The Democracy We Deserve

The 2004 election confounded those who have blamed the flaws in our democracy on apathetic voters, apolitical young people, and a generalized culture of disengagement. More than 120 million citizens cast ballots, a turnout of 60 percent of eligible voters. When something important is at stake, voters will brave barriers.

Unfortunately, the large turnout took place despite our election procedures. If the 2000 debacle in Florida showed that we had to modernize the machines used for voting and improve the shoddy list management used to qualify voters, the 2004 elections have given us a new set of procedural reforms necessary for us to have confidence in our election administration. The chaotic, crazy-quilt election administration, run all too often by people with a partisan bent, is a national embarrassment. In the end, we need to summon the national resources and the national will to create and enforce national standards for national elections. In addition to the litany of concrete reforms recounted in Tova Wangs excellent companion article, we need to address a larger unfulfilled agenda aimed at encouraging every eligible American to vote and creating a democracy where citizens have real choices and a real voice in determining our future.

Eliminating Registration Barriers
Voter registration mainly functions as a needless barrier to participation. There are several key steps we can take to make registration more accessible, if not automatic.

Full Implementation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. The NVRA had three major elements. The first, which gave the law its common name of Motor Voter, requires states to allow people to register when they get drivers licenses. The second authorizes mail-in voter registration. The third, the least widely known but the strongest impetus for the law in the first place, requires state agencies providing human services to register voters and give citizens assistance. While the motor-voter and mail-in parts of the law have generally been well utilized, the social-service component has not. The most recent Federal Election Commission studies show that the number of voters registered at social-service agencies is very low compared with drivers license offices. Simple changes in procedure at offices offering food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, or disability benefits, whether state agencies or privatized service providers, could help millions of people register over the next four years.

Election-Day Registration. In 2004, participation rates in the six states that already have election-day registration were an astonishing 14.1-percent higher than states without it. The top four states in voting turnout -- Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, in that order -- all have election-day registration. By definition, provisional ballots are virtually unnecessary in such states. Compliance with the HAVA mandate of a well-maintained statewide computerized database, required nationwide by 2006, would make election-day registration even easier.

Automatic Registration. The requirement that citizens register before voting goes back in the South to Reconstruction days, and in the North to the era of mass immigration a century ago. The intent was to discourage voting; ours should be to encourage it. Voting need not be a two-step process whose burden falls on the individual citizen. In many European countries, citizens are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18. Thinking long term, a system that makes registration automatic without creating an intrusive and intimidating national-identity structure ought to be an achievable goal.

Making Voting Convenient
In addition to making it complicated to register, our system discourages the act of voting. The hours-long lines for voting in Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere are prima facie evidence. We have a quaint myth that it is a wonderful civic exercise to have one day (and a working Tuesday at that) where everyone goes to the polls. But the reality is democratic in form but undemocratic in content. Who remembers with any nostalgia racing to the bank on Friday afternoon and waiting in line for two hours to get cash for the weekend? And what if your employer wont give you several hours off during the day? The real civic exercise is exercising the right to vote, and we ought to make that act as accessible as possible.

Early Voting. In 30 states this year, voting began well before election day. Several states enacted early voting as part of their HAVA implementation plans, and millions of people took advantage of this option. One reason why Florida was not even more chaotic on election day was that 2.3 million people had already voted, about 30 percent of the total votes cast.

Mail-In Balloting. If people know how they want to cast their ballot, why shouldnt they be able to do so from home, a privilege already extended everywhere to the elderly, people who are ill, and American citizens overseas? Oregon has taken mail-in balloting even further by automatically sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, but it has unfortunately gone one step too far by eliminating precinct-based voting on election day. A combination of mail-in balloting, early voting, and the opportunity to register and vote at local polling places on election day itself would maximize participation.

An Election-Day Holiday. Recommended by the Carter-Ford Commission after 2000, an election-day holiday would not just increase turnout; it would allow people to serve as poll workers for the day, educate their children, and get more involved generally. It is a holiday now for some unionized workers such as United Auto Workers members. Why not for all of us?

Eliminating Unfair Exclusions
The principal reason for the decline in voting percentages between 1980 and 2000 (voting declined in every one of those elections except 1992) was the elimination from eligibility of an ever-greater percentage of adults. The number of citizens barred from voting because of a prior felony conviction increased from roughly 1 million in 1980 to 4.6 million in 2000. In addition, the number of foreign-born noncitizens is now 17.5 million, the highest number since 1920.

Restoration of Voting Rights. Substantial strides have actually been made in mitigating the harsh exclusionary policies for people with felony convictions, an issue with significant racial and partisan overtones. Since the 1999 report of The Sentencing Project documented the magnitude of the issue, and especially since the permanent exclusion of more than 600,000 people in Florida arguably made the difference in the 2000 election, this issue has gotten more attention. Ten states have made more people eligible for restoration of their voting rights, from minor improvements in administrative processes in Virginia and Florida to changes in the law to allow people on probation to register and vote in Connecticut. But absent more fundamental reforms, the number of excluded could go higher than its current appalling peak of 4.7 million, including 30 percent of African American men in Florida, Alabama, and other states. We need many more legislative and administrative changes as well as federal supervision of purge lists, which have been abused in Florida and elsewhere. We need strong public-education campaigns to ensure that people know when their voting eligibility is restored.

New Americans. Large numbers of legal immigrants to this country still wait for extended periods to become citizens. If the naturalization process were more efficient, many people ready for citizenship would become voters. In addition, we should consider some forms of voting representation for people who are not yet citizens. Many European countries permit dual citizenship. We exclude large numbers of long-standing residents from participating in the decisions that affect them and their children, even as they pay taxes and serve in the U.S. Army. Several localities already allow voting rights to noncitizens, which is constitutionally permissible, for school-board and other local elections.

