Everyone's America

Everyone's America

July 24, 2018

The promise of America is that each of us has an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. In Everyone’s America: State Policies for an Equal Say in Our Democracy and an Equal Chance in Our Economy, we offer an inclusive, race-forward, working-class platform that policymakers, grassroots organizations, and community members can move in their states to help achieve this vision. The progressive economic agenda centers both race and class, and motivates working people of all races to engage in the civic life of their communities and our nation. The inclusive democracy agenda breaks down barriers to meaningful participation and representation, and creates a democracy that is of, by, and for the people—and not just the wealthy special interests. These 2 key objectives support each other: With equal representation in our democracy, we will help ensure that the benefits of our economy are shared fairly; and with a more balanced economy, we will help ensure that Americans across race and class can fully and fairly participate in our democracy. 

Taken together, this suite of policies advances progressive values and activates a broad base, including the “New American Demos” of people of color, single women, young people, and working-class Americans of all races. The inclusive, multi-racial populism that these policies embody stands in stark contrast to the phony populism that today divides, distracts, and disempowers working people, and people of color in particular. 

With national politics tangled in scandal and stalemate, this work at the state level is more vital than ever. Not only can real progressive policies take shape on the state level, they can take root and blossom into national action in the future.

Download and read:
The full Everyone's America state briefing book
or Everyone's America's policy summaries

For our federal policy book, see Everyone's Economy

Everyone’s America lays out 26 policies—from raising job standards to protecting consumers from high-interest debt, from modernizing voter registration and making it more inclusive to shifting power from wealthy donors to working people—that contribute to a race-forward, populist agenda and empower all Americans to participate more fully in our democracy. We have developed this briefing book through partnerships with grassroots organizations across the country. 

Each policy section briefly details the problem, summarizes national polling on the issue, and outlines recommended policy solutions. Since each state faces different challenges, opportunities, and legal, economic, political, and geographic conditions, no single solution will suit every state, and each briefing offers a variety of policy options. Each section also includes messaging guidance for talking about the policy with the public, examples of how similar policies have worked in other states or cities or would work according to studies, and links to further resources. 

Everyone’s America is a resource for policymakers, grassroots organizations, and other leaders, aimed at meeting 3 essential needs:

  • Collecting state-level policies that substantially address the economic challenges faced by working people and the families they support. Policymakers, grassroots organizations, and other community leaders must oppose xenophobic, false populism with concrete policies that are rooted in the realities of people’s lives and that genuinely elevate the dignity and economic well-being of all working Americans and their families. Most Americans recognize that policies that overwhelmingly serve the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations have distorted the economic rules to benefit those already on top and hold the rest of us back.
  • Bringing together state-level policies to create a free, fair, and inclusive democracy. Americans overwhelmingly agree that our democracy is out of balance and needs fundamental change. Policymakers, grassroots organizations, and community leaders can bring our democracy into balance by:
    • shifting power from wealthy donors to everyday people; 
    • modernizing and increasing the inclusivity of voter registration and voting; and
    • expanding the freedom to vote and the principle of “one person, one vote” where it is still being systemically denied, particularly to people of color. 
  • Directly challenging the deeply rooted racism that pervades American politics and policy. Policymakers, grassroots organizations, and other community leaders need to confront racism primarily because it menaces the safety, security, economic opportunity, and democratic rights of people of color. Additionally, the relentless racial scapegoating aimed at white Americans makes them cynical about the role of government and fosters resentment about the policies that strengthen democratic participation and advance economic opportunity and security for all working Americans. Our future depends on leaders across the board confronting this strategic use of racism with straightforward talk and action to advance racial equity. Failing to do so demotivates and demobilizes black, Latino/a, Asian American and Native American individuals, who seldom see their representatives address the ways that racism constrains their lives. Racist scapegoating and the failure to address it keep us from fulfilling our potential as a nation.

Americans recognize that corporations and the very wealthy—and the politicians who are beholden to them—have manipulated the rules of our economy and our democracy to consolidate their own wealth and power, at the expense of working people and communities. In a 2017 survey, 73 percent of American adults agreed that, “The economic system in the U.S. is rigged in favor of certain groups.”1 When an earlier iteration of the same survey asked which groups the economy was rigged to benefit, 86 percent stated it was rigged for corporations and 91 percent asserted it was rigged to favor the rich.2 Across partisan lines, a supermajority of Americans (94 percent) agreed that money in politics and wealthy donors are sources of political dysfunction, and that the wealthy have more power over politicians than constituents do.  

Politicians backed by an elite donor class have long deployed racism to make wealthy Americans richer and working Americans more divided, and this strategy is alive and well today. In the same survey, 49 percent of white Americans who believe the economy is rigged said the system favors people who receive government assistance, and 35 percent said the economy is rigged in favor of minority groups—which could not be further from the truth.3 Remaining silent on racial injustice and the way that coded racist appeals underlie the major policy issues of our day enables those who deliberately divide us, and undercuts our power to win solutions that work for all of us.

Of course, those beholden to the very wealthy deploy more weapons than race to divide and distract Americans. They stoke fear and anxiety about Muslims, LGBTQ people, and women’s efforts to assert equality, fueling a larger culture war that goads working-class Americans to resent one another and fear the political empowerment of fellow working people rather than direct their rage at corporate greed. While this briefing book focuses on race, Demos does not shy away from confronting inequities of gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, and other social cleavages that are used to oppress and divide us.

Political, economic, and racial justice are interconnected, and we must pursue them together. To elevate the policy conversation and advance the interests of working people in 2018 and beyond, state-level policymakers, grassroots organizations, and other thought leaders must commit to a race-forward economic and pro-democracy agenda that will allow all of us to thrive.

This briefing book is a living document and will be updated. We welcome your feedback, thoughts, and suggestions via email at briefingbook@demos.org


Economy Democracy






PROMOTE CLIMATE EQUITY (read the full policy here)

Human beings are a part of the natural world: We all need clean air, water, and land in the communities where we live and raise our children. Yet corporate interests have put our health and environment at risk by continuing to extract, peddle, and burn fossil fuels. Skewed policies and dependence on yesterday’s technologies have long put communities of color directly in the line of impact, even as just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the global fossil fuel emissions that are destroying our communities and our climate. State policymakers should invest in an equitable transition to clean energy, end the extraction of fossil fuels, stop greenhouse gas pollution, and direct responsible recovery and building in the wake of climate events.



Mobility is critical to our communities’ ability to thrive. Growing numbers of Americans rely on public transit to get to work, school, health care, and recreation. However, much of our transit infrastructure is old and deteriorating; many communities lack access to reliable and affordable transportation options; and many of our transit systems were not designed to handle such heavy use. State policymakers should invest in public transit to fix, modernize and expand systems so that more Americans have access to quality transportation options. Revenue sources for transit should favor progressive taxes, since low-income households are disproportionately hurt by increases in user fees and fares.



Americans rely on roads, bridges, airports and transit to get us where we need to go; sewer and water systems to keep our families healthy; safe and well-maintained schools, libraries, and other public buildings; and energy to power it all. Our economy depends on strong infrastructure. Yet America’s infrastructure is crumbling; our roads are congested, our bridges are deteriorating, our school buildings are dilapidated, and the pipes that carry our drinking water are in a state of disrepair. State policymakers should increase infrastructure spending to create good jobs and boost the economy, with funds targeted to engage and benefit communities of color that have been historically shut out of economic growth due to discrimination and underinvestment.




Americans work hard, and that should provide enough to sustain our families. Yet too many employers structure jobs in ways that prevent working people from being able to get by. Today, as women and people of color make up a growing share of America’s working class, employers are weakening job standards for all working people. State policymakers should raise the standards for American jobs so that all working people get paid fairly for their efforts and have work schedules that take their basic needs into account. Vital elements include a higher minimum wage, stable scheduling, paid sick time, prevention of wage theft, protections from being improperly classified as an independent contractor, and increasing the number of working people who are guaranteed overtime pay. 


GUARANTEE FAIR EMPLOYMENT (read the full policy here)

We all deserve an equal opportunity to be hired based on our abilities and to work free of discrimination and harassment. However, discriminatory hiring, firing, harassment, promotions, and pay continue to block opportunity for people of color, women, LGBTQ workers, people with disabilities, and other targeted groups. State policymakers should provide additional resources to strengthen enforcement of existing fair employment laws and expand civil rights laws to clarify that discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, personal credit history, pregnancy status or caregiving responsibilities are illegal. Policymakers should also ensure that people with arrest or conviction records have a fair chance to work.


RESTORE FREEDOM TO NEGOTIATE AT WORK (read the full policy here)

Our American tradition guarantees working people the freedom to join together with co-workers to negotiate for a fair return on work. When workers have the freedom to band together in unions and negotiate with their employers, they and their families gain from improved wages and benefits, safer working conditions, and fairer treatment on the job. Yet because unions successfully enable working people to build power, the freedom to come together in unions is under attack by corporate interests aiming to maximize their own wealth and power. State policymakers should restore workers’ freedom to join together in unions by eliminating so-called “right to work” laws, expanding freedom to negotiate to public employees and other workers left out of federal labor law, leveraging state purchasing power, and banning non-compete agreements.



At some point in our lives, we all need time to care for loved ones or ourselves, whether we are bonding with a new child, caring for an ailing parent, or recovering from a serious personal illness. Yet in 2017, only 13 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave through their employer. Without paid time away from work, Americans put their health at risk, face economic hardship, and are unable to care for those who matter most to them in a time of need. State policymakers should set up a system to provide paid benefits to working people who need time away from their jobs to care for a new child, a loved one with a serious health condition, or their own serious health condition.




Parents want the best start for their children. In fact, our entire society benefits when children enter kindergarten with a strong educational foundation and when parents can go to work knowing their children are participating in the early learning that will enable them to thrive. Yet even as the benefits of preschool grow increasingly clear, policymakers in many states have failed to invest in providing preschool to all kids regardless of family wealth. At the same time, preschool teachers who do the crucial work of educating young children are typically paid such low wages that they struggle to sustain their own families. State policymakers should guarantee universal, voluntary access to high-quality public preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and improve compensation and training for preschool teachers. 


ESTABLISH EDUCATION EQUITY (read the full policy here)

Equal opportunity is a cornerstone of the American ideal. To make that a reality, every child deserves a quality public education, with an opportunity to learn, flourish, and become a full citizen of our democracy. This commitment to universal education is enshrined in state constitutions across the country. Yet in practice, the majority of states provide students with dramatically unequal educational resources and fail to adequately fund schools that serve students of color and students from struggling families. Students are increasingly clustered in schools that are isolated by race and class, and racialized disciplinary policies result in students of color being disproportionately suspended or expelled. State policymakers should change funding formulas to ensure adequate and equitable school funding, promote school integration, create community schools that provide enhanced services and engage parents and the broader community, respect and compensate teachers as professionals, and prevent schools from moving students into the juvenile justice system for minor offenses.



In America, we should all have the opportunity to dream big, develop our potential, and realize our greatest aspirations, and that means making our public colleges affordable to all of us. At a time of persistent racial and economic inequality, many Americans envision higher education as a pathway to a better life, regardless of race, gender, or class. But just as more Americans pursue this aspiration, the rising cost of college and the specter of large student loan debt—particularly at public institutions, which have traditionally been the most affordable and accessible—are eroding this pathway to security. State policymakers should increase per-student support for public 2- and 4-year colleges so that the total price of attending college—including tuition, fees, room and board and other living expenses—is no more than what working and middle-class students can reasonably pay with need-based grant aid and a part-time job.




The courthouse doors should be open to everyone. When we are caught in legal proceedings that could cause us to lose our homes, families, or ability to live in the country, we should have access to an attorney who can stand up for our most basic rights. However, legal representation is only guaranteed in criminal cases, despite the devastating ramifications of many civil cases. In other circumstances, corporations force employees and customers into binding arbitration, denying individuals who are cheated or discriminated against their day in court. State policymakers should increase access to justice in the civil legal system by expanding access to legal aid services, ensuring that people facing deportation have access to an attorney, and enabling Americans to access the courts despite forced arbitration agreements.


REINVEST IN JUSTICE (read the full policy here)

All Americans should feel safe and protected in their communities. But our criminal justice policies promote mass incarceration and over-policing, rather than actual public safety. As a result of harsh sentences, over-criminalization, and discriminatory policing, our criminal justice system is tearing apart families—disproportionately immigrant families and families of color. State policymakers should reject costly over-incarceration and invest in programs that address the root causes of crime, including amending sentencing laws, modifying prison and jail release practices, and improving access to community services that can help reduce recidivism. Policymakers should also act to end the use of private prisons and curtail cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.



Every one of us should be treated equally under the law. This idea is so fundamental to our justice system that it is carved above the doors of the Supreme Court. Yet every day, criminal justice policies penalize people for being poor. People who are unable to pay bail, fines, and fees are forced to remain in jail or take on debt for their involvement in the justice system, contributing to a cycle of poverty and tearing families apart. State policymakers should guarantee that people are not held in jail before trial because of an inability to pay, and should reduce and eliminate fines, fees, and other ways our justice system criminalizes poverty.



ENSURE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL (read the full policy here)

When a child is injured or a loved one is suffering from a serious illness, no one wants to think about co-pays and deductibles. We want compassionate, effective medical care, delivered quickly and accessibly. Yet ideologically driven politicians continue to threaten recent gains to health care access in the United States. Many Americans still struggle to get the health care they need and to know that they won’t go bankrupt if they get sick. People of color, undocumented people and low-income Americans all suffer disproportionately under our current health coverage scheme. State policymakers should expand Medicaid and take advantage of other options under the Affordable Care Act to extend health care to all residents.



A home is more than a roof over our heads. It’s the opportunity to raise our families in a safe neighborhood with clean air and water, and to live in a place where we can access good jobs, efficient transportation, and high-quality schools. Yet there is no county in the nation where a full-time worker earning the minimum wage can afford to rent a modest two-bedroom home, and even a one-bedroom is out of reach in most of the country. State policymakers should invest in affordable housing including state housing trust funds, encourage localities to bundle federal grants to address the affordable housing crisis, and strengthen and expand homeownership programs.



Making their own decisions about whether and when to have children is critical to the economic security of women and their families. Having a child is one of life’s most serious commitments, economically and otherwise. An unintended pregnancy can upend financial stability, making it difficult for mothers in particular to pursue education and maintain employment. Equal access to affordable, accessible reproductive health services, including abortion, is critical. State policymakers should guarantee insurance coverage of a full range of contraceptive methods and services as well as coverage for abortion, and should eliminate obstructive restrictions on abortion providers.



To live up to America’s deepest values of human dignity and equality, we must protect and expand our social safety net. Families should not go to bed hungry, be out on the streets as they search for a new job, or lay awake at night wondering how they will afford child care. Throughout our history, we have valued public programs that protect basic living standards for our fellow Americans and enable us to get back on our feet when we fall on hard times. Programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Unemployment Insurance (UI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) provide much-needed support for households facing economic hardship, stabilize families’ access to necessities and care, and keep millions of Americans out of poverty. State policymakers should expand eligibility and state funding for safety net programs, remove punitive requirements and restrictions on accessing programs, and allow struggling families to save money or own assets while receiving public benefits.




Fair and affordable access to credit is vital for American consumers and our economy. Yet today, predatory lenders target low-income communities and communities of color with high-interest loans that trap many of the most disadvantaged consumers in debt. Each year, 12 million Americans take out payday loans, spending more than $9 billion on fees. Payday and car title lenders target low-income neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, promoting quick-fix loans with annual interest rates of nearly 400 percent on average. State policymakers should curb predatory installment loans, cap interest rates, limit loan fees, and require lenders to evaluate a borrower’s ability to repay all loans.



We pay taxes because all of us together can do what any of us alone cannot. But our tax policy is upside down, with low- and middle-income Americans paying a higher proportion of their incomes in taxes than high-income Americans. At a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, when aid for public colleges and universities is being cut, and when federal lawmakers are threatening the safety net, states urgently need to protect and expand their revenues. State policymakers should stabilize state resources in the face of federal tax changes and make income taxes more progressive by raising taxes at the top of the income ladder, collecting estate and inheritance taxes, taxing investment income at the same rate as income from work, and closing corporate tax loopholes.


ESTABLISH STATE PARTNERSHIP BANKS (read the full policy here)

Investment enables our communities to thrive. Traditionally, banks provided up-front investments in local businesses and public projects. In recent decades, however, federal policymakers  de-regulated the financial industry. Traditional banking, which focused on caretaking of deposits and lending to businesses and individuals, was transformed into a high-risk, high-reward wealth machine for a tiny elite. The “financialization” of our economy is crippling long-term innovation and job creation in the real economy, as community banks fail and small businesses cannot access the credit they need. State policymakers should establish a publicly run state partnership bank to support community banks and make loans that address needs in the real economy, offsetting the financial imbalances created by Wall Street.


Democracy Policies




We need a government that is of, by, and for the people—not just the wealthy donors. People from all walks of life should be able to run for office and win. When a political donor class that is wealthier, whiter, and more male than the rest of us has the biggest say in who gets elected, the result is a democracy that is not reflective of We the People. State policymakers should pass and fund public financing programs that allow candidates without deep pockets to compete at every stage of the election cycle. Programs should be designed to amplify the voices of everyday people and to advance racial equity.



When ultra-wealthy individuals and profit-seeking corporations can pour millions into state elections, they drown out everyone else and thwart the will of the people. Historically marginalized communities bear the brunt of this imbalance: job quality and standards diminish, while wealth accrues to the top 1 percent; public infrastructure deteriorates, while oil pipelines are built at the expense of the environmental health of Native Americans and other communities of color; and investments in education and social services shrink, while public spending to incarcerate people in private prisons soars. State policymakers should limit campaign contributions and prohibit corporations from contributing; rein in sham vehicles for big-money spending like single-candidate Super PACs; and strengthen disclosure requirements and enforcement. Over the horizon, policymakers should push for a Supreme Court that will respect our freedom to limit the influence of big money in politics or amend the U.S. Constitution to restore power to the people. 



