A New Democracy Agenda

A New Democracy Agenda

A discussion about voter suppression, electoral reform, and the obstacles for the left in a political system dominated by the wealthy.

Early voters in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 6, 2020 (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

On September 30, Dissent, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Fund, The New Press, and the DSA National Electoral Committee hosted a discussion on voter suppression and electoral reform based on J. Mijin Cha’s chapter in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style, “We the People: Voting Rights, Campaign Finance, and Election Reform” and moderated by David Duhalde. Cha, Miles Rapoport, and Georgia State Representative Renitta Shannon talked about what to do on a fraught election day—and how American politics got to this point.

The transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

David Duhalde: What drew you to a democratic socialist analysis of voter suppression and electoral reform?

J. Mijin Cha: Before we get to the socialism part of democratic socialism, we have to talk about the democratic part. In the United States, we do not have the democratic part—in fact, we’re far from it.

Until we fix the corrosive impact of money on democracy, we face a losing battle in the fight for a more just future—for ambitious climate policy, healthcare as a right, or addressing stagnant wages and an offensively low minimum wage. If we eliminate the role of money in our electoral system and make voting part of civic engagement, not something that people have to jump through hoops to do, we can finally have a representative democracy—which means that the voice of the people is reflected not just in who is making decisions, but in the types of decisions that are being made.

A lot of the things that we talk about, from increased minimum wage to a jobs guarantee, actually have large support in the electorate. But they receive very little attention from our elected officials. Congress overestimates how conservative the electorate is, because they only hear from people who are wealthy. It’s not just the people who donate, but also the congressional staff and the elected officials themselves who are very wealthy. It’s an echo chamber of money. Until we decrease this toxic influence that money has on our electoral system, and until we really realize the fact that voting is a right, not a privilege, the ideas of socialism will never be able to advance in a country like the United States.

Miles Rapoport: I started out as a community organizer way back in the late sixties and early seventies, partly against the Vietnam War, but also around fundamental economic and neighborhood issues, whether they were utility rates or property taxes or rent control. I got into the Connecticut state legislature as a result.

We were running up against a democracy that wasn’t working—or it was working, but not for ordinary citizens. If we did a ballot initiative on electric utility rates, the utility companies were able to put unlimited amounts of money into these campaigns, and they could always overcome us. If we went to the legislature, we discovered that campaign contributions from the realtors’ association and the landlords were tilting the playing field dramatically against the idea of rent control. And on and on. Those of us who were in community organizing realized that we needed to work on our democracy if we were going to win on these other issues.

Over the last ten years, democracy has become a front-and-center issue in the country. You see it in campaign finance issues, voting rights issues, and in the very fundamental notion, now, of a peaceful transition of power after an election.

We’ve made a lot of progress. It may not seem like it, watching Donald Trump in action. Twenty years ago, there was same-day voter registration—which increases voter turnout anywhere from 5 to 7 percent—in only six states. Now it’s in twenty-one. Early voting was virtually nonexistent; this year, there are thirty-eight states where people are able to vote early. It’s important, when we talk about voter suppression issues, that we also talk about how the grassroots democracy movement has made real progress in opening up the system. I think we will end up with very large turnouts and significantly better outcomes over the long haul—if we can survive this November.

Renitta Shannon: The majority of state legislators across the country are part-time positions. That immediately affects who is able to serve; it cuts out folks who have to work 9-to-5 jobs because that’s typically when we are actually in session voting, and it overrepresents those who are retired or are independently wealthy. That skews the understanding of what working folks need and what policies are popular.

I have had the pleasure of serving on the Governmental Affairs Committee in the Georgia House, which deals with election law, since I was elected in 2017. And I can tell you that it has been a nonstop stream of bills coming through that are meant to suppress the vote—to make things more difficult for voters to keep up with registering, staying registered, and exercising the right to vote. It has been a relentless attack against allowing free and fair elections.

Duhalde: Our elected officials almost always side with the wealthy, prioritizing the desires of the 1 percent over the needs of the 99 percent. How does this happen, and what can we do about it?

Cha: A lot of it is because elected officials are part of the 1 percent. Their interests are the ones that are advancing. Congressional staff salaries are really low; you can only work there if your parents are wealthy. There is this camaraderie among elites—it’s not just that you’re Democratic or Republican, but that you went to the same boarding school. You all have each other’s back.

