What’s next for the democracy movement?

New York State Sen. Squadron at the "Demand Democracy" rally on May 26. (Twitter/@DanielSquadron)

New York State Sen. Squadron at the “Demand Democracy” rally on May 26. (Twitter/@DanielSquadron)

On June 15, after three-and-a-half years of statewide campaigning, New York called for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions that ushered in a new era of unlimited, unaccountable influence by corporations and billionaires over the political system in the United States. Breaking new ground, New York is the first state where Republicans control either house of the state legislature to take such a step. In so doing, New York joined 16 other states, the District of Columbia, more than 650 cities and towns, and more than 130 Republican officials across the country in calling for an amendment.

This sign of progress in the fight to get money out of politics is the result of a concerted grassroots effort led by national, regional and community groups lobbying their state representatives to take a stand in favor of reform.

Organizations like Public Citizen, Common Cause, Move To Amend and other reform advocates have cooperated on pursuing this strategy for years. Similarly, organizations like Represent.US are pursuing ballot initiatives in various states calling for an amendment. In order to become law, however, a constitutional amendment requires ratification by at least 38 of the 50 states. And before that can happen, Congress needs to bring the amendment up for a vote and pass a two-thirds majority in both houses; then the president has to sign it. New York, however, is only the 17th state to call for an amendment and the first since Oregon took the step over three years ago.

One reason it’s taken so long, said Jonah Minkoff-Zern, who spearheaded the New York effort for Public Citizen, is Republican intransigence. To address this challenge, amendment advocates developed talking points designed for targeting Republicans who are open to splitting from their party establishment on this issue. They focus on the negative impact of decisions like Citizens United on small business owners, the founding fathers’ democratic vision, history of conservative reform advocates, and national polling data showing 80 percent of Republicans oppose the Citizens United decision.

“New Yorkers deserve to be represented by individuals who are hardworking and dedicated, and not willing to use their financial advantage over others to buy votes,” Republican Assemblyman Michael Montesano said in a press release from Public Citizen. “We need to eliminate the opportunity for people to receive power by paying the highest price, and instead ensure that elected officials are working in the best interests of the people of New York.”

While this latest achievement is a step forward, fewer resources may be devoted towards this tactic, as other developments in the movement to get money out of politics draw the spotlight. In May, Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, announced an upcoming elections reforms package titled the “We The People Act,” which includes an amendment to the constitution. On a national level, Minkoff-Zern anticipates Public Citizen focusing more on building out a robust national grassroots structure while planning for substantial events and mobilization efforts leading up to the November elections and centered around the anniversary of the Citizens United decision on January 21. The next big push will be organizing local town halls and press conferences with Senate Democrats as they roll out their reform package in August. In addition to passing an amendment, there are a wide range of approaches to reforming democracy that are currently being pursued by a loosely connected community of groups and individuals that make up what’s often referred to collectively as the democracy movement.

Electoral politics

One avenue for forwarding the movement that has gained significant attention in recent months is electoral politics. Much of the energy around this approach is driven by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, which has made inroads with the Democratic Party and moved Hillary Clinton to support an expansive reform agenda of her own. Sanders’ grassroots army has also fueled efforts like the initiative started by Brand New Congress — which is run by Sanders volunteers and former staffers — to replace Congress all at once with a national campaign. In three months of operation, they attracted 20,000 “supporters” and 5,000 donors according to their website. They expect to hit 1 million supporters by March 2017 when they are publicly announcing their first 50 candidates.

Bernie Sanders derivatives are not the only groups focusing on electing pro-reform candidates. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig started Mayday PAC in 2014, which he dubbed “the super-PAC to end all super-PACs.” After a poor return on a $10 million investment in a handful of 2014 congressional midterm races, Mayday is testing out a different approach by focusing more on in-party contests and widening its repertoire of candidates to state and local campaigns on the left and the right.

In the spring of 2015, another political action committee was launched under the name End Citizens United PAC, which raised $11 million in its first year of operation with the goal of overturning Citizens United by electing more Democrats. While they’ve experienced success raising money, pro-reform allies criticize the group for aggressive, deceptive, cannibalistic fundraising tactics, poor communication with other organizations working on these issues,and questionable criteria for evaluating pro-reform candidates. Move to Amend has created a page on its website devoted to debunking them.

Whether reformers focus on electing Democrats or taking a non-partisan approach, gaining a majority of pro-reform legislators in both houses will be difficult considering the odds of winning the 33 senatorial elections in addition to sweeping the 435 House seats up for reelection in 2018.

Grassroots pressure

Building a robust grassroots infrastructure that gets the public more involved in nonviolent direct action is an important strategy for many at this stage of the fight. A significant realization in developing public scrutiny and bringing new blood into the movement is the strength of coalitions centered on the marriage of campaign finance and voting rights. Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening were able to pull together thousands of unlikely allies from the labor, peace, environmental, student, racial justice, civil rights, equal rights for LGBT people movements to take nonviolent action in support of the democracy movement’s broader agenda. In April, over 1,300 people representing over 300 reputable organizations were arrested as part of this coalition for staging sit-ins on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Their demands included a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, modernizing and restoring voting rights legislation, instituting a publicly financed election system and holding hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination.

