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Why Democracy Reform Matters

Democracy reform is a racial justice issue. Our democracy is rigged to privilege the white and wealthy, and it has been from the start. Originally built to exclude everyone besides land-owning white men, our democracy today still works to exclude people of color, poor people, disabled folks, and immigrants. Recent elections have shown this play out in stark terms: thousands of voters—disproportionately low-income and people of color—have been systematically prevented from casting ballots because of strict voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other suppressive tactics; millions in corporate and dark money has poured into our elections; and two Republican presidents winning the presidency despite losing the popular vote. 

Our other democratic institutions are also at risk. Gerrymandered districts restrict political representation, media conglomerates prevent accountability from our leadership, and the hijacked conservative Supreme Court enact rulings that benefit the wealthy and ignore the needs of the people. This situation is unsustainable and must be addressed with comprehensive and far-reaching legislation. 

In order to save our democracy, we need a bold day-one democracy agenda: we must pass legislation to democratize the Senate, institute voting rights for all, legitimize the courts, preserve a free and independent media, create fair maps and fair elections, and institute campaign finance reform. 

Our democracy isn’t working for ALL the people because of huge structural barriers that are inherent in the system. That means that Congress needs to recognize that passing strong democracy reforms through the Senate will require structural reforms—specifically, eliminating the filibuster. Keep reading to learn more about the reforms we want to see and the issues we’re focusing on right now.

What Democracy Reforms We Want to See

  • Statehood for D.C. and self-determination for Puerto Rico and other US territories

  • Voting rights for all, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and young people, by restoring the Voting Rights Act and overturning voter ID laws and other suppressive laws that target communities of color

  • Reform the federal courts, by expanding the Supreme Court and the lower courts, by imposing a Supreme Court code of ethics, and by instituting term limits for Supreme Court justices

  • Support the For The People Act (H.R. 1):

    • Requiring members of Congress, Vice Presidents and Presidents to divest their assets and disclose conflicts of interest, and Presidents and VPs to disclose their tax returns

    • Instituting strict revolving door requirements to keep corporate lobbyists from moving back and forth into government

    • Plans to fight racial and partisan gerrymandering at all levels of government

    • Instituting public funding for elections to reduce the power of corporate money in government

All of these reforms are possible without amendments to the Constitution, and can be achieved through simple legislation. However, as the Senate’s rules exist today, conservative lawmakers have the power to block these priorities, even if they’re in the minority in the Senate. Republicans will use a procedural tool called the filibuster—which requires a minimum of 60 votes to advance legislation—to block everything we want to accomplish. That’s why we are calling on Democrats in the Senateto eliminate the filibuster to create a functioning legislative body that can pass the structural democracy reforms we need.

What We’re Focused on Right Now

We believe our democracy is broken, and that’s why we’re calling on the next Congress to prioritize democracy and pass the For the People Act (H.R. 1), with the D.C. statehood bill (H.R. 51), and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R. 4) in the first 100 days. In the meantime, there’s still a lot we can do to build a fair and equitable democracy for all.

Demand Your Members of Congress Pass H.R. 51 and Support D.C. Statehood

If we’re serious about building a democracy that works for the people, that conversation starts with D.C. statehood. D.C. statehood is a racial justice and democracy issue -- if D.C. is granted statehood, it would be the only state in the nation to have a plurality of Black residents. Despite overwhelming support in D.C. for statehood, the federal government has so far refused to grant the District of Columbia statehood.

The reasons for this are pernicious. D.C. is a historically-Black city and Black people still make up just under 50 percent of the population. That’s because President Lincoln signed a bill into law that abolished slavery in D.C. a full nine months before his national Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, so the District quickly became a popular place for recently-freed Black people to go. However, during Reconstruction, racist white politicians were loath to give recently enfranchised Black men more political power, a trend that’s continued to this day.  In fact, as recently as the 1960s, the Southern chairman of the House committee in charge of D.C. oversight sent a truckload of watermelons to the city’s Black mayor after the District submitted its annual budget to Congress.

Due to D.C.’s lack of statehood, the 700,000 Americans who live in D.C. lack equal voting rights compared to their neighbors across the country. In fact, D.C. residents lack a voting representative in the House and have no representation in the Senate at all. 

