This November, avert your eyes for a moment from the horserace. As the partisan pendulum swings wider with each Presidential election, a grounding force is growing throughout the country.
In 2018, 50 million citizens wielded this power in a diverse set of states across the nation. Together, they voted to end gerrymandering in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, and Ohio. They restored the right to vote to the 1.4 million citizens in Florida who have completed felony sentences, and finalized a historic win for ranked choice voting in Maine—a commonsense voting reform known to increase voter choice and incentivize campaign civility. They passed secure automatic voter registration in Nevada and Michigan, and they voted for new ethics commissions in New Mexico and North Dakota. Across the nation, there was a resounding call for structural reform. Add to 2018’s count the millions more who voted “yes” to fight the corrupting influence of money in politics in cities like Baltimore, Denver, Tempe, and Phoenix. Then, in 2019, voters in New York City approved a measure to bring ranked choice voting to the city of nearly 9 million.
Now, in 2020, a different set of voters hold the key. As of this writing, 60 million eligible voters live in 13 states where campaigns have formed to pass structural election reform, and more will soon come online. Together, they have the opportunity to begin repairing elections covering 75 million Americans, or roughly 25 percent of the nation.
Put differently, there are two separate elections taking place this year. Which one you believe has a greater impact on the direction of the country is ultimately a matter of perspective. The importance of this year’s Presidential race and its down-ballot coattail contests is immediate, undeniable, and in many ways existential. But the 30,000-foot view of Washington’s perennial gridlock gives that election a tinge of trench warfare that disappoints and exhausts Americans. On the other hand, the opportunity to fix a broken system is only growing every year, with a broad appeal that stretches across party lines. And it is on the verge of a tipping point nationwide.
Below is an overview of just some of the opportunities in front of voters in 2020.
Voters in the nation’s Last Frontier state are moving to become the first to chart a new course for functional politics. The Alaskans for Better Elections campaign recently submitted the signatures required for a ballot initiative that combines two of the most powerful reforms for combatting polarization and gridlocked two-party politics—open nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting—into one simplified package. Open nonpartisan primaries are used in various forms in Washington State, California, Louisiana, and Nebraska, and allow all registered electors, regardless of party, to vote on all candidates in the primary election. In Alaska, the four candidates with the most votes for each office, regardless of party affiliation, would advance to the general election. Voters would rank them in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4), and an instant runoff sequentially eliminates the least popular candidates until one candidate wins with a majority. To boot, the Alaskans for Better Elections also includes tough dark money disclosure requirements for donors over $10,000, promising an end to Alaska’s long struggle with secretive spending—often from the Lower 48 looking to capitalize on the state’s natural resources.
Florida joins Alaska in its effort to open up the primaries to voters of all stripes. The All Voters Vote campaign in Florida recently submitted nearly 800,000 signatures to qualify a ballot measure for open nonpartisan primaries. Here—like in Washington State, California, and some races in Nebraska—the two candidates with the most votes for state office, regardless of party, would proceed to the general election. A full 25 percent of registered Florida voters have no party affiliation, and are barred from participating in the state’s publicly-funded yet private party primaries. If the measure is successful, these 3.6 million voters will become full participants in the political process.
Massachusetts is on track to become one of the next states to pass ranked choice voting. The ballot question presented by Voter Choice Massachusetts, 111,000 signatures strong, would give voters the option to rank candidates in both primary and general state elections for state office and the United States Congress. Under Massachusetts law, the legislature can now pass the law or defer to the voters in November. Political movements are built on cornerstone victories, and statewide passage of ranked choice voting in the second consecutive election cycle would mark its real, undeniable arrival.
Michigan’s Voters Not Politicians anti-gerrymandering campaign in 2018 was inspiring people well before it won over 61 percent of the vote. The campaign grabbed headlines when its 100 percent volunteer team turned in over 450,000 signatures to secure a spot on the ballot. Not long after, the campaign was at the center of a flashpoint in the dispute over special-interest influence when the state’s chamber of commerce filed suit to block the measure from going to the voters. The lawsuit prompted massive public support for the campaign and was turned down by the Michigan Supreme Court.
This year, the campaign is again fending off efforts to dislodge its victory, despite clear support from the public. Since 2018, Voters Not Politicians has been engaging in a grassroots public education campaign and implementation effort to make sure that the new independent redistricting commission gets the best possible start. Over 1,000 Michigan citizens have applied to serve on the 13-member commission, with applications expected to continue in the coming months.
