OTI Online
Winter 2009

Ramping Up Democracy in the U.S.
by Pam Wilmot

We asked leading thinkers to describe New Revolutions We Need for a feminist and progressive future. Here's one response.


Although shackled by outmoded institutions, partisan manipulation and gobs of special interest money, the 2008 election showed that American democracy is alive -- if still gasping for breath.

The positives have been well publicized. Millions volunteered for or donated to their presidential candidate. Almost 130 million citizens voted in the highest turnout in a century, although far from universal participation. And, of course, the nation elected the first African-American president, a triumph of possibility over prejudice.

After frustrating years of seeing moneyed special interests hijack our government, the U.S. stands at the threshold of a new age of democratic potential. We now have an opportunity to reinvent American democracy in ways that will break the chains of big money and retrograde laws, enabling us to give Americans the open, honest and accountable government we deserve.

But opportunity is only that -- a chance. The challenges we face are large, and those who oppose change are powerful.

Now is the time to fundamentally restore and rebuild our democracy with a revolution in voting. Such a revolution would contain many elements, but at the top of the list, along with public financing of elections, are two key proposals: institution of a national popular vote and universal voter registration. Other industrialized countries do a far better job at involving their citizens in the most basic act of democracy—voting. At a record 62 percent voter turnout, we have a far way to go to reach Australia’s 95 percent, France’s 82 percent, or Italy’s 81 percent.

Universal registration and national popular vote will dramatically increase the numbers of US citizens exercising their right to vote, although other proposals will be necessary to reach full participation.

Putting “We the People” First with A National Popular Vote

Barack Obama wasn’t President-elect Obama until December 15, 2008, when presidential electors gathered at state houses across the nation and placed the only votes that count—electoral votes. We the people don’t actually vote for the president. It’s long past time that we did.

Rock the Vote

The Electoral College is both outmoded and deeply undemocratic, with historical roots in slavery. At the dawn of the nation, only white men with property could vote. As the aristocrats gathered to write the Constitution, southern states insisted in counting their slaves as three/fifths of a person for the purpose of determining both the number of congressional districts and the number of presidential electors. They simply wouldn’t agree to the Union any other way. With a popular vote, northern states would have selected significantly more Presidents.

While the three/fifths compromise is long gone, the practical implications of the Electoral College today are still an affront to democracy. Rather than the nation as whole selecting the president, a handful of battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, decide the election, while voters in two-thirds of the country who live in “safe” states essentially have no role. Even with the unprecedented involvement in this fall’s election, 54 percent of the ads and 57 percent of the visits took place in four states, and 98 percent in just 15 states.

Voters in “spectator” states, including my home state of Massachusetts, were safely colored red or blue and just didn’t count. What’s more, the candidate who loses the popular vote can be elected president -- a scenario that played out in 2000, 1888, 1876 and 1824.

Constitutional amendments to eliminate of the Electoral College have come very close to passing on a number of occasions. On the most recent occasion in 1969, an amendment passed the U.S. House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin. But because an amendment also requires a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate and then ratification by three-quarters of the states, it is a virtual impossibility. Luckily, a constitutional amendment is not necessary.

Contrary to popular belief, the states are responsible for determining how presidential electors are allocated, not the federal government. The framers of the constitution purposely built flexibility into their plan because they were so conflicted about how the system should work. Various methods have been used by states over the years. Electors have been chosen by direct ballot without binding their support to a presidential candidate. Other electors have been appointed by state legislators, elected by congressional district or elected statewide in winner-take-all slates, as is currently the case in all but Maine and Nebraska.

Now, a different concept that draws upon this flexibility is gaining momentum. The “National Popular Vote” legislation uses this existing constitutional authority, paired with another clause in the U.S. Constitution that enables states to enter into legally enforceable joint agreements, to reframe our system to elect the president by the popular vote total in all 50 states.

Under National Popular Vote, the agreement will take effect only when identical enabling legislation has been enacted by states collectively possessing a majority of the Electoral College or 270 of the 538 electoral votes. That is roughly equal to half of the population, most likely around 25 states. These states agree to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, thereby guaranteeing the popular vote winner a supermajority in the Electoral College.

