Recently, the House of Representatives passed the most significant democracy reform bill in generations: The For The People Act (HR 1). This omnibus bill tackles virtually all aspects of our broken democracy—from the corrosive influence of money in politics to out-of-control gerrymandering to widespread voter suppression—with practical, proven-to-work solutions such as public financing of elections, automatic and same-day voter registration, and independent redistricting commissions, writes Adam Eichen, the author of Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want. He is also an Advisor to EqualCitizens.US.
True to form, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put a damper on the historic occasion by pledging to kill HR 1. His rationale was terrifying in a democracy: “Because I get to decide what we vote on,” he explained.
Advocates now face the task of pressuring McConnell to change his mind—an obviously herculean endeavor despite the senator’s early history as a campaign finance reform advocate. But such an effort is worthwhile no matter the outcome, especially if rank-and-file senators are forced to go on record about HR 1. As the New York Times notes, opposition to such a common-sense reform bill could very well have negative electoral consequences.
If major democracy reform is ever to become law in the near future, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates also have to join the fight.
This does not mean reciting platitudes about the rigged system. Our democracy is indeed broken, but the majority of Americans already know this depressing fact. Expounding on the problem without offering solutions will continue to drive Americans into democratic despair. Instead, those who have the bully pulpit—as presidential candidates increasingly do—should use their reach to educate Americans about democracy solutions. Doing so will shift the political landscape towards reform.
Luckily, fixing our democracy, as HR 1 proves, is not rocket science. There are policies—many of which have already worked on the state level—that could be implemented immediately to improve democratic representation. Public financing of elections, for example, has worked extremely well in Maine and Connecticut, and in cities such as New York City and Seattle. Same-day registration, too, has proven effective, greatly increasing voter turnout in states that have adopted it.
Spreading knowledge of solutions will break hopelessness and inspire action—something critically needed, for even if Democrats retake the Senate, HR 1 may remain a pipedream without overwhelming public pressure. The For The People Act is an overhaul of our electoral system, and politicians—even well-meaning ones—are often reticent to change the system from which they have benefited. It will thus take thousands more Americans to advocate for change before HR 1 is signed into law. Public education via presidential candidates is an effective way to build a new, active constituency for reform, and, as a useful side effect, pressure 2020 Senate candidates to support HR 1.
Importantly, presidential campaign educational efforts would also help state-level democracy reformers. Though largely invisible by most media accounts, thousands of Americans are working hard to implement aspects of HR 1 in statehouses across the country. These reformers have achieved major victories, but the biggest hindrance to expanding local and state movements, besides recalcitrant politicians, is little public awareness about the policies being discussed. If presidential candidates could popularize policies such as public financing of elections, benefits would trickle down to these critical fights. Emboldened statewide democracy movements would then intersect and bolster the national movement for reform in a positive feedback loop.
To be clear, candidates would gain from focusing on democracy, too. With democracy reform front and center, voters will have confidence in the sincerity of candidates’ promises, fostering more voter engagement and enthusiasm in the election and beyond. After all, a candidate’s commitment to democracy reform shows seriousness about enacting bold legislation. A climate change prevention plan, for instance, means little unless bolstered with a pledge to break the unfathomably outsized political influence of the polluter industry.
Pressure can and should be directed at Senator McConnell. Right now, he is undoubtedly the biggest single obstacle to comprehensive reform. But a well-rounded presidential platform that prioritizes democracy reform and its intersection with other issues will generate unprecedented momentum for democracy advocates and simultaneously appeal to voters in a crowded primary: a win-win for all.