What Would Democratic Elections Look Like?

By Jeff Milchen 
November 15, 2002 (some items updated October, 2004)

Our federal election fiasco in 2000 exposed numerous critical flaws in our electoral process and spurred a new flurry of reform efforts, but despite all the attention generated, the actual changes have been little more than band-aids.

Why? One reason may be the approach taken by most reform proponents that essentially asks “what can we do to make this deeply flawed system less corrupt?” What might change if the approach was to first ask “what conditions are necessary for a truly representative democracy?” and then, “how do we get there?”

It’s a fundamental difference in approach. Hopefully, some of the examples here will provoke you to consider the path of electoral reform in the U.S. and to clarify your own thoughts on what actions we must take to achieve representative democracy.

We view as a fundamental requirement for democracy that each person’s political influence result directly from the quality of one’s ideas and the energy put into promoting them–independent of a person’s wealth to the greatest degree possible. Yet we’re clearly nowhere close to those conditions when it comes to state and federal elections.

The excessive power assigned to money, especially in federal elections, is glaring. Even in the 2002 Congressional races, where money was less dominant as the determinant of the victors than in 2000, 95% of all House seats and 75% of Senate seats were won by the higher-spending candidate. Incumbents won 97% of races in which they ran. (based on candidate financial reports filed through September 2002, when this article was written.)

And money is a conclusive determinant of who can compete. One-third of all those running for the House (157 candidates) — effectively ran unopposed. Thirty-five had no opponent at all, while another 122 faced challengers who spent less than $5,000. No wonder only 75 of the 435 House races were even marginally competitive (margin of victory less than 20 points).

The depth of our problems in some specific realms such as campaign financing is explored in detail in other articles. Here, we aim briefly to explore an overview of some of our most vitally needed electoral reforms.

1. Abolish the “Money Equals Speech” Doctrine

2. Revoke the Precedent of Granting Bill of Rights Protections to Corporations
These destructive Supreme Court creations both lack Constitutional basis. The first precedent dates to the late 1800s when the Court applied the Fourteenth Amendment and “due process” guarantees–designed to protect the rights of freed slaves–to corporations, an entity mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.

The 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision authorized some limits on political donations, but equated campaign spending with speech and legalize political donations at levels beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest Americans. Just one tenth of one percent of Americans gave a $1000 contribution in the 2000 election–one-quarter the present $4000 limit for investments in an individual candidate per election cycle (after the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act doubled the “hard money” contribution limits).

While we fully support public campaign financing, we must also confront those two root problems. While banning “soft money” may prevent direct corporate funding of parties, it doesn’t touch corporate interference in democracy via advertising, lobbying, and many other activities.

Consider the combined effect of these two premises: give an institution (the corporation) with an unlimited ability to amass wealth many key rights of citizens, then allow money to translate freely to political power. Now ask yourself if we can possibly realize the ideal of one person, one vote with these two perversions of our Constitution intact. These issues are at the heart of our diseased democracy.

See “When Money Is Speech, Speech Cannot Be Free” for more on #1. See our Corporate Personhood page for more on #2.

3. Establish a Constitutional Right to Vote
Voting is one of the fundamental elements of citizenship and democracy, and most Americans assume universal suffrage to be a struggle already won–but we lack any Constitutional right to vote! Yes, the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments outlaw voting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or age, but those protections are hollow because all citizens may be disenfranchised so long as it is done without bias. The Supreme Court on at least three occasions has affirmed that voting is a privilege granted at the discretion of those in power.

Our lack of Constitutional voting rights enabled many of the worst abuses in the 2000 elections (such as the mass disenfranchisement in Florida) and continues to invite gross injustice in elections. The deliberate suppression of targeted voting blocks that occurred in 2000 will only worsen in years ahead now that its effectiveness is proven and public opposition was muted.

Our lack of voting rights also allows the United States government to deny residents of Washington D.C. any voting representation in Congress whatsoever. A constitutional amendment is needed to rectify this problem.

Read more on the missing right to vote or see our proposed Right to Vote Amendment.

4. Institute Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)
The unhealthy dilemma of voting one’s conscience versus voting for the “realistic” contender should be eliminated. IRV offers a neutral and proven method for correcting this problem. Voters simply rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, she/he wins. If no candidate receives a majority of first place votes, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are counted for one of the remaining candidates according to those ballots’ second choices.

IRV ensures a majority winner, frees minor-party candidates from a “spoiler” role, and allows voters to express their true preferences rather than voting out of fear. It also spurs cleaner campaigns, as candidates have an incentive to avoid mud-slinging when they compete for second-choice votes. IRV can work at any level of government, and states are free to implement it for federal elections.

