A Midterm Lay of the Land: Democracy

Our democracy as it currently exists is far from perfect, but in 2018, states and cities across the country pushed forward with a number of policies intended to make our government more representative, our elections more democratic, and our right to vote easier to exercise.

The 2018 election is now behind us, with a new Congress, new governors and new state legislators about to grapple with America’s biggest challenges.

Every two years, Frontier Group analysts take a step back to review the “lay of the land” on their issue areas. This is the ninth in a series of posts over the past several weeks reviewing the problems and opportunities facing the American people, our communities, and our environment.

This fall, I took time off from my post at Frontier Group to work on the midterm elections. It was my first time knee-deep in democracy as it exists in the real world – the laws, the paperwork, the fine print. No, past-election-day postmarks don’t count on mail-in ballots in Colorado. You must register 29 days before the election in Florida in order to vote. If you’ve moved recently and accidentally show up at your old precinct’s polling location in Pennsylvania, you’re allowed to vote at that old location for exactly one election, and that’s it.

Elections are maybe the most basic way we interact with our government. Voting, watching debates, getting involved on a campaign for a candidate you believe in – electoral politics enable us to participate directly in the decision-making for our community. It’s an awesome power and responsibility.

But our democracy as it currently exists is far from perfect. From barriers to voting to the influence of corporate donations to campaigns, there are a number of ways our elections fall short of the democratic ideal.

In 2018, states and cities across the country pushed forward with a number of policies intended to make our government more representative, our elections more democratic, and our right to vote easier to exercise.

One example is automatic voter registration. Also known as AVR, this policy means that when you interact with a state agency like the DMV, you are automatically either registered to vote or your registration address updated for you, with an opt-out option for those who choose it.

First and foremost, AVR boosts registration rates; in the first six months of the policy’s implementation in Vermont, new voter registrants jumped over 60 percent. For states like Florida where you must register a month in advance of an election, AVR can help ensure more new voters who are unfamiliar with registration rules will be able to participate come election day. But AVR can also make a huge difference in keeping voters eligible once they are registered. In light of the recent rise in voter roll purges, in which voters’ registrations can be made invalid for a number of reasons, including failing to confirm a registration address before every election as in Ohio, instituting AVR can help keep more voters eligible with far less hassle.  

In 2018, four new states passed AVR legislation – Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington state – while the citizens of two more states, Michigan and Nevada, voted to implement AVR through ballot initiatives this November. In total, 15 states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR and are expected to implement it within the coming election cycles.

2018 saw improvements not only in voter experience, but in campaign finance as well. The dominating influence of large political donors shapes elections from beginning to end – from an individual’s decision to run for office, to a candidate’s ability to get his or her message out to the public, to the makeup of the people with whom a candidate spends time while running for and serving in office. In the age of Citizens United and other court rulings that have limited the ability to curb special interest power in elections, small donor empowerment has emerged as an alternative approach to balance the scales of campaign finance, giving small donors a voice to help guarantee government truly represents the people.

Small donor empowerment bills gained momentum in 2018 at the local level. The District of Columbia passed the Fair Elections Act which provides candidates with public financing once they have raised a certain amount of money from small donors to ensure they are viable candidates, ultimately helping make local candidates less dependent on big-money donors. Voters in two cities, Denver and Baltimore, both also passed small donor matching programs through ballot initiatives this November. The same ballot initiative in Denver also prevents corporations from making direct contributions to candidate campaigns for city office, an important step in ensuring citizens are the most powerful decision-makers in elections.

Like large campaign donors, gerrymandering is another way power is redistributed and democratic accountability weakened. Gerrymandering, the redrawing of political districts to advantage one party over another in elections, happens in large part because district lines are drawn by the state legislatures and governor who are in power at the time of redistricting, a process that only happens once every 10 years. The process is hyper-partisan and the effects long-lasting.

Heading into the imminent 2020 redistricting, citizens in states across the country have been pushing to end gerrymandering. In 2018, five states had ballot initiatives that would take the power of drawing political boundaries out of the hands of legislators, instead requiring the creation of nonpartisan commissions to handle the redrawing of district lines. Voters in all five states – Michigan, Utah, Colorado, Ohio and Missouri – said yes.

2019 promises as many exciting advances in democracy. A new federal bill, HR 1, is expected to be one of the first pieces of legislation introduced by the new U.S. House. The bill includes a number of democracy-strengthening policies, including a small donor matching program for Congressional races, stricter rules around campaign finance disclosure, expanded automatic voter registration programs, ending partisan gerrymandering, and a nationwide requirement for same day voter registration.

While the federal bill has a slim chance of passing this year, the elevation of these key policies in national discourse will hopefully spur even more cities and states to take these crucial steps themselves. It’s time for our laboratories of democracy to live up to their name, and bring our elections and our government closer to the people.



Photo Credit: Element5 Digital on Unsplash, CC0

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