Cities Lead in Election Reform

With special interests and unlimited “dark money” from corporations and the rich ruling and roiling the federal government, states and cities are taking the lead in enacting the election and political reforms U.S. democracy needs, the president of Common Cause says.

And that’s vital to restore people’s trust in their governments, Karen Hobert Flynn adds.

California appears to be leading the way, from what Flynn and other speakers at a Sept. 27 Brookings Institution forum on money in politics and other corrosion of democracy.

“The encouraging thing is that there are strong and active movements” for reform “in the states, and they now are heading for the federal level,” added another panelist, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

Restoring faith in democracy, and limiting the influence of special interests, are vital, the panelists said. Otherwise, “it’s a recipe for disaster,” warned Rep. David Price, D-N.C.

But even with the initiatives from the nation’s largest state, plus Oregon, Rhode Island, New York City and elsewhere, democracy remains under siege and citizens and workers increasingly feel powerless and cynical about politics, the panel said.

That’s because Congress, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court’s 2011 Citizens United decision, is hostile to election reform. Everything from politically neutral redistricting to identifying who bought campaign ads to enrolling more voters rather than passing so-called “voter ID” laws is virtually guaranteed to be ignored on Capitol Hill.

That isn’t stopping Flynn, Udall, longtime reformer Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 and Price, a former political science professor at Duke University, from trying.

Flynn and the others reeled off a list of initiatives from the Golden State, home to one of every eight U.S. residents. They include same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration by matching voter rolls with social service department and motor vehicles records, voting by mail, and defeat of the voter ID laws.

And one of the most important put redistricting, where state legislative and congressional districts are redrawn every decade, in the hands of a nonpartisan commission. Though the panelists did not say so, Californians have seen the impact in a raft of pro-worker legislation approved by the progressive state legislative majority they voted in.

Oregon and Colorado have automatic vote-by-mail, Flynn said, while Arizona also has a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Several cities, notably New York, established methods for political candidates to finance campaigns through small contributions with matching funds.

“Udall and I have legislation” in the hopper mandating “non-partisan redistricting reform” nationwide, “automatic voter registration and updated disclosure” of who sponsors campaign ads, Price said. “We have a sense of urgency and we have to act on that.”

But while all those developments are hopeful, they do not curb the tsunami of campaign cash flowing into politicians’ pockets or the “dark money” – millions of dollars in corporate and lobbyist contributions for shady ads with no open sponsorship, usually targeting progressives. And that’s an enormous problem, the panelists said.

“You have scandals, reforms, they work, people” – special interests – “press against them, and the reforms break down. It’s a cycle,” Wertheimer said. “But when you have 100 individuals giving $1 billion (combined) to SuperPACs,” as they did in the 2016 election cycle, “You’re in the scandal phase.”

Fixing the mess and restoring faith in democracy could take a while, the panel admitted. “But the American people have never accepted vote-buying,” Wertheimer added. “A New York Times poll in 2016 showed 85 percent want reform.”