One of the clearest takeaways from election night: Voters want democracy reform. Across the country, citizens voted on a record number of ballot initiatives on issues like redistricting, voting, money in politics, and ethics. More than we have seen in decades, candidates themselves put reform at the center of their campaigns. In the end, voters handed a decisive win to democracy itself. Now that the election is over, Congress must get to work to pass the sweeping changes its members promised and that the American people voted for.
Support for democracy reform – making our system of government more representative and responsive – was overwhelming and bipartisan. Redistricting reform won in four states, increased voting access in four, and measures to strengthen ethics and money in politics regulations in six states and more than a dozen localities, all by large margins. Florida, for example, featured some of the closest statewide races in the nation, but a historic measure to restore voting rights to citizens with past criminal convictions won more than 60 percent of the vote. And in Michigan, where voters were firmly split on candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, 60 percent voted for redistricting reform, and 65 percent for voting reform.
To a remarkable degree, calls for reform animated the Democrats’ successful push to retake the House of Representatives. The Democrats’ promise to make government more “responsive, representative, effective, and transparent” was the centerpiece of their election agenda.
More than 100 House candidates ran on change platforms. Of the 30 Democratic challengers who flipped seats, 25 ran on reforming the system. Most signed a letter calling on Congress to enact “bold” and “sweeping” reforms to address voting rights, money in politics, redistricting, election infrastructure, and government ethics as its first agenda item. Some Republicans campaigned on these issues too, including members of the congressional reformers caucus, who have advocated “bipartisan solutions to make our government more accountable to its citizens.”
Before Tuesday, Democratic leadership in the House promised to take up a comprehensive democracy reform package “in the very first days” of the new Congress. As the midterm results make clear, voters will demand that they make good on their promise.
What should be in it?
One key change would be automatic voter registration. This streamlining of voter registration won big in Michigan and Nevada, as it did in Alaska in 2016 (among voters who also supported Trump).
According to Election Protection, a nonpartisan national voter assistance hotline, voter registration issues were the second most common problems reported by voters, as they were last election. Automatic registration would fix most of that. Eight states and D.C. ran elections with automatic registration in place this year, and it led to big gains in voter registration, increasing registration rates by as much as 34 percent in Vermont and 92 percent in Rhode Island.
Nationwide early voting is now a must. The historic rise in voter turnout this year was facilitated by record-breaking surges in early voting across the country. Most states now offer some form of early voting, and it works, offering greater voter convenience and reducing the stress of Election Day. A number of states that do not offer early voting, like New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, or had cutbacks in early voting, like North Carolina, experienced major problems at the polls like long lines and delays that could’ve been cut by early voting.
Some of the election’s long lines were a consequence of outdated voting machines. Congress must also upgrade and secure our aging voting infrastructure. Voting machine breakdowns caused unconscionably long lines in Georgia, Maryland, and elsewhere. That is not surprising, with 41 states using machines that are so old they are no longer manufactured. And with Russia and other foreign adversaries stepping up efforts to meddle in our elections, there is no time to spare.
After an election marred by some of the most brazen, intense, and widespread voter suppression in the modern era, legislation must include restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court disabled in Shelby County v. Holder. The whack-a-mole of lawsuits under the Act’s remaining provisions is simply not a sufficient way to prevent racially-targeted manipulation of the voting rules. And now Floridians have voted to restore voting rights to 1.4 million fellow citizens with past criminal convictions, joining the 20 states that have taken action in recent years to allow more returning citizens to vote, there should be a national rule restoring voting rights to citizens released from incarceration.
Campaign finance reforms to address the legacy of Citizens United must also be high on the next Congress’ agenda. The success of such measures on Tuesday adds to reams of existing data on the public’s desire for stronger safeguards.
It’s no surprise. Super PACs and dark money groups spent almost $1 billion on federal races in this cycle, mostly raised from a tiny class of mega-donors. The best way to address this challenge is to lift up other voices through small-donor public financing – where public funds supplement and amplify private giving.
Stronger disclosure rules so that the public can at least know who is trying to influence them (and so that the government can detect illegal campaign spending by foreign governments and nationals) are also essential.
Gerrymandering reform is also critical. Voters of all political stripes overwhelmingly cast their ballots to change the way we draw legislative districts in four states (Michigan, Colorado, Utah, and Missouri). The election made clear not only that reform is wildly popular but also that it is badly needed. The results made clear that the system is too easy to rig. Democratic House candidates won a landslide victory, but only a fraction of the seats won in past wave elections. In states that were still extremely gerrymandered, almost no seats changed partisan hands. By contrast, in states where courts or independent commissions drew the lines, there were far more competitive races.
Ethics rules also need an overhaul. That includes shoring up protections for the Executive Branch (including to address presidential conflicts of interest), but Congress must also do more to hold itself to the same standards it sets for the rest of the federal government.
In short, voters demanded a stronger democracy on Tuesday. Now it is up to Congress to deliver.
Wendy Weiser is director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Daniel Weiner is senior counsel in the same program. Follow them on Twitter @WendyRWeiser and @DanWeiner329 respectively.