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When Will Progressives Make Democracy Reform a Top Priority?

It is time to focus on renewing and modernizing our democracy to make it responsive to the people and not just to special interests.

November 11, 2016

The elec­tion results, which brought us Pres­id­ent Donald Trump and contin­ued Repub­lican control of Congress, were the product of a dysfunc­tional demo­cratic system that screams out for repair. Consider the many ways our creak­ing, anti­quated insti­tu­tions of demo­cracy distor­ted and subver­ted the will of the people in 2016.

Elect­oral College. Let’s start with the archaic, undemo­cratic Elect­oral College. In the stunned reac­tion to Tues­day’s elec­tion results, too little atten­tion has been paid to the fact that Trump lost the national popu­lar vote. It wasn’t even close. The slow trickle of results from Cali­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton has obscured the final result: analysts project that Hillary Clin­ton is on track to top Trump’s total by as many as two million votes. So, for the second time in 16 years, the candid­ate chosen by a major­ity of the nation’s voters has lost the elec­tion. How can such a result be considered demo­crat­ic­ally legit­im­ate in the 21st century?

As if that weren’t bad enough, the race to win 270 elect­oral votes stun­ted and distor­ted the campaign in ways that hurt the progress­ive cause. The focus on elect­oral votes, and not the people’s vote, incentiv­izes the campaigns to focus their ener­gies on winning a few battle­ground states while ignor­ing the rest. For example, since the July conven­tion, Clin­ton visited North Caro­lina 10 times and Pennsylvania 13 times. Her support­ers blanketed those states to turn out every last voter, with evid­ent dimin­ish­ing returns. Imagine what the results have been if the Demo­crats had an incent­ive to encour­age citizens to make their voices heard in New York and Cali­for­nia as well. Under the current system, these states received almost no atten­tion from the Demo­cratic nominee apart from fundrais­ing events featur­ing the chance for a photo op with Cher. Abol­ish­ing the Elect­oral College would free the candid­ates to go where their bases are, with the goal of rally­ing the most voters to their side.

We did dodge one loom­ing disaster. If this had turned out to be a squeaker in elect­oral vote terms, we would have all learned about the vow of Robert Saticum, a “faith­less elector” in Wash­ing­ton State who just can’t bring them­selves to honor the will of the state’s voters, who happened to choose Clin­ton by a wide margin. If he follows through on his inten­tion to vote for someone else – and there is no law that can stop him – his self-indul­gence would merit a foot­note in the history books, along with the Wash­ing­ton State elector who spurned Gerald Ford to give Ronald Reagan an elect­oral vote in 1976. But in a razor-thin elec­tion, Saticum actu­ally wanted to force the elec­tion into the House of Repres­ent­at­ives, seal­ing a victory for Trump. “I hope it comes down to a swing vote and it’s me,” he crowed. “Maybe it’ll wake this coun­try up.” A fitting bit, perhaps, for the blooper reel of this real­ity show elec­tion, but it’s no way to run a demo­cracy.

Ending the Elect­oral College would seem to require a consti­tu­tional amend­ment, which is an uphill chal­lenge to say the least. Small rural states with outsize voting strength in the current system, and battle­ground states used to being cour­ted, would be less likely to ratify it. But there is a cred­ible reform option on the table that bypasses this obstacle: the National Popu­lar Vote reform plan proposed by John Koza. Under this proposal, state legis­latures would agree through an inter­state compact to award their elect­oral votes to candid­ate who receives the most popu­lar votes in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Already, 11 states possess­ing 165 elect­oral votes have signed on. Once the compact expands to include other juris­dic­tions with 270 or more elect­oral votes, the plan guar­an­tees that the winner of the national popu­lar vote would become pres­id­ent.

The National Popu­lar Vote plan is a prom­ising first step, but it does­n’t go far enough. It fails to provide for the contin­gency of multiple parties which could reduce the winning candid­ate’s plur­al­ity of the vote to an unac­cept­ably low level. It also leaves in place the Consti­tu­tion’s least demo­cratic feature: the provi­sion that empowers the House of Repres­ent­at­ives to choose the pres­id­ent, with each state cast­ing one vote, in the event no candid­ate wins 270 elect­oral votes. But enact­ment of the compact, making the national popu­lar vote a fait accom­pli, could reduce resist­ance to a better tailored and more endur­ing reform in the form of a consti­tu­tional amend­ment.

Redis­trict­ing. All through this intensely fought campaign, the pres­id­ency and control of the Senate hung in the balance. But thanks to the way polit­ical districts were redrawn after the 2010 census, a process controlled in most states by Repub­lic­ans, the fate of the House of Repres­ent­at­ives gener­ated little suspense. The aggreg­ated national vote for House races appears to have been close: Repub­lic­ans currently lead by a tally of 56.3 million versus 53.2 million, but that margin is likely to shrink when all votes from Cali­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton are finally tallied. And yet, Repub­lic­ans easily main­tained a size­able major­ity with only a hand­ful of compet­it­ive races. This is ironic, to say the least. The Framers inten­ded the House to be the insti­tu­tion of govern­ment most respons­ive to the public mood. But while polit­ical gerry­man­der­ing goes back to our nation’s begin­nings, the found­ing gener­a­tion could have never envi­sioned how modern tech­no­logy allows politi­cians to create impreg­nable districts with ruth­less preci­sion. Just look at Pennsylvania: the state was fought to a near draw in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, but 13 of its 18 House seats went to Repub­lic­ans thanks to the creat­ive handi­work of a GOP-controlled legis­lature five years ago.

