Over the last few years, Democrats responded to a wave of GOP-backed voting restrictions, as well as gerrymandering that has given Republicans a lock on the House and the systematic weakening of campaign finance laws, by taking a much bolder stance on issues of voting and democracy. Now, as Democrats get set to meet in Philadelphia later this month, that new direction is likely to be formalized in the party's official platform.
The Democrats' aggressiveness on these issues makes sense. In most cases, the easier it is for people to vote, and the more ordinary people are involved in funding elections, the better chance Democrats likely have in winning elections. But these stances also represent the party's movement toward embracing the notion that political equality is a good in itself.
"It is a core principle of the Democratic Party to maximize voter participation for all Americans," a draft of the 2016 platform states.
On the voting rights front, the platform makes clear that Democrats intend to go on offense to expand access, rather than solely fighting off Republican restrictions. It calls for restoring the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013; expanding early voting, automatic voter registration and same-day registration; making Election Day a national holiday; re-enfranchising former felons who have served their sentences; and fighting voter ID laws.
Over the last year, Democrats in states across the country have embraced automatic voter registration, in which people are automatically registered to vote when they come in contact with the DMV, unless they actively decline. Several states, including California, have passed laws establishing the policy, and more are likely to follow. Restoring voting rights to former felons also has gained traction as an issue among Democrats, with progress in Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere.
By contrast, the voting rights section of the 2012 platform focused almost exclusively on stopping voter ID laws and other restrictions. That 2012 document did, however, also call for full voting rights for Washington, D.C. — a subject on which this year's draft is notably silent, even though Bernie Sanders highlighted the issue during the Washington, D.C., primary last month.
This year's draft also calls for ending partisan gerrymandering. GOP-backed gerrymanders in several large states have given their party a virtual lock on Congress until the next redistricting in 2021. Some states' maps are so skewed to the Republican Party that in 2012, Democrats won more votes in House races, while the GOP still ended up with a comfortable majority.
On campaign finance, the draft platform also goes big. "Our vision for American democracy is a nation in which all people, regardless of their income, can participate in the political process, and can run for office without needing to depend on large contributions from the wealthy and the powerful," it reads.
The draft calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn both Citizens United — the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that struck down most limits on money in politics — and Buckley v. Valeo, a crucial 1976 case that made it harder to regulate political money. It also expresses support for a small-donor public financing system, which many experts see as the most promising way to give ordinary people more say in political campaigns. And it calls for the elimination of Super PACs, which have allowed the wealthy to give unlimited sums to influence elections.
A constitutional amendment is widely seen as highly unlikely to happen. A more feasible path for overturning those rulings is for a pro-regulation majority on the Supreme Court to emerge and issue a ruling in a new case.