Our Progressive Vision: In America, the right to vote is a fundamental freedom. And because we are the leading democracy in the world, our election system ought to be completely free, fair and accessible. The way we conduct elections today is obsolete. We need to eliminate long lines, cut costs, make it more convenient for eligible citizens to vote, maintain the integrity of the voting system, and stop the rich and powerful from exercising undue influence on the process. In short, we must: (1) guarantee that every citizen can register; (2) ensure that every citizen can vote; and (3) crack down on the way campaign financing corrupts governments.
Ensure every citizen can register
In a democracy, every citizen ought to vote and the first step is universal registration. A progressive system registers voters automatically, for example, when anyone who is eligible to vote gets a driver’s license or receives a public service. Registration should also be offered at state and local government offices, online through the Internet, and at polling places on Election Day. And no one outside of prison should be disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction.
Ensure every citizen can vote
There should be no barriers to prevent eligible citizens from voting. Governments should permit both early voting and no-excuse-needed absentee ballots. Election materials should be available in other languages where needed. Voting machines should be absolutely reliable, counting every vote. Governments should crack down on any voter intimidation or use of fraud for voter suppression. Americans should have the freedom to vote made clear in state constitutions. And to ensure that every vote counts equally in presidential elections, states should adopt the National Popular Vote.
Reform campaign financing
Money has an outsized influence on our current electoral system, endangering our representative democracy. Poll after poll shows that voters think the political system is controlled by big companies, political action committees, and rich individuals. And they are right. Candidates in most gubernatorial and state legislative races receive the bulk of their campaign funds from large donations or from non-party entities like PACs. Because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the activism of ultra-right wing billionaires, the amount of money pouring into political campaigns through independent expenditures has grown exponentially. The growing cost associated with running for office makes campaigns prohibitively expensive for most Americans, thus restricting the freedom to run for office to a small minority of the population. In addition, with the rising cost of running for office, candidates need to spend more time fundraising, which restricts their ability to meet with and listen to their constituents. The system is broken and the only real solution is public financing of election campaigns. New York City’s law, for example, requires participating candidates to limit campaign spending; in exchange, a public fund will match small donations. Connecticut provides a good public financing model as well.
Every election cycle, millions of Americans find that they cannot exercise their right to vote because of inefficient or outdated registration systems. Because of human or system error—a misplaced form or a data-entry mistake—paper-based voter registration systems bar many citizens from accessing the ballot box. At the same time, the systems of paper registration forms that jurisdictions continue to use simply cost too much; they require millions of person-hours by government employees or contractors to maintain and use. Fortunately, states can curb these costs while also producing fewer errors by adopting automated online voter registration systems. By converting to an automated online system, states can eliminate the need for almost all physical forms related to registration and minimize the need for employee form-processing. The registration system should include a secure and accessible online portal for individuals to register to vote, update their voter registration information, and check necessary voting information such as polling location. So far, 31 states offer online registration.
Protection from intimidation
Too many Americans are prevented from exercising their right to vote because of voter intimidation or suppression, or mistakes by election officials. Although voter intimidation is illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act, most violators are never punished. In addition, federal law does not prohibit willfully fraudulent voter suppression tactics and it does nothing to prevent or address mistakes. States can adopt a Voter Protection Act, which employs three avenues to ensure that every eligible voter can vote: First, impose heavy penalties for both voter intimidation and fraudulent suppression. Second, require every polling place to post a Voter’s Bill of Rights (as some states do). Third, reduce mistakes by creating an Election Day Manual of Procedures that sets out election rules, and make it available to both voters and officials at the polls.
Americans are disgusted by the way massive campaign contributions corrupt the democratic process and give unfair advantages to the wealthy and well-connected. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the activism of ultra-right wing billionaires makes the situation even worse. Americans want and expect us to do something about it. Public funding of state and local elections works. New York City’s law, for example, requires participating candidates to limit campaign spending. In exchange, a public fund will match each dollar a city resident contributes to the candidate up to $175 with six dollars in public funds for a maximum of $1,050 in public funds per donor. This kind of system increases the value of small donations and encourages more people at varying income levels to participate in the electoral process.