Taxation Without Representation. No listing of exclusions from our democracy would be complete without remembering that the citizens of Washington, D.C., have no voting representation in Congress. This is an exclusion with no justification save pure partisan and racial politics, disenfranchising citizens whose only crime is their home city.

Real Voice, Real Choice
Our democracy has become rigged in many respects, so that even when votes are counted, in all too many cases they do not meaningfully count. Even though the country is narrowly divided, few citizens can hope to affect their members of Congress because of noncompetitive races, limited candidate choices, and the overarching influence of private money.

Redistricting. Congressional districting has become a devils bargain of incumbent protection by Republicans and Democrats alike. In the House of Representatives, only 30 seats nationally were considered competitive this year. In California in 2002, not one of the 53 congressional seats up for re-election was seriously contested. Tom DeLays new and disgraceful precedent of redistricting midstream the minute a legislature is fully controlled by one party has given gerrymandering a cynical partisan tilt. Redistricting should be done by an independent commission, so that districts are drawn by logic and numbers and not by partisan desire and incumbent protection.

Getting on the Ballot. Access rules are often barriers to candidates, thus limiting choices voters might otherwise have. In many states, requirements are overly stringent and the conditions for qualifying as a political party are even more daunting. In the states that allow fusion, or the cross-endorsement of candidates by more than one party, a minor party can grow and encourage people to join without automatically splintering votes from major-party candidates. Instant-runoff voting, which had a successful trial this fall in San Francisco, is another way that candidates can compete and people can choose to vote for them without creating spoiler situations.

Moving Forward, in Congress and the States
For the second election in a row, procedural issues were a critical part of the debate and the drama. Despite the national sigh of relief that a second consecutive meltdown did not occur, we came far too close. If the Republicans had put into full operation their plans to systematically challenge black voters, there could have been chaos at the polls and endless litigation. If places with unauditable electronic machines had been razor close, the legitimacy of the results would have been far more in doubt. If it hadnt rained in Ohio, the provisional ballots would have determined the election after three weeks of hand-to-hand combat over the count, which in turn would have invited challenges in other states as well.

Significant debates will take place in Congress. The bill for a voter-verified paper trail for all electronic machines, as urged by Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, will resurface. Key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will come up for reauthorization in 2007. The civil-rights community is well aware of how critical the Voting Rights Act protections can be. Conversely, many politicians in the Deep South and beyond hope to weaken the federal monitoring role.

HAVA must be revisited and amended. In essence, Congress did not address the larger problem of the decentralized nature of our entire election system. By design, HAVA was a weak piece of legislation, failing to clarify how computerized voting lists and provisional ballots were to be implemented and limiting the authority of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the agency created to implement the act.

Though HAVA was passed in October of 2002, President Bush did not appoint the EAC commissioners until December 2003. In addition, though the act authorized $10 million for administration of the EAC, only $1.2 million was actually appropriated. This has meant all kinds of delays and difficulties. At this writing, the commission still has no executive director. It appears that the four commissioners have tried to do their work well under difficult circumstances. If the commission is given funding and increased authority, some of the issues that came up this year can be resolved.

Congress should address the need for both national standards and a more robust enforcing authority. If not, more decision making will fall to the states. Until HAVA is amended, individual state election officials and legislatures must decide what machinery to use; how to implement the mandated computerization of registration lists; how to deal with list purges; how to implement voting-rights restoration laws, provisional ballot counting, and identification requirements for new and existing voters; and many other things besides. But our states lack the resources to ensure the integrity and equality of our electoral system. For instance, it is simply not possible for each state to assure itself that the electronic equipment it is purchasing is impervious to failure or tampering. The Election Assistance Commission needs to play a larger role in setting standards and evaluating the machinery and its testing process.

But, while more national authority is needed administratively, at the broader policy level, states have indeed been laboratories for democracy. Maine, for instance, has led the way in enacting election-day registration, public financing of campaigns, allowing voting rights even for people in prison, and proportional allocation of presidential electors. Nevada has been a leader in acquiring electronic voting machines with paper trails and has accomplished better voter registration in social-service agencies than most other states. Other states have been better known for their failures and controversies than for their successes, and will be under major pressure for change.

Reformers need to join with secretaries of state and legislators who care about making democracy work to develop and enact a real agenda of reforms. One element is the necessary administrative repairs, like computerized voter lists, adequate poll-worker compensation and training, reliable and auditable voting machines, and provisional ballot standards. But in addition, we need bold thinking and action to genuinely open up the democratic process so that everyone has the fullest opportunity to join in. Election-day registration, early voting, and generally wider opportunities to cast ballots should head the list, as well as liberalizing voting-rights restoration, encouraging youth participation, and changing procedures to expand voters choices and voices.

There is reason for optimism about the prospects for reform. These issues moved from the margins to the center of the debate after the 2000 election, and after this years election they are there to stay. Not only traditional reformers but thousands of newly energized activists and a sensitized media experienced the frailty of the system firsthand, and they want to work for change. Elected officials at the state level, whatever their party, know that shoddy election administration casts doubt on the competence and legitimacy of the political system itself. In addition, after this years results, it is not axiomatic that one party or the other benefits from higher or lower turnout.

All this should create an opportunity for bipartisan support for reform that both opens up the process and administers it competently. And progressives, who care passionately about the issues decided by our democracy, need the patience and the determination to protect and broaden our democracy and make it work on behalf of all.

Miles S. Rapoport is the president of Demos, a national research and advocacy organization. He was Connecticuts secretary of the state from 1995 to 1998 and served 10 years in the Connecticut Legislature.

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