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Reflections from the American Democracy Summit: What advocates can learn from messaging, other movements, and reformed primary systems

Nearly 1,000 reform advocates, academics, and pro-democracy organizations gathered in Los Angeles last week for RepresentUs’ American Democracy Summit.

Carlo Macomber
Research Manager
October 5, 2023

The topline: Nearly 1,000 reform advocates, academics, and pro-democracy organizations gathered in Los Angeles last week for RepresentUs’ American Democracy Summit. Takeaways from three of the many panels are summarized below: how to best message election reform, what we can learn from other movements, and what we know about California’s top-two nonpartisan primaries (a reform with over a decade of insights). Our staff left inspired and excited to share what we learned from the following expert panelists. 

Messaging Our Movement  

Moderator: Tyler Fisher (Unite America) 
Panelists: Jenna Dresner (Citizen Data) and Ben Patinkin (Patinkin Research Strategies)
Lesson 1: Focus on values and principles, not policy.

The most successful messaging for election reform is often values-based. For example, a reform might give voters more voice and better choices; it gives voters the freedom to vote for any candidate in any election; it will increase competition; voters will have more power; elected officials will face greater accountability. The values-based principles of reform resonate with large majorities of voters, while specific policies tend to be less popular.

Lesson 2: The reform movement has a moveable middle.

Recent surveys find that 57% of voters are dissatisfied with American democracy, 52% feel the two-party system is not working for them, and 42% do not feel represented. The voters who agree with these statements are more likely to be moderate, unaffiliated with a political party, female, and/or from an underrepresented community. These same demographics are also most likely to be unsure if they support specific election reforms. However, they are persuadable and most likely to respond to values-based messaging.

Lesson 3: Avoid overpromising.

Some reformers have a tendency to sell their preferred reform by promising that it will have a huge impact if enacted. Voters are skeptical of lofty promises, and they don’t buy that anyone has “one quick fix” to all that ails American democracy. While research and learning suggests reforms have a significant impact, messaging should be measured. Messengers should use modifiers, such as by saying that primary reform “will help” temper polarization or “move things in the right direction,” while meeting voters where they are.

What Can the Democracy Reform Movement Learn from Other Successful Movements?  

Moderator: Sarah Jane Higginbotham (Unite America)
Panelists: Joell Hall (Alaska AFL-CIO), Sarah Hunt (Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy), Spencer Overton (George Washington University Law School) 
Lesson 1: The democracy reform movement doesn’t need to recreate the wheel. 

Drawing from Labor, Voting Rights, and the Conservative Climate movements, each panelist described similarities that reformers can draw from. As mentioned in the messaging panel, movements are typically based on values — such as “solidarity.” They also have authentic leadership, empower neighbors and communities, and are inspiring (to name a few features). However, movements are not 100% cohesive all of the time: embracing differences and fractures is par for the course. 

Lesson 2: Get outside of likely coalitions.  

Today’s opposition might be tomorrow’s support. All successful movements have had to overcome opposition: If you can’t change someone’s mind, seek to get opposition to a neutral-state. Continue to nurture opposition beyond key junctures in campaigns to cultivate authentic relationships. 

Lesson 3: Meet the moment. 

Movements must rise to the occasion, whether that’s through confronting present day politics, elevating voter discontent, or mobilizing around key events. Whatever the case, listening to people and meeting them where they are will help ensure the cause resonates with potential allies in the context of their experience. 

The Case for Top Two Open Primaries

Moderator: John Opdycke (Open Primaries)
Panelists: Dr. Christian Grose (USC Schwarzenegger Institute), Raquel Centeno (Ph.D. Candidate, USC), Dr. Rich Barton (Syracuse University — Maxwell School & UA Democracy Fellow)
Lesson 1: Top-two nonpartisan primaries are not a panacea, but the reform has tempered polarization in California.

Since California implemented Top Two in 2012, it is one of very few states that has depolarized: This is especially notable when compared to other western states, which have polarized faster than any other region in the nation in recent years. One key feature: Occasional same-party general elections force candidates to appeal to all voters across the partisan and ideological spectrum, incentivizing them to adopt more broadly popular — and less polarizing — policy positions.

Lesson 2: Electoral competition has increased substantially under Top Two. 

The share of uncompetitive General Assembly primary elections in California has dropped by more than 60 percentage points since the implementation of Top Two. Additionally, the average winning margin in congressional general elections has dropped by ten percentage points since reform.

Lesson 3: Voter participation is higher, and more voters have a meaningful say in election outcomes. 

California is consistently among the national leaders in primary election turnout since the state adopted Top Two. In 2020, it had the third-highest primary turnout at 33.3%. The share of voters casting votes in elections of consequence — those which actually determine the outcome of the contest — is much higher in California since the implementation of Top Two. It is also much higher in all nonpartisan primary states compared to partisan primary states, indicating that voters have a much stronger voice when partisan primaries are abolished.

The growing movement of reformers, advocates, and academics all have much to learn from one another as we collectively tackle the road to a more functional and representative government The American Democracy Summit certainly facilitated just that, and provided ample inspiration, connections, and momentum for the work ahead.