Grab­bing elec­tions by the grass roots

In­di­vid­u­als have sparked re­forms worth cel­e­brat­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Joshua A. Dou­glas Joshua A. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky Col­lege of Law and au­thor of “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elec­tions and Change the Fu­ture of Vot­ing.”

De­spair ap­pears to be the com­mon mood of the day. Ev­ery­thing is ter­ri­ble. U.S. demo­cratic norms have de­volved so much that it seems im­pos­si­ble to know how to re­cover. Our po­lit­i­cal out­comes don’t con­sis­tently re­flect our true as­pi­ra­tions. Yes, the whole sys­tem feels rigged — against the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans. Why not just throw up our hands? The an­swer is that this mo­ment also presents a pow­er­ful op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a bet­ter, more ro­bust democ­racy. That starts, of course, with reg­is­ter­ing to vote and go­ing to the polls on Nov. 6. We also need to change the very struc­ture of our elec­toral sys­tem — and on that front there are sev­eral pos­i­tive move­ments to re­form state and lo­cal laws that are worth cel­e­brat­ing.

In­spir­ing in­di­vid­u­als are show­ing us the way. Take the ex­am­ple of Katie Fa­hey, who started a move­ment to re­form re­dis­trict­ing in Michi­gan. She posted a sim­ple mes­sage on Face­book af­ter the 2016 elec­tion: “I’d like to take on ger­ry­man­der­ing in Michi­gan, if you’re in­ter­ested in do­ing this as well, please let me know.” That sin­gle post gen­er­ated fur­ther dis­cus­sion, thou­sands of vol­un­teers who gath­ered sig­na­tures, and now Pro­posal 2, a state bal­lot mea­sure to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent re­dis­trict­ing com­mis­sion. Next month Michi­gan vot­ers will de­cide whether to take back the power to de­ter­mine dis­trict bound­aries from en­trenched politi­cians who mostly drew the lines to help them­selves or their party in fu­ture elec­tions.

Des­mond Meade of Florida, a for­mer-con­vict-turned-law-school-grad­u­ate, is an­other democ­racy cham­pion. He is ad­vo­cat­ing to re­form the state’s felon dis­en­fran­chise­ment law, which is one of the worst in the coun­try. Florida dis­en­fran­chises felons for life, tak­ing away the right to vote — our most fun­da­men­tal as­pect of cit­i­zen­ship — from more than 1.4 mil­lion Florid­i­ans, with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber com­ing from mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties. This Novem­ber, Florida vot­ers have a chance to change that law and re­in­state the right to vote to all but those con­victed of mur­der or a felony sex­ual of­fense af­ter they com­plete their sen­tence, pa­role and pro­ba­tion. The state con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment re­quires 60% ap­proval to pass and early polls look en­cour­ag­ing about its chances.

Ali­son Smith, a stay-at-home mom, be­came in­ter­ested in cam­paign fi­nance re­form and helped to usher in pub­lic fi­nanc­ing for elec­tions in Maine. Although there is still par­ti­san bick­er­ing over Maine’s Clean Elec­tion sys­tem, politi­cians on both sides have used it to fund cam­paigns, eas­ing the stran­gle­hold of wealthy in­ter­ests in the state’s elec­tions. As Smith told me when I in­ter­viewed her: “It’s a very hope­ful, open door for democ­racy. We can help our friends and col­leagues run for of­fice in­stead of hav­ing peo­ple self-select be­cause they have enough money or have wealthy friends.”

Vot­ing has also be­come more con­ve­nient in places such as Colorado, with its vote cen­ter model, which al­lows a per­son to vote any­where in the county, not just at their home-based precinct. (Cal­i­for­nia is in the process of rolling out vote cen­ters, start­ing in five coun­ties this year.) Vote-by-mail, also known as vote at home, in­creases turnout as well, and it’s used for all bal­lots in Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and Colorado. Colorado has the best sys­tem, com­bin­ing vote-by-mail for those who want to fill out their bal­lots early with vote cen­ters for vot­ing on elec­tion day, with lit­tle ev­i­dence of fraud. Au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion, de­spite the mis­takes made this year by the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles, is work­ing ef­fi­ciently in over a dozen states. States with th­ese re­forms ex­hibit some of the high­est voter turnout.

There have also been many lo­cal wins, such as the adop­tion of ranked choice vot­ing. This al­ter­na­tive vot­ing method lets vot­ers rank can­di­dates in order of pref­er­ence, lead­ing to a bet­ter sense of the elec­torate’s over­all de­sires, no need for runoff elec­tions, and less neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing. It’s now the norm in sev­eral cities across the coun­try and in some statewide elec­tions in Maine. Some lo­cal­i­ties have low­ered the vot­ing age for lo­cal or school board elec­tions to 16 to en­gage the next gen­er­a­tion of cit­i­zens ear­lier; vot­ers in Golden, Colo., will de­cide this Novem­ber whether to make this change for their own elec­tions.

Would th­ese re­forms have al­tered the out­comes of pre­vi­ous elec­tions and the cur­rent tra­jec­tory of our democ­racy? It’s im­pos­si­ble to know and use­less to spec­u­late. In­stead, we should fo­cus on strength­en­ing our demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions go­ing for­ward. Fa­hey, Meade, Smith and other democ­racy cham­pi­ons all over the coun­try show us that change is pos­si­ble. Pos­i­tive so­lu­tions can work to im­prove turnout and demo­cratic en­gage­ment. There’s so much we can do to cre­ate that more per­fect union.

Ger­ardo Mora Getty Im­ages

AC­TIVISTS like Des­mond Meade are lead­ing state and lo­cal move­ments to fix elec­tion sys­tems.

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