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Policy Solution

Democracy: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislators

Summary: In fundamental ways, our democratic systems urgently need repair. This volume sets out slate of bold policy proposal to move democracy reform to the center of our politics.

Published: May 4, 2018

In funda­mental ways, our demo­cratic systems urgently need repair. Voter turnout in the last midterm was the lowest in 72 years. Gerry­man­der­ing, voter suppres­sion, and dark money mar our elec­tions. Now, in the unnerv­ing days of the Trump pres­id­ency, we face new chal­lenges to our unwrit­ten demo­cratic norms — the checks on abus­ive power that keep us free.

This volume sets out a slate of bold policy proposal to move demo­cracy reform to the center of our polit­ics, where it belongs.

Fore­word by Bren­nan Center Pres­id­ent Michael Wald­man

How can we fix Amer­ican govern­ment? How can we make sure it works for all?

In the wake of the convuls­ive 2016 elec­tion, there may be no more press­ing ques­tion.

Nor will 2016 likely be the last such erup­tion. Amer­ican polit­ics has stag­nated for years, locked in arid debate on old ideas. Polit­ical parties have become increas­ingly tribal. Elec­tions are drenched in money and marked by intense polar­iz­a­tion. Govern­ment dysfunc­tion has created an open­ing for racially divis­ive back­lash polit­ics, while ignor­ing long-range economic, social, and envir­on­mental chal­lenges.

Until we reckon with that public discon­tent, we’ll continue to be entangled in the same battles we’ve been fight­ing for decades.

It is time for fresh think­ing, which is why the Bren­nan Center for Justice is produ­cing Solu­tions 2018, a series of three reports setting out demo­cracy and justice reforms that are inten­ded to help break the grip of destruct­ive polar­iz­a­tion.

This volume lays out propos­als to ensure free and fair elec­tions and curb the role of big money in Amer­ican polit­ics. Others show how we can end mass incar­cer­a­tion, and protect consti­tu­tional freedoms, vulner­able communit­ies, and the integ­rity of our demo­cracy amid new threats.

We hope these propos­als are useful to candid­ates, office­hold­ers, activ­ists, and citizens. The 2018 elec­tion should be more than a chance to send a message. It should be an oppor­tun­ity to demand a focus on real change.

What counts is not what we are against, but what we are for.


Amer­ican demo­cracy is facing extraordin­ary strains — of a kind it hasn’t faced in decades.

Voter parti­cip­a­tion is distress­ingly low. The last midterm elec­tion saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. Pervas­ive gerry­man­der­ing fixes outcomes in many elec­tions before voters even show up to the polls. The explo­sion of polit­ical spend­ing by a tiny frac­tion of Amer­ic­ans is stag­ger­ing; the amount contrib­uted by mega-donors who gave six figures or more increased more than 12-fold between 2008 and 2016. Dark money now floods into all levels of our elec­tions, includ­ing state judi­cial races. The Supreme Court gutted a century of campaign finance law and a half-century of voting rights protec­tions, all by a slim five-to-four margin. A hostile foreign govern­ment manip­u­lated the 2016 pres­id­en­tial campaign and tried to inter­fere with our voting systems. All that came before Donald Trump’s elec­tion.

Millions of Amer­ic­ans from all polit­ical points of view feel that their voices are not heard, that the govern­ment fails to repres­ent their concerns or meet their needs. At a time of stag­nat­ing oppor­tun­ity and deeply polar­ized govern­ment, the system is suscept­ible to demagoguery. Trump and Trump­ism are symp­toms, not the cause, of our demo­cratic dysfunc­tion.

Our system now faces new and unnerv­ing chal­lenges. A work­ing system of self-govern­ment requires the rule of law as well as robust demo­cracy. This ideal is increas­ingly being chal­lenged in the United States, as it is across the world. The norms of consti­tu­tional demo­cracy — the unwrit­ten rules that curb power and prevent abuse — are regu­larly flouted. It turns out that many seem­ingly solid protec­tions guid­ing our polit­ical actions and beha­vi­ors were, in fact, flimsy. No laws prevent a pres­id­ent from hiding his taxes, from using the powers of govern­ment to bully news organ­iz­a­tions or others that displease him, and possibly even from firing the prosec­utors who invest­ig­ate him.

