Seizing the Continuing Moment
for Democracy Reform
by Miles Rapoport
excerpted from the book
Taking America Back
and taking down the radical
edited and introduced by
Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Robert L. Borosage
Nation Books, 2004
Seizing the Continuing Moment for Democracy
by Miles Rapoport
As the 2004 election approaches, with so much at stake for our
nation, a huge amount of energy, attention, financing, and debate
will focus on Election Day. But behind the political headlines
is a continuing and extraordinary opportunity for reform advocates
to change our democracy in ways that reverse the negative trends
of previous decades, tear down barriers to participation, and
make it more inclusive, vibrant, and participatory. While the
images of butterfly ballots, hanging chads, thousands of African
Americans turned away from the polls, and an election count stopped
by a bareknuckled Supreme Court once seared into our collective
memory may have faded, the opportunity created by the 2000 election
has exhibited remarkable staying power. Progressives need to seize
this continuing moment to win a set of reforms that can change
the shape of our election system in the near future and for the
The principal response from Congress to
the enormous questioning of the American election process that
occurred after the 2000 election was the Help America Vote Act
of 2002 (HAVA). The fact that it passed, along with the Bipartisan
Campaign Reform Act, in a Congress where so much valuable legislation
was destroyed, is a testament to the fact that the issue of fair
and democratic elections has strength and staying power. In addition,
defying many predictions, Congress has already appropriated significant
sums authorized by HAVA to pay for electoral reforms in the states,
and appears poised to do more. Monitoring the progress of funding
and of other HAVA issues in Congress will be an ongoing task.
The act created a new federal Election Assistance Commission,
and its four members-Gracia Hillman, Ray Martinez, Paul DeGregorio,
and DeForest Soaries-were appointed on the very last day of the
Congressional session in December 2003. The Commission was given
very little enforcement responsibility or power, so its influence
in the process is still an open question. As a result, the action
around election reform has now shifted decisively to the states.
Many of the implementation specifics, including the speed of change,
have been left up to each state. This allows for widely varying
interpretations of the federal law; thus, leaving open the possibility
of either progressive reforms or regressive erosions of voting
What does HAVA do specifically? HAVA mandates
that all fifty states upgrade many aspects of their election procedures,
including their voting machines (punch card ballots are banned),
registration processes and poll worker training. It requires that
each state give voters the opportunity to cast a provisional ballot
if their eligibility is questioned. It requires at least one accessible
machine per polling place so that voters with disabilities may
cast a private ballot and mandates machinery more accessible to
people with language needs. HAVA also requires the creation of
a computerized, statewide voter list in every state.
For people concerned with expanding and
improving our democracy, there are several problematic areas of
HAVA. New voter identification requirements, which Republicans
insisted upon as the price of a bipartisan bill, remain a real
cause for concern. Under the law, first-time voters who register
by mail must show identification-such as a driver's license or
Social Security card-at the ballot box. Each state has some leverage
to decide what IDs can be used. In the best states, like Ohio,
election officials interpret the law broadly. They plan to accept
many different kinds of IDs at the ballot box, so that no voters
are needlessly turned away from the polls. In some states, however,
conservative lawmakers have proposed far more rigid ID requirements
in the guise of complying with HAVA, including extending the ID
requirements to all voters. Civil rights advocates are monitoring
the requirements that could keep many citizens from voting, especially
young voters, new citizens, poor voters and voters of color.
A second area generating a great deal
of attention and publicity is the issue of how well computerized
voting machines can be trusted to count the ballots and whether
they can be manipulated by outside hackers or unscrupulous programmers
with a political agenda. The close connection of Diebold, one
of the major suppliers of machinery, to the Bush administration
has only heightened the concerns of many. One proposed mechanism
to guarantee the accuracy of the vote count is a voter verified
paper trail (WPT). Other concerns address the openness or proprietary
nature of source codes and computer instructions for the machines.
State election officials and advocates need to guard carefully
against the electronic manipulation of election results as they
install new systems, since any efforts to achieve full voter participation
will be severely hampered if people believe their votes won't
even be properly counted.
