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Opening Our Democracy in the Age of Voter Disaffection


At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama urged a fuming crowd to translate their anger into votes. The mantra “Don’t Boo, Vote” thereafter became a rallying cry in the waning months of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Despite the impassioned rhetoric aimed at frustrated Americans, the turnout of 58 percent of the voting-eligible population was impressive only in that it eclipsed the historically low turnout of 36.4 percent two years prior. However, the nation’s electoral woes run far deeper than voter turnout: The United States is suffering from a severe case of voter disaffection. Nearly 91 percent of Americans polled in 2017 feared that gerrymandered districts restricted their freedom, while another 17 percent had little confidence that their vote would be recorded correctly. Above all, voters feel disillusioned by the electoral process: According to a 2016 poll, almost 40 percent of them felt like their vote did not matter. The severe degradation of Americans’ faith in democracy demands change that is dramatic, rapid, and perhaps even a bit unrealistic. Introduced in 2017, Representative John Delaney’s Open Our Democracy Act may just be all three.

H.R. 2981, colloquially known as the Open Our Democracy Act, is built to restore voter confidence and encourage electoral participation. The bill is every bit as ambitious as its sponsor, who turned heads in 2017 by declaring his candidacy for president and has since forgone a house reelection bid to focus on the upcoming campaign. The act contains three sweeping provisions, including the imposition of open and top-two primaries, the requirement that states utilize independent commissions for redistricting, and, finally, the creation of a new federal holiday for election day. Currently languishing in the House subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, the bill is unlikely to ever reach a floor vote, let alone passage by both chambers of Congress. Furthermore, the act’s idealistic reforms would quickly be struck down by any Supreme Court, liberal or conservative, as they fall in direct conflict with the Constitution’s Election clause, which delegates broad electioneering responsibilities to the states. However, the bill does not need to pass into law to be influential; more important than the act itself are its ideas and the optimism that they represent. The Open Our Democracy Act was borne out of voter disaffection, but the reforms it advocates carry an underlying sense of hope that the system can be improved. Although change may not come directly from Delaney’s legislation, it ignites a dialogue and provides a blueprint for restoring American democracy by enumerating several specific reforms.

Open primaries have historically improved voter turnout, while top-two ballots create competitive elections. Open primaries differ from closed contests in that all voters, regardless of party identification or independent status, are invited to participate. Consequently, a state’s decision on what type of primary to hold has an important impact on voter engagement. A 2016 study by Michael McDonald, a political scientist from the University of Florida, found that turnout in open primaries surpassed closed primaries by nearly 10 percent. Despite the opportunity for increased turnout, open primaries are available to all voters in just 20 states for congressional elections and only 17 in the case of presidential elections. Furthermore, the top-two primary, where all candidates run against each other regardless of party, and the winner and runner-up advance, is used by only two states for congressional elections. When two members of the same party advance to the general, safe districts become more competitive and theoretically produce elected officials more consistent with their constituents’ ideological leanings. Critics complain that this system is unfair to political parties because of the potential to unintentionally split the vote and dilute support during crowded primaries; however, this dissent mostly stems from political elites and incumbents. John Opdycke, president of one voter advocacy group, argues that this criticism is coming from the right place, unironically suggesting that “one of the most positive features of the California system is that both political parties hate it.”

"The Open Our Democracy Act was borne out of voter disaffection, but the reforms it advocates carry an underlying sense of hope that the system can be improved."

If establishment hostility to a particular reform is a decent barometer for evaluating its effectiveness, then the adoption of independent commissions to conduct redistricting would be a similarly welcome change for voters. Gerrymandered maps across the nation allow the majority party in state legislatures to rig the electoral map in their favor: In Wisconsin, for example, Republicans made off with 60 of the state’s 99 general assembly seats despite corralling only 48.6 percent of the vote. Gerrymanders like this one are incredibly unpopular with the public, with one YouGov poll finding that only nine percent of respondents were in favor of upholding partisan maps. Only Iowa has elected to use an independent commission to redraw its congressional maps, and voters have shown their support by flocking to the polls. Iowa has regularly ranked in the top ten for voter turnout in federal elections since the state constitution was amended to take redistricting power away from the state legislature in 1980. While independent commissions are not popular among legislators, they are cognizant of the positive effect they have on turnout and competition. Republican Tom Latham, a 20 year veteran of the House of Representatives, conceded that “while [an independent commission] isn’t always the greatest thing for the candidates themselves because it does cause competitive races throughout the state, it at least forces everyone to actually communicate and to hear all points of view.”

The final prong of Delaney’s three-point plan for voter engagement is to make election day a federal holiday. For many citizens, the cost of voting outweighs the tangible benefits so they refrain from participating on election day: this is called Down’s Paradox. Whether it is waiting in seven hour long lines, taking time off of work, or braving bad weather, voting can often feel like a chore. However, the imposition of election day as a federal holiday helps voting come out on top of Americans’ cost-benefit analysis. A 2016 study found that the creation of a holiday would dramatically increase turnout, including a 50 percent increase among respondents who said that work had stopped them from voting in the past. This is consistent with the belief of many political scientists that one of the reasons European democracies enjoy higher turnout is because their elections are either holidays or fall on weekends. Furthermore, this reform is especially beneficial to minorities and the poor, who see the lowest amount of representation in Congress because of the unique challenges that voting presents to them.

The Open Our Democracy Act operates under the assumption that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: Primary, redistricting, and election day reform work in tandem and compliment each other in a way that promotes democracy and encourages participation. Although this is true, the individual parts remain valuable even after they are taken apart — and far more feasible to implement. While the Open Our Democracy Act’s all-or-nothing approach meant the bill was doomed from the day it was introduced, its ideas do not have to suffer the same fate. Above all, the bill facilitates discussion while serving as a stepping stone for future legislation. State legislatures could pass one or several of the bill’s proposed policies, leading other states to follow in tow after seeing the positive effects on voter turnout and approval ratings. An open primaries bill is currently making its way through the Pennsylvania Senate, and a successful adoption could pressure neighboring New York and New Jersey into following suit. Additionally, referendums that would create independent redistricting commissions will take place in Michigan and Colorado this November, potentially igniting change in both blue and red states. Alternatively, a constitutional amendment could be proposed delegating Congress more discretion in the crafting of election laws if states fail to act. These diverse and abundant opportunities for both incremental and dynamic change should leave voters feeling optimistic.

Like his early bid for the presidency, Delaney’s legislation comes across as overly ambitious. However, both share another, more important similarity: the potential to draw attention. If the states are laboratories of democracy, the Open Our Democracy Act might serve as the last jolt of energy they need to create change.

Image: “I voted here. My candidate won!”

About the Author

Luke Angelillo '21 is a Staff Writer for the Economics Section of the Brown Political Review. Luke can be reached at luke_angelillo@brown.edu