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Baltimore Sun

Democracy unbalanced
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Baltimore Sun, May 2, 2003
The war in Iraq revealed a disturbing weakness in our democracy. Regardless of one's views on the war, it's hard to defend how Congress avoided debate about the administration's dramatic shift toward pre-emptive warfare.

Lack of democracy at home is a grave threat to our national well-being and future. The data are stark.

We rank 139th in the world in average turnout in national elections since 1945. It's been decades since even half of adults voted in congressional elections in a nonpresidential year.
  • Our Senate has great powers but lacks a single African-American or Latino. A random group of 100 Americans would include 25 African-Americans and Latinos. 
  • The total percentage of women in Congress is stalled at less than 15 percent, and the percentage in state legislatures has declined.
  • After blatant incumbent protection in redistricting, only four House incumbents lost to nonincumbent challengers in 2002 - the fewest in history.

More than 40 percent of state legislative races have been won without major party opposition in each election since 1996. Congressional leaders repeatedly dodge big issues that don't have sound-bite fixes. Combined with the low voter turnout, distorted representation and duplicitous, poll-driven campaigns in which many winners change their spots after the election, it's no surprise that government is dangerously adrift from the needs and desires of average Americans.

Lack of democracy matters, not only in itself but because of its impact on policy. The United States is the most unequal society in the advanced democratic world, with that inequality having glaring racial, ethnic, age and gender dimensions. We are the world's lone remaining superpower, yet suffer from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide and HIV infection than nearly all other advanced democracies.

When reformers link these realities to elections, it usually is through the lens of campaign finance, just as 15 years ago it was focused on voter registration. But the failures of American democracy are greater and more fundamental. Reducing the impact of money on politics and increasing voters on the rolls are important, but only two pieces of a much larger and desperately needed enterprise.

An energized democracy demands, at a minimum, diverse representation, meaningful choices across the spectrum, full participation before and after elections, robust public debate, efficient election administration and accurate vote counting. Voters must hear from a range of candidates, have a reasonable chance of electing preferred representatives instead of "lessers of two evils" and have responsive government that improves their lives.

The times urgently demand a stronger infrastructure for a pro-democracy movement. We need full-time advocates in all states to lobby for a vigorous agenda of exclusively pro-democracy issues.

These 50 organizers would build strong networks among pro-democracy organizations and take advantage of resources provided by a more coordinated national approach. They would push for a range of reforms after setting priorities based on local opportunities for change. Given that states are taking very different approaches to implementing last year's federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), such an effort is all the more imperative to ensure that HAVA makes us more democratic, not less.

The reform agenda will differ by state, but we call for the removal of barriers to voting, including full voting rights for former felons and the District of Columbia, effective voter education, holidays for major elections, Election Day registration, well-trained poll workers and modern voting equipment.

These infrastructure reforms should be accompanied by fair ballot access laws, campaign finance reform, clean elections, free broadcast time for candidates, fusion/cross-party endorsement and promotion of representation of women and people of color.

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 for legislative elections and instant runoff voting for electing executive offices. These powerful reforms would lay the bedrock for a multiple-choice, voter-centered democracy and allow the marketplace of ideas to flourish in campaigns as well as in government.

Democracy can no longer take a back seat. Serious candidates must proclaim a real democracy agenda and serious reformers must develop a strategy for building a broad and enduring movement.

(Steven Hill is a senior analyst with Maryland's Center for Voting and Democracy and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics (Routledge Press, 2002). Rob Richie is executive director of the center, which is in Takoma Park. )

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