MODERNIZE VOTER REGISTRATION (read the full policy here)

Though voter registration is the on-ramp to participating in elections, nearly 1 in 4 eligible voters is not registered. Voters of color and low-income voters are registered at even lower rates, due to a long history and persistent practice of exclusion from our democracy. Outdated voter registration systems that rely on paper forms and early, arbitrary registration deadlines make voter registration much harder than it needs to be. States should harness technological advances to modernize the voter registration process; offer accessible, online voter registration, and use information already on file with state agencies to automatically register eligible individuals to vote and update their voter information; allow voters to register and cast their ballot on the same day, during early voting and on Election Day; and pre-register eligible 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.


In a democracy, our votes are our voice. Yet in many parts of the country, voting times, places, and forms are so restrictive that they impose often insurmountable hurdles to exercising our fundamental freedom to vote. For instance, state laws limiting voting to a single Tuesday, or restricting who can vote absentee (in person or by mail), block eligible voters from casting their ballots. Voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency often face additional hurdles, including polling sites and ballots that are not compliant with laws designed to protect these voters’ freedom to cast a private, independent ballot. Policymakers should create robust voting options both before and on Election Day; ensure that polling hours and locations are accessible to all eligible voters, including working poor people and people who rely on public transit; and guarantee that all polling sites, ballots, and other voting materials are fully accessible for voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency.



The answer to the question “Who can vote?” tells you who has a voice in a democracy. Today, more than 6.1 million Americans are barred from voting by state laws that disenfranchise individuals convicted of felonies. Like Jim Crow laws, these voter disenfranchisement laws disempower people of color (particularly African Americans) by linking our right to vote to a criminal legal system that is deeply infected by racism. And, while incarcerated individuals are stripped of their voices in our democracy, they are nevertheless counted for the purposes of drawing voting maps—but as part of the districts in which they are confined, and not the districts they call home. States must abolish felony disenfranchisement laws and restore voting rights to people who have been stripped of their right to vote by such laws; require corrections agencies, including parole boards and probation offices, to offer voter registration and voting services; and draw voting maps using data that counts incarcerated people at their home addresses, not where they are confined.




Too often, election rules undermine the power of everyday people to elect officials who will represent their interests. Partisan and race-based gerrymandering, the use of at-large districts that dilute the representation of people of color, and the Electoral College all prevent people across the United States from having an equal say in our democracy, and actively devalue the participation of parts of the electorate. Some states also use laws (sometimes dubbed “emergency manager” laws) to divest locally elected officials of power and appoint an unelected decision-maker in a community to which they are not accountable. States must establish independent redistricting commissions to draw voting maps and stop drawing winner-take-all, at-large districts. States must also ensure that government officials are responsive to the people they represent, by overhauling “emergency manager” and similar laws, and adopting mechanisms like fusion voting that make candidates more responsive and accountable to a broader range of people. 



1. Marketplace Edison Anxiety Index, Edison Research, April 2017, 48. https://cms.marketplace.org/sites/default/files/Marketplace%20edison%20anxiety%20index%20spring%202017.pdf.

2. Anxiety Index Data, Edison Research, October 2016, 31-33. https://cms.marketplace.org/sites/default/files/anxiety-index-data.pdf

3. Anxiety Index Data.


Featured Policies


Promote Climate Equity


“The San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there.”




 Human beings are a part of the natural world: We all need clean air, water, and land in the communities where we live and raise our children. Yet corporate interests have put our health and environment at risk by continuing to extract, peddle, and burn fossil fuels. Skewed policies and dependence on yesterday’s technologies have long put communities of color directly in the line of impact, from roads with heavy truck traffic that increase the rates of asthma, to hurricanes and wildfires that threaten and displace communities, to pipelines that are routed through Native lands and near other communities of color. While communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental ruin, just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the global fossil fuel emissions that are destroying our communities and our climate.5 These companies profit despite both the chronic deterioration they cause in our communities and the natural disasters that result, directly or indirectly, from fossil fuel pollution they emit. With little hope for immediate, comprehensive federal action, state leadership on climate change needs to expand and accelerate rapidly. 

In 2017, climate-change disasters directly hit the United States: One of the worst Atlantic hurricane seasons on record devastated parts of Texas and Florida, as well as Puerto Rico and other islands; a record number of wildfires raged in California; and coastal communities from Massachusetts to the Pacific Northwest faced continuing threats to their fisheries due to ocean acidification, another effect of climate change. In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. citizens remained without power months after the storm. This past year was also the second hottest year on record globally.6 Scientists have reached consensus: Human-caused global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions is a major driver of these destructive forces.

These environmental crises create economic emergencies. The 2017 hurricane season caused an estimated $200 billion in damages in Southeast Texas and South Florida, to say nothing of the U.S. island territories. In the long run, higher temperatures alone (not including severe weather events) will cause U.S. economic growth to fall by more than 30 percent by the end of the 21st century, and without aggressive action on climate change, the median wealth of the children of today’s millennials is projected to shrink dramatically.7

Despite the profound and already immediate risks of ignoring climate change, the Trump administration and federal lawmakers appear poised to prevent federal action, to step back from existing efforts to reduce global warming, and to pivot to expanding domestic fossil fuel extraction and pollution to new heights.

As a result, the responsibility for climate action now sits squarely with states and localities. Leadership on climate change is now in the hands of governors, state legislators, mayors, and city councils. The opportunities for states and cities to act are particularly promising because they are better positioned to tailor specific policies for their regional climate challenges and diverse political landscapes. Further, by centering fairness in their strategies, states and cities can make significant advances against climate change that also increase equity in their region, by prioritizing the communities and people most exposed to climate pollution and climate risks—communities of color, in a majority of states—in their policy design.



  • 75% of Americans support regulating carbon in the atmosphere as a pollutant.8
  • 80% of Americans prefer to see revenue from a carbon tax (were Congress to pass one) invested in clean energy, rather than spending the money on tax cuts or household rebates.9
  • 50% of Latinos say they would participate in a campaign to press elected officials to act on climate change.10
  • 83% of African Americans supported President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which requires states to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector. 57% believe their energy bills will go down in the transition to clean energy. 11



Limit fossil fuel pollution to slow climate change and ramp up climate solutions that stabilize our nation’s long-term economic and public health outlook, create millions of good jobs of the future, and stimulate investments in the front-line communities that need investment the most. States should pursue policies based on the types of energy they use and the kind of exposure to climate change they face.


Ending or Limiting the Extraction of Fossil Fuels

  • Minimize the expansion of fossil fuel extraction in U.S. coastal waters. Early in 2018, the Trump administration proposed opening up more than 90 percent of U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas drilling. Already, governors or relevant agencies in at least 23 of the 32 states or territories affected have expressed opposition to the proposal. States should pursue legal remedies through federal laws such as the Coastal Zone Management Act, which gives states power to challenge federal policies that conflict with their own coastal management plans. 

  • Ban the extraction of natural gas. A good model is New York State’s 2014 ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is anchored in the state’s authority to limit activities posing demonstrable risks to public health. States that do not completely ban fracking should develop strict regulations to prevent leakage from drill sites and pipelines and to ensure protection of aquifers and other water resources from fracking contamination.

  • Protect public and tribal lands from oil and gas drilling. Short-term and short-sighted drilling profits cannot outweigh the long-term environmental and recreational value of conserving our public lands for future generations. Where possible, states and local jurisdictions should work with tribal nation governments to protect tribal lands from fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure development. 

  • Stop harmful fossil fuel pipelines. States can make full use of their environmental review and public health laws to evaluate the full impact of interstate fossil fuel pipeline development over its entire life cycle. 

    Equitably Accelerating the Clean Energy Transition

  • Adopt or strengthen renewable portfolio standards. A renewable portfolio standard requires electricity providers to increase the percentage of electricity available to households and businesses that comes from renewable sources, such as solar, wind and hydroelectric energy. Currently, 29 states have enforceable renewable portfolio standards, although many could be strengthened.12  Some states have also expanded the reach of their standards by requiring municipalities and other regulated entities to adopt their own renewable energy targets.

  • Establish state targets for investments in the clean energy economy. States should invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicle infrastructure, mass transit, and land-use policies, such as reforestation, that reduce carbon in the atmosphere. States should follow the lead of NY Renews’ Climate and Community Protection Act and stipulate that at least 40 percent of public investment toward these goals is targeted for low-income, environmentally vulnerable communities. 

  • Put a price on greenhouse gas emissions and use the revenue to fund the transition to clean energy. Depending on their current energy mix, states should impose a starting pollution price of $15-$40 per ton of emissions (rising annually), with a focus on fossil fuel extraction, energy and fuel imports, and pollution from power plants, industry and other sources. States should follow a “price-and-reinvest” model, where the revenue from the polluter fee funds the investments needed to meet emissions targets. To protect public health, states should also set prices for harmful pollution other than greenhouse gases and carefully monitor emissions trends, particularly in the most polluted areas.

    The New York Renews policy platform is the leading example of such an approach. In Washington State, a somewhat different price-and-reinvest approach may be on the ballot in 2018. States should be cautious about a “cap-and-trade” approach to carbon pricing, which directly caps emissions levels statewide and provides tradeable allowances to polluters. Effective cap-and-trade policies may be possible, but states should be aware that California’s cap-and-trade program, among the world’s largest, appears to be failing to reduce emissions in low-income communities.13 

  • Promote inclusive financing of clean energy access for low-income households. States where carbon pricing or other sources of new revenue may take longer to materialize can implement a Pay As You Save model (PAYS), where utilities or third parties provide up-front funding for solar installations or energy-efficiency upgrades, which customers then pay back by way of a tariff on their energy bills. The key is that the repayment rate is set lower than the energy savings rate generated by the investment. This allows the customer to participate in the clean-energy transition on a net gain basis, eventually enjoying the full value of her energy savings once the upfront costs are paid off. PAYS-type models have been particularly successful in rural regions, working with utility co-ops. Another, more fiscally direct example is AB 693 in California, which is allocating $1 billion of cap-and-trade revenue over 10 years to subsidize rooftop solar for affordable housing residents. 

  • Promote community ownership of renewable energy assets. Approximately 900 non-profit, member-owned electric utility cooperatives, mostly in rural areas, already embody one form of community ownership in the energy sector. Another alternative ownership form is public ownership, typically at the municipal level, where a city owns a power plant and/or a utility that serve its residents. Perhaps most promising from an equity standpoint is community ownership in small-scale distributed generation of energy, for example a neighborhood solar power plant cooperatively owned by residents and/or community organizations. To promote community ownership, state policymakers should implement laws creating price mechanisms that favor community-owned energy; revisions of securities law to accommodate various kinds of cooperative energy ownership; and repurposing of existing clean energy tax breaks into grants for non-taxable entities such as non-profits.


    Building resiliently and recovering responsibly from disaster.

  • Build statewide and local power to insure equitable disaster recovery and adaptation/resiliency strategies. The most storm-exposed states should develop or strengthen bottom-up modes of developing policy for disaster recovery and climate adaptation. For example, states could encourage community-planning commissions where local leaders and residents are empowered to determine or substantially inform statewide and municipal recovery and adaptation strategies. Part of this state and local empowerment should include developing screening tools that put the poorest residents and the most impacted communities first in line for recovery aid and adaptation investments. This bottom-up, progressive approach to recovery and adaptation should be integrated in planning and funding for flood protection, disaster preparedness, climate-sensitive new development, clean transportation, as well as urban forestry, walkability plans, and other strategies for mixing climate and health benefits.



  • Today our country can support clean, renewable energy that protects our families’ health and creates new jobs while holding corporations accountable for the pollution they dump into our air. Their pollution is making us sick and wrecking our climate. We need to put the health of our families and communities ahead of polluters’ profits.

  • Moms and dads worried for their children’s futures, workers and folks out of work who want good jobs, families who have lost their loved ones and homes in climate disasters, we all have a personal stake in tackling climate change. It’s past time to invest in affordable, renewable energy in our communities and create local jobs by making corporate polluters pay their fair share for the damage they’re doing to our health and our climate. We cannot wait any longer to harness this huge opportunity for winning on climate change and making life better in our communities.

  • States can lead the way in getting our country on track to seize the opportunity to improve health, create jobs, and build community around the transition to clean power and clean transportation.  States can limit the extraction of fossil fuels and ensure that our shared natural resources are not put up for auction for the benefit of corporate polluters.

  • We need an equitable transition to clean energy. Greenhouse gas pollution hits low-income communities and communities of color the hardest, so it is important that we have an inclusive approach to the transition, putting the hardest hit communities first.



  • Creating a low-carbon economy creates millions of good new jobs and sustainable economic growth instead of dirty and destructive growth. In New York State, for example, investing $30 billion annually toward 100 percent renewable energy will create roughly 150,000 new jobs annually over a decade. Since 2009, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—a Northeast cap-and-trade program—has generated 30,000 job years.14 Each job-year is equivalent to one year’s work.
  • Action on climate improves public health. RGGI saved hundreds of lives and drove health improvements worth approximately $5.7 billion between 2009 and 2014. Phasing out coal plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania will reduce substantial social costs, which in 2015 totaled 4,400 lives and $38 billion annually. 15
  • Keeping fossil fuels in the ground reduces public health risks and favors renewable energy, accelerating the transition.
  • Reduced energy consumption due to heightened energy efficiency will drive down emissions and costs for consumers. In HUD’s Green Retrofit Program, lifetime savings exceed costs by 20 percent.
  • Community ownership of energy in low-income communities could help close racial wealth gaps by enabling residents to sell their excess energy back into the mainline grid.
  • Preparing for future disasters and other climate impacts will reduce their monetary and human costs. Action on climate also gives us the opportunity to repair the historical wrongs of the fossil fuel economy by putting working-class communities of color at the center of climate policy. By committing to an equitable and inclusive transition, we will repair instead of reproduce the glaring inequalities of the old economy.



  1. Aric Jenkins, “See What Puerto Rico’s Blackout Looks Like From Space,” Time, September 26, 2017, http://time.com/4957119/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-power-outage-photos/. 
  2. Paul Griffin, The CDP Carbon Majors Report, CDP, 2017. https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companie...
  3. “2017 Was the Second Hottest Year on Record,” Visible Earth (Greenbelt, MD: NASA, January 18, 2018), https://www.visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=9160.
  4. The Price Tag of Being Young: Climate Change and Millennials’ Economic Future, Dēmos and NextGen Climate, August 2016. http://www.demos.org/publication/price-tag-being-young-climate-change-an....
  5. Nadja Popovich, et. al., “How Americans Think about Climate Change, in Six Maps,” The New York Times , March 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/21/climate/how-americans-thi....
  6. Matthew J. Kotchen, Zachary M. Turk, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz, “Public Willingness to Pay for a US Carbon Tax and Preferences for Spending the Revenue,” Environmental Research Letters, September 13, 2017, http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa822a.
  7. See infographic at http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/half-latinos-pa....
  8. Green for All press release, November 4, 2015, https://www.greenforall.org/poll_shows_african_americans_strongly_back_c....
  9. Jocelyn Durkay, State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals, National Conference of State Legislatures, 2017.
  10. Lara J. Cushing, et. al. A Preliminary Environmental Equity Assessment of California’s Cap-and-Trade Program, Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, September, 2016. http://dornsife.usc.edu/PERE/enviro-equity-CA-cap-trade.
  11. Paul J. Hibbard, et. al., The Economic Impacts of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative on Ten Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States: Review of the Use of RGGI Auction Proceeds from the First Three-Year Compliance Period, The Analysis Group, 2011. http://www.analysisgroup.com/uploadedfiles/content/insights/publishing/e...
  12. A NextGen Climate study of Ohio and Pennsylvania found that in 2015, power plant pollution alone caused 4,400 deaths and generated health care costs upward of $38 billion. Study summary: https://nextgenpolicy.org/blog/our-air/.



Guarantee Fair Employment


“I remember on breaks just going into work closets and crying because I was so stressed out [from the harassment]. I took the stress home with me every day. I didn’t sleep well. And I dreaded going to work.”



We all deserve an equal opportunity to be hired based on our abilities and to carry out our work free from discrimination and harassment. Yet harassment and discriminatory hiring, firing, promotions, and pay continue to shape the U.S. labor market in ways that systematically disadvantage people of color, women, LGBTQ workers, people with disabilities, and other targeted groups. As our jobs largely determine our incomes, economic opportunities, and the livelihood of our families, unfair employment practices worsen cycles of inequality. 

Inequality in American labor markets was maintained by law for much of U.S. history. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers in many states were legally allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Today federal law forbids these types of discrimination, as well as employment discrimination based on disability, pregnancy, age (age 40 or older), or genetic information. Yet evidence of persistent discrimination remains widespread. African Americans consistently face much higher unemployment rates than white workers, regardless of education.63 White job applicants still receive 36 percent more callbacks for a job interview than equally qualified black applicants, and 24 percent more than Latino applicants.64 Meanwhile, different types of discrimination overlap and deepen inequality: For example, in 2016, Latina women working full-time, year-round were still paid only 54 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.65 Race and gender contribute to dramatic pay gaps across the spectrum, and gaps persist for workers at all levels of education and in the vast majority of occupations.66

By offering remedies targeted to specific vulnerable groups, state and federal civil rights laws have the potential to dramatically reduce discrimination—but too often fall short due to a lack of resources for effective enforcement. States can complement the federal government’s role in enforcing anti-discrimination law by providing additional resources for investigation, enforcement, and public education about the law. States can also cover smaller employers that are exempted from federal law.

