Contrary to GOP leaders, Conservative Voters Favor Democracy Reform

By Adam Eichen

It took a few weeks to finalize, but Utah narrowly passed Proposition 4, a ballot initiative to create a bipartisan advisory redistricting commission that will draft district lines for state and congressional races in Utah.

For most, the midterms are now passé; the narrative has been set: it was a historic election for the Democratic Party.

Yet, Utah’s recently-concluded race, comprising not of candidates, but of “yes” and “no” votes, will shape how we remember this election, for it placed a loud exclamation point on a message sent by voters to all aspiring 2020 presidential candidates: It’s time to fix our broken democracy.

This seven-member commission, selected by legislative leaders of both parties and the governor, will send their completed maps to the legislature, which can accept or reject them. All new maps, according to Proposition 4, will have to adhere to new, fairer criteria, most notably no map can “purposefully or unduly” advantage or disadvantage any political party or candidate.

If properly functioning, this new process will likely increase fairness in Utah’s elections, especially for Congress.

Proposition 4 is no panacea. As election expert Stephen Wolf explained, “The GOP-dominated legislature would still be empowered to pass its own map if it doesn’t like the commission’s, although it would still be constrained by criteria that includes a ban on intentionally favoring or disfavoring a party or candidate.” Moreover, he notes, “because Utah doesn’t let voters initiate constitutional amendments, this initiative is only a statute, meaning GOP legislators could simply repeal it unless the fear of public backlash deters them,” a reality that implicitly thwarts the commission’s independence.

Regardless of its shortcomings, Proposition 4’s very passage reveals democracy reform is popular, even in the most unexpected places. In fact, at least 21 pro-democracy ballot initiatives passed across the country on November 6th.

In addition to Utah, Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri each adopted redistricting reform. Florida, Michigan, Maryland, and Nevada expanded voting rights. North Dakota approved a reform package that included campaign finance reform and the establishment a nonpartisan ethics commission. Denver and Baltimore created robust municipal public financing systems. And there were plenty more.

Only a few of these initiatives failed, most notably an anti-corruption measure in South Dakota.

Far from bromides, most of these initiatives will make state election laws more fair and accessible. Automatic voter registration, for example, which passed in Nevada and Michigan, has achieved phenomenal success in diversifying the electorate and turning out new voters.

What stands out among these victories is the significant conservative support for them. In fact, many of these initiatives garnered over 50 percent approval in counties Donald Trump won by 25 points or more in the 2016 election. And in a majority of conservative states in which democracy reform appeared on the ballot, democracy reform won.

Take Florida. The Democrats lost both the senate and gubernatorial races. Yet, Amendment 4, to end the Jim Crow era felon state constitutional statute that disenfranchised 1.4 million Floridians, drew 65 percent support. This means many voters who supported Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis also voted for one of the largest expansions of the franchise since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Indeed, the data shows only a handful of small rural counties voted against Amendment 4.

Similarly, on a night in which Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp lost by 11 points, voters in deep-red North Dakota voted for their comprehensive democracy initiative by 7 points.

In Missouri, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill received 45.5 percent of the vote, while Missouri’s sweeping initiative — that included state-level redistricting reform, strict limits on lobbyist gifts, and lower contribution limits to state legislators — drew 62 percent of the vote.

And, as mentioned, redistricting reform passed in Utah, a state Donald Trump won by 28 percent.

It should be noted, too, that even in the one conservative state in which democracy reform lost, South Dakota, the anti-corruption ballot initiative still won 45 percent of the vote. Even more encouragingly (potential presidential candidates take note), Billie Sutton, the Democrat running for governor, was able to appeal to a conservative electorate through anti-corruption message. While he ultimately lost by a mere 11,500 votes, it was the best performance for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since 1986.

Conservative voters approving democracy reform by ballot initiative is not unprecedented. During the 2016 election, for example, there were 17 pro-democracy ballot initiatives across the country and fourteen passed, including ones in South Dakota, Alaska, and Missouri.

Democracy reform has its limits. For one, some GOP strongholds strongly oppose reform. Moreover, voters may support democracy reform, but whether they will cross party lines to support a pro-democracy candidate remains to be seen (though, Billie Sutton provides hope).

The upcoming months will be dominated by pundits ceaselessly harping on our gridlocked federal government. Those serious about a 2020 bid should wisely look beyond this conversation towards the unifying issue of democracy reform. One’s road to the White House could very well depend upon it.

Adam Eichen is Communications Strategist for Equal Citizens