Tag Archives: election reform

This Deserves Full-Throated Support

So long as Republicans continue to control the Senate–and a know-nothing buffoon continues to occupy and degrade the Oval Office–this bill is unlikely to become law.

That’s too bad, because it gets to the essence of our genuine “national emergency.”

The bill, which is known as H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, and was sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), would create a more responsive and representative government by making it easier for voters to cast a ballot and harder for lawmakers to gerrymander, by transforming how campaigns are funded to amplify the voices of ordinary Americans, and by bolstering election security and government ethics.

Rather than treating structural issues hindering democratic decision making in separate proposals, the bill addresses a number of the systemic weaknesses that enable political game-playing and “dirty tricks”–  voting rights, gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, and ethics.

The Brennan Center description of the measure (linked above) highlights several of the most important provisions–restoring the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that everyone in the country gets at least two weeks within which to cast an early ballot, campaign finance reforms, and a requirement that all voting machines have paper trails. Among the most important are measures affecting voter registration and discouraging gerrymandering:

Streamlining Voter Registration: H.R. 1 would bring Automatic and Same-Day Voter Registration to voters across the country. Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a transformative reform under which eligible voters are automatically registered when they provide information to the government at the DMV or other government agencies, unless they opt out. Since 2015, 15 states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, leading to big gains in registration. If adopted nationwide, AVR could add as many as 50 million new voters to the rolls. Same-Day Registration (SDR) allows eligible voters to register at the polls on Election Day, making it less likely that voters will be disenfranchised by last-minute registration problems. It is already offered in 16 states. Combined with AVR, SDR would solve most of the serious registration problems voters experienced in 2016 and 2018….

Gerrymandering Reform. H.R. 1 would curb extreme partisan gerrymandering by ensuring that states draw congressional districts using independent redistricting commissions whose members represent diverse communities across the state, by establishing fair redistricting criteria, and by mandating greater transparency for the redistricting process.

Taken as a whole, this bill would make considerable progress toward ensuring fair elections with results that accurately reflect the will of the voters. In a sane world, opposing it would be tantamount to opposing motherhood and apple pie–so why do I say that Republicans will never let it see the light of day?

The answer to that (entirely rhetorical) question is obvious to anyone who follows political news: without gaming the system, today’s GOP cannot win enough votes to control the House or Senate. If not for the Electoral College, the party–at least as it exists today– would rarely if ever win the White House.

America desperately needs a grown-up GOP, one that’s able to compete for votes in fair elections. While we wait for the emergence of such a party, however, we need fair elections.

Passing this bill would be a major step in that direction.

If I Had a Magic Wand….

Yesterday, I wrote that America’s governing systems no longer work properly. I believe the original, basic premises of our approach to self-government remain sound, but our “delivery systems,” the mechanics of representative democracy, have become corrupted.

With effort, those can be changed. One of the great benefits of America’s constitutional system is its flexibility. Despite persistent cries of alarm from so-called “textual originalists,” our legal system has continued to work because it has been remarkably adaptable to “new facts on the ground.”

It is undeniable, however, that our 200+ year old ship of state has taken on some barnacles.

Compromises intended to keep slave states happy (the Electoral College, for example) are poorly adapted to modern notions of democratic fairness; early allocations of  federalist jurisdiction are increasingly ill-suited to a mobile, connected population. Etc.

Assuming (as I do) that Trump’s election presages a period of turmoil and civic unrest during which many laws and institutions will be challenged and found to be unworkable, or understood to be hopelessly outmoded, what changes should we try to effect once the fever breaks?

Here are a few I think have merit:

We should establish a national, nonpartisan commission to administer elections under uniform standards. Many countries have such agencies. It would maintain voter rolls (we have no idea what turnout actually is, because there is a lag time during which states don’t know when a voter moves, or dies, and there are great disparities between states in record-keeping, purges, etc.), establish uniform times for polls to be open, prevent voter suppression efforts, and generally insure a fair and equal election process.

We should get rid of the Electoral College,  gerrymandering and Citizens United.

At the local level, we should sharply limit the positions that are elected. There is no reason to elect coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees and the like. Some of these positions may no longer be needed; those that are should be appointed by Mayors or County executives. Similarly, Governors should appoint Attorneys General and Superintendents of Public Instruction. Making a chief executive responsible for these administrative positions would improve accountability and decrease political infighting.

There are a number of steps we might take to increase vote turnout and make election results more closely reflect the popular will. We can make election day a holiday, and/or vastly increase voting by mail.  (America is highly unlikely to make voting mandatory, as it is in Australia, but we might consider a “none of the above” option.)

In addition to such mechanical “fixes,” we need a population that is at least minimally civically-literate. The emphasis upon STEM education is all well and good, but it should not be allowed to crowd out the humanities and especially civics education. “We the People” or an equivalent high-quality civics curriculum should be required for high school graduation.

And I want to put in a plug for a “New GI Bill”: Upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon satisfactory completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college or other post-secondary training. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

When people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity for post-secondary education—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

Those are my beginning agenda items. I’m confident that there are numerous other ideas for reconstituting and revitalizing America’s politics and our commitment to the goal of e pluribus unum.

We’re in the middle of a very painful lesson in what isn’t working; let’s start considering what would.