Voters in two Western cities have delivered a pair of small victories and one substantial loss to advocates for reducing the importance of big money in elections.
Albuquerque narrowly rejected a ballot measure Tuesday to start a system of publicly funded donation vouchers for supporting municipal candidates. The idea has been hailed as a breakthrough for promoting a broader base of interest in elections while diluting the power of corporate cash over campaigns, while critics say it's a totally wrong way to spend taxpayer money.
The voters of New Mexico's biggest city did, however, decide to expand an existing public financing system for mayoral candidates willing to limit their own spending. And the people of San Francisco voted to limit contributions to local candidates and require the people who buy advertising in city elections to disclose their identities.
A prominent progressive group in Arizona has launched an effort to put a total overhaul of the state's election system before the voters next fall.
If the initiative is ultimately adopted, it would transform campaign financing and ease access to the ballot box in one of the nation's fastest growing and most politically competitive states. In many ways, the proposal would create in Arizona a system similar to what the congressional Democrats would nationalize under HR 1.
But the business community and Republican elected leaders in Phoenix are already signaling they're intense opposition to the package, suggesting that just getting it on to the ballot could require an expensive and polarizing campaign.
Last year was a really good year for placing democracy reform in the hands of the electorate. This year, not so much.
In the 2018 midterms, ballot proposals adopted in more than a dozen states and cities expanded the use of automatic voter registration, independent redistricting commissions, public financing of campaigns and other democracy reform proposals.
Next week's off-year election will see only a small roster of contests with an expansion of democracy itself on the ballot, and most have relatively narrow scope and limited reach.
But good-government advocates hope a wave of victories creates momentum for a more ambitious roster of proposals to get spots on the ballot alongside the 2020 presidential election.
And while the roster of pro-democracy choices may be limited this Nov. 5, the overall number of direct-democracy opportunities is large. Not since 2007 have so many ballot measures (three dozen) gone before voters in an odd-numbered year, according to Ballotpedia.
Below are the eight items on the ballot next week that good-government advocates are watching most intently — listed alphabetically by where the voting will take place. Four are initiatives in big cities and two are statewide referenda. The others are partisan elections for offices where the future of a reliable and relatable democracy is part of what's in the offing.
Just in time for the first presidential debate of the fall, Joe Biden has laid out a plan for improving government ethics and campaign finance regulation that adds more substance to a democracy reform agenda he hasn't been very vocal about.
But the former vice president's package still does not come close to the expansiveness or specificity of the "good government" proposals of Elizabeth Warren, who currently stands near Biden as the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, or the other top-tier presidential candidates.
Whether these issues get any air time when a dozen of the candidates meet Tuesday night is an open question, however. To the dismay of democracy reform advocates, and in defiance of polling that shows fixing the system's brokenness is among the voters' top desires, the issue received only minimal attention in the three debates so far.
One reason may be that the debate moderators have chosen to emphasize the differences among the candidates on the most prominent issues likely to define President Trump's 2020 re-election campaign, and the dozen Democrats on stage in Ohio stand in broad agreement on most of the top proposals for improving democracy.