Democracy Initiative Weekly Update 03.13.20

Friday, March 13, 2020
Our highlighted issues, actions, and events in the democracy movement this week—please share widely.


Partners and friends,

I hope that you, your staff, and families are coping as best you can during this challenging health crisis. Like many of your organizations, we have shifted our staff to telework for the next few weeks. We anticipate during this time we will have to make some program adjustments to meet the moment.

Now we know that our efforts must increase in scale, particularly in the area of voting access and suppression, as we see an increased need for Vote at Home, no excuse absentee ballots, and drop off/vote centers, as well as election security. Also, we must work hard to ensure that states and localities create safe poll environments and also for our election protection centers so that we can confidently increase our recruitment and training of volunteers to support clerks and counts. The eyes of every person on our shores are now personally witnessing the failures of government, the call for change in governing and voting, and to get money out of politics, is growing. This crisis presents an amazing—almost overwhelming—opportunity in this moment to increase our reform efforts. However, it is equally as important to step up our collective action efforts in joining together to demand immediate safety net provisions for all hard working people, marginalized families and the homeless, all those on the front line of public safety, and our healthcare employees. It is imperative that we demand emergency unemployment, paid sick leave, free testing and treatment of corona virus victims. The DI will share petitions, legislative action requests from our labor, and social justice partners. If you would like us to share those demands please contact Getachew Kassa, National Field Manager, at gkassa@democracyinitiative.org.

In closing, our team looks forward to our continued efforts and I am pleased to speak to many of democracy organizational leaders and civil rights and democracy coalitions about how we lean in harder together and leverage our resources to get the work done. Going forward you will see more collaboration across our communities. Please do not hesitate to reach out with ideas, feedback and opportunities. Together we can make great change.

—Wendy Fields, Executive Director

FOR THE PEOPLE ACT, ONE YEAR LATER

Amid the administration’s criminally inadequate preparation for the coronavirus pandemic, rampant voter suppression, and an election on a fast track to becoming the most expensive in history, it’s clear to us that our democracy is under assault. The Declaration for American Democracy coalition’s latest report Fixing Our Broken Democracy, to which the DI was a contributor, contains issue-specific sections that detail how these failures of democracy further and disproportionately affect Black and brown people, workers, LGBTQ rights, the environment, poverty, and more. To quote the report’s description of the current state of affairs,

Each day brings more news of corruption, graft, and shocking lawlessness at the highest levels of our government. Basic transparency and routine oversight are stymied at every turn. Corporations and wealthy interests pay top dollar, often anonymously, to influence elections and lobby officials, drowning out the voices of everyday voters. Instead of taking steps to secure our elections, the President of the United States is inviting - demanding, even - that foreign governments interfere in the 2020 election. Americans are feeling, with good reason, that our democracy is broken.

As a result, Americans in greater numbers across the country are rising up to demand that their voices are heard, their votes are counted, and their agenda be placed above that of corporations and the wealthy.

Fortunately, the legislation that can answer the grassroots demand for a just, representative, and accountable democracy was passed last year by the US House: the historic For the People Act (H.R. 1), a landmark suite of reforms designed to take back power from the special interests that have hijacked our government and ensure basic social and economic justice to all Americans. But since it passed, it has languished in Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard.

Despite McConnell’s effort to bury the will of the people, the people have not given up. States across the nation have been passing many of the reforms in H.R. 1 thanks to the efforts of grassroots organizers and democracy advocates, leading campaigns alongside unions, environmental groups, civil rights organizations and other issue groups. These reforms are already demonstrating their value as we see voter turnout rise to as much as twice that of 2016. DI partner Common Cause has create the invaluable tool, the "For the People Act in the States,” a series of maps indicating where key democracy reforms included within H.R. 1 have been implemented across the country, including: automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, early voting, vote by mail, redistricting reform, and more.

