Democracy's Moment

If nothing else, the 2000 election mess has
begun to produce real political engagement and debate about democracy.
For some this debate will focus narrowly on improving election equipment
and modernizing election administration. Conservatives may even try to
turn the debate to one that restricts voting opportunities under the
guise of efficiency, racial neutrality, and eliminating fraud. But for
progressives, this is a moment to expand the debate into one about
making democracy as inclusive and vibrant as possible. This means fusing
disparate strands of a pro-democracy movement into a multiracial
coalition that honors and supports the agenda of communities of color
while it embraces a broader agenda of engagement and reform.

Until last November, the progressive community was ambivalent about
democracy issues, which often were dismissed as mere process or
"good-government" concerns. It isn't that democracy issues have been
entirely absent. The civil rights movement has always been about
enfranchisement and disenfranchisement. The remarkable and ultimately
successful fight for the "motor-voter" law, initiated by Richard Cloward
and Frances Fox Piven, underscored the connection between process,
power, and substantive reform. And there has been a renewed interest
lately in civic participation, which has gotten a lift from the debate
stimulated by an article series in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone
and its exploration of the connection between civic vitality, "social
capital," and strong democracy. The long, uphill battle for campaign
finance reform is bearing some fruit, in state victories and a genuine
congressional debate. At the local level, issues of who votes for school
officials, who makes planning and zoning decisions, and how neighborhood
organizations can be heard have always been part of progressive
politics.

But often such "process" issues have been relegated to secondary
status, the province of a small cadre of democracy buffs or champions of
civil society who seemed not to quite appreciate that this fight is over
power, not process. Most advocates, in contrast, have emphasized
"substance" issues--from health care to income distribution. These have
been seen as the real issues about power and its distribution, with real
constituencies behind them. Issues of democracy seemed too abstract.

The 2000 election has changed all that. Nobody can doubt that
substantive outcomes depend on the vitality of our democratic processes.
We need to engage these issues wholeheartedly and comprehensively. There
is no single magic bullet. Nor is this a short-term fight. But redeeming
and enlarging our democracy carries enormous promise for altering the
country's political equation on every substantive issue that matters in
people's lives.

One piece of conventional wisdom has been that the election results
showed how evenly divided the country is. But this division, however
real, is among people who voted. And the people who voted are barely
half the potential electorate and do not reflect the population as a
whole. A very different "real majority" of Americans might produce
different electoral outcomes and issue priorities --if we build a
democracy that engages everyone and make sure that every vote counts.

Targets of Opportunity

The early months of 2001 have brought serious discussion about
electoral reform in a variety of venues. The Justice Department is
reviewing the failures of the Florida election process and might take
further action if it is allowed to complete its work. The United States
Commission on Civil Rights will undoubtedly produce recommendations
based on the hearings it held in Florida. The Federal Election
Commission (FEC) may well do an evaluation, either on its own or
mandated by congressional legislation.

In Congress, Senators Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and
Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, have proposed a $10-million FEC
study and funding of $250 million per year to assist states with
election improvements and modernization. Democratic Senator Robert
Torricelli of New Jersey and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (an
interesting duo) have proposed a new agency to focus on election
administration while the FEC concentrates on campaign finance. Ranking
House Democrat John Conyers of Michigan is working on an election
package within the Judiciary Committee. Another proposal, the
DeFazio-Leach bill, calls for a 12-member bipartisan federal elections
review commission and mandates study of a very broad range of issues,
from the electoral college and voter registration to instant-runoff
voting. The bill calls for at least four hearings in different parts of
the country.

At the state level, the National Association of Secretaries of State
has issued a report calling for increased funding and improved election
administration, as has the National Association of Counties. Multiple
proposals for commissions and reviews have been filed in the several
states, as have hundreds of bills geared toward election reform. A new,
privately sponsored bipartisan commission, headed by former Presidents
Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and chaired by party elders Howard Baker
and Lloyd Cutler, has begun to set an agenda for reform.

The forums for debate are here. What's needed is a real democracy
movement. Here are some strategic places to begin.

