Expand the size of Congress. Place term limits on Supreme Court justices. Make voting mandatory.
These are just some of the more provocative recommendations for revitalizing our democracy from the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The 31 proposals, unveiled Thursday, come after two years of research into the system's dysfunction and deliberation about how to make it work better.
But the unveiling, as the 84-page report itself notes, also comes at a particularly stressful moment for an American democracy in which extreme partisanship has already crippled the government's ability to address important national problems.
That gridlock is now magnified by a president who's repeatedly challenged decades of governing norms standing for re-election in five months; by a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and propelled the country into deep recession this spring; and by weeks of nationwide protests demanding rapid systemic change to salve decades of anger and anguish at police brutality and systemic racism.
The recommendations "touch all sectors of American life and offer a bold path that will require all of us to commit to reinventing aspects of our constitutional democracy," David Oxtoby, president of the 240-year-old academy, said in releasing the report. "A disruptive media and information environment, outdated political institutions, economic and social inequality and hyperpartisan political leadership have laid bare the urgency of this imperative."
The report outlines a bleak picture of the current state of democracy — it's condition hobbled by such ailments as low voter turnout, a loss of trust in Congress and other governing institutions, and the one-third of millennials who say they don't consider democracy as essential.
"Trust in institutions has collapsed," the report concludes, "while an online culture of gleeful, nihilistic cynicism thrives."
Still, the commission found reasons to be optimistic that "reinvention of our constitutional democracy remains entirely within reach — and urgently needed."
The recommendations include a raft of policy proposals from the mainstream democracy reform agenda — and many of them were embraced by the Democratic House last year with passage of the comprehensive package dubbed HR 1, which the Republican Senate will never touch.
But several of them are relatively outside the box. And, notably, the academy does not join the chorus forming this year behind making voting-by-mail the nationwide norm — although it does say absentee balloting should be encouraged nationwide this fall, along with money to count votes reliably and fast, because of the coronavirus crisis.
These are some of the most prominent proposals, which the report puts in six categories:
Boosting equality by:
- Substantially enlarging the House of Representatives from its current 435 seats so that each member has fewer constituents than today's average of 750,000, although the exact number is not specified.
- Using ranked-choice voting for presidential, congressional and state elections. This process allows voters to rate candidates for each position in order of preference, with automatic runoffs weeding out the least-popular until a single person backed by a majority emerges.
- Turning the drawing of legislative district boundaries over to citizen redistricting commissions in all 50 states, as a way to end gerrymandering by political parties driven to preserve their power.
- Amending the Constitution to effectively overturn the Citizens United v. FEC decision by the Supreme Court a decade ago, thereby permitting stricter state and federal laws to control campaign contributions and spending.
- Restricting justices to 18 years on the Supreme Court, with appointments staggered so one seat comes open in each two-year term of Congress.
Empowering voters by:
- Giving them more choices about where to vote through vote centers and early in-person voting.
- Conducting federal elections on Veterans Day so that voting occurs when many have the day off.
- Allowing every person to register as late as Election Day and be automatically registered when they do business with their state driver's license agency.
- Permitting 16-year-olds to preregister and giving them options to practice voting for two years.
- Requiring people to vote in federal elections unless they provide a valid reason, similar to what's required in more than a dozen other countries including such functional democracies as Australia and Belgium. Those who don't vote would face a small fine.
- Creating orientation for voters participating in their first federal elections.
Enhancing governmental responsiveness by:
- Experimenting with citizens' assemblies to allow members of the public to convene in blocs big enough that their policy proposals hold sway in Congress.
Expanding civic engagement by:
- Establishing a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to subsidize local groups that promote community engagement and better citizenship. It would be funded from private sources at first, but the panel said Congress should consider chipping in.
Improving communication by:
- Subsidizing innovative efforts to replenish the news delivery system displaced in recent years by social media. One idea is taxing digital advertising and using the revenue to support experimental media platforms and expand local and regional investigative journalism.
Bolstering commitment to democracy by:
- Establishing an expectation that every American would devote a year to some form of public service and expanding funding for service programs and fellowships.
- Investing more in civic education at all grade levels.
"We have no time to waste," the report concludes. "For love of freedom and equality, for love of country, for love of one another, and out of hope for a better future, we need to reclaim our bond."
The report was produced by a Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, which convened 49 public listening sessions across the country and commissioned its own research after it was established two years ago by the AAAS. The academy — created by several of the Founders in 1790 to highlight the finest minds in science, scholarship, business, public affairs and the arts — is focused now on conducting policy studies in response to societal challenges.
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