Southern States Take Up Fight For Bold Democracy Reforms

Activists with New Virginia Majority are among those working in states across the South for wide-reaching pro-democracy reforms. (Photo courtesy of New Virginia Majority.)

Southern States Take Up Fight For Bold Democracy Reforms

Pro-democracy advocates are tapping a deep well of frustration with the status quo, and creating a blueprint for a more vibrant democracy.

On Jan. 3 of this year, the first day of the 116th U.S. Congress, the new Democratic majority in the House introduced as its first bill a sweeping reform of the country's elections. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a bold package of measures aimed at improving voting access, tackling Big Money's corrupting influence in politics, and bolstering ethics rules. The Washington Post called it "perhaps the most comprehensive political-reform proposal ever considered by our elected representatives."

The wide-ranging bill, expertly led to passage in the House by lead sponsor Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Maryland) and endorsed by a broad coalition including the Communications Workers of America, NAACP, and Sierra Club, was inspired by a key insight: that in the current political moment, marked by deep voter cynicism about corruption and rigged elections, piecemeal reforms aren't enough. What is needed, Sarbanes and other Democrats reasoned, is a far-reaching plan that outlines how all aspects of democracy can work better, and only a bill that tackles voting rights, Big Money, and ethics reform together could offer that larger vision.

"What we're trying to accomplish is responding to the appetite we've seen out in the electorate and among the public for real change in Washington," Sarbanes said after H.R. 1 passed the House in March. "People really want us to clean up politics. They want to fight corruption. They want to unrig this system."

While many pieces of H.R. 1 enjoy bipartisan support, the bill was quickly blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate. When Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was asked why he wouldn't bring the bill to the Senate floor, he responded, "Because I get to decide what we vote on."

With reform stifled in Washington, the task of expanding voting access and curbing Big Money influence has shifted to the states. Especially in the South, states have been critical terrain for struggles over voting and elections since the early 2000s, when conservative lawmakers began pushing a raft of voting restrictions such as stringent photo ID requirements. Those clashes have only escalated in recent years in legislatures and the courts, with pitched battles over voter registration and list purges, gerrymandering, and skyrocketing political spending in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

Taking inspiration from Congress and H.R. 1 -- and eyeing recent and potential future Democratic gains in state politics -- advocates are proposing far-reaching, pro-democracy agendas across the South. While these plans face an uphill battle in even friendly political environments, democracy reformers see these big-picture agendas as a chance to be proactive and go on offense after years of playing legal and political defense.

Virginia: 'A whole lot of opportunity'

Last month, Virginia Democrats seized majorities in the General Assembly's Senate and House chambers for the first time in two decades. Joining Gov. Ralph Northam, who was elected in 2017, Democrats now have trifecta control in state government.

Virginia New Majority, a multi-issue progressive group that knocked on 500,000 doors to mobilize voters in the 2019 elections, is working with state lawmakers and ally groups to put democracy reform at the top of the agenda of the incoming progressive majority.

"There's a whole lot of opportunity to have a different kind of conversation around a democracy agenda and voting rights," said Tram Nguyen, co-director of Virginia New Majority, in a recent call with democracy advocates. "We have been working on these issues for over a decade, and are very excited about the possibilities."

One piece of legislation for 2020 has already been pre-filed: H.B. 1 would remove Virginia's onerous rules that restrict which voters can cast absentee ballots, and permits any voter to vote absentee without an excuse during a 45-day early voting period.

Also under consideration are measures that would simplify the voter registration process. Advocates are calling for some version of automatic voter registration, which allows voters to be automatically registered when they interact with government agencies unless they choose to opt out. Under automatic registration, which has been adopted by 15 states over the last five years, registration information is electronically sent to election officials, saving paper and other administration costs. A recent report by the nonprofit Brennan Center found that, in states that adopted automatic registration, voter registration rates jumped anywhere from 9 to 94 percent.

Virginia voting advocates are also looking at same-day registration, which is currently used by 17 states nationally. One possibility is North Carolina's model, which allows voters to register and vote at the same time in one-stop centers during early voting, but not on Election Day.

A host of other measures are being considered to expand voting access and election systems, including reverting to Virginia's earlier laws governing voter IDs, extending polling hours to 8 p.m., improving rules around voting from home, and ensuring voter list maintenance is efficient and doesn't wrongfully purge eligible voters.

Put together, these reforms could bring tens of thousands of voters or more into the process. As House Delegate Marcia Price, a member of the Privileges and Elections Committee which will consider voting reforms in 2020, recently said: "Democrats are committed to opening access to the ballot and reforming democracy in a way that more people can participate, and repealing some of the unnecessary and purposeful obstacles that were created and targeted certain communities in Virginia to keep them from voting."

Big Money and redistricting reform

While there appears to be a high level of agreement among Virginia's democracy advocates and the new Democratic majority around measures to improve voting access and election administration, the future for campaign finance reform is less clear.

Virginia has among the most permissive campaign finance rules in the nation: It's one of just 11 states in the country with no limits on political spending. According to the National Institute on Money in Politics, $149 million was pumped into state-level races in Virginia in 2017. The biggest corporate contributor to Virginia elections is Dominion Energy, the electric utility that's been at the center of controversies including rate hikes and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In the 2018-2019 election cycle, Dominion poured more than $1.8 million into Virginia elections.

In 2017, Dominion's political spending generated a backlash, with more than 70 candidates taking a pledge to refuse donations from the energy giant; 13 ended up winning. Starting in 2018, billionaire investor Michael Bills attempted to fight fire with fire, making more than $2 million in contributions through his group Clean Virginia to candidates who pledged to resist Dominion's influence and fight for campaign finance reforms.

In 2019, 50 state office-seekers signed Clean Virginia's pledge against accepting energy company contributions, and 38 Virginia House and Senate candidates signed a broader pledge, spearheaded by the Washington, D.C.-based group End Citizens United/Fight for Reform, tying campaign finance reforms such as spending limits and greater transparency to calls for fair redistricting and protecting voting rights.

While a measure barring contributions from state-regulated entities could move in 2020, Democrats are showing less unity on the issue. One factor could be the divide between entrenched Democratic leaders and a new crop of reform-minded lawmakers: According to an analysis by the Virginia Mercury in July 2019, 40 percent of the campaign funds for multi-term Democrats seeking reelection in the Virginia General Assembly came from business donors; for first-term delegates -- several of whom signed anti-Dominion and pro-reform pledges in 2017 and 2019 -- business donations accounted for just 6 percent of their campaign coffers.

Old-guard Democratic beneficiaries of generous corporate contributions include Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the current Senate minority leader who's served in the General Assembly for 43 years. Saslaw has received more contributions from Dominion Energy than any lawmaker in the state; when he opposed a campaign finance reform measure in the Virginia Senate earlier this year, he chafed at the suggestion that is was due to the significant corporate contributions he's received, saying "I think it's quite insulting to think that somehow or other I'm controlled by that."

Also up in the air is the future of redistricting reform. Earlier this year, Democrats joined the Republican majority in passing a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish an independent, 16-member commission to draw legislative and congressional maps. Under Virginia law, the measure has to be passed a second time by the General Assembly -- now under Democratic control -- to be put on the ballot for voters to decide in November 2020. Democrats are now torn, however, with some lawmakers reportedly souring on the compromise measure, which has been criticized for lacking criteria for what fair districts should look like. Others are pledging to back the originally-passed plan.

'The time to go big is now'

In neighboring West Virginia, the state legislature remains under Republican control. But that's not stopping West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections (WVCCE) in their push for a broad "Pro-Democracy, Anti-Corruption Platform" unveiled this fall.

"Too many West Virginians feel like the political system is broken," says a rousing video put out by the group. "We feel like we aren't being heard in the halls of power ... We don't want the best democracy money can buy, we want clean and fair elections. We want fairness and transparency in government. We need a healthy democracy."

Invoking West Virginia's bold teacher strikes that sparked a nationwide movement, as well as the organization's success in winning bipartisan support for reforms like public financing for judicial elections, WVCCE is advocating an H.R.1-like omnibus package of 20 reforms in three main areas:

  • "Everyone Deserves to Know": Includes a ban on "secret money" and requires timely disclosure of election spending, requires the Secretary of State to publish an online voter's guide about candidates and their top contributors, and puts an end to secret lobbyist meetings.
  • "Everyone Held Accountable": Bans fundraising during legislative sessions, prevents the "revolving door" between elected officials and lobbying, and bans coordination between candidates and outside groups.
  • "Everyone Can Participate": A set of 10 measures that expands voting access and makes elections more fair and inclusive, including small-donor campaign financing, repealing West Virginia's photo ID requirement, implementing automatic voter registration and same-day registration. Also calls for an independent redistricting commission.

A similar big-picture approach is being pursued by democracy advocates in North Carolina.

In the 2000s, North Carolina emerged as a national leader in pro-democracy reform, with a network of advocacy groups succeeding in passing measures that included a generous early voting period, same-day registration during early voting, and public financing for judicial races and other offices. In 2013, Republican leaders passed H.B. 589 -- dubbed the "monster" voting law -- that ended most of these laws. While several were successfully revived after extensive litigation by voting rights groups, others, like small-donor public financing, never returned. In 2018, a constitutional amendment requiring voter ID passed as a ballot initiative.

Openly inspired by H.R. 1, the North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections coalition* is spearheading an effort to develop a pro-democracy agenda that restores the state's previous reform gains, and expands on them to include new measures such as fair redistricting. In a memo outlining potential elements of an agenda for North Carolina, the coalition makes the case for a go-big, multi-issue approach similar to that taken by congressional leaders:

[W]e are at a tipping point. A tipping point that U.S. House Democrats heard loud and clear when they made their first resolution, H.R.1, For the People Act, a package of democracy reforms. No more one-step approaches, the time to go big is now. We the people are relentless in our pursuit of an open and fair democracy and we should work to produce a state-based agenda, as well as file and advocate for landmark state democracy legislation to make North Carolina truly of, by, and for the people.

The North Carolina blueprint explores an even broader set of potential reforms, including protecting voting rights, modernizing election systems, securing elections against foreign interference, reducing the influence of big money in politics, small-donor public financing of elections, redistricting reform, ethics and good government measures, and promoting fair and impartial courts.

Other Southern states have adopted or are exploring pieces of the broader democracy agenda. Florida and Louisiana recently passed measures that expand voting rights for citizens with former felony convictions, and incoming Kentucky governor Andy Beshear is reportedly considering an executive order that would reenfranchise 100,000 voters. Georgia has adopted automatic voter registration. Texas has strengthened campaign finance disclosure rules.

Whether it's seizing immediate opportunities or creating a long-term framework for reforms that can be won over the course of years -- or when the political climate is more amenable to change -- pro-democracy advocates are tapping a deep well of frustration with the status quo, and creating a blueprint for a more vibrant democracy. The moment is certainly ripe. As Lee Drutman of the New America Foundation recently wrote about prospects for political reform:

"[M]ore Americans are open to structural changes now than have been in a long time -- probably in at least 100 years, since the Progressive Era ... History suggests that we're at an inflection point on the cusp of a new era of reform ... And as with each era of reform, we'll get some things right and some things wrong. We'll over-correct for some past mistakes, and make some new ones in the process. But democracy isn't something to perfect or solve. It's an ongoing struggle in the still-improbable task of self-governance at a scale and complexity never before known.

* Disclosure: The author is married to the coalition's executive director.

© 2023 Institute for Southern Studies