Twelve Ways to Democratize
the U.S. Political System
by Deborah James
from the book
Democratizing the Global Economy
Kevin Danaher - editor
Common Courage Press 2001
The United States is the most powerful nation on the planet.
Thus, U.S. residents have a special responsibility to democratize
their own society, and in so doing, contribute to democratizing
the global economy. Most Americans want a government that is truly
of, by, and for the people, where community interests are prioritized
above corporate interests.
We believe the following changes would move us in the direction
of a more participatory democracy, in which people could influence
policymaking regardless of the size of their bank accounts.
1. Demand full public funding of political campaigns at federal,
state, and local levels.
In 1998, winning candidates in the Senate spent nearly twice
as much as their opponents, and in House races three times as
much. In 1996,92 percent of House races and 88 percent of Senate
races were won by the candidate who spent the most on the election.
We need to rein in political contributions, especially unregulated
soft money donations to parties. In 1996, the Democratic and Republican
parties raised $260 million in soft money contributions. That
number was expected to triple for the 2000 presidential election.
We need a political system in which candidates who agree to forego
private contributions and accept spending limits receive full
public funds to run for office. We need comprehensive campaign
finance reform that eliminates the need for fundraising, provides
a financially level playing field for candidates, and closes loopholes.
We should also promote a constitutional amendment acknowledging
that money is not speech.
2. Abolish the electoral college.
The President is elected-not directly by voters-but by the
Electoral College. Only 26 states require electors to follow the
popular vote. Most state constitutions award electoral votes on
a winner-take-all basis. For instance, if 48 percent of a state's
voters vote for a Democrat and 47 percent vote for a Republican,
and the state has six electoral votes, all six of that state's
votes go to the Democratic candidate. Three times historically,
the electoral college elected presidents who ran second in popular
votes. This could happen again in a close race. The electoral
college should be abolished to allow direct Presidential elections.
3. Promote third parties to create a multi-party democracy.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties support major corporate
interests at the expense of the public. For real debate and democracy,
we need more parties representing a broader range of interests.
Many Americans abstain from voting because they are alienated
by the two mainstream parties, whose candidates are pre-selected
by wealthy contributors. We should make it easier for third parties
to get on the ballot, participate in debates, get media coverage
and receive public funding.
4. Promote ethics, disclosure, and information sharing.
Political appointees are far too often large campaign contributors,
representing commercial interests rather than the public interest.
The public needs complete, timely and accessible information about
government appointments. We need stronger federal anti-bribery
and gratuity statutes to ensure that special interests cannot
use gifts to gain favor with public officials. Comprehensive and
detailed financial disclosure by public officials is needed to
help prevent conflicts of interest. We need to stop the revolving
door between government and corporations.
5. Institute proportional representation and instant runoff
Our legislative elections are based on winner-take-all districts,
meaning that the one candidate who gets a plurality of votes becomes
the sole representative of that district. Minority viewpoints
aren't represented in Congress or in state legislatures because
new parties and perspectives are effectively shut out. With proportional
representation, parties would receive seats in proportion to the
percentage of votes received. All voters are represented-not just
those voting for the winner. Small parties can win seats, so political
debate becomes broader, new issues can be introduced more easily,
and more people come out to vote. This system is used by most
of the world's democracies and should be instituted in the United
States. When voting for a single position, as in a presidential
race, we should use the instant runoff system, in which voters
rank candidates in order of preference. If your first choice does
not receive a majority, your second choice is counted, and so
on. This encourages people to vote for their preferred candidate
without fear of "wasting" their vote.
6. Democratize media access.
Television and radio greatly influence the public's ideas
about candidates and their positions. The candidates, in turn,
require millions of dollars in contributions to buy political
advertisements and reach the citizenry. The public has the right
to hear all viewpoints regardless of the funds available to the
candidates. Radio airwaves and television channels are public
property. We must democratize access to the media by providing
free or reduced-cost radio and television time to all candidates.
7. Educate citizens to participate in the democratic process.
An educated citizenry is an essential element of a true democracy.
We need to realign national budgetary priorities to ensure that
all citizens attain an educational level that would allow a true
democracy to flourish. We need to provide civic education that
encourages active participation in the democratic process beyond
just voting, so that elected officials are accountable to the
majority's interests rather than corporate interests.
8. Reduce wealth inequality.
Inequality in economic power distorts the democratic process.
In a system where money controls politics, the concerns of poor
people, particularly people of color, are not adequately addressed.
People who are struggling to survive often do not have the time,
education, or resources to fully participate in the political
process. We need a national living wage so that all citizens have
the opportunity to take part in our democracy.
9. End discrimination in the criminal justice system.
Discrimination in the criminal justice system distorts democracy.
As our judicial system continues to arrest, prosecute, and convict
people of color at disproportionately higher rates than whites,
and incarcerated people are barred from exercising their right
to vote, communities of color are further marginalized. Twelve
states ban former prisoners from voting, for life. No other country
in the world permanently disenfranchises ex-offenders. Close to
four million Americans are now excluded from the political process,
including roughly 13 percent of the country's African American
men. We need to repeal laws that disenfranchise former prisoners
to allow them to have a stake in the democratic process.
10. Institute voting and citizenship rights for immigrants.
Citizenship and voting constitute the most fundamental rights
of our society, and no one who lives here permanently should be
denied those rights. The Constitution gives states the right to
determine the qualifications for voting. In the nineteenth century
some states granted non-citizen immigrants the right to vote in
elections. Immigrants should have the right to vote or to become
citizens within one year. The U.S. should also join other countries
in recognizing dual citizenship in order to make it easier for
immigrants to participate in our society without having to repudiate
11. Make voting easy.
Politicians tell us that the United States is the world's
leading democracy, but most countries have higher rates of voter
turnout. Only 38 percent of eligible voters participated in the
1998 elections-and only 17.4 percent voted in the 1998 primaries.
Apathy and cynicism increasingly threaten our democracy. Voter
apathy is caused by a combination of factors, including corporate
control of politics through campaign contributions, lack of diversity
in parties and candidates, and logistical hurdles to voting. Voter
registration should be easy, available until the day before an
election, and automatic every time we move. We should have voter
identification cards-not driver's licenses-as our primary means
of citizen identification. Voter registration drives should reach
out to register people in communities of color and poor communities
who have been traditionally marginalized from the electoral process.
Election day should be a national holiday, or on the weekend.
12. Ensure freedom of political expression.
People should have the right to express their political opinions
without fear of state repression. Police officers should work
to ensure that our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech,
including political protest, are guaranteed. Police should be
prevented from harassing, intimidating, or using violence against
the Global Economy
Reforming the System