More than 500 participants representing 31 states and more than 90 organizations gathered on Nov. 21-23, 2003 for a potentially historic pro-democracy conference in Washington, D.C. With American democracy threatened on numerous fronts, the "Claim Democracy" conference cast a spotlight on the many ways in which our representative democracy must improve, and on the many individuals from across the nation who are making advances in their efforts to secure, enhance and exercise the right to vote and representation.
One of the dramatic high points of the conference was Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s clarion call for a right to vote in the US Constitution. The years since the 2000 presidential chaos in Florida have only served to underscore just how antiquated our electoral rules and practices have become. The pile-up of our democratic shortcomings is disturbing: redistricting abuses, campaign finance inequities, electoral administration snafus, voting equipment that undermines confidence, felony disenfranchisement, no Washington, D.C., voting rights, discriminatory ballot access laws, the ugly return of voter intimidation, choiceless and noncompetitive elections. These are just a few of the problems that plague our democracy, and all of them were addressed at this exciting conference.
It was inspiring to see the range of actions underway for claiming democracy. All of the 75 sponsoring organizations -- and many more besides -- are pursuing laudable goals. Their representatives didn't all agree on every particular of each other's approaches, and typically each organization focuses on its signature reforms rather than the broader pro-democracy mosaic. But there was general support and great camaraderie for much of what other reformers and voter turnout groups do. A rising democratic tide lifts all boats, and reforms and participation can generate hunger for more reforms and greater participation. Providing a glimpse of a more meaningful politics can lead to wanting more rather than being satisfied with the failures of the status quo.
Saturday's breakout sessions were organized so that state reformers, young activists and the general public could consider reforms to secure, enhance and exercise the vote through their particular interest.
Speakers showed the range of practical steps that can be taken immediately, no matter where you live. For example, our Center for Voting and Democracy's focus is opening up our political system through instant runoff voting and full representation which promote greater voter choice, better representation, higher participation, more substantive campaign debate, better governance, and policy that reflects the will of the majority. CVD representatives like former presidential candidate and congressman John Anderson and national field director Rashad Robinson urged attendees to take immediately achievable steps like adopting a fairer voting system in a local school or organization, measuring levels of participation and representation in one's city or county and evaluating how that might change with a fairer voting system, and promoting the idea that to earn electoral votes a presidential candidate in your state should have to win a majority through instant runoff voting.
On Sunday, participants had a chance to go deeper into issues and debates in more than 40 workshops and panels about the full range of reforms, including campaign finance reform, public financing, fair election methods like instant runoff voting and full representation, redistricting, easier voter registration, and expanding the franchise for younger Americans, non-citizens, former felons and those in the territories. Featured debates included the case for a multi-party democracy in the US (with 2000 Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader), the controversy over touchscreen voting equipment, and the merits of initiative and referendum.
Plenary speakers included the Center for Constitutional Rights' Ron Daniels, Common Cause's Chellie Pingree, Public Campaign's Mark Clack, the National Organization for Women's Kim Gandy, our Center's Steven Hill, Overruling Democracy author Jamin Raskin, Marie Wilson of the White House Project, Stephanie Moore of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, Miles Rapoport of Demos, and Texas state legislator Garnet Coleman.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. brought down the house with his stirring speech announcing his lifelong commitment to amend the Constitution to provide an affirmative right to vote. Rep. Jackson made a powerful case that, without such an amendment, we will always suffer from a lack of federal commitment to elections that allows for degradation of the electoral process across the nation. Indeed, in the shadow of the Capitol and the White House, we met in a city where a half a million citizens are denied a voting representative in Congress even as Congress imposes its will on the city. Millions of adult Americans are denied the right to vote for one reason or another, tens of millions don't vote because we as a nation lack a federal commitment to that fundamental right, and millions more are "orphaned" in states and gerrymandered congressional districts where they have no chance of joining with others to win representation.
Rep. Jackson's solution is a daring one: Join the overwhelming number of democratic nations and affirm a clear and powerful right to vote in the US Constitution. Most amendments have advanced democracy, with many directly expanding suffrage. It is a long-term strategy, but one that begins with a first step.
As we go deeper into the meaning and power of the right to vote in the wake of the conference, "Claim Democracy" may be seen in retrospect as the opening salvo in what could be a new campaign: one to make it clear that the right-to-vote must be fully protected, enhanced and exercised.
Given our severe democratic deficit outlined in the conference call to action, claiming democracy is no simple exercise. Rather than being a democratic model we can exhibit to the world, the US has become a democratic museum.
Rob Richie and Steve Hill are with the Center for Voting and Democracy. See www.fairvote.org or (301) 270-4616.