Democrats appear poised to take over the U.S. House of Representatives. At the top of their agenda should be policies designed to introduce more democracy into the “people’s house.”
Change is certainly needed. Our constitutional framers designed the U.S. House to be the branch of government with the most power and one where every member had to be elected by the people. It was the place for democracy in our system, in contrast to having presidents picked by an Electoral College and U.S. senators by state legislators.
But the reality is that the U.S. House now is more reflective of the former Soviet Union than a democracy. There has been one shift of partisan control in more than five decades, spanning 26 elections and a period of time when the presidency shifted between the major parties six times. Providing for real accountability must be a priority.
Changing the ugly traditions of recent congressional leaders, we hope that Democrats would run the House with more openness to ideas for policies regardless of their source. The minority party should be able to propose amendments, earmarks should be banned or at least open to full disclosure, and substantial bills should allow time for review and deliberation.
But the ultimate source of accountability is how we run and structure elections. It’s high time to modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms. Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy. Consider these proposals:
1) Have an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution. Sixty Democrats have already signed onto House Joint Resolution 28, a proposal to establish an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution. We should make protection of our right to vote a national concern, one demanding as many protections as that other great pillar of democracy, our right to free speech.
2) Make election officials nonpartisan and held accountable. It hardly matters whether the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy or accountable for their actions. Secretaries of state overseeing presidential elections in 2004 in three battleground states-Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan-were co-chairs of their state’s George Bush reelection campaigns. In Missouri the secretary of state was running for governor and oversaw elections for his own race! Not to mention a highly partisan Republican secretary of state ran elections in Florida, and a partisan Democrat did so in New Mexico. A Mexican observer of the 2004 election commented, “That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me.” Election administrators should be civil servants who have a demonstrated proficiency with technology, running elections and making the electoral process transparent and secure. If they make mistakes, they should face consequences.
3) Create a national elections commission. The U.S. leaves election administration to administrators in over 3,000 counties and nearly 10,000 municipalities scattered across the nation with few standards and little uniformity. This is a formula for unfair elections. Most established democracies use national elections commissions to establish minimum national standards and uniformity, and to partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and post-election accountability for their election plans. The Elections Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act is a pale version of this and should be strengthened greatly.
4) Have universal voter registration. We lack a system of universal voter registration in which citizens who turn 18 years of age automatically are registered to vote by election authorities. This is the practice used by most established democracies, giving them voter rolls far more complete and clean than ours-in fact, a higher percentage of Iraqi adults are registered to vote than American adults. Universal voter registration in the U.S. is now possible as result of the Help America Vote Act which mandated that all states must establish statewide voter databases. Doing so would add 50 million voters to the rolls, a disproportionate share being young people and people of color.
5) Use “public interest” voting equipment. Currently voting equipment is suspect, undermining confidence in our elections. The proprietary software and hardware are created by shadowy companies with partisan ties who sell equipment by wining and dining election administrators with little knowledge of voting technology. The government should oversee the development of publicly- owned or at least publicly- controlled software and hardware, contracting with the sharpest minds in the private sector. And then that open-source voting equipment should be deployed throughout the nation to ensure that every county-and every voter-is using the best equipment. Other nations already do this with positive results.
6) Hold elections on a weekend or make them a national holiday. We vote on a busy workday instead of on a national holiday or weekend (like most other nations do), creating a barrier for 9-to-5 workers and also leading to a shortage of poll workers and polling places. Puerto Rico typically has the highest voter turnout in the United States, and makes Election Day a holiday.
7) Ending redistricting shenanigans by adopting proportional voting. Most legislators choose their voters during the redistricting process, long before those voters get to choose them. More than 98 percent of U.S. House incumbents won re-election in every House election from 1998 through 2004, with more than 90 percent of all races won by noncompetitive margins. The driving factor is not campaign finance inequities but winner-take-all elections compounded by rigged legislative district lines. As a start, redistricting must be nonpartisan, driven by nonpolitical criteria. But by far the most important solution is a proportional voting system that would make voters more important than district lines.
8) Hold instant runoff voting. Our “highest vote-getter wins” method of electing executive offices creates incentives to keep third-party candidates off the ballot as potential spoilers. Our current plurality system is not designed to accommodate three or more choices, allowing important policy areas to be completely ignored by major party candidates. Most modern democracies accommodate voter choice through two-round runoff or instant runoff elections for executive offices. Instant runoff voting has been introduced with sparkling success in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., keeps winning at the ballot box and has the support of both leading Democrats like Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and Barack Obama and leading Republicans like John McCain. Three major November campaigns this year would replace primary elections with one majority, spoiler-free election in November-a change Congress could adopt by statute for all their elections.
Perhaps we can’t win all these reforms at once, but we can make advances if we keep our eye on the prize and pursue opportunities that emerge. By taking real action, Democrats can take a giant step toward earning the faith and respect of voters from across the spectrum. Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or independent, you can be part of one big
party: The “Better Democracy” party.
Steven Hill directs the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation and is author of Ten Steps to Repair American Democracy. Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote.