Why USCF Should Enact OMOV, by Bill Goichberg


by Bill Goichberg

During the past year, I chaired the USCF OMOV (One Member One Vote) Committee. Other committee members were Randy Bauer, Mike Cavallo, Jim Eade, GM Larry Evans, Mike Nolan, and Wayne Praeder. A complete record of our discussions may be found at http://www.tssi.com/omov .

The OMOV Committee presented to the Policy Board a detailed proposal to allow direct election of the Executive Board by the USCF membership beginning in 2001. The PB referred this proposal to the Bylaws Committee, which reported back with suggested changes and recommended that the Delegates vote on the adoption of OMOV in 1999, and not table it as they did last year. The Policy Board accepted all the suggestions of the Bylaws Committee and modified the OMOV Committee proposal accordingly. It now appears on the agenda for the Reno meetings, and I urge all interested in promoting USCF to support it. Following is an analysis of various arguments for and against the idea of OMOV.

The democratic way

USCF has always claimed to be a democratic organization; its mission statement states, "It is structured to ensure effective democratic procedures." But, in practice, the members have little say in how the federation is run, as only the Voting Members (about to become Delegates and Alternate Delegates) elected or appointed by the state affiliates have the right to vote for the Policy Board (about to become the Executive Board). In 1998, the method of selecting these Delegates and Alternates was changed; beginning in 2000, all adult USCF members will have the right to vote for their state's Delegates and Alternates. This is a democratization of the selection of Delegates to the annual meeting, but it still leaves the election of our Executive Board as a basically undemocratic process, for several reasons:

1. When voting for state Delegates and Alternates, in most cases, a member will have little or no idea how these Delegates and Alternates will vote for the Executive Board. At the time of the state Delegate/Alternate elections, the candidates for the following year's Executive Board election are not even known.

2. The vote for the Executive Board is a secret ballot, so that even if members contact their Delegates/Alternates to express their opinion as to how their representatives should vote, the latter are free to ignore them with no risk of being defeated in the subsequent election as a result.

3. In most states, the same Delegates/Alternates, mostly prominent organizers and TDs, tend to be elected year after year. For example, this has long been the case in New York, in which the NYSCA membership has elected the state's USCF Voting Members. The overwhelming majority of New York's current Voting Members have been elected every time they have run, a situation I believe will not change when all USCF members in the state can vote for Delegates/Alternates. There is nothing undemocratic about states re-electing the same people every time, but I can't buy the idea that members will be electing the Executive Board, when all they will really be doing is repeatedly ratifying who the most popular organizers and TDs in the state are.

Better candidates

Many in USCF have long complained that we need higher quality candidates, especially those prominent in the business world. But our present system tends to produce highly politicized elections, in which many candidates are more adept at making alliances and telling voters what they want to hear than in corporate management. This is hardly surprising when the support of a few "insiders" may bring a candidate 20% or more of the vote needed to be elected, and candidates promise committee assignments to voters (as one did this year) in the hope of obtaining support. If all adult USCF members are eligible to vote, the influence of the insiders will be greatly reduced, and prominent professionals who do not wish to play politics will be more likely to run.

A more responsive Board

One of the major advantages of democracy is that those who govern are accountable to those who elect them. Do a poor job, and you won't be elected again. Presently, we have a structure in which Board members interested in future Board service may be responsive to the Voting Members, but not to the overall membership. Organizers and TDs are vital to our federation, but a Board which does not place its top priority on the needs of the membership as a whole cannot do its best for USCF. Most of our membership is now shut out of the process of electing the Executive Board, so the dialogue we need to build a stronger federation is absent on both ends. Candidates don't need member support to be elected, so few are in touch with the membership about issues, resulting in few members expressing opinions or becoming interested in federation affairs. OMOV will break this vicious circle, invigorate the process, and enlarge the pool of those who care about USCF governance.

Involving the membership: other benefits

Another important benefit of involving all interested adult members in the political process is that to some of these, the federation will become "us" rather than "them." A member who is given a voice, and becomes interested in USCF issues or candidates, is far more likely to feel a part of the federation, not just a customer who subscribes to a magazine or purchases a chess book. Especially at a time when dwindling adult membership has been a problem, we should not overlook the possibility that members who feel included, consulted, or involved in USCF's mission of promoting American chess will be more likely to renew and spread the word than those who do not. Anyone who has spent much time reading this newsgroup has seen posts to the effect of "Why should I be a member of an organization that won't let me vote for its officers" or "I quit USCF five years ago and I won't return until I can vote." I do not contend these are typical chessplayers (all chess, no politics is a far more common view), but even if such opinions represent only a small minority, and the good will caused by OMOV raises our adult membership by just a few hundred, this would be of significant help.