One solution to that is for more people like Renitta and Miles to run, more people like Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: people who actually have worked and don’t depend on inherited wealth. In what world does a $7.25 minimum wage provide enough money to survive and feed your family? The answer to that question often is, “Well, you should just get a better job,” which shows such a disdain for workers—because many of these people have never been workers themselves.

The second reason why this happens is that you need to raise so much money to get elected. Remember Mayor Pete and his wine cave of billionaires? You have to be extremely naïve to think that people in that cave don’t want something by paying that money to be there. That is exactly how the interests of the wealthy advance. It’s legal corruption; it’s a pay-to-play system.

One way to get around that is public financing. In many countries, elections are publicly financed. Here, that discussion can be really fraught. But we pay either way. Either we pay to have an electoral system that supports candidates who aren’t wealthy, or we pay because there’s just so much public money given away to wealthy corporate interests. We are in the latter system, which is far more expensive.

The only way to counter capital is people power; we must start organizing and build and wield power. Until then, the system that is dominated by the wealthy will continue to be dominated by the wealthy. We need to elect different people so that different decisions can be made.

Rapoport: It ought to be obvious—and it was attempted, years ago—to simply limit the amount of money that could be contributed to campaigns. But unfortunately, we have been operating since 1976 under the Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court case, which said that spending unlimited money on your campaign is constitutionally protected free speech. That was the original sin of the campaign finance judicial system. Decisions like Citizens United have emanated from that. It’s impossible to control money coming into a campaign.

This forces us to ask what we can do within that constitutional framework until we get a Supreme Court that is willing to relook at the fact pattern and change the basic campaign view. The answer to that has been a voluntary public-financing system. In Connecticut, it has made a difference: you have to raise a certain amount of money from small donors, and once you do that, you get a grant from the state to run your campaign. You don’t have to raise any more money. Legislators in Connecticut have told me that the biggest single change is that the power of lobbyists has been diminished. Because candidates don’t have to go to the lobbyists or wealthy donors for money, they spend a lot more time talking to real voters.

Shannon: As I mentioned before, most state legislators throughout the country are part-time. There are only four states that have full-time legislatures. That leads directly into why we see the issues that we see, because most of the folks who are serving are completely out of touch.

On the insurance committee, I had a conversation with a Republican legislator about why Democrats were insisting that we expand Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid is very popular in Georgia, even among Republicans. This is something that wouldn’t cost anybody any political capital.

She said that she didn’t understand why we would expand Medicaid, because when she was growing up, instead of putting their money into cell phones and luxury items, her parents made paying for healthcare a priority. I said to her, “That was sixty years ago. You get out a calculator right now, you do $7.25 times forty, and you tell me where there is money to pay for rent when we know that there is a rental crisis in this country. You tell me where there’s money to pay for daycare. And then you tell me how you’re going to have money left to pay for healthcare. This is not a values issue; it is that people literally don’t have the money.” I think that story really illustrates just how out of touch folks are who are serving.

And then of course there’s the financing of campaigns. The general public still sees women as less investable when it comes to giving them money for campaigns. Even if you’re not going to take lots of money from lobbyists or corporations, it’s not a level playing field. If you’re a Black woman, like myself, people see you as even less of a safe investment. 

Before I ran for office, I was an organizer, in my personal time. I worked on labor issues, worked on racial justice issues. But I know that I would not have been in the position to run for office had I not worked for a pharmaceutical company right before running; I had the ability to save. That’s a major hurdle. It’s the same thing for those who are trying to raise young children. We have almost no women in the legislature who have young children, because you don’t have time.

Duhalde: The United States is an outlier among democracies in how much it spends during elections and how long the election season lasts, creating incredible barriers for any political candidates who are not independently wealthy. How or why did the United States develop so differently from other advanced bourgeois democracies?

Rapoport: There is one constitutional reason for it: the commitment to the First Amendment and how free speech has been interpreted. In the UK there’s a time limit on campaigns. You get a certain amount of money from the government, and that’s it, so the campaigns are relatively inexpensive. But in the United States, you cannot limit when the campaigns start. If I’m a candidate and I want to file my committee and run, I can do that.

