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A Pro-Democracy Agenda for a New Congress

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie  Posted by Rob Richie (about the submitter)     Permalink
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With Democrats moving into control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, one means to build faith with voters would be seeking policies designed to improve democracy within Congress and elections in the United States.

Change is certainly needed. Our constitutional framers designed the U.S. House of Representatives -- the "people's house" -- to be the branch of government with the most power and most democratic accountability. From the beginning every Member had to be elected and face the voters every two
years, in contrast to presidents picked by an Electoral College and U.S. Senators by state legislators.

But the reality is that House elections now provide no more choice or competition to most voters than the former Soviet elections to the Politburo. November 7th marked only the second shift of partisan control in more than five decades, spanning 26 elections and a period when the presidency shifted
between the major parties six times.

It's high time to modernize our elections and establish a more vital democracy. Consider these five proposals:

1) Better governance. Democratic leaders should change the ugly traditions of recent congressional leaders and run the House with more openness to ideas, regardless of their source. Even though in
the minority, Republicans 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 pre-election and post-election accountability for their plans and performance and prevent poor decisions like purchasing glitzy voting machines that lack voter-verified paper trails.

3) Universal voter registration. We need a system of universal voter registration in which election officials automatically register all eligible voters and change records when people move. 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 the United States. Universal voter registration will be all the easier now that states must establish 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 rolls and make it easier to eliminate redundancy.

4) Changing our 18th-century electoral system. We should end redistricting shenanigans that block accountability and adopt proportional voting methods. Partisan gerrymandering is bad enough, but most House districts have natural partisan tilts that turn a majority of the vote into 100% of representation -- with Democrats having majorities 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 -- even this year, 19 out of every 20 incumbents won. In addition, more than nine in ten House races were won by noncompetitive margins from 1998 to 2004, and while that number increased in 2006, expect it to settle back into dormancy in a "normal" election. In the states, nearly four ten state legislative winners did not face even token opposition. Proportional voting systems would put all voters into competitive elections where their votes count more than district lines.

5) Majority, spoiler-free voting: Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an increasingly popular system at the local level 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. IRV would pry open our political system and liberate voters to select candidates they really like instead of picking "the lesser of two evils." More candidates
can run, but we're all the more certain of majority winners. 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. Voter certainly like it -- IRV swept four campaigns this year in Minneapolis (MN), Pierce County (WA) and Oakland and
Davis in California, while the North Carolina adopted it for certain vacancy elections and up to 20 pilot uses at a local level in 2007-2008.

By acting on such an agenda, 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 AmericaFoundation and is author of "Ten Steps to Repair American Democracy. Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote.)
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