Seizing the Continuing Moment for Democracy Reform

by Miles Rapoport

excerpted from the book

Taking America Back

and taking down the radical right

edited and introduced by Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Robert L. Borosage

Nation Books, 2004


Seizing the Continuing Moment for Democracy Reform

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 long haul.


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 rights.

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.


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 average.

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 Convictions

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 Runoff Voting

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.


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 is.

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."

Joel Rogers

... 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.

Taking America Back

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