JB: When you mention pressing the reset button, what do you mean exactly? What constitutes enough of the voting public? How would we know? And what would a reset look like? It all sounds good but vague. I'd like to know more.
SR: If you look at the process of voting as linear progression, you have points all along the way where the process is made easier or harder, more inclusive or exclusive, fairer or less so. Let's go through some of that. What happens before people even register to vote? The majorities that control state legislatures redraw political boundaries after each decade's federal census. That segregating of likely voters, based on all kinds of individual voter turnout data, is how extreme partisan gerrymanders occur and build structural advantages for the mapmakers' party. So several states just passed ballot initiatives to put the 2021 redistricting process in the hands of citizen commissions, not one-party rule legislatures. Michigan led the way here. That's a vastly important rebalancing. The 2011 GOP gerrymanders gave Republicans a 10 percent popular vote turnout edge among each party's loyal voters in more than a dozen states.
Then let's go through aspects of the voting process. Is registration easy? Can it be done on Election Day or during early voting? Can it be done on college campuses and universities? If one registers and moves within their county, does their registration follow them and remain valid? Or do they have to re-register? On Election Day or in early voting, what IDs must be presented to get a regular ballot? If you're voting early by mail, what do you have to fill out when signing the return envelope? Are these instructions clear? Is there an an opportunity to fix a mistake? All of these fine-print points have been made harder in red-run states this decade. They're the intricacies of modern voter suppression. The Dem's H.R. 1 would reverse all of these intentional obstructions--and more.
It would also revive public financing for non-wealthy candidates. It would bar high-ranking federal officials from leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists for the very industry they regulated. It would require those people spending money on the most nasty negative ads to put their names by their cowardly messaging. The bill would require federal candidates to disclose their tax returns. All of this and more is in this omnibus bill. It's not as if there is a singular silver bullet that will fix the system. But these are serious checks and balances. History seems to show that it takes political insiders a little while to figure out to how to subvert the newest laws and rules--which I'd prefer to call checks and balances. That's the reset I'm referring to.
JB: I like the way you think! How different it could be if these measures (and more) were put in place. Given current political realities in the Senate and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, are there things that activists can do within their home state context or does every change have to happen on a national level?
SR: That's a good question. I think the answer varies depending on the state you live in. If you live in a state with a receptive legislature and governor, then I think there is more of a chance now to push for reforms. I say that because I know that many of the elements in H.R.1 that were not previously in legislation were drafted by progressive activists. It's very likely that these folks would be testifying in hearings in DC, which would raise the profile of the issues somewhat.
Also, I have to believe that some of the political and cultural reactions to all the dysfunction surrounding Trump's pathologies and the wide GOP embrace of him will be a wide desire toward more competent government, transparency, accountability. Now some issues do necessitate federal solutions, but a lot in voting does occur at the state level.
Personally, I believe that advocating for new infrastructure and technology that allow transparent vote counting and facilitate pre-certification audits that track every vote is really important now. It's almost a cliche that if Democrats win in 2020, there will be GOP cries of fraud, theft, you name it. The public needs to see evidence they can believe to counter the propagandists in a post-truth political culture. Maybe if we can return to factual baselines, we can address the pressing problems that are being ignored or lost in today's noise.
JB: Speaking of states getting started turning things around, I read today that New York plans to pass a far-reaching election reform bill very very soon. The political situation has changed enough that they are confident that they will be implementing reforms such as early voting, same day voter registration and other measures that will go a long way to rectifying a dysfunctional system. They also plan to tackle corporate donor loopholes that have allowed so much untraceable money to flood our elections. Your thoughts?
SR: That's a very good example of what I was referring to. You have progressive Democrats in New York last November winning and breaking the ridiculous lock that conservative Democratic state senators had--voting with the GOP to stop those kinds of reforms and many others. Actually, New York State has been one of the WORST blue states when it comes to voting rights and inclusive participation. One of the big things that stopped Bernie Sanders cold in the 2016 primaries was not the Brooklyn (Kings County) Board of Elections ineptly purging voters in lefty epicenters. It was the state's six-months-in-advance deadline to register in a political party, which is the requirement to participate in a primary. So Bernie held all these rallies in New York City attracting tens of thousands, but many of those otherwise eligible voters couldn't cast a ballot in the primary. The same thing happened to some of Trump's kids in the Republican primary. So, yes, electing progressives matters!
The campaign finance reforms are another issue that should be the basis of a another closer and careful discussion. When I started my national political reporting career in the late 1990s, I did more stories for NPR, where I was on the Washington desk, on public financing than anyone had--and probably ever since.
JB: Who, if anyone, is handling it now and what's the coverage like, on that and other election-related topics, Steven?
SR: My former editor at NPR, Pam Fessler, has been doing election administration reporting, but she's on a book leave. They have someone else on staff who is relatively new to covering this issue--whose names escapes me right now. But NPR will never be cutting-edge when it comes to certain timely issues. For example, they didn't want to touch the vote verification issues raised by Jill Stein and the Green's post-2016 recount while the election results were awaiting certification. On the other hand, they will report on those concerns six months later when it's a more academic discussion or part of exploring Russian hacking scenarios.
I was a money and politics reporter in the '90s. But after Ohio in 2004, I personally concluded that big money would always find a way through the cracks and loopholes in the rules, and that it was more important to increase voter turnout. In some senses, 2018's results affirmed that assessment. What I mean by that is high turnout election doesn't counter every injustice, but does surmount or get past many of the targeted microaggressions--like voter ID laws, limiting early voting, etc.
Campaign finance reforms, especially public financing option, address a different aspect of elections. In the years I was covering it, they seemed to work best in jurisdictions where it didn't cost a fortune to advertise on TV and radio. That was the frame in the 1990s. In recent years, we have successively seen that big-contest candidates can raise lots of money online from small donations online. That's a generational change. And we have seen that online media, such as paid social media, cost far less than broadcast TV and radio, and are more sharply targeted. Thus, it's a whole new arena, a whole new paradigm, a new business model.