Magazine article USA TODAY

Making Democracy Work: In This Age of Apathy, Archaic Voting Laws, and Widespread Disenfrachisement, Can Our Republic Ever Function as Envisioned 225 Years Ago by the Founding Fathers?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Making Democracy Work: In This Age of Apathy, Archaic Voting Laws, and Widespread Disenfrachisement, Can Our Republic Ever Function as Envisioned 225 Years Ago by the Founding Fathers?

Article excerpt

IN A DEMOCRACY, history is the people's responsibility. In order for that responsibility to be exercised properly, the electorate must know the issues and understand how the system works. Moreover, citizens have be able to work together to be effective politically; they have to care enough to vote and to convince others to do the same.

These and other issues were discussed at length during the conference, "Making Democracy Work," at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. What emerged was a set of prescriptions that, if followed, could increase and enlighten the nation's electorate, as well as help fulfill the promise of democracy which the Founding Fathers wrote about so eloquently some 225 years ago.

So, how can democracy be made to work better? Halting the disenfranchisement of voters is a good place to start, maintains Connecticut's former Secretary of State. Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, an organization dedicated to increasing political participation. "The preregistration requirements that every state imposes have no valid basis anymore." he argues.

"Why on Earth does it take state election officials 30 days to figure out whether you are eligible to vote or not? We have computerized voting processes, and we have the ability to have identification procedures that can work. If you listened to the second of the presidential debates and really got turned on, in 36 states you were already too late. So. we have millions of people ... who would have liked to have voted in [the] election but [were] refused purely because of the registration deadline.

"There are six states in the country--Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, and Wyoming--that have election day registration. In the 2000 election, their voter turnout was 12 points higher than the national average. This is clearly one of the reforms we could do easily that would make a huge difference in the turnout of elections."

In addition, "not all of the voting age population is eligible to vote," which includes 18,000,000 noncitizens and 5,000,000 convicted felons. The latter figure is so high, Rapoport notes, due to "the explosion of the drug wars in the 1980s and 1990s."

Concerning "the felony disenfranchisement issue, every state has different laws," Rapoport explains. "In Maine and Vermont and Puerto Rico, you never lose your right to vote. In a number of states, you lose your vote in prison, but when you get out you can vote. In eight states, you lose your vote permanently. Just to pick a state at random--in Florida, there are over 600,000 people, according to a lawsuit, who are prohibited from voting. In 2000, the [presidential] election was decided in Florida by 537 votes.

"Felony disenfranchisement has become a huge exclusion from our democratic process that needs to be changed. Many of these laws, if you look at them very carefully, particularly the ones in the South, have their roots in the Reconstruction Era. The Florida disenfranchisement was first passed in 1868 and it was deliberately designed to prevent African-Americans from voting. In the North, it was to prevent blacks and immigrants from voting.

"One part of the National Voter Registration Act, passed by Congress in 1993, requires social service departments to offer people the right to register and vote. The Federal Election Commission keeps the statistics and they are abysmal. Only three to four percent of those who apply for food stamps are being registered. If that figure were even 15 to 20% per year, we'd have millions of additional people registered.

"A major long-term issue then is how do we lower the barriers? How do we make our system one that encourages people to vote? I never use the term apathy in regard to voters because, generally, I don't think it's the voters fault. I think those of us in the system have the first responsibility to make the system one that welcomes people. …

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