Democracy Initiative in 2020

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Democracy was on the ballot in 2020—and together, we made a difference. Despite continued mass voter suppression, we achieved the largest and most inclusive election in American history. When all the votes are counted, nearly 160 million people will have cast ballots—the largest number ever.

This achievement reflects years of hard work by the overall democracy movement, and by Democracy Initiative partners and allies across the country. You can and should take credit for these accomplishments. When we all came together at the DI Annual Meeting in November 2019 and adopted an ambitious 2020 campaign plan centered on dramatically increasing civic participation and expanding vote by mail, it turned out to be a visionary move.

You and your members rose and met this historic moment despite the unknown terrain. Through a deadly pandemic and extreme economic challenges disproportionately shouldered by our front-line workers and communities of color, through climate fires raging across the West, through continuing racial injustice that sparked millions of our members to rise up in protest, and through unprecedented attacks on voting rights and our very democracy, you all showed up. You and your members showed up for the Post Office, you educated your communities about the importance of making a plan to vote and how to vote by mail, and you successfully mobilized for expanding healthy voting options. All of this positions us for the next round of these fights: expanding on the wins and defending against attacks that would set us back.

As previously announced, the DI is in the process of a leadership transition. We’re enormously grateful to outgoing Executive Director Wendy Fields for her extraordinary service and dynamic leadership, and we are pleased that current Deputy Director Jennifer Lamson will serve as the interim executive director. We have hired a consultant to manage the transition and hiring process for a new executive director.

As that process continues, our urgent work will move forward; many of you attended our post-election action meeting to begin planning for the coming months ahead. Our entire board is prepared to move forward with an aggressive, forward-leaning vision that meets this moment. We will continue to build and mobilize a broad, multi-racial coalition that seeks inclusive democracy that ensures a seat at the governing table for people who have often been denied an equal voice in decisions that affect their lives: Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and working people.

Thanks in no small part to Wendy’s leadership—and strong backing from our grass roots partners—we are building on a strong foundation. Our shared goal of creating a public culture of 75% voter participation is more within reach than it was a year ago. Seven states hit that benchmark this year—and twelve more made it to 70%.

Overall U.S. voter turnout is projected to top 66 percent in 2020. That’s the highest participation level in more than a hundred years—but there’s really no comparison, because at that time, women and most people of color did not even have the right to vote.

As former DI board member Miles Rapoport recently outlined in the American Prospect, the democracy movement made this year’s historic election possible by winning key voting reforms in state after state. These include vote-by-mail, early voting, same day registration, restoration of voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, and many other significant measures.

Your engagement with and commitment to the DI as a multi-racial, cross-sector coalition brings a critical margin of support to these crucial victories.

We are building sustained organizational support for advancing democracy 365 days a year, every year, rather than just during election cycles. The DI’s unique contribution has been to design all program work through a race/class lens, break down issue silos, and center advocacy for democracy reform within our diverse, membership-based constituencies in labor, environmental, civil rights and civic organizations.

  • Through close collaboration with many of you, we were able to reach more than three thousand grassroots leaders through our Democracy Champions program, training and mobilizing grass roots leaders and volunteers to take part in voter education, election protection and election administration.
  • When the pandemic hit this year, we were ready to lead on calls for a massive expansion of voting by mail and champion the US Postal Service in the face of attempts to weaponize it as a tool for mass voter suppression. Due to the foresight of DI leaders who had prioritized expansion of voting by mail since 2017, we were ready to scale up already-planned education and advocacy campaigns to meet the moment. Our years-long partnership with postal unions on this issue paid off in 2020, as together we defeated an insidious attempt to delay the U.S. mail during a pandemic election.
  • Our intersectional coalition of labor, environmental and civil rights organizations brought new partners, deepened mobilizing commitments and visibility to the fight to defend our public Postal Service. Our coalition was able to elevate this fight to a higher profile, forcing changes at the Postal Service and educating voters about how their votes could be secure and counted under unusual circumstances.
  • We launched our Bayard Rustin Program to further develop senior-level leaders of color in the democracy movement and placed our first fellow in the Michigan Democracy Hub.

Policy priorities that DI Partner leadership will be discussing at a January 2021 principal-level stakeholder meeting include:

  • Federal action to renew and strengthen our democracy, including the Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act (HR 1) and, pending the outcome of the Georgia Senate run-offs, ensure that these and other transformative policies can pass the Senate with a simple majority.
  • A comprehensive public health response to COVID-19 and support for essential frontline workers, who are members of our partner organizations.
  • Full and adequate funding for our public Postal Service.
  • Continued expansion of vote by mail, early voting, same day registration and other voter-friendly reforms, with local, state, and federal laws, rules, and procedures.
  • State and local ballot and legislative opportunities to educate, mobilize and effect change that will reduce the influence of big money in states and local communities.
  • Continuing to center our work on confronting strategic racism, cultivating racial justice and lifting up the voices of working-class Americans.

The DI’s commitment to race/class analysis is essential to building the broad-based, 21st century multiracial and cross-cultural movement needed to confront the urgent issues that threaten our health, our livelihoods, our planet, and our democracy. Many diverse voices will be working on these key priorities. The DI will continue to powerfully make the case that transformative progress on essential public priorities such as public health, civil rights, climate change and equity are inextricably linked to achieving and sustaining the basics of democracy reform: Expanded access to the ballot, changes in legislative rules in the U.S Senate and elsewhere, and citizen-based alternatives to partisan gerrymandering.

We have strengthened our capacity to take on these fights by attracting three new leaders to the DI board of directors: K. Sabeel Rahman, president of Demos; Ray Curry, secretary treasurer of the United Auto Workers; and Virginia Kase, CEO of League of Women Voters. These organizations and leaders have joined the two of us and fellow DI board members Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of NAACP; Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth; and Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA because they know we are different, essential, and battle proven. Their experience and resources will strengthen and broaden our coalition.

As democracy reform becomes ever more central to our future, the DI is shifting from our traditional behind-the-scenes role in the movement. We are making our case in the public square to mobilize and move political will on the issues that affect the lives of our combined 45 million members.

As we look to 2021 and beyond, we will continue to expand our partnerships with state and local allies and uphold our battle-tested innovative work, remain ahead of the curve and cultivate new leaders. Watch for a save-the-date announcement for the January 2021 principals convening coming soon.

We look forward to partnering with you to achieve our mutual goals as we scale our work to meet the great needs of protecting and fixing the democracy we all hold so highly.