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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