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A New Playing Field for Democracy Reform

To win substantive reforms, our system is overdue for structural reforms. 2018 creates an opening.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (center) with fellow Democratic members of Congress, both current and just elected: Terri Sewell, Ilhan Omar, John Sarbannes, Veronica Escobar.,J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

So, it looks like Fixing Our Democracy is officially Cool. Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats have announced that their first bill out of the box—H.R. 1—will be an omnibus democracy reform bill including voting rights, partisan gerrymandering, campaign-finance reform, and ethics reform. For many people who have worked on these issues for years, this is a significant moment. Of course, there is the Senate, and the president, so no one thinks H.R. 1 will become law in anything close to its original form. But the message is major: that putting democracy reform front and center is not just “good government”; it is good politics.

But if you want to see where democracy reform was Really Cool in 2018, let’s take a look at what happened in the states, and how the stage has been set for even further reforms.


The New Landscape

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the 2018 midterms was the turnout itself. The latest estimates are that 116 million people voted, compared with 83 million in 2014. That striking turnout clearly helped fuel the Blue Wave, both in Congress and at the state level. The turnout of constituencies voting Democratic was even enough to overcome the walls of gerrymandering in many districts, at both the congressional and state levels. In the states, the shifts in state control were not a full-scale tsunami, but they were significant enough to dramatically shift the equation on democracy issues going forward.

In terms of partisan control, two major changes occurred. First, governorships flipped from red to blue in seven states, bringing Democratic gubernatorial control to 23 states total. The Republican Party took one governorship that was held by an independent, reducing its overall gubernatorial control to 27 states (from 33). Importantly, the change to a Democratic governor in a few of those states—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kansas, most notably—ended Republican trifectas that had driven voter suppression efforts for years.

On a sour note, Wisconsin's Republican legislature, led by Speaker Robin Vos (left), and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerland (right), voted to limit the governor's powers before Democrat Tony Evers is sworn in. 

Secondly, 75 percent of the states now have “trifecta” control—both houses and the governorship controlled by one party. Democrats increased theirs by six, giving them full control in 14 states, while Republicans dropped from 26 to 23. Thirteen states have divided government, but only one, Minnesota, actually has a divided state legislature. New Hampshire was particularly noteworthy; Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate in a state where a Republican trifecta had previously reigned and produced several voter-discouraging policies.

Looking at secretary of state results is important, given their critical election role in most states. In 40 out of 50 states, the secretaries are the chief election official. Republicans controlled that office in 28 states prior to the election. They lost three elections to Democrats on November 6, and now control 26 offices, while Democrats increased their control to 20. All nine Democratic secretaries who were up for re-election in 2018 were re-elected. Beyond party identification, an active democracy advocate in that office can make a major difference. In Michigan, in addition to new Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Jocelyn Benson, a longtime leading democracy advocate, was elected secretary of state. In Arizona, the election of Katie Hobbs has given advocates in Latino communities some real momentum in a state where much can be done administratively and at the local level. In Colorado, Jena Griswold will bring an activist perspective; though in fairness, Wayne Williams, the outgoing Republican secretary, has been a strong supporter of election reforms.


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Ballot Initiatives Rule

From the point of view of democracy advocates, the results of election-related ballot initiatives were, in a word, stunning. A remarkable element of these wins was that most of the ballot initiatives passed by more than 60 percent, meaning that they had strong bipartisan voter support.

Leading these results was the mammoth victory in Florida of Amendment 4, with almost 65 percent of the voters supporting the restoration of voting rights to 1.4 million former felons. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led an extraordinary campaign that received bipartisan support, including from evangelical churches that believe in redemption. This will be transformative of democracy in Florida.

Michigan had two major ballot initiative victories: one that created an independent redistricting commission, and a second, multifaceted initiative that enacted same-day registration, automatic registration, a constitutionally mandated post-election audit, and enhanced voting rights for veterans and military and overseas voters. According to Brandon Jessup, deputy director of Promote the Vote, the organization that led the fight on the voting initiative, it is expected that by 2020 these new laws will bring 300,000 new voters to the polls.

In addition, ballot initiatives passed that will further expand registration and voting opportunities, including automatic voter registration in Nevada and same-day registration in Maryland. A number of local initiatives addressing campaign-finance reform passed as well, notably a new small-donor campaign-finance law that passed in Baltimore City.

While passing a ballot initiative is a great accomplishment, it is only the first step. In addition to defense, the next crucial step is implementation, requiring a well-executed rollout and properly funded and planned administration of the newly passed initiatives. This is the case in Florida, where major questions now begin of how the restoration of voting rights will take place, including ensuring that unpaid fines not become an income-based form of disenfranchisement.

Major Progress Against Gerrymandering

One remarkable result of the 2018 election is how different the redistricting process is likely to look in 2021.

