Job One for Congress: improve elections

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published November 4th 2006 in Sacramento Bee
Regardless which party controls Congress after Election Day, the new leaders' agenda should highlight policies designed to improve democracy and elections in the United States.

Change is certainly needed. Our constitutional framers designed the U.S. House of Representatives -- the "people's house" -- to be the branch of government with the most power and most democratic accountability. From the beginning every member had to face the voters every two years, in contrast to presidents picked by an Electoral College and U.S. senators by state legislators.

But the reality is that in House elections there has been only one shift of partisan control in more than five decades, a period when the presidency shifted between the major parties six times.

It's high time to modernize our elections and establish a more vital democracy. Consider these five proposals:

• Seek better governance. We hope that new leaders will run the House with more openness to ideas, regardless of their source. The minority party should be able to propose amendments, earmarks should be banned or at least open to full disclosure and substantial bills should allow time for review.

• Run better elections. Nonpartisan, accountable election officials and a national elections commission are essential for accurate, secure elections. The United States leaves election administration to a hodgepodge of more than 3,000 counties and nearly 10,000 municipalities scattered across the nation with too few standards or uniformity. A national commission should establish minimum standards and partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and postelection accountability for their plans and performance.

• Strive for universal voter registration. We lack a system in which election officials automatically register all eligible voters and change records when people move. Even Iraq has far more adults registered to vote than the United States.

Universal voter registration will be all the easier now that states must establish voter databases that can be cross-checked with other lists of adults such as Department of Motor Vehicle databases. Done well, universal registration would add 50 million eligible voters to our voter rolls and make it easier to eliminate redundancy.

• Change our 18th-century electoral system. We should end redistricting shenanigans that block accountability and adopt proportional voting methods. Partisan gerrymandering is bad enough, but most House districts have natural partisan tilts that turn a majority of the vote into 100 percent of representation -- with Democrats having majorities in most cities and Republicans in most rural areas.

In an era of hardening partisan voting patterns, those tilts since 1996 have led to more than 98 percent of House incumbents winning re-election, more than nine in 10 House races being won by noncompetitive margins and nearly four in 10 state legislative winners not even being contested. Proportional voting systems would put all voters into competitive elections where their votes count more than district lines.

• Establish majority, spoiler-free voting: Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an increasingly popular system at the local level that allows voters to rank a first, second and third choice on their ballots. If your first choice can't use your vote to win and no candidate has a majority, your vote moves to your second ranking as your runoff choice.

IRV would pry open our political system and liberate voters to select candidates they really like instead of picking "the lesser of two evils." More candidates can run, but we're all the more certain of majority winners. This system has worked successfully in cities such as San Francisco.

By acting on such an agenda, congressional leaders would take a strong step toward earning the faith and respect of voters from across the spectrum.

Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, minor party or independent, you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.