Further, states can address gaps in federal laws that allow other types of discrimination to flourish. On a daily basis, employers fire, harass, and tolerate others’ harassment of working Americans because of their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Employers refuse minor accommodations that would enable pregnant workers to continue working, effectively pushing them out of their jobs. Employers deny jobs to qualified applicants because of flawed personal credit history—a factor which predicts little or nothing about future job performance, but can function as undercover racial discrimination.67 Workers with caregiving responsibilities face discrimination based on stereotypes about how caregiving will impact their work performance. The nearly 1 in 3 American adults with an arrest or conviction record face particularly high barriers to employment. Although rates of criminal recidivism are significantly lower among former offenders who are able to obtain steady employment, the stigma of a record decreases a job seeker’s chances of a job callback or offer of employment by almost 50 percent.68 As a result of mass incarceration and racial bias throughout the criminal justice system, communities of color are disproportionately affected when employers refuse to consider job applicants with an arrest or conviction record. States across the country have successfully acted to reduce each of these types of employment discrimination.



61% of Americans believe the government should take a more active role to ensure equal pay for men and women who are doing the same job.69

76% of Americans say it should be illegal for an employer to fire someone for being gay or lesbian.70



Provide additional resources to strengthen the enforcement of existing fair employment laws, and clarify that discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, personal credit history, pregnancy status, or caregiving responsibilities are illegal. Ensure people with arrest or conviction records have a fair chance to work. States have enacted the following policies:

  • Adequately fund and empower state agencies responsible for enforcing laws against workplace discrimination. Ensure that the state equal opportunity commission, human rights division or similar agency has sufficient authority and resources to implement and enforce state anti-discrimination laws, educate the public about the law, investigate claims that civil rights have been violated, and offer remedies to people who experience discrimination.

  • Ensure fairness for pregnant workers. Require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, recovery from childbirth, and related medical conditions, such as allowing workers to take additional bathroom breaks, to sit down, or to request a position with less strenuous duties if one is available. The need for accommodations should no longer be a pretext to push pregnant employees out of their jobs. States enacting these protections include Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

  • Stop credit discrimination in employment. Prohibit employers from using personal credit history to make decisions about hiring, firing, pay, or promotions. Protect job seekers whose credit may be damaged by medical debt, student loans, a layoff, divorce, predatory lending, or simple error. Ending credit discrimination is particularly important for people of color, who are more likely to have poor credit as a result of the enduring impact of racial discrimination in employment, lending, education, and housing. States that have enacted restrictions on employment credit checks include California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington; however, all of these laws have exemptions that undermine their effectiveness and none should be considered a model. 

  • Prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Washington explicitly ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while New Hampshire and Wisconsin ban discrimination based on sexual orientation alone.

  • Guarantee equal pay. Strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws by requiring employers to demonstrate that any pay disparities are based on legitimate job-related factors, allowing workers to ask about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own pay without retaliation, prohibiting employers from requiring salary history during the hiring process, and ensuring that penalties for equal pay violations are high enough to deter discrimination. States have a wide range of laws on pay equity.

  • Provide a fair chance to job applicants with a criminal record. Require employers to remove questions about arrest and conviction from initial job applications (known as “ban the box”). Mandate that employers wait until after they make a conditional offer of employment to request a job applicant’s arrest or conviction record. Follow guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which direct employers to take into account the time passed since the offense, whether the offense is related to the job, and evidence of rehabilitation. Thirty states, as well as numerous local jurisdictions, have adopted some form of fair chance hiring or ban-the-box policy. 71

  • Strengthen employment protections for workers with family care responsibilities. Explicitly ban discrimination of the basis of caregiving status. Alaska, Connecticut, Minnesota, and New York provide some protection against discrimination based on family responsibilities or status as a parent.

  • Protect workers in the “on-demand” or gig economy from discrimination and harassment. Mandate that workers otherwise designated as independent contractors be treated as statutory employees for purposes of state civil rights laws, ensuring that people working “on-demand” for companies like Uber, Taskrabbit or Care.com are covered by the same protections against discrimination and harassment as traditional employees.



  • All Americans deserve a fair opportunity to earn a living and sustain their families—employment discrimination cannot be tolerated. Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American value. Yet every day, employers pass over qualified job seekers for employment, and workers are harassed, fired, paid less, and denied promotions because of factors that have nothing to do with their ability to perform a job well. Our society and economy suffer when working people of any background or identity are prevented from contributing to the best of their abilities. 

  • Laws against discrimination work when they are vigorously enforced. Federal law only began to protect American workers from discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, and color 52 years ago. It has taken decades of additional legislation and litigation to dismantle officially segregated workplaces and remove other obstacles to opportunity. For example, the once-prevalent employment ads calling for “male help wanted” or “no Negroes” are now largely a thing of the past. Today, fair hiring practices have proven effective at reducing the impact of the unconscious biases we all share. Strong laws allow workers who continue to face discrimination to pursue legal recourse. With sufficient resources and tools to root out discriminatory practices, all Americans can enjoy equal opportunity at work.  

  • Job seekers with an arrest or conviction record deserve a chance to start fresh. Long after a sentence has been served, the stigma of an arrest or conviction record persists on employment background checks, dramatically reducing a job seeker’s chances of employment. As a result of mass incarceration and racial bias throughout the criminal justice system, communities of color are disproportionately impacted. Each year nearly 700,000 people return to our communities from incarceration; we all have a stake in ensuring that they are able to integrate back into society and to support themselves and their families. 



  • Although significant work remains to guarantee fair employment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s current enforcement of discrimination laws shows how these laws can provide a tangible benefit to working Americans. In fiscal year 2017, the EEOC obtained nearly $484 million for workers confronting discrimination on the job, and received more than 84,254 new charges of unfair treatment, propelling investigations, settlements, and lawsuits. 72
  • State and local laws clarifying that discrimination against LGBTQ workers and job applicants is illegal have been successful both at protecting people from unfair employment practices and at reducing more subtle interpersonal bias. Research suggests that one reason these and other types of anti-discrimination laws work is because they help to establish new norms and expectations about what type of treatment and behavior is acceptable on the job. 73
  • “Ban the Box” and other state and local laws that aim to provide a fair chance at employment to people with arrest and conviction records have effectively increased the number and proportion of people hired who have records.74 While employers may have initially refused to consider applicants with a conviction record, personal contact and context help to put a record into perspective, removing a significant barrier to opportunity for tens of millions of Americans.

More Resources:


  1. “Meet Jameka Evans,” Out at Work (Lambda Legal, 2017), https://outat.work/meet-jameka. 
  2. Tomaz Cajner, et. al. “Racial Gaps in Labor Market Outcomes in the Last Four Decades and over the Business Cycle,” Finance and Economics Discussion Series, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, (2017). https://doi.org/10.17016/FEDS.2017.071. 
  3. Lincoln Quillian et. al., “Meta-analysis of Field Experiments Shows No Change in Racial Discrimination in Hiring Over Time,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114 no. 41 (2017). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1706255114, http://www.pnas.org/content/114/41/10870.full.  
  4. FAQ About the Wage Gap, National Women’s Law Center, 2017. https://nwlc.org/resources/faq-about-the-wage-gap/. 
  5. FAQ About the Wage Gap.
  6. Amy Traub, Discredited: How Employment Credit Checks Keep Qualified Workers Out of a Job, Dēmos, 2013. http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/Discredited-Demos....
  7. Amy L. Solomon, “In Search of a Job: Criminal Records as Barriers to Employment,” National Institute of Justice Journal, No. 270, https://www.nij.gov/journals/270/pages/criminal-records.aspx#note5. 
  8. Feminism Survey, Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, January 2016. http://files.kff.org/attachment/topline-methodology-washington-post-kais...
  9. YouGov poll, June 16 - 18, 2014. http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/y2091h9r24/tabs_HP_discri...
  10. Beth Avery and Phil Hernandez, Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties, and States Adopt Fair Hiring Policies, National Employment Law Project, 2017. http://www.nelp.org/publication/ban-the-box-fair-chance-hiring-state-and...
  11. “EEOC Dramatically Reduces Charge Inventory,” https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/11-9-17.cfm. 
  12. Laura G. Barron and Michelle Hebl, “The Force of Law: The Effects of Sexual Orientation Anti-discrimination Legislation on Interpersonal Discrimination in Employment,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 19(2), (2013).  doi: 10.1037/a0028350   
  13. Research Supports Fair-Chance Policies, National Employment Law Project, 2016. http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Fair-Chance-Ban-the-Box-Research.pdf. 


Restore Freedom to Negotiate at Work


“I worked hard for this company for 5 years, sometimes 72 hours a week—and never had any performance-related complaints. I did, however, wear a union shirt. And I had union stickers on my water bottle. And I believed that a union would make us safer, and would make the company more organized and more efficient.”



Our American tradition guarantees working people the freedom to join together with co-workers to negotiate for a fair return on work. When workers have the freedom to band together in unions and negotiate with their employers, they and their families gain from improved wages and benefits, safer working conditions, and fairer treatment on the job—and even workers who are not part of a union benefit. 76 Yet because unions enable working people to build power, the freedom to come together in unions is under attack by corporate interests aiming to maximize their own wealth and power. Decades of attacks on workers’ freedom have eroded the ranks of union members and undermined their strength, significantly contributing to the stagnating wages and growing income inequality of the last 45 years.77  As workers’ power to negotiate declines, inequality increases.

When working people bridge racial divisions and stand together for their fair share of the wealth they create, their union can be a powerful force for both racial and economic equity. For this reason, greedy corporate interests have consistently manipulated racism to turn working people against each other, pushing down wages, undermining solidarity, and weakening workers’ freedom to join together. Like almost every institution in the U.S., unions themselves are struggling with a legacy of racial and gender discrimination. Yet today, nearly half of union workers are women and more than a third are workers of color.78 Black workers are more likely than workers of any other race to be represented by a union.79 Unions offer pay transparency, protections from discrimination, and clear processes for raises and promotions that protect all working people from bias. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders recognized, the freedom to join unions is essential to advancing racial justice.

The 1935 National Labor Relations Act guarantees working Americans the freedom to join together in unions, negotiate, and take collective action for better terms and conditions at work. The passage of the law contributed to a dramatic increase in workers joining unions and building power. Through unions, workers negotiate for their own benefit but also raise workplace standards for entire industries, improving pay and working conditions even for workers who are not union members. During the height of workers’ power, between 1948 and 1973, the hourly compensation for the typical worker rose in tandem with the productivity of the overall economy, meaning that economic growth benefitted working people as well as corporate profits and the very highest earners.80 But corporate lobbyists were already pushing to take back power: The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act restricted workers’ freedom, prohibiting workers from striking or boycotting in solidarity with another union, taking away independent contractors’ freedom to join unions, and enabling states to enact laws that undermine workers’ freedom to join together and negotiate, among other provisions. A series of anti-worker laws and legal decisions over the decades further chipped away at Americans’ freedom to join together and negotiate. The Janus v. AFSCME case facing the Supreme Court in 2018 is the most recent effort to rig the economy against working people, attacking public sector workers’ ability to form strong unions.

Today, the legal consequences for violating workers’ freedom are so weak that many employers regard penalties for breaking the law as an acceptable cost of doing business: Employers routinely make illegal threats against workers trying to organize unions, unlawfully fire union activists, and pay millions of dollars to union-busting consultants.81 When other negotiating tactics fail and working people resort to their most powerful tool, the right to walk out on strike, employers may retaliate by hiring permanent replacements, often destroying the workers’ union and their power to stand together. Even when workers overcome these obstacles and succeed in forming a union, employers regularly use legal loopholes to endlessly delay contract negotiations: Two years after a successful election, 37 percent of unions in the private sector still had not signed their first contract.82

These corporate attacks on unions have contributed to their decline; the proportion of U.S. workers represented by unions shrank from 35 percent in 1954 to just 10.7 percent in 2016.83 As unions have declined, so has workers’ ability to get a fair share of economic growth. Since the end of the Great Recession, the top 1 percent of households has taken home 52 percent of all income growth, while wages for the typical worker have remained largely flat.84 Studies find that union decline can explain one-third of the rise in wage inequality among men and one-fifth of the rise in wage inequality among women from 1973 to 2007.85



61% of Americans say they approve of labor unions, and approval is increasing.86

75% of young people (ages 18 to 29) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions.87



Restore workers’ freedom to join together in unions and negotiate for a fair return on work. While the federal government preempts much state action on labor rights, states still have important opportunities to increase workers’ rights.

  • Eliminate so-called “right to work” laws. Corporate lobbyists have promoted deceptively named “right to work” laws, which are now in effect in 28 states. These laws are designed to take rights away from working people and drain resources from workers’ organizations by allowing free riders to benefit from union representation without paying their fair share. States should repeal “right to work” laws where they exist. In Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, “right to work” is written into the state constitution and requires a constitutional amendment to repeal.
  • Guarantee public employees the freedom to join unions and negotiate. Provide state and local workers, including people working as firefighters, teachers, sanitation workers, and in other public jobs, with freedom to join together in unions and negotiate for a fair return on their work. In anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling that would harm public sector workers’ freedom to form strong unions, a number of states are considering legislation to streamline the process for unions to contact workers and collect dues.  
  • Expand freedom to negotiate to workers left out of federal labor laws. States should extend the right to band together in unions to agricultural workers and home health care workers, who are excluded from federal labor law. California has extended the most comprehensive labor rights to agricultural workers, not only ensuring workers the right to unionize and negotiate but also establishing a state labor relations board that can order mediation if employers and workers cannot agree on a contract. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington have granted home care workers who are paid through Medicaid and other public programs the right to organize unions and negotiate with the state as public employees.88
  • Use state purchasing power and policy to help expand opportunities to negotiate. All employers that receive state contracts, grants, loans, tax incentives, or other funding must affirmatively notify workers of their rights, and refrain from activity aimed at interfering with workers’ ability to join a union and bargain collectively. These requirements are often called “labor peace agreements” and seek to ensure that labor unrest does not inhibit state-funded efforts. Labor peace agreements have recently been used at airport projects in Illinois and in California’s legal cannabis industry.89
  • Ban non-compete agreements. As many as 18 percent of American workers are covered by non-compete agreements, which prohibit them from working for a competing employer within a certain period of time after leaving their job.90 By preventing working people from taking their skills elsewhere, non-compete agreements reduce workers’ negotiating power and can suppress wages. Several states, including California, have made non-compete agreements unenforceable.



In 2017, New York City pioneered a policy enabling people who work in the fast food industry to contribute to a nonprofit workers’ organization, with dues automatically deducted from their paychecks if they authorize the group. Dues are not paid until at least 500 workers agree to join the organization. Because of the restrictions imposed by federal labor law, the workers’ group cannot function as a union that negotiates contracts, but it can act as a nonprofit organizing and lobbying in workers’ interests. The policy is worth considering in a broader range of industries and jurisdictions.



  • In America, we value our freedom. Just as corporate CEOs are free to negotiate their salaries, benefits, and bonuses, working people deserve the very same freedom: to negotiate a fair return on our work so we can provide for our families.91 Real freedom is about more than making a living; it’s also about having time to take a loved one to the doctor, attend a parent-teacher conference, and retire in dignity. But corporate lobbyists are trying to take away the freedoms people in unions have won for all of us. Standing together, we can fight for our freedom to prosper.
  • When working people stand together to negotiate for their fair share of the wealth they create, their union is powerful. That’s why corporations that want to expand their own power and wealth try to turn working people against each other, using racial stereotypes to weaken and divide us. If working people don’t band together to defend freedom for all of us, we stand to lose our pay, retirement security, and the future we’re working to build for our children.
  • Our workplaces have been pulled out of balance by rules that unfairly favor corporations and the rich. Our work creates enormous wealth, but in an increasingly rigged economy, the profits don’t get to the working people who produce them.92 To restore balance, working people need the freedom to join together in unions and the power to negotiate for pay, benefits, and conditions that reflect their real contributions on the job.



  • 16 million working men and women in America are represented by unions today.93 Unions are diverse and represent workers of all levels of education and in a wide range of jobs and sectors, from digital media journalists, to cafeteria servers, to factory workers, to nurses, to road builders. By raising industry standards, unions increase wages for union and non-union workers, and improve workplace benefits and safety practices.
  • Through unions, working people make communities stronger and level the playing field for everyone. For example, unions provide training and apprenticeship programs for young people, negotiate staffing ratios that protect patient health at hospitals, and win smaller class sizes in schools.94
  • In states where working people have the freedom to negotiate without being undermined by “right to work” laws, the typical full-time worker is paid $1,558 more each year and is more than twice as likely to be protected by a union contract than workers in “right to work” states.95




  1. Chris Isidore, “Tesla Fired Union Supporters, UAW Says,” CNN Tech, October 26, 2017, http://money.cnn.com/2017/10/26/technology/tesla-uaw-firings/index.html.
  2. Josh Bivens et. al., How Today’s Unions Help Working People, Economic Policy Institute, 2017. http://www.epi.org/publication/how-todays-unions-help-working-people-giv...
  3. Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality,” American Sociological Review vol. 76 (2011), 513–37. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122411414817. 
  4. Bivens et. al., How Today’s Unions Help Working People.
  5. Cherrie Bucknor, Black Workers, Unions, and Inequality, Center for Economic Policy Research, 2016. http://cepr.net/publications/reports/black-workers-unions-and-inequality. 
  6. Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel, Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker’s Pay, Economic Policy Institute, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/understanding-the-historic-divergence-bet...
  7. Kate Bronfenbrenner, No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing, Economic Policy Institute and American Rights at Work Education Fund, 2009. http://www.epi.org/publication/bp235/. 
  8. Bronfenbrenner, No Holds Barred.
  9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Members-2016,” 2017. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf.
  10. Emmanuel Saez, “Striking it Richer,” 2016. https://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2015.pdf. 
  11. Western and Rosenfeld, “Unions, Norms”; Lawrence Mishel, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America, 12th Edition, Economic Policy Institute, 2012.
  12. Art Swift, Labor Union Approval Best Since 2003, Gallup, 2017. http://news.gallup.com/poll/217331/labor-union-approval-best-2003.aspx. 
  13. Shiva Maniam, Most Americans See Labor Unions, Corporations Favorably, Pew Research Center, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/30/most-americans-see-labor...
  14. David Rolf, “Life on the Home Care Front,” GENERATIONS: Journal of the American Society on Aging, Vol. 40. No. 1, 2016. http://davidmrolf.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/GENS_v40n1-Rolf-1.pdf. 
  15. Alena Maschke, “Unions Hope to Recruit California Cannabis Workers, but Federal Regulations Could Get in the Way,” The Desert Sun, December 27, 2017. http://www.desertsun.com/story/news/2017/12/27/unions-recruit-cannabis-w...
  16. Non-compete Contracts: Economic Effects and Policy Implications, Office of Economic Policy U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 2016. https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/economic-policy/Documents/UST%2...
  17. Language derives from “Words that Work for Collective Bargaining,” AFL-CIO and Jobs with Justice, 2017. https://smlr.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/documents/CWH_Docs/collecti...
  18. Language derives from Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All, Center for Community Change.
  19. Bivens et. al., How Today’s Unions Help Working People.
  20. Strong Unions, Stronger Communities, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, 2017. https://www.afscme.org/news/publications/body/AFSCME-Strong-Unions-Stron...
  21. Elise Gould and Will Kimball, ’Right-to-Work’ States Still Have Lower Wages, Economic Policy Institute, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/right-to-work-states-have-lower-wages/.


Establish Education Equity


“The Governor has sent a message to my child and all these students that their efforts and hard work mean nothing … Can you look into my child’s eyes and tell her that she is undeserving of a quality and enriched education? Because I can’t.”



Equal opportunity is a cornerstone of the American ideal. To make that a reality, every child deserves a quality public education, with an opportunity to learn, flourish, and become a full citizen of our democracy. This commitment to universal education is enshrined in state constitutions across the country. Yet in practice, the majority of states provide students with dramatically unequal educational resources, and policymakers provide inadequate funding to schools that serve students of color and students from struggling families.136 After gains from civil rights-era policies, decisions by today’s policymakers are re-segregating American education, with students increasingly clustered in schools that are isolated by race and class. Segregation further concentrates both public and private resources among the already well-off, and limits opportunities for all students to learn from peers with different backgrounds and to prepare for life and work in an ever more diverse and interconnected world. As our nation as a whole has become more unequal and divided, education—which could be a powerful force for fostering opportunity and reducing inequality—instead frequently reflects and reinforces disparities in race and class.

Racial inequity in American education stretches back to the first policies forbidding slaves from learning to read and the century of inferior “separate but equal” educational facilities that followed. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in public schools, parents, students and advocates fought successfully to integrate schools and school systems across the nation. Yet today, as judges’ and policymakers’ political will for enforcing desegregation has waned, a growing number of American students are once again isolated into racially and economically homogenous schools. Because America’s communities remain intensely segregated by race and income, local tax bases are deeply unequal. This inequality is deepened when school districts secede from their larger communities and school zones are gerrymandered within districts, further splintering student populations along lines of race and class.137

In most states, public school districts are operated at the local level and are funded largely by local property taxes. As a result of these political decisions, students of color are more likely to attend overcrowded and underfunded schools that have a lower percentage of highly qualified teachers and less access to quality curriculum and up-to-date technology compared to white students.138 Overall, students who need the most resources—including English language learners and students whose family, social, or economic circumstances challenge their ability to learn at school—attend schools that receive less funding than schools serving better-off students. Nationwide, policymakers provided the highest-poverty school districts with approximately $1,200 less in funding per student each year than the lowest-poverty districts.139 This shortchanges a 1,000-student high school by $1.2 million annually. Meanwhile districts that serve the most students of color face an even larger gap, receiving approximately $2,000 per student less than school districts serving the fewest students of color.140

In addition to being dramatically unequal, school funding is also increasingly inadequate: In a number of states, policymakers substantially reduced public investment in K-12 education over the last decade. Not only did most states cut school funding after the Great Recession, but the majority never fully restored their support: In 2015, 29 states were still supplying less overall funding per student than they provided in 2008.141 Policymakers’ decision to cut funding undermines states’ ability to attract and retain quality teachers, guarantee safe buildings, offer reasonable class sizes, provide arts education, upgrade technology and equipment, and increase students’ learning time. Statewide funding cuts also widen educational disparities: While wealthy communities can make up cuts to funding with additional property tax revenue, areas with fewer resources are left with less investment in education. While more funding doesn’t automatically translate into higher school quality, adequate funding is a precondition for high-quality education, with higher levels of per-student funding associated with better student achievement and higher graduation rates, especially for lower-income students.142 Inadequate school funding stunts students’ access to high-quality teachers and a rigorous curriculum that prepares them for college and careers.

Discrimination within schools and classrooms is another barrier to education equity. Nationwide, more than 80 percent of public school teachers and principals are white, while more than half of public school students are of color.143 Teachers’ and administrators’ implicit bias about students’ learning abilities can limit opportunity for students of color, contributing to lower academic performance and student disengagement from learning.144 At the same time, racialized disciplinary policies result in students of color, particularly black students, being disproportionately suspended or expelled.145 American Indian students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities also face disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion. Zero tolerance policies, surveillance, and the increased presence of police officers in schools—particularly schools that serve low-income students and students of color—contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline that pushes students of color into the criminal justice system for minor offenses.146 Treating students as criminals rather than addressing the underlying causes of misconduct—such as a learning disability or a history of child abuse or exposure to violence and instability—undermines learning, increases students’ risk of falling behind academically, and does little to increase school safety.



70% of Americans agree that more should be done to integrate low- and high-poverty schools.147

73% of parents of school-age children say that it is important that public schools in their community have a mix of students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds.148

87% of public school parents say cutting local school budgets is a serious concern, including 62% who say it is a very serious concern.149



Establish education equity by guaranteeing adequate and fair school funding, combatting segregation, and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.

  • Ensure adequate and equitable school funding. Reform state education funding formulas to account for the greater resources needed by English language learners, students from struggling families, and special needs students, and to effectively address unequal local funding capacity. In general, states that rely more heavily on local property taxes to fund schools have greater funding disparities between school districts, suggesting that a shift toward statewide funding of schools and away from local property taxes would enhance equity.
  • Provide incentives for local governments to consolidate school districts and to enroll students across district boundaries. Consolidated school districts and schools that enroll across district boundaries promote integration that would otherwise be impeded by district lines. At the same time, policymakers should strengthen state regulations to discourage school districts from seceding from the larger community (for example, by drawing new district borders that exclude neighborhoods or municipalities with lower-income populations or more students of color). 
  • Support the development of affordable housing throughout the state and fight housing discrimination. Segregated schools and school districts often reflect segregated residential patterns. Funding and encouraging the development of affordable housing, including multi-unit housing, in communities of all income levels can increase racial and economic integration in schools. Aggressive enforcement of fair housing rules to prevent discrimination against renters and homebuyers of color in predominantly white communities will also promote more integrated communities and schools.
  • Create community schools. Community schools are partnerships between the school, families, and community partners to support young people in school and beyond. By providing services and engaging parents and the broader community, community schools can reduce the impact of systemic racial and economic disadvantage on students. States support community schools by funding wraparound services such as after-school programs, summer enrichment programs, counseling and mental health care for troubled students, and connections to community service programs to support families. Access to early childhood education, discussed separately in this briefing book, is often considered a wraparound service. States should encourage school districts to make schools welcoming to families and streamline families’ access to school-related information, ensuring that communication with parents and communities is in a language parents understand and feel comfortable with.
  • Respect teachers as professionals. Excellent teaching has a profound impact on student achievement. Teachers should be compensated as the professionals they are, have autonomy and input into how schools are run, and receive frequent opportunities for professional development. Respect for teachers improves learning for all students and can reduce bias within schools: Improved compensation and working conditions facilitate recruitment of teachers of color. In addition, states should fund professional development to support teachers in increasing their cultural competency and reducing implicit bias.
  • Prevent schools from moving students into the juvenile justice system for minor offenses. The Council of State Governments Justice Center offers a consensus report on school discipline that recommends standards for schools to create welcoming and secure learning environments that enable teachers to control misbehavior. These include offering targeted behavioral interventions, such as counseling and mental health services, to students with persistent disciplinary problems, and coordinating with the police and court systems to de-escalate student confrontations and divert young people from the criminal justice system.150 States should encourage schools to eliminate zero tolerance policies and should end any immigration enforcement in public schools.



  • A young person’s opportunity to get an education should not depend on his or her zip code. Every child needs a quality education to succeed in the economy and participate in our democracy. Education can be a path to social mobility, a chance to rise to the top even if you come from a poor or disadvantaged background. Yet the highest-poverty school districts get less funding than their wealthier neighbors, and schools with a majority of white students have more resources than schools that educate students of color. No student should have to learn in a classroom that goes unheated in winter or leaks when it rains. We cannot set our young people up for unequal futures right from the beginning.
  • We are a stronger and more prosperous state when every child has the opportunity to learn. Our economy needs a skilled and educated workforce to thrive. Our democracy depends on knowledgeable citizens. When we don’t give all students access to the quality schools they need to succeed, we limit the state’s future. Tomorrow’s medical researchers may never discover cures if their high school doesn’t have a science lab. Tomorrow’s judges may never enter the courtroom if their education doesn’t provide critical thinking skills. Tomorrow’s great musicians may never pick up an instrument if their school fails to provide arts education.
  • All students benefit from more diverse schools. All students benefit from the opportunity to learn from peers with different backgrounds and to prepare for life and work in a diverse and interconnected world. Researchers find that students attending more racially and economically diverse schools have higher achievement in mathematics, science, language and reading.151 Yet more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our public schools are again largely segregated by race, ethnicity, and family economic status, depriving young people of the benefits of a diverse school environment.
  • Treating students as criminals undermines learning. Zero tolerance school discipline policies are ineffective and often discriminatory, pushing students of color out of school and into the criminal justice system for minor offenses. Young people facing the instability of poverty or coping with histories of abuse and neglect need support and counseling from their schools, not a system that isolates them and pushes them out of the classroom and away from opportunities to learn.



  • Researchers find that improving and equalizing school funding greatly improves outcomes for students, with the biggest benefits for students from low-income families. A 20 percent increase in per-student spending is associated with approximately 0.9 more years of completed education for low-income students, a 25 percent increase in adult earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the likelihood of living in poverty as an adult.152
  • A rigorous evaluation of 113 high schools found that one model for community schools provided $11.60 in economic benefits for each dollar invested, primarily by reducing drop-out rates and increasing graduation rates, leading to higher incomes, more purchasing power, and increased tax payments from graduates.153 Similarly, an assessment at 2 elementary schools providing wraparound services found that an investment of $1 in those schools returned $10.30 at one school and $14.80 at the other.154
  • Compared to students who attend racially or economically isolated schools, students who attend diverse K-12 schools are more likely to graduate from high school, enter and graduate from college, have greater incomes and experience higher occupational attainment.155




  1. “Parents sue Governor Cuomo’s Division of Budget for Punishing Improving Schools,” Alliance for Quality Education, September 6, 2016.
  2. “Secretary Duncan, Urban League President Morial to Spotlight States Where Education Funding Shortchanges Low-Income, Minority Students,” U.S. Department of Education, 2015. https://www.ed.gov/news/media-advisories/secretary-duncan-urban-league-president-morial-spotlight-states-where-education-funding-shortchanges-low-income-minority-students; Resource Inequality: Shortchanging Students, EdBuild, 2014. https://edbuild.org/content/resource-inequality-2014. 
  3. Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts, EdBuild, June 2017. https://edbuild.org/content/fractured/fractured-full-report.pdf.
  4. Tina Trujillo et. al. Responding to Educational Inequality,  Haas Institute, 2017. http://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/haas_institute_rac...
  5. Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams, Funding Gaps 2015: Too Many States Still Spend Less On Educating Students Who Need The Most, The Education Trust, 2015, https://edtrust.org/resource/funding-gaps-2015/. 
  6. Ushomirsky and Williams, Funding Gaps 2015.
  7. Michael Leachman, Kathleen Masterson, and Eric Figueroa, A Punishing Decade for School Funding, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, November 29, 2017. https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/a-punishing-decade-fo...
  8. See for example, C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson, Claudia Persico, The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015. http://www.nber.org/papers/w20847. 
  9. 2015-2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey, National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/ntps/.  
  10. See for example, Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding, “Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs” American Educational Research Association 2(1), 2016. 
  11. “Data Snapshot: School Discipline,” U. S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, March, 2014,    https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-discipline-snapshot...
  12. Jason Nance, “Student Surveillance, Racial Inequalities, and Implicit Racial Bias,” Emory Law Journal 765 August 27, 2016, https://ssrn.com/abstract=2830885. 
  13. Isolated and Segregated: A New Look at the Income Divide in our Nation’s Schooling System, Center for American Progress, May, 2017, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2017/05/3....  
  14. “Academic Achievement isn’t the Only Mission,” Phi Delta Kappan, September 2017. http://pdkpoll.org/assets/downloads/PDKnational_poll_2017.pdf. 
  15. Public School Parents On The Value Of Public Education: Findings from a National Survey of Public School Parents Conducted for the AFT, Hart Research Associates, September 2017. https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/parentpoll2017_memo.pdf. 
  16. Emily Morgan, et. al. The School Discipline Consensus Report, The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2014. https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/The_School_Disci...
  17. Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, School Integration and K-12 Outcomes: An Updated Quick Synthesis of the Social Science Evidence, National Coalition on School Diversity, October 2016. http://school-diversity.org/pdf/DiversityResearchBriefNo5Oct2016Big.pdf. 
  18. Jackson, The Effects of School Spending.
  19. The Economic Impact of Communities In Schools, Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., 2012. https://www.communitiesinschools.org/our-data/publications/publication/e...
  20. Julia Daniel and Jon Snyder, Community Schools as an Effective Strategy for Reform, National Education Policy Center, March 8, 2016. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/community-schools-as-an-effective-s...
  21. Mickelson, School Integration and K-12 Outcomes.


Reinvest in Justice


“The money that was spent to keep me in prison all this time could have been better used for drug education and rehabilitation because I needed to get clean.”




Our nation’s investments in the criminal justice system should increase the safety of our communities, so we can live and raise our children in neighborhoods free of violence and crime. Yet America spends more than $270 billion a year—including more than $80 billion annually on incarceration alone—to pursue policies that amply fund policing, courts, and corrections while failing to address the forces driving crime.193 As rehabilitative services, drug treatment, mental health care, job placement, and education and training go underfunded, our policies create pipelines to prison and lock up millions of people in the United States. The epidemic of mass incarceration disproportionately engulfs communities of color—and has done little to make the country safer.

Tapping into racial resentment and anxiety by using dog whistles that called for “tough on crime policies,” policymakers in jurisdictions across the U.S. aggressively expanded the criminal justice system in the 1980s, escalating the War on Drugs. The number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails has increased 500 percent over the past 40 years, not as the result of an increase in actual crime rates but as a consequence of policymakers’ decisions to raise penalties, create mandatory minimum sentences, and establish truth-in-sentencing and three-strike laws.194 This dramatic rise in the number of people incarcerated opened the gates for the growth of the U.S. private prison industry, which now pushes contracts that include requirements that a certain number of beds are filled and other policies that perpetuate mass incarceration and maintain its profits.195

Currently, the criminal justice system touches 1 in 40 U.S. residents and incarcerates traditionally marginalized populations at disproportionately high rates. 196 Because of the over-policing that occurs in communities of color, policy changes that have increased the penalties for crimes have the most severe impact on people of color. Currently, there is a 1 in 3 chance that a black man will be imprisoned, compared to a 1 in 6 chance for Latino men and a 1 in 17 chance for white men.”197 Similar disparities exist for black, Latina, and white women.198 Meanwhile, approximately 66 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons have not graduated high school,199 50 percent of prison inmates and 64 percent of jail inmates either suffer from serious mental distress or mental health problems,200 and 58 percent of prison inmates and 63 percent of sentenced jail inmates have drug abuse disorders.201

Aggressive immigration raids, mass detention of immigrants, and contracts entered into with private prisons are other costly tactics of over-enforcement. The federal government has pushed local police departments to enforce federal civil immigration law largely at the state and local government’s own cost.202 By fostering a fear of law enforcement in immigrant communities, these policies decrease community safety.203 Further, state and local governments commonly enter into agreements with private prisons that establish “lockup quotas,” which require that the prisons be filled—most commonly at a 90 percent occupancy rate—or that the state or local government pay for unused beds.204 These policies push law enforcement to seek to fill beds so that it does not appear community dollars are going to waste.205

Programs that ensure access to good jobs, affordable housing, quality educational opportunities, and appropriate mental, physical and behavioral health services for at-risk youth and people re-entering communities after leaving prison have been shown to decrease criminal activity and recidivism.206 Yet these proven solutions are chronically underfunded. The U.S. Department of Education noted that, over the past 3 decades, state and local expenditures on prisons and jails have grown 3 times as much as funding for public education.207



69% of voters believe that too many people are imprisoned and that there are more effective, less expensive alternatives for nonviolent offenders.208

Over 87% of voters believe that the system should prioritize efforts to prevent recidivism.209

66% of voters believe our criminal justice system should prioritize prevention and rehabilitation.210

57% of voters agree that our criminal justice system is not providing a clear and convincing return on our investment in terms of public safety, despite increased spending.211



Develop a robust state “justice reinvestment” program to reduce the number of people behind bars and address factors that drive incarceration. This requires that states:

  • Reform sentencing laws. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws. Any sentencing laws that reduce or eliminate criminal penalties and categorizations should be made retroactive. For example, states that legalize marijuana should automatically review all marijuana convictions and expunge or reclassify them, as some cities in California are doing. 212 This will guarantee that anyone who is incarcerated or under probation, parole, or community supervision for a marijuana-related offense will have their sentence automatically reduced when they qualify.
  • Amend other laws and practices that result in over-incarceration. Improve pretrial practices to favor release and ensure people are not being incarcerated based exclusively on their inability to pay bail. Modify prison and jail release practices by expanding access to parole and providing earned-time credits.213 Along with the reform of sentencing laws, these measures have proven effective at reducing incarceration while protecting public safety. They also allow states to close jails, prisons and end the use of privatized incarceration.
  • Reinvest criminal justice funds in community services that reduce recidivism and address the root drivers of incarceration. Reducing the levels of incarceration saves public funds, which should be reinvested in programs that address the causes of crime and the systemic problems that put people into contact with the criminal justice system. This requires that states invest greater resources in education, job training, affordable housing programs, and mental, substance abuse, and other health services.214
  • End collaboration in federal immigration enforcement. State and local governments often spend their own scarce resources to engage in immigration enforcement activities that are the responsibility of the federal government.215 Rather than spending state and local dollars on activities that have been shown to dissolve trust and make communities less safe,216 state and local governments should direct resources toward activities that reduce crime and improve the quality of life and safety of the communities they serve.
  • End the use of private prisons. “Lockup quotas” in private prison contracts push law enforcement to over-incarcerate, further fueling the U.S.’s mass incarceration epidemic.217
  • Abolish felony disenfranchisement laws. Repeal any laws that disenfranchise voters as a result of criminal convictions. States should stop stripping people who have been convicted of felonies of their right to vote and should restore the right to vote to individuals who have been released from prison, including people who are on probation and parole. Eliminate lifelong bans on voting, mandatory waiting periods, and requirements for executive and legislative pardons. Policymakers should also eliminate rules tying restoration of voting rights to repayment of criminal fines and fees.



