What Do We Need from Election Reform?
In May 2006 when I was invited to speak at the "Cleaning up our Statehouses" Conference sponsored by the Progressive State Network, I spoke about the role that community and local involvement play in building our political structures. I began by telling about Democracy for New Hampshire, a statewide grassroots organization that I helped to found in the early days of 2004.
The sentiments I held then still hold true for me now and I include some of the words I spoke at that conference in this piece.
Democracy for New Hampshire is a true grassroots organization. We are 100% volunteer-powered sustained by small donor funding. As a people-powered organization, we are intensely and directly connected to community needs and values. In New Hampshire, we know a lot about the importance of community and community-based political engagement. We have the largest citizen legislature in the nation, our elected representatives are eminently accessible, in many of our towns we debate community and political decisions in open town meetings, and in 45% of our polling places we count our ballots by hand with community members and volunteers pitching in to keep the count honest.
Looking at electoral reform, we face three challenges directly related to this question of community-based politics:
1. How do we prevent a lot of hard work at the state and local levels from being swept away by federal mandates?
2. How do we bring more on-the-ground stakeholders into the process to reach solutions that really work?
3. What is the intersection between clean and honest elections and citizen participation in the process?
America finds itself today in an electoral crisis. Faith and trust in our voting systems have eroded to the point where the question of campaign funding almost becomes irrelevant. Indisputable testing and evidence have proven that the privatized computer-based systems controlling more than 90-95% of the nation's electoral outcomes are easily hack-able. Given this situation, it may not even matter how much money one does or doesn't spend on a campaign, if the outcome can be systematically altered.
This state of affairs, combined with the role played by money in our political system, is possibly the greatest threat ever posed to our democratic processes and therefore to the existence of the AmericanRepublic itself.
How did we reach this point, and what does it have to do with this notion of community?
Over the past thirty five years a series of national election reform legislation has progressively shifted power from community, we-the-people-based politics, to more centralized and questionable influences.
The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 created the Federal Election Commission, which pre-empted states rights in the area of campaign funding. It also precipitated a 1976 Supreme Court ruling equating money with free speech, bringing a whole new twist to the notion of centralized power in the hands of the moneyed. (Buckley v. Valeo) Since this ruling, virtually every political decision is saturated with the influence of money.
With each successive election "reform" instituted at the national level, the corrupting influence of money led to ever-increasing centralization of power and control.
- The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 instituted a uniform system of voter registration controlled by the federal government. This has resulted in a bureaucratic morass riddled with corruption, and is the source of widespread voter suppression.
- The 2002 Help America Vote Act continued the trend of centralized power with its creation of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an executive commission of four presidential appointees with ever-increasing control over our nation's elections. The EAC's power is rooted in part by its oversight of the distribution of 3.8 billion taxpayer dollars to replace faulty voting equipment throughout the country. This has resulted in today's computerized voting crisis described earlier.
- Proposed legislation at the national level, such as the "Voter Confidence Act" sponsored by Democratic New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt (aka "The Holt Bill") would cement the corrupting influence of centralized power at the expense of state's rights, by strengthening the EAC even further.
If we are to save American democracy, everything we do needs to incorporate the value of community and give deference and voice to the power of we-the-people. As a true grassroots organization, DFNH provides a pathway to community-based political connection. Our focus on state and local issues appropriately keeps the center of power with the people whose lives are affected by political decisions, and helps to maintain the checks and balances etched into the DNA of American democracy.
American democracy depends on a system of decentralized power. Cleaning up our statehouses depends on local control. Community political engagement does not require a rural New England environment, or even an organization like DFNH.