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Democrats' hunger to break the old political system grows ahead of 2020 election

The filibuster, the Electoral College, the current Supreme Court structure: They're all in the crosshairs or newly up for debate as the party's convention kicks off this week.
Former President Barack Obama pseaks during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on July 30, 2020.
At his eulogy for civil rights icon John Lewis in Atlanta on July 30, former President Barack Obama endorsed a string of new rules, such as bolstering the Voting Rights Act, auto-registering Americans to vote and making Election Day a holiday.Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

WASHINGTON — As they kick off an all-virtual convention this week, Democrats aren't just pursuing more progressive policies than they have in generations: Party leaders are also warming up to changing the rules of a system many of their voters decry as undemocratic.

Former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has called for abolishing the rule that effectively requires 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate. Top Democratic senators say they want to abolish the Electoral College and pick presidents by popular vote. The House voted in June to grant statehood to Washington, D.C. And Democrats are eyeing language in the platform calling for "structural" change to the Supreme Court.

"There's a youth revolution going on in the party," said Howard Dean, who was chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "You're going to see a real reform movement — not just in Congress, which will resist for institutional reasons, but you'll see it in the country. And that's what you're going to see at this convention."

Image: Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
"There's a youth revolution going on in the party," says Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009. "You're going to see a real reform movement."MONICA ALMEIDA / Reuters

Presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden has resisted some of the proposals as he focuses on being a broadly acceptable electoral alternative to President Donald Trump. But the convention speaking lineup includes Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a leader of the left; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., an outspoken proponent of a systemic overhaul; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a rising progressive star.

Powering the cause is a rising base of younger, female and nonwhite Americans, a paradigm shift represented in the vice presidential selection of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

Some of these voters are ready to flip the table on a system they say is stacked against them. They worry that the filibuster would hinder progressive legislation even if Democrats win in a landslide, they're angry about Trump's having won the presidency even though he lost the popular vote by 3 million ballots nationally, and they've lost faith in a Supreme Court that they say is tainted by a stolen seat.

"We've seen Republicans misuse the filibuster in the past. My personal belief is they've killed it, and we'll finish the job for them," Dean said. "They've destroyed the Supreme Court in the eyes of many of the people in the country. They've made this bed, and now they're going to lie in it."

At his eulogy for the civil rights icon John Lewis, former President Barack Obama endorsed a string of new rules, such as bolstering the Voting Rights Act, auto-registering Americans to vote, making Election Day a holiday and providing equal representation for D.C. and Puerto Rico.

"And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do," he said.

Team Trump points to 'socialism and chaos'

Trump's campaign argues that the new push is a sign of creeping radicalism.

"Democrats are trying to abandon our core principles of freedom and democracy for socialism and chaos," Trump spokeswoman Courtney Parella said. "Joe Biden and radical Kamala Harris put themselves first and the American people last, and their candidacy is a threat to the very foundation of our nation."

Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said Biden and Harris are "running on a bold platform to overcome the crises that Donald Trump's egregious failed leadership have forced on our country, and to build back better."

The lineup of speakers, who will deliver remarks remotely, includes an array of moderate Democrats, as well as Republican John Kasich, a former governor of Ohio who is critical of Trump.

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Still, Obama's remarks in the convention run-up were a seminal moment for the party — a popular ex-president with a reverence for U.S. institutions calling for changes he resisted when he was in office.

"The system is fundamentally broken. The people have known that for a long time, and elected officials are starting to finally get it," said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant and former aide to Reid. "Look at what's happening all around us. Government is failing on every level in every way. Why accept the status quo?

"The other side has no shame, and we are not on a level playing field," she said. "It's about the Senate's unique power to squash everything when a handful of red-state senators have much more power than members from New York or Los Angeles."

Harris, who is set to accept the vice presidential nomination Wednesday, would break glass ceilings as the first woman, first Black and first Indian American vice president.

In an interview Friday that aired on MSNBC, Harris cast the ticket in aspirational terms and promised that the Biden-Harris administration would be "focused on the future of the country, motivated by what can be, unburdened by what has been."

"This is a statement about the fact that we're not going to just wait for somebody to give us permission," Harris said. "Sometimes we have to get out of our comfort zone to move forward."