Americans rightly take pride in living in one of the world’s oldest democracies. But with that pride has come a dangerous hubris, a self-satisfaction with our institutions that tends to direct people’s frustration with government at individual politicians rather than flawed electoral rules and constitutionally mandated structures of government that establish perverse incentives for political leaders and undercut participation and accountability. Pro-democracy advocates’ tendency to shy away from challenging these fundamental rules and structures makes it more difficult to galvanize Americans to confront the dismal state of our electoral democracy.
To inspire activists and supporters, it is time to embrace an ambitious national vision of reform that both challenges the major obstacles to full-fledged democracy and informs more incremental strategies for advancing democracy at state and local levels. One particularly promising vehicle for bringing electoral reform and civil rights groups together is a call for a right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, with that call grounded in a strong national network of reform and civil rights groups organized to coordinate communications and to support state and local opportunities to secure, enhance, and exercise the right to vote.
A Constitutional Right to Vote
A call for constitutional change may seem daunting, but it establishes an overarching democratic vision and a touchstone for defining the importance of intermediate statutory changes. With electoral democracy in a truly alarming condition, we need far more resources and activists involved in making our democracy vital, participatory and representative. For that to happen, however, people must believe that incremental advances -- advances that will be different in different states based on local opportunities -- are part of a clearly defined, comprehensive struggle that, when achieved, would have a clear and present impact on our democracy and our lives. Organizing around the right to vote could provide a foundation for a full range of reform approaches that make that right to vote more meaningful, powerful and inclusive.
Barriers to Strengthening Democracy. Our complex 21st century polity is very different from the nascent state established along the eastern seaboard in the 18th century, yet of course major elements of our Constitution are grounded in that distant time. All their foresight notwithstanding, our nation’s constitutional framers lived in a different era, with a different understanding than what we have today about who should vote, how politics should be organized and how best to hold government accountable. They accepted the odious institution of slavery and promoted or at least tolerated views of the privileged nature of the franchise that could not be supported today.
American democracy undeniably has significant strengths, but its successes are achieved in spite of key constitutional barriers, not because of them. Consider the following.
There is no right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Protection of the right to vote is left to the states with the exception of constitutional amendments that prevent disfranchisement of specific classes of people (African Americans, women, and young adults) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which provides statutory protection to racial minorities. Back in the 18th century, different states had very different views of the franchise and who should have it, and there was simply no way that the framers could establish a universal right to vote. Most states excluded women, people of color and the poor from a right to vote. Several states in their early years did not hold elections for president, instead letting state legislatures appoint electors – a state prerogative that the Bush v. Gore majority explicitly affirmed in its 2000 ruling.
Today the lack of a federally guaranteed right to vote leads to a decentralized system of protecting that right. States can capriciously disfranchise whole groups of citizens like ex-felons. States have traditionally set a few guidelines like polling hours and then let local governments run and fund elections. More than 10,000 counties and townships have the ability to craft and enforce their own rules involving ballot design, voter registration, polling places and the like. The ultimate impact of such erratic and underfunded election administration is the loss of millions of potential votes each election, disproportionately among people of color. Imagine interstate highway conditions and rules changing every ten miles, and you get some idea of how we protect the right to vote in the United States even after the disaster of Florida’s election in 2000.
The Electoral College perverts the democratic norm of one person, one vote and balkanizes presidential elections so that a minority of the electorate matters and a majority is essentially irrelevant. Presidential candidates and their supporters focus on 15 to 20 “battleground” states that are more meaningful for only one reason: they are expected to be close in a nationally competitive election. Most states, including several of our largest and most that have the highest concentrations of people of color, are ignored. As additional outrages against democratic principles, the Electoral College system allots unequal influence to voters based on the population of their state and individual electors can choose to deny the will of their state’s voters.
The U.S. Senate allows small states that are disproportionately white, rural and Protestant to have a huge bonus of power in Congress. Despite its unrepresentative nature – one underscored by the utter absence of African Americans and Latinos as of 2004 despite these groups comprising more than a quarter of our nation’s population – the Senate has lawmaking papers equal to those of the House of Representatives, and arguably has greater powers overall, including the exclusive congressional power to approve treaties, confirm presidential nominees and oust impeached government officials. Short of eliminating the Senate, there at least should be a vigorous debate about weakening its power, as other democracies have done when they have upper houses.
The Constitution hinders reforms such as full representation and campaign finance reform. Although not spelled out in the Constitution, winner-take-all elections for the House of Representatives are assumed by the Supreme Court in its failed attempts to curtail political gerrymandering, and are a de facto reality for the smaller states unless the size of the House were greatly increased. The result of winner-take-all, single-member districts is a near unbroken parade of landslide wins, geographically based partisan polarization, underrepresentation of women and people of color and clear policy biases against urban areas.
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment makes it extremely difficult to limit campaign spending, which in turn leads candidates and representatives to focus much more attention on those who can make significant contributions than those who cannot. This focus tends to suppress potential candidacies that lack financial resources.
Democracy Deficit. One way to summarize the democracy deficit grounded in these problems comes from bullet points in the “call to action” for the Claim Democracy conference that the Center for Voting and Democracy organized in 2003. More than 75 leading organizations ultimately signed onto a statement that led with the following summary of problems with our democracy:
• the deafening absence of substantive debate in Congress about the Bush administration’s shift to a foreign policy of pre-emptive warfare;
• the continuing lack of a single African American or Latino in the U.S. Senate and underrepresentation of people of color in all levels of government;
• the disturbingly low voter participation rates in our elections, particularly among young people;
• the stalling of progress in levels of women’s representation in Congress and state legislatures;
• the widespread perception that Congress is out of touch with the needs and desires of average Americans;
• the embrace by legislators of partisan approaches to redistricting that contribute to historic levels of incumbent protection and landslide victories;
• the growing inequality in candidates’ access to the public through the media;
• the effective exclusion of non-major party candidates and independents from serious consideration in most elections;
• the growing concern about threats to our civil liberties;
• the lack of urgency and vision in modernizing the dilapidated infrastructure of elections;
• and, last but certainly not least, the absence of a constitutionally protected right to vote (not to mention the right to a truly effective and meaningful vote).
