By Kevin Frazier

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Donald Trump’s regressive presidency has spurred reform at the state level on nearly every subject — see California for auto emission reform, Oregon for investment in public schools and Vermont for drug price importation reduction. But structural changes to our democracy have yet to experience a “Trump Bump” in progress. So we continue to see elected officials have to fundraise rather than legislate, districts drawn with partisan priorities rather than community needs and primaries that often leave independent voters on the electoral sidelines. With so many bold ideas being discussed right now, why have fundamental reforms to our democracy been left off the table?

The short answer: our main political parties won’t allow it.

It’s not that the parties don’t want to improve our democracy. Riding a popular wave of discontent, both parties have pushed forward bold reforms and laws related to our elections, voting systems and transparency. In response to two of the past five presidential elections going to the candidate with fewer votes, states such as Oregon have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to essentially eliminate the Electoral College. In a similar manner, South Carolina and others have adjusted their voting systems to prepare for foreign and nonstate manipulation and hacking. These changes though, amount to cosmetic fixes that ignore the more foundational causes of the cracks exposed by Trump’s election.

Parties are willing to advance reforms so long as they don’t diminish their control over candidates and legislative priorities. This rationale explains why parties lobbied so hard against Measure 90 in 2014. If passed, the measure would have given voters more control over elections by creating an open primary that gave voters of all stripes (or no stripes) a chance to select candidates for the general election. It’s true that Measure 90 was far from perfect, but what matters in this context was the fervor with which both major parties fought its implementation.

The heavy hand of parties on maintaining the status quo also helps explain why Oregon has remained one of five states to have no limits on campaign contributions. The current contribution laws force elected officials to perpetually raise money if they want to have a shot at winning. These high barriers to entry keep parties in place as gatekeepers to elected office. Recent articles have flagged Gov. Kate Brown’s continued fundraising despite her impending term limit, but these stories missed the larger point: Governor Brown and all prospective candidates are merely playing the game set up and preserved by Oregon’s political parties. To be fair, Democrats tried hard to pass some reforms this session, but the proposed reforms would not have substantially diminished the need for candidates to raise obscene amounts of money. Until our democracy incentivizes nonpartisan behavior and governing instead of fundraising, we will continue to see officials toe the party line and cater to monied interests.

Partisanship and excessive fundraising are not inherent to our democracy. But our institutions, elections, norms and even laws have come to preserve their influence. President Trump hacked this party-controlled and money-driven system to win in 2016 and may do so again in 2020. This fact alone should spur good governance advocates to follow paths taken by other activists (see AOC with the Green New Deal): promote ideas that seem unattainable but make a lot of sense. Imagine, for example, if elected officials only served one term — 100 percent of their time would be spent on governing because there would be no point in fundraising. Imagine mandatory voting that ensured moderate voters expressed their views. Imagine a democracy truly of, by, and for the people rather than the parties. This future doesn’t have to be imaginary, but the reality is that it will remain a dream so long as parties are pulling the strings and shaping our democracy.

— Kevin Frazier is a law student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and a former executive assistant to Gov. Kate Brown.

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