A 21st-Century Agenda for Democratic Renewal

The 2008 elections in many ways showed that American democracy is still alive. Millions of voters volunteered for or donated to their favored candidates. Thanks to a free, open, and vibrant Internet, we could all tap an amazing wealth of viewpoints and news sources on the election, fact-check the debates and attack ads, and join the dialogue. Finally, on Election Day, almost 130 million of us -- the highest turnout in 100 years -- came out to vote, many of us waiting in poll lines for hours. When challenged, we held our ground and called on thousands of election-protection volunteers to protect our right to vote.

After years of frustration at seeing wealthy special interests corrupt and hijack our government, we stand on the threshold of a new age of democratic potential. We have won the opportunity to reinvent American democracy in ways that will break the stranglehold of big money, enable us to tackle the enormous challenges of the 21st century, and give Americans the open, honest, and accountable government we deserve.

But opportunity is only that -- a chance. The challenges that we face are large, and those who oppose change are powerful. We are experiencing the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, with thousands of families losing their homes and jobs with each passing week. Millions lack access to affordable health care, and soaring energy prices have eroded our incomes. Our sons and daughters are fighting two wars, domestic security remains a serious concern, and the impact of global warming is beginning to hit home.

Now is the time to fundamentally restore and remake our democracy in order to address these huge governmental challenges. This will not be done by a single campaign-finance law or simply by repairing voting machines. It calls for a comprehensive, forward-looking agenda with four major components:

1. Change the way America pays for elections. An election-eve poll found that 70 percent of voters believed the influence of large campaign contributions were a major factor in today's economic crisis, and that 77 percent believed that large contributions will prevent Congress from finding solutions to such challenges as health care, the economic crisis, energy independence, and global warming. The experiences of this election have made clear that we need a next-generation campaign-finance system that limits public funds in order to amplify the voices of small donors, while enabling candidates to run vigorous campaigns without relying on large contributions. President-elect Barack Obama is a strong proponent of public financing, and with him exists a real opportunity to change the way America pays for elections by putting a premium on grass-roots participation and greatly reducing the undue influence of big money.

2. Guarantee the right to unfettered participation in fair and secure elections. While this election experienced fewer problems than the previous two national elections did, it underscored once again basic weaknesses in our voting systems, including unacceptable obstacles to voter registration, challenges at the polls, and unreliable and inadequate voting systems. America needs universal registration, verifiable voting, nonpartisan administration of elections, and uniform protection against challenges and intimidation aimed at suppressing the vote. Federal and state reforms should ensure that all eligible voters can cast their ballot freely and that all votes are counted accurately.

3. Restore transparency and accountability to the operations of government. At this high-stakes moment, as we face historic decisions on the economy, health care, energy, and the environment, it is imperative that the public has access to information and that the decision-making process is transparent. Disclosure of electronic records, diversity in media, open decision-making in government, and "net neutrality" -- the principle that Internet users should be able to use the Web freely, without restrictions imposed by service providers -- are all essential elements of a broad conception of democracy.

4. Restore the Constitution. It's been a rough eight years for "we the people." We've seen our nation led into a war based on false premises and cynical half-truths. We've watched our good name be disgraced by torture, secret prisons, and profiteering. The Constitution has been ignored and laws violated. As a result, America is less free and less secure. But voters have spoken for change. The new Congress and administration must work to restore the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the respect for human rights and the Constitution.

We need more than just a government that enacts sound policies. We need a democracy capable of building broad and resilient support for the changes, sacrifices, and disruptions that are inevitable, and we need to rebuild the structures of democracy that hold power accountable, especially for the poor, the powerless, and the voiceless.