A conversation with Michael Waldman, President of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and author of The Fight to Vote, published in February by Simon & Schuster. 

While democracy itself is on the ballot this election season, Waldman contends that today’s arguments are not new. Raucous debates over who should vote and how have always stood at the center of American politics. The Fight to Vote book explores the long road our country has taken to securing voting rights for every citizen — from the Founders’ debates to today’s challenges as we enter the 2016 election: a wave of restrictive voting laws, partisan gerrymanders, and the flood of campaign money unleashed by Citizens United. These battles for our democracy have been raging since the founding of our county, and show no signs of letting up. In this FCCP interview, Waldman weighs in on how the philanthropic community can be more strategic in supporting the “fight to vote” and democracy reform.

FCCP: VOTING RIGHTS HAVE BEEN A VITAL PART OF YOUR WORK AT THE BRENNAN CENTER FOR JUSTICE FOR YEARS.  WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT IT NOW?

MW: I’ve been in the middle of many current fights about democracy – voting, campaign finance and more. And I’ve been part of national campaigns and helped run a presidential campaign. This is a particularly intense election, of course – with so much at stake, and so much public anger about government and our broken political system. There are controversial new voting laws, a flood of big money from a handful of mega donors — and in 2014 turnout fell to its lowest level in 72 years. The changing makeup of the population has made some people feel threatened, while other people are demanding that their voices be heard. It feels like our democratic system is under siege – that the right to vote has become the fight to vote.

I wanted to explore American history to put all of this in context.  Why is this happening now?  I wanted to look at history to see what happened that could give us some context for today.

Here’s what I found: Yes, today’s arguments are intense and consequential – but they are not new. The fight to vote has always been at the heart of our national story, and raucous debates over how to expand democracy have always been at the center of American politics. For more than two centuries it’s been raw, rowdy, a fierce and often rollicking struggle for power.  At every step of the way, while some fought to gain a voice in their government, others fought just as hard to silence them.

FCCP: WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES SURROUNDING VOTING RIGHTS RIGHT NOW, AS WE APPROACH THE NEXT PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION?

MW: In 2016, seventeen states have new laws that make it harder to vote for the first time in a presidential election. It’s the first presidential race since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County case. We just don’t know what the impact is going to be – and many of these laws are already in front of courts and could be struck down, with a lot of controversy and uncertainty.

In many ways the biggest threat this year comes from other rules that affect the meaningful vote. Since the 2010 Citizens United decision, mega donors have come to dominate campaign giving. The top 100 donors gave more than the other 4.75 million small donors combined.  That’s the biggest imbalance since the Gilded Age over a hundred years ago. Vast sums are now given by secret donors.  And we see pervasive gerrymandering, so that many voters don’t even get a real choice.

One of the great lessons in history is that there are many ways that politicians try to bend the rules and rig the system. James Madison warned during the Constitutional Convention, “It was impossible to foresee all the abuses.”

FCCP: WHILE THIS IS AN INCREDIBLY TIMELY AND IMPORTANT ISSUE TO DISCUSS DURING AN ELECTION YEAR, IT IS BY NO MEANS A NEW PROBLEM IN OUR COUNTRY.  WHEN WOULD YOU SAY THE STRUGGLE BEGAN?

MW: From the very beginning. The book starts with Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, with the idea that government is legitimate only if it rests on “the consent of the governed.” At the time he wrote that, the country was founded, America was not a democracy. Only white men with property were allowed to vote. And the founders battled over this very issue. Ben Franklin fought hard to extend voting rights to those without property. John Adams was apoplectic: “There will be no end of it.”

Over two centuries, Americans fought to expand that circle of democracy. The first mass political party, the Democrats, fought to expand the right to vote to working class white men. Then after the Civil War, the new Republican Party extended voting rights to former slaves, through the Fifteenth Amendment (that was then cruelly taken away).  In the early 20th Century, the Progressives extended the right to vote for U.S. Senators, and women won the right to vote through an incredibly creative mass movement. Then in the 1960s, the civil rights movement won the great breakthrough of the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote to African Americans and, really, to everyone.

But in the past fifteen years, the direction has jolted into reverse. The Florida recount debacle reminded political leaders that you could win a really close election by suppressing the vote.  It became clear our election system was ramshackle. Then a concerted conservative political effort claimed lots of voter fraud, and pushed through dozens of laws to make it harder to vote. Voting rights activists fought back. Then the Supreme Court issued a series of opinions that gutted voting rights and campaign finance laws. In many ways, we’re headed in the wrong direction.

FCCP: WHAT ARE SOME SPECIFIC REFORMS THAT COULD HELP TO MOVE OUR DEMOCRACY IN A BETTER DIRECTION?

MW: I call this a “democracy moment.” The public is thinking about these issues more than they have in a long time. There are real changes that could make a big difference.  Moving to automatic, universal registration of voters – as states like California, Oregon and West Virginia have begun to do.  A system of public financing that matches the contributions from small donors. Independent commissions to draw district lines, to avoid partisan gerrymandering. And maybe above all, a new approach from the U.S. Supreme Court – it should stop issuing radical decisions that restrict voters’ rights and power.

The public is engaged and angry about these issues. Citizens United is widely unpopular among people from both parties. Candidates as different as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders pound away at the broken system. And Hillary Clinton has put out a very detailed plan for reform. Now we the voters have to do our part – hold their feet to the fire, make sure that they know how much we want our democracy to work.

FCCP: HOW CAN THE PHILANTHROPIC COMMUNITY BE MORE STRATEGIC IN SUPPORTING THE “FIGHT TO VOTE” AND DEMOCRACY REFORM?

MW:  In researching the book, I was fascinated by the way these fights played out.  Change happened most significantly when the issue of democracy reform was placed front and center in the national debate. Change came from many sources. Political parties often played the central role. National groups always played a key role, too. Often change was spurred by a small handful of activists and organizers, and efforts in states and cities.

Today the field is thriving and diverse — nationally and locally. Many groups have deep experience working collaboratively, with a recognition of the unique roles that they play and niches they fill. In this ecosystem, we need funders to focus on bolstering the capacity of these groups, without spreading funding too thin, or resulting in redundant efforts. Greater investment in sustained infrastructure capacity will build strong organizations and a stronger overall field. It enables groups to develop and retain seasoned staff members; maximize institutional expertise; invest in creative, essential competencies (such as communications); and above all, to plan for the long term. It’s crushing when groups have to reduce staff at key moments, or spend their time in frantic short-term fundraising when a focus on winning change is most needed.

Conservative funders long have invested in this way – providing ongoing flexible funding to build the infrastructure of groups that have advanced their agenda – in particular, those that have fought to restrict voting rights. They invested in key strategic actors, over the long term. And it paid off. We need a comparable investment strategy to effectively wage and win the fight to expand American democracy.

Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving the systems of democracy and justice.  He was director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1999 and is the author of The Second Amendment, My Fellow Americans, POTUS Speaks, and three other books.  Waldman is a graduate of Columbia College and NYU School of Law.  He comments widely in the media on law and policy. He will be speaking at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on April 14th. Look at the Brennan Center’s site for more information about other upcoming speaking engagements.