Rebuilding (d)emocracy - Part 1

In the November 20 edition of The Nation, Katrina Vanden Heuvel gives a list of ten things we should consider to strengthen our democracy here at home. With voters being dropped from the rolls with no notice, machines counting votes that can never be verified and voters staying home in record numbers it is obvious we have a problem in this country.

Many of her ideas have already been discussed here in the pages of BlueNC. I think these are discussions we should continue, especially with the elections over and problems we might have encountered fresh on our minds.

The piece by Katrina is subscription only, but I don't think she will mind if I list all ten of her suggestions to help guide our discussions. Also, for those subscribers, here is a link. I'm not sure I agree with everything she says, but the piece and the subsequent letters to the editor printed in this past week's edition give a great starting place for those of us who follow elections.

Please follow below the fold...

Here is the list. Can you think of anything else? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with?

1. Establish an election day holiday.

I know that at one point Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools had a holiday on election day and that made it more convenient for voters to get in and out during busy times of the day. Vanden Heuvel believes that making election day a national holiday would increase turnout.

What is the downside? Obviously, not everyone is exempt from working on a national holiday. If children are out of school, parents must juggle daycare and/or pay a fee for a full day at afterschool. Now that I am over this stage, I have to say it's easy to look at it and think this is a small price to pay for strengthening our democracy.

What about the fact that not everyone gets the day off on a national holiday? Should we change Veteran's Day or exchange Veteran's Day for Voter's Day as some Nation readers suggested?

2. Establish national standards for elections. As voting rights activist Steven Hill points out, "Election management in the United States amounts to a decentralized hodgepodge of over 3,000 counties and 9,000 townships with few national standards to guide them." We need to set standards for all aspects of our elections, from voting machines, to provisional ballots, to paper trails, to poll worker training, to voter protection.

Would national standards work in every community? Would it put an undue burden on small counties? What would these standards be? Where are we already falling short?

I know that one area might be in setting standards for how a recount will be handled. During the Kissell recount in Mecklenburg County one observer has reported that he was not allowed to see the tape before, during or after it was counted. Officials claimed it would infringe on voter privacy. This is not a valid claim since voter identity is not disclosed on the tape.

Another problem in Mecklenburg County was that the tapes were counted by humans until the tally matched that of the machine count with officials claiming there was no way for a machine to be wrong. Maybe not, but there is a way for it to be programmed to count a certain way.

3. Promote and protect the right to vote. An MIT/CalTech study in 2001 estimated that 3 million voters were disenfranchised because of registration problems. One good solution is Election Day Registration.

Election day registration is certainly something we've discussed here. That post from February 2006 can be found here.

I like it. People aren't allowed to register without properly identifying themselves. You can find out more about the proposal in North Carolina by visiting Democracy North Carolina.

4. Require reliable voting machines and a paper trail.

This pretty much says it all, but as is evidenced by what I wrote above about the recount in Mecklenburg County, just having a paper trail doesn't ensure a valid count. I think having set standards for recounts will go a long way toward reassuring voters that their votes will be counted.

Vanden Heuvel also notes that independent analysts should be able to assess the software for quality assurance.

5. Require nonpartisan election management.

One example in the article comes from Florida and one from Ohio. Does anyone else find that in the least bit surprising? Kathleen Harris oversaw the recount in 2000 when she was co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign committee and Ken Blackwell oversaw elections this year in Ohio while running for Governor.

Should we make provisions for the Secretary of State to turn over elections oversight to someone else or to a committee of people while running for office?

There are five other suggestions to cover and I will put them up either tomorrow or Friday. If any of our readers are involved in efforts through Democracy North Carolina, please help us develop an action plan.

This past year our government worked hard to make sure Iraqis living in the United States could vote in Iraq's elections. They didn't work quite as hard to make sure Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina could vote in elections in their home states. That is simply unacceptable.

Whether we are protecting, rebuilding or reinventing our democracy, it's obvious we have work to do before the 2008 elections. What's our next step?


I wanted to provide more examples

but this coughing is killing me. I'll try to find some more examples and information and put it in comments.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

For a partisan "hack" (pun intended), you're doing great!

