Six fixes for American democracy

Voter suppression. Endless fundraising. Dysfunctional debates. The need for reform has never been stronger

Published October 22, 2012 9:57PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

As the 2012 election crests with all its chaos — billionaire-driven TV ad wars, legal fights over voter suppression tactics, endless fundraising e-mails and worries about stealing the vote — progressives need to remember what’s been destroying our democracy and what solutions are needed to restore the balance of power in America.

Now is the time to note precisely what’s wrong, what’s gotten worse and what’s completely broken in key corners of the electoral process. That’s because once the dust settles after Election Day, the impetus to fix things will wane among the political victors, media and much of the public, as it does after every big election. The winners will say there is not a problem because they won. The press will start covering the new administration. And weary voters will want to look ahead to solutions, not back to old problems.

That’s how our dysfunctional democracy may limp along until the next major election (the 2016 midterms) or a national crisis. But the first year of a presidential term is the most likely time that Congress might do anything on a big enough scale to touch the underlying problems because it’s the ebb tide in the electoral cycle.

So let’s look at what’s breaking or broken as we experience the final weeks of the 2012 campaign, and note where the solutions lie.

1. What Are 21st-Century Voting Rights?

For decades, progressives have asked where democratic renewal is supposed to begin. Some have argued for curbing the latest campaign finance abuses, such as billionaires dumping millions into federal races. Others have looked at the fact that tens of millions of eligible Americans won’t bother to vote. It’s not an either-or proposition. At the heart of these concerns is how political power is distributed and balanced.

This year, we have heard more about big money abuses than what a higher voter turnout would mean. But it’s clear that today’s pro-corporatist establishment could not last in an America where tens of millions more people of modest means voted. Twenty years ago, I started covering campaign finance issues. But as every election has brought new ways to flout federal laws and death-by-a-thousand-cut Supreme Court rulings, I am convinced that the only path to restoring our democracy is through the voting booth. The political class fears a truly engaged citizenry. Over the years, it has been forced to act on public demands when people are engaged.

Everything starts with voting. But Americans were reminded by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore that there is no individual right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Since then, many depressing things have happened to voting rights—almost all initiated by Republicans who want to preserve their power. Most obvious is the trend among states to limit ballot access by passing tougher voter ID laws to create a barrier to otherwise eligible voters. These laws add a new qualification to get a ballot: having a specific state-issued photo ID card. Previously, voter eligibility depended on one’s age, residency, citizenship and mental fitness.

At the same time, there is a parallel move by the GOP, with the Texas Republicans in the lead, to limit the federal government’s ability to protect voting rights. Texas has sued to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which gives the Justice Department power to say no to regressive changes in voting laws that affect minorities. That case will be heard by the Supreme Court after the election. These two trends pose one of the biggest questions spurred by the 2012 campaign: do Americans need a 21st-century statement of their constitutional right to vote as individuals? The answer is yes.

2. Can We Now Have Modern Elections?

Progressives want millions more people to vote. But those voters must be accommodated by the process, not impeded and tripped up at various stages of the vote.

Anyone who has looked at how elections are run outside the U.S. knows how backward key pillars of our election system are. Across the country, how voters register, how their files are managed, how they cast ballots, how their votes are counted or rejected, varies. Some states run elections uniformly from county to county but others don’t. Too many key counties in swing states use voting machines that can’t do recounts. These nuts and bolts are not a mess everywhere, but too much of the process doesn’t measure up to 21st-century standards.

There are recent reports—like Harper’s November cover story—telling readers to worry that 2012’s votes will be electronically stolen. That’s troubling, to be sure, but the same week that issue hit the newsstands came a report by academics at CalTech/MIT finding that several million votes have been lost in each recent presidential race by more mundane means: due to voter registration bureaucracy, poll worker error and uncounted ballots. That’s not a political conspiracy. That’s an underperforming system.

We can do better at both the beginning and the end of the process. Consider voter registration in Canada, where the federal government compiles and updates eligible voter lists. They don’t have different state deadlines, forms, ID laws, etc. In an era when the government and private sector already has everyone’s personal information, it’s absurd that eligible citizens must jump through bureaucratic hoops to register and to vote.

Part of the problem with modernizing voter registration is that elections have been among the least funded areas of government. Progressives will argue over whether government should enroll all eligible voters—as the Brennan Center suggests—or draw up voter lists and tell voters to take the last step, as the Pew Center on the States suggests. Either way, our voter registration system is an outdated outlier among modern democratic nations.

But it’s not just registration that’s inefficient. The actual machinery of voting is becoming increasingly obsolete with every election cycle. Congress’ last appropriation for voting technology was in 2002. How many nationwide information technology businesses rely on computers that are a decade old and stored in cold, drafty warehouses?

