Elephant in the Voting Booth

Building Confidence in U.S. Elections by The Commission on Federal Election Reform (Carter-Baker Commission) (113 pages, free at american.edu/ia/cfer/report/full_report.pdf)

Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence by Ronald B. Rapoport and Walter J. Stone (University of Michigan Press, 296 pages, $29.95)

The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement by Richard M. Valelly (University of Chicago Press, 348 pages, $22.50)

What makes a nation a democracy? Joseph Schumpeter famously concluded that the key criterion is competition for leadership. For the citizenry to be able to throw the rascals out, the other democratic essentials are logical complements. You can't oust incumbents without tolerably fair elections, which in turn requires free speech and the ability to campaign with adequate resources and without intimidation.

The devil, of course, is in the details, as Americans learned so painfully in 2000 and 2004. Is election administration nonpartisan and fair? Is every vote counted? Does the party of government make systematic efforts to suppress or exclude opposition groups? Is one party or the other grossly advantaged financially?

The legislative system also matters, even if elections are run fairly. The Founders designed American democracy as a balancing act between majority wishes and minority rights. So the United States has structures deliberately aimed at thwarting pure majority rule, including separation of powers, sundry super-majority requirements, and the Electoral College, as well as the nonproportional allocation of seats in the U.S. Senate. (If the Senate's composition reflected the popular vote, the Democrats would today control it.)

In addition, our winner-take-all allocation of nearly all elected offices damps down minority viewpoints. Finally, race has been the great blot on American democracy, beginning with the Constitution itself, in which the Founders ducked the question of slavery to cement the Union. Echoes of that deferral continue to this day with targeted tactics to restrict or dilute black voting.

Richard M. Valelly's magisterial work The Two Reconstructions will stand for a long time as the definitive political analysis of racial suppression and redemption in American democracy. Valelly, who wrote on voting participation in the Prospect's very first issue in 1990, here observes that the civic exclusion of blacks, after an agonizing Civil War won their inclusion, stands as a unique case. No other democracy in the world, he writes, has ever enfranchised a large group, then disenfranchised it -- and then reenfranchised it. Why did the first effort fail? Why has the second succeeded?

Valelly provides a rich and textured answer by comparing the two reconstructions in every dimension -- the coalition politics on which they rested, the role of courts, the dynamics of Southern white resistance, and the legislative and judicial means for securing democracy. Many of the instruments of the second reconstruction, such as federal registrars, were echoes of the aborted first one. Likewise, the subterfuges devised by white supremacists to destroy black suffrage in the late 19th century were often the same ones still deployed, or redeployed, a century later.

The coalition that emerged in 1867-68, Valelly shows, was an alliance of former slaves with white Republicans who believed, morally and politically, that blacks deserved full citizenship. Northern Republicans also depended on the votes of newly enfranchised blacks for their working majority in Congress. But local biracial governing coalitions were too weak to take root in the South.

The disputed federal election of 1876 began a gradual abandonment of blacks by both national parties. As late as 1891, when black Republicans still held significant numbers of elected offices, liberal Republicans of both races made one last attempt in Congress to pass a Federal Election Bill that prefigured the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was blocked by a filibuster. Courts failed to enforce the 14th or 15th amendments. Within another decade, black voting and officeholding collapsed. In the South, terrorized blacks were pushed back into a condition akin to slavery. In the North, their participation was drastically constrained.

How did the new reconstructionist coalition form? Beginning with World War I, the epic black migration to the North (where blacks could vote) made them an increasing political force. FDR could not break the white southern lock on segregation and voting suppression, but he could deliver economic assistance, and blacks began shifting their allegiance to the Democrats. It was Harry Truman in 1948 who first explicitly courted the northern black vote to make up for the loss of Dixiecrats on one flank and Henry Wallace Progressives on the other. Valelly demonstrates that increased black support helped Truman to squeak through.

Only with Lyndon Johnson's presidency was black citizenship redeemed. As in the failed first Reconstruction, it took a dramatic expansion of the power of the national government to break the system of black political exclusion anchored in officially sanctioned white-on-black terror. This achievement, too, was the product of unique circumstances: Johnson's accession to the presidency as a southerner determined to leave a civil rights legacy; his supermajority in Congress; the shrewdness and bravery of activists; the brutal retaliation against them witnessed on national television; and the support of the most liberal Supreme Court ever, in contrast to the late 19th-century Court that colluded in black suppression. Even so, Valelly notes that the window of opportunity was necessarily brief. At some point, northern white backlash would kick in.

