governance. Moreover, most democratic systems involve the most numbers of people (the electorate) selecting officials to whom they delegate powers. The officials do a lot of the actual governing, and since most of those officials get elected despite a significant percentage of “the people” voting against them, supporters of the losing candidates might claim that their government is not of, for or by them.

The claim of government “by the people” is tougher to make when those officials entrusted with governing powers were unambiguously opposed by a majority of those who choose to participate in an election. This sometimes happens in the United States. Five U.S. presidents were elected despite receiving fewer popular votes than another candidate, and plenty more have been elected with fewer than 50% of the vote (including Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump). There are many other examples (we can talk about the U.S. Senate, for instance), but because my hometown columnist was writing about the presidential election, let’s stick with that.

Candidates can win the election without winning the popular vote because of the strange feature of the process of selecting the president known as the Electoral College. Voters, in each state choose electors, and the electors choose the president (though the name that appears on the ballot is the presidential candidate’s). The candidate whose electors get the most votes in a state, win all of that state’s electors (except in Maine and Nebraska, but that’s another rabbit hole I’m going to forgo). If there are three candidates on the ballot in a state, the only one who gets any electoral votes is the one who receives the most popular votes in the state, even if that candidate merely wins 34% of votes cast and the other two get 33% each.

So this brings us back to the columnist’s point about Jill Stein. Jill Stein is not banned from the ballot in New York State. To get on the ballot, she needs to get 45,000 signatures. This might seem like a lot, but in a state of more than 19 million residents, it is actually quite easy for a candidate with a genuine following. This is especially true for someone like Stein, who has run for president in 2012 and 2016, and is the nominee of a party, the Green Party that has existed in New York and nationally for many years. Stein and the Greens have had plenty of time to organize to get signatures — the same type of activities they would need to pursue to actually, you know, win the election. But despite being around the block more than a few times, Stein and the Greens simply don’t have very much support in New York, or anywhere else in the United States. She has plenty of support from Russia, which funded a social media blitz on her behalf in 2016, but she doesn’t have much genuine support in the United States. But Stein’s trouble getting on the ballot in New York stems from there not being a whole lot of actual New Yorkers who want her there.

Here is a good moment to point out that there’s a world of difference between states who are making it more difficult for their citizens to vote at all and New York, which took measures to ensure that candidates actually need some sort of following to get on the ballot.

Stein herself has demonstrated why New York’s approach is good for democracy. In 2016, despite receiving just over 1% of the vote nationwide, she received more votes than the margin of victory for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in three so-called battleground states. This is exactly the effect the Russians were hoping Stein’s candidacy would play when they decided to invest in her. Had Clinton, who won the national popular vote, won a plurality of voters in those states, she would have been elected president. A very similar situation happened with left-of-center minor party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 election, wherein if his votes went to Al Gore in either Florida or New Hampshire, Gore would have beaten George W. Bush (like Clinton, Gore also won the national popular vote). Some supporters of George H. W. Bush contend that populist third-party candidate Ross Perot drew votes away for Bush in 1992, allowing Bill Clinton to win the election (Clinton won a popular plurality, but nonetheless won the election with less than 50% of the popular vote).

It is impossible to tell for sure if the Stein and Nader votes would have gone to Clinton and Gore, or if the Perot votes would have gone to Bush, had Stein, Nader and Perot not been on the ballot at all. The thinking goes that Stein and Nader were ideologically closer to Clinton and Gore, and Perot closer to Bush, than they were to Trump, George W. Bush and Clinton respectively. In a two way race, it is likely, as the theory goes, that more people would have preferred the losing major party candidate. If true, the presence of the minor party candidate on the ballot impeded government by the people. If “majority rule” is problematic because the minority can feel left out, minority rule is far worse.

If there’s a democratic problem with the American system of electing a president, it is that the system is not the best at figuring out who most Americans actually want as president. If the local columnist had written that New York should allow 1,000 flowers to bloom, or, more precisely, 1,000 candidates to run, and then have a runoff system, that would have made more sense in terms of a pro-democracy argument than the idea that a candidate without genuine support should be allowed the easiest of opportunities to deny a plurality to another candidate who would otherwise be the choice of a majority in a two-way race.

But all of this is academic. If Stein got on the ballot, of course it is possible that she could win the State. But she wouldn’t. For the same reason that she’s having trouble collecting 45,000 signatures, there is no realistic chance that she would end up as more than a footnote on Election Day. In 2016, when she was on the ballot, Stein received less than 1.5% of the vote in New York, and she got less than 1% in 2012. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, won 59% of the state’s votes in 2016 and Barack Obama got 63% in 2012. Although Clinton and Obama were not the choice of all the people, they were the clear choice of most of the people in New York State. Stein was not a factor then, and there is little reason to believe that she’d be much of a factor in 2024.

OK, OK, maybe she isn’t out to win. Maybe her goal in running for president is to draw attention to issues? Well, her visit to Albany drew attention to one issue, as far as I can tell— ballot access. Is that why she’s running? I know this is supposed to be my non-Bowie day, but I can’t help but think of the lines from the song, “Cygnet Committee”— “I will fight for the right to be right; I will kill for the good of the fight for the right to be right.” Or better yet, the whole scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian wherein a rebel group agrees to support a man’s (which is to say, a person without a uterus) right to have babies. Well, that skit hasn’t necessarily aged entirely well. If it needs to be replaced with a less nuanced example of comedy by way of highlighting the difference between a theoretical right and reality, we now have an alternative— Jill Stein!

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