On the other hand, the conversation and
debate generated by HAVA and legislative changes taking place
in the next several years offer democracy reform advocates the
best chance in a very long time to win some real changes that
can open up the process tremendously. Funding granted by HAVA
can be used to support a wide variety of election reforms and
improvements, while the debate itself offers a moment to advance
a comprehensive reform agenda.
AN AGENDA FOR REFORM
There is no "magic bullet" to
make our democracy work as it should. What ails our democracy
is deep and multifaceted and requires responses on many levels.
In terms of the election process itself, a number of key areas
of reform have emerged as practical, achievable ways to help bring
down America's barriers to voting and encourage participation.
As democracy reform advocates increasingly take their battles
out of D.C. and into the state legislatures, these reforms are
a good place for progressives to devote resources and energy.
Election Day Registration
Election Day Registration, also known
as 'same day registration," allows citizens to register and
vote on Election Day. Six states use EDR systems and those six
states have voter participation rates 8-15 percent higher than
the national average. The reason for EDR's success is simple.
Many new voters get energized about an election in the last few
weeks of a campaign, but most states cut off voter registration
20-30 days before an election. If new voters have not registered
by then, they cannot participate and all that energy is barred
from the election process. In addition, EDR allows would-be voters
to cast their ballot if, for whatever reason, their name is not
on the voter rolls at the polling place.
"The final week before an election-when
the pressure is high, the campaign is in full swing, and the newspaper
endorsements are flowing-often motivates new or undecided voters
to cast their ballots if they have the opportunity to register
at the polls," says Wisconsin state senator Gwendolyn Moore.
She should know; her state's EDR system helped boost turnout in
Wisconsin to 66 percent in 2000, 15 points higher than the national
Polls show that EDR appeals to people
who have not voted. In a May 2001 Medill School of Journalism
poll, 64 percent of nonvoters said that allowing people to register
on Election Day would make them more likely to vote. Fully 56
million eligible Americans were not even registered to vote in
2000. If an EDR system allowed 8-15 percent of those people to
register and cast a ballot, it would convert millions of nonvoters
into engaged citizens.
In states across the country, including
California, Connecticut, New York, North Carolina, and Massachusetts
concerned activists are working to pass EDR laws through ballot
initiatives, legislation and advocacy. As states begin to implement
the provisional voting requirements of HAVA, the eligibility of
thousands of votes-in some states, tens or even hundreds of thousands-will
need to be verified before being counted, causing confusion and
delay. In addition, as computerized voting lists make more accurate
list maintenance the norm, the momentum for opening up registration
to all on Election Day will grow.
Unlocking the Vote for Citizens with Felony
One of the largest scandals in the Florida
2000 election involved "felony disenfranchisement laws."
These laws strip voting rights from people convicted of certain
crimes. Thousands of Floridians with clean criminal records were
purged from the voter rolls because of sloppy and overly broad
purges of the voter registration database. But even more important
from a democracy point of view, Florida's disenfranchisement laws
kept more than 600,000 people from voting in 2000, even those
who had fully finished their prison time, parole or probation.
In Florida and Alabama, over 30 percent of black men are barred
from voting. Across the country, almost 5 million Americans cannot
vote because of | criminal convictions in their past. There are
no federal J guidelines about these laws, so their harshness varies
from state to state. The most extreme states, such as Florida,
:Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Virginia, bar citizens with
felony convictions from voting for life.
Who are all these disenfranchised citizens?
Disproportionately, they are people of color from low-income communities.
Across the country, black citizens are five times more often denied
the vote because of criminal records than whites. Latinos and
Native Americans face similar disenfranchisement rates. This racially
discriminatory effect is hardly an accident. Like poll taxes,
literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, felony disenfranchisement
laws were intentionally crafted in the South during Reconstruction
to exclude African Americans from the political process. White
lawmakers in the Jim Crow era were not shy about their intentions.
"This plan" said one delegate to the Virginia convention
of 1906, which established strict felony disenfranchisement laws,
"will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this
state in less than five years, so that in no single county . .
