When Americans troop to the polls on November 2, most will take pride in being part of a hallowed ritual of democracy. It's hard to argue that such patriotic feelings are not justified. But as the nation girds for Election Day, something is amiss in the land of Madison and Jefferson. In some very basic ways, the delicate mechanism of our democracy has come unsprung. It is time to take an unblinking look at our political landscape -- and assess the growing symptoms of dysfunction. What is amazing is how little has changed since November, 2000. The underlying problems that led to the Presidential election crisis still exist and could stretch on for years.
What has changed is hardly for the better. The country is even more split among politically polarized regions. Republicans dominate "Red" states of the Deep South, much of the Farm Belt, and the Mountain West. Democrats control "Blue" states along the coasts. Meanwhile, the number of swing states has dwindled to 17 or 18 -- effectively disenfranchising millions of voters residing in the "already decided" areas.
To make matters worse, an Electoral College system conceived by the Founders as an insulating mechanism between a landed aristocracy and the masses makes more 2000-style fiascoes distinctly possible. With Democrats and Republicans at parity, either party's candidate could again triumph in the popular vote while losing in the Electoral College. Such an outcome could spawn a crisis of legitimacy, dog the "winner" for the duration of his term, and reinforce doubts about government by the people and for the people. Who loses? Everybody.
Voice for the Voiceless
Inside those Red Zones and Blue Zones, political competition is being systematically snuffed out as the major parties redesign congressional district lines into genetically engineered safe havens. Thanks to pernicious gerrymandering, only 35 seats at best out of 435 are even remotely in play this year. The result: growing voter disenchantment over the lack of choice and yet another sign that democracy is in trouble.
The good news is that democracy is a living organism that can be revitalized. The most obvious solution: Give voice to the voiceless by dispensing with the musty Electoral College, which artificially magnifies the clout of sparsely populated states.
While we're replacing the Electoral College with direct Presidential elections, we should also revamp the undemocratic method the parties use to select standard-bearers. The dominance of Iowa and New Hampshire -- two small and not-terribly-representative throwbacks to Norman Rockwell America -- distorts the entire race, forcing contenders to shape issues designed to catch fire with the locals. The primary calendar should be retooled into a series of competitions that give voters in other regions a stake in the nomination. At the same time, voting technology should be wrenched into this century with a guiding hand from Washington, a dollop of cash for new equipment, and smart thinking about security standards for the coming age of e-voting.
Finally, our scandalous system for funding campaigns, a throwback to the buy-a-vote days of yore, could stand another massive dose of reform. Of course, asking lawmakers to curb new soft-money groups, fix the near-broke Presidential campaign fund, and help challengers have a shot at dug-in incumbents is like asking them to saw off an arm. Reform requires a recognition that there exists something called the national interest -- and demands a rare moment of vision by Capitol Hill's shameless partisans.
Unless we want to continue on the path we're treading -- declining participation, permanent incumbency, less competition for ideas, increased balkanization, and more big-money politics -- reform isn't an option. It is perhaps the most urgent priority facing the republic as it lurches into the harsh light of a new century burdened by a political system that seems less democratic by the day.
By Richard S. Dunham, Lee Walczak, Paula Dwyer, Mike McNamee, and Alexandra Starr in Washington wrote this report