The Democracy We Deserve
by Miles S. Rapoport
The American Prospect magazine.
The 2000 election co-founded those who
have blamed the flaws in our democracy on apathetic voters, apolitical
young people, and a generalized culture of disengagement. More
than 120 million citizens cast ballots, a turnout of 60 percent
of eligible voters. When something important is at stake, voters
will brave barriers.
Unfortunately, the large turnout took
place despite our election procedures. If the 2000 debacle in
Florida showed that we had to modernize the machines used for
voting and improve the shoddy list management used to qualify
voters, the 2004 elections have given us a new set of procedural
reforms necessary for us to have confidence in our election administration.
The chaotic, crazy-quilt election administration, run all too
often by people with a partisan bent, is a national embarrassment.
In the end, we need to summon the national resources and the national
will to create and enforce national standards for national elections.
In addition to the litany of concrete reforms recounted in Tova
Wang's excellent companion article, we need to address a larger
unfulfilled agenda aimed at encouraging every eligible American
to vote and creating a democracy where citizens have real choices
and a real voice in determining our future.
ELIMINATING REGISTRATION BARRIERS
Voter registration mainly functions as
a needless barrier to participation. There are several key steps
we can take to make registration more accessible, if not automatic.
Full Implementation of the National Voter
Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993.
The NVRA had three major elements. The first, which gave the law
its common name of "Motor Voter;' requires states to allow
people to register when they get driver's licenses. The second
authorizes mail-in voter registration. The third, the least widely
known but the strongest impetus for the law in the first place,
requires state agencies providing human services to register voters
and give citizens assistance. While the motor-voter and mail-in
parts of the law have generally been well utilized, the social-service
component has not. The most recent Federal Election Commission
studies show that the number of voters registered at social-service
agencies is very low compared with driver's license offices. Simple
changes in procedure at offices offering food stamps, welfare,
Medicaid, or disability benefits, whether state agencies or privatized
service providers, could help millions of people register over
the next four years.
In 2004, participation rates in the six states that already have
election-day registration were an astonishing 14.1-percent higher
than states without it. The top four states in voting turnout-Minnesota,
Maine, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, in that order-all have election-day
registration. By definition, provisional ballots are virtually
unnecessary in such states. Compliance with the HAVA mandate of
a well-maintained statewide computerized database, required nationwide
by 2006, would make election-day registration even easier.
The requirement that citizens register before voting goes back
in the South to Reconstruction days, and in the North to the era
of mass immigration a century ago. The intent was to discourage
voting; ours should be to encourage it. Voting need not be a two-step
process whose burden falls on the individual citizen. In many
European countries, citizens are automatically registered to vote
when they turn 18. Thinking long term, a system that makes registration
automatic without creating an intrusive and intimidating national-identity
structure ought to be an achievable goal.
MAKING VOTING CONVENIENT
In addition to making it complicated to
register, our system discourages the act of voting. The hours-long
lines for voting in Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere are prima facie
evidence. We have a quaint myth that it is a wonderful "civic
exercise" to have one day (and a working Tuesday at that)
where everyone goes to the polls. But the reality is democratic
in form but undemocratic in content. Who remembers with any nostalgia
racing to the bank on Friday afternoon and waiting in line for
two hours to get cash for the weekend? And what if your employer
won't give you several hours off during the day? The real civic
exercise is exercising the right to vote, and we ought to make
that act as accessible as possible.
Early Voting. In 30 states this year,
voting began well before election day. Several states enacted
early voting as part of their HAVA implementation plans, and millions
of people took advantage of this option. One reason why Florida
was not even more chaotic on election day was that 2.3 million
people had already voted, about 30 percent of the total votes
Mail-In Balloting. If people know how
they want to cast their ballot, why shouldn't they be able to
do so from home, a privilege already extended everywhere to the
elderly, people who are ill, and American citizens overseas? Oregon
has taken mail-in balloting even further by automatically sending
mail-in ballots to all registered voters, but it has unfortunately
gone one step too far by eliminating precinct-based voting on
election day. A combination of mail-in balloting, early voting,
and the opportunity to register and vote at local polling places
on election day itself would maximize participation.
