An Open Letter to the Democracy Reform Community

Six years after Citizens United, our democracy is in real trouble. Moneyed special interests in Washington routinely block common sense legislation supported by the vast majority of the American people. Progress on issues like gun control, the minimum wage, prescription drugs, and climate change, has been halted or reversed by these powerful interests. Meanwhile, participation in our democratic system is declining. Voter turnout in the last congressional election plummeted to the lowest point since 1942. In this year’s presidential election, just 158 families provided nearly half of the early money supporting both parties’ presidential hopefuls.

Restoring our government’s ability to represent and get results for ordinary people will require an extraordinary effort. As President Obama has said, our country is exceptional because we never stop striving to “bring the promise and the practice of America into closer alignment.”

I enlisted in the Marines to serve a democracy, not an oligarchy. I fought to defend our founding principles — equality and opportunity for all. Now I am ready to fight for them as a Member of Congress.

I am writing this letter to open a dialogue with the community of experts and Americans concerned about the state of our democracy. Shortly after I launched my campaign for Congress, I released my first policy proposal: a comprehensive democracy reform plan rooted in the basic principle that all citizens should have an equal say in our government. The plan’s three priorities are: (1) Change the way we finance our elections so that the voices of ordinary people are not drowned out by the wealthy and the special interests; (2) Lower the barriers to voting to maximize citizen participation; and (3) End partisan gerrymandering to end the era of hyper-partisan gridlock. Only by enacting these, and similar, reforms can we hope to get our government working again.

First, our mission to strengthen democracy begins with fundamentally changing the way we finance elections. As my former constitutional law professor Larry Lessig says, democracy reform is not so much the most important issue, as it is the first issue. Addressing the problems of gun violence, income inequality, and all the other issues important to the American people requires that we fix our broken system. Professor Rick Hasen has persuasively argued that civic equality in America has been eroded by the proliferation of spending vehicles for the privileged few. These instruments of power and influence drown out the voices of the many, leaving our democracy less accountable to the people.

Last November, voters from Maine to Seattle approved the creation of democracy voucher programs, building on the work of Professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayers. My plan would raise the value of small dollar contributions to match larger donations. Congressional candidates who opt out of contributions above $1,000 would be eligible for a 6 to 1 match of all donations up to $175. This would immediately boost the importance of small donations, realigning the incentives of those running for political office and giving teachers, firefighters, and construction workers the kind of say in our elections currently reserved for the rich.

Second, we must strengthen the basic foundation of our democracy: the right to vote. In recent years, voting rights have come under assault from states passing restrictive laws and even the Supreme Court, which struck down a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. New research confirms that voter ID laws disenfranchise the most vulnerable: low-income voters, young voters, and voters of color. I believe that we must modernize Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act to protect citizens and their fundamental rights from states and localities with a history of discrimination and disenfranchisement. My democracy reform plan would reverse the setbacks of recent years and expand participation by supporting automatic voter registration and establishing Election Day as a national holiday.

Third, it’s time to strengthen the American peoples’ ability to throw out corrupt and unrepresentative politicians on election day. Professor Pamela Karlan captured the problem well: “It used to be that the idea was, once every two years voters elected their representatives, and now, instead, it’s every ten years the representatives choose their constituents.” While the rise of computer-generated redistricting maps has created more precise gerrymandering, it also presents an opportunity. Independent, non-partisan commissions can use computer-generated maps to draw competitive districts. By forcing politicians into districts that are not disproportionately filled with Democratic or Republican voters, we can incentivize moderation, compromise, and ease the partisanship that has gripped Washington. My plan calls for federal legislation requiring states to use such independent, non-partisan commissions.

The initiatives I’ve described represent a foundation upon which we can build a stronger and more participatory democracy. In Congress, I will work alongside like-minded public servants who share my faith in our democratic system and in our ability to reform it. Together we can form a core of leaders dedicated to removing barriers to voting, to empowering average Americans in our elections, and reforming our districting process. I also hope to draw upon the ideas and achievements of innovators and champions in the reform community. I look forward to hearing your proposals, perspectives, and critiques.

Americans are ready to restore our democracy. With your support, I will help lead the charge in Congress.


Sean Barney

P.S. Read my full democracy reform platform and sign our petition at