Yes, we understand. You don’t have $100 million to spend on political reform. But maybe you have a friend who does. And, in any case, grappling with this question may lead you to a better understanding of the “business of politics.”
First of all, is $100 million really that much money in the context of politics?
- Howard Schultz is considering spending that amount on an independent run for the presidency in 2020
- The Koch brother network spent $700 million in the 2015-16 election cycle
- $5.6 billion was spent in the 2018 midterms by all senate and congressional candidates, political parties and independent groups
In this blog post, we’ll detail five ways you could spend $100 million dollars to fix the political system.
Invest in Building a New Structure (Rather Than Your Favorite Candidate & Party)
We understand that you most likely have a preferred political party and preferred candidates for the 2020 election cycle. However, decades of accelerating dysfunction in our political system points to some hard truths:
- The structure of the system itself requires certain behaviors from every politician to get elected, to avoid being “primaried” and to get reelected. This structure acts like a centrifuge that spins all considerations to the outermost ideological fringes, and to the large donors who finance the political process. For more background on this, see Why are Lawmakers Leaving Congress? The Disconnect Between Winning & Governing, and Why is Negative Campaigning So Effective?
- Both Democrats and Republicans must be blamed for maintaining this system. It’s true that Republicans generally want to suppress voter turnout, while Democrats support it (both parties seeking partisan advantage). However, both parties have colluded to severely limit any outside competition from a third party. Both parties also have enacted rules to limit competition and descent within their party. (Granted, both the RNC and DNC are facing messy intramural conflicts between their respective centers and extreme edges).
- Both Democrats and Republicans contribute to (and are victims of) the corrupting influence of money in the political system. Democrats may give more lip service to campaign financing reform, but the Democratic-oriented Super PACs have “gone negative.” In 2014 Democrats were responsible for just 20 percent of the dark money negative television advertising. In the 2018 cycle, they accounted for the majority of spending (54 percent)
For these reasons, we believe that investments in changing the structure of politics is the only “long game” that will make a difference.
All Reforms Boil Down to 3 Shifts
There are three problems main issues with the current U.S. political system. The good news is, these have problems have solutions that are feeding three shifts to open up competition, encourage participation and reduce the corrosive role of money.
Problem: Limited Competition. A two-party monopoly pretends to compete on solving important national problems when, in reality, the real focus is on blame, negativity and unworkable solutions.
Solution: Open Competition. Competition is opened up within the DNC and RNC. And independents compete on a level playing field.
Problem: Few Voters Matter. There are four layers of rules that severely limit “who matters” to politicians and the major parties.
Solution: Every Vote Matters. All voters have a meaningful impact on selecting and electing candidates and holding them accountable for results.
Problem: Money Dominant. A system that permits big money to play a dominant role in elections and in governance.
Solution: Proper Role for Money. Big money, while still important, is more transparent and less linked to lobbying and jobs.
Select a Complementary Mix of at Least 8 Reforms
We are all still learning, but at this point in time the following set of initiatives seems unsurpassed in creating the needed shifts.
Independent Redistricting (Gerrymandering Reform)
Gerrymandering creates a bias so extreme that it has been characterized as “effectively nullifying democracy.” For example, an independent study determined that Republicans won as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats over what would have been expected in 2016 based on the average vote share in congressional districts across the country. This isn’t just a Republican issue. Legal challenges before the Supreme Court include cases of Democratic gerrymandering.
There is momentum for change in this area. The Brennon Center calculated that, at the beginning of 2018, just seven states accounted for almost all of the gerrymandering bias: Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. Significantly, Ohio passed anti-gerrymandering reform in the spring, and four more states voted to require independent redistricting in the midterms (Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, Utah). Also, the Supreme Court agreed to revisit the legal challenges to gerrymandering in its current session.
Gerrymandering strongly suppresses both competition and participation. As an orienting generalization, we “score” (10 – 12 points) gerrymandering reforms in our top tier of reforms (along with measures to increase participation and ranked choice voting).
Automatic Registration with Mailed-Out Ballots
The United States ranks 25th out of 30 Western Democracies in voter turnout. While some of this is because of a general sense of resignation around the broader political dysfunction, much is because it’s difficult to register to vote and difficult to vote on election day.
