Engaging Both the Left and Right in Democracy Reform
No one person or organization can solve all the problems in our democracy. That’s why groups working on campaign finance and money in politics issues have prioritized building a broader movement to tackle threats to American democracy.
One of the best examples of movement building is the Democracy Initiative (DI). Launched in 2013 by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the NAACP, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club, the goal of the Democracy Initiative is to bring various constituency groups together around the issues of money in politics, voting rights, and Senate rules reform. Since then, Common Cause and the AFL-CIO have joined the organization as convening members. The list of more than 50 endorsing organizations includes MoveOn, the League of Conservation Voters, People For the American Way, SEIU, U.S. PIRG, the National Council of La Raza, the National Education Association (NEA), and the National LGBTQ Task Force. The organizations involved in the DI represent millions of Americans, positioning the group to make a big impact on moving reform across the country.
Efforts have also been made to organize conservatives around the issue of campaign finance reform. In 2015, Virginia Tea Party leader John Pudner founded Take Back Our Republic to encourage individual participation in democracy and “end the system of escalating campaign contributions.”[i] Additionally, Issue One launched the “ReFormers Caucus,” a bipartisan group of former elected officials and political leaders dedicated to campaign finance reform. The ReFormers Caucus includes former Utah Governor and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Senator Alan Simpson, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, former Senator Tom Daschle, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Diverse State and Local Groups Join Together for Democracy
Structural racism and economic inequality prevent many Americans from fully participating in, and benefitting from, our democracy. But across the country, groups fighting for racial and economic equality are also leading fights for democracy reforms. These groups understand that building the political power of working people and communities of color also means building an inclusive democracy in which all people have an equal say in setting the political agenda and an equal chance of benefiting from policy outcomes.
In Seattle, organizations working primarily in communities of color played crucial leadership roles from the start of the winning campaign for a first-of-its-kind voucher-based public financing program. Washington Community Action Network, the state’s largest grassroots community organization, and OneAmerica, a state-based immigrant rights group, helped shape and win the campaign, alongside Win Win Action, Washington Bus, Fuse Washington, Sightline, WashPIRG, and other state and local organizations.
New coalition leadership helped win the innovative program—and ensure that the resulting program is as inclusive as possible. These groups mobilized community members through grassroots organizing and door-knocking in communities of color. They garnered support for the measure through a media strategy that included coverage in Asian, African American, and African newspapers, Latino news stations, and African American radio stations. Because of their leadership, all eligible voters in Seattle—not just those registered to vote—can make use of Democracy Vouchers to support candidates they believe will actually represent their interests in city elected positions.
It’s not just Seattle. Around the country, other groups that primarily work for racial and economic justice are pushing for reforms to democratize money in local politics. Many of these organizations have been resourced and brought to the money in politics leadership table through Demos’ Inclusive Democracy Project which has focused specifically on providing racial and economic justice groups with the technical support and platform to expand their work on democracy issues.
Reclaim Chicago, a member-driven group working toward justice and equality for all Chicagoans, is working with city council members to introduce public financing legislation for vote by the council in 2016. The legislation would create a fund to match small contributions to candidates at the local level, amplifying the influence of people who can only afford to make small contributions. Similarly, District of Columbia Working Families, a constituency-based organization that fights for a fair democracy and economy, is also working toward small-donor-matching legislation in Washington, D.C. in 2016.
Racial and economic justice groups are also helping to connect money in politics reforms with voting rights initiatives to forge a comprehensive pro-democracy agenda. The Working Families Alliance in New Jersey worked to improve and pass The Democracy Act, an affirmative voting rights bill that included automatic voter registration, rights restoration provisions, and expanded early-voting. Although the bill was later vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey Working Families Alliance is now leading an effort to get the bill placed as a ballot measure in 2016.
In Minnesota, Take Action Minnesota and Voices for Racial Justice have worked with Common Cause Minnesota to collaborate with the Secretary of State toward proactive reforms that empower citizens returning from incarceration by restoring their rights. This follows Take Action MN’s recent success in defeating a 2012 ballot initiative that would have created restrictive identification requirements for voting and rolled back the state’s same day registration program.[ii]
On the national level, the three-day “Democracy Awakening” in April 2016 (described above) is bringing together the voting rights and money in politics reform advocacy communities. Organizations leading the mobilization represent a diverse array of issues, including racial justice leaders like the NAACP. Together, organizations and activists will press for reform proposals focused both on restoring and expanding voting rights protections, and on curbing the influence of wealthy interests and corporations on elections.
Moving Democracy Reforms Beyond Money in Politics
Building a democracy in which everyone participates, every vote is counted, and everyone’s voice is heard requires tearing down all of the barriers to representation—from big money preventing regular people from winning elections to restrictive voting laws that silence voters on Election Day.
Restrictive voting laws suppress the voting rights of people of color, students, the elderly, and low-income Americans. At the same time, with big money increasingly shaping elections and the policymaking process, the voices of average Americans are drowned-out by wealthy special interests. Running for office has become so expensive that it is nearly impossible for an everyday person to get elected and represent their community.
In fact, because political mega-donors are older, whiter, and male than the country as a whole, both big money in politics and voter suppression policies have a similar impact: preserving the entrenched political power of white men and to prevent a younger, more diverse America from electing officials who reflect us.
These issues have come to the forefront in recent years as the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority has struck down protections for voting rights as well as limits on money in politics, in decisions like Shelby County and Citizens United.
Additionally, the states working to suppress the vote are often the same ones fighting to erode commonsense checks on the influence of money in politics. Wisconsin, for example, enacted one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, and also passed a law allowing unlimited secret money to legally flow into state elections. North Carolina drastically overhauled its voting rules and also killed public financing for judicial elections. Maine repealed same-day voter registration and weakened its first in the nation system of citizen-funded elections. (Fortunately, Maine voters restored same-day voter registration in 2011 and strengthened citizen-funded elections in 2015.)
In contrast, states like Maryland have worked to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated people and also implemented a groundbreaking disclosure law for corporate political spending. Maryland’s Montgomery County enacted a system of public funding of elections to amplify the voices of small donors. Montana strengthened its disclosure laws and rejected efforts to eliminate same-day voter registration. Similarly, California and Connecticut passed tough new disclosure laws and voter registration reform.
Other states are also moving voting and election reforms that modernize democracy. Oregon passed historic legislation that automatically registers voters through the Department of Motor Vehicles[iii], and California quickly followed suit by passing similar legislation.[iv] Also in 2015, Illinois[v] enacted reform to allow voters to register to vote on Election Day and Pennsylvania[vi] created a system to allow online voter registration. Colorado enacted a major election modernization package in 2013.[vii] Additionally, more states are making sure politicians are not picking their own voters and trying to stop gerrymandering. Nonpartisan redistricting reform efforts are underway in states across the country, and in the 2015 elections Ohio voters approved a bipartisan measure with 71 percent of the vote to ensure fairer districts and ban gerrymandering.[viii]
[i] Take Back Our Republic, takeback.org; accessed December 30, 2015
[ii] Stacked Deck at 71-6.
[iii] Brennan Center, “Oregon Approves Breakthrough Voter Registration Law,” March 5, 2015
[iv] Los Angeles Times, “Gov. Brown approves automatic voter registration for Californians,” October 10, 2015
[v] UPI, “Illinois House approves same-day voter registration,” December 3, 2014
[vi] WGAL, “Online voter registration comes to Pa.,” August 27, 2015
[vii] Colorado Common Cause, “Press Release: Governor Hickenlooper Signs Elections Bill,” May 10, 2013