The Problems & Progressive Local Solutions
Democracy-oriented progressive policy reform facilitate access to democratic institutions through voting and participatory processes enabling civic engagement. Policies in this area include automatic voter registration, felon enfranchisement, participatory budgeting processes, democracy dollars, baby bonds, and other similar proposals that facilitate citizen interaction with government through nonpunitive mechanisms.
Access to voting rights has been challenged across states through litigation and legislative action. Even successes such as Florida’s referendum vote enfranchising people who have served their time saw substantial legislative pushback in the following months. Democratic Presidential candidates have waffled on the issue, generally refusing to commit to felon enfranchisement (aside from Bernie Sanders), even though felon disenfranchisement is rooted in slavery-era restrictions. Other policies including democracy dollars, baby bonds and citizen-rooted budgeting processes have not generated substantial coverage or momentum for any candidate, though various iterations have been discussed. For states and municipalities, the lack of focus on core democracy issues has relegated citizenship and democracy-oriented policies to the back-burner, and low-turnout elections with periodic grassroots activity continue to be the norm.
Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms
Local elected officials have an opportunity to lead on the issue of democratic engagement – from campaign finance disclosure to in-person absentee voting. They can also lead on Democracy-enabling policies such as voting rights expansion such as automatic voter registration. See our roadmap to voting for a complete overview of voting issues.
Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them
Ranked-choice voting has been the subject of recent campaigns and studies, and can be done at the local or state level. Municipal ID cards or undocumented driver licenses can provide non-citizen residents with access to critical services and programs without putting families at risk of separation or deportation.
Community workforce agreements facilitate local residents’ involvement in the unions and trade organizations that work in the area, providing both jobs and opportunities for civic engagement. Local hiring prioritizes local reinvestment. Proposals such as democracy dollars or baby bonds could be implemented at the local level and prove concepts that could facilitate Democratic engagement at the national level. Similarly, creating community-controlled land and housing arrangements can improve local quality of life while developing civic engagement.
Taking it to the Next Level
Participatory budget models take this to another level by allowing citizens to directly determine various budgetary efforts.
There are multiple ongoing challenges to Democratic participation and institutional strength. Under the Trump Administration, foreign election intervention and an impeachment inquiry have destabilized and politicized public faith in various institutions. Foreign intervention in American elections represents an existential threat that can be met, to some degree, with improved cybersecurity and paper ballots.
Local progressive legislation and reform is frequently being preempted by states through legislation. Careful strategizing around implementing reforms can mitigate the potential for anti-Democratic preemptive legislation. See our full roadmap to home rule for strategies on combating this issues.
Money in politics is the most direct route to undermining Democratic representation. Ensuring transparent campaign finance laws at the local level can prevent escalating corruption while improving the strength of local institutions and public faith to insulate civic trust as much as possible. Cities can develop ordinances that limit corporate campaign contributions and condition them on existing contracts with the city to promote transparency and fairness while avoiding pay-to-play schemes.
Local elected officials should be cognizant of language access barriers to services and rights, even after legislation ostensibly aimed at remedying the barriers, and work to increase services access and outreach to non-English speaking communities. This must include facilitating access to courts, which have compounded historically unfair language barriers with increasingly unsafe conditions for immigrant communities due to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.
Race and class-based discrimination undermine local democracy. Ending cooperation agreements with ICE and reevaluating police use-of-force policy and union contracts, accounting for racial bias across the board in contracting process, can improve the judiciary’s institutional strength and public trust of the justice system (see Roadmap to Justice and Public Safety). Poverty is a driving force in civic disengagement, and local action plans can help. Similarly, pursuing racial equity in public contracting and developing a racial equity action plan can prevent invidious bias from disproportionately impacting minority communities through government contracting.
Helpers & Allies
There are a number of organizations facilitating democratic engagement and removing barriers to representation.
- The Center for Popular Democracy works on equitable economic and democratic reform.
- Demos is committed to generating democracy-focused policy and research.
- The Campaign Legal Center is a campaign finance watchdog
- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is a federally-focused ethics watchdog group and 41 states have ethics commissions that could potentially serve as launchpads for local collaborative reform.