One remarkable result of the 2018 election is how different the redistricting process is likely to look in 2021. Partisan gerrymandering clearly emerged as a major enemy of fair representation and a key factor in results, as a number of states reported state legislative results where the total votes for Democrats far exceeded the share of seats they actually won. State legislative control was retained by Republicans in Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, among others, even though Democrats had a majority of votes cast in those legislative races.

However, the process for drawing districts in 2021—if the results of 2018 hold, and democracy advocates keep up their efforts in 2020—will look very different, far less partisan, and far more participatory.

Redistricting reform was a major part of the ballot initiative wave. All in all, in 2018, five states passed ballot initiatives that changed the redistricting process in a positive direction: Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and, in a cliffhanger, Utah, all on Election Day. In addition, Ohio passed a significant reform by ballot initiative back in May as the result of negotiations between advocates and the legislature. In all of these states, nonpartisan commissions will have a major role in the process, sometimes in conjunction with legislative bodies, and sometimes on their own.

In addition, in a number of states, including ones where major gerrymandering has ensured Republican control, the Democrats now have, according to Kelly Ward, director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, “a seat at the table,” even where they don’t have legislative control. “The number of seats where Republicans will have full control of the pen has dramatically decreased,” Ward says.

For instance, in North Carolina, the Republicans lost their supermajorities in both houses. Combine that with a Democratic governor and a new 5–2 Democratic majority on the state supreme court after the election of leading civil rights litigator Anita Earls to the Court, and the process next time will necessarily be more collaborative and evenhanded, assuming that the current Democratic governor is re-elected. In Pennsylvania, the re-election of Governor Tom Wolf combined with court victories will assure an evenhanded approach.

AP Photo/Anita Snow

In Arizona, the election of Katie Hobbs as secretary of state has given advocates in Latino communities some real momentum in a state where much can be done at the local level. 

Based on the ballot initiative successes, it is likely that legislative proposals will emerge for further redistricting reform, to create independent redistricting commissions, strengthen transparency in the redistricting process by including much stronger mechanisms for public input and public access to map-drawing information, and for the adoption of clear and fair criteria that maps will have to conform to. Virginia (where legislative elections are in 2019) as well as Wisconsin, New Hampshire,  North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are likely places for these legislative fights to emerge. And in Arkansas, wording for a ballot initiative for an independent commission has already been approved by the attorney general.

All this forward progress has pleased and also somewhat surprised veteran observers. Cathy Duvall is a managing consultant at the Redistricting Reform Project and has led efforts to leverage resources for reform. She recently said, “Overall, change for the better in how redistricting will be done in 2021 is much farther along than I would have imagined two years ago.”

A Few States to Watch in 2019

It is early to be predicting what will actually happen in state legislative sessions, which won’t begin until January. But there are some obvious states with new dynamics where real fights will take place and real victories can be won. Here are just a few examples.

New Mexico. This is a state poised for major reforms. Democrats have control of both houses of the legislature, and the new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, joins Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver as leading statewide supporters of democracy reforms. In addition, a number of “resistant Dems” have been replaced by pro-democracy legislators. A challenge will be that, in some years, the state’s legislative session is only 60 days long, but advocates seem ready to move.

Viki Harrison, the director of state operations for Common Cause and a former Common Cause New Mexico executive director, quickly ticked off four reforms ready to go: ethics legislation to implement the recently won ballot initiative; automatic voter registration; campaign-finance disclosure; and “three-day registration,” which would allow voters to register and vote on the same day, up until three days before the election.

New York could move from the very back of the class—it has the worst election laws of any blue state in the nation—to the very front.

New York. New York could move from the very back of the class—it has the worst election laws of any blue state in the nation—to the very front. The reason? An earthquake election year in which a rock-solid alliance between Republicans and rogue Democrats crumbled into dust. Insurgent progressives defeated seven center-right Democratic incumbents in the September primaries, and then eight more seats shifted from Republican to Democratic control in November.

Structural reform of “the rules of the democratic game” have been supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Assembly over the years, but always blocked by the Republican Senate majority. The governor has included a small-donor matching system proposal in his executive budget for seven years in a row, and is expected to do so again. The difference now is that he has a new partner in Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, herself a longtime champion of public financing of elections. Stewart-Cousins is joined by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie—the first time in any state that two African Americans have led both houses of a state legislature. Both are supporters of reform, and they will have lots of help from the outside.

As Citizen Action’s Jessica Wisneski, a principal pro-democracy campaigner in the state, puts it: “Everything that state government does—on schools, housing, criminal justice, environmental regulation, you name it—can only get better if the power of big money is reduced, and if more people are participating in choosing our leaders. We want an inclusive democracy, and this is how we get one.”

New Hampshire. This year, a Republican trifecta was destroyed when both houses of the state’s legislature flipped to Democratic control. With the voice of the voters on these democracy and ethics issues showing force, Governor Chris Sununu may be hard-pressed to resist democracy reform initiatives in that state. In recent years, state laws have made it harder for students to vote; Democrats can be expected to try to change those and go further in opening up the voting process. As an indication of the legislature’s mood, they came within a hair of replacing Bill Gardner, the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state (since 1976).  Gardner had been sharply criticized for supporting legislation making it more difficult for students to vote, and for serving on the deservedly short-lived Commission on Election Integrity, chaired by Kris Kobach, then secretary of state of Kansas. The vote on Gardner, who is a Democrat, was 209–205 on a second ballot. 

Texas. In the Lone Star State, Republicans still control the governorship and both houses of the legislature. But major changes are happening at the city and county levels. For example, in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, Democrats won the county judge, the district clerk, the county clerk, and the county treasurer, each defeating a Republican incumbent. These are very powerful positions and, taken together, form a strong base to counteract efforts of voter suppression championed for so many years by the Texas Legislature. In addition, appeals court races resulted in a large number of seats flipping to Democrats, such that future challenges to pro-democracy reforms now have a greater chance of failing.  So, in Texas and other states where gerrymandering may take years to overcome in the state legislature, action at the city and county level may be the best avenue to effect real change.

Watch Your Back

A recurring, unsettling theme in post-election discussions is that in a number of states where ballot initiatives were won, or where key offices shifted to Democrats, efforts are already under way during the lame-duck sessions to repeal or undercut the reforms that have been won, or to restrict the powers of the incoming officials.

One example that will surprise no one is Wisconsin. Democrats swept the constitutional offices, winning governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, secretary of state, and attorney general. However, Wisconsin Republicans, led by Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, voted to seize control of key state boards, and limit the powers of both the governor and the newly elected Democratic attorney general. “We are not going to roll over and play dead like they assume we probably should,” Vos said. If Democrats do their jobs in the next two years, this cynical power grab could badly backfire in 2020.

All in all, looking ahead to the state legislative sessions, we can expect democracy issues to be front-burner in states around the country. Jessie Ulibarri, the new executive director of the State Innovation Exchange (SIX), says: “2018 was a banner year of voter participation and interest in elections. Legislatures will respond, some to open doors of participation, and some to restrict access. Real reforms are likely in a number or states, and SIXwill do what we can to help open the doors of democracy.”

"Your-Round, on the Ground"

At a recent post-election conference co-sponsored by Common Cause and the Democracy Initiative, the mood was one of celebration of the victories that had been won, and appreciation of the nonstop work by grassroots organizations in states around the country that made these victories possible. However, the primary focus was on the work that needs to be done, and the ongoing organizing and action that needs to occur over the next two years and beyond.  

As exemplified by the Democracy Initiative, the mantra of most grassroots organizations is now “year-round, on the ground.” That is, democracy work never stops, because voting and electing candidates is critical, but is just one part of a strategy; fighting for the adoption and implementation of pro-voter policies, holding representatives accountable, and building ongoing organizations and coalitions are critical as well. A challenge in this shift to a year-round focus on democracy is to assemble the necessary resources—often in plentiful supply at election time but less so otherwise—on an ongoing basis so that staffing can be year-round, continuity can be maintained, and processes and relationships can develop, rather than having to be rebuilt every two years.

One encouraging development is that organizations that in the past have been focused on one primary issue, such as the environment, workers’ rights, or gun control, have now realized that none of these issues can be successful if we do not have a functioning democracy. So a growing number of them, led by organizations such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and unions including the AFL-CIO, have decided to raise “democracy reform” to a top priority co-equal with their other primary issues. This is an exponential boost to the power of this movement, as well as a deepening base of volunteers and resources. And it makes the much-needed trust and collaboration in the movement that much easier to create and sustain.

Looking at just one of the newer organizations, Indivisible, we find a seriously focused “next steps” agenda that places democratic reform at the very top of their priority list. They have rolled it out already at a training of new elected officials, and are developing it as a major strategic initiative for 2019.

While major and national organizations such as the ACLU, Common Cause, the NAACP, UnidosUS, and others have the history, heft, money, and staff to help move democracy initiatives forward at the state level, much of the day-to-day heavy lifting is being done by an increasingly robust network of state-based and even local organizations. And as a sign of the times, many of these organizations are run by leaders of color.

Among the new groups highlighted at Common Cause and Democracy Initiative events—and they are only examples, since so many organizations are on the ground moving democracy issues forward—are the New Georgia Project, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Promote The Vote and Voters Not Politicians in Michigan, the Washington Democracy Hub, and the Virginia Civic Engagement Table. These organizations, and others like them, are doing amazingly effective work, often on a shoestring budget, and are making democracy issues real on the state and local level.

The outlook for more gains in improving the functioning of our democracy is certainly far better today than it was before the 2018 elections, and mostly at the state level. Major victories were won, on ballot initiatives and in the composition of state legislatures and control of statewide offices. It is too early to say where this will lead in many of the states, but significant activity will be taking place in response to clear public support for a fairer and more just political system. Away from the maelstrom of Washington, there will be much to watch for and hope for.