Repairing American democracy

By Neal Peirce
Published July 17th 2006 in The Seattle Times
WASHINGTON — American democracy, once the wonder of the world, is working about as well as the levees around New Orleans — "degenerated into a partisan brew of spin, scandal, name-calling, money chasing and pandering."

That's the charge of reform advocate Steven Hill, and who is to doubt his indictment? Elections are marred by suspicious voting equipment. TV blanks out most serious campaign debate. Congressional and state legislative elections are increasingly less competitive as "red" and "blue" voters cluster in their own partisan enclaves. The presidential election system focuses all attention on a tiny band of swing states — and can easily make the popular-vote loser the winner. Citizens increasingly wonder: Why bother to vote at all?

What's to be done? In his new book, "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy," Hill abjures piecemeal reform and instead provides a " 'one-stop shopping guide' to what's broken about American democracy and how Americans can help fix it."

From Hill's list of 10, I'd pick five indispensable first steps:

Secure the vote. Butterfly ballots and hanging chads in Florida in 2000, thousands of low-income voters effectively excluded from polls in Ohio in 2004 — the scandals are well-known. A comprehensive Caltech-MIT study found a stunning 6 percent of ballots cast nationwide in 2000 weren't counted because of faulty voting machines, poorly designed ballots or foul-ups with absentee ballots. Private voting-machine companies have been shown to have egregious partisan ties.

Hill would have us create — with federal dollars to help — a new, professionalized cadre of professional election officials free of direction by partisanly chosen or motivated secretaries of state. A national elections commission would be empowered to create minimum standards that states must follow to assure honest elections. And there'd be a "voter-verified voter trail" for ballots cast by computerized voting equipment, ensuring honest recounts.

His next proposal: expand voter participation by a "right to vote" constitutional amendment, universal registration (everyone 18 and over automatically registered to vote, as most modern democracies do) and prohibiting voter intimidation.

Reclaiming the airwaves comes next — obliging broadcasters to provide ample free media time for candidates, more political news and balanced coverage. Hill also urges a more-robust public broadcast sector to counterbalance our increasingly powerful corporate media.

To minimize the overbearing role of money in elections, Hill suggests public financing of all campaigns at local, state and federal levels, and at least trying to limit donations and set spending caps on candidates.

There's one more reform on Hill's list I'd call absolutely essential: direct popular election of the president. Sticking with the Founding Fathers' jury-rigged Electoral College system makes zero 21st century sense.

Hill then has three reforms I'd call intriguing next steps, experiments we ought to try.

First there's runoff voting, now being used in San Francisco's mayoral elections, Utah Republican primaries and other places. Voters list their preferences — No. 1, No. 2, etc. If no candidate gets a majority of the No. 1 choices, immediate recounts include voters' second or even third choices. The lowest vote-getter is eliminated on each count until there's a majority. The method has big pluses: diminished campaign mudslinging, incentives for higher voter turnout and less impact by spoiler candidates (such as Ralph Nader in 2000).

Hill would also scrap — especially for legislative races — the "winner-take-all" election system that so often leaves political minorities and our many racial and ethnic groups unrepresented. His model: Illinois' success, from 1870 to 1980, with three-seat state House districts. Voters could cast all their three votes for one candidate, or distribute them as they chose. Result: Any candidate who got over 25 percent was likely to win. More mavericks, willing to buck their party's leadership, got elected. Bipartisan coalitions were commonplace.

Now Hill suggests three-seat districts, not just for legislatures but congressional seats too, a big break for "blues" in "red" areas and "reds" in "blue" areas, plus election of more Latino and black representatives.

Hearing this spate of ideas, some may grouse: Why change the ground rules? Didn't our Founding Fathers know best? Yet in his introduction to Hill's book, Hendrick Hertzberg of The New Yorker has it right. Reinvigorating the republic is a way to keep faith. "The question isn't: What way back then, did Jefferson (and Madison and Hamilton) do? The question is: What would they do now?"