Reform storm 

When demonstrators journeyed to Washington, D.C., last month to protest the inauguration of George W. Bush, they were given something more than an opportunity to voice their outrage. They were also likely to have been handed a blueprint for reform that, if enacted, would help ensure that the next president we elect is the one who gets sworn in.

Tens of thousands of copies of the Voters’ Bill of Rights, a 10-point program being promoted by a coalition of progressive and reform groups, were passed out in D.C. on Inauguration Day.

“There’s a lot of interest in this,” says Ted Glick, national coordinator of the Independent Progressive Policy Network (www.ippn.org), a New Jersey-based nonprofit group that is organizing the campaign. “Over the past two months, 92 organizations have endorsed the plan. People see that electoral reform is desperately needed as a result of what happened in Florida and elsewhere.”

Among the coalition’s goals:

Instant runoff voting — Under this system, voters would rank their selected candidates in order (first, second, third choice, etc.). If no candidate obtains a majority of votes in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second choice listed by the supporters of that candidate is tabulated. The process continues until one candidate obtains a majority of votes. Such a system would foster the growth of third parties by eliminating concerns that candidates such as Ralph Nader merely play the role of spoiler in close elections such as the one we just had. For more information about this issue, contact the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md., or visit www.fairvote.org.

Campaign finance reform — A ban on ‘soft-money’ contributions to political parties is needed immediately, say supporters of election reform. Also needed is full public financing of political campaigns. Without reform, corporate special interests will continue to dominate the political landscape. The nonprofit group Public Campaign in Washington, D.C., can provide more information at www.publiccampaign.org.

Strict enforcement of voting rights — According to Glick’s group, “As the vote in Florida and many other states demonstrated, the intimidation and disenfranchisement of communities of color still goes on.” The Justice Department is being called upon to strengthen its vote enforcement division to “swiftly investigate and prosecute” acts of voter intimidation.

Also included in the plan are calls for abolition of the Electoral College, proportional representation, statehood for Washington, D.C., voting rights for former prisoners, easier voter registration, more reliable voting equipment, third-party access to presidential debates, and independent and nonpartisan election administration bodies.

The beauty of having numerous issues is that various groups interested in particular aspects of reform can hammer away at the local, state and national levels, helping to create even more momentum for reform.

It’s not just nonprofit groups that are seeking reforms on a national level. Here in Michigan, the state Democratic Party Convention held in Detroit on Saturday provided plenty of evidence that electoral reform will be a top agenda item among liberals.

“It’s a huge priority,” says Michigan Democratic Party spokesperson Dennis Denno. “Almost every one of our speakers addressed it.”

High on the Dem’s wish list: elimination of punch-card voting systems.

Denno is not the first to observe that poorer communities, especially those with high concentrations of minority voters, are the most likely to have problem-plagued, outdated voting equipment.

For State Rep. Mary Waters (D-Detroit), the issue is personal as well as political.

“I came from the cotton and tobacco fields of Alabama, so it is very important to me that we make sure people have every single opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” says Waters.

Along with seeking to allow voters to register on Election Day, she plans to introduce legislation to help ensure that election officials are qualified, that voter registration rolls are accurate, and that handicapped, minorities and non-English speaking voters have equal access to polls.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” says Waters. “The right to vote affects everyone. I will do everything I can to reach out on a bipartisan basis on this.”

How receptive Republicans will be to these reforms remains a question. Denno points out that Bush has yet to speak out on the issue, and that Gov. John Engler failed to mention it at all in his recent State of the State speech.

If the Republican leadership does ignore the issue, the price they pay could be steep. Activists say that the desire for reform is both widespread and deep-seated.

“There has been tremendous response to this issue,” observes Bill Goodman, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. “We are seeing a new development in American politics, and it is very exciting.”

Goodman adds: “This is an issue people understand. Regardless of who people wanted to win the presidential election, I think the whole country saw the embarrassment and inequality of an election system that is underfunded and ignored in a lot of states.

“We saw that in some districts there is almost no chance that mistakes will be made, while in others there is a very high chance that a person’s vote will never be counted. We wouldn’t tolerate this while overseeing elections in other countries, so why should we tolerate it here?”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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