  • Our nation’s investments in the criminal justice system should increase the safety of our communities—but mass incarceration has not accomplished this. As a result of harsh sentences, over-criminalization, and discriminatory policing, our criminal justice system is tearing apart families—disproportionately families of color. Increasing the number of living wage jobs available, investing in educational systems, and funding community health programs can help reduce crime and incarceration and contribute to genuine public safety.
  • We can reduce incarceration while maintaining public safety. Since the 1980s, we have poured more than a trillion dollars into the criminal justice system. We can more effectively use our shared resources by addressing the circumstances that contribute to criminal activity.  Many states have already begun to reduce incarceration, closing prisons or jails and reinvesting money in efforts that help to more effectively reduce crime. 
  • Reinvesting in our justice system will advance racial equality. People of color, low-income people, and people with mental illness and substance abuse problems are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system. Because of systemic racism and discriminatory policing practices, black and Latino people are far more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than their white counterparts. Strategies that address the root causes of incarceration would help address these disparities.



Texas is one of many states successfully implementing justice reinvestment policies.

  • In 2007, Texas’ prison population was projected to grow by more than 14,000 people within 5 years, which would require the construction of new prison facilities that would cost the public an additional $523 million. In response, the state enacted a justice reinvestment initiative and allocated $240 million over the following 2 years to expanding physical and mental health treatment, limiting probation periods, and increasing funding for probation and parole.218
  • Texas’ front-end investments resulted in state savings of approximately $443 million over the 2 years—savings that allowed Texas to invest in other programs that would reduce crime and recidivism, including a community health program that provides low-income first-time mothers with assistance from early in their pregnancy through their child’s second birthday219 and has been found to improve outcomes for the whole family and reduce crime.220
  • In addition to the initial cost savings in 2008-09, Texas’s justice reinvestment program proved effective at reducing parole revocations and, in 2013, the prison population had dipped to a 5-year low.221
  • In 2012, for the first time in the state’s history, Texas closed a prison.222




  1. Carrie Johnson, “For This Released Inmate, Freedom Tastes Like Pizza For Breakfast,” National Public Radio, November 2, 2015, https://www.npr.org/2015/11/02/453992907/for-this-released-inmate-freedo....
  2. Council of Economic Advisors, “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System,” 2016. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/document....
  3. “Criminal Justice Facts,” The Sentencing Project, accessed Dec. 1, 2017, http://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/.
  4. Abigail Geiger, U.S. Private Prison Population Has Declined in Recent Years, PEW Research Center, Apr. 11, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/11/u-s-private-prison-population-has-declined-in-recent-years/; see also The Sentencing Project, Private Prisons in the United States, Aug. 28, 2017, http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/private-prisons-united-sta...
  5. Communities United, et al., “The $3.4 Trillion Mistake: The Cost of Mass Incarceration, and How Justice Reinvestment Can Build a Better Future for All” (2016), 3, http://www.maketheroad.org/pix_reports/Justice%20Reinvestment%20Final%20....  
  6. “Criminal Justice Facts,” The Sentencing Project. 
  7. Criminal Justice Facts,” The Sentencing Project.
  8. U.S. Department of Education, Policy and Program Studies Service, “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education” (U.S. Department of Education, July 2016), 1, https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/expenditures-corrections-educati... (citing a information produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2009). 
  9. Jennifer Bronson and Marcus Berzofsky, “Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2017), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/imhprpji1112.pdf. 
  10. Jennifer Bronson, et al., “Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007-2009” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2017), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dudaspji0709.pdf. 
  11. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State and Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement,” June 2014, https://cliniclegal.org/sites/default/files/cost_of_involvement_in_immig...
  12. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State and Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement.”
  13. Joe Watson, “Report Finds Two-Thirds of Private Prison Contracts Include ‘Lockup Quotas’,” July 31, 2015, Prison Legal News, https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2015/jul/31/report-finds-two-thirds-private-prison-contracts-include-lockup-quotas/. 
  14. Watson, “Report Finds Two-Thirds of Private Prison Contracts Include ‘Lockup Quotas.”
  15. For a database of research on these topics see the Council of State Governments Justice Center, “What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse” https://whatworks.csgjusticecenter.org/.
  16. Press release, “Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education,” U.S. Department of Education, July 7, 2016, https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/report-increases-spending-correct.... Additionally, “[s]ince 1990, state and local spending on higher education has been largely flat while spending on corrections has increased 89 percent.”
  17. Public Opinion Strategies and The Mellman Group, Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy in America, Mar. 2012, 2, http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2012/03/30/pew_nationalsurveyres...
  18. Public Opinion Strategies, “Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy,” 5.
  19. Steve Koczela and Rich Parr, “Public Opinion on Criminal Justice Reform in Massachusetts,” MassINC, June 2017, 1, https://massinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Public-Opinion-on-Crimina...
  20. Public Opinion Strategies, “Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy,” 7.
  21. Brandon E. Patterson, “Pot Legalization Is Transforming California’s Criminal Justice Landscape,” Mother Jones, December 27, 2017, https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2017/12/pot-legalization-is-tr....
  22. See, e.g., Samantha Harvell, et al., Reforming Sentencing and Corrections Policy: The Experience of Justice Reinvestment Initiative States, Urban Institute, Rev. Mar. 2017, vi. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/reforming-sentencing-and-corr....
  23. Communities United, et al., “The $3.4 Trillion Mistake,” 17.
  24. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State & Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement.”
  25. Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “The Cost of State & Local Involvement in Immigration Enforcement.”
  26. Joe Watson, “Report Finds Two-Thirds of Private Prison Contracts Include ‘Lockup Quotas.” 
  27. Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1.
  28. Nurse-Family Partnership, “About Us,” accessed Dec. 1, 2017, https://www.nursefamilypartnership.org/about/. 
  29. The Council of State Governments, “Justice Reinvestment State Brief: Texas,” 1; see also Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1 (noting also that, by saving $443 million over a two-year period, the state was able to fund programs aimed at reducing crime and recidivism). 
  30. Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1.
  31. Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons, “Justice Reinvestment Crime Brief,” 1.


Ensure Health Care for All


“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”




When a child is injured or a loved one is suffering from a serious illness, no one wants to think about co-pays and deductibles. We want compassionate, effective medical care, delivered quickly and accessibly. We know that people, families, communities, and our nation thrive when good health is a public priority. The Affordable Care Act was an historic achievement to provide health insurance to a record number of uninsured Americans. Yet even if the Affordable Care Act were fully implemented, nearly 30 million people would remain uninsured, and out-of-pocket medical costs could lead to financial ruin for many people. At the same time, ideologically driven politicians continue to threaten recent gains in access to health care.

Most Americans still worry about the availability and affordability of health care.249 America’s fragmented and complex health care system makes us a global outlier; we are the only industrialized nation that fails to deliver health care to all of its people. America also has a growing under-insurance problem. People may have insurance, yet their sky-high health plan premiums, copays, and deductibles cause financial stress or result in patients missing necessary treatment. Medical debt remains the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States.250 According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than a quarter of Americans struggle to pay their medical bills.251 Our system treats health care as a commodity available based on one’s ability to pay, worsening existing health disparities by class and race.           

People of color, undocumented immigrants, and people with low incomes have higher rates of disease and mortality, and suffer disproportionately under our current health coverage scheme. African Americans are 77 percent more likely than white Americans to develop diabetes.252 People of color run 2 to 4 times the risk of reaching end-stage renal disease than white people.253 Racial disparities are particularly acute for pregnant women and infants: Because African-American mothers are far less likely to receive prenatal care than white mothers and the care they do receive is likely to be lower quality, the infant mortality rate for black babies is more than twice as high as for white babies, and black mothers are more than 3 times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers.254  While many structural factors contribute to worse health care outcomes for patients of color, our current for-profit system adds to disparities by creating both financial obstacles and barriers to accessing a doctor. Politicians worsen this situation by refusing to allow undocumented patients to purchase subsidized Obamacare plans and to obtain Medicaid coverage. This not only burdens immigrant health, but also weighs down our inefficient health care delivery system.

States must take steps to build upon the gains of the Affordable Care Act and expand health care access and coverage. In the 18 states that have not yet expanded eligibility for Medicaid coverage, 2.6 million adults fall within a coverage gap where they earn too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid yet too little to be eligible for tax credits that would help them pay for private insurance coverage.255 Expanding Medicaid eligibility, which comes at little cost to the state, is the critical first step for states to increase health care access.



37% of Virginia voters cited health care as their most important issue after the November 2017 election. 256

74% of Americans hold a favorable view of Medicaid, including 73% of adults in states that have not yet expanded Medicaid eligibility.257

67% of Americans say Medicaid “works well” for the people it covers in their state.258



Expand health insurance coverage and access to health care for all state residents. States should consider the following steps:

  • Expand Medicaid coverage. Currently 32 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid eligibility to cover non-elderly adults with incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.259 The Affordable Care Act provides federal funding for the vast majority of the cost of Medicaid expansion. States that have not yet expanded Medicaid eligibility should immediately act to do so.
  • Reject work requirements and other restrictions on Medicaid eligibility. A number of states have applied for federal waivers in order to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients.260 Imposing such restrictions does not increase access to employment among Medicaid recipients (the vast majority of whom already work, are sick or disabled, or are family caregivers) yet puts an estimated 6.3 million Americans in danger of losing health coverage as they scramble to document their conditions or risk falling through new gaps in the program.261 States should reject any effort to limit Medicaid enrollment.
  • Establish a Basic Health Program. The Affordable Care Act gives states the option to implement a Basic Health Program to cover residents with incomes between 133 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level. 262 The program provides continuity of care and coverage to people whose incomes fluctuate. In addition, green card holders and other lawfully present non-citizens who are excluded from Medicaid coverage are eligible for the program. Currently Minnesota and New York have established Basic Health Programs, providing affordable, comprehensive coverage to 800,000 people. Coverage under the program must include the essential benefits specified by Affordable Care Act. Monthly insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs cannot exceed what they would be for plans purchased through the Affordable Care Act marketplace, and in practice they are often considerably lower. New York and Minnesota recently sued the federal government to maintain federal funding for the program, which reimburses states for the vast majority of costs.263
  • Increase support for community health centers. Community health centers are the most significant source of comprehensive primary care for medically underserved communities across the United States. They provide affordable primary care to over 27 million people, regardless of insurance coverage or ability to pay.264 Although a majority of community health center revenues come from insurance payments and federal grants, state and local grants and contracts made up approximately 11 percent of community health center revenue in 2015.265 Increasing state support would expand the populations health centers can serve.
  • Implement all-payer rate setting. Through a Medicare waiver, the state of Maryland has the authority to regulate the rates that hospitals charge for their services. Maryland mandates that hospitals charge the same rate for any given service or provider to all patients, regardless of what type of insurance patients have. Maryland has further controlled health care costs by adopting global budgets, which incentivize hospital systems to keep patients healthy. As a result of these systems, Maryland has limited the growth in hospital costs for all patients.266 In addition to cost containment, Maryland’s system is significant because it lays the groundwork for a single-payer universal health care system. Maryland is currently seeking to expand the system beyond hospitals to other health care expenditures. Other states should explore seeking a waiver to emulate Maryland’s successful program.



A number of states are exploring the potential for universal health care systems, which would replace the private health insurance industry with single-payer, publicly managed insurance providing coverage to all state residents. While regulatory, fiscal, and political hurdles remain, policymakers and advocates who are determined build state-level single-payer systems are making important progress.



  • We all thrive when good health is a public priority. When a child is injured or a loved one is suffering from a serious illness, no one wants to think about co-pays and deductibles. We want compassionate, effective medical care, delivered quickly and accessibly. The Affordable Care Act brought meaningful reforms to our system. Now we must work toward making health care access a reality for all Americans.
  • No one should struggle with debt to get the care they need. Medical debt is still the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States, and more than 1 in 4 Americans struggle to pay their medical bills. People may have insurance, but health plan premiums, copays, and deductibles are so high that they cause financial stress or result in patients missing necessary treatment. Americans continue to die because they lack affordable health coverage. We need to ensure people can get the health care they need without going broke.



  • States that expanded Medicaid had significantly fewer residents without insurance as a result, with the greatest increases in insurance coverage in rural areas and among vulnerable populations such as young adults, people with HIV, veterans, and children.267
  • By making health care more affordable, Medicaid expansion increases financial security for struggling families. For example, in Ohio, the percentage of expansion enrollees with medical debt fell by nearly half since enrolling in Medicaid. Previously uninsured prescription drug users who gained Medicaid coverage in 2014 saw, on average, a $205 reduction in annual out-of-pocket spending.268
  • Medicaid expansion saves lives. For example, expanding Medicaid was associated with a lower risk of death among cardiac surgery patients.269
  • There were no significant increases in state spending due to Medicaid expansion and some states have saved money. Louisiana reported that Medicaid expansion saved the state $199 million in its 2017 fiscal year, due in part to changes in federal reimbursement rates.270
  • Maryland’s all-payer rate regulation produces large savings for Medicare-participating hospitals compared to those operating in other states. From 2013 through August 2016, the hospital spending growth rate underlying Maryland’s savings was more than 4 percent below the national growth rate. Maryland state hospitals saved more than $429 million for Medicare.271
  • New York’s plan under the Basic Health Program provides low- or no-cost health coverage to 700,000 low-income people. Participants pay between $0 and $20 for their monthly premiums and can purchase a health plan at any time during the year.272




  1. Healthcare System: Gallup Historical Trends, Gallup, March 1-5 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/4708/healthcare-system.aspx. 
  2. Maurie Backman, “This is the No. 1 Reason People File for Bankruptcy,” The Motley Fool, May 5, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2017/05/05/this-is-....
  3. Liz Hamel, Mira Norton, Karen Pollitz, Larry Levitt, Gary Claxton and Mollyann Brodie, The Burden of Medical Debt: Results from the Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times Medical Bills Survey, Kaiser Family Foundation, January 5, 2016. https://www.kff.org/report-section/the-burden-of-medical-debt-section-1-....
  4. Edward A. Chow, MD, Henry Foster, MD, Victor Gonzalez, MD and LaShawn McIver, MD, MPH, “The Disparate Impact of Diabetes on Racial/Ethnic Minority Populations,” Clinical Diabetes 2012 Jul; 30(3): 130-133. https://doi.org/10.2337/diaclin.30.3.130.
  5. Robin L. Kelly Ph.D., “The 2015 Kelly Report: Health Disparities in America,” Congresswoman Robin L. Kelly, September 18, 2017, https://robinkelly.house.gov/sites/robinkelly.house.gov/files/2015 Kelly Report.pdf.
  6. U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System,” November 9, 2007, https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pmss.html; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, “Infant Mortality and African Americans,” November 9, 2007,   https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=23. 
  7. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Medicaid Pocket Primer, June 9, 2017, https://www.kff.org/medicaid/fact-sheet/medicaid-pocket-primer/.
  8. NBC News, “Early Exit Polls: Health Care Most Important Issue for Virginia Voters,” National Broadcasting Network, November 7, 2017,  https://www.nbcnews.com/card/early-exit-polls-health-care-most-important....
  9. 10 Charts About Public Opinion on Medicaid Kaiser Family Foundation, June 27, 2017 https://www.kff.org/medicaid/poll-finding/data-note-10-charts-about-publ....
  10. Ibid.
  11. For a list of states as of January 2018, see: Status of State Action on the Medicaid Expansion Decision, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, January 18, 2018, https://www.kff.org/health-reform/state-indicator/state-activity-around-....
  12. MaryBeth Musumeci, Rachel Garfield, and Robin Rudowitz, Medicaid and Work Requirements: New Guidance, State Waiver Details and Key Issues, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, January 2018, https://www.kff.org/medicaid/issue-brief/medicaid-and-work-requirements-....
  13. Katherine Gallagher Robbins and Rachel West, Trump’s Medicaid Work Requirements Could Put At Least 6.3 Million Americans at Risk of Losing Health Care, Center for American Progress, January 2018. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/news/2018/01/12/444953/t...
  14. Medicaid.Gov, “Basic Health Program” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, January 2017, https://www.medicaid.gov/basic-health-program/index.html.
  15. Michelle Andrews, “Trump’s Subsidies Cut Threatens Basic Health Programs in 2 States,” Governing, February 9, 2018, http://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/khn-minnesota-new-....
  16. United States Health Center Fact Sheet, National Association of Community Health Centers, 2018, http://www.nachc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/US_18a.pdf 
  17. Julia Paradise, et. al., Community Health Centers: Recent Growth and the Role of the ACA, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, January 2017, https://www.kff.org/report-section/community-health-centers-recent-growt...
  18. Nelson Sabatini, et. al., “Maryland’s All-Payer Model—Achievements, Challenges, And Next Steps” Health Affairs, January 31, 2017, https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20170131.058550/full/.
  19. Larisa Antonisse et. al., The Effects of Medicaid Expansion under the ACA: Updated Findings from a Literature Review, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, September 2017, https://www.kff.org/medicaid/issue-brief/the-effects-of-medicaid-expansi...
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Sabatini, “Maryland’s All-Payer Model.”
  24. Eric T. Schneiderman, “In Defense Of New York State’s ‘Essential Plan,’ We’re Suing The Trump Administration,” Health Affairs, February 7, 2018, https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20180206.483547/full/.


