Democracy is more than simply the biennial ritual of electing our D.C. representatives. Political theorists have long debated the nature and prerequisites of democracy, but at a minimum it includes the right to vote for those who govern us, freedom of speech and press, and exposure to a range of political alternatives.
We have just completed an election that has increased suspicions about the future of our democracy. Concerns about electronic voting machines, allegations regarding new voter registration and participation, long lines, and chaotic voter procedures have marred elections in several states.
Our political history has a darker side. Many Americans assume that history is characterized by a smooth extension of the franchise from propertied males and then eventually to all adults, the logical extension of the liberal individualism on which the U.S. was founded. Nonetheless, as Alexander Keyssar's "The Right to Vote" points out, extension of the franchise often involved struggle against those who argued that democracy and individual rights would perish if the feckless poor, emotional home-bound women, or ignorant blacks were allowed to vote.
Today, the claim is often made that strict registration and identification requirements are intended only to reduce voter fraud, yet few examples of such fraud have been adduced. If fraud is really our concern, methods can surely be devised to streamline the verification process. In addition, if we are really interested in giving all classes of citizens a full and equal right to vote, federal elections would be national holidays or would, as in many European nations, extend over a weekend.
Often extension of the franchise occurred only in response to concerns about social turmoil or international opinion. Yet if the right to vote is not inherent in our makeup, 2007 may offer opportunities to extend that right. Concern about new voting technologies and even about voter suppression are not limited only to Democrats, and a nation that claims the mantle of democracy in its dealings abroad will and should be challenged to deliver on that promise at home. How new Democratic committee chairs will use their power obviously remains to be seen, but one benefit of the Democrats' win is that questions about electoral fairness can be raised without the charge of sore loser.
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Even before the newly elected Congress is sworn in, American democracy will have another opportunity to display one of its striking anomalies. The so-called lame duck Congress will convene. In many other democracies, the winners take over within days or even hours of their triumph. Here senators and representatives who have been repudiated by their constituents retain significant power for two more months. The future of many of these losers may depend more on the goodwill of the corporate and lobbying worlds than on their constituents.
Unfortunately, the lame duck Congress may debate and possibly act on legislation fundamental to the future of our democracy, especially new Internet rules. This Congress is already scarred by a "K Street Project" by which corporate conservatives sought to permanently entrench their own agenda by "defunding" any opponents. Phone and telecommunications lobbyists are likely to persist in their efforts to gain a tighter grip on the Internet by eliminating any requirement that the Internet, which was made possible by public funding, be required to treat all intellectual and commercial traffic equally. Other bills pending in Congress would limit the ability of municipalities to expand inexpensive broadband service to their residents, something Maine residents desperately need and a task at which the private sector has failed miserably.
Postal, rail and telephone service made an immense contribution to U.S. economic development because they were extended across the country regardless of ability to pay and because regulatory structures forced private carriers to treat all customers as equals. Today, however, in an era when the portals of democracy are becoming more constricted, Internet neutrality and Internet access are especially vital. They both foster economic growth and also constitute one vehicle by which alternative views can be presented and forms of political mobilization developed at least to resist the closure of political voice.
Citizens interested in the future of democracy cannot afford to sleep during this interregnum. With media increasingly subject to corporate consolidation, an open and vigorous Internet is a vital tool in exposing abuses both by our media and our political authorities. At the very least it is important to remind our senators and representatives that any decisions regarding the future of the Internet be made by a fully accountable Congress.