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Our Dysfunctional Democracy | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Our Dysfunctional Democracy

Isn't it time that the US stop all the talk of democracypromotion abroad and start walking the walk here at home? As I suggested last November,let's bringdemocracy home. And while we're facing a crazyprimary schedule and a $2 billion election which will shatter allcampaign fundraising records… here are three recent and ongoingpro-democracy efforts that all good small "d" democrats should knowabout and fully support.

1. DC House Voting Rights Act. The House recently approvedlegislation to grant nearly 600,000 disenfranchisedDistrict citizens a voting representative in Congress as well as afourth seat for largely Republican Utah. (Utah was less than 1000people short of meriting an added seat, according to the 2000 Censuswhich failed to account for thousands of missionaries abroad at thetime.) The Senate will now take up a similarbillintroduced by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Orrin Hatch.

On Sunday, Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher suggestedone of the reasons the District now stands its best chance since the1970's to gain voting representation: "In the shadow of an unpopularwar and a gloomy cloud of anti-American sentiment around the world, anincreasing number of Republicans are looking for ways to countercriticism that the United States is less than a paragon of democraticvirtue at home."

"We don't need Republicans to vote for the bill," RepublicanRepresentative Tom Davis--who cosponsored the House bill--toldFisher. "We just need nine to stop a filibuster, and we think we havethem."

And former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp said, "Young men and womenare being sent from DC to Baghdad. The hypocrisy is painful. It'sjust unbelievable how Republicans could turn away from Americancitizens who want to vote. I don't see how they can sleep at night."

A lot of goodgroups have kept up the pressure for this legislation, includingDC Vote, FairVote, Common Cause, and others. Tellyour Senator to bring democracy home by supporting the DC HouseVoting Rights Act (S. 1257) today.

2. National Popular Vote. Last month I wroteabout Maryland becoming the first state to sign a National PopularVote Bill into law. The legislation calls for the state's electoralvotes to go to the popular vote winner instead of the winner of thestate vote. (It would take effect when states representing a majorityof votes in the Electoral College agree to join a binding NationalPopular Vote compact.)

Illinois is now poised to join Maryland in the compact. Last weekthe state House approved its National Popular Vote bill 65-50. Itwill be taken up in the Senate as early as mid-May and, if passed,Governor Rod Blagojevich is expected to sign it into law.

In Hawaii, both the House and Senate approved the measure beforeGovernor Linda Lingle vetoed it. But last week the Senate voted 20-5to override the veto. The House has delayed its vote while proponentswork to gain the two-thirds majority needed to complete the overridewhich they hope to do this summer.

There is a lot of good momentum supporting the National PopularVote bill--in fact, there are 320 sponsoring legislators in 47states. Aside from Al Gore winning the popular vote but losing thepresidency--and George Bush coming tantalizingly close to suffering asimilar (though not Scalia-ordered) defeat in 2004--the fact thatthere are so few battleground states "in play" nowadays makes theElectoral College all the more problematic.

"Candidates for our one national office should have incentives tospeak to everyone, and all Americans should have the power to holdtheir president accountable," Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell ofFairVote recently wrote.

As Maryland State Senator and Nation contributor Jamie Raskin described,"In practice, this patchwork regime quickly reduces the competitiveelection to a small minority of states. Most Americans live in the 34states where our Electoral College votes are safely taken for grantedby one major party or the other."

3. Florida Voting Machines. In November, touch-screen voting machinesin Sarasota County apparently failed tocount over 18,000 votes in a U.S. Congressional race decided by amargin of just 369 votes. Last week, The Florida House passedlegislation in a 118-0 voteto replace touch-screen voting machines with an optical scanner thatreads paper ballots (and also leaves a paper trail!). The measure hadalready been approved by the Senate and Governor Charlie Crist "hadsought [this] almost from the moment he took office in January."

"The fiasco in Sarasota County last November… was a death knell fortouch-screen technology," said Miles Rapoport of Demos. "A vote is tooprecious a right to risk on untrustworthy voting systems."

This commonsense reform has been a long time coming, and Demos andother organizations like Common Cause are advocatingfor similar federal remediescurrently under consideration in the House and Senate.

In these times, when we've become accustomed to a White House whichtalks the talk (about democracy) but fails to walk the walk--it's goodto see so many people fighting for democracy in DC; spreadingdemocracy with the National Popular Vote movement; and taking steps tofix the instruments of our democracy in Florida and other states.

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