“From coast to coast, conservatives score huge victories,” announced a Washington Post headline after last week’s elections. “Liberals Got Smoked Across the Country Last Night,” read another in Slate.
The post-election media narrative has focused on setbacks for progressives, including Democratic losses in Kentucky and Virginia, along with the failure of Houston’s equal-rights ordinance. Yet, while it was a disappointing election night for the Democratic Party, it was also a promising one for democracy, as voters across the country acted decisively to reform the electoral process and fight the corrosive influence of money in politics.
In Ohio, a purple state with a conservative Republican governor, 71 percent of voters supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw the partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts and create a bipartisan redistricting commission. The overwhelming transpartisan support for the amendment is particularly heartening considering how clearly the old rules favored Republicans, who hold commanding majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Indeed, as Nation correspondent John Nichols pointed out, “even though Democratic President Barack Obama and Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown won big statewide victories in 2012, there was no parallel shift to the Democrats when it came to state legislative races.”
Fifty-five percent of Maine voters cast their ballots to strengthen the “clean election” law passed in 1996, which established a voluntary system of public financing. For nearly two decades, the law has empowered ordinary citizens such as progressive state Rep. Diane Russell, a former cashier, to run for office, but recent court rulings and budget cuts have conspired to weaken the system. Local activists worked with national reform groups, such as Every Voice and Common Cause, to build support for the ballot initiative, which provides additional funding for public financing and stronger disclosure requirements. Notably, the measure was fiercely opposed by right-wing Gov. Paul LePage, who called it a “scam.”
And on the other side of the country, Seattle, which previously made history as the first city to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, continued its trend of passing bold reforms with the potential to serve as a model for cities and states nationwide. By more than a 20-point margin, Seattle voters approved a novel public financing system in which the city’s residents will receive four “democracy vouchers” per election cycle worth $25 apiece. Voters can then “donate” their vouchers, which are funded with taxpayer money, to candidates for municipal office, who must in turn accept campaign spending limits and restrictions on private contributions.
These local victories send a powerful signal that our democracy is not for sale, even in a post-Citizens United world where billionaires and corporations can flood the electoral process with unlimited sums and drown out the voices of ordinary voters.
As the New York Times reported last month, 158 families are responsible for nearly half of the campaign contributions through June 30 in the 2016 presidential election cycle, which is likely to be the most expensive in history. Led by Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and Paul Singer, Republican megadonors are working to cement America’s status as an oligarchy in which elected officials are accountable to an elite few. In a recent interview, Charles Koch stated bluntly that his contributions are meant to influence policy. “I expect something in return,” he said.
But the American people want no part of the Koch brothers and other big campaign contributors. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, “Americans are increasingly fed up with the stranglehold of big money on our politics. A recent poll found that 85 percent of Americans — including more than 80 percent of both Republicans and Democrats — believe the campaign finance system needs fundamental changes.”
Meanwhile, the calls for campaign finance reform at the federal level are growing louder. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has introduced a reform bill that would provide a 6-to-1 match for campaign contributions up to $150. Based on a similar matching system in New York City, Sarbanes’s bill, the Government by the People Act, has garnered the support of 155 Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has endorsed a similar plan, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has made campaign finance reform central to his presidential run, calling for publicly funded elections and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. And just last week, a bipartisan group of more than 100 former members of Congress and governors launched an initiative, the ReFormers Caucus, to push for stronger campaign finance and transparency rules.
Money in politics will pose a significant threat to our democracy for as long as Citizens United remains the law of the land, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our electoral system fairer and more democratic. Last week, voters in Ohio, Maine and Seattle demonstrated that there is a broad transpartisan appetite for real reform, and a path to achieving it. If lawmakers and grass-roots activists follow their lead, the headlines next time will be different.