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America has a democracy problem

America has a democracy problem

When a secretary of state and millionaire can oversee his own campaign for governor, our democracy has a problem. When we can’t trust that political operatives won’t tamper with absentee ballots, our democracy has a problem. When certain states, especially those with a dark history of voter suppression, are purging more voters than ever, our democracy has a problem.

In response to these mounting threats to our democracy, House Democrats have decided that enough is enough. The “For the People Act,” or H.R. 1, is a first step toward addressing the systematic barriers and oppression voters in minority populations have faced for generations and returns political power to our communities.
This legislation comes as U.S. voter participation rates continue to lag well behind those of other industrialized countries, in part because of barriers to voting, a lack of truly representative leaders, and the tremendous power Citizens United shifted from citizens to corporations by allowing them to increase spending in elections. Top to bottom, working people, immigrants and other marginalized communities are too often left with false choices at the ballot box; worse, they self-select out of a process that is too difficult and at times too expensive to navigate.

This week, House Democrats shepherded through H.R. 1, a bill that is arguably as significant as the 14th Amendment, which expanded citizenship rights and protected classes. The For the People Act addresses barriers to voting and civic engagement by helping our government engage more young people, people of color and immigrants; giving people back their power and making this pivotal time in our democracy our time for change.

Introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) who is also chair of the House Democracy Reform Task Force, and co-sponsored by bold, diverse leaders like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Pramila Jaypal (D-Wash.), and others, this bill makes Election Day a federal holiday, ensuring that a larger percentage of the country’s low-wage workers are freed from the pressure of requesting time off to partake in their constitutional right to vote. It also makes sure that voting is not a one-day effort by expanding early voting, increasing people’s ability to participate in their government and elect people who truly represent their communities.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s (D-Mass.) amendment to reduce the voting age to 16 and expand online voter registration creates the opportunity for an even more inclusive democracy to emerge, bringing an estimated eight million Americans into our electoral process. Given that nearly 18 million young people are immigrants or children of immigrants, this new policy could open the door to participation for unprecedented numbers of immigrant youth.

From my personal experience as an immigrant, and decades working to increase civic engagement in newcomer communities, I know how difficult and even painful the process of civic participation can be for those who are not wealthy, white, and well-connected. When even the requirements for voter registration are burdensome, our country cannot truly claim to be a democracy of, for, and by the people.

However, the privileges of wealth and long-standing institutional racism can be overcome through systemic changes. H.R. 1 will limit gerrymandering by mandating independent redistricting, ensuring that communities are inclusively created and represented by leaders who are connected to the district’s constituents and can advocate with their values and issues in mind.

While the bill will regulate the role of money in congressional campaigns, it can also serve as a model for states and municipalities. In places like New York City, public matching funds have helped elect Carlos Menchaca, the city’s first Mexican American councilmember. And in Arizona, state Reps. Athena Salman and Isela Blanc benefited from the state’s Clean Elections Commission, which opens the door to candidates lacking traditional fundraising networks. But examples like these are too few and far between. Reform to take money out of campaigns at every level is essential for the emergence of new leaders, particularly people from working class backgrounds who lack the connections necessary for fundraising. And when leaders are elected by people, free from the influence of large, wealthy institutions or special interests with a strong political bias, they can focus on representing the American people and finding solutions to the real challenges facing our communities and democracy, not just keeping the status quo.

A democracy that takes a members-only country club approach is a democracy in name only. Although we have a long way to go before the provisions of H.R.1 are implemented, this legislation is a big step forward in returning political power to communities, fixing our democracy problem, and making this time in our democracy one where all people have a fair shot at being heard. That’s a democracy worth fighting for.