Friday, September 19, 2008

Real. Political. Change.

As every TV watcher in America knows by now, both major party presidential candidates are promising change. Obama's been running on it since the beginning. His message of change defeated Hilary Clinton (barely), and during the Republican National Convention, McCain's campaign shifted to a message of change (embodied by its Sarah Palin pitch).

To be sure, change is coming, whether we like it or not. Structural problems in the economy and political party realignment (more on that soon) have turned the 2008 election into a bellwether. The old Great Society/New Deal liberalism is on its way out, as is the cultural warring of the long-dominant New Right coalition (libertarians, big business, social-issue conservatives).

Yet real change of the sort that could save the country from itself is still as distant as ever.

As the nation works its way into a lather over another nail-biter of an election, it seems like few are talking about election reform. After the debacle in Florida 2000, a few federal laws (most notably the Help America Vote Act of 2002) looked to fix the system. But these reforms did little. Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that high turnout and new, untested vote counting technologies will cause serious problems across the country in November.

The most stunning revelation of this piece? "Premier Election Solutions, the company that makes many of the nation's voting machines, last month acknowledged that software used in 34 states, including Virginia and Maryland, could cause votes to be dropped." (By the way, Premier Election Solutions used to be called Diebold). This is no conspiracy of Republican vote-rigging or Democratic ballot-box stuffing. This is flat-out ineptitude.

The worse thing is that we know its coming, and no one cares--most of all, the major political parties. Presidential election reform is always talked about the day after the election, not the months or even years before it. That's a shame. Because careful attention to election procedures could do more to change the country than any policy passed by Congress.

Real and structural change could come with simple presidential election reforms, reforms that both parties could pursue together for the nation's benefit (and ultimately, even strengthen the health of the two party system in the long term). These are just the most easily imagined:

1) Turn election day into a national holiday.

2) Establish clear federal standards that would override the many differences in state election law, most notably by insisting on paper ballots and scanners and standard voter ID procedures in every precinct. There simply have been too many problems with touch screen voting (and often, no paper receipt). Approximately 13,000 voting districts exist in the United States, all separate and unequal.

3) Eliminate the winner-take-all electoral college, which exists in 48 states. Instead, follow the lead of Maine and Nebraska and make the electoral college proportional (not by congressional district--the way those two states set it up--but instead by number of votes cast) in every state.

4) Introduce universal federal voter registration, regardless of residence. The latter has become a big problem in the Midwest already. Disenfranchisement and complicated registrations should be made a thing of the past. If you are a citizen, you should be able to vote.

5) Get private money out of political campaigns. Provide federal campaign spending funds and make other fundraising illegal. Each major party (defined as 5% of the nation-wide popular vote in the last election or more) gets the same amount of financial support.

A nonpartisan movement, one that both major parties could get behind (it would benefit both equally--no unfair advantage on any side), could push Congress and the president (whomever it might be) to institute these real changes. It would only take a couple of years to write, sign, and enact the legislation.

Presidential campaigns would have to work hard in every state, not just swing states. Corporate influences on both parties would fade. Candidates would spend less time fund raising and more time being asked hard questions by voters. Major parties would face more complicated challenges from smaller parties.

Democracy would reign. Rye whiskey would flow. America could turn its attention to pressing challenges such as the economy, war, and the future.