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The 2016 elec­tions revealed deep­en­ing threats to Amer­ican values and govern­ment — brazen voter suppres­sion, dark money, gerry­man­der­ing, and threats to elec­tion secur­ity and the norms of demo­cracy.

But the elect­or­ate has respon­ded, urging reform of voting systems and making demo­cracy and crim­inal justice top prior­it­ies. In 2018, voters surged to the polls — the highest midterm turnout since 1914. Candid­ates rejec­ted corpor­ate PAC money and pledged to make reform a prior­ity. Citizens passed land­mark ballot initi­at­ives to curtail partisan gerry­man­der­ing, enact auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, and restore voting rights to those with past felony convic­tions. Early in 2019, the House of Repres­ent­at­ives answered the call, passing the For the People Act (H.R. 1), a trans­form­at­ive bill that could reen­er­gize our demo­cracy for the next gener­a­tion.

The results are in: the best response to an attack on demo­cracy is to strengthen that demo­cracy. As the 2020 elec­tions approach, politi­cians on the left, right, and center under­stand that they can’t ignore the health of Amer­ican demo­cratic insti­tu­tions.

Any pres­id­en­tial candid­ate who wants to offer grand plans for improve­ments must start by explain­ing how these changes could happen — how we can reform and revital­ize our system so that the voice of the public can fully be heard. Other­wise, policy agen­das will recede into irrel­ev­ance.

Here are 10 solu­tions from the Bren­nan Center for Justice that would make our elec­tions more fairer and freer, trans­form our crim­inal justice system to end mass incar­cer­a­tion and move away from systemic racism, end reli­gious bigotry as a policy of the United States govern­ment, and make our insti­tu­tions of governance more respons­ive to the people. 

1. Pass Auto­matic Voter Regis­tra­tion

One in four eligible Amer­ican citizens is not registered to vote. This quiet disen­fran­chise­ment stems from an out-of-date, ramshackle voter regis­tra­tion system. Too many people show up at the polls only to learn they are not on the voter rolls because one in eight voter regis­tra­tions is invalid or inac­cur­ate. U.S. voter parti­cip­a­tion trails behind that of many developed demo­cratic nations.

The next pres­id­ent should support legis­la­tion to enact auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion (AVR), such as H.R. 1. This bold reform would modern­ize the system and ensure that all eligible citizens can vote. Under this legis­la­tion, eligible citizens would be auto­mat­ic­ally registered when they provide inform­a­tion to a govern­ment agency, such as state depart­ments of motor vehicles.

AVR could add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls. It would reduce costs, boost accur­acy, and reduce human error caused by paper regis­tra­tion. As of June 2019, 16 states and the District of Columbia have approved some form of AVR.

AVR is a long over­due solu­tion that would improve the secur­ity and accur­acy of our elec­tions, boost voter regis­tra­tion, and strengthen our demo­cracy.

2. Enact Small Donor Public Finan­cing

Wealthy donors play an outsize role in polit­ics. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision paved the way for unlim­ited special-interest spend­ing, allow­ing a small number of megadonors to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to back candid­ates. Amer­ic­ans over­whelm­ingly agree about the need to counter the influ­ence of wealth on our polit­ical process.

The next pres­id­ent should support legis­la­tion to create a small donor public finan­cing system in federal elec­tions, a plan included in H.R. 1. New York City has had such a system for decades. Under the federal plan, small-dollar dona­tions are matched six to one. Such programs expand parti­cip­a­tion in elec­tion fund­ing and increase racial, gender, and economic diversity among donors.

Public finan­cing makes candid­ates more respons­ive to their constitu­ents. It empowers voters. It curbs corrup­tion. And it boosts diversity in civic parti­cip­a­tion.

