5 Reasons Reformers Are Giving Thanks
People in the democracy reform movement, both old and new, must sometimes feel like they are trying to empty the ocean with a slotted spoon.
But while change may sometimes happen slowly, there are plenty of reasons for democracy reformers to be thankful this year. So enjoy that extra turkey leg or slice of pumpkin pie, with the knowledge that progress is being made across the country.
Here are five reasons reformers are giving thanks this holiday season. What did we forget? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Redistricting reforms
Many in the democracy reform movement were gravely disappointed this summer when the Supreme Court decided it has no role to play in evaluating partisan gerrymandering. Instead, the justices left the problem in the hands of state courts and the people. In many states, the people have responded, following the lead of some who acted even before the court's ruling. In 2018, voters in five states (Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah) passed reforms to make future mapmaking fairer and more transparent. This year redistricting reforms were passed by legislatures in New Hampshire (although it was vetoed by the governor) and Virginia, and efforts are underway in other states around the country, including Oklahoma, Nevada, Oregon and Illinois.
2. Expansion of ranked-choice voting
For those who think there are better ways to elect our representatives in government than the traditional "pick one" system, this has been a good year. The decision by New York City voters to choose their mayor, city council and other officials using the ranked-choice method was a major win. Not only will voters get the chance to rank multiple candidates starting in 2021, but the attention the new system will get by being used in the Big Apple is priceless. Plus, RCV will get additional attention in 2019 with several states planning to use it for their Democratic presidential primaries.
3. Extension of automatic voter registration
AVR is also gaining momentum across the country. Under this system, people are registered to vote when they interact with a government agency (often motor vehicle bureaus) unless they choose to opt out. As of this summer, 18 states and the District of Columbia had adopted automatic voter registration policies. That puts more than a third of the country's population under AVR, and the results have been exciting. In Oregon, the first state to implement AVR, registration rates quadrupled at motor vehicle offices and more than 300,000 people have been registered in Georgia.
4. The polls
While it sometimes seems like democracy reform doesn't get the attention it deserves, the public continues to show its support and recognition when asked by pollsters. The latest came in a survey commissioned and released earlier this month by the Campaign Legal Center that found voters see "corruption in our political system" as the country's most pressing problem. In October, two-thirds of voters told pollsters they believe the country is on the "edge of a civil war" while another poll identified the government itself as the country's biggest problem. This consistent message from the public is likely to continue to gain attention for the democracy reform movement.
5. Reform talk at the presidential debates
It took until the fifth Democratic presidential debate last week in Atlanta, but finally there was some focus on democracy reform in the candidate gabfests. Reforms can thank, in part, the moderators, who for the first time asked questions about the problems facing American democracy. But candidates also brought up some of the issues on their own. Topics discussed included the influence of special interests and rich donors on the political process, as well as the problems some face in getting access to the ballot box.
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.