Also, in 1964-65 most Republicans in Congress voted for Johnson's civil rights bills. By 1968, Republicans would sacrifice the black vote to a (white) southern strategy. But while Republicans successfully courted resentful whites, as late as 1981 Ronald Reagan signed a 25-year extension of a strengthened Voting Rights Act. And though Reagan's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (under Clarence Thomas) and other civil rights agencies gradually backed away from vigorous federal remediation, neither the national Republican Party nor the executive branch of that era actively suppressed black voting.

The civil rights revolution elevated southern black civic participation to almost normal levels, but biracial politics in the former Confederacy remained weak, as the Democratic Party in the deep South became a heavily black party and whites increasingly voted Republican. Even at its peak, as Valelly shows, the legislative handiwork of the 1961-65 coalition was incomplete. For instance, the 1965 Voting Rights Act ingeniously protected back voting, but not black officeholding. The white South responded with crude measures to dilute the black vote and the power of black officeholders, such as at-large voting for local assemblies, run-offs between the top two candidates, annexation of areas with largely white populations, and changing of the responsibilities or terms of elective offices. The 1981 amendments to the Voting Rights Act did address vote dilution in some circumstances, but the political coalition that undergirded the second reconstruction was already past its zenith. With the act up for renewal in 2007, Valelly shows how more conservative courts and new tactics of vote dilution or suppression again put full democracy at risk. [A]s a country, we still have important business to do.

It took a third party to end slavery. The Republican Party, founded in 1854, was the last new party to replace one of the two major parties (the Whigs). Since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, H. Ross Perot in 1992 was the only third-party candidate to win a serious national share of the vote. In radical contrast to the Republicans of the 1850s, Perot's Reform Party was less a true party than a personal vehicle. Three's a Crowd, by Ronald B. Rapoport and Walter J. Stone, takes the Perot insurgency as their prime case study, but they are out to offer a general theory of third parties.

Rapoport and Stone's work confirms two staples of American political analysis. First, minor parties arise because the two major parties fail to address an important issue (slavery in the 1850s, the money issue of the 1890s populists, the budget deficit that fueled Perot's 1992 campaign). Second, the minor party's issue is invariably co-opted by one of the two major parties; the Populist William Jennings Bryan became the Democrats' 1896 standard-bearer, for example, and Bill Clinton, in 1993, became a deficit hawk. The authors quote Richard Hofstadter's memorable line, Third parties are like bees; once they have stung, they die.

But as the authors astutely show, the brief life of Perot's Reform Party stung the two major parties in complex and paradoxical ways. Perot won 19 percent of the vote -- not just because his money could buy visibility, but because he mobilized an army of citizen volunteers attracted to his issues. In California, one paid staffer and 38,000 volunteers collected 1.4 million petition signatures. In assessing how Perot affected the other parties, Rapoport and Stone track a sample of Perot activists every two years from 1992 to 2000. At first, Perot, by focusing his attack on George H. W. Bush, helped Clinton win the 1992 election with just 43 percent of the popular vote. But by 1994, Perot voters, still disaffected with politics-as-usual, were assiduously courted by Republicans. Newt Gingrich's Contract with America included a balanced-budget amendment and other measures explicitly intended to attract Perot voters. Democrats were working to reduce the deficit, ostensibly Perot's top priority. But Clinton, meanwhile, had embraced the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was anathema to Perot. So in 1994, Perot voters turned against Democratic incumbency and helped the GOP take the House. They were even a factor, the authors demonstrate, in George W. Bush's election in 2000. They were rewarded, ironically, with deficits and trade policies more alarming than the ones Perot deplored in 1992.

Today, the main hidden issue is the failure of either major party to address the declining living standards of at least half of the electorate. If a third party were to arise, it would be either the new centrist party so beloved by pundits (in my view, one already exists -- the Democrats) or a left-populist party organized to raise pocketbook issues. But Ralph Nader, perhaps the best-known leftist, notably fizzled, and no new third-party effort is on the horizon.

