Katrina vanden Heuvel’s “Bring Democracy Home” [Nov. 20] should be on the desk of every House and Senate member and every state government official and on the minds of every concerned citizen. It is time that citizens, rather than corporate toadies, determine the direction of our nation!
Mackinaw City, Mich.
Katrina vanden Heuvel’s ten suggestions for reforming our democracy are excellent. Let’s consider one more, namely, a requirement that to win an election, one must receive a majority of the votes. If no candidate receives a majority in the first round, a runoff would take place–either a delayed runoff, as is done in many Latin American countries, or an instant runoff, like that in use in Vermont and San Francisco. Voters rank their candidates from first to last, and if no winner emerges in the first round, the voters whose first choice received the fewest votes have their second choice redistributed. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority (see www.instantrunoff.com).
Stony Brook, NY
Katrina vanden Heuvel’s suggestion that instant-runoff voting will “end the duopoly” is wrong. The four countries that have used IRV for five or more years are two-party dominated in IRV seats (exactly why Australian third parties are trying to get rid of IRV). Fusion will not do so (it has been used in New York State since forever) and recently the “great white hope” Kevin Zeese ran for the Maryland Senate under the “revolutionary” new “fusion unity strategy” (Libertarian, Green and Populist) collecting… 1 percent of the vote. Vanden Heuvel’s third suggestion (proportional representation) would indeed work, but its constitutionality is questionable, to say the least.
I recommend the simpler and better “range voting” system: Your vote is a score on a 0-to-9 scale for every candidate–highest average wins. It works on every voting machine now (no reprogramming needed); it should break the duopoly; it eliminates the “spoiler” effect; voting is never worse than not voting; and raising your score for somebody cannot hurt them (see RangeVoting.org).
WARREN D. SMITH
One important voting method was missing from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s list: the one now used in (the ever-progressive state of) Oregon: Vote by Mail. No failing machines, mechanical or electronic; no waiting in line in the cold, the dark, the rain; no hanging chads! The polling place is the mailbox. If you procrastinate and don’t make the mail in time, there are drop-off places. It’s convenient, efficient, fraud-free and encourages getting out the vote.
I suggest early voting. Here in Tennessee, polls were open for two weeks and 40 percent of voters voted before election day. I always think of the old bank jingle: “Daytime, nighttime, Saturday, too, we open our doors…”
New York City
There is a puzzling omission from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s admirable list of ideas. What about full voting rights for the residents of Washington, DC?
Cape May, NJ
Katrina vanden Heuvel ignored the biggest defect in our voting system: The candidate with the majority of votes can lose the election. Four times in our history, most recently in 2000, the candidate who won the popular vote lost the election. Ex-senators–Republican John Anderson of Illinois and Democrat Birch Bayh of Indiana–have placed an Every Vote Equal bill before each state. Should enough states (270 electoral votes’ worth) sign on to this agreement, it would guarantee the candidate with the majority of the popular vote the presidency. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California recently vetoed the bill. He vetoed the basic rule of democracy: The majority rules.
Deep Springs, Calif.
Costa Rica has a program where all children from 4 to 18 vote in a special uncounted election. They are taught to register and vote and to know where everything takes place. The election is held the same day as the national election, and the polling places for children are manned and administered by older children in the same facility as the adults. The result is that a high percentage of young citizens are deeply involved and vote when they turn 18.
F. ROSS PETERSON
Having been with the Workers Party in Porto Alegre in October during the first round of Brazil’s elections, I was very impressed with the level of political participation by citizens from all walks of life. That’s because voting is held not only as a right but as a responsibility. Voting is mandatory; nonvoters lose government benefits. Brazilians are required to vote from age 16 to 60, when it becomes voluntary.
In addition, candidates who do not win a majority in the first round must campaign to win a runoff. This assures that the majority will be represented by those elected. Last, the entire country votes electronically without controversy. The results were announced within hours of the closing of the polls, without protest by any party. Multiple parties can compete without lesser parties marginalized to the role of “spoiler.” The victory of the Brazilian Workers Party in electing a working-class president in 2002, repeated in 2006, could not have been possible otherwise.
Highland Park, Ill.
I agree with the ten ideas for repairing our broken voting system, especially the election day holiday. This could be done by moving Columbus Day to election day. It would give people time to vote and free up computer-savvy people to serve as election judges.