Racial justice in voting. In the African-American and Latino
communities, threats to enfranchisement are an old and ongoing story.
The 2000 election in Florida--together with voting problems in other
states, such as Georgia and Texas, that were not scrutinized as closely
as Florida's were--has touched a resonant chord. The power of the issue
was palpably apparent in the street protests and the subsequent walkout
from the electoral college vote count by black members of Congress. And
it will be seen in court when the NAACP et al. v. Harris lawsuit
focuses public attention on the evidence of widespread discrimination
and outright intimidation of African-American voters. No one should
tolerate racial profiling in our election process. We should stand firm
with the civil rights community in understanding the racism at work here
and in seeking a clear remedy. Strengthening the Voting Rights Act and
strong action against harassment of voters are central to a
pro-democracy agenda.

Solidarity on redistricting. Around the country, legislatures are
gearing up to redraw district lines at every level. Redistricting is
often viewed mainly as a partisan question. But the impact of this
process on representation in the African-American, Latino, and other
minority communities is of major significance. All too often in the
past, groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican American
Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and
Education Fund have felt isolated from other groups as they have battled
to defend and expand representation. We need transparency, public input,
and a fair process as redistricting proceeds. We should battle for the
most accurate census figures to be used for redistricting purposes.
Supporting the fullest multiracial representation is essential.
Short-term partisan line drawing should not be put ahead of the
long-term march for equality and representation. How these racial issues
are dealt with will have a large impact on the building of multiracial
coalitions in the years ahead.

Dramatically expanded voter registration. The National Voter
Registration Act of 1993--the motor-voter law--was a huge advance. A few
states have made substantial increases in registration figures. The
act's protections against unwarranted purging of voter lists have been
helpful. But the registration process still deters participation. Only
67 percent of eligible adults are even registered to vote (and far fewer
actually do). Voter registration should be as close to universal as we
can make it. Election day registration is a good place to start.

Six states--Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and
Wyoming--allow registration on election day. The two states with the
highest percentage of voter turnout (Minnesota at 68.8 percent of
eligible voters, and Maine with 67.3 percent) as well as numbers four
and six (Wisconsin and New Hampshire) all have election day
registration. The six-state average turnout was 63.1 percent, compared
with the national average of 51.2 percent. Election day registration
could be mandated by Congress, but it can also be enacted state by
state, and it should be a high priority for democracy's advocates. In
some states, people must register a full month before election day. At
the very least, registration deadlines should be moved closer to the
election. And, of course, mail-in voter registration forms should be
available online and in public places everywhere.

Comprehensive voter lists. Local election officials often demand
early registration deadlines, claiming they need time to prepare
accurate voting lists. This invites attention to a related issue: the
way registration lists are managed. Badly managed lists lead to the kind
of confusion and discrimination we saw in Florida. Every state should
have a single, statewide, computerized voter list. This kind of a list,
properly maintained, would also facilitate election day registration and
reduce concern about fraud or double voting. As of 1998, 14 states had
computerized lists. Funding earmarked for better voting machines should
also be usable for computerization of the voting lists.

Election officials and voter outreach. The 2000 election
demonstrated the vicious cycle of young people not voting and campaigns
not addressing young voters. In Connecticut local registrars of voters
by law must go into the high schools at least one day per year to
register students. Seventeen-year-olds may "pre-register." Civic
education is mandatory for high school graduation in the state. These
ideas can be extended in many directions--from college and high school
registration drives, extended registration hours, and mobile
registration vans to joint youth and community efforts coordinated by
the secretaries of state. The responsibility of election officials not
only to administer the process and deter fraud but also to reach out and
bring everyone in can be codified in law and reinforced in the culture.

Voting rights for ex-offenders. In almost every state, people
convicted of felonies are removed from voting lists, often permanently.
In some states, particularly in the South, these laws were enacted
shortly after the Civil War, which reveals that their intent, not just
their outcome, was racial from the beginning. Florida's law was enacted
in 1868. How offenders get their voting rights back, or don't, is a
patchwork of state laws, and the process is often arduous. Thirteen
states permanently bar them from voting. All of this amounts to a
large-scale disenfranchisement of people who are disproportionately
poor, young, and of color [see Lani Guinier, "What We Must Overcome" on
page 26]. This topic has received far too little attention in the white
election-reform community. But it can be a unifying issue. For example,
in Connecticut a Voting Rights Restoration Coalition has made
substantial progress toward enfranchising offenders on probation.

