Thomas Jefferson was not anticipating a summer holiday when he told Lafayette that “the boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave.” In Philadelphia, where Jefferson and his countrymen created a monumental wave back in 1776, a new generation of patriots will meet from June 29 to July 1 to turn a tide of anger over the denial of democracy in Florida into a national movement for electoral reform.
The national Pro-Democracy Convention, organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Nation Institute and others, comes at a moment of more activism on voting rights and electoral reform than at any time since the 1960s. From energetic voter-registration drives in Florida, where young people gathered in mid-June to kick off Democracy Summer, to a renewed push for instant-runoff voting in Vermont, to a move in Congress to make real the promise of the Voting Rights Act, there’s a sense that from the disappointment that was Florida there may come a movement capable of assuring that, in the words of Representative Cynthia McKinney, “We will not allow a repeat of Florida 2000.”
Essential to this movement is the recognition that Florida was only part of the story. Across the United States more than 2 million presidential votes went uncounted last November. Election officials actually discarded more ballots in Illinois than in Florida–3.9 percent compared with 2.9 percent. Added to this are concerns about aging voting equipment, restrictive registration laws, failed implementation of the federal motor-voter law and bans on voting by former prisoners that continue to deny millions of citizens–especially people of color and the poor–full access to the franchise.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, there’s a chance to crystallize the energy of this new movement by passing the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act. Written by Chris Dodd, Senate Rules Committee chairman, and John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, the bill addresses basic issues of access and equal opportunity and sets universal standards for voting machines. It has the support of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, the National Organization for Women, the National Federation of the Blind and at least 172 Congress members. Citizens will have a chance to voice their support at hearings across the country this summer.
Meanwhile, the House is preparing for a post-July 4 showdown on the related issue of campaign finance reform. House majority whip Tom DeLay has vowed to defeat the reform effort, modest as it is, but supporters hope momentum created by Senate passage of a similar measure and by a Supreme Court decision upholding restrictions on party contributions to candidates will overwhelm defenders of what Senator Russ Feingold calls “a system of legalized bribery.”
Electoral reforms are never easily won–just ask a suffragist, or, for that matter, the Civil Rights Commission members who were excoriated for exposing the “injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency” that disfranchised minority voters in Florida. No single law will cure what ails our democracy. But now is the time to take the first steps. American democracy was devalued last year, and it will require a wave of liberty to begin to set things right.