Repairing Democracy Took Center Stage In Iowa Race And Beyond

Democracy and its integrity have been high-profile issues since President Donald Trump took office, and Democrats have been a key part of the conversation, whether in Congress or on the campaign trail.

Candidates frequently talked about how they would institute reforms to make a better democracy, and they addressed issues like voting rights and gerrymandering that have gotten more focus following the elections of 2016 and 2018.

Oftentimes the first thing candidates mention is pursuing an amendment to the Constitution to repeal the Citizens United decision, which would address a major problem in campaign finance law right away.

The presidential candidates also voiced support for the For the People Act (H.R. 1) or legislation like it. The bill aims to strengthen American democracy by addressing corruption, voter access, election integrity, money in politics and redistricting in order to prevent gerrymandering, among other issues.

This election cycle, End Citizens United started a “Reform First” campaign, asking candidates to pledge to make H.R. 1, or legislation like it, the first bill they send to Congress. Three of the remaining candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg signed onto it. Others, like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, promised to make those issues a priority.

“Rooting out corruption in Washington has been a major theme throughout the primary,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United. “The support for our Reform First campaign signals that the candidates believe fixing our broken system must be a top priority, and that in order to beat President Trump, they need to lead on anti-corruption reforms.”

In many ways, the candidates also put those reform ideas into practice.

Money in politics is a major theme of this election cycle. The majority of candidates rejected money from single-candidate super PACs, though that didn’t stop super PACs from popping up.

The commitment itself was noteworthy, End Citizens United said. At the same time, the employee pointed out, they’ve all released campaign finance reform agendas.

Data from Open Secrets show that the 2020 presidential race has seen $29 million so far in outside spending. In 2016, $200 million was spent by outside groups. A study from Wesleyan Media Project shows a similar slow down of outside spending in the race.

Sanders and Warren both pledged to ignore high-dollar, private fundraisers, and most of their money has come from small-dollar donations.

Sanders is often praised as starting the conversation about raising money through grassroots efforts, but many members of the party have embraced it.

While the presidential candidates run on making democracy work better, the state of democracy and rule of law are under attack.

After his impeachment acquittal, Trump admitted to sending Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine for political reasons. Apparently in response to Trump’s tweets, the Justice Department broke protocol and overruled the sentence recommended by career federal prosecutors in the case of former Trump aide Roger Stone. In response, four of those prosecutors resigned. Trump later congratulated Attorney General William Barr, the head of the justice department, for intervening in the case.

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The Situation In Iowa

The 2019 municipal elections were the first with Iowa’s voter ID laws fully in effect. This meant every Iowan who voted had to show some form of ID, but the state offered a variety of options and mailed voter registration cards to Iowans without a valid form of government ID.

Before Election Day, poll workers were trained on the new rules and they used machines to help guide them through the registration process. Anyone who showed up to vote was allowed to cast a ballot, even if it had to be provisional.

Proponents of the law said it was instituted to crack down on voter fraud in the state, which was never proven to be a widespread problem.

Iowa Rep. Jennifer Konfrst said voter ID laws inherently disenfranchise certain people.

“Everything we do should err on the side of expanding voting rights,” she said. “The legislation that is out there right now is not only disenfranchising but also confusing for people, and we don’t want to set up any barriers for people to exercise their right to vote.”

In 2019, Iowa also became the only state in the country that doesn’t automatically allow former felons to vote, though there is some bipartisan support in the Iowa legislature to fix that.

Konfrst said she was hopeful about the efforts to move a constitutional amendment forward, but was frustrated the barrier exists in the first place.

The potential negative effects of voter ID laws were also mitigated by students in Ames.

Last year, students successfully petitioned Iowa State University to put expiration dates on student IDs, allowing students to use them as a valid ID to vote.

And in October, an Iowa judge released a ruling modifying the voter ID law to remove hurdles like signature verification and restrictions on who could apply for the state-issued IDs.

“We have a good sense in Iowa of responsibility and of participation and of engagement in our process and that’s really a credit to our citizens, to the people who live here and do the work every day,” Konfrst said. “I think that we’re among the best states when it comes to participation, engagement and a true caring for what democracy means and what our government does for us.”

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Improvements, she said, include even better access for citizens in decision-making processes and ensuring Iowans have the information they need to make informed decisions about their government.

“Democracy is imperfect and we have to keep striving for doing the best we can for those who live in a democratic society. And we’re not there, but we’re always trying to find that balance of rights and responsibilities,” she said.

Konfrst specifically called out efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to remove the right to an abortion from the Iowa Constitution.If enacted, she said, it would be the only part of the Constitution that removes rights for Iowans rather than grants them.

“But I have faith in the people who are out there fighting the good fight, those of us who are working really hard to make sure that people have rights to make their voices heard and to have a voice at the Capitol,” Konfrst said. “Personally, I think divided government at the Capitol is a good thing and that’s why I think it’s so important that we flip the Iowa House so that we can have some accountability up there, and not have one-party rule at the Capitol, in order to ensure that democracy can get closest to its perfect form here in Iowa.”


By Nikoel Hytrek
Posted 2/18/20

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