The voices of new Americans. Resident immigrants are a classic
example of taxation without representation. More than 10 percent of
Americans were born abroad, almost 30 million people. In many
jurisdictions, immigrants constitute a very large percentage of the
voting-age population. More than 1.8 million foreign-born persons have
been naturalized as U.S. citizens in the past two years, but the waiting
lists are still large and the lag time is substantial. The children of
immigrants attend public schools, and immigrants are affected deeply by
national and state policies. A full democracy movement must enlarge
participation opportunities for the nation's new residents. We need to
work with immigration advocacy groups on enfranchisement strategies. For
example, activists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently convinced the
city council to request a "home rule" change in state law so that the
city's resident immigrants can vote in local school committee elections.

Innovative voting procedures. The sight of long lines, people
being turned away from the polls, and would-be voters frantically trying
to straighten out last-minute problems of eligibility and polling place
location, are all failures of democratic process. Voting by mail was
pioneered in Oregon and was also used in Washington State in 2000. The
Oregon law, which has been developing for 20 years, sends people ballots
and a unique identifying number. Officials estimate that it has raised
participation by as much as 10 percent. Oregon's and Washington's
turnouts ranked ninth and 16th respectively. In Texas designated polling
places are opened beginning 17 days before election so that voters have
much greater opportunity to find the time to cast their ballot.
Alternatively, they can request a mail-in ballot, for no special reason
other than convenience, as can voters in California. A growing number of
states have similar provisions. Expanding such options is critical to
expanding participation.

A holiday to celebrate and practice democracy. Election day
should be a national holiday. But on this most critical day of our
democratic life, we currently make it difficult for people to fit in
time to vote. Winning a democracy day could just be the kind of issue to
galvanize a democracy movement. It would be a small change with a very
large impact. I imagine that the spirits of George Washington and
Abraham Lincoln might not mind trading what has become Presidents' Day
for a holiday that truly honors the institution they fought so hard to
create and preserve.

When Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow ousted Republican Spence
Abraham in a come-from-behind Senate win while Al Gore captured the
state handily, the Republicans attributed the upset largely to the fact
that the United Auto Workers (UAW) had negotiated the day off for all
their 400,000 members. Michigan's Republican Governor John Engler called
the UAW's holiday "the biggest soft money contribution in American
political history." This only underscores that the power of the vote is
the one reliable antidote to the power of money, if we can just make it
real. There is no question that an election day holiday will increase
the ability of ordinary people to participate in the process. Engler is
right if he means that unions should have no special advantage in this
regard. Every citizen deserves a democracy day. According to a
Congressional Research study in 1987, countries that voted on nonwork
days had a turnout of 77 percent, compared with an average U.S.
presidential turnout at the time of 53.6 percent. We wouldn't even need
to follow Australia's example of imposing a $25 fine for not voting!

Voting Technology and Power

In this age of new technologies that appear to spring up in
nanoseconds, it seems incredible that our governing process is based on
antiquated and unreliable equipment. The distinctions among paper
ballots, Votamatic punch-card machines, 1920s mechanical-lever machines,
SAT-style optical scanning equipment, and directrecording electronic
versions of the lever machines have hardly been a cutting-edge issue.
But thanks to the contested recount in Florida, we now know that such
variations often have different effects by race or class and can
influence the outcomes of elections.

The selection of voting technology is a meshing of state and local
controls, legislative mandates, and administrative and budgetary
decisions. The mix of systems reveals the crazy quilt. Punch cards, the
least reliable of systems, are actually the most prevalently used--in 37
percent of jurisdictions--because they are cheap and require only a
limited number of actual machines. Old mechanical-lever machines, though
no longer manufactured, are used in 21 percent. Optically-scanned
ballots, used in 25 percent of jurisdictions, are similar to punch cards
but do not create chads. They were a hot new invention in the 1950s, but
they can misread voter intent when circles are not filled in neatly.
Direct-recording electronic machines are freestanding computers that
record and electronically print out results. These are generally the
most reliable machines. They will not accept an undervote or overvote.
But they are expensive--between $3,000 and $6,000 per machine--and are
used in only 8 percent of jurisdictions.

