Commentary

Democracy Impact Statements: A proposal for the Summit for Democracy | Opinion

Democracy is under assault. The statements would bring threats to the forefront and help identify solutions

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By Fletcher McClellan and Alissa Stoneking

This week the United States will hold a virtual Summit for Democracy, a conference of over 100 nations that will discuss ways to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote human rights.

Though the U.S. is sponsoring the event, several freedom-and-democracy watch organizations recently downgraded the host country and its allies for antidemocratic practices.

For example, Freedom House cited gerrymandering, recent state laws that increased partisan manipulation of election outcomes, the outsized role of money in political influence, and greater racial and economic inequality as reasons why America’s democratic institutions have eroded.

Furthermore, a Pew Research Center poll of people from 17 advanced nations, conducted last month, found that only 19% considered democracy in the U.S. to be a good model to follow and 72% believe the U.S. “used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years.”

America is not the only country guilty of democratic backsliding. Freedom House reported that for 15 consecutive years, authoritarianism is on the rise while democracy has declined. Only 20% of the world’s population lives in what the group classifies as a free country.

Thus, the Summit for Democracy comes at a critical time for democracy in the world. President Biden listed this event as one of his top global priorities, but said the U.S. needs to undertake reform to reclaim its status as democratic champion.

We adopt as our definition of democracy the formulation offered by the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider: “Democracy is a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process.”

Therefore, any proposal that limits political competition and constrains public involvement in the policy-making process is a threat to democracy.

Illustrative are decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court to nullify voting rights and unleash big money in politics, which reformers want to reverse. Recognizing that the judiciary exists to protect individual rights, its legitimacy is challenged by ideologues appointed by presidents who failed to receive the most popular votes in recent elections and confirmed by an unrepresentative Senate.

Another target of political reform is abolition or modification of the filibuster. Currently, Republicans have blocked bills that would ban partisan gerrymandering, curb voter suppression, and make campaign finance practices more transparent.

Adding to the list of proposed changes, we recommend the establishment of Democracy Impact Statements (DIS) on all proposed substantive reforms of politics and administration.

Originally developed by the public administration scholar David Rosenbloom, the purpose of these statements is to protect and promote “those aspects of U.S. government and politics that have democratized the original constitutional design, as amended.”

Modeled after the Environmental Impact Statements required by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, a DIS would require that the prospective impacts of a government action on democracy be understood and disclosed in advance. The intent is to inform decision-makers and provide opportunities for mitigating those impacts during the planning process.

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How might a DIS be applied? In Rosenbloom’s formulation, significant administrative reforms affecting “individual rights, constitutional integrity, transparency and the rule of law” would undergo the DIS process.

For example, government contracts would require a statement describing impacts on transparency, employee rights, and oversight of contractor performance. Certainly, a contract proposed by the Pennsylvania Senate to have a third party conduct election audits would entail a DIS.

We would go beyond proposed administrative reforms to proposed changes in political processes. Furthermore, we believe an important democratic value to protect is popular sovereignty, or the idea that the people are the ultimate source of authority, entitled to self-rule.

Thus, proposed changes in election law to combat election “fraud” would be scrutinized for their potential impact on access to the ballot. So, too, would efforts to enable legislators or administrators to overturn popular verdicts in presidential and other elections, not to mention legitimize conduct intended to intimidate voters and election workers.

As pointed out by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, civil liberties in the U.S. are also under threat. DIS analysis could apply to efforts to curtail protest activities, which include allowing motorists to run over protestors blocking a highway and making protest organizers liable for policing costs.

We are aware that our proposal has limitations. Necessary policy actions could be delayed. However, DIS can enhance deliberation and increase transparency.

Additionally, not everyone agrees on what constitutes democratic values. For instance, prohibitions on union activities may produce different reactions, although in our view unions promote democracy. Nevertheless, DIS analysis would promote serious debate over how workers are best empowered.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection against the results of the 2020 presidential election, the need to protect democratic values has never been greater. Norms we previously took for granted are under assault. Democracy Impact Statements would bring these assumptions to the forefront and identify the threats to our democratic republic.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @MCCleleF. Alissa Stoneking, of Harrisburg, holds a 2020 BA in political science and a 2021 MPP degree from Elizabetown College

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