Real Democracy Or Dystopia


By Steven Hill
Published February 15th 2007 in TomPaine.com

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

Imagine that it is Election Day 2016. Imagine yet another presidential election that boils down to the same two battleground states—Ohio and Florida—which is not unrealistic, given demographic trends.

Candidates will spend most of their time in these two states and perhaps a handful of other swing states, ignoring all others. Visits to our largest states like California, Texas and New York will be kept to fund-raising zip codes. Florida and Ohio electorates will be sliced and diced into bite-sized targets as TV viewers are bombarded with ads, most of them negative, making television virtually unwatchable for the final days of the campaign.

It’s a close race, and a well-known spoiler candidate threatens to wreck the majority mandate of the front-runners, haunting voters with a "lesser of two evils" dilemma: Do I vote my heart or my head? All campaign spin and hype is being directed toward the narrowest slices of voters, both the partisan base and undecided swing voters, which will determine the winner. Consequently, the nation's most important election has been dumbed down to a handful of parochial issues, leaving most voters feeling as if they are spectators in the 44th row.

In this 2016 presidential election, unfortunately, we never fixed the problems with election administration and voting equipment, and so out of 120 million voters nationwide, a change of only a few thousand or perhaps even a few hundred votes in either Ohio or Florida—whether by administrative miscues or fraud—can alter the outcome. Some conservative organizations are using various tricks to disenfranchise minority voters. A few states even tried passing English-language requirements for voters, and nearly succeeded. The 2016 electoral season already has resulted in dozens of lawsuits in Florida, Ohio and across the nation, ensuring that no matter which side wins, the nation, once again, will lose.

Not only that, but in the 2016 congressional elections, only 10 out of 435 district races are even remotely competitive; most are one-party fiefdoms. Congress passed a national law in 2011 mandating independent redistricting commissions in all states, yet it had very little impact. Republican and Democratic voters have become so bunkered down into their own red and blue residential patterns—liberals living in the cities, conservatives in the country—that the line-drawing process has become largely inconsequential. To counteract that, reformers managed to pass clean money/full public financing in a dozen states by 2014, a tremendous accomplishment. Yet with so many red and blue winner-take-all districts, that has also made little difference in who gets elected (though it has introduced new candidates and badly needed political debate into our brain-dead elections).

The House finally passed legislation guaranteeing health care for all Americans, but senators representing a mere 15 percent of the nation's population killed it. The senators from these conservative, low-population red states were concerned about an expansion of “big government,” even though their own states are heavily subsidized by the federal government, receiving twice as many federal tax dollars as they pay out.

On Election Day 2016, disgusted by the partisan sandbox play and a government out of touch with the concerns of average Americans, voters continued their trend of staying home. The fact is, most voters no longer need to show up since most races are decided well in advance of Election Day, and so they don't bother—voter turnout for congressional races plunged to barely a quarter of eligible voters in 2014, and in various cities voter turnout has plunged to single digits.

Some pundits have begun to wonder out loud on talking head shows: Do elections even matter any more? In fact, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has raised a public ruckus over the cost of elections where so few voters show up, has begun collecting signatures on a California initiative that will cancel elections except for one election every eight years. In essence, the Howard Jarvisites are asking the few remaining voters to permanently cancel most elections. If passed, this will transmogrify the U.S. into a "ratification" democracy with occasional elections and referendums, more like the plutocratic Roman Republic than a participatory democratic republic. Polls show the ballot measure has a good chance of passing.

By 2016, the trajectory of America's shattered democracy has moved us a giant step closer to a Silvio Berlusconi-type figure lurking on the horizon—a media magnate who has bought Fox News and is using it as a springboard for his own political career. This candidate is strongly playing the national security card, and his polling numbers quickly surge into the low 40s, making him the frontrunner and throwing all calculations about the race out of whack.

On Election Day 2016, America takes a big gulp and prepares for a grim outcome, bedeviled by bitter partisanship and antiquated 18th century political institutions. The rest of the world can only watch and shake their heads in disbelief.


