Bring Democracy Home
by Katrina Vanden Huevel
The Nation magazine, November
Former President Jimmy Carter, who is
arguably more identified with the struggle to guarantee free and
fair elections than anyone in the world, gets an interesting response
these days when he talks about observing voting overseas. "The
Carter Center has monitored more than fifty elections, all of
them held under contentious, troubled or dangerous conditions,"
he says. "When I describe these activities, either in the
US or in foreign forums, the almost inevitable questions are Why
don't you observe the election in Florida? and How do you explain
the serious problems with elections there?"
The American people are waking up and
realizing that for all the Bush Administration's talk of promoting
democracy abroad, the US electoral system fails to do the same
at home. With the approach of the midterm elections, there is
justified alarm about how easy it is to hack electronic voting
machines and that in many states these machines have no paper
While it is heartening to see the increased
focus on the vulnerabilities and flaws of these machines, these
are not the only problems that cry out for reform. What about
voting districts that are rigged to be uncompetitive? What about
loopholes in campaign finance law that give corporations huge
influence over legislation? What about partisan secretaries of
state who decide who can vote and which votes will be counted?
What about modern-day Jim Crow laws and tactics that suppress
Isn't it time we did some democracy promotion
at home? Here are ten ideas for how to repair and strengthen our
broken voting system:
1._Establish an election day holiday.
Our nation has one of the lowest voter-participation rates in
the world. Puerto Rico, where election day is a holiday, has one
of the highest. Shouldn't we make this basic commitment so that
it is as easy as possible for voters to get to the polls?
2._Establish national standards for elections.
As voting rights activist Steven Hill points out, "Election
management in the United States amounts to a decentralized hodgepodge
of over 3,000 counties and 9,000 townships with few national standards
to guide them." We need to set standards for all aspects
of our elections, from voting machines, to provisional ballots,
to paper trails, to poll worker training, to voter protection.
The creation of the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) through
the Help America Vote Act of 2002 was a step in the right direction.
But the EAC must be empowered to determine and enforce crucial
reforms, and these reforms should not be unfunded mandates.
We need a real, ongoing federal commitment to helping states pay
3._Promote and protect the right to vote.
An MIT/CalTech study in 2001 estimated that 3 million voters were
disenfranchised because of registration problems. One good solution
is Election Day Registration. Six states currently use EDR, and
voter turnout is 8 to 15 percentage points higher than the national
average. Where there are registration or ID problems, voters should
be permitted to cast provisional ballots, and every provisional
ballot cast by an eligible voter should be counted. Finally, statewide
voter databases must be accurate and complete. No voter should
be removed from the list without notification and the opportunity
to contest the removal.
4._Require reliable voting machines and
a paper trail. We have seen that electronic voting machines can
be hacked and votes altered. But there is no requirement for a
paper trail so that these flawed machines can be audited. Is there
any reason our ATMs should provide receipts but our voting machines
shouldn't? Representative Rush Holt has introduced legislation
that would require all voting systems to provide a voter-verified
paper trail that would serve as the official ballot for recounts
and audits. Also, impartial security experts should have access
to the voting machine software for quality assurance. Finally,
the EAC should establish standards for voting technology and update
them as necessary.
5._Require nonpartisan election management.
It is an outrage that in 2000 Bush's Florida campaign co-chair
Katherine Harris oversaw that state's elections, or that this
year in Ohio Ken Blackwell is overseeing the election while running
for governor. Election officials should be barred from participation
in election campaigns. We need to establish strict conflict-of-interest
6._Make voting easy and trustworthy. Poll
workers need rigorous training in voting regulations and in assisting
non-English-speaking voters and voters with disabilities. Sites
should be wheelchair accessible and offer instructions in braille
and large print and with audio. Minimum standards need to be established
about numbers of poll workers and voting systems at every site
so that all voters, regardless of income or race, are treated
equally. Voters should receive written information about their
voting rights when they register and when they vote. Further,
challenging the eligibility of voters for partisan gain must be
stopped and prosecuted. Observers should not merely be permitted
but encouraged to monitor polling places without notice. Exclusionary
practices like requiring voter IDs should be rejected.
7._Re-enfranchise citizens denied their
voting rights. Nearly 5 million Americans cannot vote because
of former felony convictions, and many states either permanently
deny former felons the right to vote or make it difficult for
that right to be restored. The right to vote should immediately
and automatically be returned after a person has served a sentence.
The United States remains the only industrial democracy that denies
former felons this right. If you have paid your debt to society,
you should be welcomed back into the process of shaping that society.
8._End the duopoly. Both parties are guilty
of redrawing Congressional district lines to protect incumbent
seats. Some suggest adopting the Iowa model, which uses nonpartisan
former judges to oversee redistricting. More important, we need
to move beyond our winner-take-all system. Some examples: proportional
representation, in which 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent
of the seats; instant-runoff voting, in which low-scoring candidates
are eliminated and their supporters' second-choice votes are added
to those who remain, until one candidate gets a majority; and
fusion voting, which allows two or more parties to nominate the
same candidate on separate ballot lines, so that people can support
third parties without worrying about a "wasted" vote.
All these plans help third-party candidates. And while we're at
it, let's end the two major parties' control of the debates by
setting FCC standards to assure that broadcasters cannot exclude
serious third-party candidates.
9._Establish a constitutional right to
vote. Most Americans don't realize that the right to vote is not
in our Constitution. At the moment, our voting system is separate
and unequal--consisting of thousands of different election jurisdictions.
If a right-to-vote amendment were adopted, it would allow citizens
to use the courts to demand equal protection of their right to
vote--a strategy that could be used to establish minimum national
standards for voting systems, fight disenfranchisement and insure
that all votes are counted correctly.
10._Fund campaigns publicly. Public funding
of elections through general revenues is the best investment America
can make in democracy. Big-money politics gives unfair influence
to the rich while undermining candidates with less money. It is
the antithesis of democracy.
The last two elections reveal why America
needs a democracy-reconstruction project. No matter which party
prevails November 7, small-d democrats must make these reforms
their top priority.
Reforming the Electoral Process