EDWARD L. KOVEN
Why do we carry on with a World War I artifact, Veteran’s Day (November 11)? I say drop it. Most veterans–and I am one–care about Memorial Day. November 11 is a “mall” day off. We should exchange it for an election day holiday and really honor all the men and women who have helped make such a day possible.
While I agree wholeheartedly with nine of Katrina vanden Heuvel’s ten ideas, I don’t think an election day holiday is a good one. So we add another paid holiday to the calendar of all the folks working in government, education, banks, etc. while the rest of us toiling in restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals or retail are burdened with one more day to worry about what to do with our kids on a day off from school. Now, in addition to finding time to vote, we have to work out the logistics of shuttling our children to daycare and opening our businesses for extra hours to service the lucky ones who have the day off. Why add another holiday we can’t use? Longer polling-place hours would help, or mandating employers to allow their employees to arrive late or leave early on election day. With all types of work hours, I have never missed a vote. It’s not a matter of finding time–it’s a matter of wanting to vote.
KEVIN B. KUHNE
Two things could be added to Katrina vanden Heuvel’s list of ten: (1) preferential voting (like in Australia) would help break the dominance of the GOP and the Democrats; (2) compulsory voting for all citizens. This would mean that elections no longer come down to who can energize the most voters. Yes, it would be expensive, but for the most powerful and wealthiest democracy in the world, surely it would be worth it.
Your list of steps for voting reform misses the most important step, without which the disease of moneyed interests cannot be excised from the body politic–namely, to limit the length of election campaigns (as is done in other industrial democracies) to something on the order of six to eight weeks. It is the eighteen-month campaign cycle that requires small and large fortunes to be spent on advertising, enriching the media and empowering the claque of “professionals” while bringing the business of governing to a standstill as incumbents trawl for dollars. There is nothing candidates have to say or voters to learn that cannot be done in two months. A related step would be to ban television advertising in the two weeks before the vote and devote that time to televised debates.
How about going back to the days when the television channels were required to give free and equal time to candidates? The airwaves belong to the public, but the broadcast media have been bought and sold by the huge money they make in campaigns. I would rather have that money go to disaster victims, or wounded veterans, or poor or sick people. Or maybe we could pay each person $10 to vote to get everyone voting. Wouldn’t it be grand if elected officials did not have to start running for office and begging for campaign money the week after they are elected? And would it be possible to limit the duration of campaigns? I get so sick of months of the same baloney over and over. Our legislators would have more time to read the bills they pass if they were not campaigning throughout their entire term. Money is fatally corrupting our democracy.
To extend your example of a voting machine with a paper trail like any ATM: ATMs are owned and programmed by the banks, not the ATM manufacturer. The voting machines and their programming need to be owned by the Election Commission of each state. The voting machine manufacturers would be responsible only for the maintenance and functioning of the machines in contract with the state, as would any company selling its product under warranty. Further, the voting machine manufacturers would be responsible for supplying a bug-free programming language under a normal contract for software. All the programming would be done by the Election Commissions with an independent body testing and certifying the voting programs.
There are two additional areas where our voting rights are vulnerable. A paper trail does no one any good unless someone looks at the paper once in a while!
1. Federal standards for audit and recounts of election results are essential to guaranteeing the integrity of elections. These standards should specify both random and trigger threshold criteria for recounts and audits and set reasonable limits on cost.
2. Independent exit polling, with raw data available to researchers and election observers, should be mandatory state by state and in federal elections. One of the standards for triggering a recount or audit should be discrepancies with independent exit polling. Rules that hinder exit polling should be prohibited.
The concept of winning with a simple majority (50 percent +1) should be discarded. By requiring 55 percent of the vote to win, we insure at least a ten-point margin. If no candidate garners a winning percentage, there’s a runoff. This would force aspiring candidates to run (and act in office) in a less extremist manner than what we are currently seeing.
Next, I have always abhorred the idea that if the election has a very low turnout a relatively small percentage of the population can elect a President. I suggest that a minimum percentage of eligible voters be required to participate in an election before it can be considered legitimate. Consider it a quorum. I’m in favor of setting the bar fairly high–even 75 or 80 percent. Provide every voter with a set of receipts, and require that every state and federal tax return include verification that the voter participated in the most recent election (possibly even down to the municipal level) before a return is considered complete.
Pleasant Grove, Calif.