Now, more than ever, Americans must be prepared to turn out in record numbers in 2020, take their rightful seat at the governing table, and take urgent action to address the problems facing the nation. Only then will we have the power to pass this transformational legislation and begin to govern on the issues that matter to all of us.

Democracy Initiative Executive Director Wendy Fields gave the following statement on the occasion of the anniversary of the For the People Act’s passage in the US House:

“It's been one year since we celebrated the House passage of the For the People Act (H.R. 1)—a major, unprecedented victory due to a powerful grassroots demand for a fair, representative and accountable democracy that gives all a fair shot at a seat at the governing table. Now we must begin our uphill battle to stop the growth of Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard, where H.R. 1., is buried along with dozens of other social justice policies for which DI partners have fought long and hard. The For the People Act gives us election security, and is key to being able to pass affordable healthcare, climate policies, workers’ rights, immigration and gun control. , Given the level of the poor leadership demonstrated during this health crisis, when government should show up,it’s clear that a more impactful People’s Voice is required. The DI commits to mobilizing and organizing to demand the Senate discuss, debate and put forward this and other critical bills to govern now. We have a great opportunity to make great change.”

Maya Berry, Executive Director of DI partner Arab American Institute, gave the following statement:

“The Arab American Institute (AAI) joins our partners in simultaneously celebrating the anniversary of the passage of H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” and in calling on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring its companion legislation to a vote in the U.S. Senate. The benefits of democracy reforms like those included in H.R. 1 have been reinforced as millions of voters have participated in primaries. High turnout rates in the primaries are encouraged by reforms like no-excuse absentee voting and enhanced transparency in election processes. In Michigan, the state with the highest concentration of Arab Americans, a newly implemented set of democracy reforms that includes same-day registration allowed 7,000 voters to register on Election Day, including many from our community. Common sense practices that expand access to the ballot, protect political representation, and secure our elections are an absolute necessity, especially in this pivotal year when both the census and the presidential election are taking place. Stalling implementation of these reforms demonstrates a disregard for a democracy that allows the full and fair participation of all, including Arab Americans. The fight to protect our democratic institutions is a foundational one for AAI and we will keep fighting until everyone has full and equal access to the democracy our country demands.”

Sayu Bhojwani, Founder and President of DI partner New American Leaders, gave the following statement:

“The For the People Act has the power to transform our democracy. By making it easier to vote, limiting the influence of powerful interest groups in politics, and strengthening voter protections, H.R. 1 breaks down systemic barriers that so many New Americans and people of color face and ushers in a new, inclusive era of our democracy. The House did its job last year by introducing and passing these key measures. Now it is past time for the Senate to act and show that they are willing to live up to this bill's name and be for the people—not just special interests—by voting for this key democracy reform legislation."

President and CEO of DI partner Clean Water Action Bob Wendelgass gave the following statement:

"The 2020 elections are the most important in our modern history. What we've seen so far in the primaries is both heartening and disconcerting -- voters are eager to make their voices heard but too many are facing outrageously long lines, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. These elections won't only determine whether we turn away from the destructive policies of the past four years, but will also decide who draws the Congressional districts that will impact decision making for the next 10 years. It's vital that the Senate take action right now to protect our democracy and get dark money out of our politics."

H.R. 1 CONTAINS FIXES FOR ELECTION PROBLEMS
On the anniversary of H.R. 1’s passage in the US House, leaders from our partners and allies in the democracy movement reiterated that the reforms included in H.R.1’s package of voting are the perfect answer to the hijacking of our country’s elections by billions of dollars from wealthy special interests, rampant voter suppression and unfair district maps, and persistent ethics violations by administration officials.