The erosion of demo­cracy is also play­ing out in the states. Consider North Caro­lina: In recent years, the state enacted an array of anti-demo­cratic rules. The state’s restrict­ive voting law cut back on early voting and regis­tra­tion and imposed harsh voter ID rules. A federal appeals court found it was craf­ted to “target African Amer­ic­ans with almost surgical preci­sion.” The legis­lature passed gerry­manders so lopsided that multiple courts found them uncon­sti­tu­tional. When incum­bent Repub­lic­ans lost control of the governor­ship, legis­lat­ors sought to entrench party power, passing a law that effect­ively put Repub­lic­ans in charge of the state elec­tion board in perpetu­ity. The state’s GOP legis­lat­ors even tried (unsuc­cess­fully) to increase the size of the state supreme court to enable the outgo­ing governor to fill more seats. North Caro­lina provides a partic­u­larly grot­esque version of trends seen through­out the coun­try.

The efforts to manip­u­late the elect­oral system are so pervas­ive they could prevent the voice of the people from being heard in Novem­ber. Prognost­ic­at­ors see a possible “wave” elec­tion, with voter anger yield­ing surging turnout and elect­oral change. Yet gerry­man­der­ing is now so severe that Demo­crats would need a nearly unpre­ced­en­ted land­slide to win the House of Repres­ent­at­ives by even one seat. Voting restric­tions in many states continue to thwart thou­sands of voters — and could be the determ­in­at­ive factor in close elec­tions. Dark money contin­ues to balloon, reach­ing new highs this year. The crisis of Amer­ican demo­cracy, in short, is urgent.

This report proposes solu­tions to address that crisis and revital­ize our system of self-govern­ment so it works for all people. To do so, we must move the issue of demo­cracy itself to the center of our polit­ics. After all, we will be able to address few press­ing prob­lems if we do not repair our demo­cracy. The need for change is clear.

Indeed, the threats to demo­cracy are so vivid and undeni­able that they have begun to be the source of polit­ical energy and organ­iz­ing enthu­si­asm. In 2016, both Bernie Sanders (declar­ing a “polit­ical revolu­tion”) and Donald Trump (pledging to “drain the swamp”) gave voice to discon­tent. This year, citizens are advan­cing ballot meas­ures to end partisan gerry­man­der­ing in Michigan, to end life­time felony disen­fran­chise­ment in Flor­ida, and to adopt auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion in Nevada. Even amid partisan voting wars, bills to expand voting are now moving through state legis­latures with bipar­tisan support — far more than bills to restrict access.

Auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion was adop­ted unan­im­ously by the Illinois legis­lature, and by 60 percent of Alaska voters (even as they backed Donald Trump). An impress­ive bipar­tisan coali­tion of elec­ted offi­cials urged the Supreme Court to end extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing. When the new pres­id­ent claimed wide­spread voter fraud, Repub­lican and Demo­cratic elec­tion offi­cials spoke out to debunk the false claim, and the commis­sion he created to search for fraud imploded.

In short, there is more energy, more activ­ism, more anger, and more passion around the state of demo­cracy than we’ve seen in years.

This agenda seeks to turn that energy into answers. It sets out changes that can be enacted and imple­men­ted at the federal and state level. These changes promote full polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion; truly repres­ent­at­ive and account­able elec­ted legis­latures; a func­tional govern­ment freed from the distort­ing effect of big money; and a system in which the voice of the people is heard without being blocked by entrenched polit­ical forces.

Most of these propos­als have, in vari­ous forms, been tried on a small scale and succeeded. They draw on the Bren­nan Center’s expert­ise and years of research, advocacy, and engage­ment. Taken together, they could expand demo­cratic parti­cip­a­tion and repres­ent­a­tion, trans­form the coun­try’s governance, and open oppor­tun­it­ies for new forms of engage­ment.