65 Ways to Improve Our Democracy

Today the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform rolled out its recommendations and report today on strengthening American democracy.   Academics are usually on the outside looking in for such processes, but I was lucky enough to serve as one of the BPC’s 29 commissioners.  I left incredibly impressed with the spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship shown by all the members of the commission — particularly its chairs, Senators Lott, Snowe, and Daschle, Secretary Dan Glickman, and Governor Dick Kempthorne, who took a hands-on role in making the report happen and were engaged in the project from beginning to end.  As cynical as I am about such processes generally, I left this one feeling heartened.

You all should read the report, which contains no fewer than 65 recommendations for improving American democracy.  For the most contentious issues – the ones where we disagreed on the fundamentals – the Commission largely confined itself to proposals that were politically realistic and still likely to accomplish something.  For the issues on which we all agreed – especially those having to do with leadership and service – we tended to dream big.

Election law junkies will find much of interest in the report.  First, note that this is the second time in recent months that a commission that included prominent members of both parties endorsed early voting.  As I’ve said elsewhere, early voting is at the “sweet spot” of election reform.  It’s one of the rare examples where the so-called the “access/integrity tradeoff” isn’t a tradeoff.  Early voting makes it easier for people to vote, particularly working people.  By extending the voting process, it also helps reduce the pressures on election day that can lead to long lines.   But early voting also helps on the fraud side of the policymaking equation.  Voters crave convenience voting.  And early voting is a far superior alternative to the other, common form of convenience voting – absentee balloting.  Absentee voting, not in-person voting, is where there’s a real risk of fraud.  Early voting, then, is both secure and convenient, and it’s something that voters are quickly coming to expect.

Second, one of the freshest ideas in the report goes to the problem of primaries.  We all know what a problem low-turnout primaries are.  But there have been precious few new ideas about how to address it.  The Commission proposes creating the equivalent of a “Super Tuesday” for primaries – one day in June when all primaries would take place.  The aim of the proposal is clear – to focus the media and the parties’ turnout efforts and the attention of citizens on a single event in the hope of building better voting habits among our citizenry.  Although the proposal was addressed to the problem of turnout, it also helps solve a crucial problem for election administrators.  Elections are expensive.  The proliferation of primaries and election days drains election administrators of time and financial resources.  There’s no question that it will take some work to consolidate all primaries on a single day.  But the savings involved could be substantial.

Finally, the Commission put some time into thinking about what happens after all the ballots are cast.  The commissioners were acutely aware of the problems associated with recounts.  The report includes a variety of pragmatic, good-governance reforms that would lower the temperature for the recounts that will inevitably happen (at least they would reduce the number of things the parties can go to war over).  Perhaps the most important of these proposals were the ones aimed at reducing the number of provisional ballots and absentee ballots that that are uncounted on election day.  As an elections lawyer will tell you, these ballots are the ticking time bombs of the elections process.  I remember being in the Boiler Room for the Obama campaign in 2012.  For a moment, it looked as if the race might come down to Ohio, which had thousands and thousands of provisional ballots waiting to be counted.  As a member of the recount team, I briefly wondered whether I should tell my family I wouldn’t be seeing them for the next month as the campaigns were sure to litigate the status of each and every one.

I’ll just close by noting that while I don’t agree with every single proposal made by the commission, I am honored to have my name on the report.  It’s a serious report drafted by serious people.  More importantly, it’s aimed at deep and serious problems.  When I thought about whether to sign, I asked myself the question that political scientists routinely ask:  as opposed to what?  The proposals might not be my vision of the perfect.  But they are so far superior to the status quo that it would be great if even a fraction of them were implemented.  Here’s hoping.

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