One of the reasons that campaigns are so long is because there’s so much fundraising that needs to be done. The first year of a campaign for Congress is mainly spent fundraising. Many countries have some form of a public financing system; they also have a much stronger party system, and generally people run as representatives and part of a slate. The United States is much more individualistic about candidates. And the money that’s being spent on the campaigns works—85 percent of the time, the candidate who spends more money wins the race.

One positive development out of the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and that’s happening now in the Joe Biden campaign, is the explosion of small-donor contributions through the internet. That’s been a campaign finance reform that has taken place not legislatively but through technology. Still, the United States spends multiple times what other countries spend, and it’s because we choose not to enact limits on the time of campaigning or the money that’s being spent on the campaigns.

Shannon: It’s really tough for those who are trying to move forward with small-dollar donations, because not everybody can be Bernie Sanders. You can do that if you’re running for president, or if you’re running for U.S. Senate, or on these campaigns that generate a lot of media, but most folks can’t even tell you what a state representative, or state senator, or school board member, really does.

There are folks out there who are trying. I’ve managed to do really well not relying on corporations or lobbyists for support, but that’s also because I came from community organizing, and I got elected by the people, and that’s who keeps me there. I was outspent four to one in my original election.

There’s also so much money that’s being spent not directly on elections, but on electioneering—on groups that spend all their time creating the most gerrymandered maps. That’s the type of support that conservatives have: think tanks that sit around figuring out ways to maintain power. In North Carolina, a judge said that these maps were drawn with almost surgical precision to make sure that the districts were heavily gerrymandered. We’ve seen this here in Georgia, where conservative legislators come to Black legislators and say, “Hey, if you give me your white voters, we’ll swap. Give me some of your white voters and I’ll give you my Black voters. That way it’s easier for both of us to get reelected.”

In some states, like Georgia, I don’t even know if it’s possible to gerrymander these maps any more than they have been. I think that’s why there’s such an attack on the census.

Cha: The length of the election season is also tied to the fact that we have a whole economy around elections: pollsters, message testers, communications firms, consultants. When we try to do something like shorten an election system, these are the interests that are against it. It’s not just elected officials, and what we think of as the party, and wealthy interests. It’s the entire ecosystem of elections that will need to be transitioned to another industry; otherwise, the incentive is to keep the spending high and the election season long.

Duhalde: Where does gerrymandering come from, and how does it continue to disenfranchise voters on the basis of race, class, and other factors?

Shannon: Gerrymandering, plain and simple, is race-based. It is a process by where you decide who you think is most likely to vote for a political party, and then build maps based on that.

Rapoport: The word “gerrymander” comes from Massachusetts. The governor of Massachusetts was a person named Elbridge Gerry; he signed the bills that drew the districts. One district, stretching from the top of Massachusetts, all the way through Boston, and down to the South Shore, looked like a salamander. That’s how the word gerrymander came about. This is a long tradition to protect incumbents. It’s a racist way of operating, and it’s also a fundamentally antidemocratic way of operating, because it allows a minority to rule over a majority.

While the focus was on Congress in 2010, Republicans targeted legislative districts around the country (they called it “Operation REDMAP”), won an enormous amount of districts, and were able to control the redistricting process in 2011. In North Carolina, when the legislature drew the districts, even though the state is pretty much fifty-fifty in terms of Democrat and Republican, there were ten Republican congresspeople and three Democrats.

This is another area where we have made a lot of progress. After the redistricting process in 2021, and the elections in 2022, it’s going to be much less gerrymandered than 2011. Why? Not because of a change of heart on the part of Republicans who have done it, but because there have been ballot initiatives in Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri, to name a few states, to create fair redistricting processes. 

Cha: Pennsylvania was so gerrymandered that the majority of the congressional delegation was Republican, even though the state is split about fifty-fifty. They were sued, they redistricted, and now their recent crop of congressional representatives is about fifty-fifty. That shows that redistricting does work.

Duhalde: It seems likely that the result of the 2020 election will be contested, given the current political climate and what President Trump has said. What can we do to curtail voter suppression on the local and national level? What can we do to protect the results of the vote?

Cha: Volunteer as a poll worker. There’s a shortage, and we need them to make sure that elections are administered smoothly.