The most recent experiments use the Internet. Remote electronic
voting has been used in many private and corporate elections. Yet only
recently has it been used in civic elections. The Arizona Democratic
Party used Internet voting to conduct its 2000 presidential primary and
was pleased with the results. Some overseas voting took place in
November the same way. But large-scale public voting via the Web has not
yet occurred.

California Secretary of the State Bill Jones appointed an Internet
voting task force to study Internet voting. Early last year, the panel
reported that "the implementation of internet voting would allow
increased access to the voting process for millions of potential voters
who do not regularly participate in our elections. However,
technological threats to the security, integrity, and secrecy of
internet ballots are significant.

"At this time," the task force concluded, "it would not be legally,
practically, or fiscally feasible to develop a comprehensive remote
internet voting system that would completely replace the current paper
process." Instead, the task force recommended some use of on-site,
government-controlled, networked machines as a reasonable next step.

In the mix of discussions now taking place are several efforts to
study what voting technology will look like in the future. The National
Science Foundation is completing a study of voting machines, and
researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology are about to undertake a thorough
review. Undoubtedly, faster and better-funded research on Internet-based
voting will be taking place. The Schumer-Brownback proposal envisions
the FEC undertaking this kind of thorough review.

Regardless of the technology chosen, equipment must be reliable,
uniform, and adequately funded. We should insist that funding through
state and federal incentives be adequate. It is bad enough that the
wealth of a town or county should determine its public-education budget.
It is patently undemocratic that a jurisdiction's wealth and public
budget often determine how easily citizens can vote and how accurately
their ballots are counted.

Beyond Winner-Take-All

Besides highlighting the need to ensure the fullest registration and
the widest and most accurate voting opportunities, the 2000 election
underscored the damage of winner-take-all counting. The sharp and
acrimonious debate about Ralph Nader's candidacy was not about whether
his issues lacked saliency or if he had a right to participate. It was
about the painful and costly choice many people had to make between
casting a Nader vote and casting a "strategic vote" in an election
clearly going down to the wire.

The Center for Voting and Democracy and others have promoted
instant-runoff voting (IRV) as the solution to this particular part of
democracy's challenge. Vermont and several municipalities are carefully
studying the option. In the presidential election in Ireland and the
parliamentary elections in Australia (and, interestingly, in elections
for the presidency of the American Political Science Association),
voters cast ballots that contain their first and second choices. All
first-choice votes are counted, but if no one receives a majority, the
votes for the last-place candidate are electronically redistributed to
the remaining candidates until one candidate has more than 50 percent.

This system has two merits. First, candidates outside the two major
parties with something to say can have their support truly
demonstrated--without playing the role of spoiler. Second, the true
preferences of voters in regard to their choices can be measured. The
method does not require an actual revote, and it can determine and
select a winner who has majority support. Had this method been in place
last November, Nader would certainly have gotten far more votes than he
did, probably enough to qualify for matching funds next time. And Nader
supporters who preferred Al Gore to George W. Bush would not have had to
agonize: They would have been able to record both their first and second
choices--and Al Gore would be president. On all counts, IRV provides a
more faithful reflection of voter preference.

The method requires good electronic voting-and-counting equipment,
which would be one positive outcome of the debate. Most new electronic
equipment can be adapted to allow IRV, but it is important to make sure
that states set standards to ensure this compatibility before they
authorize and purchase new equipment. Studies are needed in the states
to see what constitutional, statutory, and technical hurdles would have
to be overcome to initiate experiments with IRV, either locally or at
the state level.

Money Still Matters

Almost overlooked in the ocean of procedural nightmares was the fact
that the 2000 elections were the most expensive in history. Soft-money
figures broke all records, with Democratic and Republican committees
raising almost identical amounts ($243.1 million and $244.4 million,
respectively). The New York and New Jersey Senate races reached new
heights in candidate spending. And the overall cost of federal races has
topped $3 billion and keeps on rising. These trends that have priced so
many people out of politics--and so firmly entrenched the money brokers
as the leaders of both parties--are only getting worse. The
McCain-Feingold proposal for campaign finance reform is a welcome but
very small start in making any real change.

