Save Our Democracy: A Call to Action

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published April 5th 2003 in Common Dreams
 If nothing else, the process leading to war in Iraq revealed an abject failure of our democracy. We claim to be bringing democracy to Iraq, yet the lack of it at home is in evidence everywhere, and is a grave threat to our national well-being and future.

Let's start with the appalling lack of debate in Congress over the Bush administration's dramatic shift to the concept of pre-emptive warfare. That was preceded by the inadequate response to the Enron energy scandals, just the tip of an iceberg of ongoing deregulation and subsidies to corporate interests. Combined with the complete absence of African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. Senate, the stalling of women's representation in Congress, the muted response to the presidential election debacle in Florida, and the history of duplicitous, poll-driven campaigns where winning candidates change their spots right after the election, it's no surprise that government is dangerously adrift from the needs and desires of average Americans. The resulting cynicism and resignation contribute to the United States having the lowest voter participation among well-established democracies.

This lack of democracy matters, not only in and of itself but because of how it negatively impacts the national policies that affect everyday Americans. By numerous counts, the United States is the most unequal society in the advanced democratic world, with that inequality having glaring racial/ethnic, age, and gender dimensions. Child poverty in the U.S. is twenty percent, the highest by far in the Western world except Russia. Despite being the world's lone remaining superpower, we suffer from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide, and HIV infection, and from greater economic inequality, than other advanced democracies.

We have far more citizens lacking health care, and a lower life expectancy, and the average American works nine weeks more each year than the average European. Decades of struggle for civil liberties are being rolled back month by month. In fact, according to the New America Foundation's Ted Halstead, "our performance on many social indicators is so poor that an outsider looking at these numbers alone might conclude that we were a developing nation."

When progressives link this reality to elections, it usually is through the lens of campaign finance reform, just as 15 years ago it was focused on voter registration. But at this point the failures of American democracy are so much greater and more fundamental. Reducing the impact of money on politics and increasing voters on the rolls are both critically important, but they are just two pieces of a much larger and desperately needed enterprise.

An energized democracy demands, at minimum, diverse representation, meaningful choices across the political spectrum, full participation before and after elections, robust public debate, efficient election administration, and accurate voting machines. Voters must hear from a range of candidates, have a reasonable chance of electing their preferred representatives instead of the "lesser of two evils," and feel that they are electing a responsive government that makes a positive difference in their lives.

The times urgently demand not only a clarion call for better democracy, but a stronger infrastructure for a pro-democracy movement. We need full-time "democracy advocates" in all fifty state capitols to lobby for a vigorous agenda of exclusively pro-democracy issues. These fifty organizers would build strong networks among pro-democracy organizations in each state and take advantage of resources provided by a more coordinated national approach. As Democracy Advocates, they would push for a range of reforms setting priorities based on local opportunities for change. The organizing potential created by the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) makes such an effort even more imperative.

What reforms would these Democracy Advocates push? As a start, we call for the removal of barriers to voting, including full voting rights for former felons and the District of Columbia, effective voter education, voting on a holiday, election day/universal voter registration, well-trained poll workers, and modern, accurate voting equipment. These infrastructure reforms should be accompanied by fair ballot access laws, campaign finance reform, clean elections, free broadcast time for candidates, fusion/cross-party endorsement, and promotion of representation of women and racial minorities.

The most profound reforms that will revive our moribund democracy will be the replacement of our 18th-century winner-take-all election methods with "full representation" electoral systems for legislative elections, and instant runoff voting for electing executive offices. These two powerful reforms will lay the bedrock for a multi-choice, voter-centered democracy, and allow the marketplace of ideas to flourish in campaigns as well as in government.

Democracy no longer can take a back seat. It's time for a representative democracy where every vote is counted and every vote counts. It's time for serious candidates to proclaim a real democracy agenda, and for serious reformers to develop a strategy for building a broad and enduring movement. Will you join us?

Rob Richie is the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy ( Steven Hill is senior analyst with the Center and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press,