3. End Gerry­man­der­ing

Gerry­man­der­ing is hardly new, but it’s getting worse. Politi­cians can now use soph­ist­ic­ated tools to draw maps that lock in polit­ical advant­age for their own parties for a decade. This under­mines Amer­ican demo­cracy by making elec­tions a fore­gone conclu­sion, dilut­ing the votes of communit­ies of color, and fuel­ing a sense among voters that their ballots don’t really matter.

The tilt is espe­cially severe when a single polit­ical party controls redis­trict­ing, as was the case in many states in 2011. The result­ing gerry­manders froze outcomes. In the 2018 midterm elec­tions, for example, gerry­mandered states saw few seats change hands.

The answer is redis­trict­ing reform — and Congress and the next pres­id­ent can act. They should ban partisan gerry­man­der­ing. Under H.R. 1, all states would be required to use inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions to draw congres­sional districts. The commis­sions would be repres­ent­at­ive, balanced, inclus­ive, and trans­par­ent about how they draw lines, with stream­lined court review.

Uniform rules on map draw­ing, includ­ing an express ban on partisan gerry­man­der­ing, should be imple­men­ted now to ensure that the maps that are drawn in 2021 are fair. The addi­tional redis­trict­ing portions of H.R. 1, includ­ing the require­ment of inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions, should then be phased in for the round of maps drawn in 2031.

A national stand­ard of redis­trict­ing reform would trans­form polit­ics and help cure the extreme polar­iz­a­tion that has para­lyzed Congress and legis­latures across the coun­try.

4. Fight Voter Suppres­sion

The Voting Rights Act is widely regarded as the most effect­ive civil rights law in Amer­ican history. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted its key provi­sion by a five-to-four vote. In Shelby County, the court effect­ively elim­in­ated Section 5, which required states and local­it­ies with a history of voting discrim­in­a­tion to demon­strate in advance that proposed changes would not discrim­in­ate.

Between 1998 and the court’s ruling, 86 proposed changes were blocked. Hundreds more were with­drawn.

After Shelby County, a wave of state laws made it more diffi­cult to vote by requir­ing strict voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion and limit­ing or clos­ing polling hours and loca­tions. Hard­est hit were voters of color.

The next pres­id­ent should work with Congress to pass bills that restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act by bring­ing back safe­guards against voter suppres­sion, espe­cially in states that have engaged in it before.

5. Ensure Elec­tion Secur­ity

Our demo­cracy was attacked in 2016. Russia did far more than hack campaign emails. It entered state websites and probed voter lists, targeted private vendors, and sent spear-phish­ing emails to over 100 elec­tion offi­cials. Russia will try to hack the elec­tion in 2020. Others may as well.

This compounds the crisis of the coun­try’s voting infra­struc­ture. In 2018, old and broken machines and outdated soft­ware led to long lines at polling loca­tions, and some would-be voters left before cast­ing a ballot. Forty-five states use voting equip­ment that is no longer manu­fac­tured, and many elec­tion offi­cials find it hard to main­tain or buy replace­ment parts. Old machines and soft­ware are at higher risk of malfunc­tion, more vulner­able to cyber­at­tacks, and less likely to have a proper paper backup.

The next pres­id­ent and Congress must recog­nize that our elect­oral infra­struc­ture urgently needs an upgrade. They should invest as much as $1 billion to replace aging equip­ment and improve other crit­ical elec­tion infra­struc­ture such as data­bases. The federal govern­ment should also provide sustained fund­ing to help juris­dic­tions pursue best prac­tices for stor­age, trans­port, and main­ten­ance of machines and other elec­tion infra­struc­ture, conduct preelec­tion test­ing and postelec­tion audits, and create contin­gency plans in case of system fail­ures.

Further, the intel­li­gence community and elec­tion offi­cials agree that voting systems should have a voter-veri­fied paper backup. As of June 2019, 12 states still use paper­less elec­tronic machines as the main polling-place equip­ment in at least some counties and towns (Delaware, Geor­gia, Indi­ana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Caro­lina, Tennessee and Texas).  

