Democracy reform subtly defines the presidential primary
In stark contrast to 2016, the 2020 Democratic primary is shaping up as a battle of bold ideas. Climate change, for example, is at long last central to the political discussion – even if debate moderators failed to devote much time to the subject. Indeed, candidates are rushing to articulate their visionary plans (some stronger than others) to prevent the worst of oncoming environmental catastrophe.
Less noticed, but potentially even more significant, is the race to develop the boldest democracy reform platform. Though it largely did not come up during the debates, many Democrats are now noticeably campaigning as democracy reformers, promising to tackle issues ranging from voting rights to campaign finance to basic representation. Given that political corruption has been a top issue for voters, this makes sense.
At least eleven candidates have endorsed public financing of elections, arguably the most effective way to reduce the outsized influence of wealthy donors in our political system. The policy augments the political power of ordinary Americans and makes it easier for those without big money networks to run for office.
To be sure, candidates disagree on what such a system would look like. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet, former Sen. Mike Gravel, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Eric Swalwell and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke support matching funds. Author Marianne Williamson favors a constitutional amendment to guarantee public financing, but the details of her plan are unclear. And entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand have advocated for democracy vouchers based on Seattle’s program, in which every potential voter receives money to donate directly to eligible candidates.
Gillibrand, to her credit, took time during the debate to highlight her public financing plan, which, she claimed, “the experts agree is the most transformative plan to actually take on political corruption [and] to get money out of politics.”
Despite the policy differences, it can now be said that the Democratic political class is finally aligning with the supermajority of Americans who want to fundamentally change the way elections are funded. That is a major development.
On voting rights, almost every candidate has publicly supported automatic voter registration (AVR) — one of the most significant advances in voter access in recent years. Under an AVR system, citizens are automatically registered (unless they choose to opt out) when they interact with an eligible government agency, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.
A group of candidates, including Klobuchar and O’Rourke, has also made same-day registration a core part of their democracy plans. Allowing voters to register or update their registration on Election Day is one of the most effective ways to increase voter turnout.
Democrats are taking a stand against voter suppression, too. At the request of New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, sixteen candidates signed a petition calling on the New Hampshire state legislature to repeal a 2018 student poll tax law. And a handful of candidates have demanded the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, something critically needed after the Supreme Court gutted the landmark civil rights bill in 2013, leading to draconian anti-voter measures and an upsurge in voter purges.
Felony disenfranchisement – a policy with roots in Jim Crow – is also finally getting its day in the public light, notably on the heels of successful reform efforts in Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Louisiana. Bernie Sanders has become the most outspoken candidate on the issue, calling for the full end to felon disenfranchisement during a CNN town hall. Other Democrats have been unwilling to match Sanders’ position but generally have agreed that the right to vote should be restored after incarceration.
Reforms of the structural inequities in our representative system have been on the table, as well. Almost all candidates support statehood for Washington, D.C. Warren sparked a national conversation about the Electoral College by advocating for its abolition. And the once obscure method of ranked choice voting is now a legitimate topic for presidential contenders.
The focus on democracy does not come out of the blue. It took years of organizing across the country to elevate the issue and prove that these policies work once implemented.
To be clear: Not every democracy reform plan thus far introduced is strong, let alone sufficient. Moreover, only a few candidates – Buttigieg, Yang, Gillibrand, O’Rourke, and Williamson – have made an explicit commitment to tackle democracy reform as their top priority if elected. (Though, of those who were asked on Thursday about their top priority, only Buttigieg stood by this pledge; Gillibrand did, nevertheless, reiterate her commitment to fixing democracy first earlier in the night).
Even so, by endorsing meaningful reforms, the potential nominees have made a statement that our broken democracy can no longer be ignored.
Given this development, it’s shameful that the debate moderators did not ask candidates on the debate stage to explain and justify their plans to fix our democracy.
Moving forward, Democrats must continue to refine and promote their reform proposals. After all, Donald Trump, capitalizing on widespread feelings of political disempowerment, campaigned and won on “draining the swamp.” His promise, of course, turned out to be vapid and unfulfilled. If Democratic candidates can articulate their vision to finish what Trump promised yet never started, the road to the White House could very well be in sight.
Adam Eichen is an author and campaigns manager at EqualCitizens.US.