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Michael Waldman is a nationally prominent public interest lawyer, government official, teacher and writer. He became director of the Brennan Center in October 2005.Mr. Waldman was Director of Speechwriting for[…]

Michael Waldman unpacks his vision for a strong democracy.

Topic: Historical Precedent

Michael Waldman:  There have been a lot of other times in the country’s history when people looked at their government, looked at the institutions of government and said you know what, it’s not working anymore.  It’s not right for this moment.  We’ve gotta fix things.  The Progressive Era, a century ago, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, people from top to bottom said you know what, we need a different kind of government, and they created stronger national protections for food safety.  They began conservation and they did all these things that we now live with in the federal government, and they reformed their politics.  They passed all kinds of changes in how politics worked, including having senators directly elected by the people, just as one example.  There have been many times throughout the country’s history, whether it’s the progressive era, or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, or even if you want to look at it that way, the Reagan revolution of cutting back on government, where people looked at their institutions and said you know what, we need a change.  There’s nothing baked in the cake that says that we can’t have that kind of focus now.

Question: What are your specific recommendations?

Michael Waldman: In very significant ways, our democracy is broken.  It needs repair.  And a lot of the progress that’s been made in recent decades, we’ve really fallen back.  You have this remarkable situation right now in 2008.  On the one hand, there’s a huge upsurge in citizen engagement, in interest, more people voting, more people giving campaign contributions in small dollars through the Internet, all these signs that the public is deeply excited and engaged about politics.  On the other hand, our government’s broken.  Our democracy badly needs repair.  We have tens of millions of people who are not registered to vote because of flaws in our voter registration system.  You’ve got campaign spending going up fivefold in the past quarter century, the number of lobbyists tripling in Washington, D.C. in the past decade.  These are all things that have been around for a long time, but they’ve gotten worse and they’ve compounded.  And so the sense that Washington and national politics is stuck, that special interests are keeping action from taking place on key issues, the voice of ordinary citizens is frozen out, and that politicians are caught up in this crazy system of chasing after money and spending much of their time fundraising, that’s all real and it’s something people are waking up to the need to change.  And when you have that sense of public engagement colliding with
broken institutions, throughout our history, that’s when you get real change.

Voting is the heart of democracy, and we need to make it so that everyone who wants to vote can vote, everyone who wants to register can register, and every vote that is cast is actually a vote that is counted.  Today our voter registration system is a remnant of a time when we set up all these rules to keep former slaves and Irish immigrants from voting 100 years ago.  There are tens of millions of people who today, aren’t on the voter roles because they slipped off when they moved or for all the other kinds of reasons.  There is no reason that we could not have universal voter registration in this country.  We should just make it a policy that every adult citizen who’s eligible to vote is registered to vote, whether they move, they’re registered.  If we did that, and it’s easy for the government to do it, we would make it so that the politicians no longer are spending their time trying to appeal to the narrowest part of the electorate, but they know that on election day, everybody might show up and that would change politics.  Another thing we need to do in the area of voting is make sure that everyone who votes has their vote counted.  Now there’s been a move toward electronic voting machines since the year 2000, since the Florida debacle, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But my group, the Brennan Center convened a task force of top computer scientists from all over the country, including the federal government to look at these new electronic machines and ask well are they really safe?  Could somebody hack the machines?  Could somebody tilt the election?  There’s a lot of worry, a lot of conspiracy theories.  What are the facts?  And what they’ve found out was that every single one of the electronic systems is, in fact, very vulnerable, very vulnerable to hacking, to fraud and to error.  You know it turns out even paranoids have enemies when it comes to electronic voting.  The good news is there are all kinds of fixes that could solve the problem, including a paper record and auditing to make sure that the machine’s really counted the vote.  Unfortunately, while many states have made some of the changes, there are no states that have made all of the changes, so there’s still a risk that votes that are cast won’t be properly counted in this November, and there’s still a lot to be done in that area. Another set of changes that would really help democracy has to do with making sure that elections are competitive and that the voices of ordinary citizens are what the politicians are listening to.  Campaign finance reform is something people have been worried about for a long time, but it’s really gotten much worse, and there’s now an opportunity to make it much better.  What I think we ought to do is move to a system of public financing of elections, especially for congress.  Congress, right now, is gridlocked with special interests.  Members of congress have to raise their money from lobbyists.  They have to raise their money from the people who want something out of government.  It’s one of the reasons very little happens, or certainly, very little that’s good.  If you go down to Washington, D.C., you want to look for a member of congress, a lot of the times, go down a block, not to the capital, but to the campaign committee offices and you’ll see the members of congress sitting there in little warrens dialing for dollars.  It’s not like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  It’s like Glenn Gary, Glenn Ross.  I mean it’s not what you want your elected officials to be spending their time doing.  And they don’t like doing it, either.  There’s an opportunity now to pass reforms that would liberate them, give our elected officials real independence and give the voters a bigger voice.  If you had public financing of elections, as you have in places all over from Arizona, which is quite conservative, to Maine, which is liberal, to New York City, what you would have is candidates who qualify, would get public money.  And there’s a way of doing it that would really boost one of the best developments.  One of the best things that’s happened in this election is the explosion of small contributions, mostly to Obama, but to other candidates also, that has democratized fundraising and made it so that fundraising is a form of organizing.  And it’s small dollars.  It’s not the big bucks.  We could make it so that that’s how congress gets elected, also. 

