Reclaiming Democracy

The debacle of the 2000 presidential election made it clear that we
are operating a badly frayed nineteenth-century democracy in
twenty-first-century America. Voter participation is shockingly low and
declining each year. At best only one-half the eligible electorate
actually votes in a presidential election. Turnout for Senate and House
elections in nonpresidential years rarely exceeds 40 percent. Local
participation is even lower. And on the whole, those who actually vote
are richer, whiter, and better educated than those who don't.

Our techniques of registration and voting are mired in the distant
past. Almost no effort is made to use advanced technology and modern
procedures to increase the base of registered voters or to make voting
more convenient. Voting machinery is badly outdated, and there are
blatant inequalities in the distribution of up-to-date voting
technology. An unacceptably high percentage of the ballots in any given
election are not accurately counted--especially in poor and minority
areas. We disenfranchise large numbers of citizens, heavily male and
minority, on the basis of youthful criminal behavior, further increasing
the electoral gap between rich and poor. The very process of choosing a
president through an electoral college instead of a direct popular vote
violates the basic democratic principle of majority rule.

At every level, our elections are run in an appallingly amateurish
manner by individuals selected for party loyalty, not merit. We refuse
to acknowledge that administering a vibrant democracy is a prime
responsibility of government. Our laws governing ballot access are
openly designed to favor the candidates of the two major parties at the
expense of third-party challengers or independents.

Our elections are unduly influenced by wealthy donors in a process
that all too often looks more like an auction than an exercise in
self-government. Our campaign financing system invites cynicism and
corruption while delegating the power to select candidates and set the
national agenda to a minuscule, unrepresentative segment of the
population. Our patterns of representation unfairly favor incumbents and
turn legislatures into self-perpetuating oligarchies. Our campaigns are
dominated by saturation TV advertising that inevitably spirals down into
sloganeering and name-calling, thus providing immense advantages to
well-financed candidates--without producing an informed electorate.
Finally, the very idea of an independent judiciary functioning above
politics as the ultimate guardian of democracy, individual rights, and
the rule of law stands imperiled.

Failure to maintain physical infrastructure invites accidents. If, in
the face of the 2000 presidential fiasco, we do not take immediate steps
to update and repair our frayed and outdated democratic infrastructure,
we will suffer more democratic accidents in the future. Voting
participation will continue to decline. Respect for the democratic
process will continue to erode, ultimately putting at risk the nation's
greatest asset--respect for the law. Our nation's agenda, shaped by the
rich, will continue to speak to the needs of only a slice of the
population. Our elections will continue to be administered as amateurish
exercises in partisan self-interest and our legislatures will become
even more oligarchic. Politics will increasingly be viewed by Americans
of all ages with rueful distaste instead of heartfelt pride.

It need not be this way. Americans should begin building a democracy
for the twenty-first century. Although some necessary reforms are not
likely to win enactment anytime soon, it is important to stimulate
public debate about what it will take to reclaim and redeem our
democracy. Here is the core list of urgent reforms.

Every citizen should be encouraged to vote--and every vote should
Registration and voting need not be burdensome chores. The
mechanics of voting and registration must be brought up to date, with
particular attention paid to narrowing the electoral gap between rich
and poor.

Democracy is too important to leave to amateur patronage
Election administration should be upgraded by developing
a nonpartisan core of election officials who are devoted to democracy
and capable of applying uniform rules that ensure equal treatment of all

Voters should be given greater opportunities to register
Reflexive reliance on gerrymandered single-member
districting should give way to experiments with more representative ways
to organize elections. Examples include repealing the ban on multimember
congressional districting and using nonpartisan districting commissions.

Big money should not trump electoral equality. The soft-money and
issue-advertising loopholes in the current campaign finance laws must be
closed and subsidized access to the media provided until we decide
whether to adopt full public funding of the campaign process.

