This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here.
Reviving our democracy will be a paramount challenge for the new administration. The intertwined issues of race, inequality, and democracy have been at the center of the 2016 campaign. Hillary Clinton put it well at the Democratic National Convention in July: “Our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should.” The close primary challenge to Clinton by Senator Bernie Sanders was driven by the widespread feeling that big money is crowding out the voices and views of the people. Fights over voting rights have roiled states around the country. And in a perverted way, these issues have fed Donald Trump’s appeal, too. Many Americans feel unheard and unrepresented. Trump conflates real issues of the dominance of money with the paranoid message that voter registration and voting tallies are “rigged” as well.
Fifteen years ago, in the wake of the debacle election of 2000, The American Prospect published a special report entitled “Democracy’s Moment.” Today is another such moment, when we urgently need to reclaim our democracy in order to restore both the legitimacy of government and its capacity to solve problems. But the promise of democratic revival will be realized only if an effective fight is made. That will require serious presidential leadership, congressional courage, state and municipal experimentation, real change in the Democratic Party, and, most of all, the active engagement and sustained pressure of an organized democracy movement.
At the center of these efforts are three key areas: the need for expanding access to registration and voting; measures to keep money from crowding out citizens’ voices; and reforming gerrymandering and redistricting. These are not just “good government” or “process” issues. They are intimately connected to the ability of government to engage citizens and solve problems.
Reclaiming our democracy is connected to achieving real debate and progress on key substantive issues. These include raising the economic floor, protecting and rebuilding the middle class, crafting inclusive immigration policies, making college truly affordable, winning police and criminal justice reform, addressing the consequences of globalization, and protecting our planet. If politics can be about these deeply felt issues, people will be less cynical about democracy and government, and more willing to participate. In turn, the increased participation made possible by making the process more accessible, less manipulated, and less dominated by big money will dramatically change the dynamics of issues as well as elections, and enable far more substantive victories going forward.
I. Fighting Voter Suppression and Expanding Access
Immediately after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, which overturned federal preclearance authority for voting-system changes in jurisdictions with records of discrimination, almost every state previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act raced to put voting restrictions in place that made it harder for communities of color, poor people, and young people to vote. In the name of “preventing fraud,” and even of saving money, restrictive measures were successfully passed in 22 states.
Since then, hard-fought political and judicial fights have been waged. While the terrain is still sharply contested, important victories have been won in preventing these suppressive practices from being fully implemented. One emblematic fight was in Alabama, where the legislature passed a strict photo-ID requirement for voter registration and the Motor Vehicles Department closed down almost all of its offices as a “cost-saving measure.” The fight ensued, and the state reopened most sites, but on a more limited basis. In North Carolina, the omnibus voter-suppression law passed in 2013 has been rolled back in court, provision by provision, in rulings by the Fourth Circuit that were recently affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
North Carolina's voter-ID rules are posted at the door of the voting station at the Alamance Fire Station in Greensboro, on March 15, 2016.
Cynical purging of voter rolls is a problem in several states. In Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia, lawsuits by Dēmos and Common Cause are in process, challenging aggressive purging procedures employed by secretaries of state, which erase hundreds of thousands of potentially eligible people from the rolls and violate National Voter Registration Act requirements. In Georgia, between October 2012 and November 2014, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged more than 370,000 voters from the rolls for failure to vote, a number that far exceeded the number of all new voters registered. In Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted purged 144,000 voters from the state’s three largest counties in 2015. (On September 23, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down this purge as violating the National Voter Registration Act.)
Even when they are not manipulated for partisan purposes, voting systems in many states are outmoded, inefficient, and underfunded—and vulnerable to attack. Improving administration and coordination, and winning stronger standards and enforcement, is less sexy but really important. When the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in 2002, the Election Assistance Commission (no authority in that title!) was designed to be weak, and partisan obstructionism over recent years has rendered it virtually useless. States have found ways to cooperate, such as through the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). But there is a desperate need for national standards, for new investments in voting machines and technologies, better training and pay for poll workers, all with absolute safeguards against hacking and fraud. The issues now arising about the potential for sophisticated foreign hacking should force far more attention to these administrative security issues, and also be the pivot to open a real discussion of professionalizing and standardizing our elections, as well as protecting them from electronic attack.
