There seems to be a quiet understanding in American that our political system is broken. Less than half of the nation votes, many offices, especially on the local level, aren’t even contended and our rate of Senator re-election is higher than it ever was in Communist Russia.
The bitter truth is that the American political system is broken and, even as we go overseas and try to spread democracy to other lands (often by force), our own democracy is hopelessly tarnished and flawed.
We have to do better and that means taking some drastic steps. Even though said steps here might not completely fix the system, they would much better and bring it more in line with the idealistic vision we all hold of it.
So, without any further ado, here’s the twelve-step program to kick America’s habit of ineffective democracy and get it on the path to a government both the people and the world can be proud of.
Step 1: Admit that there is a problem
First off, we have to admit that there is a problem with our current government. This means both citizens and leaders need to wake up that our political system is flawed and needs to be repaired. What worked a hundred years ago falters now and we need to update both our government and our mentality. Otherwise, things are only going to get worse.
Step 2: Eliminate the Electoral College
As I’ve said in previous essays, the Electoral College is an archaic system designed to take direct election of the President out of the hands of the people. It causes votes in rural states to be worth more than ones in heavily-populated ones and creates situations, like in 2000, where a candidate can win the majority vote but lose the election. It’s time for an easier direct-elect system to be implemented not only to restore the population’s faith in the system, but to make it a real democracy.
Step 3: Force states to allow voter registration for third parties
Currently, in all but 21 states, you can’t register as a member of a third party. Thus, if you aren’t a Democrat or a Republican, you have to register as an independent, if at all. No country, especially one of 290 million people, can have the entire spectrum of opinions represented by just two parties and one of the biggest hurdles to a significant third party is the inability for voters to register and be recognized a member of one.
All political parties, large and small, should be eligible to register voters. Reasonable requirements should be made so that not just anyone can create a party, but the doors need to be opened to an already thriving independent political scene so they can compete on a level playing field.
Step 4: Ballot access to all parties
Currently, getting a slot on all fifty state ballots is so difficult that only Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians are even attempting it in the 2004 election. With all states allowing third-party registrations, it would be a simple matter to allow the top 7 parties a slot on every Presidential, Senate and House ballot across the country.
Since write-in candidates are always at a severe disadvantage over those on the ballot, allowing all parties a place on the ballot goes to great lengths to level the playing field and represent more Americans in the elections.
Step 5: Equal access to funds for all parties
Currently, only parties that earn Electoral College votes are eligible for government funds. Thus, only the Republican and Democratic parties ever get government aid for their campaigns while the menagerie of third parties have to do without.
All parties, not just those that have the fortune of currently being in power, deserve same access to the funds. Either government matching funds should be stopped or access to them should be given to all parties. After all, political speech isn’t more valuable just because it comes from a major party; it’s an important right for all.
Step 6: Get serious about campaign finance reform
One of the biggest problems with the American democracy is the rampant corruption the current campaign finance system brings about. Politicians on both sides of the aisle take insane contributions from corporations and individuals alike and only a fool would believe that those contributions aren’t seen as an investment. The result is that politicians are often forced to forget their constituents and remember their contributors. This puts too much power into the hands of the wealthy and creates (at least the appearance of) a shadow government comprised of corporate greed.
Fixing loopholes in the current system is like trying to fill the gaps in sieve with pushpins. It just can’t be done. If we’re going to get serious about it, we need to start over, throw out all the rules and begin with a clean slate.
One suggestion I do have is limiting the contributions made to a campaign or party by a single entity. A person is an entity, a corporation is an entity and a non-profit is an entity, etc. Basically, anything with its own tax code counts as an entity.
If we set the limit low, at say 50 thousand dollars, no one individual or company can wield too much control. The most a wealthy CEO can donate is 100 thousand (50 for himself and 50 for his company) and anyone who wanted to circumvent the law, they’d have to engage in clearly unscrupulous activities (such as setting up false corporations) that would both be well-documented and highly illegal.
Then, we could begin to prosecute those who try to use money to subvert the government using money rather than rewarding them with perks and privileges.