Instead of that gloomy future of post-democracy, another future is possible: renewed democracy.

Imagine a different election in 2016, one where all 190 million eligible voters, including the millions of minority and young voters, have been automatically registered to vote as a result of a federal law passed in 2014 enacting universal voter registration. Imagine that law also signed up the United States into the ranks of other advanced democracies that have lifted all barriers to participation, including allowing prisoners as well as residents of our nation's capital to fully participate, and allowing our poorest citizens to vote on equipment as good as that in the wealthy county next door. This federal law enfranchising all of these new voters amounted to the greatest civil rights advance since 1965.

Imagine that, in 2011, Congress finally passed a law ensuring that voting equipment and election administration would be overseen by a national elections commission that rigorously tests and produces the best voting equipment and election administrative practices. Election officials are now trained and certified professionals, with expertise in computer technology, databases, election logistics and public relations.

By the 2016 presidential election, 24 states have signed on to the National Popular Vote compact, which awards 100 percent of each state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, enough that the election has become a de facto direct election for president. The candidates no longer can confine their campaigns to a handful of battleground states, especially the bigger ones like Ohio and Florida. Instead the candidates crisscross the nation, ignoring practically no one, trying to pick up every single vote they can. It's going to be a close race, just as it has been in every presidential election since 2000, and no one knows whether the decisive votes will come from Wyoming, North Dakota, California or some other state. This in turn leads to a massive mobilization of voters, old and new, who suddenly aren't being ignored because they live in the wrong state.

These 24 states as well as several others also have decided to use instant runoff voting (IRV) so voters can rank their candidates and guarantee majority winners in a single election. Now the presence of independent and third-party candidates not only does not spoil the race, but injects fresh faces and new ideas into the debate. Voters are excited to hear a range of candidates directly addressing their concerns. And they can vote for these candidates without fear of contributing to their least favorite candidate winning. The net effect of this national direct IRV election is that voter turnout surges across the nation to a phenomenal 77 percent of eligible voters, the highest turnout in a 120 years.

But that's not all. By 2016, imagine that 19 states have scrapped their antiquated winner-take-all elections and adopted proportional voting for electing their state legislatures and members of Congress. As a result, multiparty democracies have sprouted, giving voters a broad range of choices. Democrats and Republicans, but also a Libertarian Party, Green Party, Working Families Party and a centrist Ross Perot-type New America Party are all vying for legislative seats. The candidates are funded by public financing and free media time, so even the smaller parties have sufficient resources for TV and radio ads to reach voters. For the first time, millions of voters are seeing real competition and hearing a genuine debate with real political choices. As a result, voter turnout for legislative elections has doubled to 70 percent of eligible voters, almost as high as other nations.

With broader representation in Congress from the right, left and center, policy adjusts so that it aligns more closely with the opinions of most Americans. Congress finally enforces Big Media’s legal mandate “to serve the public interest,” including adequate political coverage and free air time for all candidates. Public broadcasting has been granted robust funding via a $15 mandatory monthly fee paid by all households, which for years has funded the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The cumulative effect of all these changes is that, by Election Day 2016, whether in the legislatures, the executive branch or on the air waves, a new form of consensual democracy is emerging where multiple points of view compete against each other in a vibrant democratic process, crafting compromises and solutions for the good of the nation. With legislative chambers functioning more as pragmatic, deliberative, problem-solving bodies instead of mud-wrestling pits of partisan warfare, Americans are no longer frustrated by paralyzed politics. Government acquires a better reputation. All of this ushers in a new era of good feeling among Americans.


These are two very different alternative futures, founded on two very different philosophies regarding representative democracy—elite rule vs. popular sovereignty. Down one path lies a renewal of American democracy that will create a nation that works for all of us, instead of some of us. Down the other path—which is the current path relying on antiquated, 18th century institutions and practices—lies a downward spiral into post-democracy, turning our nation into one that works for only a handful of us, instead of all of us.

We are standing at a fork in the road, and the choice is ours.