As these fights over voter suppression in the states have raged, Republicans in Congress have refused even to hold hearings on restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. This is a turnaround by House and Senate Republicans on the law. In the VRA’s most recent reauthorization, in 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed 98–0 in the U.S. Senate, 390–33 in the House, and was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush. Better than almost anything, this shift shows the need for a major push on a Democracy Agenda in 2017.
However, the struggles on the state level have not been only defensive. There is an affirmative voting-access agenda as well—real reforms have been achieved, and significant groundwork has been laid for dramatic advancements in the future.
Expanding Voter Registration. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have adopted online registration, often with bipartisan support. Same-day registration, which has been shown to increase participation by 5 percent to 7 percent, is now law in 13 states and the District of Columbia. In three other states—California, Hawaii, and Vermont—the law has been passed but not yet implemented. In North Carolina, the attempt to rescind same-day registration has been one of the policies blocked by recent court actions. Preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds brings young people into the system so they can be prepared to vote at 18, and more than half the country now offers the reform, in red and blue states alike.
Restoring Voting Rights. Significant progress has been made in several states toward restoring the voting rights of citizens with felony convictions. Maryland last year passed legislation restoring the right to vote to individuals upon completion of prison sentences, without having to wait until after probation or parole. When Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, the House and Senate overrode him in February, restoring the voting rights of 40,000 people. In Virginia, despite strong opposition, Governor Terry McAuliffe recently restored the rights of 13,000 people, as the beginning of a larger process.
Expanding the Use of the NVRA. One creative approach has been the use by advocates of the provisions of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, often called “Motor Voter”), which requires state agencies—not just DMVs, but all agencies that offer federal benefits—to affirmatively offer people voter registration. De¯mos and Project Vote have led efforts to push state agencies to do their job, and more than three million additional voters have been registered at social-service agencies in 16 states that have changed their procedures, with the biggest gains being in Missouri and Ohio.
Automatic Voter Registration. AVR is a process in which the state, through state agencies (DMVs for now, but potentially others as well), places eligible voters automatically on the rolls. Oregon first passed the reform in March of 2015, and roughly 12,000 new voters per month have been added to the rolls—three times the registration rate before the state adopted AVR. California quickly followed Oregon, and Vermont, West Virginia, and Connecticut (by administrative order) have since adopted it, with some variations. The Illinois legislature passed AVR with strong bipartisan support just this May, but Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed the bill. With an override unlikely, advocates are uniting behind an effort for a veto-proof majority in 2017.
Expanding Early and Mail-in Voting. Early-voting opportunities have expanded significantly, and are now practiced in most states, either in precincts or at central vote centers. Voting by mail has been expanded as well. Both Washington and Oregon have gone almost exclusively to mail-in ballots, and Maryland recently expanded both mail-in and early-voting options. Colorado has built one of the most expansive systems, offering mail-in and early voting, with same-day registration available as well.
II. Fixing the Rigged System of Money in Politics
Despite the obvious and profound negative effects of our campaign-finance system, efforts to change the way money operates in our politics have been stymied at almost every turn. The campaign finance laws created after Watergate held for a while. But over the last 40 years, they have been undercut by a conservative legislative offensive, a relentless legal assault, terrible rulings from the Roberts Court, skillful evasion, partisan gridlock, and bipartisan political resistance at the state and national levels. Even though there is agreement among large majorities of voters of all party affiliations on the magnitude and impact of the problem, this has not produced the political will for the kind of major change that is needed.