A common message

When the number of potential voters is small, as it is today, it becomes easy for some candidates to tailor their phone message to what they think that voter wants to hear. Unfair attacks are also made by phone on candidates who are unable to respond. With some 50,000 potential voters, the importance of phone campaigning will be greatly reduced. The primary media for campaigns under OMOV will be Chess Life election supplements and the internet, both featuring the common message desirable in an honest campaign.

It works!

OMOV is not a harebrained scheme. It's not an unproven, radical theory, but is a method used with success by such groups as Common Cause, Sierra Club, American Philatelic Society, American Numismatic Association, American Contract Bridge League, National Rifle Association, and Handgun Control Inc.

Now, let's look at arguments that have been made against OMOV.

An elite voter group?

This argument maintains that, as Tim Redman wrote in the May 1998 Chess Life, only a select group of "well informed voters" who "give up a great deal of energy and time to serve the Federation" should be allowed to vote for the Executive Board. Redman argues, "The confidence in the wisdom of the people and its transcending any need for information or restraint has ample historical precedent: in the know-nothing populism in this country during the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the belief in the inherent virtue of the "Volk" in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, in Nixon's "silent majority."

Redman apparently found it difficult to provide good examples of the evils of democracy, as the "know-nothing" populists had little success at the polls, the German democracy of the 1920s was doomed by worldwide depression after which talk of the "Volk" making decisions was just Nazi propaganda, and the "silent majority" was Nixon's way of claiming endorsement by the voters of positions they did not necessarily support. None of Redman's examples indicates a drawback of democracy. Nevertheless, there is no question that in a democracy, voters do often make mistakes. USCF is basically an oligarchy governed by the elite, and here too the voters have recently made some serious mistakes. But what is the alternative? As Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Regarding informed voters, the OMOV Committee proposal calls for a 150 word statement in the April Chess Life, plus half pages in election supplements that will accompany or be inserted in the May and June issues of Chess Life, and equitable space on the USCF website. The internet will be a very significant campaign medium; I believe that most USCF members are already online, and expect that by the OMOV implementation date of 2001, the overwhelming majority will be. Few members who are interested will be unable to obtain information.

The idea that only those members who do the most for us or are best informed can be trusted to vote is a centuries old, discredited case against democracy and for oligarchy. It is a classic argument used by the upper economic classes of many nations to maintain their wealth and power, and to continue oppression of the poor. Those who are denied the vote do tend to be poorly informed, and this is just the way those in power like it.

In 1430, an Act of Parliament in England had a preamble which explained that a "very great and excessive number of people" had been voting in the county elections, each of them claiming "a voice equivalent... with the most worthy knights and esquires." This Act, which remained in effect for four centuries, required that no one could vote in a county election unless he owned a freehold property with an annual value of at least forty shillings. Laws of this type were intended to keep the wealthy in power, not to promote voting by the well-informed.

In 19th century America, many states still required property ownership as a condition of voting. John Adams wrote in 1820, "If the radicals should succeed in obtaining universal suffrage, they will... turn those who have property out of their houses... Our ancestors have made a pecuniary qualification necessary... for electors, and all the wise men of the world have agreed in the same thing." But Thomas Jefferson did not agree, backing "general suffrage" and saying "I am not among those who fear the people." The verdict of history has been that it was the position of Jefferson, not Adams, that showed wisdom.

In 20th century South Africa, part of the argument of the ruling minority of whites was, in effect, that they were the ones who "give up a great deal of energy and time to serve" their nation, and that the black majority was not "well informed" and not deserving of the right to vote. Many predicted a bloodbath if blacks were ever allowed to vote and control the government, but this did not materialize, like so many other predictions that an expanded electorate would lead to disaster.

"The members don't care"

Another argument frequently made against OMOV is that most members care only about playing chess and will not take an interest in USCF governance and will not vote. I agree that, given the opportunity, most members will probably not vote. However:

1. Any adult member who wishes to vote for the Executive Board should have that right. Whether or not others choose to vote is irrelevant; we are a democratic organization and that member has paid dues and deserves the right to vote.

The argument that one should not be allowed to vote because he or she is part of too small a group of potential voters may sound ridiculous, but is actually anti-democratic rhetoric that is centuries old! Consider these examples.

In the early 1700s, Negroes who were not slaves were allowed to vote in Virginia, until the state legislature revoked this right. In response to protests against this action, Governor Gooch said, "After all, the number of free Negroes and mulattos entitled to the privilege of voting at elections is so inconsiderable, that 'tis scarce worth while to take any notice of them in this particular."

