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Teaching Our Grinches the True Meaning of Democracy

by Kevin Johnson, published

Abuse of power stopped by citizens, that’s a good sign of the health of our democracy, and it happened in New Jersey this past weekend when state legislative leaders were forced off a plan to permanently gerrymander Democratic control. It’s an even better sign that the citizen groups doing the stopping were on the side that would have benefited politically from the power grab.

The same thing happened in Utah this past election day, when the mostly Republican electorate approved an initiative ordering the mostly Republican legislature to play fair and stop gerrymandering.

The rebuked political leaders in these states might have looked a bit like the Grinch hearing that singing down in Whoville. “Maybe democracy isn't just about which side wins,” they might have said, “maybe it means a little bit more.”

These days a lot of Whovilles are teaching Grinches the true meaning of Democracy. Voters approved thirteen state level pro-voter ballot initiatives this year, the most since the early 1970s, which interestingly was the last time Congress and the states changed the Constitution (passing the 18-year-old voting age amendment).

The success of such initiatives as redistricting reform, felon voting, and automatic voter registration has been well documented; what’s less known is how broad-based these victories were. The table below shows how reforms fared in “Trump Country,” counties the president won in 2016 by 25 points or more:

Pre-election polling commission by Issue One found similar widespread support for reform. Four in 5 voters said they support bipartisan political reform, including reducing the influence of big money in politics. Backing for legislative action is cross-partisan with 85% of Democrats, 81% of independents and 78% of Republicans in support — and a majority (57%) say they want fixing the political system to be a top priority come January 2019.

Popular will is often ignored in this country, but desire for reform seems to have reached critical mass, and politicians are starting to heed the call -- and turn their sleighs back down from Mt. Crumpit.

In the past month, rank-and-file Republican and Democratic lawmakers have begun vocalizing support in bipartisan fashion for systemic reforms to the legislative branch, and 200 former members of Congress, governors and cabinet secretaries of both parties have come together in a ReFormers Caucus to advocate for solutions to fix our democracy.

Additionally, a record number of members of the 116th Congress say they will reject corporate PAC money, including 30 new House members.

Congressional action is coming, including the “HR1”reform package that Democrats have introduced, and bipartisan initiatives such as Political Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA) to ensure the public knows who is trying to influence their vote in elections and to prevent lawmakers from abusing leadership PAC funds for personal gain.

Bipartisanship will be critical to success. Campaigners who ran the victorious state initiates say their success depended on these changes arising from the people for the collective benefit, not from one side for the benefit of one party. The strongest provision, so to speak, in any political reform package is the bipartisan support behind it.

From a historical perspective, we are looking at a once in generations opportunity for major reform, as the chart below illustrates.

Over and over in our history, national change has come when state level grassroots movements reach the critical mass the center can no longer ignore. So keep singing in Whoville, the Grinches are starting to listen.

Editor's Note: This article was co-written Kevin Johnson, the executive director of Election Reformers Network, and Nick Penniman, CEO of Issue One.

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