An Election-Day Holiday. Recommended by
the Carter-Ford Commission after 2000, an election-day holiday
would not just increase turnout; it would allow people to serve
as poll workers for the day, educate their children, and get more
involved generally. It is a holiday now for some unionized workers
such as United Auto Workers members. Why not for all of us?
ELIMINATING UNFAIR EXCLUSIONS
The principal reason for the decline in
voting percentages between 1980 and 2000 (voting declined in every
one of those elections except 1992) was the elimination from eligibility
of an ever-greater percentage of adults. The number of citizens
barred from voting because of a prior felony conviction increased
from roughly 1 million in 1980 to 4.6 million in 2000. In addition,
the number of foreign-born noncitizens is now 17.5 million, the
highest number since 1920.
Restoration of Voting Rights. Substantial
strides have actually been made in mitigating the harsh exclusionary
policies for people with felony convictions, an issue with significant
racial and partisan overtones. Since the 1999 report of The Sentencing
Project documented the magnitude of the issue, and especially
since the permanent exclusion of more than 600,000 people in Florida
arguably made the difference in the 2000 election, this issue
has gotten more attention. Ten states have made more people eligible
for restoration of their voting rights, from minor improvements
in administrative processes in Virginia and Florida to changes
in the law to allow people on probation to register and vote in
Connecticut. But absent more fundamental reforms, the number of
excluded could go higher than its current appalling peak of 4.7
million, including 30 percent of African American men in Florida,
Alabama, and other states. We need many more legislative and administrative
changes as well as federal supervision of purge lists, which have
been abused in Florida and elsewhere. We need strong public-education
campaigns to ensure that people know when their voting eligibility
New Americans. Large numbers of legal
immigrants to this country still wait for extended periods to
become citizens. If the naturalization process were more efficient,
many people ready for citizenship would become voters. In addition,
we should consider some forms of voting representation for people
who are not yet citizens. Many European countries permit dual
citizenship. We exclude large numbers of long-standing residents
from participating in the decisions that affect them and their
children, even as they pay taxes and serve in the U.S. Army. Several
localities already allow voting rights to noncitizens, which is
constitutionally - I p permissible, for school-board - and other
local elections. Taxation Without Representation. No listing of
exclusions from our democracy would be '4 complete without remembering
P J that the citizens of Washington, 1. D.C., have no voting representation
in Congress. This is an exclusion with no justification save pure
partisan and racial politics, : disenfranchising citizens whose
only crime is their home city. REAL VOICE, REAL CHOICE -, Our
democracy has become rigged in many respects, so that even when
votes are counted, in all too many cases they do not meaningfully
count. Even though the country is narrowly divided, few citizens
can hope to affect their members of Congress because of noncompetitive
races, limited candidate choices, and the overarching influence
of private money.
Redistricting. Congressional districting
has become a devil's bargain of incumbent protection by Republicans
and Democrats alike. In the House of Representatives, only 30
seats nationally were considered competitive this year. In California
in 2002, not one of the 53 congressional seats up for re-election
was seriously contested. Tom DeLay's new and disgraceful precedent
of redistricting midstream the minute a legislature is fully controlled
by one party has given gerrymandering a cynical partisan tilt.
Redistricting should be done by an independent commission, so
that districts are drawn by logic and numbers and not by partisan
desire and incumbent protection.
Getting on the Ballot. Access rules are
often barriers to candidates, thus limiting choices voters might
otherwise have. In many states, requirements are overly stringent
and the conditions for qualifying as a political party are even
more daunting. In the states that allow "fusion," or
the cross-endorsement of candidates by more than one party, a
minor party can grow and encourage people to join without automatically
splintering votes from major-party candidates. Instant-runoff
voting, which had a successful trial this fall in San Francisco,
is another way that candidates can compete and people can choose
to vote for them without creating "spoiler" situations.
MOVING FORWARD, IN CONGRESS AND THE STATES
For the second election in a row, procedural
issues were a critical part of the debate and the drama. Despite
the national sigh of relief that a second consecutive meltdown
did not occur, we came far too close. If the Republicans had put
into frill operation their plans to systematically challenge black
voters, there could have been chaos at the polls and endless litigation.
