A plan for better elections
North Carolina needs reforms that make the process more democratic

By Bob Hall
Published March 31st 2005 in The Charlotte Observer

From Bob Hall, co-director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan research and advocacy center based in Carrboro

When more people get engaged in shaping their society's government, life improves for more people. That axiom about democracy's benefits doesn't just apply to far-off lands. It's true right here in the United States. Research shows that the states with the highest voter participation, election after election, also enjoy the lowest school drop-out rates, most good jobs, smallest gaps between rich and poor, least crime and most equitable tax structures.

Put simply, voting pays off. We may not agree with our neighbors, but to reap the rewards of a healthy democratic republic, we need them involved as informed voters, educated about the issues and the consequences of their choices.

Democracy North Carolina's mission is to make real this vision of "one person, one vote" -- the bedrock principle of self-determination and equal rights. Every voter should be respected. Sadly, the endless money chase in campaigns elevates wealthy narrow interests and erects barriers for candidates and their supporters.

To deflate the money chase and inflate the power of N.C. voters, we recommend:

• Voter-owned campaigns. Candidates who forsake special-interest donations and gather hundreds of small donations from voters should get access to public campaign financing. North Carolina's judicial public financing program, a national model, should be beefed up with stable funding that augments the $3 check-off. (Remember to say YES to the Public Campaign Fund on your state tax form!) A good next step: Expand the program to include the Council of State agency heads (auditor, insurance commissioner, etc.). Like judges, these candidates get little attention and rely heavily on donors doing business with the agency. They need an alternative.

• Access and security. Every legal vote must be counted. Voting machines should have a voter verifiable paper trail and software monitored by elections and party officials. Audit a sample of vote counts, comparing paper and machine ballots. Add more "one-stop" voting locations and open super-polling sites in malls on Election Day. Increase training of precinct workers. Help ex-felons, new residents, etc., understand their voting rights. Continue to offer out-of-precinct provisional ballots.

• Same-day registration. Allow a voter to register and vote during the early-voting period, if they show a verifiable ID and vote with a retrievable ballot to safeguard against fraud. Many voters don't realize they are not registered at their current address until after the registration deadline. SDR would boost turnout and cut the use of provisional ballots.

• Candidate choices. Costly run-off elections could be eliminated with rank voting or instant runoff voting. (With the instant runoff process, if your first choice is not among the top vote-getters, your vote goes to your second-choice candidate). Third party candidates won't become "spoilers" because their votes will be reallocated if they do poorly. North Carolina's onerous threshold for a new party to field candidates should be lowered. To boost competition, an independent redistricting commission and multi-member districts with proportional voting should be explored.