Versions of this commentary also appeared in the
Wilmington Star News (NC), San Francisco Examiner
(CA) and other publications around the nation.
isn't alone: Democracy's infrastructure is decrepit
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
October 2, 2002
We may be the world's remaining superpower and
high-tech leader, but we still can't count the votes right. Florida
recently received well-deserved ridicule after yet another "gang
that couldn't shoot straight" fiasco in its primary.
Florida is far from alone. State after state has had
problems with polls not opening on time, machines breaking down,
voter registration cards getting lost, underpaid pollworkers not
carrying out their duties. In Michigan's hotly-contested
gubernatorial primaries, more than one in ten ballots were
It has been nearly two years since Florida introduced
new vocabulary words like "chad" and "butterfly ballots," yet the
federal bill that was supposed to fix it -- or at least start us in
the right direction -- is stalled, with neither the President nor
congressional leaders showing leadership to avoid hypocrisy when
lecturing other nations about democracy.
Our democracy has obvious great strengths, including
strong legal protections and a free press, but when it comes to
elections, we are surprisingly backward. Many other nations make a
far higher relative investment in their elections and adopt more
advanced voting methods.
Brazil, for example, has a national computer-based
system with safeguards in place that essentially eliminate voter
error. Most European nations have modern voter registration systems
that lead to near-universal registration among adults, while nearly
a third of American adults are unregistered.
In the United Kingdom, London elects its mayor using
high-speed optical scan voting machines that allow voters to rank
both their first and runoff choices. The ballots then can be counted
to simulate an "instant runoff" election to provide for a majority
winner in one election. In stark contrast, the great city of New
York in 2001 spent an extra $10 million and strained its ancient
pull-lever voting equipment to carry out a traditional "delayed,"
two-round mayoral runoff. These advances are not rocket science, yet
the United States lags woefully behind.
From ballot access to campaign finance to voter
registration to pollworker training, our electoral practices are a
hodgepodge of confused regulation and ambiguous standards. Unlike
that of our roads, airports or military, our democracy's
infrastructure has been grossly underfunded for years. Not
surprisingly, we are paying the price. Think of it as a massive
bridge that is creaking and groaning at its hinges, for lack of
We need to invest in the infrastructure of our
democracy. If we can't count the votes, elections become a less
meaningful exercise, both in perception and practice. And we need to
be smart about our investments. If we followed the recommendation of
last year's Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter reform commission, for example,
we would make election day a holiday and have a far greater pool of
We also must do our best to make voting meaningful.
Our "winner-take-all" system has reached a near breaking point.
Incumbents often draw their own district lines in redistricting,
thereby guaranteeing themselves and their political allies safe
seats. Campaigns are increasingly watered down by poll-tested
blandness and sound bites. Even governance is becoming hostage to
the permanent winner-take-all campaign, where party leaders have one
eye on showing up their competition.
We need a thorough debate -- nationally and in states
through high-level commissions -- about alternative democratic
practices, including alternatives to winner-take-all elections such
as proportional voting methods for representative assemblies and
instant runoff voting for one-winner contests.
Turning a blind eye to our antiquated and creaking
democratic infrastructure, from voting machines to voting methods,
does a disservice to the American electorate and to the future of
Steven Hill is a senior policy 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. Contact the Center at
www.fairvote.org, PO Box 60037, Washington, DC