Beyond these measures, spelled out in greater detail below, are
more-far-reaching measures that will require the assembly of a powerful
constituency for democratic reform--abolition of the current electoral
college, for example, and a constitutional amendment explicitly
protecting the right to vote. But in the short run, there are many ways
to start overhauling our outdated election system and revitalizing our

Increasing Voter Turnout

During the nineteenth century, about 75 percent of the eligible
electorate actually voted. Today, after a century of steady decline,
about 50 percent of the eligible electorate vote for president.
Nonpresidential turnout hovers around 40 percent. When voting
participation drops below 50 percent, elected officials lack a true
mandate to govern. Worse, since the actual voting electorate is richer,
whiter, and better educated, the nation's politics tilts dramatically
toward the agenda of the haves who vote rather than the needs of the
poorer, less-educated citizens who stay home. Given the enormous effort
expended over the last 50 years in removing formal barriers to voting,
why is voter participation declining?

At the end of the eighteenth century, elections in the United States
were casual, laissez-faire events. Interested citizens gathered
voluntarily on election day and expressed their preferences orally or
through ballots printed and provided by a preferred candidate or
political party. During the nineteenth century, the state's role in the
electoral process expanded in at least three dramatic ways. First, it
fell to the state to ensure a secret ballot; this necessitated
substantial governmental control over the mechanics of voting. Second,
in order to prevent ballot confusion and to stop fraud, the state was
given power to promulgate an official ballot listing
government-sanctioned candidates exclusively. Finally, at the beginning
of the twentieth century, the state assumed responsibility for
maintaining lists of qualified voters, who were obliged to register in
advance of the election.

The result of greater state involvement in the electoral process was
a decrease in fraud, and fairer, more orderly elections. But the new
state-imposed restrictions contributed to a dramatic decrease in
electoral participation. Within years of their adoption, voter turnout
in American presidential elections dropped from around 75 percent to
below 50 percent in 1924, and it has almost never exceeded 60 percent
during the twentieth century. Political historians such as Walter Dean
Burnham have demonstrated that the "reforms" that led to voter
registration schemes were not just neutral good-government measures to
reduce fraud but deliberate efforts by elites to reduce mass turnout.

Despite the significant growth of state power over the electoral
process during the nineteenth century and the corresponding increase in
obstacles to voting and running for office, there has not been a
parallel twentieth-century evolution in the state's affirmative
obligation to make democracy work by encouraging participation. Low
turnout and feeble politics are a chicken-and-egg problem. Low turnout
is both the symptom of democratic decay and a cause of worsening
disease. A more substantively engaging politics, of course, would invite
higher turnout. But in the meantime, investment in techniques designed
to increase voter turnout would, by itself, help to revive politics.
Here are some options.

A democracy day. By statute and custom, federal and most state
elections take place on a Tuesday in November, forcing most working
people to take time off to vote, or to shoehorn their vote into the
short period when the polls are open before or after work. Virtually
every other developed democracy either schedules its elections on
weekends or declares election day a holiday. Why force citizens to
choose between work and voting? If Congress changed the dates for
federal elections to a weekend, the states would almost certainly
follow. Alternatively, Congress could move election day to Veterans Day,
a patriotic holiday that falls very close to existing election day. A
democracy day on Veterans Day would help change voting from a chore to a

Extended voting. By tradition, American elections are held over a
span of hours on a single day, although Oregon has adopted an extended
process that allows voters to cast ballots by mail over a period of
several weeks. Many democracies allow voting to take place over both
days of a weekend. At a minimum, presidential voting should be carried
out over a 24-hour period from coast to coast, thereby minimizing the
impact that publicized election returns in the East have on voting
patterns in the rest of the country.

Better voting technology. The mechanics of voting are appallingly
outdated and unequal. Some voters have access to relatively
sophisticated optical-scanning voting devices, while others vote by
paper ballot or with notoriously inaccurate punch-card machines. Voters
in many cities use outdated machines that are no longer being
manufactured and cannot be properly maintained. Inadequate voting
technology leads to mechanical breakdowns, long lines at the polls, and
the inability to count thousands of ballots, including those of would-be
voters who give up in frustration and leave without casting their
ballot. At a minimum, access to acceptable voting technology must be
made generally available to all voters on an equal basis.