If places with unauditable electronic machines had been razor
close, the legitimacy of the results would have been far more
in doubt. If it hadn't rained in Ohio, the provisional ballots
would have determined the election after three weeks of hand-to-hand
combat over the count, which in turn would have invited challenges
in other states as well.
Significant debates will take place in
Congress. The bill for a voter-verified paper trail for all electronic
machines, as urged by Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, will
resurface. Key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will
come up for reauthorization in 2007. The civil-rights community
is well aware of how critical the Voting Rights Act protections
can be. Conversely, many politicians in the Deep South and beyond
hope to weaken the federal monitoring role.
HAVA must be revisited and amended. In
essence, Congress did not address the larger problem of the decentralized
nature of our entire election system. By design, HAVA was a weak
piece of legislation, failing to clarify how computerized voting
lists and provisional ballots were to be implemented and limiting
the authority of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the
agency created to implement the act.
Though HAVA was passed in October of 2002,
President Bush did not appoint the SAC commissioners until December
2003. In addition, though the act authorized $10 million for administration
of the EAC, only $1.2 million was actually appropriated. This
has meant all kinds of delays and difficulties. At this writing,
the commission still has no executive director. It appears that
the four commissioners have tried to do their work well under
difficult circumstances. If the commission is given finding and
increased authority, some of the issues that came up this year
can be resolved.
Congress should address the need for both
national standards and a more robust enforcing authority. If not,
more decision making will fall to the states. Until HAVA is amended,
individual state election officials and legislatures must decide
what machinery to use; how to implement the mandated computerization
of registration lists; how to deal with list purges; how to implement
voting-rights restoration laws, provisional ballot counting, and
identification requirements for new and existing voters; and many
other things besides. But our states lack the resources to ensure
the integrity and equality of our electoral system. For instance,
it is simply not possible for each state to assure itself that
the electronic equipment it is purchasing is impervious to failure
or tampering. The Election Assistance Commission needs to play
a larger role in setting standards and evaluating the machinery
and its testing process.
But, while more national authority is
needed administratively, at the broader policy level, states have
indeed been laboratories for democracy. Maine, for instance, has
led the way in enacting election-day registration, public financing
of campaigns, allowing voting rights even for people in prison,
and proportional allocation of presidential electors. Nevada has
been a leader in acquiring electronic voting machines with paper
trails and has accomplished better voter registration in social
service agencies than most other states. Other states have been
better known for their failures and controversies than for their
successes, and will be under major pressure for change.
Reformers need to join with secretaries
of state and legislators who care about making democracy work
to develop and enact a real agenda of reforms. One element is
the necessary administrative repairs, like computerized voter
lists, adequate poll-worker compensation and training, reliable
and auditable voting machines, and provisional ballot standards.
But in addition, we need bold thinking and action to genuinely
open up the democratic process so that everyone has the fullest
opportunity to join in. Election-day registration, early voting,
and generally wider opportunities to east ballots should head
the list, as well as liberalizing voting-rights restoration, encouraging
youth participation, and changing procedures to expand voters'
choices and voices.
There is reason for optimism about the
prospects for reform. These issues moved from the margins to the
center of the debate after the 2000 election, and after this year's
election they are there to stay. Not only traditional reformers
but thousands of newly energized activists and a sensitized media
experienced the frailty of the system firsthand, and they want
to work for change. Elected officials at the state level, whatever
their party, know that shoddy election administration casts doubt
on the competence and legitimacy of the political system itself.
In addition, after this year's results, it is not axiomatic that
one party or the other benefits from higher or lower turnout.
All this should create an opportunity
for bipartisan support for reform that both opens up the process
and administers it competently. And progressives, who care passionately
about the issues decided by our democracy, need the patience and
the determination to protect and broaden our democracy and make
it work on behalf of all.
Miles S. Rapoport is the president of
Demos, a national research and advocacy organization. He was Connecticut's
secretary of the state from 1995 to 1998 and served 10 years in
the Connecticut Legislature.
Reforming the Electoral Process