As the race for the White House gears up, one can’t help but think back to when George W. Bush and Al Gore were locked in a desperately close race to become the 43rd president of the United States. The nation became all too familiar with terms like “butterfly ballots” and “pregnant chads.”

From underneath the whirlwind of court cases, recounts and protesters, the Florida debacle has produced evidence of one of the greatest threats to American democracy in recent history – structural disenfranchisement. The cumulative effect of multiple problems and breakdowns in election systems is structural disenfranchisement, which blocks the doorway to our democracy and silences the voices of too many Americans.

Voting is the language of our democracy. The right to vote means nothing if people are not registered. In order to live in an America that is truly a nation for, by, and of the people, we must call extensive attention to the dire need for full voter empowerment.

The untapped voters in the American electorate have the potential to influence the future of American politics significantly. In the United States, there is an enormous group of untapped voters who:

• Are not registered to vote;

• Have never voted or rarely vote;

• Used to vote on a regular basis but now feel disenfranchised from the system;

• Are registered Independent and do not have ties to either major party; or,

• Are new citizens who are not registered or who recently registered to vote.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of President Clinton’s signing the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), popularly known as the “Motor Voter” bill. NVRA works by reducing unnecessary and burdensome bureaucratic obstacles to voter registration.

The NVRA has produced dramatically higher registration rates for voters of all races and ethnicities, but as a general matter, people of color’s registration rates still lag behind those of whites. This is a result of failure by many states and counties to implement the NVRA fully and provide the protections guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The uneven enforcement of these laws by the U.S. Department of Justice also helps to explain the persistence and pervasiveness of Election Day problems.

The bottom line is this: even though the most overt forms of disenfranchisement have been outlawed, in today’s equivalent of the poll tax, there is rarely one guilty party or clear-cut evidence of a discriminatory motive. Instead, inequity is built into the system, encompassing conspicuous failures to comply with the “Motor Voter” law and legislative gridlock over desperately needed funding for ailing election systems.

What is needed to improve our voter registration systems is better administration, not changes and cutbacks of existing federal election legislation like “Motor Voter.” A comprehensive approach to election administration reform is needed, one which will include the meaningful implementation of many improvements to guard against a repeat of the 2000 election. One element, however, should be substantial federal, state, and local financial commitments.

The ultimate goal should be to make voting easy, convenient and inclusive. Requirements that voters register weeks in advance, rules that bar voting by former felons, and systems that purge voters merely because they move – which we know disproportionately impacts people of color and young people – should be challenged as fundamentally inconsistent with real participatory democracy.

The reforms needed to overcome structural disenfranchisement are not likely to be made without a community-based democracy movement, committed to finishing the task begun by earlier racial justice activists.

The outline of a revitalized democracy movement emerged in Florida in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Racial justice, labor, religious, women’s groups and others joined together to protest massive voter disenfranchisement and to demand that the system be fixed so the injustice never occurs again. The legitimacy of our government, the accountability of our leaders, and the freedom of all Americans must rest on a foundation of equal voting rights – a foundation that currently has huge cracks.

Precinct by precinct, disparities based on race and ethnicity in voter registration rates, turnout rates, and rates of votes cast and counted must be eliminated. Holding election officials accountable and strengthening their contacts with the communities they serve is necessary. It’s not complicated: it’s just democracy!

Eddie Hailes is a senior attorney with the Advancement Project, www.advancementproject.org. This article is reprinted, with permission, from the project’s web site. Hailes served as General Counsel for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, directing the agency’s investigation into voting irregularities in Florida during the November 2000 presidential election.