This collection on American democracy challenges and complements blog posts and opinion pieces that are typical staples of the 24/7 news cycle in the lead up to US elections. You'll find reports about election and campaign administration, voting access and participation, government performance and perceptions, the role of the media in civil society, and more.

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"VOTE!" by Paul Sableman licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Ballots for All: Holding Pennsylvania County Jails Accountable for Providing Ballot Access

September 7, 2021

In Pennsylvania, county jail administrators are not fulfilling their legal responsibility to voters. Jails are required by law to provide registration and voting opportunities to all eligible voters. Currently, Pennsylvania county jails do not have a universal process for voter registration, voting by mail, or voter education. We refer to this as de facto disenfranchisement. The freedom to vote is central to building an America that works for us all, and no eligible voter should be denied this right. Through research, advocacy, and community outreach, we will both support jail administrators with tools to increase rates of voter registration and voting and, critically, hold them accountable to ensure all eligible voters can cast a ballot.

Civic Participation

Above the Fray: Changing the stakes of Supreme Court selection and enhancing legitimacy

July 8, 2021

The political stakes of judicial selection, especially at the Supreme Court level, have cast a shadow over the integrity of that process. The U.S. Constitution commits the responsibility of judicial selection to the President and Senate, which makes politics an inherent part of the process. But, under the present system, partisans have incentives to control the composition of the courts so as to try to affect the resolution of disputes in a way that furthers particular policy objectives and politics. This process distorts the actual and the perceived fairness and independence of the courts.In this report, we address the interrelated concerns of the selection of judicial nominees, the procedures for decision-making on the Supreme Court, the duration of service on the Court, and conduct while on the bench. Our reasons for recommending interactive reforms, and specific changes that we believe deserve consideration, are detailed below.


Ballots for All: Ensuring Eligible Wisconsinites in Jail Have Equal Access to Voting

June 23, 2021

Our democracy works best when all eligible Wisconsinites participate. The freedom to vote is central to building an America that works for us all. But too many Wisconsinites face needless and discriminatory barriers that limit this right. This is particularly true of eligible Wisconsinites in county jails.This report updates our July 2020 report, Ballots for All: Ensuring Eligible Wisconsin Voters in Jail Have Equal Access to Voting. In the past year, many jail administrators have taken small but important steps to increase ballot access for individuals in their care. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, with restrictions on who can support jail-based voter registration and absentee ballot application events in county jails, advocates and jail administrators found creative ways to ensure that eligible Wisconsinites could have their voices heard in the 2020 elections. While this is progress, troubling barriers remain. This report offers additional recommendations for state and local officials to protect the freedom to vote for every eligible Wisconsinite.

Prison Gerrymandering Report 2021

April 26, 2021

The purpose of the redistricting process should be to create districts that accurately reflect the communities they represent and to distribute political power across those communities. But counting incarcerated individuals at the facility where they are incarcerated, rather than their home addresses, artificially bolsters the political power of certain communities on the backs of individuals who are not truly part of those communities, while simultaneously reducing the political voices of their home communities. In Texas, there are dramatic implications, with a handful of rural regions gaining a disproportionate share of the political power over other rural regions and diminishing the true population count in certain urban areas. This under-representation only exacerbates existing problems with Census undercounts and socio economic disparities which have a root in racial discrimination. It also deviates from how Texas law treats incarcerated populations in every other context, creating a conflict with the Texas constitution that needs to be addressed.Traditionally, the United States Census Bureau has counted incarcerated individuals at the facility where they are housed, but the Bureau has made clear that this historical practice has persisted only for administrative reasons, not for legal or policy ones. Recently, the Census Bureau has evolved in its treatment of incarcerated populations, and, for the first time, will make it practical for states on tight timelines to assign incarcerated individuals to their home communities. Many states across the nation are taking advantage of this opportunity to correct for the distortions created by prison gerrymandering. In order to more accurately reflect the state's population, Texas legislators should take advantage of the Census Bureau's new tools and work with state agencies to identify those prisoners who, rightfully, should be counted at an address in their permanent community.

Zero Disenfranchisement: The Movement to Restore Voting Rights

August 27, 2019

The increase in attention being paid to felony disenfranchisement laws warrants a serious overview of felony disenfranchisement in the U.S. This report will discuss the history of felony disenfranchisement laws and their impact on our society, analyze the arguments surrounding felony disenfranchisement laws, and explore the movement to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions. This report also concludes with recommendations for states and advocacy groups interested in starting work in the Restoration of Voting Rights Movement.

Civic Participation

Enforcing the Constitution: How the Courts Performed in 2014–2015

September 1, 2015

This year's edition of Enforcing the Constitution showcases the importance of judicial engagement and the perils of judicial abdication in a variety of contexts . We begin close to home, with a family out for a summer walk . We end in a place where most do not expect to find themselves—prison. In all of these contexts, Americans are confronted by government power; in all of these contexts, judicial engagement maintains the rule of law and protects our freedom.


Who Pays for Judicial Races?

October 25, 2013

"In recent years, as the cost of judicial campaigns has soared, the boundaries that keep money and political pressure from interfering with the rule of law have become increasingly blurred", according to The New Politics of Judicial Elections, a MacArthur-supported report by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The report finds increased politicization and escalating spending in state judicial campaigns, as well as the growing role of special interest money. During the 2011-12 election cycle, many judicial races "seemed alarmingly indistinguishable from ordinary political campaigns" featuring everything from Super PACs and mudslinging attack ads to millions of dollars of candidate fundraising and independent spending.


Will Ignorance & Partisan Election of Judges Undermine Public Trust in the Judiciary?

January 1, 2008

The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution. By a limited Constitution, I understand one which contains certain specified exceptions to the legislative authority; such, for instance, as that it shall pass no bills of attainder, no ex post facto laws, and the like. Limitations of this kind can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing.