The Difference a Month Can Make

Think back for a moment to last December and January. There was tremendous outrage over the 5-4 Bush victory in the Supreme Court. Large numbers of people, the largest since the Vietnam War, demonstrated in D.C. on January 20th, inauguration day, against the selection of Bush as President. Major stories were being carried in the mainstream press about Florida and the problems of our beloved “democracy.” Due to massive grassroots pressure, 42 Democrats found the political courage to vote against unrepentant right-winger John Ashcroft for Attorney-General. There was a palpable feeling among many in the progressive movement that we could make critical strides forward in the critical task of fundamentally reforming the electoral system.

Fast forward to April and May. Despite the on-going work of a number of progressive and moderate groups, the issue of electoral reform seemed to be withering on the two-party political vine. Although there was an unprecedented two-week debate in the Senate on the McCain-Feingold bill, the bigger stories were about the Bush tax cut, National Missile Defense, energy policy, withdrawal from the Kyoto global warming accords, and other bad news. The bi-coastal Voter Marches in D.C. and San Francisco in mid-May drew no more than a few thousand people and almost no media coverage. And the media spin put on the initial reports of the press recount of the Florida ballots made it seem as if Bush junior would have won Florida even if there had been a recount.

The month of June, however, was a very different story, for three
reasons: the release of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on their investigation of massive voter disenfranchisement in Florida, the Democracy Summer Institute at Florida A & M in Tallahassee, and the Pro-Democracy Convention in Philadelphia. In combination with the persistent, under-the-radar, essential grassroots organizing on electoral justice issues taking place around the country, these developments, particularly the success of Democracy Summer and the Pro-Democracy Convention, make it clear that, in this year 2001, an independent electoral justice movement has emerged onto the political scene.

The political significance of this development cannot be overstated, for a number of reasons:

-It would have been demoralizing and a very bad thing if the progressive movement had been not up to the task of responding to the Republican theft of the Presidency and the 35-day Florida circus. The fact that scores of organizations and many hundreds of activists representing tens of thousands of more came together in June in Tallahassee and Philadelphia, with a commitment to on-going work, is a hopeful sign.

-This pro-democracy movement has emerged *from its beginnings* as a multi-racial movement with major leadership from people of color. This was not an accident. It happened because of a commitment to such a movement on the part of the main organizers, those of color and those not, of Democracy Summer and the Pro-Democracy Convention.

-Those present at the June events included Nader voters, Gore voters and others, and there were, as far as I know, NO public attacks by one on the other. This included leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus, representatives of the National Action Network and Rainbow/PUSH, Green Party leaders, some representation of labor unions, mainly Black labor, prominent leaders of the women’s movement, and a diversity of groups on the Left, to name just a handful.

-Over 100 young people from around the country attended the Democracy Summer Institute, and a number of them went on to Philadelphia to attend the Pro-Democracy Convention. The pro-democracy movement has gotten off the ground with young people as major players and a major force.

-After 33 years of progressive activism, including 25 as a third party activist, I have become convinced that there is little hope that we can ever accomplish our overall pro-justice, programmatic objectives unless we can make significant inroads with the electoral reform agenda. A two-party, money-dominated, winner-take-all political system is an eventual graveyard for progressive movements *because we are denied any consistent political/electoral expression.* We are kept at the margins, unable to win enough third party victories to be seen as credible and “players” by most voters or, more often the reality, reduced to begging of or demanding that the Democratic Party, by no means a reliable ally, take up our causes. We will not get out of this situation until we alter enough of the unjust rules of the game that the electoral playing field is in the process of becoming level and fair.

This is not an ordinary political time. There are openings to advance the electoral reform agenda that we have not had in over 50 years. We should act accordingly and seize the time.

State of the Movement

The pro-democracy movement is still at an early stage of development as a political movement. Over the last six months, particularly because of Democracy Summer and the Pro-Democracy Convention, the primary thing which has happened is more frequent and regularized communication among most of the major players in this movement, at least the progressive sector of it.

It is important to recognize that many of the ten points of the Voters’
Bill of Rights, a document endorsed by 120 organizations and which is widely accepted as the unifying platform of the progressive pro-democracy movement, are also supported by more moderate and good government groups. Some of its points are supported by conservative groups, particularly conservative alternative parties which are also shut out by the two-party duopoly. If this movement is to accomplish its objectives, we will need to be both principled about our commitment to a non-racist, genuine democracy and flexible tactically so that on specific items in our Voters’ Bill of Rights (VBR) agenda, we can ally with those with whom we share a common, if limited, approach. Examples of the latter would be issues like easier access to the ballot, media and debates, instant runoff voting, proportional representation, same-day voter registration, and independent, professional administration of elections.

There is unevenness at present as far as which issues of the VBR are being worked on at the grassroots level.

