Bring Democracy Home

by Katrina Vanden Huevel

The Nation magazine, November 20, 2006


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 trail.

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 the vote?

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 for elections.

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 laws.

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

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