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American Prospect Online

Action Potential

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
May 30, 2003

Read this piece directly on The American Prospect or below

The Bush administration proclaims that it is bringing democracy to Iraq, yet the lack of it at home is in evidence everywhere. State reformers are currently waging important battles for fair implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) -- the federal response to deficiencies unmasked by the chaotic 2000 presidential election -- but HAVA will do next to nothing about major tears in our democratic fabric. Consider the following:

The U.S. ranks 139th in the world in average voter turnout in national elections since 1945. It's been decades since even half of adults voted in congressional elections in a non-presidential year.

More than 10 years after the "Year of the Woman" (1992), the total percentage of women in Congress is stalled at less than 15 percent and is declining in state legislatures.

With blatant incumbent advantages resulting from the gerrymandering of legislative lines during redistricting, only four House incumbents lost to non-incumbent challengers in 2002 -- the fewest in history -- and more than 40 percent of state legislative races since 1996 have been uncontested by one of the two major parties. Most legislative districts have become one-party fiefdoms where the outcome is preordained, undermining accountability and the relationship between legislators and their constituents.

A random group of 100 Americans would include 13 blacks and 12 Latinos, but our Senate lacks a single black or Latino member. Nearly all our legislatures under-represent people of color.

For decades, the unique "representation subsidy" bestowed upon low-population states in the U.S. Senate and Electoral College has provided an advantage to conservatives that shifts national policy and judicial appointments to the right. Democrats in the Senate represent far more Americans than Senate Republicans do, but hold a minority of seats.

Though Florida's 2000 election debacle finally led to federal and state action to improve the infrastructure of our elections, many states are taking steps to make it harder, not easier, to vote. Voting equipment irregularities and election administration snafus continue to mar the legitimacy of our elections.

In this era of poll-driven politics, political leaders repeatedly dodge big issues that don't have sound-bite fixes -- witness the Democrats' meek response to the Bush administration's push to war in Iraq last fall -- and too often their change their spots right after the election.

Given this "democracy deficit," it's no surprise that government is dangerously adrift from the needs and desires of average Americans. Weakness in representative democracy directly affects national policies, which in turn affects all citizens. Child poverty in the United States is 20 percent, the highest by far in the Western world except Russia. Despite being the world's lone remaining superpower, we suffer from greater rates of income inequality, poverty, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, HIV infection and homicide than nearly all other advanced democracies.

We have a far greater share of our citizenry without health care than western Europe, and the average American works nine weeks more each year than the average western European. According to the New America Foundation's Ted Halstead, "Our performance on many social indicators is so poor that an outsider looking at these numbers alone might conclude that we were a developing nation."

When reformers and progressives link these grim realities to reforming elections, it is usually through the lens of campaign finance -- just as 15 years ago, liberals usually focused on voter registration. But at this point the failures of American democracy are so much greater and more fundamental. Reducing the impact of money on politics and increasing the number of voters on the rolls are important, but they are only two pieces of a much larger and urgently needed enterprise.

An energized democracy demands, at minimum, diverse representation, meaningful choices across the political spectrum, full participation before and after elections, robust public debate, policies that correspond with the "will of the majority," efficient election administration, and accurate vote counting. Voters must hear from a range of candidates, have a reasonable chance of electing their preferred representatives instead of the "lesser of two evils" and feel that they are choosing a responsive government that makes a positive difference in their lives.

To achieve a stronger democracy, we must be ready to pursue a range of reforms, including clean elections, free broadcast time for candidates, removal of barriers to voting, modern voting equipment, election day registration, holidays for major elections, well-trained poll workers, and promotion of representation for women and racial minorities.

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 (also known as proportional representation) for legislative elections and the adoption of instant runoff voting for executive offices elections. Full representation voting would promote meaningful choices from across the spectrum and fully represent our diversity; and by allowing voters to rank candidates rather than vote for just one, instant runoff voting would permit third-party candidates to run without spoiling or producing winners lacking majority support. These two powerful reforms would lay the bedrock for a multi-choice, voter-centered democracy and allow the marketplace of ideas to flourish in campaigns as well as in government.

We must be ready to take advantage of opportunities as they emerge in the politics of different states, just as reformers won expansion of suffrage over the years for those without property, African Americans, women and young people. Claiming democracy will require digging in for the long haul -- rejecting simple "magic bullet" solutions and instead seeking gains state by state and, ultimately, nationally.

It's time for a representative democracy where every vote is counted and every vote counts. It's time for serious candidates to proclaim a real democracy agenda, and for serious reformers to develop a strategy for building a broad and enduring movement. Citizens across the political spectrum must join to create a democracy that not only works for all Americans but also is a shining beacon worthy of export to the rest of the world.

(Steven Hill is a senior 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.)

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