On Historical Moments

Organized efforts to bring about significant reforms need a number of things if they are to be successful. One is an ability to discern when, for whatever the reasons may be, there has been a change from what might be called the “keep plugging away” stage into what might be called the “time to step it up” stage. I am convinced that that has happened with the issue of pro-democracy electoral reform. This is an historical moment ripe with possibilities.

“Florida” is the primary reason why this is the case. For 35 days the entire country had an intense civics lesson which made clear the need for change in our electoral system. But it wasn’t just Florida. It was also the exclusion of Ralph Nader (and Buchanan) from the Presidential debates. It was other, less-visible actions in many parts of the country on the part of the powers-that-be to limit and restrict popular participation in the choosing of government leaders.

As a result, virtually every state legislature is now in the process of considering what needs to be done to improve the quality of electoral machinery. Legislation in support of Instant Runoff Voting has been introduced in 12 state legislatures. There was an unprecedented two weeks of debate over the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate (with, not surprisingly, not much to show for it in terms of real change in our big
money- dominated system). The NAACP and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have held hearings on voting rights violations. The mainstream media has been doing and is beginning to report on results of a recount of all of Florida’s votes.

Again, this is an historical moment ripe with possibilities. For those of us who understand the importance of running candidates for office and building up alternative political formations to hold those candidates accountable, this is a time to be stepping up our work. We have real possibilities for building a mass movement to significantly change the undemocratic, big money-dominated, winner-take-all electoral system, a system, a set of electoral practices, that may be the single most important reason the overall independent progressive movement is as weak as it is in the United States.

The question is, do enough of us recognize this, are enough of us acting upon this recognition?

Fortunately, some are. Since early December, there has been growing support for a Voters’ Bill of Rights, a document endorsed by 110 organizations so far, and the list is growing. The Voters’ Bill of Rights calls for these reforms:

-Strict Enforcement and Extension of the Voting Rights Act
-Abolition of the Electoral College
-Clean Money Elections
-Instant Run-Off Voting
-Proportional Representation
-Voting Rights for Former Prisoners
-Making Voting Easier and More Reliable
-Easier Access to the Ballot, the Media and Debates for Candidates
-Independent and Non-Partisan Election Administration Bodies
-Statehood for the District of Columbia

With this document as the programmatic glue, about 20 national organizations are working to organize two major actions this June to advance the pro-democracy, electoral reform cause.

The first will be Democracy Summer 2001. This project has two main parts. The first will be a Democracy Institute from June 17-23 at Florida A & M University in Talllahassee, “the scene of the crime.” The institute will focus on educating upwards of 200 young people from around the country about the issues of the Voters’ Bill of Rights, as well as training in the skills of lobbying, community organizing, dealing with the media, coalition-building and building a diverse movement.

The second part of Democracy Summer 2001 will see many of the Institute participants fanning out to join local electoral reform efforts in Florida, the South and elsewhere in the country, as interns or temporary summer organizers. They will be blitzing communities with information on electoral reform and bringing new constituencies into the fight for democracy.

The second major action will be a Pro-Democracy Convention in Philadelphia June 28-July 1, on the weekend just before July 4th.
Initiated by the Center for Constitutional Rights, this event will gather up and galvanize all of us outraged by election 2000. It will be a critical part of the process of building a permanent movement for far-ranging reforms toward genuine democracy.

It is significant that the groups working on either one or both of these actions are a multi-racial mix that includes the NAACP, National Action Network, SCLC, Global Exchange, Institute for Policy Studies, IPPN, Kensington Welfare Rights Union, Center for Voting and Democracy, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Fannie Lou Hamer Project, Black Youth Vote and Alliance for Democracy. Some of the groups supported Nader, some supported Gore, some were non-partisan, but we are now united in our commitment to far-reaching democratic electoral reform.

It is an historical moment ripe with possibilities.