The plan, once adopted by enough other states, will ensure that the candidate who wins the popular vote in all 50 states will be elected president. And, it would ensure that each vote is counted equally and that our leaders are accountable to the nation as a whole, not just voters in a handful of swing states. While the institution would remain, it would be a vestigial part, with no real role to play other than endorsing the nation’s choice for president. Those red and blue election maps would be replaced with a ticker tallying votes from around the nation, campaigns would come to every corner of the country to campaign in one form or another, and there would be tremendous incentive to register and turn out every vote.

The National Popular Vote plan has the backing of many opinion leaders, newspapers, civil rights and good government groups, including Common Cause. It has received a great reception in legislatures across the country, already passing 21 chambers, and has been signed into law in Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii — not bad for a proposal that debuted approximately two years ago.

The goal of a national popular vote for the presidency is supported by over 70 percent of the American population, and the National Popular Vote compact is a constitutionally sound and practical implementation. In one of the most important elections in the world, every vote should count, and count equally, regardless of whether it is cast from Florida or from Massachusetts.

Rocking the Universal Vote with New Registration

Voter registration issues were the most controversial of the 2008 election year, but what should be the biggest scandal -- low citizen participation in voting -- has been buried.


The Electoral College KOZA, ABC 7

Overblown charges of voter registration fraud against ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a grassroots organization advocating for low-income people, were put at the top of the news. The famous “Mickey Mouse” registration card in Florida was its iconic example. This led to Republican demands and litigation seeking the names and other information of all voters who had been registered by ACORN.

But the more significant voter registration concern is that such a small percentage of our eligible citizens are registered to vote—the lowest in industrialized democracies. Certain political operatives believe that it is in their self-interest to suppress the vote. They use trumped up allegations to increase hurdles to voting, purge eligible voters from voter rolls, and even use deceptive practices like bogus letters and phone calls to deceive voters into staying home. The result is that we have among the worst participation in the world.

We need to register more people and involve them in the political process. To do this, the government needs to take a more proactive role in securing universal registration. We also need stronger laws to protect voters from unscrupulous partisans.

Same-day registration should be available in 50 states, not merely the nine states that currently allow it. The states with the highest turnout in 2008 were Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Carolina, all of which allow eligible citizens to register to vote on Election Day. North Carolina instituted Election Day registration this year during early voting and, combined with its new status as a battleground state, had the biggest increase in turnout in the country.

We should also institute pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds in high school. Registration should occur automatically when citizens interact with the government, such as with the motor vehicles department, public assistance agencies, prison release process and naturalization system.

Elections officials could update registrations of existing voters whenever they move within a state based upon data readily available from U.S. Postal Service change of address databases, department of motor vehicle databases, Civil Service board, Social Security Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, and state and federal income tax databases. To provide for those who may not wish to change their registration address, such as college students or those in the military, citizens could receive notices that their registration will be automatically updated to their new location unless they respond otherwise. These basic steps will make registration more accommodating.

Reinvigorating Voters and Votes

A true revolution in voting would go further, as well. It would also include secure voting equipment, fairly drawn electoral districts, public financing of elections and instant runoff voting, to name a few.

With change in the air in Washington and a new president who has endorsed many of these concepts, we have a unique opportunity to build a vital inclusive democracy that reflects 21st century values. By making a determined, sustained effort, most of these reforms could be implemented before the next presidential election. And, as change usually happens from the bottom up, the battleground is not just in Washington, but also in the states.

Democracy is a precious right, one that is always at risk, but always worth fighting for. It is the right of the community—we the people-- to participate equally in decision making about our future. We have seen what happens when the rich and powerful are more equal than the rest of us—the economy in free fall, corporate titans being rescued while their victims suffer, lack of healthcare for all—the list goes on and on. The antidote is more democracy because only when our voices are equally heard will justice for all prevail. Universal registration and national popular vote are two key ways to make sure those voices are heard.


Pam Wilmot is the Massachusetts executive director of Common Cause, a member supported national organization fighting for democracy at the national, state, and local levels. Pam has been an advocate for government reform and consumer and environmental issues for over 20 years, including at the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group and the Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board.

Also see Healthcare by Susan Yanow in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See MILK by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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