It does­n’t have to be this way. Demo­crats are gear­ing up to beat the Repub­lic­ans at this game after the 2020 census, and maybe they’ll succeed. But progress­ives can set their sights on more endur­ing change by taking redis­trict­ing out of the hands of self-inter­ested politi­cians and invest­ing this power in the hands of an inde­pend­ent citizen commis­sion. These commis­sions, like the one in Cali­for­nia, have increased partisan compet­i­tion and ensured that minor­ity communit­ies have fair repres­ent­a­tion.

Voting. Amer­ican elec­tions are in need of repair. One in four eligible citizens can’t vote because they aren’t registered. And those who do vote have to deal with long lines, outdated voting machines and – in many states – with imped­i­ments put in place specific­ally to make it harder for targeted popu­la­tions to cast a ballot.

This was the first pres­id­en­tial elec­tion follow­ing the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a core provi­sion of the Voting Rights Act. Where the Act once required states with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion to obtain federal govern­ment preclear­ance to enact changes in voting laws and prac­tices, the Court opened the door to a raft of discrim­in­at­ory meas­ures includ­ing photo ID laws and cutbacks to early voting. While advoc­ates pushed back some of these meas­ures in court, these voter suppres­sion meas­ures contrib­uted to reduced minor­ity turnout in many states.

Progress­ives should demand that Congress fix the Voting Rights Act to its former strength. They should also support Auto­matic Voter Regis­tra­tion, a trans­form­at­ive policy innov­a­tion craf­ted by the Bren­nan Center that would perman­ently add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls. AVR would save money, increase accur­acy, curb the poten­tial for fraud, and protect the integ­rity of our elec­tions. Already, six states (Oregon, Cali­for­nia, Vermont, West Virginia, Connecti­cut and Alaska) have enacted AVR meas­ures and they’re now being imple­men­ted. Finally, progress­ives should insist on other meas­ures that make voting easier, includ­ing expan­ded early voting. Reduced early voting oppor­tun­it­ies in many key states surely dampened turnout.

Money in polit­ics. Ever since the Supreme Court opened up the floodgates to massive, unlim­ited campaign spend­ing in the Citizens United case, Amer­ic­ans of all polit­ical stripes have been worried about the grow­ing power of large donors. The domin­a­tion of elec­tions by a hand­ful of big donors is a threat to demo­cracy and good governance. As long as politi­cians spend so much time chas­ing the big donors, a grow­ing number of Amer­ic­ans – progress­ives and conser­vat­ives alike – will continue to believe that the system is rigged.

The 2016 elec­tion proved that campaigns with a big bank­roll didn’t always succeed. The Clin­ton campaign raised and spent more than Trump, and Jeb Bush raised $155.8 million for his campaign and super PAC to little avail. At the same time, many closely fought Senate races turned out to be not so close after all. Is it a coin­cid­ence that the big money donors on the Repub­lican side, turned off by Trump’s campaign, redoubled their dona­tions to keep the Senate in Repub­lican hands? A recent Bren­nan Center analysis found that this year, for what is prob­ably the first time, supposedly “inde­pend­ent” spend­ers – free from contri­bu­tion limits and very often conceal­ing the iden­tit­ies of their donors – outspent the parties and candid­ates in ten key Senate races.

Progress­ives saw in the Bernie Sanders campaign a differ­ent way. While Hillary Clin­ton raised money the tradi­tional way, through fundrais­ing events that provided access to the candid­ate as a reward for campaign contri­bu­tions, Sanders’ campaign was fueled with an impress­ive surge of small donor contrib­ut­ing aver­aging, as Sanders proudly boas­ted, $27. Clin­ton’s fundrais­ing slog took her off the campaign trail for days at a time. Sanders, like Obama before him, could focus his ener­gies on enga­ging his base.

What if govern­ment made it easier for campaigns to thrive on small dona­tions raised through engage­ment with voters? The Bren­nan Center has proposed a federal public finan­cing system for pres­id­en­tial and congres­sional elec­tions that encour­ages small contri­bu­tions from regu­lar people. Under this plan, modeled on New York City’s success­ful system, small dona­tions of up to $250 would be matched 5–1 by the govern­ment. In exchange, parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates would agree to reduce the maximum allow­able contri­bu­tions. This simple reform, which could be adap­ted to state elec­tions too, could revo­lu­tion­ize the way campaigns raise money, making fundrais­ing an integ­ral part of civic engage­ment.

Another needed step is chan­ging the law around money in polit­ics to give reformers more latit­ude to regu­late campaign finance – includ­ing resur­gent spend­ing by the biggest donors and the new phenomenon of unac­count­able “dark money” – to preserve the integ­rity of our elec­tions. Four Supreme Court justices have signaled their interest in doing just that. Now that the current Court vacancy will be filled by the next pres­id­ent, progress here will remain just out of reach for the time being.

The road forward. Progress­ives will always face obstacles in advan­cing their issues in a polit­ical system that elev­ates the voice of the few at the expense of the many – a system which perversely awards victor­ies to the candid­ate who wins fewer votes and which makes the process of voting feel mean­ing­less. It is time to focus on renew­ing and modern­iz­ing our demo­cracy to make it respons­ive to the people and not just to special interests. The Bren­nan Center has advanced a Demo­cracy Agenda call­ing for these changes and many more. I urge you to join us.

(Photo: Think­stock)