We should develop technology that allows voting with at least the
convenience we now associate with banking and buying gasoline. Internet
voting has been initiated in Arizona and proposed as a general reform.
So has the development of touch-screen voting machines similar to ATMs.
Discussion of advanced technology for voting must, however, consider the
impact of such new methods on the electoral divide that separates rich
and poor. Internet voting, unless carefully supplemented, will tend to
increase the already unacceptable imbalance between rich and poor
voters. There is also the danger of new forms of electronic voting

A uniform absentee policy. Absentee ballots are important to
permit the elderly and infirm to vote, in addition to ensuring that
persons out of the district on election day, such as military
personnel, can vote. But our current absentee ballot procedures are
hopelessly complex, with each local election board applying its own
arcane system. The resulting complexity and nonuniformity causes
confusion, reduces turnout, and provides ample opportunities for unfair
behavior, even fraud.

Congress could provide a uniform rule for absentee ballots in all
federal elections. The states would almost certainly adopt the federal
standards. Thanks to advances in telecommunications, all ballots might
someday be absentee, in the sense that they may be cast from a remote
location, using advanced voting technology. Whether such decentralized
voting would mean the loss of the civic solidarity associated with
interacting at a polling place is an important topic for discussion.

Honest and modern ballot design. Currently, the form of the
ballot is designed at the local level by patronage appointees with
little or no technical expertise. Partisan interests often shape the
content, typography, and layout as local officials jockey for favored
spots on the ballot. At a minimum, we should develop a procedure for
designing a fair and usable ballot for all elections. Technology will
play a role, but there is no need to wait for a technological fix before
taking steps to prevent massive voter confusion of the sort that
disenfranchised so many voters in Florida last November.

Voting as a civic duty. Unlike many important functions of
citizenship--such as jury service, military conscription, payment of
taxes, cooperation with the census, school attendance, and compulsory
vaccinations--we continue to view voting as wholly optional. But isn't
our common stake in a vibrant and functioning democracy sufficient to
justify not merely an opportunity but an obligation to vote? Voting is
considered a civic duty in Australia, and turnout is 90 percent.

Some argue that it is Orwellian to coerce political participation and
that democracy may not benefit from the votes of unwilling participants.
But devising a convenient "opt out" mechanism for dissenters could
address such objections while emphasizing the civic duty of all to
participate in democratic governance. In effect, we could shift the
inertial burden to persons who do not wish to vote by requiring them to
"opt out," rather than requiring voters to "opt in."

A legally established "duty" to vote could be encouraged by mild
incentives--such as recognition stickers for license plates or
preferential access to certain minor public services--instead of
imposing even mild sanctions. The mere discussion of the issue
highlights the [affirmative] obstacles to voting that should be removed.

Reforming Voter Registration

The obstacles to voter registration are wholly state-created, yet
the state takes almost no responsibility for minimizing them. The net
result is that wealthier, better-educated segments of the electorate
surmount the transaction costs in far greater numbers than their poorer,
less-well-educated countrymen do. What can be done?

Government's duty to register voters. We could begin by shifting
the burden of voter registration to the state. The United States is the
only developed democracy that places the onus of registration solely on
the prospective voter. Every other democracy acknowledges an obligation
on the part of the state to assemble the list of registered voters,
either by imposing a duty to register to vote or by taking
responsibility for assembling the lists. If Great Britain, Canada,
France, and Germany assume the task of assembling lists of eligible
voters, why shouldn't the United States adopt similar policies?

Same-day voter registration. Six states currently allow same-day
voter registration. Not surprisingly, five of the six boast the highest
levels of voter turnout in the nation. The principal argument against
same-day voter registration is the increased risk of fraud. But there
are easy antifraud remedies--such as requiring proof of identity,
evidence of residence, sworn affidavits, and the use of segregated paper
ballots for same-day registrants.

