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Analysis

Voters Are Hungry for Democracy Reform

It should be Congress’ top priority.

This piece origin­ally appeared in The Hill

One of the clearest takeaways from elec­tion night: Voters want demo­cracy reform. Across the coun­try, citizens voted on a record number of ballot initi­at­ives on issues like redis­trict­ing, voting, money in polit­ics, and ethics. More than we have seen in decades, candid­ates them­selves put reform at the center of their campaigns. In the end, voters handed a decis­ive win to demo­cracy itself. Now that the elec­tion is over, Congress must get to work to pass the sweep­ing changes its members prom­ised and that the Amer­ican people voted for.

Support for demo­cracy reform – making our system of govern­ment more repres­ent­at­ive and respons­ive – was over­whelm­ing and bipar­tisan. Redis­trict­ing reform won in four states, increased voting access in four, and meas­ures to strengthen ethics and money in polit­ics regu­la­tions in six states and more than a dozen local­it­ies, all by large margins. Flor­ida, for example, featured some of the closest statewide races in the nation, but a historic meas­ure to restore voting rights to citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions won more than 60 percent of the vote. And in Michigan, where voters were firmly split on candid­ates for governor and U.S. Senate, 60 percent voted for redis­trict­ing reform, and 65 percent for voting reform.

To a remark­able degree, calls for reform anim­ated the Demo­crats’ success­ful push to retake the House of Repres­ent­at­ives. The Demo­crats’ prom­ise to make govern­ment more “respons­ive, repres­ent­at­ive, effect­ive, and trans­par­ent” was the center­piece of their elec­tion agenda.

More than 100 House candid­ates ran on change plat­forms. Of the 30 Demo­cratic chal­lengers who flipped seats, 25 ran on reform­ing the system. Most signed a letter call­ing on Congress to enact “bold” and “sweep­ing” reforms to address voting rights, money in polit­ics, redis­trict­ing, elec­tion infra­struc­ture, and govern­ment ethics as its first agenda item. Some Repub­lic­ans campaigned on these issues too, includ­ing members of the congres­sional reformers caucus, who have advoc­ated “bipar­tisan solu­tions to make our govern­ment more account­able to its citizens.”

Before Tues­day, Demo­cratic lead­er­ship in the House prom­ised to take up a compre­hens­ive demo­cracy reform pack­age “in the very first days” of the new Congress. As the midterm results make clear, voters will demand that they make good on their prom­ise.

What should be in it?

One key change would be auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion. This stream­lin­ing of voter regis­tra­tion won big in Michigan and Nevada, as it did in Alaska in 2016 (among voters who also suppor­ted Trump).

Accord­ing to Elec­tion Protec­tion, a nonpar­tisan national voter assist­ance hotline, voter regis­tra­tion issues were the second most common prob­lems repor­ted by voters, as they were last elec­tion. Auto­matic regis­tra­tion would fix most of that. Eight states and D.C. ran elec­tions with auto­matic regis­tra­tion in place this year, and it led to big gains in voter regis­tra­tion, increas­ing regis­tra­tion rates by as much as 34 percent in Vermont and 92 percent in Rhode Island.

Nation­wide early voting is now a must. The historic rise in voter turnout this year was facil­it­ated by record-break­ing surges in early voting across the coun­try. Most states now offer some form of early voting, and it works, offer­ing greater voter conveni­ence and redu­cing the stress of Elec­tion Day. A number of states that do not offer early voting, like New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Caro­lina, or had cutbacks in early voting, like North Caro­lina, exper­i­enced major prob­lems at the polls like long lines and delays that could’ve been cut by early voting.

Some of the elec­tion’s long lines were a consequence of outdated voting machines. Congress must also upgrade and secure our aging voting infra­struc­ture. Voting machine break­downs caused uncon­scion­ably long lines in Geor­gia, Mary­land, and else­where. That is not surpris­ing, with 41 states using machines that are so old they are no longer manu­fac­tured. And with Russia and other foreign adversar­ies step­ping up efforts to meddle in our elec­tions, there is no time to spare.

After an elec­tion marred by some of the most brazen, intense, and wide­spread voter suppres­sion in the modern era, legis­la­tion must include restor­ing the full protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court disabled in Shelby County v. Holder. The whack-a-mole of lawsuits under the Act’s remain­ing provi­sions is simply not a suffi­cient way to prevent racially-targeted manip­u­la­tion of the voting rules. And now Flor­idi­ans have voted to restore voting rights to 1.4 million fellow citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions, join­ing the 20 states that have taken action in recent years to allow more return­ing citizens to vote, there should be a national rule restor­ing voting rights to citizens released from incar­cer­a­tion.

Campaign finance reforms to address the legacy of Citizens United must also be high on the next Congress’ agenda. The success of such meas­ures on Tues­day adds to reams of exist­ing data on the public’s desire for stronger safe­guards.

It’s no surprise. Super PACs and dark money groups spent almost $1 billion on federal races in this cycle, mostly raised from a tiny class of mega-donors. The best way to address this chal­lenge is to lift up other voices through small-donor public finan­cing – where public funds supple­ment and amplify private giving.

Stronger disclos­ure rules so that the public can at least know who is trying to influ­ence them (and so that the govern­ment can detect illegal campaign spend­ing by foreign govern­ments and nation­als) are also essen­tial.

Gerry­man­der­ing reform is also crit­ical. Voters of all polit­ical stripes over­whelm­ingly cast their ballots to change the way we draw legis­lat­ive districts in four states (MichiganColor­adoUtah, and Missouri). The elec­tion made clear not only that reform is wildly popu­lar but also that it is badly needed. The results made clear that the system is too easy to rig. Demo­cratic House candid­ates won a land­slide victory, but only a frac­tion of the seats won in past wave elec­tions. In states that were still extremely gerry­mandered, almost no seats changed partisan hands. By contrast, in states where courts or inde­pend­ent commis­sions drew the lines, there were far more compet­it­ive races.

Ethics rules also need an over­haul. That includes shor­ing up protec­tions for the exec­ut­ive branch (includ­ing to address pres­id­en­tial conflicts of interest), but Congress must also do more to hold itself to the same stand­ards it sets for the rest of the federal govern­ment.

In short, voters deman­ded a stronger demo­cracy on Tues­day. Now it is up to Congress to deliver.

(Image: BCJ/J. Chris­topher Maty­jasik/EyeEm)