Building a Fair Democracy, Against All Odds

Shutterstock (Niyazz)

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It’s hard to deny that our democracy is in crisis. Two years after the 2016 Presidential election, we’re still uncovering bits and pieces of the fraud, foreign interference, and fake news that brought us this administration—and its accompanying single-party rule.

The source of this crisis, though, lies in a compact series of events taking place from January 2009 through June 2013. After Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the GOP invested its resources where they mattered most: at the state level. Recognizing that state governments passed legislation affecting all elections, they recruited, ran, and financed candidates for state houses and senates across the country, sweeping the 2010 elections (it didn’t hurt that perhaps the single most decisive moment in recent political history, Citizens United v. FEC, allowed unfettered flows of capital to these races).

2011, of course, was a redistricting year—meaning that Republican-majority state governments could draw new districts, for both Congress and for their own districts (in a jaw-dropping instance of the fox guarding the henhouse). And after another Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, dealt a vicious blow to voting rights, state governments resumed Jim Crow-inspired crackdowns on voting in communities of color.

Full disclosure: I run Flippable, a Democratic PAC. Our purpose is to elect pro-democracy Democrats to office, with the aim of gaining majorities in key states where we can enact critical reforms. That being said, our work is focused as much on democracy—of the lower-case d variety—as on electing capital-D Democrats.

Our democracy may play out most theatrically in the halls of Congress, but it is built at the state level: district by district, representative by representative. As we watch the disintegration of democratic norms play out nationally, we must act locally.

Where we stand

Redistricting: According to a report by the Brennan Center, Democrats would need to win the national popular vote by 11% in order to win a majority in the House of Representatives this year.  Why? Because the majority of states leave Congressional line-drawing up to elected officials at the state level—resulting in a highly partisan process. In 34 states, state legislatures draw Congressional district maps. In 32 states, they draw state legislative (that’s right: their own) district maps.

The combination of Citizens United, a wave election, and Republicans’ targeted spending on state races in 2010 resulted in dozens of states flipping to Republican control the year before redistricting took place in 2011. To reverse the bias that was introduced into these maps, Democrats first need to overcome it—a tall order, even during a wave election.

Voting rights: 32 states require or request some form of photo ID at the ballot box—a policy that disproportionately affects young people and people of color. Four states still disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony for the rest of their lives, and as Patriotic Millionaire Bennet Yee points out, nine states withhold voting rights from felons until fines and restitutions are paid—a modern-day poll tax.

While grassroots groups fight against these laws, new ones are being passed. Since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, counties in states that used to require “pre-clearance”—federal oversight of any changes to voting rules—have reduced the number of polling places by up to 70%. And according to the Brennan Center, as of April 2018, 24 states had introduced or carried over 70 bills restricting voter access.

Campaign finance: As Patriotic Millionaires chair Morris Pearl points out, the arms race of campaign finance means that only those with independent wealth—or access to networks of wealth—can compete. And if candidates aren’t independently wealthy or beholden to a political elite, they may soon be beholden to corporate interests; twelve states allow unlimited PAC contributions directly to candidates for state office, and five allow unlimited corporate contributions to these candidates.

What we can do

Vote on critical ballot initiatives: From expanding Medicaid to overturning right-to-work laws, an increasing number of controversial state issues are being decided through popular democracy. Critically, several states have democracy-related initiatives on the ballot this year: from independent redistricting proposals in Michigan, Colorado, and Utah (and a successful initiative earlier this year in Ohio) to felon voting rights restoration in Florida to automatic voter registration in Nevada.

Support pro-democracy candidates at the state level: As mentioned above, my organization supports pro-democracy, state-level candidates running to flip their districts in the most critical state legislative chambers. We do so by crowdfunding political donations from thousands of grassroots donors, and directing these funds strategically—using both historical and dynamic data to assess the competitiveness of our districts and candidates.

Political donations, of course, aren’t new—but our model of direct candidate fundraising for state-level candidates is. There are over 7,000 state legislative districts in the United States, making it difficult for donors to research which races might be competitive—and difficult for candidates to reach a nationwide pool of donors. Previous models have raised ‘dark money’ into independent Super PACs, but our model helps candidates raise more funds (therefore lowering their barrier to entry) from a broad base of people to which they hold themselves accountable.

Hold state representatives accountable: The operative word here is ‘state’—because, given where the courts stand on redistricting, voting rights, and campaign finance, any meaningful reforms must come from the state level.

While our goal is to build progressive majorities in state chambers, there are numerous examples of successful bipartisan advocacy (something I certainly don’t need to lecture this audience on). We’ve seen the momentum of flipped seats drive urgency on both sides of the aisle—such as Virginia’s wave election of 2017 spurring the passage of Medicaid expansion, even under Republican control of both the House of Delegates and State Senate.

One of the core value propositions of our organization may have particular resonance among this audience: maximizing one’s political return on investment. As you determine your own investment strategy this fall, consider the small but mighty office of state legislator. Our democracy will thank you for it.

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