In debate on a female suffrage bill in 1881, State Senator Howe of Nebraska said, "I am not acquainted with half a dozen ladies who would accept the suffrage if it were offered to them. They are not prepared for so radical a change. For these reasons... I vote no."

2. Member interest in USCF governance is presently at a low level because few members are eligible to vote. If the franchise is extended to all adult members, many more will become interested. Presently, only about 450 members are allowed to vote, and perhaps 400 will actually vote. Under OMOV, will 1000 vote, or 5000, or 10,000? No one knows, but any of these numbers would be a step forward for USCF, as increased member interest should ultimately expand the number of qualified candidates. Simply allowing this expanded franchise will make many feel more positive about USCF.

Name recognition

Redman says that under OMOV, "Name recognition, not constructive thought, will be the criterion for election to national office." Will the overall membership be more likely to vote for a famous chess personality than an elite group would? Perhaps, but in a democracy that should be their privilege. Surely it is a gross exaggeration to claim that name recognition is all that will matter and "constructive thought" will no longer be relevant.

I have heard it said that under OMOV, Harold Winston, who was supported by most "insiders," would not have defeated Yasser Seirawan in the 1987 election for USCF President. I agree that Seirawan would have done better under OMOV and may have won. On the other hand, in 1990 another GM, Max Dlugy, had most of the "insider" support and won overwhelmingly. I believe that his opponent, Harry Sabine, was known by and popular with players in many states, and that under OMOV he would have had a better chance and may have defeated Dlugy.

I don't believe that just being a GM will make one a lock under OMOV, nor do I think many GMs want to be on the Board anyway, nor do I think there is anything wrong with having a GM on our Board.

"A disastrous split?"

Redman writes, "Direct election could lead to a disastrous split between the PB and the Board of Delegates, which is the legal corporate board of the Federation, and to contentious and acrimonious annual meetings resulting in paralysis."

Really? The members elect, in effect, both the executive and legislative branches of government, and this means the two will be so dramatically different in nature that they will always fight? This sounds about as accurate as the preamble to that 1430 British Act, which warned of "manslaughters, riots, batteries and divisions" unless the right to vote was limited to property owners.

"It favors rich candidates"

The argument here is that under OMOV, only a wealthy candidate could afford to send mailings or make phone calls to 50,000 voters. Actually, the current system gives rich candidates more of an advantage than OMOV would.

Presently, the candidate with more money can afford more and better mailings and more phone calls, and these may have a substantial effect, as all voters can be mailed to numerous times, and most voters can be called.

Under OMOV, with about 100 times as many potential voters, it would be extremely expensive to make much impact by mail or phone; most elections will be decided by internet and Chess Life campaigning. A single mailing could cost $20,000 to $50,000, and calls would be even more expensive and would have to be made largely by surrogates. Why would anyone spend that kind of money to become one out of seven on an unpaid volunteer Board, especially when there might be a voter backlash against such excessive spending? A multi-millionaire willing to spend this much to be elected could simply donate this money to worthy chess projects instead, a more constructive and probably easier road to victory.

Ownership and empowerment

Redman writes, "Most of our Voting members and Delegates are active participants in the state associations that choose them. Without the work of these volunteers, state groups would have a difficult time functioning. Without the feeling of ownership and empowerment in the affairs of the Federation that their voting gives them, and without the expertise they bring to their choices, both state associations and national federation will be impoverished."

The feeling of ownership and empowerment is important, and this is a major reason why the federation will be strengthened when we reach out to expand such a feeling to as many adult members as possible! Why does Redman seem to assume that expanding the voting franchise to others will cause our present voters to feel they are no longer part of the process?

State associations

In addition to his above references to state associations, Redman writes, "Direct elections will dissolve the traditional partnership between the national and state federations. The state federations must have a say and a stake in Federation policy..."

Most U.S. states abolished indirect voting by the State Legislatures for electors for President in the 1820s, feeling it was not necessary to shield the President from the direct will of the people. Since Redman wrote his essay, USCF has already approved the principle that all adult USCF members have the right to vote, not just state association members; what is at issue now is whether we will stick with the election structure that our nation abandoned 170 years ago, or join 20th/21st century America in which true democracy is not feared.