Franklin County Early Voting Center in Columbus, Ohio
Small-Donor Matching. Despite the money-is-speech doctrine, real gains can and have been made at the state and local level, mainly through systems of small-donor public financing. Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut, along with such cities as New York, Los Angeles, and Albuquerque, have succeeded in winning reforms that reduce or end reliance on the traditional donor class. Recently, reform coalitions have won new small-donor systems in Seattle and Montgomery County, Maryland. There are ballot initiatives set this November for Washington state, South Dakota, and Howard County, Maryland, and a successful advisory referendum in Chicago in February has set up the possibility for progress there.
These systems have been shown to produce real change. In Connecticut, whose system was adopted in 2005 and has been in place since the 2008 election cycle, candidates for governor, other state offices, and the legislature who opt in to the voluntary system raise a threshold amount in small donations, and then stop fundraising altogether, utilizing a state grant sufficient to run a serious campaign. Participation rates by Republicans and Democrats alike are very high—almost 75 percent in 2016—and there is strong bipartisan consensus that the system has been successful in changing how campaigns are run and—importantly—who can seriously contemplate running. It has also dramatically reduced the role of lobbyists, bundlers, and other moneyed players who traditionally dominated the halls of the State Capitol in Hartford.
In New York City, a strong matching program (6 to 1 for qualifying donations raised by candidates) coupled with term limits has been a powerful engine for change. It allowed a diverse and energetic pool of candidates to emerge, and set the stage for significant progressive victories at the city council and mayoral level. Efforts to expand the system statewide have so far met stiff resistance in the Republican Senate, but the expansion effort continues while the city system enjoys strong popular support.
The Courts and a New Jurisprudence. This is where major change could really begin. The new president will likely have multiple appointments to the Supreme Court. A new high court, looking objectively at what has happened to campaign spending and fundraising in the real world, could reverse the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases, and could and should go back to the original fundamentally flawed ruling in Buckley v. Valeo from 1976. That ruling laid down two horrible premises. First, that campaign spending is constitutionally protected speech. And second, that the only acceptable principle for limiting campaign spending is to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption.
But there is an obvious additional principle that is simple common sense, which is that a set of rules can be adopted and justified to ensure that every voice is heard in our democracy, not just ones that can buy the biggest bullhorn. Laws based on this equity principle could be passed, and cases can be developed and brought as assiduously and strategically as those on the right have done in their pro-big-money crusade. If judges are chosen and confirmed who prioritize restoring democracy, a major shift can happen without a constitutional amendment. They need only read retired Justice John Paul Stevens’s testimony to Congress in April 2014:
For years the Court’s campaign finance jurisprudence has been incorrectly predicated on the assumption that avoiding corruption or the appearance of corruption is the only justification for regulating campaign speech and the financing of political campaigns. That is quite wrong. … Like rules that govern athletic contests or adversary litigation, those rules should create a level playing field. … Just as procedures in contested litigation regulate speech in order to give adversary parties a fair and equal opportunity to persuade the decision-maker to rule in their favor, rules regulating political campaigns should have the same objective.
Disclosure. In addition to small-donor public financing, the voluntary nature of which abides by the Buckley and the Citizens United decisions, another set of reforms has expanded disclosure, to stem the tide of money from unrevealed and secret sources and shine the proverbial sunlight on how campaigns are paid for. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and Colorado are among states that have strengthened their disclosure requirements.
Federal Reforms. Several pieces of reform legislation have been introduced in Congress. These have been stymied by Republican control of both houses, but that could soon change (see below).
III. Ending Gerrymandering and Fair Redistricting
In congressional delegations and many state legislatures, the partisan breakdown bears little resemblance to voter preferences. While it is difficult to argue exact correlations between craven district-drawing and the gap between the congressional party vote and the congressional delegation makeup (given unopposed races and other factors), the general relationship is very clear. In Pennsylvania, where Democrats received half the votes for Congress in 2012, the congressional delegation to the House is 13–5 Republican. In Michigan, the Democratic vote was more than 50 percent, and it is Republican by a 9–5 margin. In Florida, where Democrats received 45 percent of the vote, the delegation is Republican by 17 to 10. In Virginia, the vote was nearly half Democratic, while the congressional delegation is 8 to 3. And in North Carolina, the Democratic vote was more than half, and the delegation is 10 to 3. While this is not only a Republican offense (in Maryland, Democrats got 63 percent of the congressional vote, but the delegation is 7–1 Democratic), the preponderance of major recent examples are of Republican making. These are remarkable disparities, and similar ones can be shown for state legislative representation. (It is worth noting that in North Carolina in 2014, about half of the state legislative candidates ran unopposed.)
While scholars have pointed out that the country is re-segregating in its residential patterns, numbers this large can only be the result of conscious racial and partisan intent. And whereas gerrymandering once was a gentlemanly, bipartisan arrangement to protect incumbency, the more recent abuses have been to ensure partisan control of legislatures and to create absurd and permanent majorities in congressional delegations that do not reflect the state’s voting preferences by a long shot. The outcome was a direct result of “Operation REDMAP,” a successful Republican plan to target legislative races in 2010, specifically to ensure control of the redistricting process.
This kind of gerrymandering isn’t only about politics; it is also about race. The most egregious abuses are accomplished by “packing” and “cracking” black and Latino voters, either by putting them into very compact districts, or by spreading them across multiple districts while at the same time ensuring white and conservative dominance. Ironically, the defense of the redistricting plans most often offered is that they are not about race, but about partisan preferences. These are intertwined and unacceptable goals, both. In addition, the counting of prisoners as “residents” of rural districts where prisons are placed, rather than from the communities where they lived before their incarceration, is, given the racially skewed prison population, another way of limiting the power of communities of color. Again, some progress has been made recently, with states including California, Delaware, New York, and Maryland changing the way prisoners’ residence will be counted.
The good news on gerrymandering overall is that citizens around the country have been fighting back. Recent cases have been fought and mostly won in states as diverse as Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida.
Florida produced a major victory after a long fight when the state supreme court, generally regarded as conservative, ruled in 2015 that blatant partisan gerrymandering violated the state constitution, and required new districts to be drawn. This year, all of Florida’s districts have new boundaries, and significantly more are competitive. The number of competitive congressional seats rose from ten to 14, and in the State Senate, competitive seats rose from 14 to 20. In addition, districts are far more compact, adhere better to existing geographical boundaries, and give communities of color enhanced opportunities to elect candidates of their choosing.
In North Carolina, the courts have required congressional and state legislative maps to be redrawn this year to reduce the racially discriminatory districting process. When the legislature drew the new maps, they assured the public that the new maps, which would retain the 10–3 Republican majority in that state’s congressional delegation, were not racially motivated, but rather based on partisan considerations. The maps are now being contested by Common Cause and others in a new lawsuit.
In addition to the court cases, efforts to form independent redistricting commissions have been gaining steam. Arizona and California led the way years ago, in California through a ballot initiative for an independent Citizen Redistricting Commission to draw the lines. The results have been a legislature and congressional campaigns that are both more competitive and more reflective of the state’s population than ever before. And the Supreme Court last year upheld the Arizona Redistricting Commission against an argument from Arizona legislators that the citizens had “usurped” power from the legislature. Another approach, utilized by Iowa for a number of years, gives power to nonpartisan legislative staff to draw the districts with the assistance of a citizen advisory commission. The legislature can veto a plan, but cannot make changes.
In addition to changing who draws the district lines, a second area for reform is the question of what criteria to use. Criteria that have been proposed by reformers include: keeping communities of interest together, expressly protecting the rights of communities of color to have opportunities to elect candidates of their choice; prohibiting favoritism for incumbency or party advantage; requiring districts to be compact and contiguous; keeping cities and counties whole; and potentially even requiring districts to be politically competitive. In Florida, the key to the success of the reform community in the court victories was a constitutional amendment adopted in 2010 that prohibited drawing districts that diminished the ability of minority voters to elect representatives of their choice, or plans designed for partisan advantage. Secondary standards included compactness, contiguity, and equality of population.