Automatic voter registration. Another option is to register
voters automatically whenever they pay taxes, get a driver's license,
graduate from high school, file a change-of-address form with the post
office, sign up for the draft, register a car, buy stamps, submit a
claim for unemployment insurance, enroll in welfare programs, or
otherwise interact with the state. This is merely a question of
developing the technology and putting it into use.

Modernization of voting records. Many states continue to maintain
voter registration records by hand. Even those states that have
computerized the data often maintain separate local systems that cannot
communicate with one another. Imagine the impact if automobile
registration and licensing records were nonuniform and were processed
manually. Uniform computerization would permit rapid checks for fraud
and would make it much easier to register voters and to change
registration when a voter moves. It would make same-day registration
even easier, and might even allow for tapping into parallel databases
like utility, telephone, and school registration records.

Expand the Electorate

Most formal obstacles to voting left over from the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries have been abolished. Restrictions based on race,
gender, wealth, and residency have been overturned by constitutional
amendment or invalidated by the Supreme Court. Two significant formal
obstacles remain.

Enfranchisement of criminal offenders. A number of
states--Florida is a prime example--continue to bar persons convicted of
felonies from voting, even after they serve a full sentence. Florida
thus disenfranchises more than half a million voters, including 15
percent of the male Afro-American vote, often as the result of youthful
brushes with the law that would not have been deemed felonies if
committed by children of privilege. It would be interesting to determine
how many African Americans in Florida are barred from voting because of
a drunk-driving conviction.

Empowerment of resident aliens. Almost no voting privileges are
afforded to resident aliens, who pay taxes and serve in the military. (A
few cities allow resident aliens who are parents to vote in school board
elections.) With few exceptions, the degree of political participation
for resident aliens has not been an issue in the United States, although
it has been the subject of careful consideration in the European
community, where many localities, including Paris, grant voting rights
to resident aliens.

Public Management of Democracy

Through agencies ranging from the Federal Election Commission to
local boards of election, patronage appointees of the two major parties
run the electoral process in the United States. At best, the
administration of our elections is unprofessional; at worst, it is
blatantly if not corruptly partisan. In recent years, we have evolved an
excellent nonpartisan system of judicial administration. There is no
reason why a nonpartisan electoral civil service, trained to operate an
efficient and fair democracy, cannot be substituted for the existing
patronage system. Indeed, reforming the administration of our electoral
process may be the single most important thing we can do to shore up
American democracy. Reforms in technology, improved voter registration,
and enhanced turnout will be extremely difficult to achieve without
capable election officials.

A democracy budget. Our decaying democratic infrastructure in
part reflects a failure to acknowledge that democracy is an expensive
form of government. But we tend to adopt cut-rate solutions to running a
democracy, leaving the financing of the democratic process to the
political parties or to the wealthy. Every level of government should
add a line item to cover the costs of administering democracy. Teasing
out the real cost of democracy would focus attention on repairing the
infrastructure and would create a process for debating needed

Shoring Up the Right to Run for Office

The Constitution says nothing about the right to run for office. In
fact, it was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court recognized a weak
constitutional right to appear on the ballot. Widespread confusion over
rules governing ballot access affects competition for major-party
nominations as well as the role of third parties and independents.
National and state laws need to be reformed.

Rules for presidential primaries. When should the presidential
primary elections take place, and who should be able to participate in
them? Currently, each state legislature determines the date of the
primary, often in consultation with national party leadership. The
almost random order of the primaries may give undue influence to the
voters of some states while shutting out others from the nomination
process. Some have argued that uniform presidential primary dates be
set, perhaps by region, on a rotating basis. Others have urged that a
national presidential primary be held on a single day.

Rules governing access to the presidential primary ballot are also
set at the state legislative level, usually after consultation with the
state leadership of each major party. Virtually all states require the
presidential candidates to be party members. But rules vary
dramatically. Some states allow all viable candidates easy
primary-ballot access. Others, like New York, make ballot access so
difficult that it has taken bitter and expensive litigation in order to
place major candidates on the New York Republican presidential primary
ballot in the last two elections. Given the national stake in electing a
president, shouldn't there be a uniform set of rules governing access to
the presidential primary ballot?

