Moving Democracy Reform to the Center of our Politics

Democrats have a new policy agenda on the table that mirrors what reformers have been saying for years when it comes to fixing our democratic systems. But often big talk on reform is just lip service.

May 24, 2018

The Democrats unveiled the second major part of their election-year agenda this week: A Better Deal for Our Democracy. This could – emphasize could – be not just a better deal, but a big deal.

That would require the Democrats to stick to their plan and make it a true priority. It would require Republicans, too, to recognize that our democracy urgently needs repair.

Start with the Democrats. In 2018, the party wrestles with a conundrum. Should it address kitchen table economic issues? But how does it ignore the astonishing spectacle of Donald Trump’s presidency and its assault on democracy?  It appears Democrats now realize they can’t just rail against corruption without committing to do something about it. 

As we’ve been saying at the Brennan Center, what counts is not what we’re against, but what we’re for.

That’s why this year, for the first time, the Center published election agendas for activists, officeholders, candidates, and citizens. One of them sets out some key policy priorities for renewing and restoring our democracy. And we’re thrilled to see that the Democrats in their manifesto have embraced so many of them:

  • Automatic voter registration, which would add millions to the rolls while bolstering accuracy and security. The Brennan Center first developed this proposal over a decade ago. It’s now enacted or implemented in 12 states. It should be the law of the land.
  • Small donor public financing, building on the most innovative models for reform, that would give ordinary citizens a louder voice – even in the era of super PACs and dark money.
  • Tough steps to protect the integrity of elections from the threat of hacking by Russia (or anyone else). In 2017, we published a plan to secure elections from foreign interference. Congress allocated $390 million for states to buy new voting machines with paper records, and take other steps. But a national law still is needed.
  • Reforms to end partisan gerrymandering. While we all wait for the Supreme Court to act, let’s remember that Congress could require states to use nonpartisan commissions to draw district lines.

This is the first time in memory that either major party has put democracy reform front and center of its election agenda. That’s grounds for optimism.

But don’t chill the champagne just yet. Too often, in the past, when politicians mouth support for reform, they don’t really mean it.

I have scars to prove it. In 1992, at a similar time of public alarm about out-of-touch government and the corrupting role of big money, independent businessman Ross Perot won a startling 19 percent of the vote. Demands for political reform were a big part of his appeal.  

The Democrats saw the political imperative to act – but then flinched. I was the White House policy aide for President Bill Clinton charged with writing his campaign finance reform proposal. In the very first meeting of his new administration with the Democratic congressional leadership, I saw him ask for action – then wilt when House Democrats made clear there would be political repercussions if he even dreamed of pushing for reform. Back then, progressives postured in public, but privately resisted change.

In 2006, the Democrats won the House and Senate in a midterm wave bolstered by corruption concerns. But the party did little to prioritize democracy reform. And when Barack Obama took office, with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and control of the House, he did nothing. No bill to revitalize public campaign financing. No voting rights law. No automatic voter registration plan. Yes, the financial collapse was front of mind. But the public blamed big money and special interests for crashing the housing market and economy. When the Democrats did little, that failure spurred radicalized political movements – from Occupy Wall Street to the “drain the swamp” nativism of the 2016 campaign.

Perhaps the Democrats have concluded that they won’t be taken seriously as opposing corruption if they won’t propose steps to make sure it does not happen again. Party operatives may have noticed that, in the wake of the Citizens United and Shelby County Supreme Court decisions, the rules are really rigged. 

What about the Republicans? Once the GOP could be counted on to lead on democracy reform. (I’m not just talking about the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote for African American men, or the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote for women, both of which the Republican Party birthed.) After all, it was John McCain—the party’s standard bearer just a decade ago—who was the most persistent voice for campaign finance reform. Republican leaders such as Everett Dirksen played a key role in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and George W. Bush proudly signed its reauthorization into law in 2006. In recent months, Republican senators played leading roles in passing funds to buy new voting machines to protect against Russian hacking.

Trump talked about “draining the swamp.” But in recent years, the party has hardened against reform, often prodded by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.  

But the unsettling, convulsive politics of the Trump era could crack these partisan certainties, too. Many Republicans are focused on the norms of our constitutional democracy, the invisible guardrails that have proven vital for a working system of self-government. When lawmakers break with party orthodoxy, I have a feeling that it may happen in reaction to these threats to our democracy. 

The public has long been ahead of the politicians on this. This year, citizen-initiated measures will address gerrymandering in states like Michigan, and potentially end the disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies in Florida. Voters have long been furious about the role of big money. But citizens can be excused for thinking there’s little that can be done about it. A focus on reforms can kindle a revolution of rising expectations.

Trump’s rise did not cause the problems in our democracy. Rather, it was a symptom, a reflection of a governing system out of touch with the public need. Wouldn’t it be an unexpected twist if the convulsive politics of 2018 led to a democracy reform moment in 2019 and beyond?

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