Gray is a Baptist minister, secretary of the Missouri Democratic Party and a former state senator in Kansas. Fields is a New York physician and a board member of Open Primaries, which advocates for nonpartisan nominating elections.
While Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden is, of course, the main event in American democracy this week, there are new conversations taking place in Black politics looking beyond this year toward important changes in the relationship between Black empowerment, electoral reform and the Democratic Party.
Since the Gary Convention, the historic 1972 gathering of 8,000 Black leaders in Indiana, the dominant electoral strategy for Black empowerment has been to elect African Americans through the Democratic Party. This strategy has been successful at increasing the number of African American office holders, including the first Black president. But it has been less successful at impacting living conditions and political power for the Black community as a whole.
Diverse African American leaders are opening up conversations about this. It is not yet a full blown debate. The "elect more Black Democrats" approach still dominates. But there is a conversation emerging, fueled by an ascendant Black Lives Matter movement that refuses to be subsumed into partisan politics as usual.
Jessica Byrd, a founder of the Electoral Justice Project at the Movement for Black Lives, put it this way in a New York Times op-ed two months ago: "Parties want our votes while promising little and delivering less. That is because the electoral system was designed as binary; the entry points are two doors expected to fit the voices and policy needs of hundreds of millions of multiracial constituents. Instead, for a new generation of Black activists, success lies in the process of making change — in politics, policies and social practices."
Byrd raises two vitally important points — the failure of the parties to deliver on promises while taking the Black community for granted, and the binary structure of the electoral system that affords our community little choice in the matter. And she hinted at how the Black community is often asked to defend and protect the partisan status quo.
For example, in 2014, when anti-gerrymandering reformers tried to create a citizens commission to draw electoral maps in Illinois, the Democratic legislative leadership in Springfield asked African American and Latino elected officials to be the "first line of defense" against the effort. They were told to assert that reforming gerrymandering would be harmful to black and brown people. But are the interests of our communities best served by protecting the Democratic Party against competition?
In Florida, Democratic Party activists are using a similar playbook. Despite polls showing that 70 percent of Black voters in Florida support open primaries, and that hundreds of thousands of Black independent voters would be enfranchised by ending closed primaries, Democratic Party activists have been campaigning actively against the measure on Tuesday's ballot that would open most of the state's primary elections to all voters — with the top two finishers advancing to November, regardless of their party ID.
Their sole — and quite false — talking point is that if you let everyone participate in primaries, Black candidates will suffer. Even worse, they're using the Black community to persuade white liberals that enfranchising independent voters is anti-Black. That's troublesome.
Many Black Democrats reject this premise. Cori Bush, the Democrat overwhelmingly favored to win election as the new congresswoman for St. Louis, and state Rep. Rasheen Aldredge of St. Louis have fused their community activism with outspoken support for structural reform. Both are advocating for Prop D for Democracy, a referendum that would create a new election system for municipal offices in their city: In the primary, voters would have the ability to approve of as many candidates as they choose — whether Democrat, Republican or independent — and the the top two vote getters would meet again in November. The proposal emerged out of conversations among citizens unhappy with an electoral system that produced politicians, Black and white, without strong majorities behind them.
In Baltimore, nonprofit founder Kim Klacik has raised more than $6 million for her Republican campaign in an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district. While much of the national press she has garnered is a function of President Trump's involvement in the race — and while neither of us is advocating that African-Americans become Republicans — it would be foolish to dismiss the traction that Klacik is gaining in the city's Black neighborhoods as purely a function of national dynamics.
Baltimore residents have been profoundly neglected by a local machine that faces no competition and little accountability. Too many American cities like theirs have been left to rot, and the excuse given all too often is that it is Republicans alone who are to blame for substandard schools, high unemployment and violent crime.
A new generation of leaders and activists are raising eyebrows at this timeworn excuse. They want progress, not finger pointing.
In this chaotic and challenging moment, let's not lose sight of two important opportunities. The country is responding positively to Black Lives Matter. And emerging Black leaders and activists are demanding new political strategies and new political rules. They're tired of that glass ceiling of structural racism and partisan corruption imposed by the status quo and want to break right through it.
These are significant developments that open new possibilities for qualitative transformation in the lives of Black Americans and the country as a whole. To take full advantage, we must insist that unscrupulous politicians stop pitting the Black agenda against the reform agenda and embrace what our younger generation is building. Let's break right through that glass ceiling together.
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Fields is on the board of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization that advocates for open and nonpartisan primary systems. Opdycke is its president.
Open Primaries recently endorsed the STL Approves campaign in St. Louis for approval voting and nonpartisan primaries. It's an important effort, not just for the city, but for the country.
We join local community and civil rights leaders including City Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Democratic Party Committeeman Rasheen Aldridge, the Rev. Darryl Gray, the League of Women Voters, Show Me Integrity and the Center for Election Science in endorsing this initiative.
St. Louis is one of only a few remaining major cities — New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Louisville, Indianapolis, Charlotte and Washington are the others — that conduct partisan municipal elections. It's a lousy system. Candidates must first win a partisan primary, and then compete in a general election. More than 80 percent of cities conduct nonpartisan elections and let all voters vote for whomever they want in both the first and second rounds. Like many cities completely dominated by one party, the only election that counts in St. Louis is the Democratic primary; whoever wins the Democratic Primary is the de facto winner.
STL Approves is gathering signatures in hopes of getting a referendum on the ballot next April. It wants to change the status quo using a one-two punch:
- End partisan primaries and replace them with an open, nonpartisan primary in which all voters vote and all candidates compete.
- Institute approval voting, an innovative form of voting where citizens "approve" of as many candidates as they want.
Every voter gets to participate in round one, not just Democrats, and they get to choose from among all the candidates: Democrats, Republicans, Greens and independents. Voters get to do something new — hallelujah — which is approve of candidates. The two who have the most approval advance from the first to the second round. The ultimate winner will have won the broad support of the city's voters.
The new system is all about the voters and the candidates, not about the parties. Let all voters participate in every round. Give them new tools with which to cast ballots. Let candidates campaign to everyone and earn a majority if they want to serve. It's a win-win for voters and candidates, and lose-lose for party elites who prefer an outdated system that gives them maximum control.
The current system is woefully out of sync. Many candidates in St. Louis win primaries with less than 40 percent support and then coast to victory in noncompetitive general elections. If enacted by the voters, the new system will encourage more involvement and higher turnout. And with it, a more representative and democratic political culture in St. Louis.
Our organization is endorsing this effort for two important reasons.
First, there is a national conversation about electoral innovation that is accelerating, which is very positive. But improvements to how we vote work best when all voters can participate. In St. Louis, not everyone can participate in round one, which is the only round that counts. Only Democrats can. Republicans, third-party members and independents are forced to choose a Democratic ballot or be frozen out. At a time when independents are the fastest growing segment of the electorate, voting arrangements that treat these voters as second-class citizens are outdated and have to go. The STL Approves campaign will bring approval voting to the city and make sure that everyone can vote in the elections.
There's another reason we are endorsing this measure. St. Louis is a majority-minority city with a prominent black community and a history of both civil rights advancements and ongoing inequality, tension and frustration. When the protests in neighboring Ferguson are over and the policing reforms (such as they are) are implemented, the question of how to empower the marginalized and create a voting system that encourages bridge building and cross-community coalitions remains.
Election reform only makes sense if it helps real people dismantle barriers and create a better future together. We think STL Approves is doing just that.
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