Now the creators of Democracy Spring are focused on transitioning from creating one big action to an organizational structure that plans out multiple, simultaneous direct actions across the country, according to Curt Ries, who served as the deputy campaign director for Democracy Spring and works with 99Rise. Their approach is inspired by the momentum organizing tradition laid out in “This Is an Uprising” by Mark and Paul Engler. One opportunity to witness this strategy in action will be at the Democratic National Convention, where according to their website, roughly 500 people have committed to risking arrest.

Rather than focus on politicians, Ries said their primary target is winning over the public – calling on people to develop the willingness to change their own lives and make personal sacrifices to achieve systemic change to American democracy. In particular, Ries said they are using the election cycle and the media hype that follows the candidates to generate a public mandate ordering elected officials to take action. They will set a deadline in 2017 for when these problems will need to be resolved before further escalation.

Another tactic for reform used by Democracy Spring is the Equal Voice for All Declaration, which calls for elected officials and candidates to support three planks: the amendment to the constitution overturning Citizens United, voting rights protections, and publicly citizen-funded elections. Twenty-eight candidates and incumbents have signed the declaration, including Zephyr Teachout, Tim Canova and Jamie Raskin. At the state level, New York advocates are planning a “Brand New Albany” campaign that will utilize a similar declaration for candidates and incumbents to support state-level campaign finance and voting rights reforms, according to Jess Wisneski, the legislative and campaigns director for Citizen Action NY.

Beyond Citizens United

Most advocates, including Minkoff-Zern and Public Citizen, realize an amendment overturning Citizens United alone is far from enough, so they advocate variations of a more comprehensive reform package. Aside from amending the constitution, often included is legislation like the Fair Elections Now Act that would set up publicly-funded elections, and the Voting Rights Advancement Act that would re-establish the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These bills only require a simple majority to pass in both houses. Championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the Communication Workers of America’s primary legislative campaigns, “Take On Wall Street,” advocates for publicly-financed elections, while the Human Rights Campaign endorses voting rights legislation. Many reformers view these laws as planks on the same platform. Sen. Schumer and the Senate Democrats’ “We The People Act” could be a likely target for their broader demands, which reformers say has left key voting rights and public funding reforms off the table.

Rather than focusing on a constitutional amendment, campaign politics or other national approaches, some reformers are strategizing at the state and local level. Indeed, a heightened attention on state and local elections is what distinguishes Mayday’s current strategy from its approach in 2014, according to National Campaign Director Benjamin Singer. Mayday’s 2016 strategy looks at passing small-donor, anti-corruption election laws at the state and local level as the first step in a long-term generational fight. According to Singer, the fundamental flaw in American democracy is the private funding of elections, and whether or not a constitutional amendment is passed, publicly-funded elections will still be needed to even the playing field for the average voter. Otherwise, the influence of money will find its way around any new barriers.

The Overpass Light Brigade outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse on July 9, 2014. (Flickr/Joe Brusky)

The Overpass Light Brigade outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse on July 9, 2014. (Flickr/Joe Brusky)

Singer said that historically Congress does not lead. It follows local and state governments, and he points to gay marriage and marijuana legalization as examples. In this regard, the Brennan Center for Justice has identified New York City — where the city gives six dollars in matching funds for every dollar donated up to $250 to candidates who agree to limits on contributions and spending — as a national leader for campaign finance reform. One of the most immediate ways to have an impact on our elections is by establishing voting rights protections and publicly-funded elections through state and local governments, which can then shift public opinion and national laws, Singer said. This happened with marriage equality, as 37 states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriages by the time the Supreme Court declared marriage as a federal right.

Another strategy that some in the movement, like Lawrence Lessig, have considered viable is a constitutional convention. This requires at least 34 of the 50 state legislatures to sign a resolution calling for a convention on a specified topic. Wolf PAC, another pro-reform political action committee, makes constitutional conventions a central aspect of its plan. While conventions must be called on for a specific topic, the process was vaguely outlined in the Constitution, leaving room for interpretation. Some fear corporate lobbyists could hijack a convention to rewrite the Constitution, which could threaten other hard fought constitutional victories.

The course of action with the least notable resistance is passing publicly-financed elections at the state and local level. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the strategy that has the most energy or the most funding behind it. A lot of money is going towards electing pro-reform candidates, especially if you include Bernie Sanders’ publicly-funded war chest, while the energy in grassroots organizing is behind amending the constitution and building coalitions around a public mandate concerning a broader reform agenda. The strategic diversity of this movement could be early signs of the robust grassroots infrastructure many of the reformers want to see emerge. Where the next dominoes will fall, only time will tell.

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