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In 2016, Integrity of Our Democracy at Stake

One year out, we don’t even know the basic rules that will be in place for the 2016 election. One thing is certain, though: Voters are angry about the state of our democracy. And this is a critical time to yell about it.

November 12, 2015

Cross-posted at The Huff­ing­ton Post

While it may feel like it has been going on forever, the 2016 elec­tion is one year from now. The pres­id­ency is at stake, of course. Control of the Senate, of state legis­latures, and even (theor­et­ic­ally) of the House of Repres­ent­at­ives is up in the air.

But in basic ways, the very integ­rity of our elect­oral system is on the ballot, too, next year. Alarm­ingly, we don’t even know the basic rules that will be in place — and there is more in flux than in any recent pres­id­en­tial year.

One other thing is certain, though: Voters are angry about the state of our demo­cracy. And this is a crit­ical time to yell about it. 

Start with the vote. We all know that Repub­lican-controlled states passed dozens of new laws since 2011 to make it harder for many Amer­ic­ans to cast a ballot. Hard­est hit: the poor, minor­it­ies, students, the elderly. These laws often have been delayed or tangled up in court. But 15 states will have new restric­tions in effect for the first time in a high-turnout national elec­tion. And it is the first pres­id­en­tial elec­tion since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the nation’s most effect­ive civil rights law.

In many ways, this is a lawmak­ing moment. The Supreme Court could weigh in before the elec­tion to make clear just how much courts will protect the most sacred of demo­cratic rights.

Possibly the justices will hear a case about the Texas voter ID law. Federal courts have already found the state’s harsh new require­ment was delib­er­ately racially discrim­in­at­ory. It could come from North Caro­lina, where a judge has yet to rule on the state’s sweep­ing anti-voter law. Or Alabama, which is shut­ting down govern­ment offices in black communit­ies that provide voter ID.

At the same time, new voting reforms spread­ing across the coun­try could make it easier for many to vote. Cali­for­nia and Oregon have enacted auto­matic regis­tra­tion of voters at the state DMVs, a move that could add millions to the rolls in just those states. Other states are moving forward as well. We could see the emer­gence of a two-tier elect­oral system, with some states vigor­ously making it harder to vote, while others finally modern­ize their systems.

Then there is the outsized role of big campaign money. The new role for mega-donors has drawn a lot of atten­tion, but many people don’t real­ize just how big, or bad, the devel­op­ment. In 2014, accord­ing to Kenneth Vogel of Politico, the top 100 campaign donors gave nearly as much as the “estim­ated 4.75 million people who gave $200 or less” to federal campaigns, combined. In this elec­tion, so far, the role of seven-figure donors is even more pronounced, almost entirely among Repub­lican candid­ates. This is not the “new normal”: these funds were illegal in federal elec­tions before Citizens United just five years ago.

Of course, we do not know how the money will fully unfold in the pres­id­en­tial race. Some candid­ates — Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, to a lesser degree Hillary Clin­ton — are rais­ing from small donors. A self-finan­cing Donald Trump, for example, would not depend on other billion­aires for funds. Money may matter less in a race where the whole coun­try is watch­ing. Where the new big money really booms loudly is in state and local races. Evid­ence is accu­mu­lat­ing of the ways that untrammeled wealthy indi­vidu­als now can effect­ively buy a town coun­cil or county govern­ment. At the lower level, it turns out, you don’t have to be a Koch brother to be a king­maker.

Here, too, there is the possib­il­ity of imme­di­ate progress. A robust move­ment has pres­sured Pres­id­ent Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Biden to put action behind their words. An exec­ut­ive order could require govern­ment contract­ors to fully disclose all their polit­ical spend­ing. This would bring much secret money into the light, with the stroke of a pen. Yes, many in Congress might howl. But that’s just the kind of fight a polit­ical leader should relish.

Then there’s gerry­man­der­ing. A start­ling share of the Repub­lican control of Congress is due to that party’s control over the redis­trict­ing process in the key year of 2011. In Pennsylvania, for example, last year Demo­cratic candid­ates for Congress won more votes than Repub­lic­ans, but the Repub­lic­ans won 13 of 18 seats.

The rules for 2016 are also unclear here. The Supreme Court may change its defin­i­tion of who should be coun­ted under the doctrine of “one person, one vote” for legis­lat­ive elec­tions. All people (as is the case today)? Citizens? Registered voters? There are distinctly partisan consequences to this. If the Court moves away from popu­la­tion as the stand­ard, it could sharply disad­vant­age communit­ies with large popu­la­tions of Hispanic resid­ents.

All these factors were among the reas­ons that turnout in 2014 plunged to the lowest level in 72 years. We know that pres­id­en­tial races are differ­ent, with many more parti­cip­at­ing. But barri­ers to parti­cip­a­tion can tilt outcomes in close races, at all levels, even the highest.

Numer­ous polls show wide and deep oppos­i­tion to Citizens United. Many minor­ity voters are incensed about laws they consider to be little more than voter suppres­sion. Candid­ates have begun to respond — from Hillary Clin­ton’s strong reforms in voting and campaign finance, to Bernie Sanders’ demand for a “polit­ical revolu­tion,” to Donald Trump’s brag­gado­cio that he is not bought by lobby­ists, unlike other candid­ates. 2016 could be a year when public discon­tent kindles a commit­ment to real reform.

One year to go. Those who care about demo­cracy have a lot to do — a lot of organ­iz­ing, litig­at­ing, scream­ing, and amass­ing needed resources — to make sure that the elec­tion of 2016 is free, fair, and reflects the will of the people. 

(Photo: Think­stock)