Chiraag Bains, Director of Legal Strategies at DI partner organization Demos, focuses on the money-in-politics reforms in H.R. 1 in his latest commentary. Provisions already contained within the legislation are capable of addressing the racial and economic injustice brought on by the vast amounts of secret money that special and corporate interests spend in our elections:

“The most significant is a public financing system for congressional candidates that would match small-donor contributions — those under $200 — at a rate of 6:1. In this way, a $20 donation would become $140, a $200 donation $1,400. The cost of the program is reasonable — one estimate is $3 billion over 10 years, or $1 per citizen per year. The bill also creates a pilot program of $25 “My Choice” vouchers for people to give to congressional candidates they support.

These programs would amplify the voices of people currently being drowned out by big money. It would offer a path for congressional and presidential candidates to rely on donations from everyday people, not wealthy donors. Similar public financing programs in New York City and Arizona and a voucher program in Seattle have diversified the donor pool and allowed more candidates of color to run.”

In a piece for Truthout.org, Director of the Democracy Program at DI partner Brennan Center Wendy R. Weiser and Senior Counsel for the Democracy Program Daniel I. Weiner make it clear that the most common issues facing voters on Super Tuesday—seven-hour lines at polling places, voter purges, and more—can be fixed by the reforms included in the For the People Act:

“The tragedy is that we already know how to fix our voting system and prevent these problems, and the solutions are already in legislation that passed in the House one year ago but then stalled in the Senate. H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019, is a historic bill that would make it easier to vote, transform how campaigns are funded, and ban partisan gerrymandering, among other critical changes.

Long lines, of course, are not the only problem. Serious loopholes in our legal infrastructure make it all too easy for self-interested actors to distort our democracy through vote suppression, disinformation, a broken campaign finance system, and extreme gerrymandering. These problems are already tainting the 2020 election, but they could be fixed by H.R. 1.”

VIRGINIA STATE UPDATES

VOTING RIGHTS
The DI is closely following the status of our key voting rights reforms that have passed the state legislature and await Governor Northam’s signature. We encourage our partner organizations to join us on social media by uplifting and amplifying these hard-won grassroots victories when they are signed into law. The DI collaborated with our partner ReThink Media to produce a toolkit to help you celebrate these victories, which you can get here. Stay tuned for an email from us to let you know when to join in, or contact Jack Flynn at jflynn@democracyinitiative.org.

REDISTRICTING
On Friday, March 6, the Virginia legislature voted to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot that would establish an independent redistricting commission in 2021 to draw the state’s maps. The commission will be composed of eight lawmakers—four Democrats and four Republicans—and eight citizens. The measure also accounts for a method to resolve boundary disputes by way of a court-appointed special master and would add explicit voting rights protection for minorities to the state constitution.

DRIVER CARDS FOR ALL
Additionally, DI partners and allies ACLU of Virginia, CASA, New Virginia Majority, and others secured a major victory for all Virginians after a decade-long effort to ensure all citizens can receive drivers’ licenses, regardless of immigration status! The Virginia legislature approved on March 7 legislation to allow immigrants to apply for “driver privilege cards,” a form of ID that functions like a license but cannot be used for voting.

In a statement lauding important victories won for immigrants and working families in Virginia this session, DI partner CASA in Action said

“As the Virginia General Assembly winds down, CASA celebrates major policy victories for immigrants and for workers. Among the many progressive victories celebrated across the session, CASA was proud to contribute to the passage of an increase of the state minimum wage that puts Virginians on a path to get to $15 an hour, passage of driver’s privilege cards for the undocumented, in-state tuition for immigrant youth, and a dramatic increase in state support for educational programming for English Learners.”

DI ally New Virginia Majority made the following statement after the state legislature approved driver privilege cards:

“More than a decade ago, legislation was signed that made thousands of Virginians ineligible for drivers licenses. Ever since, our communities have fought, mobilized and mobilized -- knocked on doors, made calls, attended meetings, written letters, built chapters and leadership—for the rights of immigrants, regardless of status, to drive free of fear.

With the passage of HB1211 and SB34 today, we have won an incredible victory. Soon, all of our families and communities will have the choice to drive. This is a crucial advancement for people who have been waiting too long for this basic right.”

LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE LAUNCHES "AND STILL I VOTE" CAMPAIGN

DI ally Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights launched their “And Still I Vote” campaign on March 2, the day after the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. And Still I Vote is a national call to action for people to take back the power of the vote. In every corner of our country, policymakers have put up discriminatory barriers to the ballot that shut us out. From closing polling places in Black communities to wrongfully erasing voters from the rolls—including low-income voters, seniors, and college students. They are taking away our right to vote and rigging the system for their own benefit.

At its core, And Still I Vote is a national call to action to overcome discriminatory barriers to voting and will spotlight tactics some government officials use to erect barriers to the voting booth. The campaign will highlight stories of resistance and resilience from historically disenfranchised communities, while providing practical tools to fight back.

To learn more about the campaign and get involved, visit AndStillIVote.org.

UPLIFTING BAYARD RUSTIN: CULTIVATING LEADERSHIP

To celebrate the 108th birthday of Bayard Rustin on Tuesday, March 17, the Democracy Initiative has planned a week of social media actions to lift up the work we are doing to cultivate the next generation of leaders who come from the frontlines of the issue fights we are in.

To lift up the legacy of Rustin, and the work we are doing in his honor, we will be distributing a toolkit early next week that partners can use to elevate the Bayard Rustin Fellowship program on social media posts all week long. To make sure your organization receives the toolkit, contact Jack Flynn at jflynn@democracyinitiative.org.

In honor of Bayard Rustin's 108th birthday, Democracy Initiative is ramping up our recruitment of mentors for the Bayard Rustin Democracy Fellowship Program.

The Bayard Rustin Fellowship program will support and advance long-term leaders of color in the democracy field and expand the movement’s ability to organize marginalized and oppressed communities. Bayard Rustin believed those who suffer the most from inequity and hate when democracy is deferred are the game-changers in increasing our success on reform. This new program seeks to ensure that our movement is rooted in, and reflective of, the authentic experiences and contributions of those who have been segregated and excluded from leadership.

We are currently seeking qualified individuals to mentor organizers and staffers of color. We recognize the roadblocks for Black and Brown staffers and organizers seeking guidance in movement spaces. In order to combat these obstacles, mitigate burnout and retain brilliant staffers that have the potential to be future leaders, we are recruiting an initial cadre of mentors by Bayard's birthday on March 17th, 2020.

We encourage our partner organizations to recommend qualified, interested candidates to be mentors for our inaugural class of mentees. We’ve prepared a sample letter that you can use to reach out to potential mentors that you can download here.

Anyone interested in mentoring the next generation of leaders in the movement or recommending individuals in need of mentoring can fill out a statement of interest form here. For more information or questions, contact our Training and Movement Building Coordinator, Brittny Baxter at bbaxter@democracyinitiative.org.

DEMOCRACY IN THE NEWS

As serious concerns about the 2020 primaries emerge due to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers are considering Vote by Mail as a powerful option for ensuring the safe and effective administration of our elections. Many in the voting rights community support this option, including Director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU Dale Ho; in his latest for the New York Times, he argues that simple steps taken nationwide to support Vote by Mail can safeguard voters during the 2020 elections.

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed on Wednesday, March 10 to commit $500 million in federal funding to support states’ preparations for election administration, which would include providing voters the option to cast their ballots by mail. Amber McReynolds, head of DI ally National Vote at Home Institute, said a major turn toward vote by mail for the November election would “require state officials to expand their role in handling ballots because local authorities would find it difficult to add to their capacity quickly enough.”

At the state level, officials across the country are considering a switch to vote by mail. Maryland lawmakers are currently discussing the implementation of a mail ballot-only election for the state primary on April 28. McReynolds estimates it would cost Maryland about $8 million to provide mail ballots to the state’s registered voting population, but that the state will have to act fast. State officials in Nebraska are urging the Secretary of State to prepare an all-Vote by Mail election for the May 12 primaries.

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