Return to Common Sense: Seven Bold Ways to Revitalize Democracy

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"Waldman's book is a call to arms, which everyone who cares about our democratic system should read, absorb, debate, and then use as a signpost for change."
- Doris Kearns Goodwin

"With Thomas Paine's gift for brilliant brevity, Michael Waldman tells us exactly what's wrong with our democracy and exactly how to fix it in the time it takes to watch a movie."
- Jonathan Alter, ...

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Return to Common Sense: Seven Bold Ways to Revitalize Democracy

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Overview

"Waldman's book is a call to arms, which everyone who cares about our democratic system should read, absorb, debate, and then use as a signpost for change."
- Doris Kearns Goodwin

"With Thomas Paine's gift for brilliant brevity, Michael Waldman tells us exactly what's wrong with our democracy and exactly how to fix it in the time it takes to watch a movie."
- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, author of The Defining Moment

IMAGINE AN AMERICA IN WHICH a vast number of people routinely vote; where voting is easy, accessible to all, and fair; in which campaigns know they cannot win by dividing slivers of the electorate, but by energizing large numbers behind their plans and ideas.

This America is Seven Steps Away.

A Return to Common Sense presents the Brennan Center report on the most critical flaws in our current democratic process and the bold reforms that will revitalize our nation.

  • End Voter Registration as We Know It
  • Fix Electronic Voting
  • Increase Voter Turnout
  • Campaign Finance Reform
  • End Partisan Gerrymandering
  • End the Electoral College
  • Curb the Imperial Presidency and Fix Congress

A Return to Common Sense is a passionate call for change, a road map for restoring the vision of the Founding Fathers and renewing the great spirit of America where the people run the government and the government works for the people.

"Seven eminently practical suggestions that cut to the heart of how politics actually works in this country— and that promise reforms which can actually work."
- Sean Wilentz, Princeton University, author of The Rise of American Democracy

"Michael Waldman's book is a clarion call for reinvigorating voter participation and other key aspects of our democracy."
- Representative John Conyers, Jr., member of Congress

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this slim manifesto, former chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, Waldman (My Fellow Americans) offers his prescriptions for purifying American democracy, invoking Thomas Paine's credo that "the government depends for its legitimacy entirely on the consent of the governed." The author spotlights seven key reforms-from wide-scale election reform (mandating universal voter registration; halting disenfranchisement of voters due to political party maneuvering or irrelevant crime records; ensuring electronic voting machines are not rigged or malfunctioning) to cleaning up politics (ending gerrymandering; retiring the Electoral College) to restoring balance within government (ending the imperial presidency, ratcheting up the watchdog function of Congress). Waldman keeps his book refreshingly nonpartisan, concentrating his energies on fusing abstract idealism with sensible suggestions informed by his extensive knowledge of how to push through specific reforms. The book is timely during a presidential election year, but transcends a fleeting election to offer wisdom for getting and keeping a democracy.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402213656
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/1/2008
  • Pages: 174
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Waldman

Michael Waldman is the executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the nation's premier think tank and advocacy organization focusing on democracy. He was the chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton from 1995—1999. Waldman lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 1
End Voter Registration as We Know It Universal Registration — What's So Hard About That?

Why do so few Americans vote? We are not a nation of slackers, yet voter turnout rates consistently rank near the bottom of all democracies. In the United States, a typical off-year election sees turnout at 47 percent. Even in a presidential race, in recent years roughly four out of ten voting age citizens haven't made it to the polls. Turnout is rising somewhat, but it still lags far behind that of other countries.

Social scientists routinely dissect the electorate to find reasons for our habitually low turnout. Explanations range from disillusionment with government and weak political parties to fraying bonds of civic engagement, such as the decline in labor unions, political party clubs, fraternal organizations, and even, as Robert Putnam has pointed out, bowling leagues. This is all true, but insufficient to explain the phenomenon.

The fact is, most people who are registered actually do show up to vote. In 2004, nearly nine of ten who were registered cast a ballot. That's true across racial and ethnic lines. Both whites and blacks voted at almost the same rate, if they were registered in the first place. But roughly one quarter of eligible citizens is not registered, and the rates of registration vary. If you want to ask where the voters are, you have to start by asking where the registered voters are. Significantly, our Byzantine voter laws keep many people from registering, and thus from voting. These are laws we can and must change.

Why do we have voter registration?

As a hoary southern saying has it, "When you see a turtle on a fence post, it didn't get there by accident. "We are still governed by the restrictive registration system first put in place a century ago to stop certain European immigrants and former slaves from voting. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford headed a commission that concluded, "The registration laws in force throughout the United States are among the world's most demanding ... [and are] one reason why voter turnout in the United States is near the bottom of the developed world." The obstacles to participation weren't put there "by accident."

At the time of Lexington and Concord, laws sharply limited who could vote: only whites, only men, and only property owners, which meant roughly six out of ten white men. Raucous debates over who could vote roiled the newly independent colonies. John Adams, for his part, drafted a constitution for Massachusetts that limited voting only to taxpaying property owners. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, on the other hand, led the fight to abolish property requirements in Pennsylvania. Franklin wrote scathingly:

Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers-but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?

Over the next half century, the new country surged westward. Bewigged aristocrats no longer defined its political culture. After 1824, when Andrew Jackson of Tennessee won the most votes but lost the presidency in the House of Representatives, his supporters organized to change voting laws by removing property restrictions, and swept him into power. Turnout nearly tripled in four years to 78 percent. By the 1850s, property requirements as a precondition to voting were gone almost entirely. The United States began to move closer toward a wide and participatory democracy.

The next great struggle was over race. Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" proclaimed more than an end to slavery. The drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees "equal protection of the law," intended it to be a charter for civic and social equality. Four years later, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed "the right to vote" to freed male slaves and their descendents. In Mississippi, Louisiana, and other southern states, freedmen and Republicans elected governments backed by former slaves. Two African Americans served as U.S. senators, and there were fifteen black congressmen.16

Then came a brutal backlash. In a deal to settle the disputed 1876 presidential election, the U.S. Army withdrew from the Old Confederacy. The South's "redemption" snatched away the voting rights of millions of U.S. citizens. After the populists of the 1890s briefly threatened to create a cross-racial coalition of blacks and white farmers and workers, the local power structure passed Jim Crow laws such as the poll tax, literacy tests for voting, and felony disenfranchisement. On their face the laws applied to everyone, but in fact they were carefully crafted to freeze out African Americans. In Louisiana, in 1896, 130,000 blacks were registered to vote; by 1904, the number had plummeted to 1,342.

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Table of Contents

A Note from the Author Introduction Seven Steps to Revitalize Democracy PART ONE: FIXINGTHEVOTE Chapter 1: End Voter Registration as We Know It Chapter 2: Rocking the Vote Chapter 3: Stop Political "Hacking"

PART TWO: REFORMING POLITICS Chapter 4: Campaign Finance Reform Chapter 5: Gerrymandering Chapter 6: Flunk the Electoral College PART THREE: REPAIRING GOVERNMENT Chapter 7: Restore Checks and Balances PART FOUR:THE DEMOCRACY MOMENT Notes Acknowledgments About the Author

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