States with more democratic procedures have participation rates 10 – 15 percent higher than the more repressive states. According to VoteAtHome.Org, 25 million votes would have been cast during the 2018 midterms if the U.S. had the participation rate achieved by it’s most progressive states (Colorado, Oregon, Washington). To put that in perspective, 25 million voters is more than the entire combined voting-eligible population of the 16 smallest states.
We score specific strategies to increase participation between 8 – 12 points, depending on how much room for improvement there is in any given state.
Ranked Choice Voting
In cities across the country, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) has demonstrated that it does much more than eliminate the impact of the “spoiler” impact of voting for independents. It promotes majority support, forcing candidates to campaign and govern beyond a narrow partisan base. It discourages negative campaigning. It provides more choice for voters. Because of these benefits, RCV is beginning to gain traction in statewide elections, with Maine leading the way in 2018.
Whereas redistricting impacts only congressional elections, ranked choice voting has the potential to increase competition and participation in nearly every type of elective process. Currently, there are dozens of legislative proposals being considered to use ranked choice voting in eligible municipalities, and in state and congressional offices. These proposals include use in primaries, in general elections and in special election vacancies. Given this, we score widespread use of Ranked Choice Voting at the state level as a 12.
Closed (partisan) primaries are unfair to all voters (especially independents), de-incentivize legislators from creative problem solving, reinforce partisanship, and depress turnout and voter confidence. Open (public) primaries allow voters of all ideologies and parties to participate and choose from among all the candidates and incentivize candidates to reach out to voters beyond their partisan core. National data shows that 75 percent of elected officials are winning office without having to communicate outside of their own party.
Fifty percent of millennials (age 20-37) are registered to vote as unaffiliated independents; and the next generation is even more anti-party. Yet the primary system forces voters to “pick a party” or excludes them altogether. It’s outdated and fuels the dysfunction we see in Washington, and so many state capitals. It’s certainly harder for a party to say “vote for us” in November after asserting “no independents allowed” in March.
Republican and Democratic primaries are fully open in about one-third of the states. We award six points to a reform that state from a closed (or restricted) primary to a fully open one.
Campaign Finance Reform (State Level)
Campaign finance reform spans a broad spectrum of proposals concerning better enforcement of existing campaign financing laws, financial transparency, lobbyist bundling and revolving door practices, spending limits and public funding. Depending on the strength of the initiative, we award up to Six points for enactment of stronger local laws. (We consider eliminating Super political action committees (PACs) via constitutional amendment a separate issue.)
National Popular Vote Compact
In presidential elections, the only votes that really count are the 30 percent of the electorate in the swing states. If the National Popular Vote Compact were approved by approximately 10 more states, and if the measure survives the inevitable legal challenges, the system would shift to election by national popular vote – counting every vote equally.
We would count this as a tremendous accomplishment. We only award it five points, however, because nothing happens until the country reaches the tipping point for enactment. In addition, the measure does nothing to open competition to independents. These shortfalls would be addressed by a multi-member districting reform.
Eliminate Super PACS (28th Amendment)
The goal of the drive for a 28th Amendment is to “re-balance politics by putting the rights of individual citizens before the privileges of concentrated money, corporations, unions, political parties, and Super PACs.” Passing a constitutional amendment is equivalent to a moon shot. The 27th Amendment (concerning congressional pay raises) was 27 years ago. Notably, after decades of effort, the Equal Rights Amendment was abandoned in 1982.
Nevertheless, support for this amendment is further along than many believe, including 19 states already formally calling for its adoption. We award three points for any state joining this reform effort.
Eliminate Party Primaries & Implement Top 4 or Multi-Member Districts
This is a “next generation” reform effort that simultaneously addresses problems with “winner take all” districts and closed party primaries. In our overall reform strategy, we would advocate supporting local and state “laboratories of Democracy” that could prepare the country for its broader use. We award this reform 15 points.
Invest in a Mix of States Using Objective Criteria
Our political system is comprised of the three branches of government replicated at the municipal, state and federal levels. The 50 separate state governments are central to nearly all aspects of the political process. States vary widely in their heritage, demographics, political beliefs, laws and norms.
Level of Accomplishment
Given this, it isn’t surprising that states vary widely in what they have accomplished in the way of political reforms over the last decade, and what the prospects for future reforms are, at least in the short term.
In order to factor these considerations into NewOrg’s strategic thinking, we have created a State Scoring Algorithm based on the desired set of reform initiatives.
