Democracy & Government

And Now, For Some Good News

In states and municipalities across the country, voters showed strong support for getting big money out of politics and empowering ordinary citizens.

And Now, For Some Good News

While it's hard to find bright spots in this election for many democracy advocates, some are pointing to ballot initiatives that won on the state and local level. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For a sailor on a dark night, there’s nothing more welcoming than the twinkle of a lighthouse, no matter how far off. And on Election Day 2016, the emerging citizen-led movement to take back our democracy illuminated more than a few points of light.

At the same time Donald Trump won the presidency (which some will interpret as a brick through the Beltway glass), voters in cities and states across the country also seized the opportunity to make the Democracy Movement — a movement whose focus is on reforming our representative democracy — impossible to ignore.

Across the country, we counted 17 ballot initiatives aimed at reducing the role of money in politics and enhancing the voices of everyday Americans. Voters have thus far approved 14 of these measures, giving advocates of expanding democracy reason to hope and something to build upon.

Here’s a look at the measures and how they fared:

These victories did not happen in a vacuum. Thousands of Americans rose to the occasion, many volunteering for the first time. Their campaigns displayed the size, strength and vitality of the Democracy Movement.

Take Represent.Us, for example, a “fiercely nonpartisan” group fighting to stop the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Many of its 600,000 members were on the front lines of this year’s ballot initiatives, using creativity and enthusiasm to confront voter apathy and special interest funded opposition campaigns.

Represent.Us members made almost 21,000 phone calls urging people to support democracy initiatives this election cycle. The Vancouver (Washington state) chapter alone made over 3,500 calls in support of Initiative 1464 to ensure voters a much stronger voice in government.

At the group’s local chapters, volunteers showed up for the nitty-gritty political organizing work required: attending community meetings across San Francisco in support of Proposition T (lobbying reform); holding educational forums in two Illinois counties to inform voters about Boone County Resolution 16-18 and McHenry County Resolution 5234 (anti-corruption resolutions); and in South Dakota even planning a GOTV concert called “Rock the Reform” that featured local musicians and artists supporting Initiated Measure 22, a state anti-corruption measure.

One remarkable facet of this groundswell is its youth.

“I am incredibly excited about the rising tide of momentum at the city and state level this year,” exclaimed Morgan Aitken-Young, 25. As the leader of the San Francisco campaign, she saw voter frustration “being channeled into positive action” and came away convinced “we can change the corrosive influence of money and take back our government for the people.”

Of the 60 local political groups whose meetings her chapter members attended in hopes of winning support for Prop T, 42 ended up endorsing the initiative, said Aitken-Young.

She called the victory “just the beginning,” adding that the local ethics commission is expressing interest in examining “comprehensive reform to address the pay-to-play issues here — and all because we showed up and presented a data-driven, citizen-supported case for change.”

Young people also made their presence felt in Berkeley, California, which adopted public financing for city elections. As Helen Grieco, the Northern California Organizer for Common Cause, told us, young people were the life force behind this campaign. Along with help from Dan Newman of MapLight, UC Berkeley students spearheaded the effort to draft and enact the measure.

Students from UC Berkeley and local high schools also made up a sizable portion of volunteers. Politically active professors helped recruit young people. After UC Professor Alan Ross invited Sam Ferguson from the Yes on X1 ballot measure to lecture in his class, about 30 students signed up to volunteer, and more than half stuck with the campaign until the end.

For many, these ballot-initiative campaigns were their first exposure to political organizing, says Grieco.

A new generation of democracy reformers was cultivated in the trenches of these ballot initiative battles. But the project has been intergenerational: Veteran reformers were also central to the 2016 campaigns. For example, in Multnomah County, Oregon—which succeeded in placing a set of comprehensive campaign-finance limits on the ballot — supporters had been active since the 1990s in cleaning up government. Their knowledge of the system helped to get their charter review committee to put the measure on the 2016 ballot.

Similarly, those in Rhode Island working to empower their state’s ethics commission had been at it since 2009, when the state Supreme Court stripped the ethics commission of most of its jurisdiction over lawmakers that had been in place since 1986.

These experienced activists brought their knowledge and skill sets: canvassing, crafting political advertising, using social media, organizing citizen lobby days, and writing op-eds and letters to the editor.

Much of the organizing work was less than thrilling, but activists were undeterred. As Represent.Us member Andy Fowler from Woodstock, Illinois, recounted:

I went to our local farmers market and approached the vendors and the shoppers for several hours. I wrote letters to the editor of the local paper, as did others in our chapter. I also wrote to the head of the Illinois Better Government Association. I placed roadside signs on both traffic directions on major highways around the county. I moved them every three days to get as much coverage as possible. And I drove around the country roads placing our flyers on the red flags of roadside mailboxes.

In places without democracy-reform ballot initiatives, Americans were not complacent, either. A group of citizens in Roanoke, Virginia, proved the point, sitting in at the office of Bob Goodlatte, the local congressman, demanding that he, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, schedule hearings on voting rights and campaign finance bills.

A significant obstacle for these reformers was a jaded public, which they addressed head on. “Some think the system is so corrupt that people trying to reform it are just part of the corrupt system,” acknowledged Dan Meek, organizer for the Multnomah County, Oregon effort for campaign-finance limits. “We had to show that we were not a part of the corruption — that we were offering genuine reform.”

This election is a firm rebuttal to those who claim Americans are uninterested in democracy. Citizens engaging with money in politics, ethics reform and voting rights proved not only that many are aware of how broken our system is, but also that many are committed to reforming it.

As these reformers keep fighting beyond Election Day, they send an unequivocal message: the growing but still-too-invisible Democracy Movement can bring meaningful change. Share the news, join the Movement.

Eventually, money-hooked politicians and Washington insiders may find that they, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, were oblivious to the rising temperature until it was too late.

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is a Yes! Magazine contributing editor. She is also the author or co-author of 18 books, including the groundbreaking bestseller Diet for a Small Planet. She and her daughter, Anna Lappé, lead the Small Planet Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @fmlappe.

Adam Eichen

Adam Eichen is Democracy Fellow at the Small Planet Institute. He just completed his first book, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want co-authored with Frances Moore Lappé. He sits on the board of Democracy Matters and served as the deputy communications director for Democracy Spring. Follow him on Twitter: @adameichen.