Right now, that small dollar revolution is just a rumor in congress.  They’re still raising their money overwhelmingly from big interests.  But if you had a system of matching funds, especially something like if I give $100 to a candidate, then the matching fund is 4 to 1, which is the way it is in New York City’s elections, then you would boost ordinary citizens.  You would make it so that every $10 contribution suddenly mattered to the politicians.  You would force the people running for office to do some organizing in their communities, and you would change and greatly diminish the power of special interests in Washington.

Question: What is preventing campaign finance reform?

Michael Waldman:  Well when it comes to campaign finance reform, very often the people in office don’t think like liberals or conservatives.  They don’t think like democrats or republicans.  They think like incumbents and most incumbents benefit from the current system.  It’s how they got there, and they can always out-raise their opponent.  But what is happening that’s exciting is that there is a real movement among people in congress to change the system.  You’ve got people in both houses who have said okay, now is the time to move to public financing.  John McCain and Barack Obama are big supporters of public financing, so there is a real moment here where you could have, I hope, bipartisan support for something that’s very real.  And that would change America.  It really would.  If people want to have healthcare reform, if they want to see action on climate change, if they want to see a fairer tax code, whatever it is you want, it’s going to be much, much easier to do it if we had a different campaign finance system, if we had universal voter registration and deep reform of our democracy.  Another big change that would make a big difference is in the electoral collage.  One of the things that’s been very thrilling in this election is to see all these primaries in all these states all over the country, places like Indiana, and South Dakota, and North Carolina, Guam, all these places that don’t have, usually, a really competitive election.  Well the bad news is now that the general election has started, a lot of these places are never going to see a candidate again, because suddenly, everyone’s worried about a few states.  And it sometimes feels like these presidential elections are just held in Ohio and maybe Florida.  And if we had a national popular vote, we would not have the phenomenon which has happened four times of the guy who comes in second winning, and we wouldn’t have the phenomenon of the candidates campaigning only in a few states and basically leaving out the rest of the country.  Now you know how do you get the end to the Electoral College?  You need a constitutional amendment, which can be done, but is very hard.  But there’s actually a way to bypass the Electoral College that doesn’t need a constitutional amendment.  It’s called national popular vote, and it’s basically an agreement among states.  A state will pass a law, as Illinois, and Maryland, and New Jersey and others have done, said we will cast our electoral votes for whoever wins the national popular vote, as long as enough other states do it also, so that that’s who wins.  And if you get enough states to do it, then you’ve ended the Electoral College as a practical matter, even without a constitutional amendment.  And if the Electoral College didn’t matter, you would see candidates going to where the votes are, not just those handful of swing states.  And again, that would be a big deal.