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September 14, 2021
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After the For the People Act was blocked by a Republican filibuster in June, Senate Democrats began forging a new path forward for their voting and election reform priorities.
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, along with six other co-sponsors, unveiled Tuesday their compromise legislation, dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act. This pared-down bill includes many provisions from the For the People Act, while also incorporating earlier proposals from Manchin, who was the sole Democrat opposed to S. 1, as the original bill is also known.
With Manchin on board, this new election reform package will likely garner support from all 50 Democrats. However, without at least 10 Republican votes or a change in Senate rules, the legislation will face the same fate as the For the People Act.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tasked Klobuchar and Manchin, as well as Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Angus King of Maine, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Alex Padilla of California, Jon Tester of Montana and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, with workshopping election reform proposals and developing a compromise bill. (King is formally an independent but works alongside Democrats.)
At 592 pages, the Freedom to Vote Act is nearly 300-pages shorter than the For the People Act, but still includes many provisions that expand access to voter registration, bolster transparency around spending in elections and curb partisan gerrymandering.
One key addition is a requirement that voters show identification when casting a ballot in person, which Manchin had proposed in June. A broad range of IDs would be accepted, including a driver's license, state or government-issued ID, tribal ID, passport, student ID, military ID, gun license, Medicare or Social Security card, birth certificate, voter registration card, hunting or fishing license, debit card, recent utility bill or another identifying document.
"The freedom to vote is fundamental to all of our freedoms," Klobuchar said. "Following the 2020 elections in which more Americans voted than ever before, we have seen unprecedented attacks on our democracy in states across the country. These attacks demand an immediate federal response."
The group of Senate Democrats behind the bill say it will establish national standards for election administration and voting rights, ensuring all Americans can cast a ballot in a safe and secure manner.
"As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore peoples' faith in our democracy," Manchin said, "and I believe that the commonsense provisions in this bill — like flexible voter ID requirements — will do just that."
One of the biggest items excised from the original bill was the requirement that states establish independent commissions to handle redistricting. Those would be optional under this legislation.
What's in the Freedom to Vote Act
The new package has three sections: voter access and election administration, election integrity, and civic participation and empowerment.
The voter access and election administration provisions include:
- Requiring people to present identification to vote in person and setting a national standard that accepts a broad variety of ID cards and documents in hard copy and digital form.
- Enacting automatic voter registration in each state through motor vehicle agencies.
- Enacting online voter registration in each state.
- Ensuring all states offer same-day voter registration at a limited number of voting sites for the 2022 elections, and then all polling locations by the 2024 elections.
- Making Election Day a public holiday.
- Mandating states provide at least 15 days of early voting, including two weekends, for federal elections.
- Establishing minimum standards for mail voting and drop box access.
- Strengthening standards for voter roll maintenance.
- Requiring provisional ballots to count for all eligible races within a county, regardless of the precinct in which they were cast.
- Restoring, to people who have completed their sentences for felony convictions, the right to vote in federal elections.
- Expanding voter access for disabled individuals, Native Americans, military and civilian overseas voters, and other underserved communities.
The election integrity provisions include:
- Protecting nonpartisan state and local election officials from inappropriate partisan interference or control.
- Bolstering security around federal election records and election infrastructure.
- Requiring states to use voting systems with paper ballots that can be verified in post-election audits. (States would be given grants to purchase new equipment and make other cybersecurity improvements.)
- Tasking the Election Assistance Commission with recruiting and training election workers.
- Establishing cybersecurity standards for voting equipment vendors.
- Mandating federal campaigns disclose certain foreign contacts to prevent election interference.
The civic participation and empowerment provisions include:
- Requiring states to abide by specific rules for congressional redistricting to curb partisan gerrymandering. States would be able to choose how to develop their election maps, with an independent redistricting commission among the options.
- Mandating super PACs, political advocacy nonprofits and other organizations that spend money in elections disclose their donors. The transfer of money between groups to hide the source of funding would be banned. Also, online political advertising would be subject to the same "paid for by" disclosure requirements that apply to TV, radio and print ads.
- Establishing a fund for states to invest in election and democracy reforms. (The fund would be financed through "an additional assessment paid on federal fines, penalties and settlements for certain tax crimes and corporate malfeasance.")
- Improving the ability of the Federal Election Commission to oversee and enforce federal election law.