. will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy
of the white race in the affairs of government."
Fortunately, the American public is ready
to change these archaic, discriminatory laws. In a July 2002 Harris
Interactive poll, more than 60 percent of Americans agreed that
people who have completed their prison sentences should be allowed
to vote; only about a quarter of disenfranchised Americans are
in prison. Change is taking place in a significant number of states.
Alabama, Wyoming, and Nevada all changed their laws to allow more
citizens to vote in 2003. Connecticut changed its law in 2002
to allow 36,000 citizens on probation to vote. Legislation easing
disenfranchisement laws has been passed in Delaware, Kentucky,
Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. This momentum
is being harnessed into a strong and broad coalition that aims
to change America's felony disenfranchisement law. Like civil
rights battles of the past, these changes will not be won overnight,
but felony disenfranchisement laws are increasingly being recognized
as barriers to democracy, and major change is on the way.
Counting Votes as They Are Intended: Instant
America's heavy reliance on single-winner
districts and on counting procedures that can often produce winners
with a minority of votes has alienated an alarming number of voters,
and produced anomalous, unintended consequences in many elections.
As a result, momentum has gathered for several changes that redress
this issue. A variety of solutions, including multi-representative
districts, minority representation, proportional representation,
and cumulative voting mechanisms, have been proposed. One reform
gaining currency is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Under IRV, voters
cast a ballot for two or more candidates, ranking them in order
of preference. When the votes are counted, the candidate with
the least votes is eliminated, and those votes are automatically
redistributed to the voters' second preference.
Advocates of the IRV system maintain that
it is clearly preferable to a situation in which third party candidates
serve as spoilers, throwing the results of an election to a candidate
who does not reflect the views of a majority. For instance, in
New Hampshire and Florida in 2000, an IRV system would have cast
votes for Ralph Nader to the voters' second preference (likely
Al Gore), rather than discounting them and pushing the victory
to George Bush. In addition, supporters of minor party candidates
would not be forced to choose between casting a ballot for their
true choice or casting a "strategic" ballot for a candidate
they liked less but who stood a better chance to win; through
IRV, they can do both. In those states and municipalities that
do utilize runoffs, IRV seems highly preferable to a runoff election
a month later, where turnout is almost invariably a fraction of
what it is in the original election. IRV has made strides in the
past two years. San Francisco voters adopted IRV in March of 2002
and will first utilize it in November 2004. More than fifty Vermont
towns voted for instant runoff voting through non-binding referenda
in 2002 as well. In the same year, the Utah Republican Party used
IRV to nominate candidates for the Congressional race.
Campaign Finance Reform: The Beginning,
Not the End
The Supreme Court has now ruled in favor
of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act. Huge soft money
contributions and barely disguised campaign commercials paid for
by unregulated funds will no longer be the rule in our politics.
Yet no one is under the illusion that such modest reforms will
fundamentally reduce the influence of money in our politics. New
mechanisms are already being created to circumvent the new rules,
and as long as candidates need large sums of money to run campaigns
and get their message out to voters, private large-scale financial
backers will find ways to flow the money in, and elected officials
will still be overly responsive to them.
However, the court also clearly said that
the state has a powerful interest in preventing corruption and
the appearance of corruption in our election processes. The challenge
is to continue to move forward, to build systems of public financing
that allow all candidates the opportunities afforded now only
to wealthy candidates or those who succeed at the relentless fundraising
grind that contemporary politics has become. This important reform
has gathered significant steam. In Maine and Arizona, there have
been two election cycles conducted under the new rules of "Clean
Money" public financing. In both those states, increasing
numbers of candidates use the system, and invariably they say
that it has liberated them and allowed them to spend their time
meeting voters and attending community events, rather than dialing
for dollars. In New York City, a strong four-to-one matching system
for candidates for municipal office encouraged an unprecedented
variety of candidates to run and win in City Council races. In
North Carolina and Wisconsin, efforts have succeeded in creating
public funding systems for judicial elections, where the frightening
relationship of campaign contributions and judicial decision-making
is particularly stark.
