Investing In Our Democratic Infrastructure

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

Some of the casualties of the tragic "war on terror/Iraq/enemy of the moment" are all the other domestic issues out there crying for attention. Didn't we learn anything from the travesty of our last presidential election in November 2000? For instance, we may be the world's remaining superpower and high-tech leader, but we still can't count the votes right. Florida recently received well-deserved ridicule after yet another "gang that couldn't shoot straight" fiasco in its primary.

But Florida is far from alone. State after state has had problems with polls not opening on time, machines breaking down, voter registration cards getting lost, underpaid pollworkers not carrying out their duties. In Michigan's hotly-contested gubernatorial primaries, more than one in ten ballots were invalidated.

It has been nearly two years since Florida introduced new vocabulary words like "chad" and "butterfly ballots," yet the federal bill that was supposed to fix it -- or at least start us in the right direction -- is stalled, with neither the president nor congressional leaders showing leadership. And yet still we hypocritically lecture other nations about democracy.

Our democracy has some obvious great strengths, but when it comes to elections we are surprisingly backward -- and cheap. Many other nations make a far higher relative investment in their electoral infrastructure, and adopt more advanced voting methods.

Brazil, for example, has a national computer-based system with safeguards in place that essentially eliminate voter error. When a Brazilian voter votes, a photo of their chosen candidate appears on the screen so the voter can verify visually their choice, preventing the voter confusion resulting from Florida's butterfly ballot. Most European nations have modern voter registration systems that lead to near-universal registration among adults, while nearly a third of American adults are unregistered.

In the United Kingdom, London elects its mayor using high-speed optical scan voting machines that allow voters to rank both their first and runoff choices. The ballots then can be counted to simulate an "instant runoff" election to provide for a majority winner in one election. In stark contrast, the great city of New York in 2001 spent an extra $10 million and strained its ancient pull-lever voting equipment to carry out a traditional "delayed," two-round mayoral runoff. These advances are not rocket science, yet the United States lags woefully behind.

From ballot access to campaign finance to voter registration to pollworker training, our electoral practices are a hodgepodge of confused regulation and ambiguous standards established by election officials in over 3,000 counties without national oversight. Unlike our roads, airports or military, our democracy's infrastructure has been grossly underfunded and unregulated for years. Not surprisingly, we are paying the price. Think of it as a massive bridge that is creaking and groaning at its hinges, for lack of enough maintenance.

We need to invest in the infrastructure of our democracy. If we can't count the votes, elections become less meaningful, both in perception and in practice. And we need to be smart about our investments. For example, if we followed the example of other nations, or the recommendation of last year's Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter reform commission, we would vote on a weekend or a holiday. This would result not only in more convenience and potentially higher voter turnout, but also in a far greater pool of volunteer pollworkers to assist on Election Day.

We also must do our best to make voting meaningful. Our "winner-take-all" system has reached a near breaking point. Incumbents often draw their own district lines in redistricting, thereby guaranteeing themselves and their political allies safe seats and making voters superfluous. The incentives of our "winner-take-all" politics are producing campaigns that increasingly are watered down by poll-tested blandness and sound bites. Even governance is becoming hostage to the permanent winner-take-all campaign, where party leaders have one eye on showing up their competition.

We need a thorough debate -- nationally and in states through high-level commissions -- about alternative democratic practices, including alternatives to winner-take-all elections such as proportional voting methods for legislatures and instant runoff voting for executive offices like mayor, governor and president.

Turning a blind eye to our antiquated and creaking democratic infrastructure, from voting machines to voting methods, does a disservice to the American electorate and to the future of American democracy. While progressives understandably must do everything we can to thwart a tragic war in the Middle East or elsewhere, we also need to keep the home fires burning for other domestic issues that the Bush administration would just as soon see buried in the rubble of Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

Steven Hill is a senior policy analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. Rob Richie is the Center's executive director. Contact the Center at, or PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.

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