The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 15-part plan to restore democracy to America’s states

Lilyan Maitan stands in a voting booth during the Republican primary on April 24, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty)
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Democracy is in trouble, a group of high-level former officials say in a new, sweeping report based on a year and a half of deliberations.

The nation is polarized, Congress is gridlocked, and Americans are disengaged, argue the authors of the report produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, released Tuesday. Things have gotten so bad that the commission’s co-chairs — three former senators, a former governor and a former cabinet member — ask in their opening letter “Can our democracy function effectively in such a partisan era?”

The answer, they say, is yes, but the nation will have to implement reforms to ensure that the nation’s democracy “will once again be able to respond to national challenges, despite our ideological differences,” they argue. Many of those reforms start in the states.

After a year and a half spent exploring the issue and gathering input, the commission’s 29 members — a group that includes more than a dozen former elected federal, state and local officials — offer up dozens of recommendations in their 120-page report. The 62 reforms are split into three broad categories: those that relate to elections, those that relate to the functions of a too-often gridlocked Congress, and those that promote voter engagement. The state reforms are focused almost exclusively on that first category, the starting point in the process or “rules of the game,” as the authors put it.

“The sad truth is that both major political parties firmly believe the other party is engaged in a constant mission of manipulating these rules to obtain an unfair advantage,” they write. “This sense of distrust permeates the entire electoral process and reverberates into the legislative realm. If Americans do not trust that the system is on the level and think it has broken down, the United States will no longer be able to claim a government that rules with the consent of the governed.”

The co-chairs of the commission are former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former senator Olympia Snowe, former Agriculture secretary and congressman Dan Glickman and former Interior secretary and Idaho governor and senator Dirk Kempthorne.

Here’s a look at the role states can play in strengthening democracy, according to the commission.

(Note: We combined some similar reforms.)


1. States should create redistricting commissions that enjoy bipartisan support from legislators and voters. Generally speaking, the commission found that states with redistricting commissions tended to have a larger share of competitive seats. Four of the five states with commissions studied — Arizona, California, Iowa, New Jersey and Washington — had district maps with a higher rates of competitive seats than the national average.

2. States should use a neutral entity — government or otherwise — to draw new district lines. In Iowa, for example, nonpartisan career staff draw district lines. In Washington, Idaho, Hawaii and New Jersey, they are drawn by bipartisan commissions with equal party representation.

3. The process should be more open, with draft plans released with ample time for public review and encouragement of private-sector redistricting plan submissions.

4. Natural geography should be used to limit how districts are redrawn.


5. Every state should hold congressional primaries on the same day in June, the commission argues. States should also coordinate on dates for runoffs.

6. States and parties should also set goals: boost primary voting from roughly 20 percent today to 30 percent in 2020 and 35 percent by 2026.

7. Primaries should be open or semi-open, allowing independents and/or members of the opposite party to participate.

8. And states should shun methods of selecting candidates that have low voter turnout, such as caucuses and conventions.

Election administration

9. The commission argues that states should boost opportunities to register to vote by reaching out to unregistered voters and give voters the ability to update addresses.

10. Duplication and ineligible voter registrations could be cut back through better communication among states. Nine states — Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington — and the District of Columbia already do this by sharing voter lists and motor vehicle registration lists.

11. Early voting should be allowed for at least a week to 10 days before Election Day.

12. The role of election administrator should be professionalized, with states encouraging officials to be independent and stay up to date on innovations.

13. Data collection should be improved and shared to have a better basis for any changes to election policy.

14. Recount procedures should be reviewed regularly to make sure the latest technologies are used.

15. States should do a better job trying to count absentee ballots on or before Election Day.