Voters believe change needed in democratic system

Is American democracy in jeopardy?

With the gloom-and-doom predictions and vitriolic rhetoric this election cycle, some people think so.

Leanne Franchville, 26, hails from the highly sought after — if you're a presidential candidate — swing state of Florida. But she still doesn't think her vote matters.

She's voting third party to make a statement, not because there's a real chance to win.

"The electoral college doesn't speak for me, so I might as well vote for myself," said Franchville while standing in Colonial Williamsburg, steps from where George Washington and Thomas Jefferson interpreters tell tales of founding the democratic republic they envisioned the United States would be.

In his 1796 farewell speech, George Washington warned of the divide strong political parties could create, and some people feel his prediction has come to pass.

In addition to the presidential race, on Tuesday Virginians have the opportunity to vote in Congressional races, state House and Senate races, as well as on constitutional amendments relating to labor unions and real estate taxes for spouses of service members and first responders who died in the line of duty.

The election is three days away and people visiting Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown — places where American was conceived and won — have opinions about the shortfalls of the U.S. election system, and ways to challenge it.

Williamsburg resident Brian Deichsel, strolling down Duke of Gloucester Street with his wife Valerie, said he agrees with the nation's first president: "I feel the two-party system will be our demise."

"I'd vote for George Washington, not these other two," Valerie Deichsel said.

Fighting over voters

College of William and Mary Government and Public Policy professor John McGlennon said the electoral system — in which the U.S. president is decided — made it inevitable there would be two opposing factions.

"With our system, it's winner take all," McGlennon said. "You need to be able to appeal to a large portion of our voters."

In the U.S., president and vice president are not chosen by a popular vote of the people, but rather by 538 electors who represent the 50 states and Washington, D.C. All but two states award all of of their electoral votes to whomever wins the popular vote of the state, regardless of the margin of victory.

"It means to be effective in presidential campaign, you have to get more votes than the other party, so the incentive is to get 50 percent plus one voter to get a majority," McGlennon said. "The original idea was that we'd have two parties fighting over the middle ground voters."

To win, a candidate needs 270 elector votes — more than half. He said the electoral college has been stable for the last four elections, meaning the decision rested on a few states that are closely divided — like Florida — instead of the country as a whole.

When a third party candidate gains momentum, it can create a situation where a candidate wins the most votes — a plurality — but not a majority.

Steven Abbey, a retired high school and university history teacher who just moved to Williamsburg, disagrees with people who vote third party.

"It's a wasted vote, even if you don't like the (candidate)," Abbey said. "That person who goes third-party could be the one to cause a plurality candidate to win."

Joining Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Virginia's presidential ballot are Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Evan McMullin an Independent.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC poll taken Oct. 30-Nov. 2, Johnson and Stein were each projected to take less than 5 percent of votes. McMullin wasn't included.

The Deichsels now live in Williamsburg but Brian, originally from Los Angeles, said in some ways it seems as though a person's party affiliation becomes part of their identity, like being a member of a gang.

That loyalty which causes some people to vote for a certain candidate simply because of the "R" or "D" next to their name on the ballot, is one reason democracy isn't working, Franchville said.

"I can't just vote for the party because even within each party I don't agree with every single thing that they stand for … that enforces the two-party system more than anything else," Franchville said.

That's why she brought her sample ballot with her from Florida, so she could research her down-ticket options before Tuesday. Local and state government affects her life more than anyone in the White House, she said. The way to pave the way for a third-party candidate winning the presidency is to elect more of them at the local and state level.

Unease at the polls

The prevalence of violent rhetoric and fears of hostility at polling places is a concern for some people.

James City County General Registrar Dianna Moorman said there will be police presence at the polls Tuesday, but no more than is usual for a presidential election. She doesn't expect any problems, but said the county is ready just in case.

Donna Osborne, out to lunch with her 83-year-old mother in Yorktown Thursday, said she was glad they both already voted absentee because she worries about hostility at the polls Tuesday.

"With her 83 years and my 60 years, we have seen so much more, so much growth," Osborne said. "People's morals have changed and things some people are looking at are things we don't want to go back to."

She said actions she's seen and comments she's heard come out of the election have her worried that the country is moving backward.

Kerry and Jill Miller, visiting Colonial Williamsburg from Pennsylvania, pointed to the black church in Mississippi that was burned and vandalized this week.

Kerry Miller said political hostilities will probably persist into future elections.

"I would say that ... it's going to be more rabble-rousers and more — go back to the 1800s when there was more propaganda and scandals and violence, where men clashed and fought before the election, I think that's what it's going to come to ... that's the era we have now, everything's sensational because everyone likes the immediate Internet."

But Miller thinks the democratic system can bounce back regardless who wins the White House.

Although Steven Abbey thinks the Republican Party will split in two after Tuesday's results, he is more optimistic about the system as a whole. On whether American democracy could recover, Abbey said "sure, it'll have to."

Staff Writer Wesley Wright contributed to this report.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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