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 procedures.

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 their homeland.

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 peaceful protesters.

Democratizing the Global Economy

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"Third Worldization" of America

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