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Thursday’s dispatch: The record number of efforts to reshape our democracy
A day after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union, democracy reform activists are gathering in New Orleans to advance what they say unites America: making government more responsive to the people.
The Unrig the System Summit, hosted by anti-corruption group Represent.Us, is the first gathering of activists, politicians, celebrities, academics and others from across the country focused on passing state and local reforms to change how elections and democracy function. Movement leaders told Mic they have seen more support for democracy reform in the past year than any time since ethics and campaign finance reforms swept America post-Watergate.
Democracy reform encompasses a large swath of proposed laws and ballot measures being pushed in cities and states nationwide. Broadly speaking, these initiatives aim to reduce the amount of money in politics and the influence of lobbyists, increase access to the ballot box and limit state legislators from opposing the will of voters.
For example, volunteers in Ohio are pursuing a ballot initiative they say will lead to congressional districts that are fairly drawn. And more than 1 million Floridians signed on to placing an initiative on November’s ballot that would restore voting rights to some of Florida’s 1.6 million residents with felony convictions.
Represent.Us says that in 2016, 13 of these measures passed at the state and local level. And in 2018, at least 12 democracy reform measures could be considered on the state level alone, the group says, with many more being considered at the local level.
“Bernie and Trump helped people understand the system is broken and rigged,” Dan Krassner, political director of Represent.Us, said in an interview. “All across the country, we’re seeing a democracy movement on the rise.”
In several states, the push for reform has been triggered by a state legislature stalling or blocking grassroots proposals. Voters in Maine will decide whether to demand the governor and state legislature implement ranked choice voting — which the state legislature blocked after voters said they wanted to rank their preferred candidates in 2016. Republicans in the North Dakota legislature have blocked the creation of an ethics panel, so a group has formed to push creation of that panel through a ballot initiative.
In Massachusetts, Ben Gubits is leading an effort to create a volunteer citizens commission to pressure state officials to support amending the U.S. Constitution. His group, American Promise, is pushing for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, which would overturn the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that led to a flood of outside cash into political campaigns — a battle his group fights state by state.
“The idea of the initiative process was passed after the Gilded Age, so people could have more say in their democracy,” Gubits said in an interview. “We’re seeing this huge appetite for democracy reform, as I think the presidential election in 2016 really validated what a lot of people already knew, that our democracy is in crisis.”
Proponents of a ballot initiative in Alaska say that it is the direct result of legislative inaction. A campaign to limit the per diem that state lawmakers receive picked up steam in 2017 after state legislators received an average of $37,000 each during four special sessions to pass legislation to fix Alaska’s budget deficit. Most state lawmakers received $295 per day.
Jim Lottsfeldt, an Alaska lobbyist who has worked with Democrats and Republicans, helped launch Alaskans for Integrity, whose aim is to limit the days per year legislators could receive that per diem without passing a budget. The ballot initiative the group expects will be on the November ballot would prevent lobbyists from buying drinks or meals for legislators, prevent foreign money from being spent in state elections and require broader reporting of potential conflicts of interest.
“These ideas all polled at 80% [approval] or higher. ... I don’t see any reason there will be coordinated opposition,” Lottsfeldt said in an interview. “The institutions seem to be failing us. So now, the public is picking up tools. And they’re going to try fixing it.”
“This is going to keep happening until our elected representatives reform themselves,” he added.
Here’s a few examples of state-level democracy reform campaigns in 2018:
• Florida: More than 1 million signatures submitted to place Voting Restoration Amendment on the ballot
• Michigan: More than 425,000 signatures submitted to place gerrymandering reform on the ballot
• Missouri: More than 100,000 signatures collected in Missouri to place a government transparency and accountability measure on the ballot
Today’s question: What is the role of citizens pushing ballot initiatives in this political environment?
Please email us at email@example.com with your thoughts.
Thursday in Trump’s America:
Russia investigation: The New York Times reported special counsel Robert Mueller is focused on Trump’s role in formulating a response in July to a report that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian attorney who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. Mueller may be investigating whether the response of Trump and his team constitutes obstruction of justice.
CNN reported that Trump asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in December if Rosenstein was “on my team.”
“Of course, we’re all on your team,” Rosenstein responded to the president.
FBI mania: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) released a letter Wednesday night claiming Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) “secretly altered” a memo drafted by the GOP, which Democrats and the FBI are warning falsely undercuts the Department of Justice. This is after a House committee voted on Monday to release the memo publicly, but before it was submitted to Trump. Nunes did not deny making the change. This could force House Republicans to take another vote on releasing the letter.
Peter Strzok, an FBI agent Republicans accuse of having an anti-Trump bias, played a key role in writing the letter to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s private email server shortly before the 2016 presidential election, CNN reported.
FBI Director Christopher Wray made a rare public statement saying he had “grave concerns” about the memo Trump and Republicans want to release about his agency.
GOP retreat: Senate and House Republicans do not plan to discuss immigration at their retreat this week in West Virginia, despite the fact the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expires on March 5, Politico reports. The GOP will talk infrastructure, but avoid a topic that deeply divides House and Senate Republicans.
Shutdown talk: With a week until the government will shut down, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are saying they will not vote to keep the government funded unless spending on defense can rise and a conservative immigration bill is taken up.
We’ve seen this before: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) does not have enough votes to fund the government without these Republicans voting yes — short of making a deal with Democrats, who demand protections for DACA recipients.
Another deadline: The federal debt limit will have to be raised by late March or early April — a month earlier than expected because of lower revenues from the GOP tax cut law.
Retirements: Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) became the latest Republican in the House to say he will not seek re-election. Gowdy gained fame as he led the inquiry into Clinton’s handling of events in Benghazi when she was secretary of state. There are now 41 House Republicans retiring or seeking another office, compared to 16 Democrats.
Campaign finance: A Tampa Bay Times/TEGNA investigation found that long after lawmakers leave Congress, they use leftover campaign funds to finance their lifestyles and careers — far from spending political donations on politics.
SOTU: A deeper dive from Mic into fact-checking Trump’s State of the Union statements on coal, immigration and the economy.
Trump said the ratings for his State of the Union were the highest ever. That’s not true.
Click or tap below to watch a video on the worth and value of people with Down syndrome.