Fifth time’s the charm: Spotlight shines on democracy’s challenges at a Democratic debate
Big money in politics, the limits of voting rights and the way politicians get to pick their voters were among the topics almost entirely bypassed in the four previous presidential debates. But that changed Wednesday night, when the republic's broken aspects earned some significant attention.
The Democratic candidates were asked questions about problems with democracy for the first time, and at other points several of them volunteered their concerns about a governing system overdue for some big fixes.
The increased focus was a notable departure not only from the earlier debates but also from the talk on the trail. All 10 who debated in Atlanta are behind the consensus items on the agenda of democracy reformers, but since much of the campaign's oxygen comes from conflict, those proposals rarely get much air time. And they have so many other differences with President Trump that their discord over what about the system needs fixing rarely comes up.
At the moderators' behest, most of the talk on this score was about the influence of special interests and rich donors and the difficulties many have in gaining access to the ballot box. The first topic was top of mind because the day's star witness in the House's impeachment proceedings had been Gordon Sondland, the politically generous hotelier turned ambassador. And the second topic was particularly resonant in Georgia, where allegations of multifaceted voter suppression are at the heart of why Democrats say their rise is being stifled.
Early in the evening, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called out Washington's pay-to-play politics, promising as president she would break with two centuries of precedent and not reward big donors with plum diplomatic postings.
"How did Ambassador Sondland get there? You know, this is not a man who had any qualifications, except one: He wrote a check for a million dollars," Warren said during the debate. "And that tells us about what's happening in Washington, the corruption, how money buys its way into Washington."
On the issue of expanding access to the ballot box, there is hardly any variation among the 10 candidates — all of whom were pressed to focus on the issue while in Georgia by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who lost her bid for governor last year amid accusations of widespread efforts to hold down turnout among black voters.
Everyone in the field agrees that the voting process needs to be more accessible, and they are largely aligned about the ways to do that. So instead the candidates' responses focused more on how their experience would lend itself to success in implementing these voting expansions.
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota touted her record in the Senate, gathering bipartisan support for an array of legislation being promoted by "good government" advocacy groups, as proof that she is best prepared and most committed to carry out the democracy reform agenda from the White House.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., retorted that "Washington experience isn't the only experience that matters." Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii quickly noted her bill to mandate paper ballots before pivoting to national security and her military background.
The other standout moment for democracy reform concerned big money's influences in elections. Billionaire Tom Steyer was asked to respond to critics who see him as a hypocrite for denouncing special interests when he himself has spent more than $300 million on elections.
"What I've done is to try to push power down to the America people, to take power away from the corporations who've bought our government," he replied. He added that he would demand term limits on members of Congress to allow for "new and different people" to be in charge.
Klobuchar, in response, pledged to push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in favor of unlimited corporate political spending to "stop this dark money and outside money from coming into our politics."
She also emphasized that more than money-in-politics reform is needed. She would also implement a system to automatically register people when they turn 18 as part of a comprehensive legislative package she rolled out this week.
"If we had a system like this, and we did something about gerrymandering, and we stopped the voting purges, and we did something significant about making sure we don't have money in politics from the outside, Stacey Abrams would be governor of this state right now," Klobuchar said.
Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey volunteerd that voter suppression in Georgia has prevented an array of progressive legislation from getting enacted, starting with protection of abortion rights.
Buttigieg, the only one of the top-polling candidates to weigh in significantly on the fix-the-system agenda, unspooled a long riff on what he wants:
"We know that with the White House in the right hands we can make, for example, Election Day a federal holiday. We can use carrots and sticks to induce states to do the right thing with automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, making it easier for people to vote and in particular recognizing that we cannot allow the kind of racially motivated or partisan voter suppression or gerrymandering that often dictates the outcome of elections before the voting even begins, he said.
"Right now we have politicians picking out their voters rather than the other way around. That compounding with what is being done to restrict the right to vote means that our democracy is not worthy of the name."
A sigh of belated relief could be heard online from democracy reform advocates.
"Glad voting rights finally came up after 32 debates in 2020 & 2016," Ari Berman, the author of two books about voting rights, tweeted. "It should be one of the first things discussed at every debate."
"Finally, a question about voting rights in a Democratic debate," was the echo from the Campaign Legal Center, which is helping to press several voting rights and campaign finance lawsuits. "Appropriate for an event in Georgia, where hundreds of thousands are in danger of being removed from voter rolls in an aggressive purge."Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice, one of the most prominent progessive advocates for changing the rules of governance, noted that almost all the ideas that got mentioned on the debate stage are contained in HR 1, the comprehensive package passed by the Democratic House but buried in the GOP Senate. "The bill is ready to go. We just need the political will. This Democratic debate is a great step in that direction."
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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.