Public financing/getting money out of politics is unquestionably the issue around which there has been the most focused work over the last several years. Indeed, going back to the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, significant numbers of organizers have been involved with this issue for roughly a dozen years, with victories to show for their labor.

Because of what happened in Florida, the issues related to voter disenfranchisement, particularly enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and voting rights for ex-prisoners, are much more widely in the public consciousness. Groups such as the NAACP, the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation and the Congressional Black Caucus are among the major groups giving leadership in this area.

Primarily because of the work of the Center for Voting and Democracy and the Nader campaign, the issues of instant runoff voting (IRV) and, to a lesser extent, proportional representation (PR), have seen a tremendous increase in both interest and organizing over the past year. Alaska, Austin, Tx., Minneapolis, Mn., Vermont, New Mexico, Eugene, Or. and Berkeley and Oakland, Ca. are among the places where concrete IRV victories are very possible soon. 12 state legislatures have had IRV bills introduced this year. This is definitely an area on an upswing.

Various third parties throughout the country continue to hammer away legislatively and legally to change discriminatory ballot access laws which make it difficult for independent candidates or third parties to get on the ballot. Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News continues to be the best source for what is happening in this regard.

Again because of Florida, there are possibilities for some progress relatively soon in the area of making voting easier and more reliable, particularly as far as improving voting machinery and the training of election workers. However, there is a big question as to if enough resources will be allocated for these reforms. There is also on-going discussion within pro-democracy circles about the relative merits of improved electronic voting equipment versus the old-fashioned, but less prone to vote-rigging, paper ballot.

There are a number of other areas within the Voters’ Bill of Rights that, as of the present time, do not seem to be major focuses for
-same-day voter registration,
-making voting easier for students off at school and away from home, -making election day a national holiday or on a weekend, -easier access to the media and debates for candidates -statehood for the District of Columbia (with the exception of organizing taking place within the District itself) -abolishing the Electoral College (or proportional representation in the allocation of electors by states) -independent administration of elections

Future Prospects

In addition to the on-going work around various aspects of the Voters’
Bill of Rights, there are several other definite or likely projects that will be developing in the coming period.

A major one is a bigger and better Democracy Summer 2002. The organizers of this year’s Democracy Summer Institute have already begun discussing this and making plans for outreach to involve additional organizations.
There was much support for this project expressed at the Pro-Democracy Convention. The thinking is that, with enough lead time and resources, the summer of 2002 could be a time when potentially thousands of young people would be involved throughout the country in a massive voter registration, education, get-out-the-vote and pro-electoral reform campaign. For reasons that are obvious, such a campaign, if done well, could have a significant, short-term political impact, while also strengthening and advancing the longer-term electoral justice movement.

As part of the organizing towards Democracy Summer 2002 there is growing interest in the idea of “freedom rides” prior to Democracy Summer. These traveling road shows would make historical connections with the freedom rides of the 1960s while outreaching to young people and students to become active in today’s freedom movement.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, the primary organizer of the Pro-Democracy Convention, is committed to working with co-sponsors and endorsers of the Convention to hold a series of workshops or mini-conferences in targeted areas around the country. Some of these could happen this fall.

There is one more possible campaign. At this point it is in the active consideration stage by some of the groups which organized the two June actions. The idea for this campaign comes from a proposal put forward by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, speaking at the kick-off session in Tallahassee June 17 of the Democracy Institute.

Ms. Waters challenged the young people to go back to their communities and really dig into their local electoral systems. She suggested that they arrange to go to local election offices to find out how things work—what happens when someone registers to vote, where does that registration go, how long does it take to be processed, is the person sent a registration card, how does the office make preparations for election day, how do they determine how to allocate voting machines, who oversees the administration of the office, etc.

There’s a lot to recommend this idea.

Election offices are all over the country; there are thousands of them.
They are a public institution; even though they are controlled by representatives of the two corporate-dominated parties, they are supposed to be exercising their functions in a relatively transparent and neutral way.

Yet a good number of them are inefficient, using outmoded technology, incompetent or downright corrupt. Again, think back to Katherine Harris and Florida. Throughout the country, particularly in areas where there are significant concentrations of people of color, there are big problems with the way they function. This is why one of the Voters’ Bill of Rights points calls for independent, non-partisan and professional administration of elections. It’s really just common sense.

A campaign led by students to, first, discover how local election offices are functioning and, second, make demands for reform, can shine a needed spotlight onto these institutions. In the short-term such a campaign should improve efficiency and lessen the kinds of problems exposed in the 2000 elections. Longer-term, it will build broad support for the independent administration demand, an essential objective. We can’t trust the foxes of either party to administer the chicken coop of a true democracy. Us chickens have suffered long enough under fox mis-rule.

The pro-democracy movement is a movement whose time has come.