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Local View: Democracy didn't die Jan. 6, but it could use some Minnesota nourishment

From the column: "Our democracy is not healthy when inaccurate information abounds ... and when efforts to provide meaningful civic education are quickly shouted down as 'too woke'.”

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Emad Hajjaj / Cagle Cartoons

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
— American educator Robert Hutchins, 1954

A democracy empowers a majority, through the exercise of certain liberties, to enjoy control over their governance. The hallmark of those liberties is equal and robust participation in fair elections by an informed public. The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection attempted to assassinate these principles. While the attempt failed, our democracy needs resuscitation by state government.

Minnesotans turn out for elections and proudly parade red “I Voted” stickers. However, elections in other states are less participatory. In the recent midterm elections, only 47% of our nation’s eligible voters went to the polls, and five states had less than a 40% turnout. This apathetic performance was in spite of pleas that this was “the most important election in history.”

Partisan gerrymandering has created predetermined electoral outcomes. According to the Cook Political Report, of the 435 House of Representative seats up for election this past fall, only 36 were considered “toss-ups.” It is not surprising that, in a 2022 survey by the American Bar Association, 31% of respondents said they voted infrequently because they did not believe their vote made any difference.

Voter engagement is likely to worsen. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that, during the first nine months of 2022, seven states enacted laws making it more difficult to vote. Pushed by entities like the conservative Heritage Foundation, other states are poised to follow suit. A federal response is unlikely.

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It has famously been said that the two most important things in politics are “money and I forgot the other.” Since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, the wealthy have exercised increasingly greater influence over elections. In the recent midterm elections, billionaires spent more than $950 million to influence the outcome. This amount represented a 40% increase over what billionaires spent in the 2018 midterms. Our plutocratic campaign finance system, with its Rube Goldberg architecture, is drowning out meaningful participation by small donors. Minnesota is not immune.

In this fall’s 2nd Congressional District race, outside groups fueled by affluent, often-anonymous donors spent more than $15 million. Further, Gov. Tim Walz’s reelection effort was reported to have been the benefactor of more than $10 million from outside groups.

The reach of the rich also touched local races. The Hennepin County attorney race saw hundreds of thousands of dollars pumped in from outside the state through money transfers from one opaque entity to another to aid the successful candidate.

Furthermore, our elected officials are swamped by lobbyists predominately representing well-heeled interests. Between $65 million and $75 million are spent each year lobbying our state’s elected officials. As Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once observed, “The notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”

Franklin Roosevelt said the safeguard of democracy is “education.” Unfortunately, we are failing to ensure that voters are well-informed. A 2019 Princeton University survey found that 55% of Minnesotans failed a basic citizenship test. Another survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that most Americans could not name the three branches of government. When asked to do the same, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tupperville said, “the Senate, the House and the executive.”

At the same time, the press’ role in keeping the public informed is floundering. The line between journalism and entertainment has blurred, the credibility of the press is being undermined (“fake news”), local newspapers are shuttering, and people are hooked on outlets that serve up information designed to reinforce their beliefs.

Our democracy is not healthy when inaccurate information abounds, when our system of checks and balances is not understood, and when efforts to provide meaningful civic education are quickly shouted down as “too woke.”

In Minnesota, groups like Clean Elections Minnesota, Common Cause, and the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board have repeatedly tried, without success, to promote democratic principles through legislative initiatives. Since elected officials are benefactors/survivors of a system lacking equilibrium, will inertia continue to prevail?

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Today, several proposals are pending at the Legislature focused on enhancing voter access and protecting election workers. But the ability to vote in a system overwhelmed by the wealthy, which fails to educate young voters, and that is clouded with misinformation results in voting being a somewhat vacuous exercise for many. More can be done.

Surplus dollars should be used to increase the political contribution refunds available to small donors. Currently, individuals receive $50 and couples $100 in refunds for contributions to state candidates, and only a small increase is being proposed. However, that amount has not changed since 1990. Merely adjusting for inflation would more than double the amount without even considering adjustments to counteract Citizens United. Increasing the political contribution refund substantially would be a step toward leveling the playing field with the mega-rich.

The also-proposed automatic registration of young voters would be great — provided they have the tools to assess candidates and policies. While the Legislature passed a law in 2016 mandating testing regarding civic education, its results are unclear. Groups like the Minnesota Civic Education Coalition and its partners need to be funded and ramped up.

Also, in 2018, the federal courts in Minnesota launched the Minnesota Justice and Democracy Centers, designed to provide civic education opportunities using two federal facilities. Perhaps our district courts, with a physical presence in all 87 counties, should provide similar opportunities.

Voters cannot discern the impact moneyed interests have on policy. Legislation like that being proposed by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, requiring greater transparency by lobbyists and their spending activities, is long overdue.

Democracy did not die on Jan. 6, 2021, but to avoid extinction, nourishment is required.

Robert Moilanen of Minnetonka, Minnesota, is a retired lawyer who worked in both the public and private sector and who served for four years on the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board after being appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and Gov. Tim Walz.

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Robert Moilanen

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