A Broader Definition of Democracy

"Over the last several years, the race for money and influence and power has left the hopes and concerns of most Americans in the dust. All you see from Washington is another scandal or petty argument. And so we get discouraged. Half of us don't vote. The half of us who do vote are voting against somebody instead of voting for something. We know what fills the void: the lobbyists, the influence peddlers with the cash and connections. … They write the checks, and you get stuck with the bills."

At the 2007 Take Back America Conference, Barack Obama offered a thorough explanation of the challenges to American democracy. Now we have a political opening, a historic opportunity to improve our democracy and reverse the cycle Obama described. This opportunity is not simply or even primarily because of Obama's evident talents or because an African American president will help heal our nation's original sin. Rather, it is the result of a long shift in the tides after the low point of voter suppression and public disenchantment in recent years.

From 2004 to 2006, the political momentum was with those forces pushing for greater restriction of democracy. The wave of voter- identification laws proposed in state after state and upheld in court were but one example. Somewhere in mid-decade -- perhaps beginning with the Jack Abramoff scandal and continuing on through the Bush administration's overreaching in firing and hiring U.S. attorneys and manipulating research results by the Election Assistance Commission for partisan ends -- the trend reversed. The 2008 election was an affirmation that there is a political opening to resume and win a pro-democracy agenda. In the past two years, Iowa and North Carolina passed Election Day registration; Florida and Rhode Island restored enfranchisement to many ex-felons; instant run-off voting passed in Minneapolis and Oakland; and public financing of some statewide political campaigns passed in North Carolina and advanced in Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico, and Alaska.

The Obama administration will accelerate this trend because the new president (and former organizer) understands that democracy requires a demos. This understanding corroborates the conclusion of a year-long "Democracy Agenda" research project that I led for the Proteus Fund together with other pro-democracy reform funders. That project found that democracy is best understood using systems analysis as a complex set of relationships with institutional, cultural, and procedural dimensions. Democracy includes the executive branch as well as the civil-rights movement; poll workers and voting machines as well as the mal-distribution of opportunity created by the allotment of wealth; lobbyists' and corporations' influence over public policy as well as civil-society institutions based in communities, labor unions, and identity- or issue-based groups. Many factors help and hurt our democracy.

In order to sustain the increased participation of citizens, the Obama administration as well as Congress and state governments must undertake a major reform effort, one that's interconnected and self-reinforcing. This is not just good policy, it is good politics; it's not just right, it's smart -- it's an approach that is very much in the self-interest of the new president and the expanded Democratic majorities in Congress. The Obama campaign first proved in the 2007 Iowa caucuses that the usual political calculations can be upended by virtue of expanding who's involved. High levels of citizen participation will help a nascent progressive majority's power to be felt, both in enacting a substantive policy agenda and in winning future elections.

The components of a "pro-democracy" reform agenda can be classified in nine categories:

Active, everyday citizen participation and organizing: Shared governance and deliberative democracy can improve governmental decisions and ensure popular satisfaction with outcomes; card-check elections for unions and other labor-law reforms can empower workers; changes in the tax code would facilitate community organizing. These reforms, which give people access to the tools of self-governance for the decisions that affect their daily lives and which include a revitalization of civic education in schools, are essential.

Civil rights and voting rights: Immigrants' rights should be seen as central to a vibrant democracy, along with reforms such as the establishment of Election Day as a holiday, felon re-enfranchisement, a national right to vote, voting rights for the District of Columbia, and ballot accessibility for people with disabilities and for language minorities.

Structural voting alternatives: A priority is redistricting reforms to ensure that constituents have their choice of representatives, rather than that incumbents choose their constituents. Citizens should have a greater role in drawing up districts, which should be sensitive to minority representation and enhanced competition for entrenched incumbents. This agenda also includes the national popular-vote compact to effectively short-circuit the Electoral College without requiring a constitutional amendment, and instant run-off voting to rank voter choices in order of preference without worrying about wasted votes or spoiling the results. More local reforms would include experiments with proportional representation or Illinois' former "cumulative" district voting for the state legislature.

