Reform in 2023: Democracy won in 2022. Now, we have to set the bar higher.
As 2022 draws to a close, The Fulcrum has invited leaders of democracy reform organizations to share their hopes and plans for the coming year. This is the third in the series.
Caska is director of political programs for RepresentUs.
For many reasons, 2022 was a resounding victory for democracy. Voters in several more cities across the country passed ranked-choice voting and other powerful anti-corruption laws. Election liars failed to seize control of voting in the states that will decide the 2024 election. The violence and mayhem that many predicted would occur on Election Day generally didn’t come to fruition. And overall, democracy was a top issue on Americans’ minds when going to the polls.
It wasn’t all good news, though. Media outlets set the bar so low that the absence of election violence was considered a “win.” Hundreds of election liars still won races across the country, and election workers still faced harassment and threats. More broadly, corruption is still alive and well in our government.
So, as we celebrate the many hard-fought victories achieved in 2022, we can’t ignore the immediate threats that our democracy still faces and the existing structural flaws that still define America’s politics.
Let’s kick things off with the good news about democracy’s biggest wins. In 2022, RepresentUs and the anti-corruption movement won 15 victories at the state and local levels to improve representation, root out corruption, and give voters more power in government.
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The big winner this year was RCV. Vermont got the party started in May when the Legislature approved Burlington’s use of RCV for city elections. Hawaii followed shortly after, approving RCV for some special elections. But the real deluge of RCV victories came on Election Day 2022, when five cities and counties passed it (Evanston, Ill., Fort Collins, Colo., Portland, Ore., Seattle, and Multnomah County, Ore.). Finally, Nevada took a huge step toward adopting nonpartisan primaries and RCV general elections for statewide races. If voters pass Question 3 again in 2024, it will become law.
These victories mean that millions more Americans live in places with better choices and better representation. RCV ensures that election winners receive a majority of the vote to get elected. It eliminates the so-called spoiler effect, and means voters aren’t forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. And as we’ve seen in Alaska, RCV results in a more functional government that responds to the needs of the people, not party insiders or the radical extremes.
Cities and states also took steps to tackle dark money and empower small donors. Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative requiring transparency for large campaign donations. This means that, going forward, Arizonans will now know who is trying to influence political campaigns. Elsewhere, Oakland, Calif., voters followed in the steps of Seattle by approving a Democracy Dollars program. Every Oakland voter will now have the opportunity to financially support candidates of their choice, taking power away from special interests.
One last piece of good news in 2022: Voters fought back against attacks on the ballot initiative process. When politicians fail to make progress on popular issues, direct democracy via ballot initiative has been a critical tool for voters to take power into their own hands. And because politicians are often loath to change a system they benefit from, it’s also been a critical tool for RepresentUs and our partners to pass anti-corruption laws.
But, because voters have used this process so successfully, there’s been a backlash. Politicians in 11 states have proposed dozens of laws that would make passing ballot initiatives all but impossible. Their goal is to effectively take more political power for themselves and choke off voters’ ability to exercise power. Fortunately, voters in Arkansas and South Dakota saw through this cynical ploy and rejected attacks on the ballot initiative process in 2022.
The threat isn’t over. Politicians have taken this same anti-voter agenda to the Supreme Court in Moore v. Harper – one of the most important democracy cases in years. If the court does what some politicians want, only state legislatures would be able to make rules relating to federal elections. This would remove checks and balances on those laws at the state level, putting countless laws at risk of being overturned.
RepresentUs identified more than 200 state constitutional provisions that could eventually be overturned if the justices adopt an extreme ruling in Moore v. Harper. For example, bedrock voting rules that Americans depend on, including the right to a secret ballot and absentee voting, could be on the chopping block. An extreme ruling could also endanger at least 20 voter-passed laws that RepresentUs, our partners and the movement fought hard to pass. If they wanted to, politicians could come after victories including anti-gerrymandering laws in Colorado and Michigan, and nonpartisan primaries/ranked-choice voting in Alaska.
RepresentUs will continue to sound the alarm about the stakes and potential impact of Moore v. Harper in 2023, just as we’ll continue to fight to protect our victories and put power in the hands of voters where it belongs.
There are also long-standing structural issues with our democracy that the movement urgently needs to address. Before the end of the year, Congress must act to tackle one immediate threat to free and fair elections by passing updates to the Electoral Count Act, which would ensure voters choose the president – not politicians.
We must recognize that despite all the noise about polarization, the vast majority of Americans agree that tackling corruption should be a top priority. We, the American public, are overwhelmingly united in opposing partisan gerrymandering, a corrupt practice that allows political parties to rig elections. We’re united behind efforts to stop dark, unaccountable money in politics. We agree that elected officials shouldn’t be able to trade stocks while in office. And we believe that we must continue to be vigilant against the threat of anti-democratic forces in our politics, and reject election deniers up and down the ballot.
It’s important to take a moment to celebrate the many important wins American democracy experienced in 2022. Voters secured key victories across the country to make our government work better. The post election chaos of 2020 did not repeat itself. But we also can’t pretend that grave threats don’t exist. We look forward to continuing our momentum toward better elections and representation, facing threats to democracy head on, and continuing to build the most powerful pro-democracy movement the world has ever seen.