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Three Steps to Restore Our Democracy

In a democracy, the people rule through representative government.  Yet in our last federal election 40% of eligible U.S. voters chose not to cast their ballots.   Such opting out by citizens should come as no surprise given the systemic flaws that breed skepticism and distrust.

Do we have a democracy in America when corporations, billionaires, and their lobbyists pump huge sums into political campaigns, often making the critical decisions on who will have the financial resources to launch a campaign?  Is it a democracy when interest groups ply elected officials with gift travel?  Do we still have a democracy when states impede the right to vote of minorities? Or when local parties in power gerrymander congressional districts to serve partisan political goals?

To restore our democracy we need to take money out of politics, encourage, not constrain, voter participation and implement fair redistricting.  Here are three important steps to achieve those goals.

Step 1 Ban Big Money

As investigative reporter Greg Palast declares in one of his recent books, America has “the best democracy money can buy.”  That is an accurate assessment.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court held that corporations are to be treated as people and that the contribution money they lavish (albeit indirectly) on campaigns is protected speech.  When corporations and wealthy individuals use the power of money to influence elections, no wonder citizens stay away from the polls.

In the wake of Citizens United, federal campaigns are not only awash in donor money, much of it is “dark money,” contributed by undisclosed donors through super PACs, political nonprofits and limited liability companies (LLCs).

More detrimental to democracy than lack of transparency is the association of money with lobbying.  While the latter alone is legitimate and often helpful to lawmakers, the contributions that embellish lobbying efforts corrupt the recipients and distort policymaking. Our political campaign finance system, says Bernie Sanders, “is corrupt and increasingly controlled by billionaires and special interests.”

A related example of blatant conflict of interest corruption is gift travel, such as the Israel lobby regularly offers lawmakers at all levels.  This month, some 53 Members of Congress were treated to an all-expense weeklong trip to Israel, valued at about $10,000.  How can such gifts not be viewed as overpowering individual constituent interest?

Let’s face it, large contributions by corporations and billionaires create conflicts of interest since they are intended to buy access to lawmakers, reward them for their votes or promote favorable legislation.

To restore democracy we need to (1) reverse Citizens United and (2) ban all corporate and special interest contributions (including gift travel) to candidates and elected officials.  To finance federal elections, let’s begin to rely on modest individual contributions and matching public grants.

Step 2 Ease Voting Rules

For a democracy to work, it needs to make the polls more, not less, accessible to all citizens.  The imposition of registration and voting barriers in some states unfairly constrains citizens who find it difficult to procure required documentation.

Reversing Obama era policy, the Trump administration is now siding with states that want to deregister citizens who fail to vote in two successive elections and don’t heed a warning notice.  If adopted, that policy will further discourage voter participation, especially among minorities.

To restore democracy, we need to make it easier for citizens to register and vote.   Eliminating burdensome paperwork requirements, adopting automatic registration systems and allowing pre-election day voting would surely increase turnout.

Step 3 End Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering, the process of setting electoral districts to establish a political advantage for a particular party by manipulating district boundaries, leads to partisan gridlock, entrenched incumbents and a resistance to compromise—all of which America is now experiencing.  The prevailing state practice of allowing the party in power to fix electoral districts favors more extreme politicians and weighs against moderate candidates—to the detriment of our democratic process.

According to Common Cause, “the Redistricting Reform Act of 2015 would put the people back in charge by setting up independent commissions that prioritize inclusive public participation, fair representation and transparency when drawing maps.”

We need a law that would mandate state redistricting standards.  Non-partisan entities and judicial oversight should replace the current winner-take-all redistricting policies.

As both Republican and Democratic parties seek to energize and enlarge their memberships, they should consider making the above reforms their top priorities.

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L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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