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David Daley, Unrigged: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy. New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2020

David Daley

[dc]“G[/dc]etting democracy to work as it should” is more than a head-nodding phrase. It’s an activist call to arms. Democracy is being sabotaged. And what makes David Daley’s Unrigged especially noteworthy is that he doesn’t write about any kind of political activism; he writes about grassroots political activism.

It’s a 21st Century adaptation of what de Tocqueville wrote about centuries ago. In Democracy in America (1835), the French author expressed admiration for everyday Americans who rolled up their civic sleeves and got to work. Then as today, the storyline is about grit and persistence. In 2020, add courage and fortitude to the list. That’s because today’s work is about righting wrongs and fixing broken systems.

Daley makes three contributions: affirming/applauding the work underway, offering a primer for future citizen activists, and authoring a piece that’s worthy of use in civics classes and collegiate classrooms.

But while activists’ work is challenging and stressful, reading Unrigged book is neither. Daley hits the trifecta in at least two ways. The book is easy-to-read, engaging, and uplifting. And in writing it, Daley makes three contributions: affirming/applauding the work underway, offering a primer for future citizen activists, and authoring a piece that’s worthy of use in civics classes and collegiate classrooms.

Daley writes about knotty, complex issues—gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other forms of political chicanery. He also gives extensive treatment to instances where ‘the riggers’ just won’t quit—even after being vanquished. Through legislation, courts, and other means they repeatedly try to undercut grassroots resolve and contradict the peoples’ voice.

Daley is so good at what he writes that my mind kept wandering to matters connected to, but extending beyond, the book. Here are three (of many) examples.

There are plenty of ways to get democracy to work as it should, so what do these activists have in common?  Daley’s activists work to unrig the electoral system. Unrigged is a book about electoral system change.

What other pathways do citizens pursue for democracy’s sake? There are many. Here are two examples. I’ve long observed the work undertaken by Extension educators associated with land grant universities, who work with elected officials, staff, and citizens on matters of local concern. Meaningful change often emerges, including bridging political divides where conflict and power issues lurk. An example is Bill Rizzo’s work at the University of Wisconsin. I’ve also observed work at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH. The Foundation is dedicated to helping citizens engage thoughtfully and collaboratively through the use of dialogic and deliberative practices. Kettering’s work is connected to a national network of civic practitioners, including those associated with the Institute for Civil Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University and the work (among others) of Professors David Procter and Timothy Shaffer.

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When viewed through a social change lens, what kind of electoral system changes are Daley’s activists pursuing? There are at least three kinds of change (at least as I see it)—reform (fixing what’s not working well or is broken), innovation (introducing a new idea or practice), and transformation (a wholesale shift to a new way of doing business). A good share of what Daley writes about falls into the reform category. An example is ending gerrymandering in Michigan by taking district-drawing responsibilities out of a party’s hands and putting it into citizen’s hands. There are examples of innovation, too, such as Maine’s ranked-choice voting system.

What about transformational change? That question made me think about a more recent case not covered in the book—Florida’s proposed top-two open primary system. If FL voters approve the proposal this November, the system will enable Independents to vote in future presidential primaries. That’s reform change because FL operates currently as a closed primary state. The proposal also converts FL from its current two-primary system (one for each major party) to a single, statewide primary. That’s a form of innovation. What’s transformative is how that single, statewide primary will work. Democrat and Republican voters won’t vote using a party-only ballot with non-party affiliates being given a choice of one ballot or the other. Instead, all voters will vote for all candidates (irrespective of party or no-party affiliation) using one ballot. Because the top-two vote-getters advance to the general election, it means November contestants may come from the same party or no party at all.

The FL proposal bundles three forms of change—reform, innovation, and transformation—in a single proposal. While admirable (and worth pursuing, I would add), the record shows that bundled forms of change travel a rocky road to adoption because people have to say yes to multiple change proposals. In the FL case, the bar is set exceptionally high. Because adoption changes the FL state constitution, 60% of FL voters must vote ‘yes’ on November 3 for it to become law. Early polls suggest a close call.

Yes, Daley’s Unrigged offers plenty of food for thought. It’s a timely and relevant book, one that electoral reformers and all democracy activists/scholars should read. Daley documents initiatives over which Americans can exude pride—stories about everyday people unwilling to accept the status quo and, then, doing something to change it.

And it is political theatre at its best—riveting tales of protagonists and antagonists engaging in win-or-lose battles—well expressed in the title of the documentary featuring Michigan’s anti-gerrymandering effort, Slay the Dragon. What’s more, observers don’t know who will win until the very end. Hollywood, be jealous!

In Daley’s melodrama, ‘the good guys’ win most of the time, and we (the beneficiaries) get to cheer.

You can listen to David Daley talk about his book at a session hosted by the Politics for the People book club: Sunday, May 31, 7p. Eastern Time/4p. Pacific Time. Zoom in at https://zoom.us/j/3807035350 or connect using an optional call-in number, 646-558-8656. Meeting ID: 380 703 5350#.

Frank Fear

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