Urban Agenda -- 21st Century Political Renewal


Reprinted w/permission-Washington Post Writers Group & the artist

Building a pro-city platform and Urban Agenda for the next Presidential campaign & locally.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Is this Sunday's column (forthcoming) by Neal Peirce. Neal writes about state and local politics. While his column is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, lamentably the Post does not run his column. Back columns are available through a link via the Citistates website. From the column:

American democracy, once the wonder of the world, is working about as well as the levees around New Orleans -- “degenerated into a partisan brew of spin, scandal, name-calling, money chasing and pandering.”

That’s the charge of reform advocate Steven Hill, and who’s to doubt his indictment? Elections are marred by suspicious voting equipment. TV blanks out most serious campaign debate. Congressional and state legislative elections are increasingly less-competitive as “red” and “blue” voters cluster in their own partisan enclaves. The presidential election system focuses all attention on a tiny band of swing states -- and can easily make the popular vote loser the winner. Citizens increasingly wonder: why bother to vote at all?

What’s to be done?. In his new book, “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy,” Hill abjures piecemeal reform and instead provides a “‘one-stop shopping guide’ to what’s broken about American democracy and how Americans can help fix it.” From Hill’s list of 10, I’d pick five indispensable first steps:

-- Secure the vote. Butterfly ballots and hanging chads in Florida in 2000, thousands of low-income voters effectively excluded from polls in Ohio in 2004 -- the scandals are well known. A comprehensive Caltech-MIT study found a stunning 6 percent of ballots cast nationwide in 2000 weren’t counted because of faulty voting machines, poorly designed ballots, or foul-ups with absentee ballots. Private voting machine companies have been shown to have egregious partisan ties. ...

-- His next proposal: expand voter participation by a “right to vote” constitutional amendment, universal registration (everyone 18 and over automatically registered to vote, as most modern democracies do), and prohibiting voter intimidation.

-- Reclaiming the airwaves comes next -- obliging broadcasters (licensed to use public frequencies) to provide ample free media time for candidates, more political news and balanced coverage. Hill also urges a more robust public broadcast sector (TV and radio) to counterbalance our increasingly powerful (and monopolistic) corporate media.

[Note that I write about the Growth Machine a lot in my other blog, Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space. There is a lot of equivalent work done on media and monopoly. Robert McChesney writes a lot about this, as do others.]

-- To minimize the overbearing role of money in elections, he suggests public financing of all campaigns at local, state and federal levels, and at least trying to limit donations and set spending caps on candidates.

-- There’s one more reform on Hill’s list I’d call absolutely essential: direct popular election of the president. Sticking with the founding fathers’ jerry-rigged electoral college system makes zero 21st century sense.

Hill then has three reforms I’d call intriguing next steps, experiments we ought to try.

-- runoff voting, now being used in San Francisco’s mayoral elections, Utah Republican primaries and other places. Voters list their preferences - #1, #2, etc. If no candidate gets a majority of the #1 choices, immediate recounts include voters’ second (or even third) choices. The lowest vote-getter is eliminated on each count, until there’s a majority. The method has big pluses: diminished campaign mudslinging, incentives for higher voter turnout, and less impact by spoiler candidates (like Ralph Nader in 2000).

-- Hill would also scrap -- especially for legislative races -- the “winner-take-all” election system that so often leaves political minorities and our many racial and ethnic groups unrepresented. His model: Illinois’ success, from 1870 to 1980, with three-seat state House districts. Voters could cast all their three votes for one candidate, or distribute them as they chose. Result: any candidate who got over 25 percent was likely to win. More mavericks, willing to buck their party’s leadership, got elected. Bipartisan coalitions were commonplace.

-- Now Hill suggests three-seat districts, not just for legislatures, but congressional seats too, a big break for “blues” in “red” areas and “reds” in blue areas, plus election of more Latino and black representatives.

Americans, he suggest, need to shake off the anti-government ideas born in the Reagan era, and begin to embrace government as a positive good providing it’s run efficiently to meet real needs -- from hurricane relief to universal health care protection.

Hill includes two ideas I’d call impractical outliers -- reforming the Senate to give heavily populated states more seats, and the Supreme Court by shifting confirmation power from the Senate to the House, limiting Justices to 15-to-18-year terms, and requiring they retire at 70 or 75 years.

Hearing this spate of ideas, some may grouse: Why change the ground rules? Didn’t our Founding Fathers know best? Yet in his introduction to Hill’s book, Henrick Hertzberg of the New Yorker has it right. Reinvigorating the republic is a way to keep faith. “The question isn’t: What way back then, did Jefferson (and Madison and Hamilton) do? The question is: What would they do now?”


  • At 5:50 PM, Blogger soul searcher said…

    lani guinier wrote extensively about proportional representation in her book "tyranny of the majority". this book collects the prior writings that were considered "controversial" enough to lead clinton to abandon her nomination to head up the civil rights division in the department of justice, although few Americans at the time could be said to have as visionary an approach to American democracy (and its future) at the time than Ms. Guinier. It's doubtful that anyone actually read the writings of Ms. Guinier at the time, judging by the uneducated "quota queen" name calling that went her way (and the fact that stable parliamentary democracies across the world had already successfully incorporated several of her ideas, none of which were particularly radical to anyone who had studied how democracy evolved in, say, western europe).


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