Democracy in the crosshairs

Democracy in the crosshairs
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In recent debates, both Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton5 things to know about Boris Johnson Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota The Hill's Morning Report — Trump applauds two-year budget deal with 0 billion spending hike MORE and Donald TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE boasted about the millions of votes they have received in the presidential primaries, with each touting the 8 million or 9 million votes they have won so far. So, out of a country of about 321 million people, these candidates will take maybe 10 to 12 million votes each by June — votes from less than 4 percent of the country. 

Modern communications, higher voter education and the power of the internet are colliding with outdated methods of voting and participation to produce a system badly in need of reform. The result is a democracy that is veering off course, increasingly reflecting the will of powerful activist groups and the political extremes, and not of the broad population of the country.


The numbers paint a stark picture of what is happening. When we subtract those under the voting age, convicted felons and undocumented immigrants, there are about 226 million people eligible to vote, according to the U.S. census. So forget one person, one vote — we are about 1.4 people, one vote. But there is nothing unusual here, though everyone should understand that every vote carries a special responsibility of also voting for those with no vote.

Of the 226 million eligible voters, about 153 million voters were registered as of the last presidential election — left out of the system are mostly downscale, less-educated whites, and disproportionately more Asian and Hispanic voters. Black voters are 73 percent registered, compared with 73 percent of all women and 69 percent for men overall.

So come November, 73 million eligible voters won’t be able to vote because they are not on the registration rolls. More people have cars than are registered to vote. More people have smartphones. More people even have healthcare than are registered to vote. Something virtually everyone should have, the right to vote, is something enjoyed by only 70 percent.

About 130 million people vote in the presidential election, so the actual participants in the system for the most important election in the world represent just over 50 percent of those eligible to vote. There are 100 million left behind when it comes to getting up, registering and voting.

This huge number of voters just outside the system distorts our elections and how they are fought, helping to foster gridlock and division because no one is trying to get the broad masses to the polls. Instead they are cherry-picking selected groups — religious and ideological — to gain an edge.

With the presidential candidates now having $1 billion or more at their disposal, they realize that rather than appealing to pesky swing voters and to voters on the other side of the aisle, they can just double down on elements of their base. Rather than bring the country together, they demonize their opponents to hype turnout among select groups, targeted by race, religion or ethnicity. Fear and division replace hope as the motivating elements behind campaigns, and 90 percent of the advertisements are now negative ads.

Most campaigns are no longer about reaching out to swing voters but rely more heavily on ginning up the base. While the candidates might win, the people lose, because government keeps getting more divided. 

Now let’s look at the presidential primaries. In the two contested party nomination processes we are having, a total of about 40 million people will participate in caucuses and primaries, about 20 million on each side, if  contested races go on for long enough. 

So we now have a system in which it takes just 10 million votes out of 321 million people to seize one of the two coveted nominations — and that’s only if it goes all the way to West Virginia.

So exactly how did we get a system in which so few determine the fate of so many? With 186 million people on the sidelines in the primaries, it is no wonder we are faced with more extreme candidates rising to the top on waves of new voters. After all, if all you need is 10 million, we’ve devolved to 30 people, one vote. 

We need to reform this system top to bottom if we want true representative democracy, as opposed to elections driven by causes on the left or the right. The registration process is broken; it should start at birthright. When kids are born in the hospital, give them a voter card and not just a Social Security card. Leave no child behind when it comes to being registered to vote and having voting ID. 

Second, we need to dramatically increase general election voting from 130 million to 200 million or more. Election Tuesdays come from the horse and buggy days — we need to move voting to weekends, allow voting from the internet or from secure accessible facilities like ATM machines. I am not a fan of early voting because it tends to mute the effect of the last two weeks of a campaign, which can be pivotal in many elections. I would rather have extended voting all day Saturday and Sunday. 

Third, caucuses need to be abolished. Often without even the secret ballot and open only to those with time on their hands, this is not a fair process for picking a president in the 21st century. Usually turnout to a caucus is only one-fourth of the turnout to a primary. 

Fourth, we need to rethink the party primary process to bring in far more voters, and we need to rotate the geographic order so that no one bloc of voters becomes a permanent gateway to the presidency. If we are going to have just two parties, then almost everyone has to be welcome to vote in one of them. 

The process has become dominated by activists, not everyday voters — it’s no accident America might wind up choosing between Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTed Cruz: 'Fox News went all in for Trump' 2 Republican senators introduce resolution to label antifa as domestic terrorists Ted Cruz: Trump's chances of winning reelection are '50-50' MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE, two candidates largely out of step with the true viewpoint of most Americans. It is the product of a system that fails to bring in most voters. And the candidates increasingly realize that with such low turnout, pitches to the left or the right are required to get elected in a country that is made up of more moderate voters than liberals or even conservatives.

So while we all look at our TV sets in amazement watching candidates calling for mass deportation or tearing down our economic system, we have to understand we have not updated and modernized our democracy as we have grown, and we have not taken advantage of the technology and innovation that makes it easier today to get a car and drive than it is to vote.

Most importantly, the effects of this crazy quilt of voter participation are not just to leave a lot of people out but to promote and even reward the politics of the extremes that have produced the gridlock everyone bemoans. If we reform the voting system, we will once again make elections about persuading a majority of all Americans and not just about driving those select few to the polls. 

It is time we rolled up our sleeves and started fixing this before one of the candidates skilled at manipulating the system actually becomes president. And if one does, let it be because that person are the real choice of a majority of Americans.

Penn is managing partner of The Stagwell Group. He previously served as chief strategy officer at Microsoft and has advised numerous global political leaders, including serving as chief strategist on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and as White House pollster to former President Clinton for six years. He authored the New York Times best-seller “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.”