Are Americans ready for great big reforms that renew democracy?


Americans keep telling us they want real reform with local and state resolutions—more than 600 so far—calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United ruling and restore the essential premises that money is not speech, corporations are not people and citizens and their elected representatives have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars. On Tuesday, the city of Kent, Ohio, joined the list, giving 64 percent support to a resolution that declares “1. Only human beings, not corporations, are legal persons with Constitutional rights, and 2. Money is not equivalent to speech, and therefore, regulating political contributions and spending does not equate to limiting political speech.” To emphasize their point, Kent voters mandated the establishment of an annual Democracy Day to focus attention on the need to let the will of the people—as opposed to big money—define the direction of government.

Americans keep telling us they want real reform with grassroots organizing, petitioning and marching on behalf of voting rights that—despite the ongoing assault by right-wing politicians and the US Supreme Court on Voting Rights Act protections—has yielded tremendous victories such as the groundbreaking Oregon and California automatic voter registration laws.

And Americans told us a lot on Tuesday by backing bold new responses to a broken politics.

• In Ohio, 71 percent of voters backed Issue 1, a constitutional amendment to ban partisan gerrymandering and establish a bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw legislative district lines that promote real competition. The vote was so overwhelming that backers now plan to take on an even bigger target: the gerrymandering of congressional seats. “Today’s win was an important first step, but it only got us halfway there,” says League of Women Voters of Ohio executive director Carrie Davis. “We need to take these new anti-gerrymandering rules that Issue 1 applied to the General Assembly and extend them to congressional districts, which are even more gerrymandered.”

• In Maine, 55 percent of voters backed a proposal to dramatically strengthen the state’s 19-year-old old Clean Elections system for publicly financing campaigns. In response to court rulings that have opened all sorts of new avenues for corporate special interests and billionaire donors to buy elections, the voters updated the state law so that candidates who accept public financing can receive additional public funding to counter attacks from supposedly “independent” Super PAC groups. The reforms enacted Tuesday also require “independent” groups to disclose the identities of their top donors on all advertising—a transparency rule that has the potential to reveal when individual millionaires and billionaires are faking up self-serving campaigns under assumed identities such as “Americans for Apple Pie.” In addition, the Maine measure hikes penalties for violations of campaign finance laws. “What Maine people proved tonight is that we won’t let a Supreme Court ruling or [legislative actions that weaken] our clean election laws, win the day,” said Andrew Bossie of the Yes on One campaign. “With a strong Clean Elections system and enhanced disclosure and more accountability in our elections, we can have a more true democracy that works for all of us.”

• Seattle voters overwhelmingly backed Initiative 122, which establishes a system of taxpayer-funded “democracy vouchers.” Under the first-in-the-nation plan, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will mail four $25 vouchers to each voter in each election cycle. Voters can then assign the coupon—as a sort of campaign donation—to any candidate for mayor, city attorney, or city council who is participating in the voucher system. Candidates who participate must accept strict spending limits ($800,000 for a mayoral race), accept limits on the amount of direct donations they can collect from private individuals or groups, and agree to participate in at least three public debates. “Seattle leads the nation, first on $15 an hour and now on campaign-finance reform,” said Heather Weiner of the Honest Elections Seattle campaign that backed I-122, and that was enthusiastically endorsed by the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, and other reform groups. “We look forward to seeing more cities and states implementing their own local solutions to the problem of big money in politics.”

The crises created by big money in politics—corruption of governance, warped policy making, vapid campaigns, low turnout—require local, state, and national action. National action—constitutional and congressional—will be the heaviest lift. And that’s why it is vital to keep conscious of what can be done at the local and state levels. Model responses matter, and the 2015 election results signal that they are coming.

“From coast to coast, Americans are taking action to reduce the influence of wealthy and well-connected special interests on our politics and on our democracy,” says Congressman John Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who has emerged as one of the most innovative thinkers in Congress when it comes to election reform issues.

“Nearly 70 percent of Americans feel that our political system is broken because it works for wealthy donors and special interests at the expense of everyday Americans,” says Sarbanes, who suggests that members of Congress should “take the [cue] from state and local efforts that fight back against big money in politics and pass sensible reforms at the federal level to take power away from wealthy special interests and return it to everyday people.”

Sarbanes is right about the need for congressional action.

But the most immediate response is for grassroots activists to take the cue from Ohio, Maine and Seattle and start making the changes that are necessary and possible in hometowns and home states across this country.