10 Steps to Better Elections
Our electoral system is in tatters. Here's what we can do to fix it.

By Steven Hill
Published May 1st 2005 in Sierra Club
THE U.S. ELECTORAL SYSTEM is our nation's crazy aunt in the attic. Every few years she pops out and creates a scene, and everyone swears that something must be done. But as soon as election day passes, we're happy to ignore her again — at least until the next time she frustrates the will of the people.

Under a fair, equitable, and democratic system of voting, Al Gore would have been elected president in 2000, and George W. Bush would still be whacking weeds in Crawford. In 2004, even though Bush won the popular vote by some 3 million ballots, the election was still tarnished. Florida replayed its 2000 debacle with attempts to purge African-American voters from the rolls, and voters who requested absentee ballots but never received them were barred from voting in person.

There were hundreds of complaints of voting irregularities in Ohio, with voters in some black precincts waiting in lines at polling places for seven hours because of voting-machine shortages. Some voters were required to show identification, even though the demand was illegal. Approximately 92,000 ballots failed to record a vote for president, most of them on the same type of discredited punch-card systems that malfunctioned in Florida in 2000. Ohio election officials may have improperly disqualified thousands of the 155,000 provisional ballots cast. Bush won the state — and thus the presidency — by 118,000 votes.

ALTHOUGH THE UNITED STATES PRIDES ITSELF AS A beacon of democracy to the rest of the world, for the second time in a row our presidential election appeared bumbling, if not outright fraudulent. Sergio Aguayo, an election observer and political scientist at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, told BusinessWeek that the partisan way our election was run "looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI," referring to the notoriously corrupt ruling party that dominated Mexican politics for seven decades. President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center monitors elections around the world, said that in Florida, "some basic international requirements for a fair election are missing."

When elections are unfair, the environment loses. While polls show that large majorities of the American public favor strong environmental protections, those aspirations are routinely frustrated by a flawed voting system. In San Diego last November, environmental write-in candidate Donna Frye won the most votes for mayor, but lost on a technicality when the clear intent of some 5,000 write-in voters was ignored. (The decision is being appealed; see "Profile,")

In Washington State, after Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi claimed victory, it took a hand recount to find that more than 700 absentee votes had been ignored. When all the votes were counted, Sierra Club-endorsed Democrat Christine Gregoire was declared the victor by 129 votes. And as long as the winner-take-all system remains intact, the Green Party is doomed to retain the role of spoiler instead of electoral leader for environmental issues.

We don't have to quietly accept the status quo. Here are ten ways we could dramatically improve our electoral system. None is officially endorsed by the Sierra Club, but all are worthy of bipartisan consideration. Some could be implemented at county or state levels, and some are more readily achievable than others. All have the same end: to expand the franchise, and make sure that every vote is counted.

1] HAVE NONPARTISAN OFFICIALS ADMINISTER ELECTIONS. We should have learned this lesson in the 2000 presidential election, when the co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign, Katherine Harris, also ran the election as Florida's secretary of state. For the 2004 election, it was as though Harris had cloned herself: The secretaries of state overseeing elections in the battleground states of Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan were all co-chairs of their states' Bush reelection campaigns.

In Missouri, Secretary of State Matt Blunt was also running for governor, and so oversaw his own race. In the days leading up to the election in Ohio, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell sought to rule out (largely Democratic) voter registrations submitted on paper of the wrong weight, and to strictly limit the counting of provisional ballots. During the election, African-American precincts and other strongholds of support for John Kerry were allocated far fewer voting machines than the Republican suburbs. In the subsequent recount, Blackwell allowed different counties to handle the process according to the whim of local officials. In Florida, a highly partisan Republican secretary of state once again ran the election, as did a partisan Democrat in New Mexico.

Without nonpartisan election managers, the outcomes of elections will always be open to conflict-of-interest questions. In addition, many current election officials are ignorant of the technology of voting equipment, or even how to run elections. Election administrators should be well-trained professional civil servants who know how to make electoral processes transparent and secure.

2] ESTABLISH NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR FAIR ELECTIONS. The United States leaves the administration of elections to local officials in more than 3,000 counties. This creates different standards and practices for recounts and use of absentee and provisional ballots, as well as wide discrepancies in the quality of voting equipment. Most established democracies use national election commissions to set uniform standards, to develop secure and reliable voting equipment, and to work with state and local election officials to ensure pre- and post-election accountability.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, is a pale version of such an entity, and needs to be strengthened. A robust elections commission, for example, would crack down on the revolving door between state election regulators and officials and the voting equipment industry (see below).

3] DEVELOP "PUBLIC INTEREST" VOTING EQUIPMENT. The voting-equipment industry is dominated by three companies: Sequoia Voting Systems, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), and Diebold Election Systems. These companies develop their own private software and hardware that is then certified by state authorities, although the rigor of the certification procedures varies widely from state to state. Laxness is encouraged by the revolving door between state officials and the industry. New Hampshire senator John Sununu (R) and former California secretary of state Bill Jones (R) have acted as private consultants on behalf of Diebold and Sequoia, respectively.