As shown below, Colorado has accomplished more than any other state in terms of enacting the desired set of reform strategies (awarded 39 points). Connecticut (12 points) fall in the middle of the pack. Louisiana (4 points) ranks at the bottom.
Potential Reform Focal Points
In our current reform model, we look at four statistical factors in setting relative state priorities (before considering non-quantitative factors).
- State party trifectas
- State ballot initiatives
- Size of the state electorate
- Theoretical upside potential
NewOrg is nonpartisan in orientation yet practical in application. As a practical matter, in general, Democratic state legislatures and governors are currently more receptive to political reform than their Republican counterparts. Given this, one strategic guideline would be to focus on the 14 Democratic “trifectas” (defined as single-party control of state house, senate and governorship). It’s interesting to note that the Democrats picked up six trifectas during the 2018 midterms. (Republicans still hold an advantage with 22, with the remaining states under mixed control.)
State Ballot Initiatives
Approximately one-half of the states permit citizen ballot initiatives, which has proved a powerful vehicle for reform over the last decade.
Size of the State Electorate
The voting age population in the United States is approximately 245 million. States range in size from California (30 million) and Texas (20 million) to Wyoming and Vermont (each half a million).
Theoretical Upside Potential
Apart from size, the upside potential of a state consists of how much “head room” it has for improvement, i.e., things it hasn’t yet accomplished. These calculations are presented in our NewOrg proposal. As a generalization, you can consider them the inverse of “accomplishment.”
Given all these factors, the states awarded the highest priorities will be the Democratic trifectas with ballot initiatives, followed by the remaining Democratic trifectas.
Apply the 7 Essentials in Implementation
Within any configuration of initiative and state priorities, there are sets of implementation tactics that are essential for success. We highlight seven factors.
Triple Threat. Wherever possible, combine ballot initiatives with legislative pressure and legal challenges.
Dual Funding. Directly funding both individual campaign “SWAT teams” (for example, Proposition X in State Y in year Z) and the broader national organizations that hold a longer-term multi-state mission million.
Catalytic Action. Using catalytic action (matching grants, engagement strategies, etc.) to provide resources against NewOrg priorities.
Fund the Gaps. Consider existing sources of funding and determining overall dollar allocations.
Constant Pressure. Maintain the pressure: Expect that successes will often be followed by legislative blow back to overturn legislation, undermine successful ballot initiatives or circumvent legal rulings.
Capture Learning. As an ongoing discipline, capture and utilize the lessons learned from every campaign in the country. (What worked well? What didn’t work so well? How can we apply these lessons elsewhere?)
Measure Success. Map performance metrics against every effort. Be nimble in adjusting tactics to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
Here is a Sample Plan
Structural reform requires achieving short-term goals within an overall 6 to 10-year plan. This illustrative plan covers the time period 2019-2024, allowing expenditures to be made across multiple election cycles. While maintaining the overall goal, adjustments and reallocations will be made based on actual results, ongoing learning and unforeseen developments.
Elements of the Strategy
- The largest allocation, $24 million, goes to improve automatic voter registration and mailed-out ballots in six low-scoring states (New York and Illinois are Democratic controlled. Florida, Missouri and South Carolina are Republican trifectas. Massachusetts is mixed government). We consider increased participation foundational to all other reforms.
- $19 million is allocated toward the implementation of ranked choice voting in 10 states. All of these states allow ballot initiatives or are Democratically controlled. Six of them are large states.
- We allocate $14.5 million to push the edge beyond open primaries and ranked choice voting – moving to the elimination of party primaries and using top four ranked voting, and/or breaking the winner-take-all system through some form of multi-district representation. We invest in four states with Democratic trifectas and ballot initiatives (California, Washington, Colorado and Maine).
- Allocate $13 million across four of the worst states for gerrymandering abuse (North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia). Ohio and Michigan passed reforms in 2018. Substitute or add Texas if conditions warrant. Adjust the strategy depending on Supreme Court rulings.
- $11 million goes to open state and federal primaries in New York, Massachusetts and Florida. (A refinement of this strategy might be to spread these dollars across more states.)
- Campaign finance reform at the city and state level gets $9.5 million, under a strategy yet to be determined. For purposes of this illustration, we spread it evenly across the 19 states in this plan.
- The National Popular Vote Compact gets $5 million in the states most likely to pass it by 2024 (all Democratic controlled).
- $4 million is allocated toward four states with divided governments that have yet to endorse the elimination of Super PACs through the 28th Amendment.
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