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Strengthening American Democracy: A Panel Discussion with the Center for American Progress

Monday morning, the Center for American Progress hosted a panel discussion examining pro-voter and anti-corruption strategies to make government work more effectively for American democracy.

Representatives Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Terri Sewell (AL-07), and John Sarbanes (MD-03) joined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as Neera Tanden and Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, for a candid conversation about threats to American democracy. The panelists discussed legislative reforms to address cynicism, lack of participation, and institutionalized barriers towards voting.

In a period of American politics significantly marked by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Leader Pelosi claimed that the role of money in politics is one of the biggest tactics of voter suppression as well as the cause of the feeling that Congressional representatives do not adequately represent their constituents’ interest, but rather that of major corporations and campaign contributors.

All voters deserve to have a voice in legislative decisions—however, current campaign contribution laws make re-elections costly and dilute the voices of donors and voters who live in districts.

A Better Deal for Democracy

The recently unveiled “Better Deal for Democracy” is a Congressional effort to address lack of government accountability, campaign finance reform, and large-scale voter suppression tactics.

A core tenant of this initiative is taking steps toward campaign finance reform. This includes small donor empowerment and matching initiatives, a constitutional amendment to address the Citizens United decision, and strengthening the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce campaign contribution laws.

Dark money in politics influences legislation by distorting or diluting the voices of constituents. A committee jurisdiction contribution ban would bar members from receiving campaign contributions from industries underneath the jurisdiction of one of their committee assignments. For example, a Representative on the Energy and Commerce committee would be unable to receive donations from the oil or gas industry.

During the panel discussion, Congressman Sarbanes affirmed that a committee jurisdiction contribution ban could help to lessen the cynicism that some have towards their elected officials, as well as make constituents more confident in the legislation produced by individual committees. To strengthen our democracy, we must take bipartisan approaches to minimize the influence of corporate money and lobbyists in the legislation that has a direct impact on Americans.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell reminded the audience that elected officials should not be making it harder for individuals to vote—efforts to defend voting rights should not be bipartisan, but rather nonpartisan. 

While modern-day tactics of voter suppression may not be as overt, they are no less oppressive, and no less suppressive.

Congresswoman Jayapal affirmed that, while certain practices—such as universal mail-in voting—are effective, there is still much work to be done to ensure that the ballot box remains accessible to everyone. She pointed to models such as Colorado, where universal mail-in-voting coupled with the infrastructure to support ballot drop-off and voter education helped improve turnout in elections statewide.

While there is much to do to strengthen American democracy, empower voters, and fight corruption, we applaud efforts by Congressional leaders to take pragmatic and principled approaches towards making sure government works for everyone—and ensure that individuals feel that their vote, and their voice, matters.