Ballot access: "Fusion" voting, as in New York state, allows candidates to run on more than one party's ballot line at a time (as both a Working Families and Democratic Party candidate, for instance). This advantages competition on issues and positions otherwise left out of our party duopoly, again without marginalizing candidates as wasted or "spoiler" votes.

Election administration: As proven in every presidential cycle since the Florida debacle in 2000, proper machines and voter-verified paper trails are essential to a fair vote. Voter registration should be universal and automatic. The Election Assistance Commission needs effective, nonpartisan leadership, and we need to improve recruitment and training of poll workers and ensure fair distribution of election resources in low-income precincts.

Campaign-finance reform: Numerous efforts at partial reforms have been made since Watergate, including reporting and disclosure, the regulation of soft money and political action committees, and public financing for the presidential general election. But the most promising approach is a comprehensive effort not to block money but to incorporate it as a positive force in the system through public financing that encourages low-dollar donors.

Media reform: Access to reliable information is understandably a precondition for self-governance. This area of pro-democracy reform includes maintenance of Internet neutrality, free airtime requirements for candidates and public-interest obligations in exchange for licenses.

Ethics: A new era of independent enforcement of ethics rules in Congress should go along with banning deceptive campaign practices that misdirect voters regarding the voting process, and other voter-suppression tactics.

Governing rules and processes: Money has an especially corrosive role in judicial elections, and public financing of campaigns would protect judicial independence. Open meeting laws, electronic transparency, freedom of information, and citizen-participation mechanisms also fall into this category.

Pro-democracy reform efforts are typically defined by the attachment that particular organizations, funders, or elected officials have to a single piece of this agenda, in which each patron champions his or her own particular, signature reforms. But without using a systems approach, research shows that pro-democratic reforms most often fail, for predictable reasons.

Advocates for a particular reform have an understandable tendency to exaggerate that reform as the answer to fixing our democracy, in order to amass enough political support for their cause. The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law and the Help America Vote Act, both passed in 2002, fit this model. Not only do inevitable disappointments arise, but this nonsystemic approach often squanders the energy and activism of a political base. Instead, there needs to be a political movement for a continuum of change, an escalation of improvements.

Nonsystemic reforms also risk unintended consequences. We see this in partial campaign-finance efforts, which just displace the influence of our wealthiest citizens into new outlets. We also see it in the legacy of efforts to topple corrupt urban political machines at the turn of the last century, where new laws requiring registration were passed and new bureaucracies were created for election administration. The ensuing obstacles to voter participation have produced one of the lowest voter-participation rates of any democratic country in the world.

Reforms that merely address the convenience of voting -- such as early voting, voting by mail, absentee balloting, and Internet voting -- may stimulate turnout, but they do not get nonvoters to participate. That further skews the voting population toward upper-income, better-educated, older, and white people -- rather than fostering a more representative voting population.

In well-intended efforts to position pro-democracy reforms as nonpartisan, reformers often strip these process reforms of any hint that they would affect the outcomes we actually care about -- for example, public decisions around jobs and the economy, health care, energy and the environment, war and peace. Consequently, reform efforts are often hobbled by a lack of troops, too easily ignored by elected officials, and too conditioned by a small number of reform professionals demanding more democracy for "the people" (other people). As Obama adviser and George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton told me in an April 2007 interview, "Ultimately, we need a much more 'small d' democratic, much less 'expert based' decision-making paradigm. Common Cause and other organizations have gotten less and less participatory with the grass roots and more and more reliant on experts and inside strategies."

It is difficult to find and sustain a political base for pro-democracy efforts without fusing the procedural issues people rarely care about with the tangible issues that matter intensely to our daily lives -- such as how campaign-finance reform is connected to who pays and who avoids taxes. This works both ways: Data shows that increasing inequality of wealth, education, and access to health care reduces democratic participation and in turn leads us to feel that we have no power to influence the decisions affecting our quality of life. To get large numbers of people demanding a pro-democratic reform agenda, bills and coalitions on process must be coupled with improvements in substantive issues. That coupling advantages both ends of the democratic equation, process and outcomes.

