All eyes are on the races for the White House and Senate and the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings. But potentially even more important to the long-term health of our constitutional democracy are reforms on the ballot in states across the country.
Our politics are trapped in a vicious cycle: Political institutions don’t deliver effective governance, leaving voters feeling unheard and disempowered. Over time, people become increasingly disinclined to participate in governance, from the local to the federal levels. Participating less in our collective decision-making diminishes opportunities to encounter fellow Americans with different backgrounds and perspectives. Our civic culture and civil society fragment and tribalize. Groups develop an active dislike of one another.
With 2020 turnout likely to set records, this energy and engagement need to be harnessed to flip a switch on our democracy — to convert our universe’s negative equilibrium to a positive one. We should aspire to a virtuous cycle in which responsive, empowering political institutions are worthy of engagement; where engaged Americans learn more about one another, partner with one another, and rebuild the norms and guardrails that sustain democracies. These include a willingness to forge compromises and to let the losing side play a substantive role in post-election deliberations — even as they don’t lead.
How do we flip that switch? This is where the state ballot measures come in. As colleagues and I argued in a recent report, “Our Common Purpose,” our society needs reforms that empower voters, deliver equal voice and representation, and create responsive political institutions. We need to invest in civil society organizations that can help bridge divides and in a civic media ecosystem that can fill news deserts and address disinformation. We must actively rebuild a civic culture of mutual commitment to one another and to our constitutional democracy.
Five reforms that advance these goals are on the ballot around the country.
In Alaska and Massachusetts, voters have a chance to adopt ranked-choice voting. In Alaska, voters can embrace ranked-choice voting in general elections combined with nonpartisan, open top-four primaries for state executive and legislative offices and for federal offices. In Massachusetts, voters will consider ranked-choice voting in both primaries and general elections for state and federal offices other than the presidency. Allowing voters to rank their first, second and third choices, and so on, ensures that no one takes office without having a majority of voters behind them. This encourages a greater diversity of candidates to seek office. It reduces the negativity of campaigning, since candidates need to build broad coalitions, not drive wedges to get their limited plurality portion of the electorate to turn out. (Disclosure: I am a co-chair for the “Yes on 2” campaign for ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts.)
In Alaska and Oregon, voters have the chance to tackle money in politics with robust disclosure laws and new limits on campaign finance. In Oregon, the proposed amendment would permit the state legislature and local governments to pass laws and ordinances to cap campaign contributions and spending; require campaigns to publicly disclose contributions and expenditures; and require that political advertisements include the identity of the people or entities that financed them.
In Virginia and Missouri, debate over independent redistricting commissions is playing out. A Virginia ballot amendment would establish a redistricting commission made up of state legislators and citizens to draw the congressional and legislative districts rather than leave redistricting decisions to the state legislature. In Missouri, by contrast, a ballot proposition to amend the redistricting process would eliminate the nonpartisan state demographer introduced by ballot initiative in 2018 and would restore a governor-appointed bipartisan commission. This is the opposite of a positive advance, and Missourians should vote no.
Finally, there are efforts that focus on ease of voting and access. Californians will consider a restoration of voting rights for people on parole; New Mexico voters have the chance to tweak and improve a recent effort to align local, state and federal election calendars to simplify voting; and Nevada has a splendid omnibus set of proposals aimed at activating and empowering voters by including a Declaration of Voters Rights in the state Constitution. The rights include access to an accurate sample ballot, assistance with voting, and instructions on voting procedures and equipment; a written ballot format that clearly identifies the candidates and supports accurate recording of a voter’s choices; access to early voting; equal access to voting without discrimination, threat or coercion; the right for votes to be counted if the person is in line when polls close; the right to a replacement ballot if one’s ballot is spoiled; the right to a timely vote count and recount; and the right to have election complaints dealt with an efficient and fair manner according to the law.
By all means, vote your heart out in the presidential and Senate elections. I’ll be doing that. But these state causes are worthy of attention, too. Here, in the states, in citizen action and imagination, lies the best hope for the future of our country.