In 1825, when the New York State legislature debated ending property requirements for suffrage, General Stephen Van Rensselaer argued, "There is in every community a portion of idle, profligate and abandoned men; and it is unjust and impolitic that this description of people should have it in their power to control the government and the property of the industrious, the virtuous, and moral part of the community." Redman makes a similar argument, with the current Voting Members playing the part of the "industrious, virtuous, and moral" who are "active participants in the state associations" and thus should be rewarded by being the only ones allowed to select our Executive Board.

The Chess Life argument

Redman writes, "The group in power will control, through the pages of Chess Life, what the members know about the organization." This reflects an argument I have heard from others, that elections could be decided based on biased news coverage by our magazine.

This has not happened in the past, and it was more likely before the rise of the internet provided a quick and inexpensive way to counter any inappropriate coverage. Our editors have been consistently sensitive to the requirement of maintaining neutrality, knowing that any deviation from this principle will make them enemies who, even if not immediately victorious, are likely to imperil their jobs in the future.

Fear vs. reality

Most people tend to be conservative and resistant to change. A major reason OMOV has been defeated in the past is that its opponents have issued forecasts of various dire consequences should it be enacted, such as "a disastrous split between the PB and the Board of Delegates," "contentious and acrimonious annual meetings resulting in paralysis," "dissolve the traditional partnership between the national and state federations," "an unfair attack on the volunteers who give up a great deal of energy and time," "lessened, not greater, accountability," and "name recognition, not constructive thought, will be the criterion for election to national office." The Delegates have feared such grim possibilities and decided it was better to play it safe rather than risk real democracy, even though the experience of other groups using OMOV has been quite different than these predictions.

In 1884, State Attorney General M.C. Brown of Wyoming wrote, "My prejudices were formerly all against woman suffrage, but they have gradually given way since it became an established fact in Wyoming. My observation, extending over a period of fifteen years, satisfies me of its entire justice and propriety." Despite this and similar statements by the Governor and others in Wyoming, women were denied the right to vote in most of the United States for another 36 years, until 1920. Just as the fact that OMOV works well for other organizations has been disregarded by the USCF Delegates, the majority of politicians in the U.S. long chose to ignore the lesson of Wyoming and subsequent female suffrage states and continue their traditional and undemocratic ways. There was actually a strong campaign in congress against the admission of Wyoming to the union because that territory allowed women to vote!

Following is a statement by U.S. Senator Joseph A. Brown of Georgia, made in 1887. The quality of his logic reminds me of that of some of the arguments made against OMOV. "The ignorant female voters would be at the polls en masse, while the refined and educated, shrinking from public contact, would remain at home... The ballot will not protect females against the tyranny of bad husbands, as the latter will compel them to vote as they dictate... I also fear that wives will form political alliances antagonistic to their husbands, and the result will be discord and divorce."

As late as 1905, Grover Cleveland, a respected two term former President judged by historians to have done an above average job, wrote the following of the female suffrage movement: "To those of us who... cling to our faith in the saving grace of simple and unadulterated womanhood, any discontent on the part of woman with her ordained lot, or a restless desire on her part to be and to do something not within the sphere of her appointed ministrations, cannot appear otherwise than as perversions of a gift of God to the human race... The restlessness and discontent to which I have referred is most strongly manifested in a movement which has for a long time been on foot for securing to women the right to vote and otherwise participate in public affairs... It is a thousand pities that all the wives... cannot sufficiently open their minds to see the complete fitness of the homely definition which describes a good wife as 'a woman who loves her husband and her country with no desire to run either;' and every woman, whether mother, wife, spinster or maid, who either violently demands or wildly desires for women a greater share in the direction of public affairs, could realize the everlasting truth that 'the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."

The lesson of history is that for centuries, those who have campaigned to enlarge the voting franchise have been repeatedly proven right. When we look back on the statements made by those defending the old traditional exclusionary ways, they now appear absurd. The battle to democratize our federation constitutes but a microcosm of a long and continuing movement for democratic change in the world, which inevitably will have a similar end as the struggles for representation by those without wealth, women, blacks, and the many other ethnic or religious groups that have been excluded in various places. Since USCF governs only chess and not people's lives, we do not face the same great moral issue here, but democracy will nevertheless prevail before too long; it's just a question of when. We have nothing to gain by waiting.

Let's take this historic step forward now, and send a dramatic signal to our many critics that USCF has fundamentally changed, that all adult members now have a voice, that we are determined to project a more positive image, rebuild our membership base, and do more to popularize our great game.

If you will be in Reno, please support OMOV at the Bylaws Workshop and (if you are a Delegate) the Delegates Meeting. If you will not attend the annual meetings, you can help to enact this reform by urging Delegates from your state to support it. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and your interest in building a stronger USCF.

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