In a campaign where there has been much talk about change, bringing new people into the process, and high voter turnout (at least on the Democratic side), the recent lawsuit in Nevada attempting to bar nine at-large districts created so that shift-workers could vote was indeed a low moment. Fortunately, a District judge made the right decision, protecting voters and rejecting a transparent effort to suppress turnout for Barack Obama.

As I noted in a previous post, shouldn’t Democrats be on the side of getting more voters to the polls, not turning them away (leave that to the Republicans)!?

The Nevada shenanigans once again exposed problems with a voting system desperately in need of reform. If we are to succeed at this historic moment in bringing new people into the process and creating a fair, transparent, accountable and truly democratic system – then we need to understand how the hardwiring of our electoral system works against *real* change. As Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. has written in the pages of The Nation: “Our voting system’s foundation is built on the sand of states’ rights and local control. We have fifty states, 3,141 counties and 7,800 different local election jurisdictions. All separate and unequal.” While many of the needed reforms are resolutely unsexy, they are also vital if we are to overcome our current crisis – a downsized politics of excluded alternatives and a growing mistrust of the way we vote and our election results.

The 2000 presidential debacle focused public attention on our increasingly dysfunctional electoral system. In its wake a pro-democracy movement has emerged, and efforts to bring democracy home are making headway on some important fronts. Many advocates have demonstrated the unreliability of so-called black box or touch-screen voting machines which can be hacked, breakdown, and don’t always leave a paper trail to resolve tabulation disputes. California’s Secretary of State Debra Bowen recently decertified Diebold voting machines.

Bowen, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Bruner, and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie all support switching from touch-screen to optical scan machines, which read ballots that voters mark by hand, like a standardized test. They are more trustworthy and cost-effective, and they provide a record of each vote. Representative Rush Holt also recently introduced the Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act of 2008. Currently, 20 states are scheduled to conduct completely unauditable elections in 2008. This bill would reimburse jurisdictions that choose to implement voter-verified paper trails; provide funding for audits of voting; and help states move to an entirely paper-based system. It’s a good effort at a quick-fix – but it still makes the fix optional.

“We’re going to try to persuade as many counties as possible to do the right thing before November,” Holt told me. “There is still time for them to do it, and I think the incentive in this bill, combined with public activism, will persuade some to put in a paper-based system and an audit.”

What’s truly needed is passage of Holt’s HR 811 which would establish a voter-verified paper trail and audit of every federal election as the national standard. It currently has 216 bipartisan cosponsors and House leadership needs to be pressed to take action on it.

While we are seeing a real uptick in registration during the Democratic presidential primaries, much more could be accomplished if people had better access to the polls. Examples include: making Election Day a national holiday so that working people can more easily participate; allowing Election Day Registration (six states currently use it and voter turnout is 8 to 15 percentage points higher than the national average); and making registration at DMVs an opt-out process rather than opt-in – all of these measures would serve to boost registration and turnout. Senator Hillary Clinton and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones’ Count Every Vote Act supports these needed reforms, and it also establishes minimum standards for the allocation of voting machines and poll workers to cut down on lines; re-enfranchises millions of Americans who have committed a felony but have completed their sentences; and allows for non-partisan election observers (so we never have to see another Katherine Harris oversee a disputed election).

We also need to do a better job protecting voters. For all of they hype about voter fraud, it occurs “statistically…about as often as death by lightning strike ,” according to Michael Waldman and Justin Levitt of the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice. In contrast, we know that efforts to keep people away from the polls are rampant in every election. We need to put an end to new exclusionary ID tactics, 21st century poll taxes, and unjust scrubbing of voter files. Also, Senator Barack Obama’s Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Actwould make voter intimidation and election misinformation – like letters telling Latino voters that if they are immigrants and vote they will be arrested – punishable by more than just a slap on the wrist. It also establishes a process for reaching out to misinformed voters with accurate information before the polls close.

Vital reforms are also needed to ensure that elected representative’s are more responsive and accountable to the people. First and foremost, we need to get Big Money out of our campaigns. Only “clean money” legislation will allow ordinary people to run for office and have their voices heard. Studies by the Campaign Finance Institute placed the cost of winning a House election in 2006 at nearly $1.26 million; just over $8.8 million for a Senate seat. In November, one analyst projected that the 2008 campaign would burn through 5 billion dollars. Public financing of campaigns would free elected officials from the influence of big money, and also increase the power of the public over their representatives.

In the Senate, Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter’s Fair Elections Now Act has garnered 9 cosponsors, and in the House, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act has 52 cosponsors behind it. Under both bills, candidates who show a qualifying level of support and opt-out of further private contributions would be supported by public funding. The legislation was modeled on successful public financing systems in Maine, Arizona and North Carolina. Short of a system of full public financing, one modest proposal to reduce the influence of big money is to dramatically increase the amount of federal matching funds received for donations of $100 or less — matching them on a 1:4 basis. The effect could be further reinforced by eliminating matching funds for donations over $100.

The power of incumbency also drastically restricts the choices available to the American people, exacerbating our downsized politics of excluded alternatives. Incumbents derive much of their power from the redistricting process, increasingly a bipartisan farce in which the parties collaborate to draw district lines that will preserve their power. As reformers often remark: “Instead of constituents choosing their legislators, legislators choose their constituents.” Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington all have at least nominally independent commissions which have full authority over the process of drawing up Congressional districts – taking the process of drawing up districts out of the hands of the two major political parties.

Finally, if majority rule is to be more than a hollow slogan, and third parties more than “spoilers,” we need to experiment with ways to more accurately represent the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions of the American people. Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) – in which low scoring candidates are eliminated after the first round of tabulations, and their supporters second-choice votes are added to those who remain, until one candidate gets the majority – offers another way to challenge the duopoly and also ensure that the winning candidate has the support of a majority.

We also need to do away with the Electoral College so that the president is elected directly by the people. The National Popular Vote Compact – in which states pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of their own state – is one way people are working to achieve that. It would take effect when states representing a majority of votes in the Electoral College agree to join the compact. It would therefore ensure that the candidate with the most votes for president would be the winner, and every citizen’s vote would count equally regardless of geography.

While there is reason to hope that this election will bring increased or even record-breaking participation at the polls, there’s clearly work to be done so that we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Let’s demand a democracy promotion program at home to ensure that every voter can vote, every vote gets counted, money doesn’t talk louder than the will of the people, and every challenger gets to make his or her case.