How to Fix Our Democracy
A democracy without voters.
By the gauge of electoral turnout, America is in the bottom fifth of democracies in the world. Compare our recent average turnout of 48 percent of eligible voters in presidential years to Cambodia's 90 percent, Western Europe's 77 percent and Eastern Europe's 68 percent. If there were a World Bank index of "democracy poverty," the United States would be a candidate for massive international aid.
In most states, cumbersome rules discourage the vote. Why should voter registration laws presume that thousands of 18-year-olds each find their way to an Election Board, instead of having one Election Board representative go to each high school?
In addition, local political operatives often suppress the vote in discriminatory ways, as we witnessed in Ohio in 2004. Beyond the well-known example of Republican officials intentionally failing to provide sufficient voting machines in low-income Democratic precincts, conservative activists also put up signs in African-American areas of Cuyahoga County telling voters that if anyone in their family voted illegally they could lose custody of their children, that they couldn't vote if they had unpaid utility bills and that Republicans were supposed to vote on Tuesday and Democrats on Wednesday! The intent of these and other crass intimidation tactics was plainly revealed in 2004 by Representative John Pappageorge, a Michigan Republican, when he said, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election cycle."
One way most states, especially in the Old South, suppress the low-income vote legally is through felony disenfranchisement laws. Even though they've "paid their debt to society," ex-cons in thirty-five states are deprived of the right to vote, which means, for example, that one in six black men in Alabama is excluded. Seven million Americans--or one in thirty-two--are currently behind bars, on parole or on probation, and they are disproportionately African-American and Latino. Felony disenfranchisement laws are just another way to spell Jim Crow.
Nor has the controversy over counting votes ended with those chads in Florida. While the 2002 Help America Vote Act properly required that states move to electronic voting (something Brazil figured out how to do a decade ago), many of the electronic machines used last November provided no paper trail, a failure whose repercussions are now on view in the continuing imbroglio over the Sarasota, Florida, Congressional seat. And as the Brennan Center for Justice has documented, most electronic machines are easily hackable. Will we find out in twenty years that a handful of Republican operatives re-elected W. by rigging some software in Ohio?
Secrecy and democracy.
Remember that early aphorism of the computer age, "Garbage in, garbage out"? Just as machines fail when fed corrupt information, democracy fails when important decisions are based on bad data or no data.
The good people of Salem, Massachusetts, were sure that certain women were possessed, and many Americans were convinced of the need to invade Iraq because George W. Bush downplayed the risks and hinted that Saddam played a role in 9/11. When ideology trumps facts, the results are often disastrous.
To insure a healthy democracy with plenty of well-reasoned debate, then, secrets should be kept to a minimum. Yet during the hot and cold wars of the twentieth century, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out, a "culture of secrecy" took root in Washington. And the Bush Administration has deepened this culture, skillfully capitalizing on the calamity of 9/11 to hide information in the name of "national security" and concentrate authority in the "war President." Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says, "Of the six administrations I've worked with, this is the most secretive."