House Democrats’ big democracy reform package is good policy, and smart politics

House Democrats have decided on their priority legislation for the next Congress, and it’s all about improving the quality of American democracy. HR 1, the bill number typically reserved for the House majority party’s most important policy, marks the first time that political reform has been given this kind of top billing.

There’s a lot in the bill, including a number of ethics and disclosure and election security proposals that should be commonsense. But at heart, there are four big-ticket items that would be standalone news on their own: a small-donor matching system for campaign finance, mandatory independent redistricting commissions, automatic voter registration, and felon reenfranchisement. Collectively, this is the most transformative pro-democracy package in decades.

Political reform is popular, low-hanging fruit

Before we turn to the policies, a little bit on the politics of political reform. Assuming you haven’t been on a complete news fast, you’ll likely be aware that overwhelming majorities of Americans are pretty unhappy with the way the political system is working and think the whole system is rigged against them.

In the 2018 midterms, a large number of challenger Democrats learned that pledging not to take corporate PAC money was a powerful way to signal trust with voters. And on Election Day, wide majorities of voters in states across the country approved independent redistricting commissions and automatic voter registration.

In Colorado, voters approved two independent redistricting commissions overwhelmingly, one for congressional districts (71 percent to 29) and one for state legislative districts (also 71 percent to 29). In Michigan, voters approved an independent redistricting commission 61 percent to 39. In Missouri, voters approved an independent redistricting commission as part of a broader lobbying, campaign finance, and redistricting commission 62 percent to 38. And in Utah, voters also narrowly approved an independent redistricting commission,

Michigan passed a sweeping voting rights referendum with a 67-33 margin. Nevada also passed automatic voter registration, 60-40. With two more states passing automatic voter registration, that brings the number to 13 nationwide. Maryland, which already offered same-day registration during early voting, voted 67-33 to expand same-day registration to Election Day as well. With Maryland and Michigan joining the states implementing some form of same-day registration, the number is now up to 19 nationwide. And, as was widely reported, Florida overwhelming approved a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to 1.4 million convicted felons.

The basic takeaway is simple: Reform is popular. Overwhelming majorities of voters think that money is corrupting politics, gerrymandering is a major problem, and it should be easy for every citizen to vote.

But neither party has ever really made democracy reform part of its national brand. Both have talked in vague generalities about cleaning up Washington and standing up to special interests, but only when they are out of power. Once they get into power, they do a few symbolic things, rediscover the benefits of the system, and move on. No wonder voters have grown cynical!

For Democrats, putting democracy reform first is a way to signal more clearly that they as a party take these concerns seriously.

The Washington politics of reform

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s predictable response to the Democrats’ package was, “That’s not going to go anywhere in the Senate.” Perhaps this is what Democrats want for now: By forcing Republicans to go on the record opposing some widely popular democracy reforms, Democrats can draw a sharper contrast.

Democrats can break up bigger reform package into individual bills to force House Republicans to take vote after vote on the individual pieces and put pressure on the Senate issue by issue, all against the broader backdrop of more aggressive House oversight of Trump administration corruption and impeachment talk.

Of course, there’s a danger here too. The more the basic functioning of our democracy itself becomes a partisan issue, the worse it is for our democracy. But we may already be there, in which case, the only thing Democrats can do is to at least clarify the stakes.

Certainly, a few of the more modest ethics and disclosure provisions in the package, as well as the election security provisions, could win enough bipartisan support to become law as standalone bills. This would be good.

But the bigger power of HR 1 is that it commits Democrats to being the democracy reform party, and gives them something credible and very popular to run on in 2020. Passing this legislation now puts democracy reform atop the Democrats’ agenda. This is a very promising development.

It’s good policy too

The most transformative piece of HR 1 is the new small-donor matching system. This would change how campaigns are financed, by creating a 6-to-1 public match for every dollar raised in small-dollar contributions. Rather than spending their time calling rich people and attending fundraisers on K Street, individual members would have a greater incentive to do fundraising events back in their districts. As a result, they’d get a very different sense of the most important problems facing the country.

Anything that takes members of Congress away from the gamut of lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers and cold-calling wealthy people and puts them in the living rooms of more representative groups of constituents would be a major game changer for the kinds of concerns that filter up to lawmakers as top priorities. This could significantly alter the premium parties now put on big-donor fundraising prowess in their candidate recruitment strategies. It could also pave the way for a new winning politics of economic fairness.