Sorry you're under the weather, sweetie pie, but this is a GREAT entry and I'm really glad to see it on the front page.

Other things on my mind are:

1. Mail-in voting. I have friends in Oregon who swear by it, though there are also plenty of detractors who worry about husbands forcing wives to vote this way or that.

2. Extended voting. For the past three elections, I have not voted on election day. I think we would do well to get people thinking about "election week" or "election month" and stop all the frenzy on one single day. Heck, if election "day" were a holiday and you voted early . . . you could really have a day off!

Thanks again.

Thanks, A

I wish I could take credit for the list, but I will shamelessly steal from KVH to keep the conversations going. I'm going to take a few minutes to search Blue and try to link to our previous discussions.

I like election day voting. I don't mind mail-in voting for absentee voters. I just don't want to get rid of the event of election day. Vanden Heuvel responds to one of the folks writing in that she worries there would be a loss of the community feeling that comes from getting out and voting with your neighbors. Sappy, but I feel the same way. That doesn't mean we can't update the way we do absentee voting - make the ballot available in a secure way over the web. Print your ballot and mail it in, instead of having to request a ballot by mail and wait for it to arrive.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

On Voting

Presenting these ideas as suggestions for reform and improvement is a real service to the BlueNC community. As I consider making comment, it occurs to me that what I might offer could well be a suggestion that will come along in part two of your series.

However, let me make one comment.

You'd think that a voting holiday would be a good idea, however, given the realities of American life such a holiday would never be observed.

Take for instance Martin Luther King Day, it was made a national holiday, but other than being a kind of public benediction for King's birthday, it didn't wind up making that day a non-work day for the American people. And frankly, a voting holiday would probably also be honored more in the breech than the observance.

For people who work by the hour, have a spouse and children, and probably work more than one job, there has to be a better answer than a voting holiday. I'd suggest a more aggressive form of the motor-voter program with something of a twist. Let there be voting for two full weeks, including Sundays, from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM right through election day at one location in every single precinct.

Additionally we could adopt a program like Australia that makes voting compulsory. This may sound draconian, but it has an excellent effect on voter turnout. Back in the days before 1924 when voting was not compulsory, voter turn out hovered at around 47%, which was then considered a scandal. (In the U.S. the percent of the eligible population that actually votes varies between 35% and 50% depending on whether it's a Presidential election year.) Under compulsory voting Australian turnout varies between 94% and 96%.

Finally, to take the edge off being legally obliged to turn out at the polls, let's offer some small but appropriate financial reward for casting your vote. This may seem like a crass bribe to exercise a privilege, but I don't think so. If I work by the hour and leave my kids with a babysitter, there's the probability that my going to the polls will mean standing in line for 45 minutes (like I did this last November) and that will not only be an inconvenience, but there will also be a cost attached.

That financial burden is not borne equally by all. If I'm an executive or a professional chances are that I can wedge in an opportune moment to cast my vote without any financial complication. So why not level the playing field and issue a receipt when a person votes that could be used for an income tax deduction of say $25.00.

All these ideas might be a part of what Ms. Vanden Heuvel has already suggested, and what we'll see in your next installment, but what the heck, I'll take my chances.

I'm 56 years old. I moved to North Carolina five years ago. The previous twenty-five years I spent as a resident of Chicago's north shore and before that Wisconsin, Utah and California. I live in Moore County. My Congressman is Howard Coble, my State Sen

early voting.

I think early voting is a great idea, I wonder how it effects turnout. Anyone want to do the digging? I also like the Voting Centers that are being tested in Orange County, where you don't have to use your own precinct, but a more centralied location (near work hypothetically).

NC Defend Health Care

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

The national holiday

is the least favorite of her ideas. I don't face the obstacles other working parents with school-age children would face if election day were to become a national holiday. I'm not opposed to making it a national holiday, but I don't see that it achieves her desired result. As I mentioned, not everyone gets to take national holidays.