The role of subordinate parties. Under existing rules, a
third-party or independent candidate for president must expend very
significant resources to obtain ballot status in all 50 states. This
depletes funds the candidate needs for the general election. Given the
national nature of the presidential election, should we seek a uniform
standard? The goal would be to discourage totally frivolous candidacies
but eliminate the needless draining of third-party resources. If third
parties are viewed as fringe players who provide little more than an
opportunity to cast a protest vote, ballot access rules should remain
stringent. If, however, third parties are viewed as important sources of
new ideas and as crucial competition for the two major parties, ballot
access should be provided on liberal terms. Until we have a serious
discussion about the role of third parties, ballot access rules will be
driven mainly by the desire of the major parties to protect themselves
from competition.

Primaries and challenges to incumbents. Last year, Democrat
Hilda Solis of Los Angeles successfully challenged incumbent Congressman
Matthew Martinez in the party's primary election. It was front-page news
in California, and it put other incumbents on notice. How easy should it
be to launch a primary challenge in one of the major parties? Must the
insurgent candidate be a party member? For how long? How many signatures
should be required on the nominating petition? Should decisions about
primary rules be made by the political party or be imposed by the state?
Should the state be entitled to mandate a primary when the party wants
to use other forms of nomination?

And who should be entitled to vote in a party primary? Even more
fundamental, who should make the decisions about whether to have a party
primary and who should be allowed to vote in it? The party leadership?
The state legislature? The electoral majority through a referendum?
Courts through constitutional adjudication? Congress through uniform
rules for federal elections? Whatever the remedy, current procedures
work to give incumbents something close to lifetime tenure. Term limits
are a poor substitute for contested primaries. We need a broad national
debate and consistent rules.

Repairing Representative Government

The inevitable growth of large, complex political units doomed the
experiment with pure, direct democracy that flourished in the New
England town meeting. In our representative democracy, the electorate
chooses legislators to act as proxies reflecting the will of the people.
But our current structure of representation is inadequate to the task.

For one thing, incumbents rarely lose. The re-election rate for the
House of Representatives is usually well above 90 percent and often
approaches 100 percent. In the 2000 election, every legislative
incumbent running for re-election in New York State was successful. Why
is it so hard to unseat an incumbent? One potent tool protecting
officeholders is their ability to gerrymander electoral-district
boundary lines (and such incumbent-protection deals are often
bipartisan). New computer technology allows extremely fine judgments
about where to draw precinct borders which sometimes even slice through
multifamily buildings. Ironically, because it is impossible to
gerrymander Senate lines, it is now easier to unseat a Senate incumbent
than a member of the House.

The 1962 Supreme Court decision mandating a "one person, one vote"
standard for the apportionment process cured one significant evil but
left open ample opportunities for electoral manipulation. The Court
recognizes a cause of action protecting the political minority from the
grossest forms of electoral gerrymandering, yet it has proved impossible
to enforce the right. In fact, the high court has actually made things
worse by explicitly allowing incumbency protection as a valid
justification for districting. Traditional requirements of contiguity
and compactness provide some check on political gerrymandering, but they
may hinder efforts to establish interest districts that do not coincide
with a geographical unit. Unless we can devise methods for returning a
degree of competition to the electoral process, voters will rationally
stay home.

How can we ensure that the political proxies chosen through the
electoral process actually reflect the society at large? No consensus
exists about how to decide what groups or interests deserve legislative
representation. While the Supreme Court has insisted that the principle
of "one person, one vote" be respected and that race not play a
disproportionate role, we have no guidelines about who or what should be
represented. American democracy has tended to ignore the problem by
concentrating on geographical representation. But geographical districts
reflect only one form of political representation. What about economic
interest, such as agriculture or manufacturing; economic status, such as
rich or poor; age; political affiliation; gender; race; religion; sexual
preference; marital status; parenthood (or nonparenthood); educational
status; and a host of other possible interest groupings?