- Creating a "coordinated spender" category to prevent single-candidate super PACs from illegally operating as an extension of a political campaign.
How democracy reform advocates are reacting
Democracy reform advocates, who have been pushing for congressional action on electoral reform for years, are hopeful this revised legislation can finally cross the finish line.
Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, said the bill is "very strong" and "gives powerful new momentum to the fight to protect democracy."
Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, called it "a transformative bill that will bring us closer to a democracy that is truly of, by and for the people." DFAD is a coalition of more than 230 advocacy organizations.
Given the wave of state laws tightening the rules for voter access and the redrawing of state and congressional election maps, reform advocates also emphasized the urgency of passing this federal legislation. They recognized, however, that the filibuster remains an impediment if Republicans do not get on board with these proposed reforms.
"If Republicans continue to stonewall desperately needed measures to protect our democracy, then Democrats must move immediately to adopt a workaround to the filibuster," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. "America can wait no longer. The stakes are too high. Whatever institutional interest there may be in preserving the filibuster must give way to the imperative of protecting, preserving and advancing our democracy."
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September 13, 2021
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The Republican and Democratic parties have dominated politics for decades, with alternative parties occasionally sprouting up but rarely having a significant impact on elections. Political reformers will be closely watching the latest attempt to break that two-party system.
Andrew Yang, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president and then the party's nod in the New York mayoral campaign, is planning to launch his own political party next month, Politico first reported. The name and platform of Yang's third party will be announced in conjunction with the Oct. 5 release of his new book, "Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy."
Yang's decision to leave the Democratic Party parallels a growing national trend of more Americans identifying as independents. However, reformers say it will take both a structural and cultural shift to undo America's two-party duopoly.
It's unclear where exactly Yang's party will fall on the political spectrum, but the focus of his book offers a glimpse into his new venture. "Yang introduces us to the various 'priests of the decline' of America, including politicians whose incentives have become divorced from the people they supposedly serve," per the book's publisher, Crown.
As a former businessperson, Yang was seen as a political outsider during his campaigns. One of the key tenets of his platform was a universal basic income program, through which the government would give citizens $1,000 every month. His most ardent supporters, dubbed the "Yang Gang," were highly active online and tended to be more apolitical.
With more Americans becoming disillusioned by politics and the two major parties, there is a market for alternatives, said John Opdycke of Open Primaries. But the challenge for Yang will be how to organize a political party that appeals to people who don't like political parties, he said.
"Part of what Andrew, I think, is recognizing is that because people are dissatisfied with the Democrats and Republicans, there's an organizing opportunity there. But maybe a party is not going to capture their enthusiasm," Opdycke said. "People don't like political parties because parties tend to be ideological. 'Here's what our set of policies are and if you don't agree with them, you're not welcome here.'"
According to Gallup's latest polling on political identity, conducted Aug. 2-17, 40 percent of Americans consider themselves independents. (Both the Democratic and Republican parties drew less than 30 percent of support.)
Even if there is a lot of enthusiasm for Yang's new party, the current political system will make it difficult for him or other independent candidates to succeed. Advocates for change believe structural reforms like ranked-choice voting, open primaries and multimember districts would make the system more viable for third parties.
But simply changing the system won't be enough, reformers say. The two-party duopoly is so ingrained in American politics that there needs to be a cultural shift as well.
Some people see third-party candidates as "spoilers" that draw votes away from the politician they prefer, resulting in the opposing party winning.
"That kind of zero-sum mentality between the two parties is part of what keeps people locked into those parties and will always block third-party or independent candidates," said Mike Ongstad of Stand Up Republic. "The reality is that the hunger is there. But there's almost a fear-based system that causes people to fall back on their typical and long-standing historical party."
The increased number of state laws limiting voter access is also contributing to this issue and reinforcing the political establishment, Ongstad said. The Renew America Movement, a center-right campaign launched by Stand Up Republic, recently sent letters to all 50 governors urging them to reject partisan attacks on the right to vote.
The burden of facing these barriers in the voting process might discourage people, especially those who don't identify with a major party or feel disenchanted with politics, from even participating in the first place, Ongstad said.
"But we're always stronger if we're including those voices, and the more voices that are included, the more likely we are to get some more diverse voices," he said.
