Neal Peirce met with the National Civic League at its March board meeting in Washington and advocated the need for national electoral reform. Peirce is a former board member of the League, author of several books, former political editor of Congressional Quarterly and founder of the National Journal. We are sharing his remarks verbatim here.
The Inescapable Civic Challenge: Reform of the Electoral College
By Neal Peirce
The historic focus of the League has always been grassroots focused – concern over issues of integrity, equity, access, fairness of civic processes and elections at the state and local level. And there’s no question – Encouraging, fostering civic engagement is a vitally important focus. In the years I was most active with the League, I was enthusiastically engaged on that front.
But I do believe the time may now be ripe for expansion of the League’s activity into national elections – starting with the fundamental issue of representation, civic participation, and continuing on to such topics as the way we conduct our elections for President.
Those of us who live in Washington are especially sensitive on the issue of representation. Every state, even those with less population in the District of Columbia, is guaranteed two U.S. Senators and at least one U.S. House member. But what do those of us in Washington have? No senators. A single delegate to the U. S. House – and he or she has zero voting privileges.
So much for adequate representation for the citizens of the capital city of these great United States of America!
But there are broad nationwide issues of voting participation. By some estimates there are 50 million Americans who could be, but are not registered to vote. And it’s a problem that could be fixed, at least in part – by a federal requirement that Members of Congress, as well as presidential electors, be chosen from states and districts which at least allow citizens to register and vote on the same day they show up for elections. In this day and age, safety concerns to prevent abuse of same-day registration should certainly be available.
Despite the fact that I’d written my first book (The People’s President) on the electoral college system, I don’t believe that during the years I was most active with the Civic League I ever used its forum to advance the idea of support of direct election for President. I always saw our role as focused exclusively on the state and local government scene.
But personally, interest in the way we choose the President and Vice President was born at an early, intense period of my life in national journalism. I was shocked a few weeks ago when I calculated how long it had been since my first book on the topic was published – 41 years ago, in 1968, to be precise. The book’s title was The People’s President, with a subtitle of The Electoral Vote in American History and the Direct Vote Alternative. It ran through a number of editions, with several co-authors eventually joining in.
But the calls of reformers have never succeeded. Nor have they found the means to engage those millions of Americans who could be but are not registered to vote. And it’s no small number – it’s massive! – 50 million who aren’t enrolled to take part in any election from local council people to state legislatures, governors, members of Congress, and the presidency. Talk about a gross civic shortcoming!
There is some quite good news here. The House of Representatives this March (2019) passed the Democrats’ showcase anti-corruption and voting rights legislation – an expansive measure that aims to dismantle barriers to the ballot box, end big money in politics and impose stricter ethics rules on federal officials.
This is no small reform effort. The ambitious legislation, at nearly 700 pages, includes proposals designating Election Day as a federal holiday, automatically registering citizens to vote, and restoring voting rights to people who have served felony sentences. It also creates a six-to-one matching system for donations of up to $200 to congressional and presidential candidates who reject high-dollar contributions, the costs to be funded by an additional fine on corporations found to have broken the law.
Sadly, there’s little chance for passage of the House bill, or anything like it, in the current Republican majority Senate – or even then, President Trump’s signature. But a marker for future full reform has surely been laid down.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer calls today’s millions of non-votes, quite accurately in my view, a glaring “disgrace.” He favors automatic registration for all voting age Americans. And it’s hardly a radical idea, he argues. “It says whenever you touch any level of government, it’s not just federal, but if you touch Medicaid, if you touch the department of motor vehicles, you are automatically registered. It (automatic registration) will make it a lot easier to vote and a lot easier to encourage people to vote because you’ll be on the registration lists.”
I’d add that automatic registration would also aid and abet solution to a problem the League has long considered crucial – getting more Americans to participate, frequently and as a matter of civic responsibility, in their own local and state elections. It could herald a new and dramatic era of grassroots participation.
The part of Schumer’s big new push that took me by surprise was his push for District of Columbia statehood – for this island of federal territory that now has zero voting power in Congress. “It’s 800,000 people,” Schumer noted. “Their little slogan is ‘No taxation without representation.’ They don’t have it. We need to change that. (District residents) should,” he noted, “just be allowed to be a state and have the same representation as other American citizens."
Schumer was asked: But won’t Republicans balk at granting statehood to the District because it votes, in presidential elections, overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party? Won’t there need to be a Republican-leaning 52nd state to balance things out?" To that question he had no good answer, so the inequity would seem to be destined to live on for quite a while.
Still, I think all of us civic reformers should agree – the difficulty of making a compellingly necessary change in our system of governance should never be an excuse for silence, burying an issue, failing to keep alive the spark of potential change toward equity and fairness. I’d argue that should be the spark of perseverance for the right at every level from local government to the presidency of the United States. A sparkling clear, unambiguous stand: a meaningful vote, of all willing voters, for every office, from city and county to state legislatures, seats in the U.S. Congress, and surely the critically important office of President of the United States.
I’d also suggest that articulating that stance, for the Civic League, would be good strategy – likely attracting more grassroots supporters, and amplifying its voice in American life.