Certain groups have historically been excluded from full
participation in the electoral process--first through formal exclusion,
and then by informal techniques. Race, gender, and poverty have been the
three most obvious bases for exclusion. Even after the removal of formal
restrictions, the actual "representation" of racial minorities, women,
and the poor in the nation's legislatures remains woefully inadequate.

The Supreme Court has imposed an almost impossible burden on efforts
to draw lines to enhance the political power of racial groups that have
historically been excluded from participation in American democracy. The
Court has forbidden the drawing of lines when race is the dominant
motivation, but has permitted race to be a factor in the process. And
the Court's current margin of support even for this ambiguous doctrine
is a precarious five to four. It is important to put forth more vigorous
forms of minority representation, racial and otherwise.

Then again, it has been argued that "packing" large numbers of
minority voters into a given district to enhance minority representation
actually dilutes the political power of minorities by wasting minority
votes in "safe" minority districts while draining the votes from
surrounding districts that might elect nonminorities sympathetic to
minorities. One option is to rely on "influence" districts, where
minority voters can affect the outcome and thus compel the candidates to
pay serious attention to minority voters' concerns. But influence
districting is not likely to produce more minority representatives. And
it is possible to draw geographical lines with predictable racial
content yet not give influence to other political minorities, including

Enriching Democratic Choice

American elections are almost exclusively winner-take-all contests:
single-member-district, first-past-the-post exercises in which the
winner of an electoral plurality is awarded the seat and is vested with
responsibility for representing both the winners and losers. When fused
with a regime of political gerrymandering, the American system may act
to disenfranchise both winners and losers. In a legislative district
with a 65-35 political gerrymander, the political minority consisting of
35 percent of the electorate are, literally, incapable of electing
officials who share their views. Unless their disenfranchisement is
balanced by a reciprocal disenfranchisement of their opponents in some
other district, the minority are out of political luck. Similarly, even
members of the political majority are marginalized, since the election
is a foregone conclusion. Such a process is made to order for reciprocal
gerrymandering, which leaves real electoral power in the hands of
political elites who choose the candidates.

Efforts to enrich voter choice by experimenting with proportional
voting systems have generally been rejected in the United States because
they are thought to threaten electoral stability. But there are several
ways to enrich voter choice without sacrificing stability. For example,
modern technology makes possible an instant-runoff system that allows a
voter to cast both a first- and a second-choice ballot. If a voter's
first choice is not among the top two vote getters, the ballot
automatically reverts to the second choice. Such a system is currently
widely used in Ireland, and to elect the mayor of London.
Experimentation at the local level with such an instant-runoff technique
can tell us whether it is a device to enrich voter choice with no loss
in stability.

Cross-endorsements and fusion tickets. Laws in most states forbid
cross-endorsement of candidates by more than one political party. These
archaic regulations could be repealed, thus allowing a voter to cast a
ballot for a candidate with a chance to win and also express a
preference for the platform of a third party. While the Supreme Court
has upheld the ban on cross-endorsement as a matter of federal
constitutional law, the practice may well violate many state
constitutions. In any event, its role as a device to protect the two
major parties against competition could be stressed as part of a
grass-roots campaign to repeal the existing cross-endorsement bans, all
of which date from the beginning of the twentieth century.

Multimember districting and cumulative voting. Moving away from
universal adherence to single-member-district, first-past-the-post
constituencies toward multimember constituencies should be considered,
both to provide more accurate representation and to enrich voter choice.
When multimember constituencies are linked to voting procedures such as
cumulative or "bullet" voting that permit voters to target their votes
to particular candidates, minority voters gain a richer method of
expressing political choice. The Congressional Black Caucus advocates
repeal of the federal statute banning use of multimember constituencies
in congressional elections precisely because, if properly used,
multimember constituencies linked to cumulative or bullet voting provide
richer choices for many minority voters.

Proportional representation. Many democracies allocate
legislative seats in proportion to the share of the popular vote
obtained by each political party. Although this approach has been
associated with coalition governments and political instability, it is
possible to link proportional representation with traditional
first-past-the-post systems to create hybrids that provide voters with
greater choice while preserving stable democratic majorities.