Step 7: Make Election Day a holiday
It seems silly, but most people don’t get Election Day off and have to take off from work to do their duty. The state and federal employees get off most private companies don’t give their employees the day off. It’s one of the big obstacles that stops so many Americans from heading out to the polls and it’s something that must be dealt with, preferably by forcing employers to offer holiday pay to employees they make work on it.
Since Election Day happens only every other year, the damage to the economy would be minimal and it might give more Americans, especially poor Americans who can’t afford to miss work, the chance to vote.
Step 8: Overhaul the election process
The election process itself is in need of a major overhaul. In the age of computers and cell phones, the fact we’re putting up with butterfly ballots and late poll openings is outright embarrassing.
We need to standardize the election process nationwide, making equipment and procedures standard coast to coast. We also need to make sure that everyone lives and works near a polling place and that they can go to the one of their choice, not just to the one closest to where they live. Going back to number seven, many are taking off work to go vote and many work far away from their homes and, thus, their polling place.
Step 9: Embrace electronic voting
Electronic voting promises to make the tallying of results easy and painless. It has the potential to eliminate debates about who won or lost and make handling large elections, like the presidential one, many times easier for both voters and counters.
The catch is that any electronic voting machine should produce a physical voting record that is stored much like regular ballots are now. These ballots should be tallied after the election is decided to ensure that there was no tampering with the system and that the electronic results are authentic.
This system maintains accountability while embracing the benefits of electronic voting. Something that nearly every polling location in the country has failed to do.
Step 10: Change media coverage
Though media coverage of political events is extremely important, media coverage of election-night events can greatly sour the political process.
As it is right now, the media frenzy starts well before the polls have closed, states are predicted to be won or lost well before polls in western states have closed. This can discourage people in later time zones from voting at all or cause them to change their vote at the last minute.
Simply put, election results should not be released to the media until after the polls have closed everywhere (yes, even Hawaii) and, if all of the above steps have been implemented, it should be an easy matter of reporting who won and how much they won by. With electronic voting and direct election, there will be no more Florida-style debacle where a state is promised to candidate X before the time has really come to call it.
For those who say that this would abridge free speech, we have to remember that one of the key functions of our freedom of speech is the protection of the political process and a delay in announcing results (rather than announcing them along and along like is done now) would go to great lengths to protect the process and would only hinder the drama of election night, not the actual news coverage.
Step 11: Put an end to attack ads
Right now, non-profit groups not affiliated with a campaign (and thus not bound by campaign finance reform) are not allowed to endorse a candidate with paid TV time. However, they are free to attack the guy they don’t like and blast him right off the air.
Attack ads do little hinder anyone but they go to great lengths to sicken voters and turn them away from the polls. The idea behind 527s and other non-profit political organizations was to allow for people to use the airwaves to discuss political issues while not endorsing a candidate, not to allow them to libel their guy’s opponent.
Endorsing a candidate and attacking another both serve the same function politically and both should be bound under the same finance laws. Speaking out on an issue is one thing, but endorsing a candidate, even by attacking his opponent, is another.
We should all be free to express our opinions, but the current setup allows for candidates to have “attack dogs” not bound by campaign finance laws. This opens the door up for more corruption and more voter disgust. It’s a loophole that needs to be plugged immediately.
Step 12: Learn from other nations
Steps one through eleven don’t have all of the answers to our problems, but then again, neither will any twelve-step program. That’s why we need to make a point to look to other countries and see how they’ve overcome the challenges inherent with democracy.
What can Canada, Germany, Britain, France and even Russia teach us about our government? They all have different democracies, new and old, that are handled in different ways. Even though we became the first modern nation to apply this form of government, we have much we can learn from those who followed in our footsteps.
After all, what we laid down was a beautiful, if imperfect, government that was a model for others. We owe it to ourselves to see how others have improved and modified our model and how we, in turn, can improve on theirs.
Because government, like everything else, is a learning process and we can’t learn if we don’t open up our eyes and our minds.