Compulsory voting was not mentioned in Vanden Heuvel's article, but it was mentioned by a reader in a letter commenting on her piece. I don't like the idea. I can't give you a thoughtful argument against it, just a gut reaction. Forcing people to vote doesn't mean they will bother to inform themselves. If you have ever dealt with a massive GOTV effort that results in a large number of uninformed voters turning the tide against the better candidate, then you know what I mean.

Maybe I'm more interested in protecting voters who cast a ballot of their own free will. Maybe I'm just being contrary. It runs in the family. :)
Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

This is sad

I woke up thinking about this. Of all the things I could spend my time thinking about.......... :)

If you had compulsory voting, it would have to be coupled with voter owned elections/publicly funded elections. Currently, candidates can target mailers, etc to those most likely to vote. If everyone voted, the financial burden created to educate the voters would be massive. Compulsory voting would work better with publicly funded elections, but that's early morning, just crawling out of bed, coughing my lungs out - thinking.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Compulsory voting

makes it less of a "right and a priveledge", and more of something like paying taxes. As much as I hate this, I believe that people have the right not to vote. That is actually what freedom is about. I do my best to educate everyone I know about the issues and get them to vote, but passing laws requiring them to vote defeats the purpose of democracy, in my view.

As for a voting holiday - I think it would be a start. Early voting alleviated some of the issues associated with people not being able to get to the polls on election day, but I suspect that in our county, at least, the most of the people who voted early would have voted on election day anyway.I don't think it increased turnout. It was probably different in 2004, and Mr. Pence could address that better than I could.

My favorite suggestions posted so far are:

4. Require reliable voting machines and a paper trail.

I spent most of yesterday in the car yesterday, and was switching between NPR and several different satellite radio talk shows, learned more about Christine Jennings' lawsuit as a result of the missing 18,000 votes that were never counted in Florida's 13th district. They have added Election Systems and Software, Inc. to their suit, so that they can have a look at the "proprietary" source code for the faulty machines (or faulty code.) It seems that at this point in our technological lives, we should not be basing our government upon faulty technology. If the machines/software system has proven incapable of counting a significant number of votes in a given precinct, then the BOE should be required to use a system that provides a reliable backup system so that those individuals who do choose to vote can be assured that their votes count. (The top reason people have given me for not voting is: my vote won't even get counted.)

5. Require nonpartisan election management.

I've never had an issue with this at the local level, but it's obviously a problem nationwide. You can't avoid conflict of interest with that level of partisan involvment. (I believe that this goes hand in hand with public campaign financing, which goes hand in hand with the elimination of "soft" money), but this comment is already making me late for work.)

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

I will just adopt your words

I could only come up with "I don't like it." :)

I think 4 and 5 would meet with the least opposition. Many of the machines in use already comply with 4 and all that we need to do is make sure the software/programming can be checked by independent sources. Having a papertrail is a no-brainer and I'm still trying to figure out why any thinking individual/group would purchase machines that did not allow for something as basic as a papertrail.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

A paper trail

SD said:

I'm still trying to figure out why any thinking individual/group would purchase machines that did not allow for something as basic as a papertrail.

I agree - and a paper trail that the voter can see - not some internal thing that the voter can't see and make sure it reflects how they wanted to vote. The system we use in JoCo is optical scanning - the voter marks a ballot with a pen, feeds it into a machine that counts the vote, and later, if there's a question about the machine count, the paper ballots are still there and available for a hand count. What could be simpler? Is the problem that Diebold doesn't make enough profit from that system, or what?

I do not understand why anybody would support compulsory voting. Do we really want our government elected by people who don't care enough to inform themselves about the candidates, and who do not care enough to bother to vote without being compelled to do so?

Impartial oversight seems like another no-brainer. How can anyone argue with the proposition that elections should be overseen by someone who is not committed to any one or more of the candidates?

Here's another idea - what about a 24-hour voting period, and the same 24 hours across the country? IOW, if the polls are open from midnight to midnight EST, they would be open from 9 p.m. to 9 p.m. PST, etc. That way we all get the results at the same time, and voting in one area is not affected by early returns from another. I know, it's already hard enough to get good poll workers to cover all the polling places now, that would make it even twice as hard to cover the additional hours. But would it be worth the trouble?