Most importantly, it would be a way for Democrats to walk to the walk of serious reform. It’s one thing for individual challengers say they won’t take corporate PAC contributions, when corporate PAC money accounts for only about 6 percent of all campaign contributions (and less for Democrats, and far less for challengers). It’s another thing to support reforming the entire campaign finance system to systematically reduce the potential influence of all corporate PAC contributions, and significantly increase the influence of small donors.

Small-donor matching systems, such as New York City’s, along with similar public financing programs in Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut, have been the success stories of the past decade of campaign finance. The majority of candidates participate, agreeing in exchange to limit their total spending, and these programs have survived both legal and political challenges. With HR 1, this approach has finally broken through to the national agenda.

Independent redistricting commissions would also be a significant change. Assuming the four states where voters supported independent redistricting commissions respect the wishes of their voters and follow through, that will up the number of states with truly independent redistricting commissions to 12. That means that in 38 states, politicians still have the final say.

The United States is unusual among advanced democracies in giving politicians the final say on electoral districting, a power that politicians have used since the beginning of American democracy to help their party. But in recent decades, politicians of both parties have become increasingly aggressive in pushing the limits of partisan mapmaking — especially since 2010. Widespread gerrymandering fuels the perception that politicians pick their voters, instead of voters picking their politicians.

Independent redistricting commissions would also almost certainly help Democrats in the immediate future. That’s because Republicans took gerrymandering to a new level after 2010. But an independent redistricting regime could help Republicans in the future, protecting them if Democrats win a wave election in 2020 and wanted to use their newfound control of state legislatures to punish Republicans.

Certainly, the easiest way to get rid of gerrymandering would be to make it impractical, by expanding districts from single-member to multi-member and adding ranked-choice voting to ensure proportional balance. Doing so would also make all districts competitive, something independent redistricting commissions cannot achieve. Given the fact that Democrats and Republicans live in very different places, it’s hard to draw two-party competitive districts in large swaths of the country. But that’s a big enough change that it shouldn’t be rushed. Independent redistricting commissions are more modest but a significant improvement over the status quo. It’s also a commonsense reform that everyone understands. Politicians really shouldn’t pick their voters.

Finally, the automatic voter registration and felon reenfranchisement provisions are also pro-democracy reforms that fulfill a universal promise: It should be as easy as possible to vote, and every citizen deserves a vote.

And as the recent ballot initiatives showed, both of these proposals enjoy supermajority support, likely because they hit the higher notes of commonsense decency: We shouldn’t be erecting barriers to voting.

Likely, both of these proposals would benefit Democrats, since low-income minority citizens and young people who tend to vote Democratic are most likely to be newly enfranchised by making it easier to vote as well as not be aware that in many states, registration deadlines close way in advance of election day.

But more forward-thinking members of the Republican Party should support these reforms as well. That’s because, by expanding the electorate, these reforms can give urgency to the actors in the Republican Party who are making the case that Republicans can’t be the party only of an older, rural white electorate, which is declining with each election as a share of the overall population. Reforms like these could force Republicans to change course sooner rather than later, and as long as we remain a two-party system, a more moderate Republican Party is essential to the future of American democracy.

The case for big change

The bill is still being written ahead of the new Congress, so details are still in flux. And it’s still possible some Democrats could get cold feet on this big package. After all, it’s a big reordering of the status quo. And new rules always threaten some members, especially those who have attained power and status in the old system.

Meanwhile, some of the newly elected members may now find themselves surrounded by Washington insiders and consultants, who are telling them they need to get cracking immediately on fundraising for their next reelection so they can pay expensive consultants to run their campaigns and get on the air. These consultants might be telling the new members that while their corporate PAC pledge might have made for a cute gimmick in 2018, nobody will remember it in 2020. What matters is raising money. This is the way things have been done for too long.

Certainly, the large professional class in Washington that has been built up around this system will aggressively try to defend it. But this is one reason so many people outside of Washington have grown so cynical about politics. Democrats have a real chance to break some of this and put in place a new set of incentives.

Change is always a gamble. But holding on to a clearly pathological status quo because the alternative is uncertain makes no sense.

Democrats also have a real opportunity here to move past the stale identity versus economics debate that has inspired endless columns about the future of the party and the trade-offs Democrats face in trying to choose between appealing to Obama-Trump voters and Romney-Clinton voters, or mobilizing young and minority voters.

The brilliant thing about the democracy reform program is that it appeals to all these groups, and avoids the false dichotomies. All these voting groups would like to see a democracy that feels less rigged against them. And all these groups should be excited to vote for a party that makes democracy reform their central message. And a political system with a broader electorate, fairer elections, and less dependence on corporate money is a political system more likely to deliver the kinds of policies all these voters say they prefer. It might even help to bring some much-needed faith back to our democracy.