By Eliza Newlin Carney
The presidential election is over, despite ongoing efforts to rewrite history. President Donald Trump’s failure to subvert the will of the voters is thanks largely to a half-dozen guardrails that held fast against an extreme democracy stress test, as I wrote in The Fulcrum. These included the military, the courts, the media, the states, voting machine paper trails, and the voters themselves.
But what about next time? Under different circumstances, less scrupulous election officers, lawmakers or judges might have behaved differently. “The next set of local officials might prove to be less honorable,” noted Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post. “So might a younger and more partisan batch of judges.”
The question now is how we can shore up democracy against a future and possibly more sophisticated attack. Zakaria argues for placing nonpartisan boards, not partisan politicians, in charge of election administration, and creating standardized rules for voter registration, absentee voting, reporting results, and the like. Election law experts Charlotte Hill and Lee Drutman propose a new, nonpartisan federal agency to make sure that the voting process, from registration to voting technology, is “fair, consistent, secure and legitimate.”
Elements of this approach are included in HR 1, the democracy reform package that House Democrats approved last year, and that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to move to the front burner in the new Congress. That bill would create automatic voter registration nationwide, for example, eliminating a patchwork of cumbersome registration systems around the country, and would modernize and expand early and absentee voting. It would also broadly strengthen ethics, campaign finance and lobbying rules.
The legislation stands little chance of enactment if Republicans retain control of the Senate following the Georgia special election next month, but some democracy reforms could advance even without Senate approval. House Democrats could change their internal rules consistent with almost 100 recommendations by the bipartisan Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, for example, which are aimed at making Congress more productive, transparent and responsive to voters. President-elect Joseph Biden, once in the White house, could strengthen the executive branch ethics rules via executive action.
Fortifying democracy isn’t just about laws, rules and procedures, however. It’s about getting at the root causes of polarization, public mistrust and extremism festering in the electorate. These include economic inequity, and the ballooning chasm between the haves and the have-nots that has eroded the middle class in America.
If we continue to ignore Americans’ basic needs for health care, food and jobs, we must brace for more political instability ahead. As economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote in The New York Times: “We won’t succeed in restoring trust and a sense of social cohesion until we confront, head on, our intertwined racial, ethnic and economic inequalities. These schisms inevitably divide us and undermine the solidarity democracy demands.”
And as Stiglitz notes, a strong democracy is about culture, norms and social cohesion as well. That points to the need for another piece of pro-democracy legislation: A bipartisan, $1 billion civic education bill spearheaded in the Senate by Delaware Democrat Chris Coons and Texas Republican John Cornyn. The Educating for Democracy Act would help fund research, innovation and teacher training in civic and history education.
At present, civic learning receives only about 5 cents in federal funding per student per year, compared with $50 per student per year for STEM education. Yet a solid majority of Americans support civic education as the strongest tool to strengthen American identity. And investing in STEM at the expense of civic learning do not serve national security, argues the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It is “not just important that we have the best and the brightest in the U.S. innovating and creating new technologies: these individuals also need to understand their responsibility in helping American democracy prosper,” CSIS scholars Suzanne Spaulding and Devi Nair wrote recently.
SPEAKING OF CIVIC LEARNING, The Civic Circle is extremely grateful to the many supporters who made our recent GivingTuesday campaign a success. Between donations that came in via Facebook and PayPal, we raised just over $3,300, well beyond our $2,000 target. We shared a portion of our receipts with the Manna Food Center for its weekend program for Montgomery County Public School students. The rest will support our after-school programs, concerts and educational videos teaching students age 8–13 essential civic skills, including news literacy (Learn!), voting (Choose!), and public service (Join!). Thank you for supporting civic learning at the close of an extraordinary year of challenges to our democracy and our civic life.
Eliza Newlin Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle.
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