Chuck Hagel resigned as chair of Election Systems and Software's parent company, and eight months later was elected Republican senator from Nebraska, with his own former company's machines counting the votes. And Katherine Harris's predecessor as secretary of state in Florida, Sandra Mortham (R), was hired by ES&S to peddle its voting machines in the state. In Ohio, according to the Los Angeles Times, one vendor competing for $100 million in contracts treated election officials to free meals, limousine rides, and concert tickets. Other vendors have spent thousands of dollars on conferences for election officials, footing the bill for hospitality suites, banquets, lobster bakes, and pool parties.

Even more unsettling, the voting-machine companies openly favor the Republican Party. The executives and founders of the big three vendors have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into party coffers in the past few years. Ciber Labs, one of the federal testing laboratories, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Republican National Committee and to GOP candidates. Walden O'Dell, Diebold's CEO, is a big Bush fundraiser who attended strategy powwows at the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch; he famously told Republicans in a fundraising letter that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president," even as his company was seeking multimillion-dollar contracts to provide computerized voting equipment in that state.

In Hocking County, Ohio, three days before the statewide recount for the 2004 presidential election was to begin in mid-December, deputy elections director Sherole Eaton went public with a troubling incident: An employee of Triad Systems, the company that owns and runs the voting equipment in 41 Ohio counties (and is another Republican donor), came into the office, modified the computer tabulator, and advised voting officials how to manipulate the machinery so that "the count would come out perfect and we wouldn't have to do a full hand recount of the county." This prompted Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) to request an FBI investigation into illegal election tampering.

At the very least, advocates of fair elections should demand a voter-verified paper trail so that any recounts would have a chance of uncovering errors or fraud. We have such an audit trail for ATM transactions; are our votes less important? Better still would be to develop "public interest" voting equipment. Instead of the nuts and bolts of our democracy being in the hands of private companies, the software code would be subject to the rules and disclosures of open government.

And that voting equipment then would be deployed to rich and poor neighborhoods alike to ensure that every voter is using the same, best equipment. Publicly developed voting systems are already in place in Belgium, Brazil, and Argentina. India, which is the world's largest democracy and has twice as many voters as the United States, recently held nationwide elections, with voters from New Delhi to the Himalayas, illiterate voters and polyglot communities alike, all voting on the same computerized equipment.

4] REGISTER EVERY CITIZEN. The United States has some 60 million potential voters who are disenfranchised because they are not registered. In most of the world's established democracies, every citizen who turns 18 is automatically registered to vote. This is known as universal voter registration. Were it implemented in the United States, it would prevent shameful shenanigans such as the Republican-paid registrars in Nevada who simply threw away the cards of those registering Democratic, and the Republican challenges to minority voters at the polls in Ohio.

Under the Help America Vote Act, all states need to establish statewide voter databases by 2006. Additional state or federal regulations could require these databases to be melded with U.S. Census Bureau databases so that anyone turning 18 is automatically registered to vote.

5] MAKE VOTING EASIER. Voting on the first Tuesday in November in the middle of a busy workweek is not a requirement of the U.S. Constitution. It's just a tradition dating from the 1840s, when President James Polk changed the date to make it easier for farmers to vote. Most other democracies vote on the weekend or make election day a holiday. Puerto Rico typically does so, and has a higher voter turnout than all 50 states. The commission established in the wake of the 2000 meltdown, co-chaired by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, recommended that election day be a holiday, but Congress ignored their proposal.

Again, states and local governments need not wait for the feds. In odd-numbered years when only local races are on the ballot, local jurisdictions can hold elections on any day they wish. And in non-presidential election years, states can do the same, or even make election day a state holiday.

6] GIVE THIRD PARTIES A CHANCE. Our current plurality (that is, "highest vote-getter wins") method of electing political representatives hobbles our choices by casting third-party candidates as potential spoilers. Last year's furious battles over Ralph Nader's candidacy demonstrated that our system is not designed to accommodate more than two choices, yet important policy areas can be completely ignored by major-party candidates. This situation can be easily redressed through instant-runoff elections.

In this system, voters rank candidates in terms of preference. If no candidate achieves a majority, the least popular candidate is axed, and the votes of his or her supporters go to their second choices. The method is repeated until one candidate has support from a majority of voters. Instant-runoff (also known as "ranked choice") voting was successfully employed in San Francisco last November for local races, and will soon be implemented in Burlington, Vermont; Ferndale, Michigan; and Berkeley, California. With cross-partisan support, including Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, legislative bills for instant-runoff voting were introduced in 22 states in 2003Ð4, and several more are poised to address the issue this year.

7] RETHINK REDISTRICTING. Electing one district representative at a time requires periodic redrawing of lines to account for shifts in population. In many states, redistricting is a blatantly political exercise in which the ruling party manipulates the lines so as to guarantee its continued supremacy. In California, for example, Democratic congressional incumbents paid the political consultant drawing the district lines — who happened to be the brother of one of the incumbents — $20,000 apiece to manipulate the lines to give them all safe seats.

Districts are traditionally redrawn every ten years, following the U.S. census. But House Majority Leader Tom Delay's brazen mid-decade redistricting in Texas — which added five Republicans to the state's delegation — raised the abuse of partisan-controlled redistricting to a new level.

America is increasingly balkanized into red and blue enclaves; Democrats dominate cities and coastlines, and Republicans rule rural areas. When combined with partisan redistricting, this has produced a travesty of choiceless elections. In 2004, 98 percent of U.S. House incumbents kept their seats; 83 percent of all 435 races were won by landslides, and 95 percent by uncompetitive margins of ten points or higher. State legislative elections were even less competitive, with 40 percent of more than 7,000 seats uncontested. One solution is to have the district lines drawn by independent, nonpartisan commissions driven by criteria like keeping districts compact, respecting geographic boundaries, and enhancing competition.

While this removes the blatant conflict of interest in having incumbents draw their own district lines, the track records of such "public interest" redistricting efforts in states like Washington, Iowa, Arizona, and New Jersey have not been encouraging. Most races remain noncompetitive, because regional partisan demographics trump the well-meaning efforts of the redistricting commissions.

But single-member districts are not the only way to elect representatives. Larger, multi-member districts can accommodate systems like choice voting, a ranked-ballot proportional representation system already used in local elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and national elections in Ireland and Australia. A state with 20 congressional seats, for example, could be divided up into 4 super-districts of 5 seats each.

Voters in those districts would indicate their candidates in order of preference, ranking as many (or few) as they wished. The threshold of victory would be set to allow for only 5 winners — thus, any candidate winning 17 percent on the first round would be elected. Any further votes for that candidate would have the voters' second choices counted, and so on until five candidates pass the threshold.

An alternative system, used in more than 100 localities as well as by many corporate boards, is cumulative voting, whereby voters (also in multi-seat districts) cast as many votes as there are contested seats. Voters can give all their votes to one candidate, or split them as they see fit. Like choice voting, cumulative voting tends to foster competition, more choice for voters, better opportunities for pro-environment candidates, and a decrease in regional partisan balkanization. (A plan for a choice-voting scheme for California can be viewed at fairvote.org/pr/super/2004/california.htm.)

8] ABOLISH THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE. The electoral college method of electing the president is an 18th-century horse-and-buggy anachronism that enables campaigns to almost completely ignore most states. It allows a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states like Ohio or Florida to decide the presidency. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) have both introduced constitutional amendments to abolish the electoral college and institute direct election of the president. Representative Jackson's includes a requirement that the president win with a majority of the nationwide popular vote. (If that majority were not achieved, a runoff election would be required.)

Democrats already have ample reason to support such a move: After all, the electoral college system denied Al Gore the presidency in 2000, even though he had the most votes. And in 2004, if a mere 60,000 swing voters in Ohio had changed their minds and voted for John Kerry, he would have won the presidency while losing the national popular vote by 3 million ballots. That would have made believers in direct national elections out of many Republicans.

9] MAKE VOTING A RIGHT. As American voters discovered in 2000, we have no legal right to vote directly for president. In Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that, under the Constitution, voting for president is reserved for state legislatures, who decide whether they wish to delegate it to the voters. A constitutional amendment spelling out our right to vote could guarantee the franchise to all citizens. It would also guard against practices that can disenfranchise groups such as minority voters, prisoners, District of Columbia voters, and those using provisional ballots. Already, every returning member of the Congressional Black Caucus has signed on to Representative Jackson's legislation to provide such a constitutional right.

10] MINIMIZE MONEY'S ROLE. With political campaigns largely financed by private sources, the views of those with the most money are disproportionately heard. Public financing of elections could open up an increasingly brain-dead political debate, and widen the narrowing spectrum of political ideas. One promising new approach is mandating free airtime for candidates. Broadcast media is the greatest expense of any candidate's campaign, yet providing free airtime would cost the taxpayers nothing.

AS THE SUPREME COURT STATED over a century ago, the right to vote is "a fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights." But it's still a right we must fight for. These ten reforms could revitalize American representative democracy in the 21st century. They will not be easy to achieve, because the party in power has little incentive to change the system that has served it so well. Cities, counties, and states will be the laboratories for new approaches, and a number of organizations are already highlighting reform packages, among them Common Cause and the Center for Voting and Democracy.

Shortly after last November's contentious presidential election in the United States, Ukraine held an equally charged contest. When the ruling party stole the election through massive fraud, tens of thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets for weeks on end until the results were overturned. Whether we're Democrats, Republicans, Greens, or other, we need that same fighting spirit to rescue our own democracy.

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 (www.fixingelections.com).