Comprehensive campaign finance reform
is a long-range effort. It is a difficult reform to win since
it challenges the comfortable status quo. Even in those places
where it is won, opposition often from key political leaders who
liked the old system just fine, can undermine the reforms, as
happened in Massachusetts. But the need to disentangle our politics
from big money is essential, if people are to believe that their
investment in the political process is worthwhile.
OTHER REFORMS: LET MANY FLOWERS BLOOM
These four reforms by no means exhaust
the list of policies that states could adopt that would increase
participation and make our democracy work in a more lively, vibrant,
and inclusive way. Different states have different histories and
issues, and reform advocates have many efforts on their radar
screens. The list is long, but some bear at least a mention here:
* Adopting and expanding mail-in voting
based on the positive experience of Oregon and Washington, without
eliminating Election Day voting and registration activities.
* Making Election Day a holiday, as most
European countries do. Making working people vote only on one,
working day makes it difficult to find the time while creating
lines and delays at particular points of the day.
* Allowing full representation in Congress
for residents of Washington, DC.
* Allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds
to preregister to vote while in high school as a corollary to
expanding civic education.
* Dropping restrictive requirements on
who can vote by absentee ballot.
* Allowing voting by noncitizens where
not constitutionally prohibited, for instance in school elections,
where children of new immigrants are deeply affected by the decisions
but have no voice in their formulation.
The list could go on even further; the
magnitude of the task of restoring our democracy, and earning
people's trust in it, is huge. Progressives need to seize this
moment and take the lead in these issues. Morally, the progressive
ideals of equality and justice can never be attained if vulnerable
segments of the population-young people, low-income communities,
and people of color-continue to be pushed out of the political
process, and if the wealthy can dominate our political processes
with financial power. In addition, it is to the advantage of conservatives
to have a narrow, distorted, and bleached electorate. To the degree
that America's electorate truly reflects America's breadth and
diversity, then the needs and aspirations of that true majority
will become the focus and the direction of our democracy and our
politics. If that isn't worth working on, it's hard to say what
Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols
The American people know they are getting
less information than they had before about decisions that are
being made in their name, and they know that we are passing some
critical points where, if we don't act, citizens are not going
to have the information they need to function in a democracy."
... Republicans now have more governors
(R28-D22), more legislative chambers (R53-D45), more controlled
legislatures (R2l-DI7), and more partisan legislative seats (R3684-D3626).
Representative Jan Schakowsky
Clearly the Right has a number of tools
at its disposal right now that we don't have.
1. They control the White House and are
placing ideologues at every level of the administration, the Senate
and House and much of the judiciary.
They control large swaths of the media
and that creates a very effective echo chamber for all their initiatives
and smear campaigns. And Federal Communications Commission wants
to lift most restrictions on consolidation to allow the Foxification
and Clear Channelization of even more.
3. They have most of the money, and their
corporate agenda and tax cuts for the rich ensure that will continue.
4. They lie with impunity. Let's face
it. They're liars. They lied about the reason they took our sons
and daughters to war. They spend millions of dollars in campaign
ads saying they are for a prescription drug benefit under Medicare
while they work to destroy Medicare and replace it with private
plans and HMOs. They call their dirty air legislation "Clear
Skies" and their plan to give the timber companies our trees,
"Healthy Forests." They call their job-killing economic
program a "jobs program." They say they are for peace
when they are for war. Millions of children are left behind under
their miserly "No Child Left Behind" education bill.
They tout a child tax credit for working families and then silently
drop it in favor of more tax cuts for millionaires.
5. And perhaps most important, they are
unafraid and unabashed and unapologetic about pushing their right-wing
agenda, no matter what. They are always playing offense. I used
to think, oh they can't be serious about this or that-another
huge tax cut, eliminating Title IX, continuing tax breaks for
companies that move their offices to Bermuda, locking up immigrants
indefinitely without due process, using Federal dollars to build
churches-it's just a trial balloon. Forget that. They mean what
they say and they don't give up until they get it.