Establish State Partnership Banks


“It is time to bring the money home so it can build our future. We will do this by redirecting resources to a bank that is committed to making investments in and for New Jersey because it will be owned by the people of New Jersey.”



Investment enables our communities to thrive. Whether it’s a family seeking a mortgage to buy their first home, a neighborhood business that needs a loan to grow, or a city financing a new rail project, our communities rely on investments made today to flourish in the coming years. Traditionally, banks provided these up-front investments in local businesses and public projects. In recent decades, however, policymakers deregulated the financial industry, including breaking down the wall between retail banks that serve consumers and investment banks that place risky bets on Wall Street. Traditional banking, which focused on safeguarding deposits and lending to businesses and individuals, was transformed into a high-risk, high-reward wealth machine for a tiny elite of investment bankers and money managers. High-yield investment and securities trading now dominate the banking industry, instead of lending and depository services. Not coincidentally, the U.S. financial system has become extremely concentrated, with a handful of large banks now controlling close to 60 percent of the country’s financial assets, while community banks’ share of financial assets has shrunk by more than 50 percent since the mid-1990s, to only 11 percent of total assets. Community banks are in crisis—indeed, 25 percent shut their doors between 2008 and 2015.375

As the broader economic recovery gained momentum in recent years, small business leaders consistently identified capital needs as a major challenge. In 2016, approximately one-third of small businesses that applied for loans did not receive them; even worse, 54 percent of minority-owned businesses reported being turned down for loans.376  Despite growing consumer demand, small businesses—key drivers of job creation and overall resiliency in many communities—have not had sufficient access to capital. Meanwhile, the big banks that control most of the nation’s financial capital are using it for non-productive and often destructive activities like high-speed trading and securitizing mortgage debt, which was the primary cause of the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Overall, the biggest shift has been between stock trading and business lending: Trading assets expanded by a factor of 7 between 1980 and 2012, to approximately $35 trillion, while business lending only grew threefold, reaching about $15 trillion over the same period.377

This “financialization” of our economy is crippling long-term innovation and job creation in the real economy.378 In many metropolitan and rural areas alike, lack of access to affordable credit and banking services cuts off low-income communities and communities of color from being able to save or build for the future. At the same time, a lack of financing undermines regional equity strategies that promote local business growth and public goods across racial and residential divides. To solve the challenges facing small businesses and low-income communities, local lending and investment must grow substantially, and structural change in the finance industry is needed. State partnership banks—publicly owned banks where states and cities deposit their own tax revenue—are part of the solution. State banks cut out the Wall Street middlemen and make more resources available for in-state financial needs such as small business loans, student loans, and infrastructure investment.



  • 32% of Americans currently have confidence in banks.379
  • 79% of small businesses in Washington State, 75% of small business in Oregon, and 72% of small businesses in Maine support the idea of a state bank.380



Establish a publicly run state partnership bank to make loans that address needs in the real economy, offsetting the financial imbalances created by Wall Street. North Dakota is currently the only state with a public bank, established in 1919 as a populist counterweight to Wall Street extortion on the frontier. A number of other states and cities are considering proposals to establish a state bank.381

Building on the North Dakota model, states should:

  • Charter a new bank entirely owned by the state. Deposit tax revenue with the state bank rather than with outside financial institutions, which charge high fees and invest the money out of state. Appoint a board of overseers, including representatives of various interested banking and business sectors as well as diverse community leaders, to monitor the bank’s activities and fiduciary health.  To avoid excessive risks with taxpayer money and the state budget, a state bank should operate like a bank and not an investment fund.
  • Use the bank to leverage and expand local lending. The main purpose of a partnership bank is to leverage and expand community bank lending and spread risk, helping to diversify local lending and enable more equitable access to credit.  
  • Provide low-interest loans. The Bank of North Dakota (BND) successfully provides low-interest student loans and municipal loans for small infrastructure projects, allowing cities to circumvent more costly bond markets. State banks should also provide a secondary market for local home mortgage and farm loans, to help expand local lending and spread risk in these important areas for state economies.   
  • Foster local ownership of banks. Shore up local ownership of community banks by offering loans enabling state residents to purchase local bank stock. State banks can also help community banks by offering letters of credit that help them meet stringent standards for managing municipal and county deposits. City and county tax dollars are then banked locally instead of with big out-of-state banks. 
  • Share benefits with the community and the state. A state bank should be fiscally beneficial in addition to eliminating Wall Street fees. It should pay market-rate interest on state deposits and an annual dividend to the state from its lending profits. A state bank could also house a state-level disaster relief fund, to expedite relief in advance of receiving federal funds.
  • Expand lending in communities of color. State bank policies for partnership lending in more diverse states with high levels of economic and racial inequality should be carefully calibrated to expand lending in communities of color. This could be enabled by distributing risk across the full portfolio and by leveraging other funds, such as subsidizing interest rate discounts for higher-risk loans. Municipal loans should be concentrated in the state’s poorest cities. Racial equity should be a focal point in the design and implementation of partnership lending, and mechanisms should be devised to ensure community input and oversight in the process.    
  • Enlist partners in capitalizing the state bank. States will need to find a way to capitalize a state partnership bank in its first years, in addition to accumulating annual deposits from the state; one idea is to enlist the Federal Reserve in purchasing low-interest bonds issued specifically by or on behalf of the state bank, as has also been proposed for the capitalization of federal and regional infrastructure banks. 382



A state partnership bank could provide individual depository and low-interest emergency loan services, which is not a function served by the Bank of North Dakota. Serving these functions would require significant infrastructure (such as bank branches and personnel throughout the state) and could involve competing with existing community banks rather than partnering with them. Policymakers should consider how these services would be made accessible and affordable in communities traditionally underserved by the banking system.



  • We need banks that work for people and communities, not the other way around. Today we give our public dollars to Wall Street banks that charge exorbitant fees and don’t invest in our communities, infrastructure, or small businesses. A state bank will put our public dollars to work for all of us.
  • Instead of serving the interests of private shareholders, a state bank will serve the public interest and be accountable for community needs and goals.  Rather than paying dividends to shareholders like the Wall Street Banks do, a state banks pays its dividends back to the state, helping to stabilize the public budget to fund community needs like education, medical care, and transit.
  • State banks support community businesses. Small businesses struggle to find the credit they need to expand because Wall Street banks are focused on trading and larger investments with a higher short-term payoff. State banks can fill the gap by expanding the volume and diversity of local lending, enabling a local hair salon to expand or a popular restaurant to open a second location.
  • In North Dakota, the state bank helped communities through the financial crisis. In the one state that has a state bank, North Dakota, not a single bank failed during the Great Recession and availability of credit for small businesses actually expanded. A state bank can help a state and its local economies be “financial crisis-proof.”



  • A state bank helps create jobs by expanding community banking and small business growth in the state economy. North Dakota has 4 times as many community banks per capita compared to the national average. 383  Community banks hold 60 percent of North Dakotan deposits, compared to only 16 percent nationally. Lending volume per capita by community banks in North Dakota is about 4 times as large as the national average for community banks. North Dakota has had consistently low unemployment over many years, and this is not solely due to the energy boom; neighboring states with similar economies, such as Montana and Wyoming, typically have higher unemployment.
  • State banks strengthen local economies by expanding small business lending. North Dakota is a leading incubator of successful business startups, ranking first in access to financing and overall best state to start a business in one 2017 study.384 Estimates show that comparable state bank performance in a bigger state, such as Washington, would generate approximately $2.6 billion in additional business lending and would create or retain more than 8,000 small business jobs in a single year, and more than $200 million in new state revenue over 20 years. 385 A state bank can also help to diversify community bank lending by distributing risk, potentially expanding affordable credit to businesses in traditionally underserved communities.
  • State banks make municipal financing for infrastructure, school construction, and other public goods less costly compared to Wall Street financing.386
  • A state bank is a buffer against the business cycle, insulating local banks and small businesses from volatility in the broader financial system. During the financial crisis, local banks in North Dakota were able to turn to the BND, which took unpaid loans off their books and injected new equity into the banks with its bank stock loan program (not a single North Dakota bank failed in the financial crisis of the late 2000s).
  • A state bank benefits the state by paying market-rate interest on state deposits and a yearly dividend from its lending profits, in addition to eliminating Wall Street fees. Between 1995 and 2014, the BND paid dividends to the state totaling nearly $400 million out of approximately $950 million in bank profits. 




  1. Alyana Alfaro, “Murphy Unveils Plan to Revitalize NJ Economy, Create State Bank,” Observer, September 8, 2016, http://observer.com/2016/09/murphy-unveils-plan-to-revitalize-n-j-econom....
  2. Stacy Mitchell, One in Four Local Banks has Closed since 2008, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, May 5, 2015. https://ilsr.org/vanishing-community-banks-national-crisis/.
  3. Advocates for Independent Business and Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2016 Independent Business Survey, https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016_Survey_Report_FINAL.pdf.
  4. Wallace Turbeville, Financialization and Equal Opportunity, Demos, February 10, 2015. http://www.demos.org/publication/financialization-equal-opportunity.
  5. Wallace Turbeville, Financialization and Equal Opportunity.
  6. Frank Newport, “Americans’ Confidence in Institutions Edges Up,” Gallup News, June 26, 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/212840/americans-confidence-institutions-edg...
  7. Direct from Main Street: Washington Small Business Views on Credit and Lending, Main Street Alliance of Washington and Alliance for a Just Society, 2011, http://leg.wa.gov/JointCommittees/Archive/IFTF/Documents/2011Aug22/MainstreetAlliance.pdf; Direct from Main Street: Maine Small Business Views on Credit and Lending, Maine Small Business Coalition and Alliance for a Just Society, 2011, http://allianceforajustsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Direct-from-Main-St_ME.pdf;  Direct from Main Street: Oregon Small Business Views on Credit and Lending, Main Street Alliance of Oregon and Alliance for a Just Society, 2011, https://www.scribd.com/document/46774924/Direct-From-Main-Street-Report. 
  8. 2010-2017 Legislation to Create State Owned Financial Institutions, National Conference of State Legislatures, May 25, 2017, http://tre.wa.gov/wp-content/uploads/State-by-State-Public-Banking-Effor...
  9. The debate about the role of central banks in infrastructure investment, also known as People’s Quantitative Easing (PQE), is further advanced in the United Kingdom. See “People’s QE Pros and Cons,” World Finance, January 13, 2016, https://www.worldfinance.com/infrastructure-investment/government-policy.... Quantitative easing refers to central bank asset purchases with the purpose of stimulating the economy.  
  10. Stacy Mitchell, “How State Banks Bring the Money Home,” Yes Magazine, September 15, 2011, https://ilsr.org/how-state-banks-bring-money-home/.
  11. Richie Bernardo, “2017’s Best & Worst States to Start a Business,” Wallethub.com, https://wallethub.com/edu/best-states-to-start-a-business/36934/.
  12. Washington State Bank Analysis, Center for State Innovation, December 2010. http://leg.wa.gov/JointCommittees/Archive/IFTF/Documents/2011Aug22/CSI-A....
  13. On Wall Street’s extortion of cities, see Wallace Turbeville, The Detroit Bankruptcy, Demos, November 20, 2013. http://www.demos.org/publication/detroit-bankruptcy.


Center Constituents and Small Donors Through People-Powered Election Campaigns


You start to see really quickly how the ability of people to support you morally and with their vote …
outstrips their ability to support you financially, [which] makes all the difference in the world. And how people who love what you’re saying downgrade you as a candidate because they don’t think you have enough money: ‘I love what you’re saying, but you can’t win.’”




We need to build a democracy where everyone’s freedom to vote is respected, every vote is counted, and everyone—from any walk of life—can run for office and win. Too often, a person’s voice in our democracy is determined not by the power of their ideas but by the size of their wallet. Big money in politics keeps many qualified candidates out of office, because running for office without the advantage of fundraising or incumbency is extremely difficult. In 2015-2016, state legislative candidates who lacked the advantage of fundraising or incumbency only won their races 9 percent of the time.395

Because running for office is so expensive, wealthy individuals and corporations who can spend big money on state elections and campaign donations have the largest say in who runs for office—and who wins.396 These donors are disproportionately wealthy, white, and male, and hold demonstrably different views and priorities than the rest of us, especially about how we structure our economy.397 Many qualified people who do not have access to wealthy donor networks decide not to run for office at all; not surprisingly, these could-be candidates are disproportionately people of color.398 And, because of a long history of race-based exclusion in our economy and our democracy, candidates of color often raise less money when they do run.

In a system dominated by big money, many Americans feel unrepresented. From the county level up to Congress, 90 percent of our elected officials are white (65 percent are white men), while nearly 40 percent of the country are people of color. Women of color are the most underrepresented group in the halls of power: though they make up 19 percent of our national population, women of color account for just 4 percent of all elected officials.399 In some states, the numbers are even more abysmal. For instance, white men account for 28 percent of the state of New York’s population, yet make up 74 percent of its elected officials. Though 43 percent of New York’s population are people of color, only 8 percent of its elected officials are—and just 3 percent are women of color. 

When financial barriers keep everyday Americans from running for office, we all pay the price with a government that is unresponsive to the voices of the people. Instead, a small, wealthy donor class determines what issues receive attention and what policies become law—or do not become law, in the case of policies like raising the minimum wage.400 In fact, a Princeton political scientist determined that “under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt”401 and “patterns of responsiveness … often correspond more closely to a plutocracy than to a democracy.”402

We can change who has access to power in our democracy. We can create people-funded elections that break down financial barriers to running for office and make room for community leaders who have a lot of popular support but don’t have access to big money. By creating robust small-donor empowerment programs, we invest in the democracy we want, so that people from all walks of life can have an equal chance to participate. This is especially true when public financing programs are designed with input from communities that have historically been left out of the process.



  • 85% of Americans believe we must “fundamentally change” or “completely rebuild” the current system of funding political campaigns.403
  • 72% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans support “citizen-funded” elections that match small-dollar donations using public funds.404
  •  63% of Seattle residents and 52% of South Dakota residents have voted to adopt voucher programs through ballot initiatives. In South Dakota, support for the measure was even higher in the top 5 majority-Native American counties (ranging from 54-71%).405



Bring our democracy into balance by creating fairer ways to fund election campaigns. The best way to do this is to empower voters and small donors by providing adequate public funds for public election campaigns.

To be successful, a public financing system must be:  

  • Well-funded and designed to allow candidates to run robust campaigns at every stage of the election cycle—from before the primary, to the days leading up to the general election.406
    • Resource the program and index funding to inflation or other indicia—such as an average of prior fundraising totals across election cycles, or the number of residents— to keep the program relevant over time.
  • Designed to increase the participation and importance of small-dollar donors, including from communities of color and other historically underrepresented communities.
  • Limit participating candidates from accepting large donations and donations from corporations, or from spending large amounts of their own or their families’ funds.
  • Use multiple types of public funding, including:
    • Public funding to match small-dollar donations, which amplifies the voices (and dollars) of low- and middle-income Americans.
    • Seed-money grants that allow candidates to get their campaigns running.
    • Vouchers (or “credits”) for residents to donate to campaigns, which encourage candidates to engage all residents, including those who lack disposable income (who are disproportionately people of color, trans and queer people, immigrants, and people with disabilities). 
  • Inclusive of many candidates and communities.
    • Offer public funding to candidates for any election in which fundraising might be a barrier to running, including in general, primary, and special elections.
    • Offer public funding to Independent and third-party candidates.
    • Design programs with input from community members and community-based organizations, who will be instrumental to successfully implementing the program.
    • Include a wide range of offices in the system, from district attorney to governor and state legislator, where feasible.


States can take other low-cost steps to empower small donors:

  • Create small-donor committees to amplify the voice and resources of everyday people in elections. These committees accept and pool only small contributions in order to distribute larger donations to candidates, parties, or other committees.407
  • Ensure that existing campaign finance laws are inclusive of unbanked and underbanked households, which rely more on financial services loaded with hidden fees like prepaid credit cards and payday loans.408 For these Americans, requiring political donations made by check, credit or debit card can be a barrier to participating. States should be inclusive about the forms that donations can take, including by allowing small cash contributions.409
  • Raise the minimum wage and ensure fair scheduling, so that more people are able to make small contributions to the candidates of their choice.



  • We need a government of, by, and for the people, not a skewed system where the strength of our voices depends upon the size of our wallets.
  •  In America, people from any walk of life should be able to run for office and win, not just those with access to wealthy donors. When a political donor class that is whiter, wealthier, and more male than the rest of us calls the shots, the result is a democracy that is not reflective of we the people.
  • The need to raise large amounts of money prevents many qualified people from running for office. Well-funded public financing programs strengthen democracy by reining in the influence of big money in elections, amplifying the voices of everyday people, and breaking down barriers to running for office.
  • Programs that empower small donors transform how people run for office, and win. They allow candidates and elected officials to spend more time with constituents, hearing their issues and priorities, and less time with big donors—including big donors who don’t reside in the candidate’s district. By replacing large contributions from moneyed special interests with small contributions from everyday Americans, we can make every voice count.
    • Tip: Identify specific industries and special interests that dominate elections in your state. Small donor public financing of elections would help shift power away from these special interests, to the hands of the people.
  • Small donor programs (including voucher programs) empower people who better represent the population as a whole. In today’s climate, big donors with bigger wallets drown out everyday people, especially people of color.
  • Successful programs in place right now are working to increase the importance of small donors, and to create racial, class, and gender diversity among donors and candidates. The cost of these programs is a minor investment compared to the state’s overall budget, and a critical investment in a fairer democracy.



