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January 16, 2019

Parsing Dems' Big Election Reform Bill with Steven Rosenfeld

By Joan Brunwasser

Many readers have foregone conclusions that the system is so rigged and corrupt that nothing will make it better. I disagree.Others say I am defending those on the inside who administer elections by suggesting that certain steps can be taken to improve the process and have more accountable and trustable results: from participation to vote counts. On the other hand, what are we supposed to do? Give up on improving the process?


Rosenfeld in the Wild
Rosenfeld in the Wild
(Image by courtesy of Steven Rosenfeld)
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My guest today is Steven Rosenfeld, an author, senior writing fellow and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Joan Brunwasser: Welcome back to OpEdNews, Steven. We talked not long ago but things are hopping in our nation's capital. Recently, you wrote a piece Democrats in Congress unveil ambitious plan to fix our election system[1.4.19]. Tell us a bit about this legislation, please.

Steven Rosenfeld: That piece was about H.R. 1, the first non-spending bill introduced by the newly Democratic majority House. In a nutshell, this legislation is a combination of more than 20 previous bills that seek to reform what's anti-participatory, anti-transparent and unaccountable in the voting process, campaign finance, and the arena of ethical behavior by top federal officials. You could label H.R.1 as an anti-corruption measure, but that's a bit narrow. It is a vast catalogof almost all that's broken and anti-democratic, and what it takes to address these facets of our political culture and system--or make serious progress in that direction.

JB: For this election integrity veteran, It's music to my ears. Whose idea was it to put all these bills together in a single package? What was the political calculation for doing so? It seems like it would be much more difficult to work with, to get it passed in its enormity and sheer comprehensiveness. Or is that not the point? What am I missing here?

SR: It's interesting to hear you say this is music to your ears. This to-do list, indeed, validates and updates much of what I detailed in my last book about the anti-democratic features of voting in America today. And sadly, there is a stark partisan divide in much of this, because the GOP is a party with a shrinking demographic base and thus feels compelled to revise the law or the rules wherever possible to preserve their power.

Here is a link to the summary of all the elements of H.R. 1, which is probably more granular than most readers will want to parse. I have heard that this bill is aspirational, in a sense that it draws a symbolic divide with the GOP and also is akin to a party platform document. To me, that way of characterizing it is a bit disappointing. These are the concrete steps, and this big list is by no means complete of what's needed so our elections reflect the values of fairness, competition, accountability and transparency.

Now, I must say, I get pushback from the left and right, when I say stuff like that. Many readers of OpEd News, or at least commenters, have foregone conclusions that the system is so rigged and corrupt that nothing will make it better. I disagree. And others say that I am defending those on the inside who administer elections by suggesting that certain steps can be taken to improve the process and have more accountable and trustable results: from participation to vote counts. On the other hand, what are we supposed to do? Give up on improving the process? Say none of this matters, even if H.R. 1 is dead-on-arrival in Mitch McConnell's Senate?

JB: Let's put aside for the moment the rather large stumbling block of Mitch McConnell and his Republican majority in the Senate. How do the House Dems deal with such a large compendium of bills? It's like trying to tidy up an octopus. How do they discuss the many broken aspects of our elections and reach a consensus on them all? Just because the 22 bills are all lumped under a single umbrella doesn't guarantee that they all share equal support among the majority of House Dems; or does it? Or is this just an exercise, to demonstrate the Democrats' belated understanding of this very unlevel playing field? I'm trying to understand the logistics here.

SR: What I have heard is that different committees will have jurisdiction over different parts of it. Also, for example, I heard that the effort to restore the main enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965--which gave the Justice Department veto power over any election process change in jurisdictions with previous histories of institutional discrimination; but was gutted by a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling--was being handled in a separate bill and legislative process. So we will have to see how this all plays out. At the very least I expect there will be House hearings on the reforms, which will raise their profile.

But you raise an interesting question--do you look at this menu in a holistic manner or a more granular manner. Obviously a more systemic approach is preferable. If we were fortunate to see any of these reforms make it into law--or push states to adopt similar reforms in the absence of federal action--their impacts would vary by geography. That's because the landscape of voting obstacles varies state by state, with, of course, a federal overlay.

JB: So you're not cynical enough to think of this as merely pre-2020 grandstanding. You think that Democrats finally get that a broken system does not serve them as a party or the American people as a whole? If so, what finally pushed them over the edge? I raise this point because we've been talking and writing about this dysfunctional system in all its many varied aspects for many many years!

SR: I don't think this is grandstanding any more than the House Dems introducing strong gun control legislation is grandstanding. I think they are reacting to the issues that resonate with their base, which, by the way, represents a popular vote majority nationwide. They had the biggest midterm turnout in in generations. So many people are paying attention to the voting issues that used to be inside ball. For example, look at the state ballot initiatives dealing with gerrymanders that passed in a handful of red-run states. Look at the many women elected to the House from communities that are no longer white majority as they were a decade ago. People in these states are attuned to how the Supreme Court's conservative majority isn't upholding more inclusive voting rights and policies. The House's omnibus voting bill is a pent-up reaction to that.

Now realists will sigh and point to the GOP's intransigence in the Senate. That's not only on this issue. But what I think the Democrats are doing is raising the profile of issues and an agenda to pursue once the political pendulum and majority swings back their way. When will that happen? No one can predict. But 2018's results suggest the tides are turning. Is that being naive? I don't think so. By the way, as of January 10, H.R 1 had 221 sponsors--enough to pass the House.

JB: That's definitely encouraging. And there's certainly nothing wrong with taking the moral high ground. Making our elections more inclusive, fair and transparent are all worthy goals. The question is how to convert a wish list into something more. If the Democrats turned to you for advice on how to proceed, what would you advise them?

SR: Well, they are not going to do that! But it would be useful to have congressional hearings on the elements. We have no idea what is going to happen with Trump's government shutdown, the Mueller investigation, Mitch McConnell's stonewalling. All of those factors and others we cannot predict could coalesce into a moment when enough of a majority of the voting public feels it has become time to press the reset button. If we are fortunate enough for that to happen, the Dems should have a menus of reforms ready to remake the political landscape. I am not expecting human nature to change, or greed to disappear, or power hungry people to vanish. But the majority of the country has always taken pride in the Civil Rights Movement and this slate restores those gains, as opposed to rolling back the clock.

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.

JB: I think this is a good spot to wrap this up unless there's something you'd like to add. Thanks for talking with me again, Steven. It's always a pleasure and I doubt we'll run out of things to talk about for the near future, at the very least!

SR: Thank you very much for the opportunity to discuss these things. To be continued!


Steven's latest book:

Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election, Hot Books, 2018.

Some of my prior interviews with Rosenfeld:

Jill Stein's PA Lawsuit - What Happened and What Does It Mean? 12.8.2018

Midterm Recap with Voting Booth's Steven Rosenfeld 11.28.18

Ferguson Lays Bare Police Brutality and Racism in America 12.4.2014

Recent NSA Ruling Actually REALLY Bad News? 12.24.2013

Progressive Journalist Steven Rosenfeld on Infiltrating GOP Voter Vigilante Project 8.31.12

Sneak Preview of "Count My Vote - A Citizen's Guide to Voting" by Steven Rosenfeld 7.11.08

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and