And I very much believe that there is strength in numbers, so put on a mask, stay distanced, and show up in the streets. Trump says he’s with the silent majority. But in fact, we are the majority. The people that believe in this democracy, that believe in the right to vote, are the majority. And we should act like it.

Shannon: There are lots of ways that you can volunteer so that you can help make sure that we do have a smooth election. There are organizations probably in every state. I know the ACLU looks for volunteers to help watch what’s happening at the polls and help report things.

Get to know what your local elections board is doing. Make it your business to attend those meetings and let them know that you’re watching.

Rapaport: There are two phases. The first is what to do between now and November 3. I do think that what is required is just a tremendous turnout. We’re moving in that direction. People are determined to vote. As people try to scare them out of it and discourage them and throw up road blocks—all that is motivating people even more. Already 3 million ballots have been cast. If you’re going to vote by mail, do it early, don’t take any risks on delays from the post office. If you’re in one of the thirty-eight states that have early voting, in-person voting, by all means do it, don’t wait until Election Day. If you’re going to go on Election Day, mask up, bring a lunch, and be prepared to do your duty.

Hopefully, there will be an overwhelming turnout, an overwhelming victory, and nothing for the losing side to do but moan and complain. However, if it’s close, I do think that we will be in for a real constitutional crisis that will require a tremendous amount of political courage from people who are in legislative seats, both at the state level and in Congress. It’s going to require judges to do their jobs and count the votes; it’s going to require election administrators to resist pressure and count every vote. It’s going to require the media to be clear about the fact that speed is not the issue here. Counting the votes fully and clearly is the issue. Afterward, we are going to have a situation where people are in the streets demonstrating in support of democracy; I think it’s going to look like some of the Eastern European revolutions that just took place. We are going to have to stand together and make sure that the will of the majority of the people of this country is not thwarted.

Duhalde: Was Trump’s statement at the debate, in which he encouraged his base to watch the polls, a form of voter suppression?

Shannon: Absolutely. What they’re trying to do is make folks afraid to come out and vote—and it’s not the first time that this has been done. When Brian Kemp ran for governor of Georgia, he was on Twitter saying, “Hey, conservatives, I need you to come out and watch the polls to make sure that liberals don’t steal the vote.” In fact, he’s the one who has made it his business to steal elections and engineer them to the point that it is impossible for anyone to easily vote in Georgia. That is just a scare tactic. Making police officers stand at polls or putting polls in police stations is also voter suppression. It’s just a sneaky way of doing it.

Duhalde: What are some organizations that are geared toward supporting voter turnout and protecting voters, especially in traditionally disempowered communities?

Shannon: Fair Fight, which Stacey Abrams started here in Georgia, is going national this year to protect election integrity. There’s also Common Cause.

Rapaport: State Voices, an organization led by Alexis Anderson-Reed, is coordinating twenty-three state tables to register people to vote and get them to the polls. If there are any problems on Election Day, or any questions about polling places, there’s a national toll-free number: 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

Duhalde: Some organizations are trying to create a kind of “liberal” or “left” version of ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council]—the very corporate legislative group that writes bills for people to insert into state governments—to outsource staff and policy work. Do you see this as a positive development, or something that will continue to ossify the current way of doing things?

Shannon: There’s an organization like that that does exist called SiX, or the State Innovation Exchange. SiX works very differently than ALEC; ALEC creates bills and runs them across the country. We’ve seen legislators turn in bills that still say “ALEC” on the top. The way the usual process works is, once you have an idea for a bill, you take it to legislative counsel, a group of attorneys working for each and every state legislature. They will turn your bill idea into legalese, turning it into an actual bill that you can collect signatures on and move forward. Because I don’t trust everything that comes out of legislative counsel here in Georgia—they’re supposed to be nonpartisan, but at the end of the day, the speaker is the one who gave them the job—I use SiX to make sure that the bills that I am asking to be created are tight bills that reflect progressive values and don’t leave gaps and holes. This organization is very helpful because they’re able to do research, when, being in the minority party, you simply don’t have those types of resources.

SiX is the only organization I know of that is similar to ALEC, but they do not have the same bent; they’re more of a resource for research or drafting a bill.

