American Democracy Could Use A Closer Look The
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
We may be seeking to bring 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
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
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 among advanced
democracies, with that inequality having glaring racial/ethnic, age,
and gender dimensions. Child poverty in the U.S. is 20 percent, the
highest by far in the Western world except Russia.
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 similarly well-established
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
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
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 50 state capitols to lobby for a vigorous agenda of exclusively
pro-democracy issues. These 50 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.
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.
most profound reforms that will revive our moribund democracy will
be the replacement of our 18th-century winner-take-all election
methods ones where 50.1 percent of voters have the power to win 100
percent of legislative representation. This would include a
guarantee that political minorities will have a fair share of
representation. It would also provide for adoption of instant runoff
voting between the top two vote-getters in races in which there are
several candidates and none get more than 50 percent of the vote.
These two powerful reforms will lay the bedrock for 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 that paves the way
for real change, and for serious reformers to develop a strategy for
building a broad and enduring movement. Will you join us?
Steven Hill was born and raised
in Uncasville. He is a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and
Democracy, a Washington D.C.-area non profit that conducts research,
analysis, education and advocacy to build support for more
democratic voting systems Rob Richie is the executive director of
the Center for Voting and Democracy.