I couldn’t agree more with the idea that no voter should be disenfranchised without being notified and allowed to contest it! This recently happened to me, and had I not gone to the elections office to inquire about my missing absentee ballot, I would never have known that my registration was canceled. They claimed I had moved out of the county (I haven’t moved in more than five years and I have never lived in the county they claimed I’d moved to). I did get to cast a provisional ballot, but I wonder if it was counted.
While I wholeheartedly agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel’s ten points for repairing and strengthening our broken voting system, I must point out that her assertion that the right to vote is not in our Constitution is wrong. The right to vote is articulated and affirmed in the Fifteenth Amendment (right to vote may not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude), the Nineteenth Amendment (right to vote may not be denied or abridged on account of sex), the Twenty-fourth Amendment (right to vote may not be denied or abridged for failure to pay poll tax) and the 26th Amendment (right to vote of citizens age 18 or older may not be denied or abridged on account of age).
RALPH H. BROCK
VANDEN HEUVEL REPLIES
New York City
The spirited response to my modest editorial–these letters are just a sampling of the scores we received–tells me people are hungry to fulfill the promise of our democracy. Sure, there are disagreements about how to fix our flawed electoral system; but what’s heartening is that as small “d” democrats, we’re all working for reform and renewal.
A few specific points:
Warren D. Smith is wrong to argue that instant-runoff voting will not end the duopoly. IRV gives third parties political space to breathe and build support and, yes, if major parties run flawed candidates or become unrepresentative, win. (Witness Mary Robinson’s victory in the Irish presidential race in 1990 or Ken Livingstone’s win in the first London mayoral race.) Smith is inaccurate in arguing that proportional representation is constitutionally questionable. Many experts believe that range voting would create a strategic mess; there are good reasons it hasn’t been adopted for any election of any kind.
Jim Verdieck extols voting by mail. But I worry that eliminating polling places causes a loss of the community feeling that comes from gathering with your neighbors to cast your vote. I’d prefer to help get the aged and infirm to the polls and use the mail only if you cannot physically get there. Also, Vote by Mail can increase campaign costs.
I second Peter Franck’s call for full voting rights for Washington, DC, residents, who have been denied participation in our democracy for far too long. (Support HR 5388, the DC Voting Rights Act, which would give Washingtonians representation in the House for the first time.)
Ed Powick is right on. Candidates with the majority of the popular vote should win elections. The bill he mentions is better known as the National Popular Vote bill. Go to the invaluable Center for Voting and Democracy’s website (www.fairvote.org) to learn more.
I thank F. Ross Peterson for bringing attention to Costa Rica’s innovative and exciting children’s vote program. Wouldn’t it be grand if we had universal voter registration and civic education?
Frank Hammer is right to be impressed with the level of political participation by Brazilians of all walks of life. But I think the key to Brazil’s multiparty democracy is proportional representation, not the runoff rule.
To Kevin Kuhne and others who don’t want an election day holiday: It is noteworthy that Puerto Rico, which has such a holiday, is consistently among the highest in voter turnout.
Gareth Davidson’s preferential voting is IRV. I resist the idea of compulsory voting, but there are many who believe it would address the fact that the majority party in this country remains the party of nonvoters.
I’m for Fred Warren’s idea of limiting the length of elections. The 2006 midterm cost about $2.8 billion! Think of the good even a fraction of that money could have done elsewhere.
I worry that Pat Healy’s requirement that a candidate win 55 percent of the vote and that a certain percent must vote before an election can be considered legitimate would lead to repeat runoffs–and a drop in turnout!
Ralph Brock was one of several who argued that the right to vote does exist in our Constitution. A right to vote is, of course, implied. But it’s not explicitly declared and does not exist at the presidential level. The Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore stated, “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.” The vote is not a universal right protected by the federal government. It is a right that states decide how to protect and interpret (very differently) across our 7,800 or so election districts. If we had a constitutional right to vote, we’d have a basis for suing states for equal protection of people’s right to vote. The lack of a constitutional right to vote explains why the courts didn’t order Washington, DC, to have voting representation in Congress, why states deny the right to vote to some 5 million citizens who have committed felonies, and why we can have such ridiculously badly run elections without accountability.
I should have mentioned that Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. is the intellectual architect and longtime proponent of a constitutional right to vote (see his HJR 28 and his lucid explanation of its importance in our pages, “The Right to Vote,” February 6).
It is heartening to hear from so many decent people who agree that America needs a democracy reconstruction project. Let’s stop lecturing the world and set an example by how we care for, renew and modernize our “old” democracy here in America.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL