Even in a presidential campaign where both candidates are speaking out against the influence of big money in politics, it's easy to be cynical about the prospects for reform. The failure of Congress to take even baby steps in the right direction is enough to dishearten even the most idealistic among us.
But there is hope for our political system coming from the grass roots. Citizens across the country may well turn the 2016 election into a watershed moment for democracy. Using ballot initiatives to skirt dysfunctional national and state legislatures, these reforms would enhance the voices of ordinary Americans and send a loud message to national politicians to stand up with citizens for democracy.
Here are some of the places where voters will have a chance to make their feelings known next week. Know about more? Email us here.
Last year, Washington got a D- on lobbying disclosure, C- on political financing, and C- on electoral oversight from the Center for Public Integrity. Voters decided to take action.
More than 328,000 Washingtonians helped get Initiative 1464 on the ballot to restore public trust in government by increasing transparency in political advertising, cracking down on illegal coordination between super PACs and campaigns, ending pay-to-play among lobbyists and contractors, empowering voters with an innovative small-donor campaign finance system, and strengthening ethics enforcement.
This conservative state, which has voted Republican in 18 out of the last 19 presidential elections, might move into the vanguard of the democracy movement this November. The South Dakota Anti-Corruption Act, Measure 22 on the ballot, is a comprehensive effort to combat corruption in a state that, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, has the fourth-highest political convictions per capita in the nation.
The Center for Public Integrity gave the state an "F" for electoral integrity, placing it 47th among the states.
Measure 22 would block lobbyists from giving secret, unlimited gifts to politicians, which South Dakota, incredibly, does not prohibit. Like the Washington state initiative, it would enhance disclosure and transparency, stop the revolving door of legislators and lobbyists, enforce existing campaign finance laws by establishing an independent ethics commission, and empower small donors.
Also echoing the inclusive Washington state campaign, supporters of the pro-Measure22 effort span partisan divides. One cochair, Darrell Solberg, is a former Democratic state representative; the other, Don Frankenfeld, is a former Republican state senator.
Maine has been a leader in clean elections since the late 1990s. Now, Mainers have the chance to lead again with a cutting-edge reform in the voting process itself, one with backing from both Democrats and Republicans: Ranked choice voting.
As the initiative's website describes it:
Ranked choice voting gives you the power to rank candidates from your favorite to your least favorite. On election night, all the ballots are counted for voters' first choices. If one candidate receives an outright majority, he or she wins. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated and voters who liked that candidate the best have their ballots instantly counted for their second choice. This process repeats and last-place candidates lose until one candidate reaches a majority and wins. Your vote goes to your second choice only if your first choice has been eliminated.
If passed, ranked choice would apply to races for US Senate, House, Governor and Maine Senate and Assembly beginning in 2018.
In the CPI analysis, Missouri earned an F on political financing and electoral oversight, and D- on overall electoral integrity.
So citizens are campaigning for a measure to reinstate limits on campaign contributions that the legislature lifted eight years ago.
Ballotpedia catalogues some of the measure's highlights: contribution limits of $2,600 to candidates and to $25,000 to political parties from any one individual per election cycle; direct contributions from corporations and labor unions would be illegal; candidates would also be barred from accepting funds from out-of-state committees unregistered in Missouri.
Gov. Jay Nixon, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, both Democrats, support the measure. So do Republican state Sen. Rob Schaaf, and Fred Sauer, the wealthy anti-abortion activist who underwrote the petition drive to get the measure on this fall's ballot.
Howard County, Maryland
This Maryland county is fired up for reform. Contributors who live outside the county spent more than $1 million on county elections in 2014. Less than 5 percent of all money raised came from small donations by its residents.
To combat this, reformers have placed public financing on the ballot. If the measure is adopted, candidates who opt in are bound to accept only small donations from individuals, not corporations. Those small donations would be matched by public funds. The idea is to give politicians an incentive to spend more time with constituents of average means rather than wealthy out-of-district donors. Maryland has a similar program in place for the contests for governor and lieutenant governor.
The NAACP, the Sierra Club and the Communication Workers of America are among groups endorsing the effort. So, too, does Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat whose district encompasses part of the county.
Represent.Us members in the city are fighting to rein in in the power of lobbyists with Proposition T.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, which endorsed the measure, the ballot initiative would put "some serious handcuffs on the pay-to-play world" by strictly limiting how much lobbyists can give city officials in campaign contributions and gifts.
Prop T also enjoys broad, bipartisan support, from the San Francisco Democratic and Republican Parties to Log Cabin Republicans, San Francisco League of Conservation Voters, and San Francisco Berniecrats.
Across the bay, democracy defenders in Berkeley are promoting Measure X1 to create a public financing system for the mayoral and city council races without raising taxes. Any candidate who pledges not to accept donations larger than $50 would get all donations from Berkeley residents matched at a 6-1 rate.
The ACLU, California Common Cause, the NAACP and former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich all endorse the campaign.
Around the country are other measures, as well: anti-corruption resolutions in the Illinois counties of Boone and McHenry; campaign finance reform in Multnomah County, Oregon; ethics reform in Rhode Island; redistricting reform and nonpartisan elections in South Dakota; and ranked choice voting in Benton County, Oregon.
In Washington and California, voters are asking their elected officials to press Congress to countermand the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which in 2010 further accelerated money's takeover of American politics.
Amid all the democracy downers from Washington, the groundswell of democracy reforms continues to grow. Maybe somebody on Capitol Hill will start listening.
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