Proving the Value of Consensus
Consensus is not sexy or exciting, but it has its uses, as two reports issued this week remind us. When people who are smart and experienced and willing to engage honestly with each other address a problem, they can really move toward a solution.
One report, from the nonpartisan and private Election Center in Houston, addressed the conduct of elections -- the actual administration of the registration and voting process. Starting with the Florida dispute in 2000 and continuing up to this week when the state of Washington finally settled its governorship, all of us have learned that there are serious problems in qualifying people to vote and counting their ballots.
The second report, from the Constitution Project, based at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, addressed the question of sentencing guidelines in federal criminal cases. The Supreme Court, in a pair of decisions, one a year ago and the other in January, basically ruled that the guidelines set out in various statutes were advisory only -- and could not be used in any mechanical fashion to determine the length of time a defendant spends in jail. Since then, the whole subject has been burdened with uncertainty.
The sentencing report that came out this week was assembled under the leadership of Ed Meese, President Ronald Reagan's attorney general, and Philip Heymann, who was the No. 2 official in the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton -- one Republican and one Democrat, one conservative and one liberal. Their colleagues are a cross section of distinguished jurists, prosecutors and defense lawyers.
The report flatly rejects mandatory minimum sentences, a favorite remedy in recent years by some members of Congress who want to show that they are "tough on crime." It also says the guidelines that have been in place are overly complex and overly rigid, depending too much on quantitative factors such as monetary loss or drug quantity.
But it finds value in having a set of guidelines that, among other things, give weight to the severity of the offense and the need for deterrence, that provide the defendant with essential due process protections, and that allow victims of the crime to make an impact statement during the sentencing process.
It suggests the creation of a sentencing commission to assess what is happening in courts around the country and recommend modifications as needed.
The Election Center, led by Doug Lewis, drew on the expertise of the men and women who actually run the voting process in this country and came up with a booklet full of suggestions, too numerous to detail here. But the big ideas -- which may be controversial -- involve extending the voting period and centralizing the locations of balloting.
The group argued that there is no need to cram these exercises in democracy into a single 12-hour span on a Tuesday when most people are at work and many children are in school. Expand the voting period in both directions, it said: early voting, which has become increasingly popular, and late voting, in the days immediately after Election Day.
The authors of this report also call for the creation of Election Centers, far fewer in number than the current precinct polling places, where professionally trained workers -- not citizen volunteers working long hours for a pittance -- would be on hand to process people arriving to vote.
The proposal envisages that modern information technology -- computers -- would be used to create and maintain registration lists and to count the ballots. Some have raised questions about the security of such systems, but these folks -- many of whom have worked with such technology -- say they find no insuperable problems of accuracy or confidentiality.
Those who know far more about the conduct of trials or the management of elections than I do may well find fault with the recommendations in these two reports. But both have moved the ball forward, and both have demonstrated the benefits of bringing people together across partisan and philosophical lines.