In 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved the Clean Missouri Amendment, a reform bill that took state redistricting out of the hands of partisan legislators, cracked down on special interest lobbying, and increased government transparency. The effort was direct democracy at its most essential: a bipartisan group of citizens banding together to tackle the problems Jefferson City lawmakers had, for years, chosen to ignore.
This year, the Missouri legislature is trying to undo the will of the voters by referring a partial repeal measure to the ballot. This attempt would put redistricting power back in the hands of the legislature and remove critical protections for underrepresented communities. The Clean Missouri campaign is rallying again to defend its hard-won reform, which may face another vote at the ballot box in November.
Nevada is one of several states leading the way on redistricting reform in the wake of 2019’s Supreme Court decision that took relief from the scourge of partisan gerrymandering out of the hands of the courts—and placed it squarely with the voters. Currently, the lines for Nevada’s congressional and state legislative districts are drawn by the state legislature, and subject to veto by the governor. The process takes place out of sight of the public, and without state guidelines around compactness, protection for communities of interest, or partisan fairness. All of this makes the process especially vulnerable to partisan manipulation.
A cross-partisan coalition of grassroots groups has formed to support Nevada’s Fair Maps Amendment, a law that would create an independent, bipartisan, citizen-led redistricting commission, and institute strong criteria to ensure that the process is fair. Volunteers across the state are gathering signatures to put it on the November ballot. To become law in Nevada, the Amendment will need to be approved by the voters in both 2020 and 2022.
The Buckeye State may become the latest to update and secure its voter registration system. A proposed ballot initiative would automatically register Ohioans to vote when they apply for or renew a driver’s license or other state-issued ID. The process simplifies registration for voters, and helps the state keep its voter rolls up to date. This initiative would also allow people to register to vote at their polling place before they vote during an extended early voting period. In a state defined by voter purges and high stakes presidential races, this measure would help protect voters’ opportunity to participate.
People Not Politicians Oklahoma is a campaign to end gerrymandering in the Sooner State, led by Let’s Fix This and the League of Women Voters. This proposal would end the practice of partisan gerrymandering by establishing an independent commission of Oklahoma citizens to draw boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts in a fair, open, and transparent manner—instead of letting politicians draw their own districts behind closed doors. The campaign needs to collect 177,958 signatures to be put on the November ballot.
Oregon may not be one of the first states that comes to mind when you think about gerrymandering, but the Oregon legislature regularly struggles to complete the process effectively, and has repeatedly required the courts to intervene in the process. In fact, there have been only two cycles of redistricting in the past century that didn’t require intervention from either the courts or the secretary of state. It’s especially important to get redistricting right this time around, as Oregon may be apportioned an additional representative after the next census.
The People Not Politicians Oregon campaign is working to vest the power to draw district lines in the hands of an independent, citizen-led redistricting commission. The campaign would also increase transparency, allowing every Oregonian insight and a voice into the redistricting process.
Eyes have been on Virginia in the past few months, as its odd-year state elections in 2019 cemented a Democratic trifecta for the first time in over 25 years. Scrutiny has rightfully narrowed in the past few weeks to what the new Democratic majority will do about gerrymandering. Early last year, 89 percent of Democrat and Republican legislators came together to pass an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission. Unfortunately, the quirks of Virginia’s constitutional amendment process require the bill to pass again this legislative session before voters then can approve the commonsense change on the November 2020 ballot.
Will Democrats, who in 2019’s state elections cemented full control of the government, fulfill a core campaign promise to end gerrymandering, or will they seek retribution for the Republicans’ 2010 gerrymander and—like their Democratic colleagues nearby in Maryland have done in the past—rig the lines in their interest? At the time of this writing, despite grassroots pressure from both sides, the majority has not yet decided to pass the second bill and give voters a chance to end gerrymandering for good in Virginia.
This year, all eyes will likely be glued to the Presidential race, but an alternative storyline runs alongside it that grows more compelling each year: Americans, banding together across party lines, are leading innovative campaigns that restore integrity and accountability to our elections.
In these turbulent times, nothing can be taken for granted, of course. As several of the examples above illustrate, even resounding reform wins face stiff follow-on challenges from deep-pocketed and resourceful opponents. But there are millions of green democratic shoots sprouting up all across our country. This is surely cause for hope.