As election returns rolled in last week, citizens in Democratic and Republican strongholds alike voted overwhelmingly to take power back into their own hands. From voting-rights restoration for 1.4 million returning citizens in Florida and Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) in Nevada to redistricting reform in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and Utah, the night was full of impressive democracy-enhancing victories.
These gains were only possible thanks to incredible dedication and activism between the 2016 and 2018 elections. And, as the dust settles on 2018, it’s time to turn to 2020. For states with popular initiatives, that means expanding AVR, implementing early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, or following Maine’s lead and adopting ranked-choice voting.
Yet, improving our elections should not be the work of the voters alone. As more and more elected officials owe their office to such reforms, they too can help unrig the systems that keep our politics unaccountable. And, for candidates who can only win in wave years, the first order of business must be tearing down the barriers that make our elections unresponsive in all other years. Newly elected leaders have an opportunity to make voting more accessible and representative before 2020 arrives—they must not pass it up.
For newly elected governors, state senators, and state representatives, this means making registration easier (through AVR, online registration, and/or same-day registration), making voting more convenient (through expanding early voting, absentee/mail-in voting, and/or creating state holidays for voting), making voting more representative (through ranked-choice voting, redistricting reform, and/or fair representation voting), and expanding the franchise.
These kinds of structural changes are less likely to roll back after the next election because they alter the power (and the pool) of the voters making the decisions, thereby changing the incentives of those running and those elected. Putting these reforms at the top of the agenda—and insisting on them before moving forward—can also impact how newly elected officials of all stripes approach the rest of their legislative term. If state officials know that their work will be judged by a broader and more representative electorate in two years’ time, they might be more responsive in the interim.
In states where these reforms are already in place due to citizen initiative, legislators should take steps to enhance and protect those reforms by reenactment and expansion. This explicit legislative action may help defend them against challenge if the Supreme Court decides to revisit its 2015 decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. As Rick Hasen points out in a recent Harvard Law Review Blog post, Chief Justice Roberts “wrote a blistering dissent for the four conservative Justices arguing that only state legislatures can set the rules” for congressional elections under Article I of the U.S. Constitution. With Kennedy replaced by Kavanaugh, it may be that the Court’s fickle feelings about stare decisis are now all that stand in the way of a massive rollback in recent initiative-driven gains. By shoring up these reforms through legislative action, state representatives can help lock in these democratic advances, protect them against judicial challenge, and position themselves as defenders of the popular will ahead of their next election.
There may also be room for compromise on redistricting reform in a number of states with split governments. Maryland and Massachusetts, for example, continue to have Democratic legislatures and Republican governors, whereas Virginia and Wisconsin have Republican legislatures and Democratic governors. With a new round of redistricting approaching (and roughly equal numbers of congressional representatives in each state), perhaps there’s more of an incentive now to “make a disarmament deal” than in prior years, with each state conditioning redistricting reform on a sister state enacting the same.
Each of these steps would improve the state of our democracy significantly and set the stage for elections in 2020 based on a much more representative electorate.
With a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, the odds of federal action may seem slim. Nonetheless, Election Night revealed that democratic reforms remain popular across party lines. Proposals for improving our elections should be at the front of the legislative calendar and should remain a top priority throughout the coming legislative session. These include:
Automatic National Voter Registration: Those who are eligible to vote should be able to vote, and those who are ineligible to vote should be kept off the registration rolls—these basic principles have widespread public support. A national system that automatically registers voters for federal elections as soon as they become eligible and that assigns a national identification number to each voter would address both of these concerns. The United States has terrible turnout numbers, but much of this may be attributable to the registration barrier: our turnout of registered voters appears to be among the best in the world.
Voting Rights Act Restoration: If it feels like voting has become far more difficult over the past few years, you’re not wrong. Before 2013, states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting practices could not alter their voting rules without getting prior permission (or “preclearance”) from a federal court or from the Department of Justice. In 2013, the Supreme Court held that the list of jurisdictions subject to preclearance was outdated and struck this part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) down. Numerous new voting restrictions soon followed. Congress used to reauthorize the VRA with broad bipartisan support, and it should do so again this session by enacting the Voting Rights Advancement Act (legislation that requires preclearance for any state with a record of voting-rights violations in the last 25 years).
End Gerrymandering with the Fair Representation Act: Independent redistricting commissions enjoy widespread support across the partisan divide and should be required for the creation of all congressional districts. But Congress should not stop there—it should pass the Fair Representation Act (FRA). The FRA uses ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts to ensure that every vote matters. Independent commissions can help make lines fairer, but single-member districts mean even the “fairest” lines will still write off those voters in the minority of each district. In our increasingly polarized politics, we could stand to have a House of Representatives with Massachusetts Republicans, Arkansas Democrats, and perhaps even some third-party Members of Congress—voices that our current system shuts out.
Election Administration: No one should have to wait hours to vote, face malfunctioning equipment, or fear that vote tallies have been manipulated. Back in 2014, a bipartisan commission proposed a number of reforms to improve polling place resource allocation, expand opportunities to vote before election day, and provide regular audits of voting equipment. These suggestions are still relevant today. Congress should provide funding to update and improve our electoral machinery and processes.
With forceful action at the start of the next session, Congress could put our democracy on a safer and more sustainable path, leveraging the progress of the last step forward in order to make the next step possible. But these reforms must be first on the legislative agenda if they’re to make any difference in time for the 2020 elections. Democrats and Republicans alike should take a lesson from the voters: some things are beyond the partisan divide. Free and fair elections ought to be one of them.
 Maryland and Massachusetts may be less inclined to engage in this exchange given their Democratic supermajorities, but given the slightly higher number of Republican representatives at stake (and the recent federal court ruling against Maryland’s gerrymander) perhaps there is still incentive to make a trade.