The 2020 presidential election shattered voter turnout records, with about two-thirds of eligible Americans casting a ballot. It was the highest voter turnout rate in a century and the largest increase in voters between two presidential elections.
High turnout amid a deadly pandemic wasn't a foregone conclusion and didn't happen by accident. It happened because many states, including Vermont, temporarily expanded voting by mail and early voting options to protect citizens' right to vote and their health. These changes proved immensely popular nationwide among voters, with nearly 70 percent casting their ballots either by mail (43 percent) or in person before Election Day (26 percent) — a dramatic increase over 2016.
This marks resounding success for democratic participation. If states didn't realize it before, they should now be sure that giving people more ways and opportunities to vote is a good idea in any election, and many of the temporary policies put in place during the pandemic to expand voting options should be made permanent.
Vermont officially learned that lesson Monday. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed a sweeping vote-by-mail bill into law, ensuring that for every general election starting in 2022, every eligible Vermont voter will be sent a ballot, just as they were in 2020. Another important feature of the bill is that it sets up a "ballot curing" system. If an election official flags a potential issue with a particular ballot, such as a missing signature, the voter will have the opportunity to fix — or "cure" — the issue so that their vote is counted.
The people of Vermont demanded this change after seeing the system succeed in 2020. A RepresentUs poll showed that nearly 70 percent of Vermonters supported making the vote-by-mail policy permanent after the 2020 election, and more than 90 percent agreed that voting should be made as easy as possible. The bill garnered the support of Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and Independents in the General Assembly — a truly multipartisan victory.
With its new law, Vermont now joins Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington as states that send all registered voters a ballot for general elections, and plants itself firmly as one of the most voter-friendly states in the country.
All states should follow Vermont's lead and take steps to move toward a robust vote-by-mail system. While the numbers vary slightly from state to state, vote-by-mail significantly increases turnout, and voters consistently like it. Colorado's vote-by-mail policy, for example, boosted turnout by over 9 percent. In addition to increasing overall turnout, giving everyone the option to vote by mail reduces the participation gap between voters of color and white voters.
But instead of embracing vote by mail after 2020, many states have chosen to go in the opposite direction. Georgia, Florida, Iowa and other states have passed laws restricting access to the ballot box, including limiting vote by mail, decreasing the number of dropboxes and curtailing early voting. In total, legislators in 47 states have introduced 361 bills that include restrictive voting measures.
These restrictions represent an existential threat to democracy, and are solutions in search of a problem. Concerns about "voter fraud" and "election integrity" are often used to justify these anti-voter policies, despite the fact that fraud has been and continues to be vanishingly rare to the point of being functionally nonexistent. And each and every day, it becomes clearer and clearer that those pushing for these laws are using the "Big Lie" narrative to further their own political power.
It can't be said enough: Vote by mail is a tried and true policy — already in place in both red and blue states — that increases turnout and is popular among voters of all political parties.
The Covid-19 pandemic upended our lives in many ways, including the way we vote. We can't afford to miss this opportunity to learn from the 2020 election and implement or make permanent laws that made our democracy stronger. At the moment, too many states are learning the wrong lesson. Let's follow Vermont's lead by passing pro-voter laws in other states, and fight back against bills that hurt American democracy.
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Silver is the director and co-founder of RepresentUs, a right-left anti-corruption group.
We see the breathtaking headlines so often, it's hard to muster the sadness and outrage they deserve: Nearly half of American families are unable to afford basics like housing and food. Bloomberg News reports that nearly 40 percent of Americans would struggle to cover a $400 emergency. Low unemployment and headlines about a strong economy bely massive swaths of Americans struggling just to make ends meet. Our roads and bridges are in disrepair. Average life expectancy, infant mortality, our educational system, and myriad other indicators continue to fall in global rankings of developed nations. Public trust in government and our elected leaders is anemic, while gridlock and polarization define politics. A soft civil war is driving everyday Americans apart in dangerous, foreboding ways.
But amidst this bleak landscape, something special is happening across our nation. Record numbers of Americans, liberal and conservative, are connecting the dots between the political dysfunction and its root cause: broken election, campaign finance, and ethics laws that skew incentives, and actually cause our elected leaders to behave badly. In 2018, a record number of democracy reforms won at the ballot and in state legislatures: anti-gerrymandering, ranked-choice voting and transparency, to name a few. Laws that empower voters with more choice and more voice, and restore trust in American democracy. The victories were driven by local grassroots leaders from the right and the left, finding common ground in support of common sense solutions. Washington politicians could learn a lot from what's happening in the states where people are putting country over party.
The movement's recent wins were celebrated—and the next wave of reform was mapped out—at the Unrig Summit in Nashville earlier this year. More than 2,000 people, including attendees from all fifty states, participated in what was the largest gathering of this cross-partisan democracy movement to-date.
What's really powerful about this is that if you look at the arc of American history, this is how change happens. From women's suffrage to marriage equality, from prohibition to term limits, reforms that faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in Washington, D.C., prevailed across the nation. This is how change happens.
It is now up to us – every American – to take this nascent democracy movement and turn it into a big, powerful democracy movement: to leverage the momentum from these local victories, and begin shifting it from a political movement to a cultural movement. Issues such as marriage equality and criminal justice made progress because they were able to take once-obscure issues and make them kitchen table issues.
To do that we need to get 3.5 percent – or 11 million Americans – actively engaged in the American democracy movement. Why this number? A study from Columbia University looked at data from 1900 to 2006 and found that every political movement around the world that got 3.5 percent of the population actively engaged in their cause won.
Progressives and conservatives can unite around the reform that makes all other reforms possible. Skeptics of strange bedfellow coalitions need only look at the math. According to Gallup, only 26 percent of the country is liberal, 35 percent is conservative, and another 35 percent are moderates. No single ideological segment can win alone. And polling indicates that all of these groups support policies that unrig politics. And they must be the right policies; those that sit at the intersection of policy impact and political viability. Policies that are transformative, game-changing and winnable, backed by a unified movement that is singing from the same hymnal in a way that goes beyond cerebral arguments and deeply connects with voters at an emotional level.
That's the key to winning. This is how we reclaim our precious democracy. And if we do it well, we can manifest a future where our leaders put country over party. Where voters matter more than big donors. Where we have real, meaningful choices on Election Day, and where civility and compassion define, rather than defy, government.
Millions of Americans feel that we the people are destroying ourselves from within. But I have faith, because nearly all of us care deeply about this earth and all the people on it. Millions more Americans are having the lightbulb moment when we realize that unrigging our political system holds the key to advancing the issues we care about most and making our country work for everyday Americans.
I've never been more certain that if we take the 2018 wins and we unite around this vision, we will continue to see a massive upswell of reforms sweep across America—all the way to Washington, D.C. Today, there are more than 100 important campaigns coalescing across the nation for 2019 and 2020: from ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts, to dark money disclosure in Arizona, to anti-gerrymandering in Arkansas, there are dozens of other emerging campaigns in cities and states across the United States. These reforms hold the key to fixing our political system and ultimately breaking the cycle of corruption in American government.
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