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Leveraging big ideas
August 31, 2021
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To avoid a repeat of the Jan. 6 election insurrection, Congress needs to update a little-known law passed 134 years ago, experts say.
The Electoral Count Act of 1887 governs the casting and counting of electoral votes every four years, but the law's language is arcane and often confusing, which leaves room for misuse, according to the National Task Force on Election Crises. The cross-partisan group of more than 50 experts in election law, national security and voting rights released a report Tuesday renewing calls for swift congressional action to safeguard against potential future crises.
"Modernizing the ECA may well be the single most important thing that Congress can do to prevent a full-blown crisis in the next disputed presidential election," said Adav Noti, senior director for trial litigation and chief of staff at the Campaign Legal Center.
There are several deficiencies in the Electoral Count Act that experts say need to be rectified.
The timing for states to choose their electors, including the arcane rules for emergency, post-Election Day selection, should be clarified. "The current statute alludes vaguely to the possibility that a state's presidential election could result in 'failure,' but provides no definition or constraints, thus creating the potential for misunderstanding and even abuse," the report says.
The law should be reformed to better protect each state's ability to adjudicate its own post-election disputes and limit opportunities for second-guessing by partisan actors in Congress, the task force recommends.
The Electoral Count Act leaves too much room for uncertainty regarding the vice president's responsibilities, which are limited and ministerial, the report says. Before and on Jan. 6, there was speculation that the vice president had authority beyond opening envelopes and counting electoral votes. Therefore, the law should be updated to make clear the vice president "does not have the power to decide controversies that might arise over counting electoral votes or to otherwise decide the outcome of the election."
The threshold for raising objections to counting electoral votes should be raised well above the current requirement of only one member from each chamber, the report says. Also, the grounds upon which members of Congress may base objections should be narrowly defined so that lawmakers "may not simply substitute their own political preferences for the voters' judgment expressed at the ballot box and carried out by the Electoral College."
Finally, the law should be updated to establish procedures for resolving election disputes in Congress. The current mechanism is "convoluted and insufficient," the report says, because it details extensive procedures for Congress to follow but fails to provide a clear path to final resolution in many circumstances.
While these proposed reforms to the Electoral Count Act may sound small and technical, they could significantly bolster American democracy by ensuring a peaceful transition of power.
"Democracies today don't die through coups or wars," said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The way that most democracies right now are failing is [...] by elected leaders with undemocratic tendencies altering the rules of the game."
For the last 15 years, there has been a steady decline in democracies globally — and the U.S. is no exception, said Kleinfeld, who is also a member of the task force. So it's not a question of if these problems will happen, but when, she added.
Jan. 6 is the latest and worst example to date of an attack on American democracy, but there have been regular abuses of the Electoral Count Act for the last two decades, Noti said. And they've been getting progressively worse.
"This is not the area to wait for something to break and fix it after," said Noti, who like Kleinfeld is a member of the task force. "If this breaks and we go down the nightmare road of a truly unresolved presidential election — imagine dueling inaugurations on Inauguration Day. Imagine the chaos and violence that could ensue. That's too late at that point."
Experts say now is the best time to reform the Electoral Count Act since the 2024 election is still years away and neither party can predictably benefit from modernizing the law.
Former Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, a Republican who co-chairs Issue One's Reformers Caucus, said he has had conversations with current members of Congress about updating the Electoral Count Act and he believes both parties can come together on this issue.
"We are all Americans first. Our parties come way down the list. Too many people have made party politics their religion, and that is now interfering in civil government and the continuity of this democratic republic," Wamp said. "[Reforming the law] has nothing to do with a partisan advantage or disadvantage."
At the end of January, the task force released its initial post-election report detailing the lessons learned from the 2020 contest and recommendations for how to improve future elections. Then in July, the task force issued an update outlining "concerning trends" that had developed over the last six months, including legislation that limits voter access and threats of violence against election workers.
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August 31, 2021
In the most recent edition of Democracy Works, a podcast from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, the team discusses one of Democracy's central tensions: the collective vs. the individual and what our responsibilities are as democratic citizens.
August 20, 2021
August 19, 2021
Gregory Joseph, Communications Director with American Promise, discusses the important work of removing the influence of big money from our political system to help protect our democracy. The interview is part of a collaboration between Bridge Alliance and CityBiz entitled Repairing America's Broken Democracy.
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