More than 28 state and local jurisdictions have public financing of elections.410 Successful programs empower everyday people to participate in our democracy in new ways, reduce the influence of big money, and make small-dollar contributions more important.

  • Seattle’s first-of-its kind “Democracy Voucher” program provides eligible residents with 4 vouchers of $25 each, which they may direct to the participating candidate(s) of their choosing. In its first year, the program has brought new candidates and donors into the democratic process. The three candidates running for City Council under the program swept their races while running campaigns focused on small donors.411 The program has already increased small-donor participation to historic levels.412
  • (In 2017, South Dakotans voted to enact a similar measure, including a public financing program that provided 2 $50 “credits” to residents to contribute to participating candidates. When implemented, the program is predicted to increase the role of small contributors and make the pool of South Dakota political donors more diverse and more representative of the state’s population (which is 9 percent Native American).413 Unfortunately, for the time being, the South Dakota legislate has blocked the initiative.)414
  • Participants in Connecticut’s statewide Citizens’ Elections program receive contributions from a wider set of donors than candidates who do not participate, because they need a minimum number of in-district donors to qualify for a public grant. Passing the program helped build the people power necessary to pass progressive state reforms—including the first paid sick leave bill in the nation.415  Maine and Arizona have similar programs, and Maine voters recently strengthened theirs through a 2015 ballot initiative. 
  • New York City’s program matches contributions up to $175 from residents to participating candidates at a rate of 6-1. By amplifying small-donor voices, the program also advances racial equity, since small-dollar donations are much more reflective of the city’s racial diversity than large donations (which tend to come predominantly white neighborhoods).416

The program helped Tish James run for office and get elected as Public Advocate, the first woman of color ever elected to a city-wide position in New York City.417 Overall participation rates are high: In 2017, the mayor and 7 of the 10 City Council winners used the program to run for office.418


Stay Tuned: Washington, D.C.’s recently-enacted Fair Elections program 
Instead of matching small contributions at a rate of 6-1 like New York City’s program, the D.C. program will match small contributions to participating candidates at a rate of 5-1 and provide candidates with seed-money grants ranging from $10,000-$160,000, depending on the office. This hybrid system was designed to advance racial equity across the District, and to allow participating candidates to run viable campaigns at every stage of the election cycle. The program will provide funding to qualifying participating candidates for Mayor, Attorney General, City Council (at-large and ward), and D.C.’s Board of Education (at-large and ward).




394. More Than 80 DC Residents Gather At Community Meeting To Discuss Proposal To Strengthen Local Democracy, Demos, Nov. 30, 2017, http://www.demos.org/press-release/more-80-dc-residents-gather-community-meeting-discuss-proposal-strengthen-local-democr; video clips available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6E-XfuFEWE&feature=youtu.be.

395. Ciara O'Neill, Money and Incumbency in State Legislative Races, 2015 and 2016, Nov. 1, 2017. https://www.followthemoney.org/research/institute-reports/money-incumbency-in-2015-and-2016-state-legislative-races/.

396. Id.; see also Sean McElwee, The Unbearable Whiteness of America’s Donor Class, AlJazeera America, Jan. 8, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/money-us-politicsamericasdonorclasswhitesblacks.html

397. David Callahan & J. Mijin Cha, Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent & Business Undermines Economic Mobility in America, Demos, Feb. 2013. http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/imce/StackedDeck_1.pdf; Adam Lioz, How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, Demos, July 23, 2015.  http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf (hereinafter “Stacked Deck 2”).

398. See Adam Lioz, Stacked Deck 2.

399. Women’s Donor Network, Who Leads Us?https://wholeads.us/electedofficials/ (last visited Feb. 1, 2018). The site presents the results of a study of over 40,000 elected officials in the United States, which found that people of color and women are underrepresented in elected offices. Though white men make up just 31% of our population, 65% of our elected officials from the county level to Congress are white men. 

400. Sean McElwee, Whose Voice, Whose Choice? The Distorting Influence Of The Political Donor Class In Our Big-Money Elections, Demos, Dec. 8, 2016http://www.demos.org/publication/whose-voice-whose-choice-distorting-influence-political-donor-class-our-big-money-electi.

401. Martin Gilens, Affluence And Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power In America 1 (2012).

402. Id. at 234.

403. The New York Times & CBS polling, “Americans’ Views on Money in Politics”, June 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/02/us/politics/money-in-politics-poll.html

404. MayDay.US, Voters of Every Political Stripe Agree on the Need for Fundamental Reform to the Campaign Finance System, Sept. 25, 2015, http://blog.mayday.us/post/129846704150/new-maydayus-poll-voters-of-every-political (72% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans expressed support of citizen-funded elections that match small donations using public funds.)

405. South Dakota Secretary of State, South Dakota Official Election Returns and Registration Figures: 2016 Primary and General Election, at p. 41 https://sdsos.gov/elections-voting/assets/ElectionReturns2016_Web.pdf (last visited Feb. 1, 2018) (county voting results for Measure 22, results for Oglala Lakota, Todd, Buffalo, Dewey, Ziebach Counties).

406. A Demos profile of Amanda Renteria, a former candidate for U.S. House of Representatives (CA-21) in a district with 3 of the nation’s poorest cities, sheds some light one why it’s important for candidates to have access to financial resources throughout their campaign. Ms. Renteria explained, “[t]he truth is, particularly when you’re a challenger, it’s the ability to answer back or to clarify,” not just the ability to get your message out there, that can be a deal-breaker. “And in some ways, if you don’t have [money] it plays a role in truly silencing a campaign.” See Karen Shanton & Adam Lioz, The Money Chase: Moving From Big Money Dominance In the 2014 Midterms To A Small Donor Democracy, Demos, Jan. 14, 2015, at 21, http://www.demos.org/publication/money-chase-moving-big-money-dominance-2014-midterms-small-donor-democracy.

407. See, e.g., Colorado Secretary of State, Small Donor Committees (SDCs), https://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/CampaignFinance/committee/smallDonor.html (last visited Feb. 1, 2018). In Colorado, people can pool donations of $50 or less into “small donor committees,” which are allowed to contribute roughly 10 times more to campaigns than regular PACs are.

408. Over a quarter of American households, and disproportionately households of color, either obtain financial services outside the traditional banking system or do not use the traditional banking system whatsoever. See generally Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 2015 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Householdshttps://www.economicinclusion.gov (last visited Feb. 1, 2018).

409. Many states are inclusive of cash contributions, at least to some degree. See, e.g., H.R.S. §§ 11-302 &  11-351(b) (Hawaii’s public financing system is inclusive of qualifying cash contributions; the law requires candidates who receive “a contribution of more than $100 in cash from a single person “[issue] a receipt to the contributor and [keep] a record of the contribution.”); N.M.S.A§ 1-19A-2 (H) (allows qualifying contributions (which must be exactly $5) to be made in cash); W. Va. Code § 3–12–3 (13), a ‘‘qualifying contribution’’ means a “contribution received from a West Virginia registered voter of not less than $1 nor more than $100 in the form of cash …“).

410. Juhem Navarro-Rivera & Emmanuel Caicedo, Public Funding For Electoral Campaigns: How 27 States, Counties, and Municipalities Empower Small Donors and Curb the Power of Big Money in Politics, Demos, June 2017. http://www.demos.org/publication/public-funding-electoral-campaigns-how-27-states-counties-and-municipalities-empower-sma (identifying the jurisdictions of MN; CT; Santa Fe, NM; NYC; Long Beach, CA; ME: Tuscon, AZ; NJ; NM; San Francisco, CA; WV; FL; Los Angeles, CA; MD; RI; AZ; Albuquerque, NM; MI; Oakland, CA; MA; VT; New Haven, CT; Austin, TX; Boulder, CO; Montgomery County, MD; Seattle, WA). Additional jurisdictions include Washington, D.C. and Howard County, MD.

411. See, e.g., Tyler Creighton, Big Donors were Big Losers on Election Day. . . Except in Congress, ReThink Media, Nov. 8, 2017, https://rethinkmedia.org/preview/4819?id=4819&authkey=dda0cb2b27dadbcd36544339350d91035fe9a2b8410d5fcc110f224cb2b5b7d9 (noting that the Democracy Voucher program made it possible for candidate Teresa Mosqueda to run for office while she was the director of the Washington State Labor Council). See also Josh Cohen, “Democracy Vouchers Aim to Amplify Low-income Voices, to Conservative Ire,” The Guardian, Jul. 7, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/07/democracy-vouchers-seattle-politics-low-income-homeless (discussing the campaign of incumbent Jon Grant, who used vouchers as a focal point to campaign around homelessness); Tyler Creighton, Democracy Vouchers Elevate the Voices of Grassroots Candidates and Everday People in Seattle, ReThink Media, Aug. 18, 2017, https://rethinkmedia.org/preview/4701?id=4701&authkey=f50a4742a43caaa5937a0db2a45fcbfe46c97337ce25de848d31a51b41a1e34b.

412. First Look: Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program Reducing the Power of Big Money and Expanding Political Participation, Every Voice and Win Win Network, Nov. 15, 2017, http://honestelectionsseattle.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/FINAL-Seattle-Post-Election-Report-1.pdf.

414. Blueprints For Democracy: South Dakota The Government Accountability And Anti-Corruption Act, Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center, updated Feb. 2, 2017, https://blueprintsfordemocracy.squarespace.com/update.

415. Adam Lioz, Stacked Deck 2.

416. See id.see also Every Voice Center, The Color of Money: Early Presidential Fundraising Shows White, Wealthy Donor Base, Aug. 2016, http://www.everyvoicecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ColorOfMoneyFinalVersion.pdf; Rahna Epting, “Race, Presidential Politics, and the Challenge of Creating a Democracy for All of Us,” HuffPost, Aug. 7, 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rahna-epting/race-presidential-politic_b_....

417. See Every Voice, Champions of Democracy: Tish James, March 13, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf6-PMubOH4.

418. Tyler Creighton, Big Donors were Big Losers.


Modernize Voter Registration


“I challenge every other state in this nation to examine their policies and to find ways to ensure there are as few barriers as possible for citizens’ right to vote.”




Voting is critical to the health of our democracy. Voter registration is the on-ramp to participating in elections, but the registration system can be complicated and daunting, and does not ease participation in our democracy. Initiating or updating voter registration is often a serious roadblock for people who move frequently, those who speak English as their second language, individuals with disabilities, and people whose background and education may not have exposed them to the voting process. 

Nearly 1 in 4 eligible voters in the United States is not registered to vote.449 Lower registration rates among historically marginalized communities today reflect the long history of exclusion from our democracy. For example, the registration rate for eligible Latinx voters in 2016 was just 57 percent, nearly 20 points behind the registration rate for whites.450 Low-income Americans are also disproportionately impacted. Unregistered individuals in households making less than $15,000 per year are twice as likely as those making $75,000 or more to say they are not registered to vote because they do not know how or where to register.451

More than 60% of eligible voters report having never been asked to register to vote.452  This means that for the majority of eligible voters, the burden of navigating complicated voter registration procedures is on them. Arbitrary voter registration deadlines and outdated voter registration systems that rely on paper application forms add unnecessary layers of red tape and confusion to the process in many states. In states with voter registration cutoffs, even if a would-be voter tracks down a voter registration application, they may not realize that they will not be added to the rolls or permitted to vote if they register after the cutoff date. Often these deadlines come well before election season reaches its peak in the weeks leading up to the general election, when campaigns and news around an election are heating up and interest in the election is higher.453

Our antiquated voter registration systems lead to problems for Americans who are already registered as well. People who register in advance of an election can find themselves left off the rolls when they show up to vote, due to mistakes in processing from illegible handwriting, outdated scanners, and human data entry errors. People who have moved are often surprised to show up to the polls only to discover they are not on the voter roll because their voter registration did not move with them. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, 22 million voting-age Americans moved within their state, many not knowing they were required to re-register to vote at their new address.454

Registering—and staying registered—to vote does not need to be this hard. That’s why a growing number of states are adopting pragmatic, bipartisan reforms to modernize voter registration infrastructure to ensure that every eligible voter has an equal opportunity to exercise her fundamental right to vote.



  • 54% of Americans support automatic registration,455 where government agencies like the DMV register eligible citizens to vote after confirming their eligibility based on information they are already receiving.
  • 55% of Americans support laws that allow people to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballot.456



Modernize voter registration to remove red tape and make it cost effective, accurate, and secure.

  • Offer an accessible, online registration system where eligible people can register to vote, update their voter registration, and check their voter registration status. As of the end of 2017, 37 states and the District of Columbia offered online voter registration (OVR),457 and most states have some means for voters to look up their voter registration status online. OVR is a cost-effective way to offer voters the convenience of registering on a computer or smartphone and to maintain accurate and up-to-date voter lists.458 To be inclusive and accessible to the broadest range of eligible voters, an online registration system should:
    • Be offered in all languages required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and pursuant to any state language-assistance laws.
    • Be fully accessible to people with vision impairment and other disabilities.
    • Incorporate technology that can capture and accept an electronic signature so that people who lack state-issued identification have a way to provide a signature on their online voter registration application;459 or, explore other means of providing a signature, such as letting the individual sign at the polling place when they vote.
  • Automate your state’s voter registration infrastructure so that eligible citizens are registered to vote—and registrations are automatically updated—when they interact with state agencies.  
    The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) already requires most states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle offices, public assistance agencies, and offices serving people with disabilities. Across the country, states are taking additional simple steps to modernize existing state agency voter-registration infrastructure to make registration more convenient and accurate, including:
    • Building systems that incorporate seamless voter registration opportunities into online agency transactions and allow for the secure electronic transfer of voter information to elections officials. These systems eliminate costs and problems associated with the transmission and processing of paper registration forms and improve the accuracy and integrity of state voter rolls.
    • Shifting to Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), which uses information already on file with government agencies to identify individuals who are eligible to register to vote and add them to the voter rolls or update their voter information in a seamless, paperless process. Adopting AVR increases voter registration rates, ensures that voter registration rolls are updated when voters move within the state, and reduces the potential for inaccuracies including voter errors. When designing AVR, precautions must be taken to ensure that individuals who are not eligible to vote, including non-citizens, are not registered, and to provide clear, accessible, and well-delivered opt-out provisions.
  • Expand the state and local government agencies offering voter registration. Under the NVRA, states may designate agencies to offer voter registration services in addition to DMVs, public assistance agencies, and agencies serving people with disabilities. This is an opportunity for states to think expansively about bringing more people into the political process. States like Ohio have designated public high schools and universities, public libraries, and county treasurers’ offices as NVRA agencies. In 2013, California became the first state to designate its health benefit exchange as an NVRA agency. States should also designate corrections agencies, including parole boards and probation offices, as voter registration agencies.460 Even states that are not covered by the NVRA can mandate that designated state and local agencies offer voter registration.461


The NVRA’s 25th Anniversary

The NVRA has been around for 25 years, but sometimes old laws get neglected. Make sure your state has strong NVRA policies, training, and tracking to ensure all required agencies are offering voter registration. Or take advantage of the NVRA’s 25th anniversary to modernize NVRA compliance! Automating the voter registration process at state agencies will ensure seamless registration and verification that increases voter registration rates, improves the integrity of our elections, and eliminates problems and costs associated with handwritten registration forms.


  • Allow voters to register to vote and cast a ballot during early voting and on Election DaySame Day Registration (SDR) and Election Day Registration (EDR) eliminate the bureaucratic hurdles of voter registration deadlines, allow registration issues to be fixed on site, and modernize our registration process to better serve the needs of a busy and mobile society. Implemented in some states in the 1970s, SDR is not a new concept. As of 2018, 16 states and the District of Columbia have adopted SDR.462 Most states that offer SDR not only allow people to register to vote and cast their ballot in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day during early voting, but also allow people to register and vote on Election Day itself.
  • Pre-register eligible 16- and 17-year-olds and automatically add them to voter rolls when they turn 18. Engaging potential voters at a young age is a successful way to increase voter registration, not just in the short term but also over a lifetime. People who begin voting at an early age are more likely to stay engaged. Pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds to vote can be an important first step to engaging young adults. Twelve states and the District of Columbia allow pre-registration starting at 16, and an additional 4 states allow pre-registration of 17-year-olds.463
  • Send election officials to USCIS ceremonies to register newly naturalized citizens. While 71.2 percent of all US-born citizens reported being registered for the November 2016 elections, only 61.7 percent of naturalized citizens did.464 Sending state election officials to naturalization ceremonies can be an important first step to engaging new citizens.

Equal Access for All Eligible Voters
When developing and implementing reforms to modernize voter registration and voting, include community-based groups and experts working on immigrants’ rights, language access, and access for people with disabilities. Working with impacted communities will help ensure that modernized systems are inclusive of people who have historically been left out of the process, and that safeguards are in place to protect noncitizens from inadvertent registration.


  • Making voter registration inclusive and accessible advances our democratic values of freedom, equality, and fairness. When voter registration is harder, we create unnecessary obstacles for Americans to exercise their fundamental freedom and civic responsibility. Every eligible voter should have an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy and make their voices heard in our elections.
  • Modernizing voter registration is a commonsense solution with bipartisan support across the U.S. States across the country are enacting laws to modernize voter registration. Modernization makes voter registration more secure and less complicated for all eligible voters, while also easing costs and burdens placed on elections officials. States should implement commonsense solutions that take advantage of technology we use in our everyday lives to help make voter registration more accessible and secure. Every eligible voter should have an equal opportunity to choose their elected officials. 
  • Modernized voter registration improves the accuracy and integrity of our voter rolls. We need policy solutions that safeguard our election system. Modernized, automated voter registration improves the accuracy and security of our voting rolls by making it easier to verify voters and ensuring consistency across jurisdictions. Together, we can pass reforms to ensure that every eligible voter gets a fair chance to exercise their right to vote.



