Editor’s Note: Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights and constitutional law. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” Find him at www.joshuaadouglas.com and follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
A democracy should be responsive to the will of the people.
Unfortunately, politicians in many states are trying to thwart that will, rejecting voter-backed election rules in an effort to aggrandize their power and keep themselves in office. We must put an end to these anti-democratic actions.
Voters are justifiably upset at their elected leaders’ complicity in the problems of gerrymandering, the increasing amount of money in politics, and voter suppression. Many electoral policies benefit current politicians, not the electorate as a whole. That’s why people have risen up and taken on the issues themselves through local and statewide initiatives. But they have faced roadblocks at every step.
Over 4,000 volunteers in Michigan gathered more than 425,000 signatures from all 83 Michigan counties to put a measure on the ballot this fall to create an independent redistricting commission for the state. The voters, calling themselves Voters Not Politicians, quite literally seek to take redistricting away from the hands of self-interested politicians who draw lines to help their own chances at re-election.
Yet groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce – which has backed Republican gerrymanders in the past – and Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette supported a lawsuit against the measure under the state constitution, seeking to kick it off the ballot. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of Voters Not Politicians, so the initiative will appear on this year’s Michigan ballot as Proposal 2. But it was a close call: The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision was 4-3, with a vigorous dissent.
Maine voters approved Ranked Choice Voting – an innovative electoral system in which voters can rank the candidates in order of preference – but after the Maine Supreme Court questioned its constitutionality, the state legislature repealed it for some elections and delayed it for others.
The voters were forced to use a ballot initiative this June to reject the state legislature’s action, approving Ranked Choice Voting once again.
Maine politicians are also attempting to thwart the voters’ will regarding campaign finance. For years, Maine voters have supported public financing of campaigns, twice approving ballot initiatives on what they call Clean Elections. But this year Republican Gov. Paul LePage refused to release some of the public funds, until a court order required him to do so. And House Republicans are obstructing an attempt to fix a drafting error in a budget bill that puts the system in limbo for the upcoming election. The reason? These politicians simply don’t like public financing, even though Maine voters support it.
The story was the same in Tempe, Arizona, where earlier this year voters overwhelmingly approved a robust campaign finance disclosure law for city elections, which garnered an astonishing 91% of the vote. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey then signed a Republican-backed measure that prohibits localities in the state from enforcing local campaign finance rules, effectively gutting the Tempe measure.
In South Dakota, voters in 2016 approved an initiative for a state statute to create a campaign finance voucher system, an innovative public financing method in which every voter in the state can donate public money to the candidate of their choice. The legislature overruled it with a new statute to repeal the measure.
North Carolina Republicans are engaged in a brazen effort to limit the information provided to voters on ballot initiatives this year. Normally, a bipartisan panel writes short summary captions to appear alongside proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, but the GOP wants to remove this panel’s authority to write the captions. The North Carolina ballot this year will include questions on a new strict voter ID rule and an amendment that would strip the authority of the governor – currently Democrat Roy Cooper – from filling vacancies on state courts and making appointments to the state election board. It should surprise no one, given the Republicans’ current efforts, that the bipartisan panel this year includes two Democrats and only one Republican. The Republicans’ answer is to give voters less information about what is on the ballot.
Why are these elected officials so afraid of the voters?
Perhaps it’s because voters of all political beliefs are tired of how entrenched politicians try to game the system to help their side. They are afraid the voters will reject them at the ballot box, so they seek to rig the rules to give them a better shot at re-election.
Yet even among all this gamesmanship, voters still have a powerful tool to combat these overreaches: the November ballot.
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First, voters can enact pro-democracy reforms in many states. This November, voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah will decide whether to create redistricting commissions for their states, taking the power to draw lines away from self-interested politicians and making the process fairer and more independent.
Ohio voters already approved a redistricting commission earlier this year. This is the most voter activity on redistricting in years. The Missouri initiative also includes robust campaign finance reform.
Voters in both North Dakota and South Dakota will also see ballot measures on state constitutional amendments — which the legislatures can’t unilaterally overrule — to impose campaign finance and ethics reforms.
Arizona voters may also consider a ballot initiative on campaign finance if enough of the submitted signatures are valid. Florida voters will determine whether to fix the state’s worst-in-the-nation felon disenfranchisement law, which takes away the right to vote for life for more than 1.5 million Floridians. Voters in Maryland and Nevada will decide if they should modernize their voter registration systems and adopt Election Day registration (in Maryland) or automatic voter registration (in Nevada).
Second, we can “throw the bums out.” Voters should consider these structural election issues when making their voting choices. Politicians should be responsive to the public will, and if they are not, then we should find different politicians who will espouse pro-democracy views.
Yes, gerrymandered districts, the large influence of money in politics, and voter suppression tactics make this ideal harder than ever. That just means we must double down in our effort to make a difference at the ballot box. That includes not only voting for Congress but also being informed and voting on state and local politicians and ballot measures. It also requires increased turnout.
We won’t see positive change by sitting on the sidelines. This is our democracy. It’s high time we make sure our politicians remember it.