Party Platforms Are More Than Pretty Words

They embrace new stances on critical issues facing our country, breaking with past party orthodoxy.

July 22, 2016

Cross-posted at Newsday via InsideSources.

With all of the hubbub and theatrics surrounding political conventions, it can be easy to overlook the party business that occurs throughout the events. Party platforms often seem like a laundry list of ideals. But they are also an important way for a future administration to map priorities for the coming years.

Sometimes the platforms also embrace new stances on critical issues facing our country, breaking with past party orthodoxy. That’s when it’s time to pay especially close attention. And both the Republicans and the Democrats took new positions in 2016 — on criminal justice reform, voting rights and money in politics.

In the past, both parties championed criminal justice policies that helped create America’s current system of mass incarceration. Reacting to the high crime rates of the 1980s and 1990s, party platforms prioritized new funding to build more prisons, and called for harsher sentencing.

Now, with crime rates at historic lows and research showing incarceration actually does very little to reduce crime, both parties have come to a surprising consensus on criminal justice reform.

In April, the Republican National Committee unanimously passed a resolution that called for reducing the number of people in prison and prioritizing criminal justice reform. It stated “taxpayers are not receiving the public safety return they deserve” because long prison sentences increase recidivism rates.

The platform itself, passed on Monday, doesn’t go as far, but it does acknowledge some past policies are ineffective and need to change. The wording leaves room for modifications to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements “targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol or mental health issues.” It also praises “Republican governors and legislators who have been implementing criminal justice reforms.”

Even with a less reform-minded position on mens rea laws, and a rebuke of the current administration for waging a “campaign of harassment against police forces around the country,” the platform represents a significant change for the GOP.

The Democrats also shifted. On criminal justice reform, the draft platform commits to ending mass incarceration, reforming mandatory minimum sentences, and prioritizing treatment over jail for people suffering from addiction or mental health issues.

The party also recommends a major change to improve electoral participation, proposing, for the first time, automatic, universal voter registration and small donor public financing.

Americans are tired of the election process. In 2014, voter turnout hit a 70-year low. That same year, 100 people spent almost as much on the election as all the 4.75 million small donors combined. And, this November, voters in 17 states will go to the polls with new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election.  

The goal of the Democrats’ proposals is to ease participation and give citizens a bigger stake in the process.

Here’s how automatic registration works: When a citizen interacts with a government agency — for example, to get a driver’s license or apply for public services — she is automatically signed up to vote, unless she opts out.

This would add 50 million voters to the rolls while cutting costs, and increasing accuracy and security. Five states have adopted the reform, several with bipartisan backing. Since Oregon put the plan in place this year, voter registration rates have quadrupled at the DMV. Congress proposed a federal version last week.

Small donor public financing would also boost participation. Instead of candidates raising big donations, they take money in small increments, which is matched with public dollars. In New York City, a $175 donation to a candidate is matched six-to-one, so it’s worth $1,225. Officials can raise funds from their constituents, and it’s proven to bring more diverse voices into politics.

To be sure, it’s hard to guarantee in the current divisive political climate that any policy proposal will make it past the wish list conveyed in a party platform. But state-level progress on both criminal justice and election reform shows that this year, platforms are more than pretty words.

They are proof that officials are listening — and responding — to voters. With growing public support for criminal justice reform, and an electorate fed up with restrictive voting laws and big money dominating politics, both party platforms took new stances on often overlooked issues.

The next four, or eight, years will determine if the next president can turn those pretty words into action.