By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
With Democrats now in control of Congress for the first time in a dozen
years, one way for Democrats to build faith with all Americans would be to
pursue policies designed to increase fairness within Congress, as well as
improve democracy in the United States.
Change is certainly needed. The reality is that U.S. House elections now
provide no more competition or choice to most voters than the former Soviet
Union's elections to the Politburo. Even with Congress changing hands, 95%
of incumbents still won re-election and 86% of seats were won by
noncompetitive margins. No wonder voter turnout nationwide was only an
anemic 40 percent of eligible voters, despite the high stakes.
It's high time to modernize our elections and establish a more vital and
fair democracy. Consider these five proposals:
1) Better governance. Democratic leaders should change the ugly traditions
of recent GOP congressional leaders and run the House with more fairness and
openness to ideas, regardless of their source. Even though in the minority,
Republican representatives should be able to propose amendments. Earmarks
should be banned or at least open to full disclosure, and substantial bills
should allow time for review and deliberation.
2) Run better elections. Non-partisan, accountable election officials and a
national elections commission are essential for elections that are accurate
and secure. The U.S. leaves election administration to a hodge-podge of over
3,000 counties and nearly 10,000 municipalities scattered across the nation
with too few standards or uniformity to guide them. Election administrators
should be highly-trained civil servants who have a demonstrated proficiency
with technology, running elections and making the electoral process
transparent and secure. A national commission should establish minimum
standards and partner with state and local election officials to ensure
accountability for their performance and prevent poor decisions like
purchasing glitzy voting machines that lack adequate security features.
3) Universal voter registration. We need a system of universal voter
registration in which the government automatically registers all eligible
voters. Most established democracies have voter rolls that are far more
complete and clean than ours -- even Iraq has far more adults registered to
vote than we in the U.S. because the Iraqi government was encouraged by the
Bush administration to pro-actively register all eligible adults. Why
shouldn't Americans have the same gift of democracy that was given to Iraq?
Universal voter registration will be all the easier now that states must
establish statewide voter databases that can be cross-checked with other
lists of adults like Department of Motor Vehicle databases. Done well,
universal registration would add 50 million eligible voters to our voter
4) Changing our 18th-century electoral system. We should end redistricting
shenanigans that block accountability by adopting proportional
representation voting methods. Partisan gerrymandering is bad enough, but
most House districts have natural partisan tilts due to residential patterns
that create lopsided districts for Democrats in most cities and Republicans
in most rural areas. In an era of hardening partisan voting patterns, those
tilts since 1996 have led to more than 98% of House incumbents winning
re-election. In the states, nearly four out of ten state legislative winners
have not faced even token opposition for years. Proportional voting systems
would put all voters into competitive elections where their votes count more
than the district lines.
5) Majority, spoiler-free voting: Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an
increasingly popular system that allows voters to rank a first, second and
third choice on their ballots. If your first choice can't use your vote to
win and no candidate has a majority, your vote moves to your second ranking
as your runoff choice. The goal of IRV is to elect winners with a popular
majority in a single election. IRV would pry open our political system and
liberate voters to select candidates they really like instead of picking
"the lesser of two evils." Introduced with sparkling success in cities like
San Francisco and Burlington, IRV has the support of reform-minded major
party leaders like Barack Obama and John McCain and could be adopted
immediately for most elections. Voters certainly like it -- IRV swept four
campaigns this year in Minneapolis (MN), Pierce County (WA) and Oakland and
Davis (CA), while North Carolina has adopted it for certain vacancy
elections and for use at a local level.
By acting on such an agenda, Democratic congressional leaders would take a
strong step toward earning the faith and respect of voters from across the
spectrum. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, minor party or independent,
you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.
(Steven Hill directs the Political Reform Program for the New America
Foundation and is author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy"
Richie is executive director of FairVote (www.fairvote.org)