Vote for president and the Senate. But pay attention to these reforms on state ballots, too.

By Danielle Allen  |  October 14, 2020

All eyes are on the races for the White House and Senate and the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings. But potentially even more important to the long-term health of our constitutional democracy are reforms on the ballot in states across the country.

Our politics are trapped in a vicious cycle: Political institutions don’t deliver effective governance, leaving voters feeling unheard and disempowered. Over time, people become increasingly disinclined to participate in governance, from the local to the federal levels. Participating less in our collective decision-making diminishes opportunities to encounter fellow Americans with different backgrounds and perspectives. Our civic culture and civil society fragment and tribalize. Groups develop an active dislike of one another.

With 2020 turnout likely to set records, this energy and engagement need to be harnessed to flip a switch on our democracy — to convert our universe’s negative equilibrium to a positive one. We should aspire to a virtuous cycle in which responsive, empowering political institutions are worthy of engagement; where engaged Americans learn more about one another, partner with one another, and rebuild the norms and guardrails that sustain democracies. These include a willingness to forge compromises and to let the losing side play a substantive role in post-election deliberations — even as they don’t lead.

How do we flip that switch? This is where the state ballot measures come in. As colleagues and I argued in a recent report, “Our Common Purpose,” our society needs reforms that empower voters, deliver equal voice and representation, and create responsive political institutions. We need to invest in civil society organizations that can help bridge divides and in a civic media ecosystem that can fill news deserts and address disinformation. We must actively rebuild a civic culture of mutual commitment to one another and to our constitutional democracy.