The Mainstream Crying For Election Reform
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The day following Election 2004, retiring NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw indicated the need for strong national standards in how we count the votes. In an unusually serious interview with David Letterman, Brokaw said point blank, "We've gotta fix the election system in this country."
In a message to supporters, former presidential candidate John Kerry echoed this sentiment, calling for new "national standards" for elections and saying "It's unacceptable that people still don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process." In Ohio, Reverend Jesse Jackson also called for reform, emphasizing the need for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, a right guaranteed by most established democracies. Every returning member of the Congressional Black Caucus has signed onto Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HJR 28 to provide a constitutional right to vote.
The 2004 elections underscore the urgent demand to modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms. Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy and remain vulnerable to electoral breakdowns.
Consider these reforms:
1) Non-partisan election officials. At the top of the list must be nonpartisan election officials. It hardly matters whether the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy. The secretaries of state overseeing elections in three battleground states – Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan – were co-chairs of their state's George Bush reelection campaigns. In Missouri, that Secretary of State was running for governor – he oversaw elections for his own race! A highly partisan Republican Secretary of State ran elections in Florida, as did a partisan Democrat 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.
2) National elections commission. The U.S. leaves election administration to administrators in over 3000 counties scattered across the nation with too few standards or 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.
3) 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 by 2006. It would add 50 million voters to the rolls, a disproportionate share being young people and people of color.
4) "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 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.
5) Holiday/weekend elections. 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.
6) Ending redistricting shenanigans by adopting full representation. Most legislators choose their voters during the redistricting process, long before those voters get to choose them. 98% of U.S. House incumbents again won re-election, and 95% of all races were 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 non-partisan, driven by nonpolitical criteria. But by far the best solution is full representation electoral systems which make voters far more important than district lines.
7) Abolish the Electoral College. The Electoral College enables presidential campaigns to almost completely ignore most states. It allows a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states to decide the presidency, inviting corruption and partisan election administration. It can deny the presidency to the candidate with the most votes. We need to support Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HR 109, to institute direct election of the president with a majority victory threshold.
8) Pry open our democracy. Our "highest vote-getter wins" method of electing executive offices creates incentives to keep third-party candidates off the ballot as potential spoilers. Battles over Ralph Nader's ballot access demonstrated that our system is not designed to accommodate three or more choices, yet important policy areas can be completely ignored by major party candidates. Most modern democracies accommodate voter choice through two-round runoff or instant runoff elections for executive offices, and full representation electoral systems for legislatures. Instant runoff voting had a great first election in San Francisco this November and passed in other places like Burlington, Vermont and Ferndale, Michigan.
A number of organizations are highlighting reform packages, among them Progressive Democrats of America and Common Cause. 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. We urge people to visit FairVote's website at fairvote.org to find out how to get involved. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or independent, you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.
Steven Hill is Irvine Senior Fellow for the New America Foundation and author of " Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics ." Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy .