Time to Raise the Bar on Democracy Reform

The Democratic presidential candidates agree on the need to fix the system. We should urge them to go further.

April 30, 2019
Democracy Reform

We’re only a few months into the 2020 presidential campaign, but already it’s clear: fixing our broken democracy is going to be a major theme.

“No issue we care about, from gun safety to immigration, from climate to education to paid family leave, none of it will be handled well unless our democracy is in better shape,” Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind. mayor who is now among the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination, declared at a campaign kickoff rally last week, smartly framing democracy reform as the gateway to achieving a host of other urgent priorities. Eight other Democratic candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as the former congressman Beto O'Rourke, showed up this month to a Washington, D.C. forum on the issue organized by progressive groups, where they competed to show their zeal for fixing the system.

It's clear that the Trump era has made democracy reform into a core concern for one of our two major parties, like support for reproductive rights or for addressing climate change. That’s fantastic news for those who want to build a stronger, fairer political system. But it means it’s time to raise the bar.

First, let’s take a moment to recognize how far we’ve come.

All nine members of the House or Senate currently running for president have signed on as co-sponsors of their chamber’s version of H.R. 1, the sweeping democracy reform package that was the first piece of legislation introduced in Congress this year, and that passed the House in March. Most of the candidates who aren't currently in Congress have gotten behind the bill's core provisions, too.

That means that essentially the entire Democratic field is on the record supporting: nationwide automatic and same-day voter registration; a minimum of 15 early voting days, including weekends; voting rights restoration for those with past convictions who have served their time; a commitment to restore the Voting Rights Act to full strength; replacing paperless voting machines; independent redistricting commissions to end gerrymandering; nationwide public campaign financing; and stronger disclosure laws to combat dark money.

But saying we need to make it easier to vote, end gerrymandering, and reduce the role of big money in politics, while a good start, doesn’t involve much political risk, especially in a Democratic primary, given how popular these ideas are. So voters who care about democracy reform should push candidates to go further.

What should we demand?

First, candidates should actively look to keep democracy reform at the forefront of the public debate, and they should help build a popular groundswell for change. That's how an issue goes from one agenda item among many to being what a new president chooses to spend precious political capital on, as President Obama did with healthcare reform in 2009. We should look closely to see who's driving the conversation on democracy reform, and who's just checking a box to show formal support.

Perhaps even more importantly, candidates should at least be willing to consider ideas to address some of the other factors that are suppressing democracy. That means they should support ending the absurd anachronism of the Electoral College; the candidate who gets the most votes should be the president. Unfortunately, success on this front appears far away, but that means there's probably no need for candidates to get into specifics about their preferred approach. A constitutional amendment? The National Popular Vote compact? Something else? It's enough for now to speak up for the need to fix how we pick the most powerful person on the planet.

It also means being in favor of ending the filibuster. Some candidates may not want to acknowledge it, but the reality is that none of the policy ideas being discussed on the campaign trail – Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, democracy reform itself — stand any real chance of becoming law as long as the filibuster exists. And that leaves aside how anti-democratic it is on principle to allow a minority of senators to defy the majority and thwart action on popular priorities.

Finally, candidates need at least to talk about fixing the Supreme Court, which is currently controlled by a hard-right majority, built illegitimately and far out of step with the American people. In particular, the court’s record over the last decade on voting rights, money in politics, and gerrymandering cases suggests a disdain for basic democratic principles that, if continued, will likely make it all but impossible to build a fairer system. (A ruling for the Trump administration in the upcoming Census citizenship case would make that conclusion too glaring to deny). That doesn't mean every candidate needs to come out for court-packing tomorrow — though adding more justices, in tandem with other reforms, is a serious idea that deserves consideration. But it does mean candidates should show they understand the urgency of the problem and the need for far-reaching solutions.  

On these issues — the Electoral College, the filibuster, and the Supreme Court — there's little consensus among the presidential candidates (and, to be clear, the Brennan Center doesn’t take a position on the filibuster and the Supreme Court, and it opposes the Electoral College but doesn’t advocate for specific fixes). In fact, on all three, some candidates have lately embraced reform, while others have been non-committal, or in some cases, have outright rejected taking action. These divisions are helpful, because they allow voters to start separating the candidates who have really thought deeply about the factors plaguing our democracy and how to address them from those who aren’t there yet.

In the end, though, it’s not so much about using these criteria to pick a candidate. Instead, it’s about working to shape the public conversation, so that, whoever takes office in 2021, the pressure for effective, far-reaching reform is irresistible.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Bill Dickinson)