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 percent of incumbents still won re-election and 86 percent 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 rolls.
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 percent of House incumbents winning reelection. 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 Foundations. Rob Richie is executive director of fairvote (www.fairvote.org).