As John Lantigua recounts on page 11, the Florida election travesty looks even seamier in retrospect than it did at the time. Worse yet, as secretaries of state from across the country tell us, the crisis is national. The recent review by the Chicago Tribune of Illinois undervotes reminds us that the dark side of democracy exposed in Florida was just business as usual across America on Election Day. What would Martin Luther King Jr. think if he heard that the Voting Rights Act had not guaranteed access to the polls for all Americans–that barriers and outright intimidation continue to deny the vote to millions? Would he agree with those who say we should move on to other legislative issues? Or would he reaffirm the centrality of the vote in a democracy and call for renewed voting-rights drives, condemning–as he did in 1963–those who prefer “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice”?
Although the intensive coverage of the Florida debacle touched off a spate of articles on reform and vows of change among the political class, Congress has thus far displayed little stomach for effective action–witness the abandonment of plans in the House to form a bipartisan commission on election reform after Republicans insisted on controlling it. The presidential silence on electoral reform has been deafening, though hardly surprising. The Administration would prefer the reform talk to go away, because it raises rude reminders of Bush’s lack of a mandate for the hard-right direction in which he’s taking the country.
Beyond the political considerations of the moment, the GOP traditionally favors a “closed” electorate, with disproportionate numbers of upper-income and ideologically motivated conservatives favorable to its candidates. (Unlike in Europe, voting is still a class act in this country: Two-thirds of voters with incomes above $50,000 exercise their franchise, compared with only one-third of those making less than $10,000.) The Democrats offer little comfort in this regard, though they stand to benefit the most when the dispossessed augment the voting rolls. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe promised he would make voting rights a priority, but so far we’ve seen little action beyond a few fundraisers. Where is the full-court press from Democratic Congressional leaders for hearings, legislation and voting-machine upgrades? Where is pressure on Attorney General Ashcroft to enforce the spirit of the Voting Rights Act by Senate Democrats who voted to confirm him?
Some green shoots of reform are breaking through the cracks outside Washington. Bills calling for instant-runoff voting have been introduced in a dozen states. Proportional voting bills are in the hopper in Alabama, Illinois and Georgia. New Mexico’s legislature has restored ex-felons’ right to vote.
A host of organizations with direct interest in electoral reform are forming coalitions for change but none of them will get very far unless they’re backed by a public outcry raucous enough to be heard inside the Beltway. Voting is too important to be left to the politicians; it must combust at the grass roots into a prairie fire.
To this end, more efforts at education–like the National Commission on Election Reform, headed by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, which is currently holding hearings at presidential libraries around the country–are important. But education without an activist base demanding and demonstrating will remain a Socratic seminar. Instilling in the young the same idealism that inspired the voter drives of the sixties is one approach being tried by Democracy Summer. This program aims to enlist and train young volunteers to work with voting-rights organizations this summer (see www.democracysummer.org).
The Nation/Institute for Policy Studies’ Progressive Challenge lays out a useful checklist of objectives for any electoral reform effort, including strict enforcement of the Voting Rights Act to end disfranchisement, instant-runoff voting, proportional representation, voting rights for former prisoners, elimination of bureaucratic hurdles that discourage participation, nonpartisan state election commissions and the abolition of the Electoral College (see www.votersbillofrights.org).
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he said, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls that imprison men because they are different from other men.” Those walls still stand. A nation in which only 40 percent of the electorate votes is not even half free. Our overriding goal must be–ever more democracy.