By Steven Hill
and Rob Richie
May 30, 2003
Read this piece directly on The American Prospect or below
The Bush administration proclaims that it is bringing
democracy to Iraq, yet the lack of it at home is in evidence
everywhere. State reformers are currently waging important battles
for fair implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) -- the
federal response to deficiencies unmasked by the chaotic 2000
presidential election -- but HAVA will do next to nothing about
major tears in our democratic fabric. Consider the following:
U.S. ranks 139th in the world in average voter turnout in national
elections since 1945. It's been decades since even half of adults
voted in congressional elections in a non-presidential year.
than 10 years after the "Year of the Woman" (1992), the total
percentage of women in Congress is stalled at less than 15 percent
and is declining in state legislatures.
With blatant incumbent
advantages resulting from the gerrymandering of legislative lines
during redistricting, only four House incumbents lost to
non-incumbent challengers in 2002 -- the fewest in history -- and
more than 40 percent of state legislative races since 1996 have been
uncontested by one of the two major parties. Most legislative
districts have become one-party fiefdoms where the outcome is
preordained, undermining accountability and the relationship between
legislators and their constituents.
A random group of 100 Americans
would include 13 blacks and 12 Latinos, but our Senate lacks a
single black or Latino member. Nearly all our legislatures
under-represent people of color.
For decades, the unique
"representation subsidy" bestowed upon low-population states in the
U.S. Senate and Electoral College has provided an advantage to
conservatives that shifts national policy and judicial appointments
to the right. Democrats in the Senate represent far more Americans
than Senate Republicans do, but hold a minority of seats.
Florida's 2000 election debacle finally led to federal and state
action to improve the infrastructure of our elections, many states
are taking steps to make it harder, not easier, to vote. Voting
equipment irregularities and election administration snafus continue
to mar the legitimacy of our elections.
In this era of poll-driven
politics, political leaders repeatedly dodge big issues that don't
have sound-bite fixes -- witness the Democrats' meek response to the
Bush administration's push to war in Iraq last fall -- and too often
their change their spots right after the election.
"democracy deficit," it's no surprise that government is dangerously
adrift from the needs and desires of average Americans. Weakness in
representative democracy directly affects national policies, which
in turn affects all citizens. Child poverty in the United States is
20 percent, the highest by far in the Western world except Russia.
Despite being the world's lone remaining superpower, we suffer from
greater rates of income inequality, poverty, infant mortality, teen
pregnancy, HIV infection and homicide than nearly all other advanced
We have a far greater share of our citizenry without
health care than western Europe, and the average American works nine
weeks more each year than the average western European. 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 reformers and progressives link these grim realities to
reforming elections, it is usually through the lens of campaign
finance -- just as 15 years ago, liberals usually 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 the number of voters on the rolls
are important, but they are only two pieces of a much larger and
urgently 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, policies that correspond with the "will of the
majority," efficient election administration, and accurate vote
counting. 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 choosing
a responsive government that makes a positive difference in their
To achieve a stronger democracy, we must be ready to pursue
a range of reforms, including clean elections, free broadcast time
for candidates, removal of barriers to voting, modern voting
equipment, election day registration, holidays for major elections,
well-trained poll workers, and promotion of representation for women
and racial minorities.
The most profoundly needed reforms are the
replacement of our 18th-century winner-take-all election methods --
ones in which 49 percent of voters can be denied a voice -- with
full representation systems (also known as proportional
representation) for legislative elections and the adoption of
instant runoff voting for executive offices elections. Full
representation voting would promote meaningful choices from across
the spectrum and fully represent our diversity; and by allowing
voters to rank candidates rather than vote for just one, instant
runoff voting would permit third-party candidates to run without
spoiling or producing winners lacking majority support. These two
powerful reforms would 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.
We must be ready to
take advantage of opportunities as they emerge in the politics of
different states, just as reformers won expansion of suffrage over
the years for those without property, African Americans, women and
young people. Claiming democracy will require digging in for the
long haul -- rejecting simple "magic bullet" solutions and instead
seeking gains state by state and, ultimately, nationally.
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. Citizens across the
political spectrum must join to create a democracy that not only
works for all Americans but also is a shining beacon worthy of
export to the rest of the world.
(Steven Hill is a senior
analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of
Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics.
Rob Richie is the center's executive director.)