In addition, the lack of statehood means D.C. does not have control over their own affairs. Congress approves D.C.’s budget and can even override local laws passed by D.C. residents and its actual elected local officials. The lack of local autonomy in D.C. also meant that during the protest for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Black lives in June 2020, President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr were able to order federal forces into the capital without the consent of the District of Columbia’s mayor or elected officials. Trump and Barr ordered federal law enforcement officers to clear out Lafayette Square by gassing and beating protestors, all so Trump could have a photo-op in front of a church. 

 

Call your Senator and Demand they Vote Yes on S. 1

S. 1, the For the People Act, is a critical first step to unrigging our democracy. The bill would expand early voting, end partisan gerrymandering, reduce money in politics, and more. Call your Senators today and demand they vote yes on the For the People Act.

Join the Growing Movement for Court Reform

The Republican Party has stacked the courts with extremely conservative ideologues, most egregiously in 2016, when Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat so that Donald Trump could fill it and in 2020, when Republicans replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Amy Coney Barrett mere weeks before the 2020 election. 

Trump and McConnell have successfully confirmed more than 200 judges to the federal bench, including three Supreme Court justices: Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Trump’s judges overwhelmingly tend to be white, male, and very young. Many of them are unqualified. This is the legacy that will remain long after Trump is gone, since federal judges serve on the bench for life.

Every single issue we care about comes down to the courts. Unfortunately, Republicans have stacked the deck with ultra-conservative judges hand-selected by dark money groups.

Republicans understand how important the courts are in protecting conservative interests, and also how important they could be in blocking progress. That’s why judicial nomination proceedings—especially for Supreme Court seats—have become so politicized: Republicans want to get and keep control of the judiciary to ensure they can achieve their preferred outcomes in court.

Why does this matter? Because an overwhelmingly conservative judiciary has already led to unfettered money influencing our democratic process, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act which has led to historic voter suppression, rollbacks of critical environmental regulations, attacks on reproductive rights, and ongoing assaults on workers and immigrants. 

There are several court reform proposals that can address some of the issues facing the court, and all of them can be accomplished through simple legislation (no constitutional amendment needed):

  • Supreme Court expansion. There is nothing in the constitution that sets the number of justices at nine, either. In fact, when the Supreme Court first convened in 1790, there were six justices. The number has fluctuated between 5 and 10 by statute, and in 2016 Mitch McConnell effectively reduced the number to 8 by holding the seat to which Garland was nominated open for more than a year. In order to undo the damage that Republicans have done -- from stealing a Supreme Court seat in 2016, to confirming a credibly accused sexual assailant, to ramming through Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement just eight days before the end of the ongoing presidential election -- progressives must get serious about expanding the number of seats on the high court.
  • Lower court expansion. Most cases never get to the Supreme Court. They are decided in the lower courts -- but those courts are dramatically out of balance, too. Because of Republicans’ wholesale obstruction of Obama’s judicial nominees, Trump has been allowed to stack the courts with extreme, unqualified judges, a whopping 85% of them white, and 76% of them male. Zero of Trump’s 53 appeals court judges are Black, and just 1 is Latinx -- a deliberate distortion of the judiciary. That means we need to add seats to the lower courts, too. There is a long history of expanding the federal judiciary both to address the backlog of cases, and to address the lack of diversity on the federal bench. In fact, Congress added 152 seats in 1978 for those reasons. We are facing those exact problems today, which is why a significant expansion of the lower federal courts is critical.

  • Term limits for Supreme Court justices. The Supreme Court in particular has become a victim of extreme partisanship, largely because there are so few vacancies. Senators on both sides of the aisle understand how critical the ideological makeup of the court is, so every vacancy is treated like an all-out war. The nomination process could be depoliticized by term limiting justices, ensuring that every president would get at least two Supreme Court picks per term. 

  • Improved ethics and transparency requirements for Supreme Court justices. Unlike all other federal judges, Supreme Court justices are not required to follow a code of ethics. Any comprehensive court reform bill must include a Supreme Court code of ethics, improved disclosure requirements for justices, and a mechanism for recusal in the event of conflicts of interest.

Interested in learning more? Watch our Courtbusters video series where Indivisible's Director of Democracy Policy Meagan Hatcher-Mays walks us through some of the problems facing our judiciary—and how we can reform the courts right now through simple legislation.