Hill and Rob Richie
Baltimore Sun, May 2, 2003
The war in Iraq revealed a disturbing weakness in
our democracy. Regardless of one's views on the war, it's hard to
defend how Congress avoided debate about the administration's
dramatic shift toward pre-emptive warfare.
Lack of democracy
at home is a grave threat to our national well-being and future. The
data are stark.
We rank 139th in the world in average
turnout in national elections since 1945. It's been decades since
even half of adults voted in congressional elections in a
More than 40 percent of state legislative
races have been won without major party opposition in each election
since 1996. Congressional leaders repeatedly dodge big issues that
don't have sound-bite fixes. Combined with the low voter turnout,
distorted representation and duplicitous, poll-driven campaigns in
which many winners change their spots after the election, it's no
surprise that government is dangerously adrift from the needs and
desires of average Americans.
- Our Senate has great powers but lacks a single
African-American or Latino. A random group of 100 Americans would
include 25 African-Americans and Latinos.
- The total percentage of women in Congress is stalled at less
than 15 percent, and the percentage in state legislatures has
- After blatant incumbent protection in redistricting, only four
House incumbents lost to nonincumbent challengers in 2002 - the
fewest in history.
Lack of democracy matters, not
only in itself but because of its impact on policy. The United
States is the most unequal society in the advanced democratic world,
with that inequality having glaring racial, ethnic, age and gender
dimensions. We are the world's lone remaining superpower, yet suffer
from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide and HIV
infection than nearly all other advanced democracies.
reformers link these realities to elections, it usually is through
the lens of campaign finance, just as 15 years ago it was focused on
voter registration. But the failures of American democracy are
greater and more fundamental. Reducing the impact of money on
politics and increasing voters on the rolls are important, but only
two pieces of a much larger and desperately needed enterprise.
An energized democracy demands, at a minimum, diverse
representation, meaningful choices across the spectrum, full
participation before and after elections, robust public debate,
efficient election administration and accurate vote counting. Voters
must hear from a range of candidates, have a reasonable chance of
electing preferred representatives instead of "lessers of two evils"
and have responsive government that improves their lives.
The times urgently demand a stronger infrastructure for a
pro-democracy movement. We need full-time advocates in all states to
lobby for a vigorous agenda of exclusively pro-democracy issues.
These 50 organizers would build strong networks among
pro-democracy organizations and take advantage of resources provided
by a more coordinated national approach. They would push for a range
of reforms after setting priorities based on local opportunities for
change. Given that states are taking very different approaches to
implementing last year's federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), such
an effort is all the more imperative to ensure that HAVA makes us
more democratic, not less.
The reform agenda will differ by
state, but we call for the removal of barriers to voting, including
full voting rights for former felons and the District of Columbia,
effective voter education, holidays for major elections, Election
Day registration, well-trained poll workers and modern voting
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 people of color.
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 for legislative elections
and instant runoff voting for electing executive offices. These
powerful reforms would lay the bedrock for a multiple-choice,
voter-centered democracy and allow the marketplace of ideas to
flourish in campaigns as well as in government.
can no longer take a back seat. Serious candidates must proclaim a
real democracy agenda and serious reformers must develop a strategy
for building a broad and enduring movement.
(Steven Hill is
a senior analyst with Maryland's Center for Voting and Democracy and
author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All
Politics (Routledge Press, 2002). Rob Richie is executive director
of the center, which is in Takoma Park.