Silenced And Sidelined, Again

By Nell Greenberg and Chris Michael
Published June 30th 2005 in

Confidence in our democracy is slipping and our electoral systems are urgently in need of repair. It is in this context that a new Commission on Federal Election Reform has been created and will have the second of two hearings in Houston today, June 30. Co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III, this bipartisan commission is charged with recommending improvements to the nation’s federal election system. While a commission committed to spearheading electoral reform is welcome, this closed-door commission embodies several of the severe flaws and shortcomings of our current electoral system: insufficient transparency and marginal civic participation.

In its first hearing in April, only panelists invited by the American University’s Office of International Affairs had the opportunity to make presentations to the commissioners, and access by the general public was limited to a select audience that watched the hearings on a TV screen in a separate room. In addition to the lack of citizen participation and transparency, the choice of James Baker III has drawn criticism from election reform advocates. Baker—as no one can forget—is the man responsible for blocking the 2000 Florida recount on behalf of the Bush/Cheney campaign team. Appointing a leader with such a direct role in this nation’s biggest election controversy undermines the legitimacy of the commission’s proceedings and subsequent recommendations.

In the wake of two bitterly contested presidential elections, the commission’s responsibility should be to represent the interests of all the American people—particularly those who were disenfranchised by system flaws in 2000 and 2004. A commission that denies ordinary citizens an opportunity to participate betrays the democratic principles of participation and transparency essential to improving our electoral processes.  Consequently, the reforms that are recommended will exclude the most necessary voices and will be shaped by those who have access to the most privileges within that electoral system. 

Today, there is a nonpartisan, citizen-initiated hearing convening in Houston to address many of the problems encountered and documented during the November 2004 presidential election—which the Baker-Carter Commission is not scheduled to address. This shadow hearing works to provide a more complete picture of election problems to the American public and key state government officials by conducting panels noting the failures of election equipment, registration procedures, voter accessibility, vote processing systems, ballot accessibility, election auditing, election worker training, process transparency, election accuracy and process. Recommendations for electoral process reforms will be forwarded to the Carter-Baker Commission and the 50 secretaries of state for their consideration, prior to making purchasing decisions on voting equipment in compliance with the Help American Vote Act (HAVA) deadlines.

The American electorate is in dire need of a confidence boost, not only in their voting systems but also in the institutions that are taking initiative to help reform them. The list of reforms we need are clear:

  • Shocking as it sounds, American citizens do not have a constitutional right to vote. Congress should act immediately to pass a constitutional amendment affirming the right to vote for all citizens.
  • We must end the partisan administration of our elections. By doing so, we will join the majority of democracies worldwide, including the largest, India, to ensure that our elections are administered by independent, nonpartisan officials whose offices operate with a commitment to transparency and to eliminate voter suppression and intimidation.
  •  More than four million Americans in seven states are denied the right to vote as a result of laws that prohibit voting by felons or ex-felons. This fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in an estimated 13 percent of black men being unable to vote. It is time to re-enfranchise felons and ex-felons.
  • For voters to have confidence that their vote is being counted—correctly—we must guarantee all voters will see and confirm their vote from an auditable, voter-verified paper record that will be the ballot of record for all audits and recounts.
  • Parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress, need reauthorization in 2007. Reauthorization by Congress will extend scrutiny of cities and states with a history of segregation and legalized discrimination.
  • To end the “Buy An Election" game, we should follow the lead of Maine and Arizona and adopt publicly funded elections for qualified candidates; moreover, Congress should set standards for free, equal air time for candidates on the public airwaves.
  • We should also take note that the states with the highest voter turnout do not have arbitrary voter registration deadlines weeks before an election; rather, they allow Election Day registration to ensure all eligible voters have an opportunity to cast their ballot.

This list of reforms is a clear starting point to help expedite other needed reforms, such as districting policies that are more competitive and representative of the electorate, and the adoption of instant runoff voting and proportional representation.

We hope the Baker-Carter commission will not only open itself to greater public access and transparency, but that it will also take note of the citizen-led election assessment hearing in Houston. By doing so, the Baker-Carter commission’s recommendations may better promote the practical implementation of reforms that reflect the American ideals of participation by all.