Rapaport: During my days in the Connecticut legislature, ALEC would do a big mailing with their bills for the year. One day, twenty-five Republican legislators would put in a bill to, say, make English the official language of the state of Connecticut, prohibiting voter registration cards from being printed in Spanish and so on. We would all know the ALEC mailing had arrived. The legislators wouldn’t even open it, they would just give it to their clerks or their interns to take it down to the legislative drafting office and get it filed.

I would echo that SiX is the most equivalent on our side. I think that there is the real possibility next year—if there are good, solid results, and Democratic majorities or split legislatures in more places—to introduce a suite of democratic reform bills: Automatic voter registration. Same-day registration. Restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions. Pre-registration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Early voting. Expanded mail-in voting. Redistricting commissions. Campaign finance reform. Public financing bills. Voucher bills. Matching fund bills.

Cha: The second part of David’s question is whether this development is good, or if it is just a continuation of the broken system. I think that’s the wrong question. I think that the better question is: how do we best counter what’s currently happening? Obviously, the system is broken. And we need to replace it. But in the meantime, very bad things are happening to a lot of people, and you have to engage. The only option we have is to counter ALEC. It doesn’t mean that’s all we do. But we can’t just not engage with the current system and expect better outcomes. You have to vote, even though we are talking about all the problems with voting and our corrupt system.

Duhalde: There are two other equivalents to SiX. There’s Local Progress, which actually has some democratic socialist and DSA collectives on its board and works on the municipal level. There’s also the recently created Congressional Caucus Progressive Center, the 501(c)3 wing of the progressive caucus in Congress.

On to another question: Do you think there’s a democratic socialist reason to support reforms such as ranked-choice voting, fusion voting, and jungle primaries? Do they actually work as good government programs? Of those three reforms, is there one that you like more and you feel deals specifically with weakening ruling-class and corporate power, or are they all just kind of nice ideas?

Shannon: I definitely support ranked-choice voting. When we talk about how much support there is for DSA-type policies, I think that ranked-choice voting would allow folks to actually prove that through voting, because it removes that whole “lesser of the two evils” situation. I think that ranked-choice voting is something that the electorate overall would appreciate, and it’s certainly something that DSA should support.

Cha: The same could be said about fusion voting. As long as there’s this threat of the spoiler, you’ll never be able to break away from a two-party system. Ranked-choice voting and fusion voting could do that. It’s also instructive to remember that democracies across the world have all of these things. We are an outlier.

Rapaport: We ought to seriously think about making voting compulsory. In Australia, since 1924, it has been a requirement that every citizen go and cast a vote. You don’t have to vote for a particular candidate, you can leave your ballot blank, you can choose none of the above. But every citizen has to go and vote or send in a mail-in ballot. They have about 90 percent turnout in every election. Can you imagine the difference it would make, in terms of who has power and who is voting, who is participating?

The libertarians and the right will oppose this, partly because they don’t want everybody to vote. The smaller the vote, the better they like it. But it’s not like this is a wild and crazy idea. You are required, as a citizen, to serve on juries. And for precisely the same reason; to make sure that the people who are judging a person’s guilt or innocence are reflective of the population as a whole. The jury of your peers. The same thing applies to voting. It’s plausible, it’s doable, and I think it ought to be part of the democracy agenda starting after the election.

J. Mijin Cha is an assistant professor of Urban and Environmental Policy at Occidental College and a fellow at Cornell University’s Worker Institute. She researches and writes about climate and environmental justice, just transitions, and the relationship between inequality and the climate crisis.

Miles Rapoport is currently the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He served in the Connecticut state legislature representing West Hartford from 1985 to 1994 and as Connecticut’s Secretary of the State from 1995 to 1998. He also served as president of Demos, a public policy center in New York City, and as national president of Common Cause.

Renitta Shannon defeated a four-term Democratic incumbent with a bold progressive message in 2016. In January 2017, she was sworn into the Georgia State House of Representatives to represent the 84th district. Shannon is also the co-founder of Her Term, a Georgia-based initiative committed to targeting, recruiting, and electing progressive women into office.

David Duhalde served as DSA’s National Youth Organizer and Deputy Director. Duhalde also served as political director of Our Revolution and as a Research Analyst for Every Voice, a small donor democracy national advocacy organization. Today, he is the Vice-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America Fund Board.

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