In Ohio, a rare bipartisan coalition supported a successful ballot initiative last November that prohibited the drawing of state House and Senate districts for political advantage, and added protections that will prevent one party from dominating the process. The vote was more than two to one, and advocates will continue to push to add congressional districts to those covered by the new law. In North Carolina, following the court victories, the End Gerrymandering Now coalition, with strong bipartisan support, including in the much maligned North Carolina legislature, has real possibilities for victory in the next year. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Missouri, efforts are afoot to enact fair redistricting criteria as well.
On gerrymandering, too, a federal approach is needed. The Redistricting Reform Act, sponsored by Representative Zoe Lofgren based on California’s experience, sets standards and mandates independent commissions for the drawing of districts. The Voting Rights Act could be effectively used to win fair districts free of racial bias, if it were reauthorized. And, looking at the Supreme Court, there are four cases (Harris v. McCrory in North Carolina; Whitford v. Nichol in Wisconsin; Shapiro v. McManus in Maryland; and Common Cause v. Rucho in North Carolina) that could clearly be headed to the Court. The Court upheld the Arizona process, but it needs to take a step further, using one or more of these cases, and give critical guidance to states around the country as they develop their redistricting plans after the 2020 census.
What It Will Take to Win
Policy ideas are critical, but without a political strategy, they can just be words on paper. And saying we need a strategy is very different than really developing a successful one. Here are some of the keys to success.
I. Presidential Leadership
Hillary Clinton, strongly influenced by the Sanders campaign and by democracy organizations, has stated strong support for voting rights and for changing the campaign-finance system. But she will need to prioritize democracy issues with a serious focus, and it will not be easy. On the one hand, there is clear public support for all these issues, which resonate with voters who believe the system is stacked, and that their voices don’t count. With voters of color in particular, there are decades experiencing active attempts to keep them away from the polls and to minimize their representation through racially based gerrymandering.
On the other hand, there will be major countervailing pulls. There will be the press of crises, foreign and domestic. There will be the demands of other major issues and constituencies whose issues have been unable to move for so long. And there will be the lure of opportunities for unlimited and interested fundraising, and doing political business as usual. Pay-to-play politics is so deeply ingrained in our political culture that breaking free from it would be an extraordinary challenge and accomplishment.
People sing during the Guilford County Board of Elections meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina.
What would real presidential leadership look like? One major marker is sustained attention by the president and consistent talk about these issues, utilizing the presidential pulpit in her inauguration speech, in her travels around the country, and in her legislative priorities. But what are other concrete steps that can be taken?
The President and the Congress. Legislatively, there are a number of important pro-democracy possibilities. If the Senate turns Democratic, there is real potential. Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and others all have real commitments to a democracy agenda. The dynamics in the House are far less predictable, but even if it remains in Republican hands, there may be some real opportunity in the unsettled post-election months.
First and foremost should be moving the Voting Rights Advancement Act, sponsored by Representative John Lewis and Senator Leahy. Nothing would bring the Democratic Party together in the Congress, and send a signal that the issues of race and representation will not be afterthoughts, more forcefully than this. In addition, moving the bill would call out the Republicans, particularly the House leadership, to demonstrate that the racism so shamefully present in this year’s presidential campaign does not represent Republicanism in this new moment. Speaker Paul Ryan, James Sensenbrenner, Tom Cole, and other House Republicans have stated publicly that they support restoring the Voting Rights Act. Yet they have caved to the right wing of the caucus. House Judiciary Chair Robert Goodlatte refused to hold a committee hearing on its restoration, perhaps to appease the Tea Party and white nationalist elements of his Roanoke-area district. Will this pattern simply continue, or might this be an opportunity to lead in a different way? And if the leadership can’t or won’t move, this would seem to be a perfect vehicle for a discharge petition that might alter the voting dynamic in the House in major ways.
In a similar vein is the Democracy Restoration Act, which would require restoration of the voting rights of citizens with felony convictions upon release from prison. This could affect several million people around the country, and connects to the momentum on criminal justice reform, an issue already with bipartisan support.
On the campaign-finance side, Democratic senators this year introduced the “We the People” package of reforms, which Hillary Clinton said she supports. It includes strengthening disclosure and lobbyist reporting and revolving-door provisions, reforming the Federal Election Commission, and introducing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Unfortunately, the package did not include a small donor–based public financing system for Congress. But the Durbin bill in the Senate (the Fair Elections Now Act) and the John Sarbanes bill in the House (Government by the People Act) create, in slightly different ways, such a system for congressional races. In addition, the Tom Udall-sponsored EMPOWER Act would restore the viability of the presidential public financing system. As of now, these bills have very little Republican support, and will be far more challenging to move than the Voting Rights Advancement Act. But the situation has gotten so clearly out of hand, and there is such strong support from voters across the spectrum, that it may be possible that with both presidential and congressional leadership, a new chemistry on the issue can be developed, at least enough to make the debate serious.
One important question the campaign-finance issue raises is where the Democratic Party wants to be on these fundamental issues of how the system runs. The Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Democracy Restoration Act have a very clear logic to them from Democrats’ political point of view. Fighting for an expanded electorate, increasing the representation of the new American majority, and opposing the forces of reaction on racial issues are clearly enough in the party’s self-interest. Even the restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions, though it might have raised the specter of being “soft on crime” at one point, has moved into the Democrats’ advantage zone. But the issue of really changing the campaign-finance rules, like the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the rules of globalization, goes to the heart of what the Democratic Party stands for, and risks raising the old progressive-versus-Democratic Leadership Council conflicts that were so central to the Bill Clinton era. It seems as though this election season has shown the wisdom of clearly standing for the 99 percent, and for strengthening the Democratic Party’s commitment to fighting for racial and economic equity. But the pulls of the business lobby and the donor class will be a powerful siren call.
Executive Actions. There are a large number of executive orders, appointments, and other actions that could be taken by the president.
An executive order could require federal contractors to disclose their political contributions, which would have a major impact, since most of America’s largest corporations have federal contracts. This has been discussed at great length with the Obama White House, but has not been done. Such an order would dovetail well with a strong order on ethics and revolving doors.
The president has the authority to mandate that exchanges under the Affordable Care Act be designated as voter registration sites under the NVRA, and to consider other potential strengthening of NVRA provisions.
The president and Congress need to make sure that the 2020 census is adequately funded so that a full count of our diverse population can truly be made. And the census must count prisoners from the communities from which they come, and not from their involuntary rural addresses.
The Justice Department has a strikingly important role to play. Obama has ramped up the intensity and performance of the department’s Civil Rights Division in challenging voter-suppression efforts in states and municipalities, through Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. President Hillary Clinton could go even further. The DOJ has had limited involvement in challenging purging procedures that violate the NVRA and in enforcing other NVRA provisions, which could have a major impact on the voting rolls, including ensuring that state agencies are doing all they should. And the DOJ should maintain regular, consistent contact with civil-rights organizations and the democracy community overall.
Appointments to key positions will also have a major impact. While major attention has been paid to the importance of potential Supreme Court appointments, the appointment of judges in other jurisdictions could be instrumental in rewriting jurisprudence on campaign finance and in protecting the right to vote. And President Clinton’s appointments, not only to the FEC but to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, will all have major bearing on issues related to disclosure and political financing in general.
All of these actions would benefit tremendously if President Clinton were to create a serious program within the Domestic Policy Council to move a democracy agenda. It would be a critical boost to moving a legislative agenda and promoting its priority. It would also be an effective focal point for organizing the strategic elements of support for a multifaceted democracy agenda—cataloguing and promoting the variety of executive actions that could be taken, and coordinating with the broad range of constituency organizations and coalitions that have taken up democracy as a top-priority issue. Overall, it would be an effective and strategic way of demonstrating and concretizing presidential leadership.