Here the solution will require a paradigm shift—starting with bringing an end to government reliance on a monopolistic and secretive private sector voting machinery industry. Suffice it to say that the firms that made off like bandits after Congress’ 2002 legislation have since been decimated by a federal oversight board’s failure to certify many of their products—often for good reason, as many paperless systems were found to be unreliable. The industry is in shambles today, producing little innovation. That lapse is an opportunity.

The technical answer to the worst electronic systems that flooded states after 2002—as seen in states like California—has been to phase out paperless systems, or only use them in very limited ways, such as for the handful of people with disabilities who show up in local polling places. The most reliable systems use a mix of hand-marked paper ballots and electronic counters. If the computers fail, then paper ballots can be recounted.

Every dozen or so years, Congress passes a major piece of voting legislation. It did that in 1993 with the "Motor Voter" law, expanding registration options, and in2002 in response to Florida’s presidential recount debacle. That threshold is approaching. The shift that is needed is getting the private sector out of the voting machinery business—or to vastly limit its involvement to building better systems based on work done by universities and non-partisan institutions. The voting machinery mess that we have in too many states today is due to local government officials being wined and dined by lobbyists selling shoddy systems after 2002. A handful of counties have developed their own voting systems. That’s the precedent to follow. Voting needs to be in public hands.

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.

What the Supreme Court has taken away can be restored in two ways: the president can appoint new justices who will reverse past rulings; or citizens can pressure Congress to send the states a constitutional amendment to restore that power to Congress. Without either of these actions, we are trapped in a worsening status quo. The legal doctrine and rhetoric is always framed as a fight about "free speech," but that’s incorrect. This big picture is who has more power: the citizenry or a tiny elite at the top. The 2012 campaign has shown how unbalanced the system has become.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 led to follow-up rulings that turned 2012 into a year when septuagenarian billionaires made politics into their version of an extreme sport. In response, there has been a nationwide grassroots effort calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Court’s decades of deregulation. This summer, a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee gave lip service to the issue by holding two hearings. President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both told small audiences that they support an amendment to restore Congress’ power—knowing how long and difficult that process may be. Yet it’s not something you’ll hear about in Obama’s stump speeches.

But that doesn’t mean grassroots pressure isn’t building. Across the country, many governments—nine state legislatures and hundreds of city councils—have told Congress to draft and pass such an amendment. This effort will continue after November. But this movement has some schisms that need to be bridged. One faction, with more support in Washington, wants to restore Congress’ power to regulate campaign cash. Another, with more local grassroots support, wants to strip corporations of constitutional rights that have been awarded by the courts, from the "speech" rights driving millions into campaigns to saying that government-ordered labels on their products is coerced speech—even if it is a health warning. These are not the same issues, and more analysis and education is needed.

But the big picture is that grassroots pressure is building for meaningful action. And after Election Day, progressives may have unexpected new allies—rural Republicans. Montana and Colorado will vote on ballot initiatives challenging theCitizens United status quo. If they pass, that would be due to support from these rural conservatives. Nothing bodes better for change than a growing bipartisan coalition.

6. Restore Public Financing and Public Debates on TV

It would be naïve to think that the private money in political campaigns will vanish—especially as the 21st century has more pathways than ever to reach people with tailored messaging. But a recent Supreme Court ruling that gutted Arizona’s public campaign finance formula—where candidates with a qualifying number of small donations and petition signatures get differing amounts of taxpayer money—did not entirely reject public financing. Publicly financed elections is still one of the best campaign finance reforms because it makes candidates and lawmakers less beholden to private wealth. Also, it creates a pathway to electoral power for non-wealthy candidates.

The other component of a pro-democracy agenda is getting TV networks to do what they once did—give more airtime to candidate debates. The current presidential debates are run by the two major parties, which excludes third-party candidates. In an era where private individuals and secretive groups are monopolizing the airwaves, and where the broadcasters are making record profits, federal regulators should insist that there be balance provided by more debates. Just look at how 2012’s first presidential debate upended that race’s dynamics. The first Obama-Romney debate showed how hungry the public was for a meaningful exchange and discussion of the issues facing the nation.

The Progressive Democracy Agenda

There is an arc that starts with affirming the individual right to vote, continues with making the voting process more open and accommodating, and extends into how our campaigns are financed and real debate is encouraged. The common thread in these issues is how citizens express and exert power in a capitalist society.

Nobody expects that American elections will become a utopian democratic dream. But the biggest solutions start with restoring the rights of average citizens to participate and not cower before society’s most wealthy and powerful individuals and institutions.

By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

MORE FROM Steven Rosenfeld

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Alternet Canada Citizens United George W. Bush Voter Suppression