South Dakota's new regulation of people who circulate petitions for ballot initiatives is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.
The decision, if it withstands a potential appeal, would be a boon for advocates of direct democracy, which relies on small armies of people gathering signatures to put proposed changes to state laws before the entire electorate. Twenty-six states allow such citizen-led ballot measures.
A law signed by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem last year requires petition circulators to register with the secretary of state and provide personal information including home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. But those "extensive and burdensome" disclosure requirements discriminate against those advocating for ballot measures in violation of the First Amendment because the same rules didn't apply to people actively opposing the measures, U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann ruled last week.
Tracking the story of American democracy over the past decade has been a very complex undertaking, dominated by dispiriting accelerations of dysfunction but also punctuated by some developments meriting cautious optimism.
The Supreme Court opened the floodgates of money in politics, turned a blind eye to partisan gerrymandering and paved the way for dozens of measures making it harder to vote in places already marred by histories of political discrimination. Capitol Hill became more gridlocked by tribal partisan animus than ever, even when the topic was fixing the very system in which Congress is supposed to play a vibrant central role. And there's Donald Trump, who won the presidency in an election marked by unparalleled foreign interference and then took busting the norms of a democratic civil society to a whole new level.
At the same time, however, the ever more broken state of affairs in Washington was offset by successes in statehouses and city halls — and by the citizens themselves — at making democracy more equitable and productive for more people. Innovations in public financing of campaigns and election methods that reward consensus candidates were on the rise, while voting rights were returned to almost 2 million felons out of prison. Ballot initiatives and state courts moved against partisan power grabs in legislative mapmaking, allowing more people to pick their politicians, not the other way around.
Finally, the democracy reform movement itself built toward a critical mass of organizational muscle and funding strength. It even generated its own dedicated news site!
To get ready for the 2020s, when the debate over how to put the government more overtly back in the hands of the voters will be more urgent than ever, here's The Fulcrum's take on the top 10 stories about democracy's challenges from the decade now ending, in a somewhat rough chronological order.
The survey comes at a critical time for the federal workforce, which is aging rapidly. Federal workers older than 60 outnumber those younger than 30 by nearly two to one, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Job satisfaction and retention are central indicators that the people who actually operate American democracy have some confidence it's functioning as intended.
The most important legal challenge in decades to a basic tenet of open government — laws should be available to public to read for free — went before the Supreme Court on Monday.
The justices heard arguments in a dispute over whether Georgia may have copyright protections on its annotated legal code books, which means they're not available to the public without cost. It appears to be the first time in more than a century the court has considered the limits of the "government edicts doctrine," which bars copyrights on statutes and legal decisions.
Open records proponents, civil rights groups and the news media say it's unconstitutional to limit the peoples' access to the law books most widely in use. The Trump administration has taken Georgia's side.