A Constitutional Right to Vote

The essence of democracy is the right to vote. But the United States
Constitution--the most successful democratic charter in human
history--does not guarantee the right to vote, even for presidential
electors. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court, confronted
with the lack of a broad protection of the franchise in the
Constitution, has usually resorted to the 14th Amendment's equal
protection clause when struggling to find constitutional grounds for
upholding the right to vote. Congress has also provided important
protection to voters who were once excluded from the franchise because
of race. But as the Supreme Court's decision in the Florida presidential
election case made clear, the equal protection clause is not an adequate
substitute for an express constitutional guarantee of the right to vote.
Indeed, as the Court's unfortunate ruling demonstrates, in the hands of
hostile or insensitive justices, a federal constitutional right to vote
rooted solely in the equal protection clause can be deployed as an
obstacle to the effective protection of the right to vote by the general
population. Thus, although it is clearly a long-range project, we should
consider pursuing a federal constitutional amendment protecting the
right to vote.

The amendment process at the state constitutional level tends to be
less demanding than at the federal level. A parallel strategy at the
state level, pursuing a state constitutional protection of the right to
vote, would be an important reinforcement of democracy and would provide
a grass-roots organizing strategy.

Money and politics. If Florida had never happened, the 2000
presidential election would have been a failure because it was financed
by enormous contributions from wealthy interests, often with no
limitation or disclosure of the source or amount of the funds. The
loopholes and omissions in our existing campaign finance laws have
rendered the existing regulatory regime wholly inadequate.

Improved disclosure. The least controversial aspect of campaign
finance regulation is disclosure. But two principal flaws undermine
current disclosure rules: the failure to collect and publish the
information in a format likely to inform the electorate, and the huge
loophole that permits massive campaign spending to occur with no
disclosure at all.

Most data for federal elections is processed effectively and quickly
by the Federal Election Commission and made available on the Internet.
But most states have not attempted to computerize the contribution data,
much less make it readily available to the electorate. For disclosure to
be useful, it must occur quickly, and in a format likely to come to
public attention.

Enormous sums are expended to influence elections via so-called issue
ads that skirt contribution limits and disclosure laws by avoiding
certain magic words (such as "vote for") while delivering an
unmistakable campaign message favoring or attacking a particular
candidate. Such black-market spending may well exceed the amount spent
openly by candidates and supporters. While serious First Amendment
issues would be raised by an across-the-board challenge to the right of
political anonymity, compelled disclosure of the source of funds that
pay for ads clearly aimed at affecting the outcome of a particular
election would probably pass First Amendment muster.

Limiting campaign contributions. A rough consensus holds that
limits may be placed on the sources of campaign donation. Under existing
rules, corporations and labor unions are not permitted to contribute
directly to candidates. The Supreme Court has even held that
corporations may be barred from expending corporate money to influence
elections. Similarly, the Supreme Court has upheld limits on how much
individuals can contribute to a candidate. But the regulatory system has
collapsed because of enormous loopholes that permit corporations, labor
unions, and wealthy individual donors to pour virtually unlimited
amounts of money into the campaign through phony issue ads and
soft-money contributions to political parties--and to do so under the
fiction that the parties will not divert the money to political
campaigns. Unless these loopholes are closed, wealth will continue to
drive out participation by ordinary people. But as I have indicated, the
decay of our democracy goes far beyond the malign influence of money.

No one can predict the long-term implications of the 2000
presidential election for American democracy. While public reaction to
the election may lead to greater voter participation based on a renewed
belief that every vote matters, it could also lead to greater voter
apathy based on the belief that voting can't make a difference. Which
course is ultimately chosen depends in substantial part on whether
effective action is taken to address the many problems that infect our
democratic infrastructure. In order to seize this moment, three steps
are necessary: First, we must catalog the wide range of interconnected
problems hobbling American democracy. Second, we must identify pragmatic
solutions that can be implemented with reasonable dispatch. Third, once
we have agreed on an agenda for structural reform, we must develop
strategies to turn ideas into action--through nothing less than a
nationwide pro-democracy movement.