Even though there are no silver bullets for the problems plaguing our democracy, some leverage points are more effective than others at catalyzing system-wide change. Tweaking various processes is an inherently weaker approach than attempting to transform the system holistically, although such a broad approach raises the legislative challenge. The greatest leverage point is working to shift the underlying assumptions out of which the system arises. If the Obama administration begins to govern with transformational, pro-democratic reforms, it can begin to shift the paradigmatic principle of politics in the past three decades: To use a phrase first popularized by the economist Jared Bernstein, it's the shift from the "you're on your own" society to "we're all in it together."

Most other industrialized countries place a communal responsibility on the government to ensure people's right and opportunity to participate in democracy. In those countries, the onus is on society as a whole to reach out, encourage, and create citizenship. Just as we've come to see the absurdity of asking people to supply their own ballots to use at the polls, which is how elections were conducted in the U.S. until the mid-19th century, we must now see the absurdity of a system that fails in the 21st century to underwrite and take responsibility for organizing the public. The administration, Congress, and in some cases states can unleash an engaged citizenry in serious, transformational change of our democracy by working on four areas of reform that would begin to shift the whole system:

Shared governance: From Porto Alegre, Brazil, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, community organizations and broad numbers of people are brought directly into government decision--making. This builds on but goes far beyond the approach of increasing disclosure and transparency of information as well as approaches that allow one-way public input to government. New technology makes national-scale shared governance possible on a variety of issues in an unprecedented way, as groups like Everyday Democracy and AmericaSpeaks are showing. Federal revenue sharing with state and local governments could be tied to their meeting certain minimum citizen-participation standards, as could federal departmental budget allocations or even congressional earmarks. Increasing citizen participation without changing the reward structure for decision-makers in our current system means only increased threat and constraint, inviting resistance and sabotage. Instead we need to harness the existing partisan interests and self-interest in our current system on behalf of transformational changes that increase citizen participation.

Universal, automatic voter registration: Presently, the default responsibility falls on individuals to affirmatively opt in to the electorate and to jump over whatever barriers are placed in their way. In most other countries, the default responsibility to register voters falls proactively on the post office or Department of Motor Vehicles. Citizens can always choose to opt out or to exercise their right to not vote. Such a system could attract bipartisan support if it made it both harder to cheat and easier to vote, channeling Republicans' interest in preventing fraud and Democrats' interest in expanding participation. At the same time, it would help establish the new paradigm that voting is a right, not a privilege. That shift helps usher in a cascade of other salutary reforms over time, including re-enfranchisement for ex-felons, voting rights for the District of Columbia, and other systemic reforms.

National right-to-vote standards: We have 4,600 different election districts in the U.S., all at the local level, making it at least difficult if not impossible to comprehensively address the problems in election administration. Bush v. Gore (2000) confirmed that, despite the 14th and 15th Amendments, there is no national, constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, and states define and enforce the right as they see fit, with only a few practices, such as poll taxes, clearly prohibited. One way to improve those state policies is to score them and encourage states to move up in the rankings, an idea recognized by Obama and his former Senate colleague Russ Feingold when they introduced the Voter Advocate and Democracy Index bill in March 2007, based on Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken's proposal (see p. A6). National standards are also useful, such as a national holiday for certain elections or Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s proposed constitutional amendment establishing the right to vote, from which other reforms would flow.

Public and small-donor financing of elections: Wealth should not determine who runs or who wins elected office, but limits-based strategies of campaign-finance reform, designed to keep money out of the system, haven't worked and never will. Shifting the reliance of candidates from private funding to public financing is the way to go, as the successful and popular systems in Maine, Arizona, and New York City have proved. The key is to figure out how to best match outside parties' independent expenditures so that publicly funded or small-dollar candidates won't face a disadvantage. Obama particularly has a responsibility to now replace the old, broken presidential campaign-finance system with the kind of reform regime he co-sponsored for congressional elections with his former Illinois colleague Sen. Dick Durbin (the "Fair Elections Now Act").

Any or all of the above reforms represent a start on changing the paradigm of our current system of democracy. When packaged together with substantive issues, not just rhetorically but also legislatively, it represents a winning formula for broad change. The political moment brought a mandate for dramatic change on health care, climate change, and the economy. We should be no less ambitious when it comes to the democratic system on which these reforms depend.