THE BLOG

Three Ways to Fix Our Democracy

11/26/2012 02:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2013
  • Erik Opsal Deputy Communications Director, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

The 2012 election is over, but there are still clear challenges to the integrity of our democracy. A wave of laws passed in the last two years to make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. Fortunately, most of the worst were blocked or weakened. But they had a clear impact on Election Day -- long lines and confusion at the polls, compounded by broken voting machines and poorly trained poll workers. As President Obama said in his speech, "We have to fix that." Here are three ways to improve our democracy and bring it into the 21st century.

America's voter registration system is ramshackle. It's straight out of the 19th century, relying on paper forms to register voters. If a voter registers at the DMV, they have to fill out a form, that form is mailed to an election office, and a county official types it into a database. This is not only inefficient and costly, it's prone to inaccuracy. One mistyped letter or number and a citizen can show up on Election Day and not be able to vote. Not only does it prevent that one voter from having his/her say, it also affects others by causing bottlenecks and long lines at the polls.

It is time to harness new technology to modernize our voting system, which would add more than 50 million eligible Americans to the rolls, permanently. The Brennan Center's modernization proposal would use existing computerized lists to pass names of eligible voters from state agencies on to election officials. Citizens could also register or update their registration online or at the polls, and registrations would move with a voter when they move within a state. In recent years, at least 21 states -- without fanfare and in a bipartisan way -- have implemented parts of this proposal. These experiences demonstrate that modernization increases accuracy and registration rates, minimizes the potential for fraud, and saves money.

When Americans go to the polls, they vote for legislators who will get something done. Unfortunately, the Senate has made this virtually impossible, largely to due to the rampant abuse of the filibuster. According to a new Brennan Center report, the current Congress had the lowest output in decades, enacting just 196 public laws. In that time, the Senate passed a record-low 2.8 percent of bills, and filed 385 cloture motions -- the only way to end a filibuster -- more than the total number filed between 1917 (when they started) to 1988.

As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid noted on election night, "It's time to put politics aside, and work together to find solutions. The strategy of obstruction, gridlock and delay was soundly rejected by the American people."

The 113th Congress offers a new opportunity to end this dysfunction. With a fresh set of newly-elected Senate reformers, there is a real chance to change Senate Rules and curb the worst filibuster abuses, "the very rules at the heart of legislative paralysis." On the first day of the legislative session in January, the Senate can amend its rules by a simple majority vote, instead of the 67-vote threshold normally required. The Brennan Center report offers multiple reform proposals, including, among others, requiring 40 votes to sustain a filibuster (rather than the 60 votes currently needed to break one) and forcing filibustering Senators to stay on the floor and debate, as was true in the past. These basic reforms would start to bring the Senate into the 21st century.

We saw a record $6 billion spent in the 2012 election. The impact on the presidential race was less than expected, but big money remains a significant threat post-Citizens United. The Brennan Center and Democracy 21 have a plan to combat Citizens United by boosting the power of small donors in federal elections. Harnessing new breakthroughs in small donor fundraising, along with a multiple matching fund system, this innovative reform would amplify the role of average voters. The proposal shows how a small donor matching fund model -- used successfully in New York City and elsewhere -- could work for Congressional elections.

America is the world's leading democracy, but that doesn't mean there aren't improvements to be made. By modernizing registration, ending government dysfunction, and combating Citizens United, we can put the people back in charge of our democracy.