One result of last year's presidential election is heightened interest in voting systems and political reform. Media coverage of the tight race between Al Gore and George W. Bush publicized weaknesses in American election practices: confusing ballots, outmoded voting equipment, and poorly funded election offices. As Scott Harshbarger of Common Cause said in a statement posted on the Common Cause Website shortly after the election, "Our newfound awareness of the fragility of the election process should help us tackle these challenges and make our democracy stronger and more vibrant."
The election controversy spawned a range of reform proposals, everything from abolishing the electoral college to implementing a uniform election system throughout the country. In fact, a poll taken by the Washington Post shortly after the 2000 election found that a majority of Americans wanted to "strip authority for setting election rules from local and state officials" and give it to the federal government. Nationalizing the electoral process, however, would be a major departure from our country's tradition of localism and respect for state's rights. As tempting as a one-size-fits-all solution may be, experience suggests that in politics, as in nature, a certain level of diversity is a critical element of renewal.
Although the national media often focus on what is happening (or not happening) in Washington, there is much more innovation and experimentation occurring in faraway places such as Westminster, Colorado; or Portland, Maine. Before anyone had ever heard of a hanging chad or butterfly ballot, states were already experimenting with new methods of voting. Last year, Arizona's Democratic party held the country's first binding presidential primary election using the Internet. The result: a whopping 600 percent increase in voter turnout. Oregon is the first state to rely exclusively on mail-in ballots for general elections, a practice that has increased turnout by about 10 percent.
Other jurisdictions are experimenting with instant runoff voting (IRV), a practice that would prevent the "spoiler" problem most recently associated with Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign. With IRV, voters are allowed to choose their candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority after the first tally, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated. Ballots cast for that candidate then go to one of the remaining candidates, according to the voters' second choices. The process is repeated until one candidate wins a majority. Several states--Alaska, California, Maryland, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington--are currently considering IRV legislation, a practice that has already been adopted in Vancouver, Washington; as well as in San Leandro, Oakland, and Santa Clara County, California.
The truth is that Washington seems to have become the last place to look in seeking political innovation. Consider the fate of campaign finance reform. The explosion of soft-money expenditures in national elections was evident in the early 1990s. It has taken Congress all of ten years to consider a remedy to the soft-money problem. At the same time, state and local jurisdictions have been innovating freely, passing and fine-tuning public finance systems, contribution limits, conflict of interest laws, time limits for fundraising, and systems for publicizing candidate compliance with voluntary spending limits. To paraphrase author David Osborne, these state and local jurisdictions have become the true "laboratories of democracy."
Experiments in Campaign Finance Reform
The response by local government to the issue of money in politics is a classic example of the benefit of recognizing and promoting local reform efforts. Recognizing the need for reformers to learn from each other's successes and failures in this particular area, the National Civic League began systematically tracking local campaign finance efforts. In the summer of 1998, with generous funding from the Ford Foundation, this research led to publication of "Local Campaign Finance Reform: Case Studies, Innovations, and Model Legislation." The report detailed seventy-five municipalities that had passed legislation limiting contribution limits to, and expenditures by, candidates for local office. Since that time, forty additional cities have been identified. The approaches used in these cities vary significantly An overall message emerges from the examples of the approaches detailed here: local experimentation not only allows custom-tailored reforms and overall citizen empowerment but also creates diverse examples that are essential to the …