At a moment when the national conversation about voting rights is wrapped up in brutal partisan warfare, Josh Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who focuses on election law, sees hope. For Douglas, that optimism is driven by several voting reform successes already in place at the state and local level.
In his new book, Vote for Us: How To Take Back Our Elections and Change The Future of Voting, Douglas chronicles those changes and the activists responsible for making them happen. He focuses on things like a successful Michigan ballot initiative to limit excessive partisan gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, establishing vote centers and lowering the voting age to 16 (a proposal that failed in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House recently). Instead of focusing on what he calls the “doom and gloom” of voting, Douglas thinks activists can use these stories to expand access to the ballot.
HuffPost spoke with Douglas about his optimism for voting rights and how frustrated Americans can slowly work to make changes in their election laws.
Josh Douglas: Abolishing the electoral college and getting rid of the Senate filibuster are things that are big picture ... There haven’t been success stories that we can point to and say “see this is actually working.” Because so much of the discussion of voting rights is doom and gloom, I wanted to focus on what is positive about reform efforts and what actually has worked ... It makes it easier for people to say “yeah, this can happen.” As opposed to the bigger picture things, which are important to discuss, but you know perhaps harder for people to understand and think about how we get it done.
There have been plenty of people talking about bigger, structural reforms to our democracy. A lot of these local and state successes are flying under the radar. I think that’s unfortunate.
Abolishing the electoral college and getting rid of the Senate filibuster are things that are big picture...There haven’t been success stories that we can point to and say “see this is actually working.”
Sam Levine: I think it’s impossible to read your book and just not be struck by the overwhelming optimism that comes through. And it’s not something I think you hear when people are talking about voting rights. I think you hear about people trying to cheat or people trying to rig elections or suppression. For you, where does that optimism come from?
Douglas: I think that optimism about what’s possible is the way to actually move forward. Yes, the things you mentioned, the voter suppression, the doom and gloom, we have to fight back. But every time that we ― the reform community that cares about expansive voting rights ― fight back, it’s almost as if another problem pops up. As I mention in the book, it’s like we’re playing Whack-a-Mole.
If we actually go on the offense in a positive, optimistic way, then we can actually achieve real change.
Levine: I’m curious what you would say to people who would say it’s just naive to think that we’re ever gonna get Republicans, or whoever else stands to benefit from these laws, to go along with any kind of change.
Douglas: In Michigan, they won. It shows that it is possible...
You’re right that some of the reforms I’ve talked about have more of a partisan balance. That’s OK. To me, the answer is not just to throw up your hands and say “well we’re never gonna change anything.” The answer is to keep at it.
Sometimes change like this will need to be started at the local level first. The local level is often the place where it’s easier to pass these reforms and also good places to experiment with different kinds of models. And once we get something that works in a particular area of locality then maybe it spreads to a second place. And then a third place and then all of a sudden you’ve got much more widespread support for it because people see it working well.
Vote centers are a good example of this. A Republican county clerk in Colorado thought “there’s gotta be a better way to do this,” so he implemented it even though he had some political pressure on his side against it. And now it’s spread to a whole bunch of different areas.
I think the answer is “yes, some reforms are probably non-starters for Republicans, certainly on the statewide level.” But a lot of the stories in the book show how the people themselves can overcome that in the places where ballot referendums are allowed. And in other places, local successes can lead to more widespread successes. It’s a long term thing. I’m not suggesting that these reforms can be done and implemented next year. Some of this is going to be a long haul, but we have to start somewhere and plant the seed somewhere.
Levine: I wanted to go through some of the reforms that you actually talk about. Is there one that you think is just incredibly ripe that could catch on like wildfire that would be very achievable. How did you even pick out the ones that you chose to focus on?
Douglas: I like redistricting chapter because I think it’s surprising. I think it really demonstrates the power of everyday Americans who decide they want to take on the issues. I think it’s the sort of thing that people on all sides are upset about, are starting to understand and are starting to think about ways to try to fix the problem.
Levine: I’m just wondering how you stay focused on that when it seems like any of these efforts just get so tied up in partisan warfare. In Michigan, again, they called the [independent redistricting effort] effort a power grab. I’m curious, do you think that message of optimism can help fight against that?
Douglas: Well look, the answer to throw up your hands and do nothing is counterproductive... You can either give up and say “well the system is rigged against us so there’s nothing we can do.” Or, we can be creative about how we approach different solutions and tell stories to our fellow members of society about why these things are important and meaningful and why they’re actually about expanding participation in voting and why that is a good thing...
None of this is easy. I hope the message of the book isn’t “these reforms are easy so you can go do whatever you want, and you won’t have struggles.” All of them struggled, but they overcame them to find success. I think that is the message for anyone who is cynical or says the politicians are just going to stand in our way anyway.
Levine: Some people I’ve talked to feel like there’s a lot of attention often towards the litigation and challenging stuff in court and maybe there hasn’t been that kind of attention towards activism. I’m wondering if you think that has been the case or if there’s tension between the two.
Douglas: The tension would only come if we have limited resources, whether it’s time, whether it’s people, whether it’s money; we only focus on litigation and fighting back, then I think we leave off the table half or more of the possible solutions. I think playing defense is important, and litigation is important, and these things shouldn’t necessarily stop. But they shouldn’t also come at the expense of promoting positive voting rights reforms.
In terms of whether activism has been ignored ― I think if you look historically at some of the major advancements and voter expansions, they came about through multiple avenues, one of which was activism and a sort of positive message about expanding who can participate.
If you think about the civil rights movement, that was people on the ground, who were fighting a message of suppression, but also fighting in a positive way for expansions. If you look at the women’s suffrage movement way back when, that started really in some localities and then spread to a handful of states. Then women kept pounding the pavement, kept telling a story about why they should be included and ultimately culminated in the 19th Amendment. Talk about the 26th amendment to lower the voting age. The movement to lower the voting age really started in World War II after Congress lowered the draft age from 21 to 18. And 30 years of advocacy, of telling a story, culminating with also an important event of the Vietnam War, led to the more widespread reform.
Levine: I know you have this appendix in the back of your book of organizations broken out by state that work on voting rights issues. For someone who reads your book and hasn’t thought about gerrymandering or hasn’t thought about pre-registration or any of the reforms, where do they start? Where is a good first step that someone can start to get involved and start thinking about how they can change voting laws where they live?
Douglas: I do think contacting one of the organizations listed in the appendix is the place to start. And then if there’s a particular issue that they care about, the second half of the appendix has national organizations broken down by topic.
I think the other place to start is simply to talk to one’s neighbors about these issues. Too often, conversations among people, if they happen at all in terms of our voting system, are either sort of the doom and gloom that we’ve already mentioned before or are a real feeling of apathy of our system. “Why should I bother? It doesn’t really matter, the elites are gonna figure this out anyways and it doesn’t matter what I do. I think contact one of the organizations, that’s why I did the appendix and why I spent a lot of time and it’s pretty robust.
If the message here is state and local reforms, I want to give people immediate resources. That’s why I strive to find at least two to four organizations per state. I do think that’s a good place to start. Starting to have more conversations among people about what’s possible if we shift our paradigm away from apathy and doom and gloom and into positive ways to sort of think about these issues.
As an academic, I could have written a book for academics. I could have published it with a university press. But I was very purposeful in writing this book ― academics will hopefully enjoy it and learn something from it ― but the target audience really was the general public. It’s important for academics to be able to relate their research to the general public or otherwise their research isn’t as useful, I think this is the sort of thing that the public needs to hear perhaps more than academics do.
This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.