Will Democratic Candidates Finally Talk About Democracy Tonight?

November 20, 2019 | 11:20 am
Lucas Sankey/Unsplash
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

Ten Democratic presidential candidates will be onstage tonight for their fifth debate, a little more than two months before the first primary votes are cast. One of the sponsors, The Washington Post, has provided details on six key issue areas and candidate positions that may be addressed during the debate, including “government” and “climate change.” Unfortunately there is little indication that there will be any questions about how “government” affects “climate change” and how strengthening democracy will enable us to find better solutions to climate change. That’s a conversation that can expand public interest in and understanding of the link between our democratic institutions and our ability to solve big problems.

The government section at The Washington Post disproportionately covers the Electoral College, the filibuster and the future composition of the Supreme Court. The climate change section mostly covers the Green New Deal and future energy sources. These are certainly important issues, but they are also issues the candidates have already been speaking about. There has been much less discussion, and virtually no debate time allocated to fundamental questions about how the architecture of democracy impacts our quality of health.

As two new analyses from the Center for Science and Democracy show, that impact is substantial. In Our Unhealthy Democracy, we document the increasing association between restrictive electoral laws and health decline across states. After the 2010 elections, many state legislatures entrenched their governing membership through a combination of gerrymandering and laws to restrict voter eligibility and ballot access. We show how these states have experienced worse health disparities over the last decade because they were less likely to address growing health threats. These insulated legislatures were less likely to expand Medicaid and other health services, implement climate action plans, enforce corporate responsibility, or implement policies to improve community health. Effects are acute in highly distressed communities and communities of color.

States gerrymandered to favor the Republican Party (negative symmetry)exhibit lower average life expectancy. Source: Our Unhealthy Democracy

Our latest report on federal governance, Abandoned Science, Broken Promises, focuses on the degradation of the policymaking process. The same communities often targeted for voter suppression and those whose votes are diluted through gerrymandering disproportionately bear the impact of environmental problems across the country. The Trump administration is dismantling environmental and public health policies, and the science those policies depend on. By silencing science and denying communities the critical information that they need to protect their health and safety, both expert and public input into the policymaking process is being distorting policy outcomes to the advantage of powerful corporate interests.

At the same time, people are fighting back to renew the strength of democratic policymaking. The Democratic candidates for president need to demonstrate that they will fight to implement national standards for voter registration, ballot access, fair districting, and reduce the influence of affluence. We know what works. Just as many states have already demonstrated the positive impact of reforms like automatic voter registration, early voting, and independent redistricting, so too many states are using robust science to address environmental injustice, prevail in environmental regulatory lawsuits against the Trump administration, and push for science-based safeguards against the threat of further environmental degradation.

The current crisis is a call to action for everyone, including scientists and technical experts who may not have considered the connection between their work and the health of our democracy. We can all make a difference by working to strengthen democratic, science-based decision making in our own communities. Find out how you can revitalize democracy to protect your community’s health by reading our explainer on voting rights and environmental justice. This election year, we need a national conversation about the importance of strengthening democratic institutions and policymaking if we want to address the many public health crises we face as a nation. Starting tonight and during the primaries, the Democratic candidates should make time to move beyond platitudes and address head on the threat posed by the erosion of the democratic process.