At the same time, Maine, Vermont, and Arizona all held their
elections under some form of clean-elections laws. In Maine, 116
candidates "ran clean," 54 percent were elected, and apparently everyone
who used the system was satisfied with its operation. Real campaign
finance reform, both within the individual states and imposed nationwide
by Congress, must retain its key role in the movement for real
democracy.

A Sustained Movement for Democracy

By fighting for a more inclusive democracy, we can honor the very
highest ideals of our country and transform the political equation to
yield progressive, substantive change. Several challenges arise in the
politics of building such a movement.

First, the different parts of a potential democracy coalition need
the vision to work together. All too often, compartmentalized groups
focus on one narrow issue in what should be a broader movement. As a
result, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Here is an
opportunity to unite the civil rights organizations who have fought
almost alone on redistricting and discriminatory voting practices, the
civic-engagement and civic-education advocates who have seemed quaint to
realpolitik activists, the prison reformers who have seen the burden
ex-offenders must carry, and the campaign finance reformers who have
been dismissed by many as scolds. Groups dedicated to progressive reform
need to support one another with the trust and confidence that all the
issues will be heard, and venues of collaboration must be created.

Second, organizations that generally focus on other issues ought to
add democracy issues to their agendas (and are beginning to do so). The
Sierra Club and the business-backed Committee for Economic Development
have become strong advocates for campaign finance reform. The AFL-CIO
Executive Council recently adopted a resolution making election reform
one of its key legislative priorities. The National Coalition on Black
Civic Participation has formed an election reform task force. But
democracy reformers must intensify outreach to new organizations.

Third, this kind of movement needs financial resources. Over the
years, many foundations have supported civic participation and the
expansion of democratic processes. Progressive foundations took real
political risks and underwrote voter registration of blacks in the early
1960s. Lately, campaign finance reform, voter registration work, and
legal challenges involving redistricting have found philanthropic
support. Redoubling these efforts and weaving these themes into a
unified, broad-based movement can engage an even wider swath of the
philanthropic community--with profound effect. Beyond foundations,
political donors tired of the swamp that political fundraising has
become can be drawn into the movement for real reform.

Fourth, elected officials also must lead the reform effort. At a
recent conference sponsored by the Center for Policy Alternatives, a
number of legislators listed democracy reform and election improvements
as their key priorities. Every state legislature should conduct a
wide-ranging debate about how state government can improve its
democratic practices, with hearings to mobilize public testimony and
support. At the same time, congressional Democrats can work hard to
ensure that reforms are neither partisan nor technical but serve to
redeem our democracy in the widest and fullest sense.

A final challenge is to win bipartisan support for pro-democracy
measures without dampening the creative anger of partisans for whom the
election's outcome is the fire in the belly. If the Florida vote counts
now being conducted show that Al Gore really did win Florida, the anger
and outrage should be felt and expressed. But democracy needs and
deserves bipartisan support. The idea of a democracy day holiday will
resonate with every civics teacher in America; and modernizing voting
machines and computerizing the lists are basic ways of running
government like a business. Even allowing ex-offenders who have finished
serving their prison sentences to vote will make sense--to reduce
recidivism--in a thoughtful criminal justice plan. As we seek to flesh
out the elements of a pro-democracy agenda, we can and should seek to
build bipartisan coalitions and bring unusual allies to the table,
including business organizations and moderate Republicans.

We need, in sum, a movement that has diverse approaches but an
underlying unity of purpose. Different organizations can do very
different things: State organizations can work for model pro-democracy
legislation. Legal-defense organizations can sue over violations of
voting rights and fight for fair redistricting. National organizations
and election officials can lobby Congress for money and reform.
Legislators with vision can file bills and hold hearings. Scholars can
undertake new academic studies that further highlight the need for
change. Newspapers and other media can spotlight problems, inform the
citizenry, and advocate change. And people can and should demonstrate in
the streets.

The fundamental dysfunction in our democratic process has to be
addressed in all its dimensions as we build a culture and network of
mutual support. The common goal is a new set of democracy policies that
will engage as many people as possible and ensure that our nation's
voices will be heard in all their multiplicity. This is a vision bold
enough to excite energy and enthusiasm and broad enough to bring many
new voices to the table. And if the democracy movement is successful,
America's real and diverse majority will emerge and change our country
for the better.

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