Despite groups’ widespread agreement about these deficiencies, however, efforts to reform elections have been woefully inadequate, with a reigning sense of defeatism that makes it difficult to mobilize necessary resources. One failing is that pro-democracy organizations are typically unable to present a comprehensive reform vision that can make potential activists and donors believe their particular efforts will make a difference. Instead, each group is defined by a piecemeal agenda of its own particular signature reforms, the value of which are easily exaggerated in groups’ efforts to secure more funding and attention. At the state level, the place where most pro-democracy work can be pursued most effectively, the few lobbyists for pro-democracy issues are underfunded, undersupported and often saddled with non-democracy policy agendas that undercut opportunities to promote democracy.
Creation of a pro-democracy coalition. The times urgently demand a new vision that puts a strong democracy, in all its components and without belief in a “magic bullet” approach, at the center of reformers’ agenda. Among the measures of success for this agenda would be that serious presidential candidates would highlight their visions for a better democracy, civic groups seeking changes in policy would consistently connect their interests to those of a more vital democracy, and think tanks and columnists would feature the significance of a more participatory democracy and advances and setbacks to its realization across the country.
Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. has introduced HJ Resolution 28, an amendment to put a right to vote in the Constitution. As of May 2004, it has nearly the entire congressional black caucus on board and is drawing attention from widening circles of Members of Congress. The proposed amendment should appeal to civil rights backers who realize that the decentralized protection of the right to vote hurts people of color – allowing states to disfranchise ex-felons and maintaining election administration practices that lead to a highly disproportionate loss of votes from communities of color. It should also appeal to reformers who can see the value of a national dialogue about how our Constitution lacks something as basic as the right to vote. And such an amendment can appeal to populists who want to close the loophole allowing state legislatures to appoint electors to the Electoral College.
The amendment could inspire the formation of a coalition of pro-democracy advocates to support varied approaches to secure, enhance, and exercise the right to vote. This coalition could address the crying need for a stronger infrastructure for a pro-democracy movement across the nation. Ideally such a movement would have a lean, but effective, national office with two primary functions: conducting expansive media outreach and providing support to state reformers. The national office would collect best practices for promoting particular reforms, develop educational and advocacy materials to facilitate state advocacy and aggressively promote democracy through coordinating writings and media appearances. It would coordinate the network of national representatives of pro-democracy organizations to facilitate communication among groups focused on different pro-democracy issues and help mobilize financial resources for particularly promising efforts.
At least initially, the greatest surge of resources would be needed to develop and sustain pro-democracy efforts in every state that would work to boost voter turnout and be ready to lobby for elements of a full agenda of pro-democracy issues. Effective coalitions could be created at the state level by building networks among pro-democracy organizations and taking advantage of resources and insights provided by a stronger, more coordinated national pro-democracy movement. Such state coalitions could be modeled after existing groups like MassVOTE in Massachusetts and Democracy Works in Connecticut.
Nonpartisan work to boost turnout under current rules would have obvious benefits in the short-term and would serve to connect turnout efforts with electoral reform. The goals would be to engage community-based groups over time in encouraging turnout rather than linking to the short-term needs of a particular election and to urge those community-based groups to consider institutional obstacles to boosting participation and support reforms.
Grounded in these community-based groups and supported by the national network of pro-democracy advocates, pro-democracy lobbyists would develop relationships with elected officials and influential players in state politics and be ready to exploit openings for particular elements of the democracy agenda. They would promote certain generic strategies – formation of pro-democracy commissions in states to suggest ways to improve the electoral process, for example, and particular angles for reforms that can give them a foothold in a state – but in general would be light on their feet and able to identify and exploit opportunities to advance elements of the pro-democracy agenda.
The efforts of existing groups active on a particular issue in a state would be complemented, not replaced. No doubt certain issues would get surges in national funding – such as occurred with voter registration efforts in the 1980s, public financing in the 1990s and ex-felons’ voting rights today – but ideally some of those resources would support the infrastructure to allow multifaceted reform work informed by the understanding that strengthening and energizing democracy is a never-ending process that is not defined by any particular reform. Rather, a strong democracy is defined by concerns about equality, meaningful choices, full voter participation before and after elections, effective voter education, efficient election administration, and recognition of the importance of the full representation of American diversity.
Pro-democracy advocates in a particular state would focus on specific reforms that are timely because of political opportunities created by that state’s political configuration and electoral rules. Issues that might be promoted include removal of barriers to voting, full representation, instant runoff voting, voter education (through instruments like voter guides), fair electoral practices for non-major party candidates, campaign finance reform, fusion, election day registration and the promotion of equitable representation of women and people of color. Having such a network would likely be a boost to all these reform efforts; certainly I believe it would have led to more significant wins for my organization’s signature issues of instant runoff voting and full representation.
Some might be concerned that it is foolhardy to start something this ambitious given the vagaries of foundation funding and the shortfalls in the current democracy movement. But the problem with the American pro-democracy movement is not that there are not enough funds in this country for pro-democracy work. Rather too much of the available resources for pro-democracy work are going elsewhere, be it candidate campaigns or non-electoral efforts in support of particular policy objectives. What pro-democracy advocates need is a galvanizing vision that brings people together to build a tapestry of success that gets more and more people excited and supportive of that vision. Let’s start by coming together to ensure a meaningful right to vote.
(Robert Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, www.fairvote.org.)