How else might dormant issues and torpid citizens be brought to life? In recent years, there has been renewed interest in novel balloting systems like instant runoff voting (IRV). With instant runoff, the voter ranks candidates and can cast heartfelt votes without worrying about playing spoiler. As candidates are eliminated from the bottom, votes are reallocated to the voter's second choice. IRV advocate Steven Hill, author of the fine 2002 book Fixing Elections, contends that the current winner-take-all system is at the root of a variety of ills, including low participation, districting that favors incumbents, and the exclusion of key issues from public discourse.

In San Francisco, the new instant runoff system called ranked choice voting did away with the previous system of runoffs. In the November 2005 election for several city offices, turnout rose dramatically compared to 2001, and the city saved $3 million because it was spared a second election. Voter preferences were recorded with more precision; rival candidates could signal their second choices to supporters.

Voting systems do matter immensely. Hill observes that the recent election in Palestine produced a lopsided Hamas legislative victory because of its winner-take-all elements. Hamas won a very narrow plurality of the popular vote, 45 percent to 41 percent for Fatah, but ended up with 58 percent of the seats.

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Instant runoff voting systems like San Francisco's have been promoted by activists using popular ballot initiatives. Others look to process reforms in the manner of the Progressive Era. Last November, the privately funded and scrupulously nonpartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker III, issued a report identifying several technical fixes in the hope of breaking through what the commission perceived as a partisan logjam. This is a sequel to the 2001 Carter-Ford Commission, many of whose recommendations found their way into the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was passed with at least the pretense of bipartisanship in the wake of the 2000 debacle.

The latest commission recommendations, 87 in all, include nonpartisan administration of elections, state responsibility for voter lists and registration systems, compatibility among state systems so that most people would register just once in a lifetime, a uniform system for counting provisional ballots, an auditable paper trail for electronic voting machines, restoration of voting rights to ex-felons, and full access for international observers. These exemplary recommendations would certainly help improve American democracy, if that were indeed the goal of both parties.

The commission's most controversial recommendation is a mandatory photo-ID system for voting. The commission contends that systematic outreach by election officials could assure that the system would become a tool to increase participation rather than to invite suppression. But the commission could not agree on how to assure that result and gave only the blandest endorsement to the extension of the Voting Rights Act. In its ID proposal, the commission gave exaggerated credence to the standard Republican change of ballot fraud to justify ID requirements that just happen to disadvantage historically suppressed groups.

The commission, diplomatically, does not discuss the elephant in the room (pun intended), namely, systematic Republican efforts to suppress turnout and rig vote counting. It is too tactful to mention the partisan election abuses in Florida and Ohio, the racially targeted purges of voting rolls, the intimidations of ballot integrity programs, the invitations to abuse by flawed electronic voting systems produced by companies closely allied with Republicans, or the politicization of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Its posture, that the threats to American democracy are symmetrical and technical, is intended to rekindle bipartisan support for reform.

Despite this tactical courtesy and the immense goodwill toward the idealism of former President Carter, the commission has not been able to jump-start a good-government movement to remedy the mechanical threats to our democracy, much less the partisan ones. Today's political mood is even less receptive to reforms that transcend partisan self-interest than when hava was enacted in 2002. Even without deliberate partisan interference, the 2006 election is likely to be more flawed than the elections of 2004 and 2000.

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Richard Valelly's work demonstrates the fragility of coalitions that have periodically formed to safeguard the full participation of racial minorities. He correctly identifies this effort as a political enterprise, not a technical one. Democratic rights are enlarged and protected when coalitions committed to their enforcement form and persevere. In contrast to the civil rights coalition of 1961-65, the currently dominant racial coalition began to take shape with Richard Nixon's southern strategy in 1968 and culminated with the tainted presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. This governing coalition includes business elites, cultural conservatives, and southern whites, and it has been willing to use a variety of means to suppress black voting, and increasingly to tamper with voting generally.

It is no accident that the suppression of black voting in the late 19th century coincided with elite measures to depress white working-class and immigrant voting, and to substitute supposed expertise for democratic deliberation. Disenfranchisers [of blacks], Valelly writes, wanted to obstruct the electoral participation of poor whites as well as end black voting. Indeed, just as racial suppression is heavily implicated in America's general culture of violence, it is implicated generally in our stunted democracy. If and when a new coalition arises to restore effective voting rights and to enrich democratic participation, it is unlikely to be the consequence of high-minded, nonpartisan or technical reform, but rather of a partisan victory that throws the rascals out. That, in the spirit of Schumpeter, will be how we know American democracy still lives.

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