  • Modernized registration systems increase voter registration rates, including in historically marginalized communities. When voter registration is accessible, registration numbers climb. For instance, in the 10 years following Pennsylvania’s elimination of paper registration at its motor vehicle offices, the voter registration rate quadrupled.465 Oregon’s new law that automatically registers people who interact with its Office of Motor Vehicles added 272,000 people to the voter rolls in its first year. These newly registered voters were more likely to live in racially diverse areas and lower- and middle-income areas, and 40 percent were under the age of 30.466
  • Modernized voter registration systems increase voter turnout. States with Same Day Registration (SDR) have the highest voter turnout rates in the nation, achieving turnout rates up to 7 to 10 percentage points higher than states without SDR.467 In 2016, the 6 states with the highest turnout were all states with SDR.468 Policies like pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds likewise have a demonstrated impact on turnout. In 2008, pre-registered young voters in Florida turned out at a rate 4.7 percent higher than young voters who registered after turning 18.469
  • Modernized registration systems increase the security and accuracy of the voter rolls. In a 2016 report by the United States Government Accountability Office, elections officials in all of the 5 states studied reported that online voter registration improved the accuracy of their voter registration rolls, with 1 state reporting this was the greatest benefit to online registration.470  Officials also report that electronic transmission of data from DMVs to elections officials increases accuracy by eliminating problems associated with deciphering illegible handwriting on paper forms.471 In states like Michigan and Kentucky, DMV data-sharing allows for automated updates of changes of address.472
  • Modernized registration systems are cost effective. Switching to an online voter registration system can save states hundreds of thousands of dollars. For instance, Washington State reports costs savings of $0.25 for each online registration, with an additional $0.50 to $2.00 per registration saved at the county level.473 Allowing voters to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day reduces costs associated with processing provisional ballots. After SDR was adopted in Iowa, provisional ballots dropped from 15,000 in the 2004 presidential election to less than 5,000 in 2008—a 67 percent decline.474 North Carolina saw 23,000 fewer provisional ballots after it adopted SDR in 2008.475




448. Shelby Sebens, “Oregon Governor Signs Sweeping Automatic Voter Registration into Law,” Reuters, March 16, 2015 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-oregon/oregon-governor-signs-sweeping-automatic-voter-registration-into-law-idUSKBN0MC27F20150316

449. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered to Vote?, June 21, 2017, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2017/06/why-are-millions-of-citizens-not-registered-to-vote.

450. United States Census Bureau, Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016 (Table 4b), May 2017, https://census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html.

451. J. Mijin Cha, Registering Millions: The Success and Potential of the National Voter Registration Act at 20, Demos, March 2013, p.4, http://demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/RegisteringMillions-NVRA-Demos.pdf.

452. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered?

453. Amicus Brief for Demos & other amici, Chelsea Collaborative et al., v. William F. Galvin, as Secretary of Commonwealth, available at https://aclum.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Amicus-Brief-for-Demos-Rock-the-Vote-SEIU-Mass-State-Counsel....pdf (citing, e.g., Alex Street et. al., Estimating Voter Registration Deadline Effects with Web Search Data, 23 Pol. Analysis 225, 225 (2015)).

454. J. Mijin Cha & Liz Kennedy, Millions to the Polls, 2014.

455. YouGovUS, Americans: Make voting easier, not mandatory, March 30, 2015, https://today.yougov.com/news/2015/03/30/make-voting-easier-not-mandatory/.

456. YouGovUS, Americans: Make voting easier, not mandatory.

457. National Conference of State Legislatures, Online Voter Registration, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx.

458. Caroline Allen, Marian Schneider & Katherine Culliton-González, The Time Tax: America’s Newest Form of Voter Suppression for Millennials, and How it Must be Eliminated to Make Voting Accessible for the Next Generation, Advancement Project & OurTime.org, Nov. 18, 2013, p.15, https://advancementproject.org/resources/the-time-tax/

459. For example, Missouri allows people registering to vote online to upload a signature using a mobile device, a tablet computer or a touchscreen computer. See National Conference of State Legislatures, Online Voter Registration, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx.

460. See, e.g., Rhode Island Board of Elections, Rhode Island Agency-Based Voter Registration, 2011, at p. 4.  http://www.elections.ri.gov/publications/Election_Publications/Voter_Registration/2011%20RI%20Agency%20Voter%20Reg%20Manual.pdf

461. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 201.162 (1987) (“The commissioner or chief administrative officer of each state agency or community-based public agency or nonprofit corporation that contracts with the state agency to carry out obligations of the state agency shall provide voter registration services for employees and the public.”). 

462. National Conference of State Legislatures, Same Day Voter Registration.

463. National Conference of State Legislatures, Preregistration for Young Voters, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/preregistration-for-young-voters.aspx.

464. “Table 11. Reported Voting and Registration Among Native and Naturalized Citizens, by Race, and Region of Origin:  November 2016,” Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016, United States Census Bureau, May 2017, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html.

465. Holly Maluk, Myrna Perez, & Lucy Zhou, Voter Registration in a Digital Age: 2015 Update, 2015, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Voter_Registration_Digital_Age_2015.pdf.

466. Rob Griffin, Paul Gronke, Tova Wang, & Liz Kennedy, Who Votes with Automatic Voter Registration?, June 7, 2017, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2017/06/07/433677/votes-automatic-voter-registration/.

467. Nonprofit Vote, America Goes to the Polls 2016, p. 11, http://www.nonprofitvote.org/documents/2017/03/america-goes-polls-2016.pdf; Project Vote, Same Day Registration, Feb. 2015, http://www.projectvote.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/SameDayFactSheet-PV-Feb2015.pdf. See also National Conference of State Legislatures, Same Day Voter Registrationhttp://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/same-day-registration.aspx#HowSDRWorks (studies also show intrastate increases in voter participation: “Multiple studies place the effect between an increase of 3 to 7 percent, with an average of a 5 percent increase”).

468. Nonprofit Vote, America Goes to the Polls 2016, p. 6.

469. J. Mijin Cha & Liz Kennedy, Millions to the Polls, 2014.

470. United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Issues Related to Registering Voters and Administering Elections, June 2016, GAO-16-630, p. 16, https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/678131.pdf.

471. United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Issues Related to Registering Voters and Administering Elections at p. 23.

472. United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Issues Related to Registering Voters and Administering Elections at p. 24.

473. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Online Voter Registration (OLVR) Systems in Arizona and Washington: Evaluating Usage, Public Confidence and Implementation Processes, April 1, 2010, p. 122, http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2010/onlinevoterregpdf.pdf.

475. Demos, Same Day Registration Explainer.



Sharing the Vision of a Stronger, More Inclusive Democracy

“What’s at stake today is the very shape and structure of our democracy: the way we make decisions about everything from who gets health care to whether a family with a full-time worker will live in poverty; and whose voices are heard in that process.”

—Heather McGhee, former president of Demos384

Americans overwhelmingly agree that our democracy is out of balance and needs fundamental change; they are more united on this than perhaps any other issue.385 While our intuitive sense that our democracy is not working for all of us can make us cynical, the truth is there are solutions to create more access to democratic participation and fair representation, and these solutions are both popular and energizing.


Honing Public Support of Solutions for a Stronger Democracy

  • Vision. Begin and end with a vision for a more inclusive, representative democracy. Root the vision in shared values like freedom and equality.
  • Problem. Demonstrate that you, like so many of Americans, understand that our democracy and our economy are not working for all of us. Tie the problems in our democracy with people’s everyday lives and the issues they care about and point to special interests backed by big money as “villains,” using specific examples.
  • Solutions. Most importantly, focus on solutions and how they lead to a shared vision and values. Talking about solutions for a stronger democracy can help turn people’s cynicism into action. 

Together, we can build an inclusive democracy that is of, by, and for the people.

Source: ReThink Media, Moving Americans to Action: A Message Guide For Democracy Advocateshere.



To build an economy that works for all of us, and not just the wealthy few, we must build a democracy in which we all truly have an equal say in the decisions affecting our lives, and elections are free, fair, and accessible. We can build an inclusive democracy that represents we the people, not just the wealthy special interests; in which people of all walks of life can run for office—and win; where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s freedom to vote is respected, and “one person, one vote” is a reality. Building a more representative democracy will help us build power to advance and accelerate economic, racial, and environmental justice.



Right now, our democracy is out of balance, and we all pay the price. A powerful donor class comprised of wealthy individuals and corporations has more say than everyday Americans. Individuals in this donor class are much wealthier, whiter, and more likely to be male than Americans as a whole. And, they have staunchly different political views, particularly on how to structure our economy or how to prioritize issues facing communities of color.386 When an unrepresentative donor class drives public policy based on their interests, people of color, women, immigrants, and working and poor people bear the brunt of the costs. While wealthy donors from the financial, pharmaceutical, fossil fuel, and private prison industries reap the benefits of policies designed to maximize their profits, marginalized communities experience the consequences—in the form of evictions and foreclosures, poor health and environmental injuries due to pollution and carbon emissions, and overflowing prisons that are packed disproportionately with people of color.

Communities of color are often harmed in policy and politics. Political parties and other civic institutions disinvest from black and brown voters. As Michelle Tremillo, Executive Director of Texas Organizing Project has described, “You can walk through our neighborhoods and never know it was an election year.” With elections dominated by big money, people who do not have access to wealthy donor networks struggle to run for office and win. Centuries of race-based exclusion in our democracy and our economy make it even harder for candidates of color: 90 percent of elected officials in America, from the county level up to Congress, are white, although more than 37 percent of Americans are people of color; and state legislative candidates of color raise significantly less money than white candidates when they run for office.387

Once elected, politicians backed by wealthy special interests change the rules of the game to try to stay in power. Politicians manipulate voting maps and draw district lines in ways that will keep themselves, their parties, and their predominantly white, male donors in power. States remove eligible Americans from voter lists when they have not voted in a few elections or cannot be reached by mail. From the beginning of our democracy until today, wealthy special interests have backed state efforts to restrict people’s freedom to vote, especially for black Americans and communities of color.388 Consistently—and with “almost surgical precision,” in the words of one federal court—these attacks on the freedom to vote disproportionately hurt people of color.389 So despite game-changing advances in technology that could make voting more convenient, exercising our fundamental freedom to vote has become even harder in some states. 

The result is a democracy fundamentally out of balance, which an overwhelming majority of Americans recognize. The imbalance and inequalities in our democracy play out in an economy that does not work for all of us.



We can bring our democracy into balance. As this section of this briefing book discusses, we can:

  • Shift power from a wealthy, disproportionately white donor class to the people, by empowering small-dollar donors and the candidates they support and reining in the outsized influence of wealthy donors and corporations. 
  • Advance and expand the freedom to vote, by modernizing our voting and election systems and making them more accessible, and by abolishing laws that disenfranchise people convicted of felonies and restoring the right to vote to people who have been disenfranchised by these laws.
  • Make our democracy more representative by creating fair voting maps, honoring the popular vote, and taking other steps to make elected officials more responsive and accountable to a broader range of people.

Together, we can build an inclusive democracy that is of, by, and for the people.



People who want to keep democratic power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few have long framed democracy issues in ways that stoke people’s fears, drive misinformation, and leverage racialized dog-whistles. One need only consider the false claims of illegal voting in the last presidential election for an example. Therefore, proponents of a robust and inclusive democracy must be wary of talking about these issues in ways that can trigger these responses and inadvertently move the public toward restrictions that make it harder to vote (and especially harder for communities of color).390 For this set of issues, messaging guidance based upon available polling suggests it is best to avoid these framings altogether.391 Focusing on shared values, and on solutions that will strengthen our democracy, is the best way to hone public support for democracy reforms.


Cautionary Note
Polling on democracy issues has historically surveyed respondents who have voted or who are registered to vote. By focusing on voters, many polls exclude the nearly 40% of Americans who did not vote in the most recent presidential election. And, because of a long history of racialized advantages and disadvantages in voting and voter registration, focusing on voters and people who are registered to vote also has racial equity implications, since communities of color face more structural barriers to participating. For these reasons, more inclusive opinion research is needed, and advocates should approach democracy messaging guidance critically—especially when working to mobilize populations that are underrepresented on the voter rolls. 

  • Avoid discussing problems facing our democracy in a way that is too partisan or academic. It can be alienating to everyday people. Terms like “voter suppression” are unclear and sound partisan, which can make people cynical.392 In this area, pointing to studies or empirical evidence can actually make people less likely to agree with you. For example, pointing to studies showing that voter fraud is incredibly rare makes people even less likely to believe that voter fraud is incredibly rare. However, pointing to court cases protecting the freedom to vote can be an effective way to validate your message.
  • Instead, tap into shared values like fairness and equal access, and connect the problems facing our democracy with issues that are important to everyday people.
  • Avoid framings that make people cynical or afraid, including:

Corruption. Corruption has been at the center of many conversations about money in politics, and Americans overwhelmingly agree that our government is corrupt. However, over-emphasizing the corrupting influence of money in politics leads people into a “vortex of despair”: when people become so cynical they believe the problems facing our democracy are not solvable.393 Here, we can learn a lot from Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), whose work includes canvassing in resource-poor wards in St. Louis. When OBS organizers meet community members with empathy and shared values, it creates pathways for talking about measurable solutions, like raising the minimum wage. The same is true when talking about our democracy. Centering shared values and solutions can move people from cynicism into action.

  • Instead, focus on solutions that will help us create a democracy where we all have an equal say over the decisions that affect our lives.

“Fraud.” Unfortunately, there is widespread misinformation about the prevalence of voting errors in the United States. Most Americans believe that voter fraud is a growing problem. Polling also indicates that majorities support voter ID and documentary proof of citizenship requirements, even though these restrictions hurt people of color, trans and queer people, elderly people, low-income people, and people with disabilities most. The specter of fraud is rooted in fear of the “other,” and it’s best to avoid engaging about “fraud” at all.

  • Instead, express our shared desire for elections that are free, accessible, and secure, and pivot to solutions to bring our democracy into balance (which move people to action, not fear).


  • Use caution when talking about the real need to make our elections more secure.
    Most Americans are rightly concerned about hostile regimes exerting influence on our elections. This may present opportunities to pass election security measures or bans on campaign spending by foreign corporations. But we must bear in mind that nearly 50 percent of Americans falsely believe that “millions” of individuals “voted illegally” in 2016. Public fear around election “security” and “foreign interference” can also corner us into talking about “fraud,” which is damaging for reasons noted above. This rhetoric can also fuel state attacks on the freedom to vote and undermine long-term efforts to build a more inclusive democracy through measures like expanding the franchise to people who have been criminalized by our justice and immigration systems.
  • Cite specific threats (such as attempts by the authoritarian Russian regime to sow discord and influence the 2016 election) rather than vilifying “foreigners” generally.
  • Focus on solutions to advance election and voting protections and technologies, without vilifying outsiders—and emphasize a vision of a stronger and more inclusive democracy. In the long run, we want to build a democracy rooted in shared values, not in fear of outsiders.



384. Testimony of Heather C. McGhee before the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, March 23, 2017, http://www.demos.org/publication/testimony-heather-c-mcghee-committee-judiciary-united-states-senate.

385. See, e.g., The New York Times & CBS polling, Americans’ Views on Money in Politics, June 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/02/us/politics/money-in-politics-poll.html; Pew Research Center, Perceptions of elected officials and the role of money in politics, Nov. 23, 2015, http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/6-perceptions-of-elected-officials-and-the-role-of-money-in-politics/.

386. See David Callahan & J. Mijin Cha, Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent & Business Undermines Economic Mobility in America, Demos, Feb. 2013. http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/imce/StackedDeck_1.pdf; Adam Lioz, How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, Demos, July 23, 2015. http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf; Sean McElwee, Whose Voice, Whose Choice? The Distorting Influence Of The Political Donor Class In Our Big-Money Elections, Demos, Dec. 8, 2016http://www.demos.org/publication/whose-voice-whose-choice-distorting-influence-political-donor-class-our-big-money-electi.

387. Women’s Donor Network, Who Leads Us?https://wholeads.us/electedofficials/ (last visited Feb. 1, 2018); Adam Lioz, How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, Demos, July 23, 2015.  http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf.

388. See generally, Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2009 ed.); Ari Berman, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (2016).

389. See, e.g., Ari Berman, “The Country’s Worst Anti-Voting Law Was Just Struck Down in North Carolina,” The Nation, July 29, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-countrys-worst-anti-voting-law-was-just-struck-down-in-north-carolina/North Carolina State Conf. of the NAACP et al. v. Mccrory, Case No. 16-1468, at *11 (4th Cir., July 29, 2016), http://electionlawblog.org/wp-content/uploads/nc-4th.pdfsee also The Brennan Center for Justice, New Voting Restrictions in Americahttp://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america (last visited Feb. 1, 2018). 

390. “Resist and Overhaul Measures that Make It Harder to Vote,” in this briefing book provides an overview of some of these restrictions, and how to talk about them when they are happening in your state.

391. See, e.g., ReThink Media, Moving Americans to Action, A Message Guide for Democracy Advocates, June 13, 2016, at 8, https://rethinkmedia.org/content/moving-americans-action-messaging-guide-democracy-advocates (discussing the limitations of the corruption frame); ReThink Media, Voting Rights Messaging, Nov. 2017, https://rethinkmedia.org/sites/default/files/vr-messaging-one-pager-171103.pdf (discussing other challenges in messaging around voting rights).

392. See generally ReThink Media, Voting Rights Messaging.

393. ReThink Media, Moving Americans to Action, 8.