Thank you Jeff, and thank you to Nancy MacLean and Neal Simon for these critically important insights.
As Jeff said, here are two people with very different starting points and very different methodologies arriving at the same conclusion: that we need fundamental structural reform.
Fundamental change is what the organization I lead, Election Reformers Network, is all about. The founders of the organization supported the structural change that ended apartheid in South Africa and communist dictatorship in Central and Eastern Europe. We did this work at places like National Democratic Institute, Democracy International, and the Carter Center, as we helped lead America’s contribution to the greatest expansion of democracy in history. Beginning in 2017 our group has been drawing on the insights of that shared background to help advance the major changes needed here in this country.
In a minute we are going to hear from some of the people on the front line, the people who have won major victories for specific reforms like ranked choice voting and anti-gerrymandering. But before we do that, I’m full of coffee and just off a plane and here to make sure our eyes are on the big prize.
Here are a couple data points for you. In 2018 13 major state level election reform ballot initiatives won in this country, the last time anything like that happened was 1971, which is also the last time Congress and the states achieved the ultimate structural change of amending our constitution. In aggregate those ballot initiatives won with 66% of the vote, and in “Trump counties,” those the President took by 25% or more, 56% of voters voted yes to reform.
We are living in a reform wave, and waves create the opportunity to do what normally seems undoable, to make the changes needed in our most fundamental document.
We have a powerful founding myth in this country. Every country needs one, and ours is a lot better than most. But it makes us think we were given an expertly designed system, like the grandfather clock of a master craftsman, for us to polish and admire, as it runs on for centuries. That’s a wholly unfitting metaphor for the reality of representative government, which is more like a system of levees and dams always under threat, because water is always finding a new way around obstacles.
A republican form of government, a representative democracy, needs periodic maintenance, periodic updating of the protections against the forces of oligopoly that are always finding a new way to undermine government by the people and for the people. So don’t listen to the argument that it’s a waste of our reform energies to focus on amendments, that amendments are too hard. That’s a bit like giving up on stopping climate change because fossil fuel is too entrenched in our lives. 97% of scientist agree that we are at risk of making the planet uninhabitable for our species. We have no choice but to stop climate change, and we have no choice but to fix our constitution, and it is probably the case that we won’t be able to succeed at the first until we have succeeded at the second.
When the Rucho decision was announced, with the finding that partisan gerrymandering is not unconstitutional. The great constitutional scholar Ned Folly responded with piece entitled “Don’t blame the Court, blame the constitution,” which concludes with the following thoughts: “I must recognize the plausibility of a different perspective, one that rejects the primacy of democracy as an organizing constitutional principle.. The Constitution is not sufficiently clear on this crucial point, and for this the Constitution itself is to blame… Which leads to the most fundamental lesson of the Court’s decision in the gerrymandering case. If the Constitution as written is insufficiently democratic, then the way to fix it is to harness popular anger against the Constitution itself.”
I want to look further at the two problems we’ve just heard about from Neal and Nancy, we are inclined to think of them as the outcome of individual malevolence, bad actors corrupting our system, and we are trained by our media, by our politics, and by the needs of fundraising for our organizations to tell stories about Bad guys. But looked at differently these are also stories about bad rules, about deep flaws in our constitution that the self-interested can exploit. For example The founders believed that political parties, “factions” in their language, should be kept out of government; that belief was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how people work together and organize to achieve common goals, and nearly every constitution written in the last 100 years has recognized that parties have a role to play, and that their role should be defined and limited. It is the absence in our system of a definition and limit to the role of parties that allows for the self-dealing duopoly Neal described. Likewise Nancy tells a story of organized money set out to flood our system and change it to the core. We can blame the Justices supporting the opinions in Buckley Valeo and Citizens United, but with Ned Foley we should also recognize that our Constitution is just not as clear as it needs to be on the key question of role of Congress and the states in setting limits on money in elections. With the great leadership of Jeff Clements and American Promise we are going to pass the 28th amendment and fix that problem.
I want to close with this observation: that taking on the great challenge of improving our venerable founding document will not only make our country a better place, it will also make all of us better people. And that’s because amending the constitution only happens when people compromise, when we leave our silos of certainty and seek out common ground. We found that was true even of something as morally compelling as ending Apartheid. Very deeply held convictions had to bend and change for that negotiation to succeed, and the same will be true of the 28th amendment.
The remarkable thing about American Promise is the way it has embodied that spirit from the beginning and dedicated itself to common ground as guiding principle of its work. Jeff, hats off to you for that rare leadership.