Beyond the Midterm Elections: Next Steps to a Stronger Democracy
In the weeks since the 2022 elections, I’ve had one main response: phew. The anti-democratic nightmares we’ve all been having didn’t come true. We generally saw sanity prevail across the country with the defeat of a significant number of election deniers, avowed white supremacists, and others who are more interested in dividing us than in advancing the common good. Also important, we saw fresh evidence of grassroots power overcoming deep-pocket special interests. And our election systems generally held up and withstood multiple attacks.
Given the challenges we face, however, we should expect more than sanity from our government and our politics. We need a democracy where people feel heard, where they see elected leaders and a government that look like them and that have their backs, and where we make it easier to vote, get involved, and run for office—especially for people of color who continue to face substantial barriers to fair and equal participation.
So perhaps our nightmares didn’t come true this time, but democracy is still at serious risk of running off the rails. We believe this is an “all hands on deck” moment. Advancing positive steps to strengthen democracy has to be the shared work of everyone who cares about the ability of government and society to tackle the urgent problems we face as a state and country. It’s up to all of us.
Three Key “Fixes” for Democracy
What does investing in a stronger, more representative democracy look like? For Haas Jr., the answer is supporting innovative ideas to shake up the system and open new doors to voting, civic engagement and leadership. The way we and our partners see it, California and the U.S. need to focus on three priorities as we look ahead to 2023 and the next big elections in 2024.
ONE. Leveling the playing field in politics and elections. California has adopted a lot of important systemic reforms that are making it easier to participate, from online voter registration and automatic voter registration to mail-in voting and more. But our political and electoral systems still put up huge barriers that keep too many people from exercising their democratic rights. One of these barriers is how we finance political campaigns in California and across the nation. At Haas Jr., we’re working with a diverse array of partners to bring a powerful new model for democratizing campaign finance called Democracy Dollars to California.
In the November elections, Oakland voters approved a Democracy Dollars measure that helps average people provide financial support for municipal candidates for office and shift the attention of candidates away from the priorities of big-check donors. In Seattle, this kind of approach has nearly tripled the amount of dollars raised through small donations and more than tripled the amounts donated in city council races. Haas Jr. and our partners now are doing the public education work needed to export this model to other cities so more local residents can participate in the political process, and so diverse candidates can obtain the financial resources they need to win.
TWO. Boosting voter engagement and organizing. Despite exceeding the historically low turnout of 2014, 2022 did not change the fact that many segments of the population, such as immigrants with limited English proficiency, do not vote in proportion to their numbers in the broader population. A truly representative democracy in California would have to include a much-improved approach to language services from registration through Election Day. It’s a key step to reducing the persistent gaps we’ve seen in voter registration and voting in Latino and Asian communities.
The California electorate includes nearly 3 million eligible voters with limited English proficiency who speak Spanish, an Asian language, or an Indigenous language as their primary language. Despite their numbers, these voters often find their needs to be at best an afterthought, and at worst, entirely neglected. The Haas, Jr. Fund has brought together a dozen organizations that work directly with these voters to collaborate on identifying policies and best practices for improving services for these voters. Their recommendations are due in early 2023.
THREE. Building leadership pathways. It was exciting to see the election of many diverse new voices for change in 2022. It’s a year of many firsts: the first Black woman mayor of Los Angeles, first Latina Sheriff in the Bay Area, first Hmong-American mayor of Oakland, and first Gen Z member of Congress, to name a few. Also, California became the first state in the nation to have 10 percent LGBTQ representation in the state legislature. These are all important milestones to celebrate. But at the same time, the leadership of our governing bodies in California still doesn’t reflect the remarkable diversity of our state. At Haas Jr., we’re working with partners to build more inclusive and representative leadership pathways for California.
For more than 10 years, Haas Jr. has been working with the Orange County Civic Engagement Table to transform civic engagement in Orange County. This year, OCCET launched Transform OC, a training curriculum for aspiring leaders that has allowed OCCET and its partners to build up their ability to develop joint advocacy, policy, and governance goals to achieve long-term systems change.
Building a fairer, stronger, more representative democracy in California and beyond requires year-round dedication and funding. Here’s a big end-of-year shoutout to the many Haas, Jr. Fund grantee partners who did the hard work to turn out voters. I’m grateful to the community organizers across the state who connected with residents, educated folks about ballot measures and candidates, and made sure no one is forgotten in our democracy. They remind us that organizing is a noble and vital profession.
We’re looking forward to working with you in the new year and beyond. Whether your focus is democracy or other urgent issues, we hope you will join us in supporting grassroots nonprofits and strengthening our democracy.
Best wishes for a 2023 full of love, good health, and justice!
Happy new year,
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