Visit the Center for Voting and Democracy for much more on this issue. We also have a free pamphlet on the topic, available to supporters on request. 

5. Adopt Public Campaign Financing at Local and State Levels
Taxpayer-funded campaigns are the greatest bargain on Earth when one compares the cost of a few dollars per person for public funding to the cost of paybacks by elected officials to major campaign donors. The results in Maine and Arizona, two states that have led the way in public campaign financing, are impressive: increased participation, more competitive elections, and greater public trust in government. 

6. Establish Democratic Presidential Debates
The nationally-televised presidential debates are the single most influential forum for most Americans to decide whether they should vote in the race and for whom. They offer a rare opportunity to hear candidates’ ideas unedited and in context.

Since 1988, these debates have been controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a private corporation created and controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. The CPD operates with no public oversight and exists primarily to further the interests of those two parties–to the detriment of democracy. The greatest harms to democracy are the exclusion of legitimate candidates outside of the CPD owners’ parties and the exclusion of many vital issues from introduction into the debates.

ReclaimDemocracy.org co-founded the Citizens’ Debate Commission in 2003 to institute debates that serve democracy, not just the two major parties. Here’s one of many articles we’ve published on democratizing the debates.

7. Reduce Ballot Access Barriers
State laws often raise absurd barriers to political competition that enshrines a two-party duopoly. National standards must be enacted for all federal offices to prevent this discrimination. Non-partisan election officials also are essential to correcting these problems.

Ballot Access News is the definitive resource on ballot access issues.

8. Abolish the Electoral College
Presently, the vote of individuals for president in the smallest states carries three times the weight of that of citizens in some more populous states. In addition, the winner-take-all system, used by most states, is profoundly anti-democratic because it wipes out the vote of all those within the state not voting for the winning presidential candidate. Eliminating the Electoral College requires a Constitutional amendment–a long-term challenge. But states can implement Instant Runoff Voting, proportional assignment of electors (already done in Maine and Nebraska) and other ideas to improve the system dramatically.

9Independent Redistricting Commissions and Election Administration
Democracy is hollow when elected officials choose their constituents, rather than constituents choosing them, yet that’s our reality in elections for the U.S. House of Representatives today. The combination of partisan gerrymandering (drawing district boundaries to benefit particular candidates or party) of House districts with winner-take-all elections and the huge monetary advantages of incumbency means few citizens have the opportunity to vote in a competitive House election. Indeed, 98% of House members running for re-election retained their seats between 1996 and 2002.

The gerrymandering component of this problem should be addressed by citizens in every state demanding nonpartisan commissions to draw redistricting maps, as Iowa and Arizona already have done, while building a movement for national reform.

Similarly, allowing state elections to be overseen by partisan officials is absurd. All election administration officials should be non-partisan appointments. Additionally, we need federal standards for fair and consistent registration, ballot and voting procedures.

10. Make Election Day a Holiday
Too many citizens are impeded from voting because of limited voting hours and work obligations. A “Democracy Day” to engage citizens in Election Day activities, including voting, is a worthy investment. Citizens can work for this change in their own state or federally.  Contact us for a free pamphlet on this topic.

11. Mandate Open-Source Code for Any Computer Voting Machines
We wince at the idea that this even needs to be said. The idea of corporations having total control over the counting of votes without source codes being open-source and inspectable by any interested party is intolerable and must be prohibited.

Blackboxvoting.org focuses on this issue.

12. Reduce Barriers to Voting
Eliminate pre-registration requirements. Such laws are economically and racially discriminatory and a senseless deterrent to voting. A federal mandate for same-day registration is a long overdue update of the Voting Rights Act.

13. Stop Permanent Disenfranchisement
In Florida, over 400,000 citizens, including a whopping 30% of all black men, were prohibited from voting in 2000. Some did not even have actual felony convictions–the official justification–but were purged illegally from the rolls by a private corporation (Choicepoint Inc.) contracted by the state. While the choice of whether to disenfranchise those in prison is appropriately left to states, lifetime voting prohibitions for ex-felons, enacted by several states, are racist and violate the constitutional promise of equal protection of law. Disenfranchisement of those who have served their sentences must be banished.

Of course, this list is incomplete and many other ideas deserve consideration, but key to all truly fundamental reform efforts is to begin with the end goal in mind and to be aware of, but not controlled by, current leanings of the Supreme Court or “political reality.” Government of, by, and for the people only will result if the people repossess it.

Please see our Transforming Politics page for more detailed analysis of some issues summarized here and additional links to organizations focusing on these issues.