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