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Our Dysfunctional Democracy

by Katrina Vanden Huevel

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

1. DC House Voting Rights Act. The House recently approved legislation to grant nearly 600,000 disenfranchised District citizens a voting representative in Congress as well as a fourth seat for largely Republican Utah. (Utah was less than 1000 people short of meriting an added seat, according to the 2000 Census which failed to account for thousands of missionaries abroad at the time.) The Senate will now take up a similar bill introduced by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Orrin Hatch.

On Sunday, Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher suggested one of the reasons the District now stands its best chance since the 1970's to gain voting representation: "In the shadow of an unpopular war and a gloomy cloud of anti-American sentiment around the world, an increasing number of Republicans are looking for ways to counter criticism that the United States is less than a paragon of democratic virtue at home."

"We don't need Republicans to vote for the bill," Republican Representative Tom Davis--who cosponsored the House bill--told Fisher. "We just need nine to stop a filibuster, and we think we have them."

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

A lot of good groups have kept up the pressure for this legislation, including DC Vote, FairVote, Common Cause, and others. Tell your Senator to bring democracy home by supporting the DC House Voting Rights Act (S. 1257) today.

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

Illinois is now poised to join Maryland in the compact. Last week the state House approved its National Popular Vote bill 65-50. It will 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 before Governor Linda Lingle vetoed it. But last week the Senate voted 20-5 to override the veto. The House has delayed its vote while proponents work to gain the two-thirds majority needed to complete the override which they hope to do this summer.

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

"Candidates for our one national office should have incentives to speak to everyone, and all Americans should have the power to hold their president accountable," Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell of FairVote recently wrote.

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

3. Florida Voting Machines. In November, touch-screen voting machines in Sarasota County apparently failed to count over 18,000 votes in a U.S. Congressional race decided by a margin of just 369 votes. Last week, The Florida House passed legislation in a 118-0 vote to replace touch-screen voting machines with an optical scanner that reads paper ballots (and also leaves a paper trail!). The measure had already been approved by the Senate and Governor Charlie Crist "had sought [this] almost from the moment he took office in January."

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

This commonsense reform has been a long time coming, and Demos and other organizations like Common Cause are advocating for similar federal remedies currently under consideration in the House and Senate.

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

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

© 2007 The Nation

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