II. States as Continuing Laboratories
Beyond change at the federal level should Clinton be successful and gains are made at the congressional level, there will also be new opportunities for states to play their “laboratories of democracy” role. Republicans hold 68 of 99 legislative chambers, and fully control redistricting in 18 states. But there are 11 states where Democrats have the possibility of retaking control, including six Senate chambers—Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, New York, Washington, and West Virginia—where a shift of one seat would flip control, opening up possibilities on democracy issues as well as others.
New York is a very clear case in point. Over the last several years, a broad and strong coalition, led by Citizen Action of New York, Common Cause New York, major unions, and the Working Families Party, fought for a strong small-donor public financing system at the state level, modeled after the New York City program. The effort had strong legislative champions and passed the state Assembly. While the governor was the most unreliable of allies, the pivotal barrier was the Republican control of the New York State Senate, which is now evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. A major victory by Clinton could very possibly flip the Senate to Democratic control, which would give a major boost to the “Demand Democracy” campaign that is poised to renew its efforts in 2017. Given New York’s outsized role in national campaign finance, a victory there could have significant national implications.
III. Now More Than Ever, a Democracy Movement
Over the past decade, we have seen the intensification of strong grassroots action for democracy. To have any real hope that the president, Congress, state legislatures, the Democratic Party, and others will move these agenda items, there must be outside pressure, with real people, real numbers, and strong organizational coordination. Based on a number of developments, there is real hope that this can happen.
New social movements, organizations committed to fighting for racial equity, and organizations in the movement for immigrant inclusion have strongly connected to democracy and voting issues. For instance, the recent “Vision for Black Lives” platform adopted by Black Lives Matter and associated organizations strongly supported not only voting rights but also publicly financed elections. Organizations and movements that have not always given priority to democratic reforms, including the labor and environmental movements, have realized that democracy must be restored and enlivened if their issues are to have a real chance to win. Grassroots community and citizen organizations like People’s Action, PICO National Network, the Center for Popular Democracy, and the Gamaliel Foundation network have added these issues to their agendas more than ever before.
In addition, coordination among established organizations, and newer ones, in the money-in-politics field, the redistricting field, and in the voting-rights field has strengthened significantly over the last several years. This year’s combined effort under the banner of “Fighting Big Money,” led by Every Voice, Common Cause, Public Citizen, and others, has been a successful example, as were Democracy Spring and the Democracy Awakening. Civil-rights and voting-rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Advancement Project, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, have worked well in a coordinated way to stand up to the onrush of voter suppression. And the Democracy Initiative, with 60 organizations from all of these issue areas, is an entity solely committed to advancing this collaboration.
And, of course, the Sanders campaign mobilized tens of thousands of activists and influenced millions of people on the connected issues of economic and political inequality, and highlighted the assaults on our democracy in a way that energized the fight for reform. The campaign’s offshoot, Our Revolution, will certainly be in this fight as well.
The key will be in building a coordinated campaign for democracy that has the breadth of issue makeup, the diversity of organizations, and the ability to coordinate and move effectively together on behalf of the Democracy Agenda. Racial justice, economic equity, and real democracy are inextricably intertwined, and the movements to achieve them will need to consistently make those links clear, and work together to move the president and Congress on all three in reciprocal ways. The movement will need a federal focus and a state focus, and will need to recognize that focusing on policy wins in the short term is essential, while continuously bearing in mind that these issues need to be made front and center for candidates running in the 2018 election as well. Candidates for office need to win or lose based on their commitment to these issues, and electing champions for democracy will be a critical component of the work ahead. All the while, the movement will need to be looking further ahead to the incredibly consequential election of 2020.
This election has the potential to open up an extraordinary moment in the life of our democracy, including in the way we practice democracy itself. Or it can be another missed opportunity, superseded by other issues and undone by a failure to creatively assemble the elements necessary to win and coordinate them in the most effective and inclusive ways. The elements for success are present in extremely propitious ways, but it will take determined leadership by the president, congressional leaders, state legislatures, and a real grassroots movement to seize this new Democracy Moment. If it can be done, the benefits of fighting and winning on these issues now will reverberate for a long time to come.