6 Things We Need To Do To Repair America's Crumbling Democracy
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3. Get Partisans Out Of A Public Process
It’s also astounding how many avoidable conflicts of interest can be found in elections. Secretaries of state who are arch partisans should not be overseeing elections—issuing rules on who can vote and how ballots will or won’t count. The private companies that make or repair voting machines should not have owners or workers with ties to candidates and tickets. Machinery that cannot do recounts shouldn’t be used—period.
One distinction that is often missed is that not every government official in elections is a rabid member of that state’s Democratic Party or GOP. We need to distinguish between committed partisans, who are politicians, and career civil servants, who run the details. Many state and county election directors are dedicated to a fair process. We saw that in Florida this summer, when county election supervisors pushed back against their Tea Party governor and his partisan secretary of state who falsely claimed that there were 180,000 non-citizens on Florida voter rolls, to scare off Latino voters.
Elections need to be run by non-partisans. Wisconsin arguably provides the best example of how to do this right. There, a bipartisan panel of ex-judges oversees its elections and recounts, and has a reputation for fairness. Taking the avowed partisans and conflicts of interest out of elections will raise the process’ credibility. That’s a big deal because with more public trust comes clearer mandates for governing—no matter who wins.
4. Put The Public Back In A Public Process
Making elections more of a public process doesn’t just mean enrolling all eligible voters and removing the private sector from our electoral process. It also means improving polling place operations by raising the bar on training the several million volunteers who will serve as poll workers across the country in every election.
The most obvious solution here is turning to high school and college students. Today’s typical poll worker—a retiree who did not grow up on computers—needs help. There is no better way to get new generations to care about the process and feel like they have a stake in elections. It’s not glamorous work, but it is vital. In fact, right-wing groups are trying to fill this void by training their version of poll-watcher vigilantes. That’s not what’s needed, but it does speak to the need to have better workers on the frontline.
Voting in America must be made more accessible and reliable. But democratic renewal will not happen unless there is a further rebalancing of public and private interests in our political campaigns. The other major area that needs fundamental restructuring is how private wealth distorts the electoral process and drowns out real debate. Right-wingers defend today’s campaign finance abusers by saying that voters benefit when there is "unrestrained" political speech. But one-way shouting matches—or TV ad wars where minority views are never heard—are not democratic debates.
Campaign finance reformers have the most powerful opponent in America—the U.S. Supreme Court’s current corporatist majority. But just as 2011’s Occupy movement put pressure on politicians and the Court, prompting key justices to speak out about their rulings in public, the only thing that can unravel this Goliath are voters rejecting the fabricated legal doctrines that serve the wealthy more than average citizens.
5. Reverse Citizens United and Related Campaign Deregulation
The campaign lawyers and lobbyists who create the latest loopholes in campaign finance law can only do so because the Supreme Court has taken away Congress’ power to regulate how money is raised and spent in campaigns. It wasn’t always this way. There’s never been a "Garden of Eden" when American politics wasn’t dirty. But over two centuries, American democracy had become more participatory and transparent, until we started backsliding in the 1970s. It’s very simple: either Congress does or doesn’t have power to regulate money in campaigns and elections. Either the government can or cannot limit the political power of wealthy individuals or massive industries.