Reform our Democracy

Suraj Patel
Apr 5, 2018 · 5 min read
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(Photo by Jorge Alcala on Unsplash)

American confidence in our democracy is at historic lows. 49% of Americans don’t trust the government to do what’s right for the country, and only 46% of Americans are satisfied with the way democracy is working in the United States.

It’s no wonder, since America has become a deeply flawed democracy. We rank 39th in the world on civil liberties, 36th in the world on free and fair elections, 33rd in the world on functional government, and only 21st in the world on political participation.

People inherently feel their political power and efficacy is declining year after year because it is. And each day that we do nothing while our democratic norms and institutions are are under assault is a day we are complicit in the problem.

That’s why I’m calling for a constitutional amendment to restore our representative democracy by ending the control of money over politics, ending partisan gerrymandering, and ending voter suppression.

The relentless assault on our democracy has left us with representatives who are not actually representative of the aspirations of the American people. The distorting rules of our democracy — gerrymandering, voter suppression, and corporate money — have led to representation that is significantly more conservative than the American people. Inaction on every major issue whether it’s women’s rights, gun control, climate change, inequality or criminal justice reform is the direct result of this broken system.

Politics is the only game where the players are also the referees — they set the rules for who gets to vote, where, and when, and — thanks to Citizens United — who also gets to pay for access. Since elections are the only performance review for our elected leaders, there’s little incentive for incumbents to make those reviews more difficult.

The voice of the average American citizen is stifled on all sides: the need to finance elections has put politicians in the pockets in private interests and the ultra-wealthy. Gerrymandering distorts the will of the people. Restrictive voting policies keep too many Americans from being able to vote. And career politicians only listen to a small but vocal group of primary voters, instead of listening to all those they are supposed to represent.

My plan to fix our broken democracy focuses on three key pillars: campaign finance, electoral reform, and voting access.

Campaign Finance

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C. has completely changed the landscape of American elections. It further established the legal basis for the myth that “corporations are people” and opened the door for billionaires and special interests to spend unlimited, untraceable money in America’s elections.

Now, billionaires like the Koch Brothers and corporations are trying to tip the balance of political power in their favor. Politicians of all stripes are beholden to their donors, not the American public. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thankfully, there are clear solutions.

We need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, a disastrous Supreme Court ruling that 78% of Americans oppose, and we need leaders with the courage to call for it. As long as special interest groups and the ultra wealthy continue to bankroll campaigns, they’ll be the only ones getting what they want.

We can also get big money out of politics today by publicly financing federal elections. We can amplify the voices of small donors by with an opt-in federal public financing system that matches small-dollar donations, gives small-dollar donors a partial tax credit, caps all contributions at $1000, and eliminates PAC funding as well as self-funding.

Electoral Reform

More seats are affected by partisan gerrymandering now than at any point in the last five cycles of redistricting — in fact, in 2012, more people cast ballots for House Democratic candidates than Republican ones yet Republicans maintained a majority in the House of Representatives thanks to partisan gerrymandering. Gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their voters instead of the other way around. It distorts the impact of actual voters, locks in partisans, unfairly protects incumbents, and prevents real political progress when voters demand it.

Breaking the stranglehold of partisan redistricting on our politics will break the stranglehold of long-term incumbents, special interest groups, and wealthy donors who distort and manipulate our democracy. Ending more bipartisan (incumbency protection) gerrymandering will make our government more responsive to the will of the electorate.

We can start with constitutionally mandated independent nonpartisan redistricting. This would entail nonpartisan professional redistricting committees operating under requirements that districts be contiguous and compact, that communities with common political, social, and economic interests be considered in drawing district lines, and that lines be drawn to account for political boundaries between cities, towns, and counties.

We can also implement alternative voting solutions to limit the importance of individual districts by instituting “jungle primaries” and proportional voting. With options like these, voters will be free to make their choices without fear of “spoilers,” no district will be “red” or “blue,” and every district will fairly reflect its full spectrum of voters.

Access to voting

Voting rights are under attack nationwide as states pass voter suppression laws. These laws lead to significant burdens for eligible voters trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right. Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans — particularly people of color, immigrants, seniors, students, and people with disabilities — to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot.

Before the 2016 election, the Brooklyn office of the NYC Board of Elections purged its voter rolls of nearly 200,000 voters simply because they had not voted since 2008, ignoring normal protocol. Many voters showed up at the polls for the primary election and were told they were ineligible to vote, despite being listed as a registered voter on the state’s website.

We need to remove the unfair barriers to participation that Americans face. Every other industry has spent billions of dollars to create secure, convenient, innovative consumer technologies, from Apple Pay to online banking to mobile-based insurance and mortgages. But access to voting has moved in the opposite direction, becoming increasingly difficult for a growing number of people.

We can fix our hopelessly outdated voting system with constitutionally mandated voter access reforms like automatic and same-day voter registration, pre-registration for 17-year-olds, rolling back felon disenfranchisement, and voter protections that remove barriers to voting based on language, physical disability, or extra-legal requirements of personal identification.

We can also make it easier to vote by adopting mail-in and digital voting. In a mail-in process, registered voters would receive a ballot by mail and could send it in over a voting period, or in person on Election day. Allowing voting by mail increases voter convenience and satisfaction, saves millions of dollars, and increases turnout. Absentee ballots can be submitted electronically — via fax, email or web portal, and explore pioneering blockchain technology that could to to secure, convenient, and universal digital voting.

These reforms are not theoretical or experimental, they exists in various forms across many states and have been proven to increase competition and turnout. The only thing that stands in the way is a lack of political will to enshrine the best democratic practices in our Constitution. We need new leaders squarely on the side of fixing our democracy. Reforming our political process will have an enormous impact on policy outcomes, and ensure that our government is actually representative of the American people.

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