6. End Abuse of Emer­gency Powers

Pres­id­ents can declare a national emer­gency, and when they do, it inev­it­ably risks vastly expand­ing exec­ut­ive power. Some 123 stat­utory powers are triggered by a pres­id­en­tial emer­gency declar­a­tion, span­ning from the milit­ary to agri­cul­ture to public contracts. These laws give the exec­ut­ive branch author­ity to freeze Amer­ic­ans’ bank accounts and other assets, seize radio stations, avoid minimum wage require­ments, and test chem­ical and biolo­gical weapons on unwit­ting citizens. Such extraordin­ary powers have high poten­tial for abuse.

In Febru­ary 2019, Pres­id­ent Trump declared a national emer­gency in order to bypass Congress and fund construc­tion of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. There are now 33 such emer­gen­cies. States of emer­gency tend to linger for years on end: the oldest active national emer­gency was issued by Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter in 1979 in response to the Iran host­age crisis.

The next pres­id­ent should work with Congress to reform the National Emer­gen­cies Act so that it includes stronger protec­tions against abuse. These changes would define a “national emer­gency” and require Congress to vote on emer­gency declar­a­tions after a short period. States of emer­gency should never exceed five years, and pres­id­ents should be required to provide more inform­a­tion on how emer­gency powers are being used. And, it goes without saying, these powers should only be tapped in case of a real emer­gency, not just a budget nego­ti­ation gone wrong.   

When used inap­pro­pri­ately, these declar­a­tions can worsen or even create emer­gen­cies, viol­ate checks and balances, trample civil liber­ties, and enable abuses of power. The next pres­id­ent should actively support legis­lat­ive reforms and refrain from deploy­ing emer­gency powers against the will of Congress or in the absence of a true crisis.

7. End the Muslim Ban and Extreme Vetting

Reli­gious free­dom is a core Amer­ican value. Yet while campaign­ing, Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims enter­ing the United States and made a litany of anti-Muslim state­ments. One week after taking office, Trump signed an exec­ut­ive order that banned people from seven predom­in­ately Muslim coun­tries. For coun­tries not on the list, he announced that his admin­is­tra­tion would conduct “extreme vetting.” Versions of the ban were struck down by federal courts because they displayed reli­gious bigotry. But the Supreme Court ulti­mately upheld the ban by a 5–4 decision.

This Muslim ban is a product of preju­dice, not proof. It obvi­ously discrim­in­ates against Muslims, viol­at­ing the core tenet of reli­gious free­dom. As attested by many former senior national secur­ity offi­cials from across the polit­ical spec­trum, it makes us no safer. Each day that passes, the ban stig­mat­izes Muslims, tears apart famil­ies, disrupts live­li­hoods, stifles academic exchange, and damages the coun­try’s inter­na­tional repu­ta­tion as a place where people from across the world can seek refuge and worship freely.

New so-called extreme vetting rules accom­plish the same result but have received less atten­tion. We already have a robust vetting system — empir­ical evid­ence shows that the risk of being killed in the United States by a foreign-born terror­ist is negli­gible. The next pres­id­ent should imme­di­ately with­draw the exec­ut­ive orders that created the Muslim ban and restore the United States’ histor­ical commit­ment to diversity, family reuni­fic­a­tion, and sens­ible secur­ity policies. The next pres­id­ent should also work with Congress to pass the NO BAN Act, intro­duced in April 2019, which would ensure that the pres­id­ent could not unilat­er­ally ban people from the United States on a whim and which would strengthen the exist­ing bars against discrim­in­a­tion included in the Immig­ra­tion and Nation­al­ity Act.

