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2018 Year in Review: Democracy

With the Trump administration’s corruption reaching epidemic proportions, voting rights under full-scale attack and election systems still vulnerable, Public Citizen – championed measures to defend the investigation of possible Trump campaign misdeeds, win campaign finance reforms, restore the eligibility to vote to 1.4 million Floridians, protect our elections and support high-value grassroots campaigns for democracy at the national, state and local levels.

Trump is not above the law

One of the most ominous threats to our democracy – and one that could result in a constitutional crisis not seen since Watergate – is Trump’s continual attempts to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigation into the 2016 elections and place himself above the law. To warn Congress and Trump himself that such a move would be met with massive resistance nationwide, Public Citizen helped spearhead a coalition of national organizations and initiated a rapid response network to mobilize people and stage protests nationwide if Trump fires Mueller or takes comparable steps.

In July, the coalition held “Confront Corruption, Demand Democracy” candlelight vigils in cities throughout the country. The vigil date was set well in advance, but just a few days earlier, Trump held his infamous meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, at which Trump undermined U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment over whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election. The ensuing outrage helped spur tens of thousands of people to attend nearly 200 vigils nationwide.

The day after the November midterm elections, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the rapid response network faced its first test. Within a day, an estimated 100,000 people participated in hundreds of protests nationwide, calling on the acting attorney general not to interfere with Mueller’s probe.

At press time, more than 400,000 people in more than 950 locations nationwide have signed up at TrumpIsNotAboveTheLaw.org to be part of the network and mobilize again at a moment’s notice to protest if Trump crosses another line.

Turning activism into policy

With an eye toward turning activists’ energy into action, Public Citizen this year helped launch a bold and broad coalition called Declaration for American Democracy that aims to win transformational democratic reform. More than 100 organizations have signed on to this effort.

Our work has helped make reform the first order of business for the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in January 2019. Legislative leaders pledge to introduce – and pass – a raft of reforms around money in politics, campaign finance reform, voting rights and more designed to create a political system that works for all of us, not just the privileged and the powerful.

Second Chances in Florida

One of the most egregious examples of voter suppression has been in Florida, which until this year permanently excluded from voting anyone who has a past felony conviction – even if they served their time, no matter how long ago the conviction was. Public Citizen worked with the Second Chances Florida campaign to help pass a ballot measure (Amendment 4) to restore the eligibility to vote to 1.4 million Floridians who are permanently excluded from voting because of a past felony conviction. We reached out to our members in Florida and worked with other national organizations to get them involved as well.  We mobilized activists across the country to make calls to Floridians to support the measure and generated social media memes and messages to spread the word about the importance of the amendment. Florida voters approved it overwhelmingly in November.

Securing the Vote

Despite extensive media coverage of the vulnerabilities of voting systems, many still are vulnerable to hacking and interference. Public Citizen helped coordinate the Secure Our Vote coalition, which pushes for more secure voting systems that have a paper record and rigorous post-election audits. We engaged citizens to take action on election security through email, webinars, guides and toolkits, and we focused on certain states prone to problems, including New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. We also warned state and local election officials about efforts by voting machine vendors to sell new insecure machines.

  • The District of Columbia Council has long been plagued by ethics scandals and allegations of undue influence by contractors and big donors. In 2018, Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign scored two important victories that will help curb corruption in the nation’s capital city. First, the Council approved a proposal that would create a system of small-donor public financing of political campaigns in D.C. Later in the year, the Council addressed a longstanding “pay-to-play” problem by restricting major D.C. government contractors from making campaign contributions to those responsible for issuing the contracts. Public Citizen worked with local and national groups to mobilize residents and lobby the Council to approve both measures.
  • After being bombarded by calls and emails from Public Citizen members and activists from other organizations we work with, Congress passed a spending bill in March that increased funding levels for federal agencies and excluded nearly all of the special favors for big corporations and ideological extremists, including a provision that would have blocked enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. That amendment prohibits tax-deductible nonprofits – including churches – from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Without it, tax-deductible secret money could flow through churches and charities into our politics, which would have unleashed an estimated additional $1 billion in secret political spending into our election system.
  • In 2018, Public Citizen was at the center of the Let New York Vote Coalition, which worked to win early voting, automatic voter registration and other election reforms in New York, which has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. This vibrant coalition of unions, civil rights organizations, community-based groups and good government groups expanded a statewide network of activists and advocates. We organized rallies, lobby visits and call-in days, and did press outreach. As 2018 ended, the coalition was gearing up to push for reforms during a new session of the New York Legislature.