8. Secure Passage of the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion but nearly one quarter of its pris­on­ers. It isn’t neces­sary to keep our communit­ies safe. Thirty-nine percent of state and federal pris­on­ers are behind bars with little public safety rationale. The prison popu­la­tion is at its lowest rate in a decade, and crime contin­ues to fall. Yet the coun­try still ware­houses some 2.3 million people in its jails and pris­ons. No other indus­tri­al­ized nation comes close.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion is a defin­ing civil rights issue. African Amer­ic­ans are more likely to be stopped by police, arres­ted, detained before trial, and given harsh sentences than white people. The impris­on­ment rate of Black men is six times higher than that of white men.

The crim­inal justice system is also expens­ive and inef­fect­ive. Taxpay­ers pay $260 billion a year for poli­cing, jails, pris­ons, and courts, even though research shows that incar­cer­a­tion and lower crime rates are mostly unre­lated. Misguided finan­cial incent­ives are a part of the prob­lem. Each year, Wash­ing­ton sends at least $3.8 billion to the states to support more arrests, longer prison sentences, and more pris­ons.  

There are signs of change: since 2006, more than half of the states have enacted policies to lower their incar­cer­a­tion rates while also redu­cing crime. But these reforms should be imple­men­ted nation­wide.

The next pres­id­ent should encour­age Congress to reduce incar­cer­a­tion and improve public safety by passing the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act. The 1994 crime bill sent funds to states if they expan­ded pris­ons. This new law would estab­lish a $20 billion federal grant program to support states that reduced their prison popu­la­tions. It aims to lower the nation­wide impris­on­ment rate by 20 percent over a decade. The savings from redu­cing the prison popu­la­tion would outweigh the initial costs of the program.

9. Restore Voting Rights for Formerly Incar­cer­ated People

Felony disen­fran­chise­ment is an ugly remnant of Jim Crow. Thirty-four states disen­fran­chise people convicted of felon­ies even after they are released from prison. These laws dispro­por­tion­ately affect people of color: in 2016, black citizens were four times more likely than the general popu­la­tion to be barred from voting.

These laws vary among states. A few perman­ently bar all those who have felony convic­tions from voting, while others outlaw voting for a period of time, for some offenses, or while on proba­tion or parole. This patch­work confuses poten­tial voters and elec­tion offi­cials, deter­ring even eligible citizens from regis­ter­ing.

The next pres­id­ent should support the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act, passed as part of the House of Repres­ent­at­ives’ omni­bus reform bill H.R. 1. The bill would restore Amer­ic­ans’ right to vote in federal elec­tions upon release from prison. This legis­la­tion would provide second chances to millions of Amer­ic­ans, allow­ing them to fully parti­cip­ate in our demo­cratic process.

10. Roll Back Unne­ces­sary Impris­on­ment and Long Sentences

Mass incar­cer­a­tion is wildly expens­ive — it costs more than $30,000 a year to house someone in federal prison — and often coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. Research shows that longer sentences do not reduce commis­sion of certain crimes upon release; some stud­ies even show that impris­on­ment can lead people to commit more crimes. The next pres­id­ent should commit to passing federal propos­als to reduce prison sentences.

First, impris­on­ment for low-level crimes, like drug posses­sion, should be elim­in­ated. Instead, people who commit these crimes should be sentenced to altern­at­ives to prison, such as proba­tion, elec­tronic monit­or­ing, treat­ment, community service, or fines calib­rated to abil­ity to pay. Nearly eight out of ten pris­on­ers suffer from drug addic­tion or mental illness. There­fore, for many, medical treat­ment is a far better response than punit­ive incar­cer­a­tion.

Second, long prison sentences should be shortened, includ­ing sentences for nonvi­ol­ent felon­ies, such as drug posses­sion. At least 15 percent of U.S. pris­on­ers are serving draconian, lengthy sentences that could be reduced with no effect on public safety.

Ulti­mately, if both of these guidelines were imple­men­ted nation­wide, the United States could reduce its prison popu­la­tion by 40 percent. The next pres­id­ent should call on Congress to pass these reforms at the federal level and encour­age states to enact similar laws.

(Photo: Getty)