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The Need for a White House Office of Democracy Reform

The White House is seen in May 2005, Washington, D.C.

The United States has just emerged from an election that former National Security Adviser and incoming Director of the Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice described as “our democracy’s near-death experience.” The outgoing president, with the complicity of many congressional Republicans, engaged in an effort to undermine the results of that election with bad-faith, unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Their lies culminated in an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building—led by conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and other right-wing extremists intent on preventing Congress from certifying the electoral votes. While that effort failed, it sent a stark message: American democracy can no longer be taken for granted.

Some leaders in Congress have understood, years ahead of the curve, that American democracy faced serious challenges—and they have led an unprecedented effort to strengthen democratic institutions. The For the People Act, also known as H.R. 1, contains the most transformative anti-corruption and pro-voting measures since the post-Watergate era. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March of 2019 and received the support of every member of the Senate Democratic caucus. The bill now faces a tough fight in a narrowly divided Senate, but its strong support thus far has made clear that the long-neglected pro-democracy agenda now has many champions in Congress.

The White House as an institution, however, has some catching up to do. Historically, democracy issues writ large have received limited attention from the president and his staff. In previous administrations, there was no single point person at the White House for issues such as voting rights, redistricting, and campaign finance regulation; to the extent that these issues received any White House attention, they were divided among political advisers and policy staff specializing in other areas.

There is every indication that the new administration intends to treat these issues with the seriousness they deserve. Rice, who will lead the administration’s domestic policy agenda, has endorsed H.R. 1, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), and D.C. statehood. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris co-sponsored these bills while serving in the Senate. And most notably, President-elect Joe Biden ran his campaign with a strong democracy reform platform and promised to make bold reforms a top priority in his administration.

However, without dedicated staff, effectuating these policies will be a tall order. Further exacerbating this problem is the country’s lack of a Cabinet-level agency responsible for democracy issues. The U.S. Department of Justice enforces voting rights, but it does not robustly engage in developing voting policy. The Federal Election Commission is charged with interpreting and enforcing campaign finance law, but it is an independent agency that does not coordinate with the White House on matters of policy. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission plays an important role in supporting state efforts to better administer elections, but it is a small agency without enforcement power or sufficient funding.

To address this deficit, the Biden administration should create a new office within the Domestic Policy Council that focuses specifically on democracy reform. The office should be led by a single individual and charged with advancing substantive policies that combat political corruption; ensure that every American can easily exercise their right to vote; and ensure that every American is effectively represented in the political process. The leader of this new office, and any appropriate staff, should have experience with voting, redistricting, campaign finance, government ethics, and other issues related to democracy reform. They should be encouraged to proactively develop and promote democracy reform policy and should be empowered to convene experts and stakeholders across agencies, write reports on relevant topics, and draw on resources from other White House offices.

The 2020 election and the ongoing campaign of disinformation about its results have made clear that American democracy is more fragile than many had thought. The fight to safeguard and sustain American democracy, and to secure a more democratic world, will depend on political leadership—and, perhaps most of all, on leadership from the White House.

On the Center for American Progress’ Democracy and Government Reform team, Alex Tausanovitch is the director of campaign finance and electoral reform; Danielle Root is the associate director of voting rights and access to justice; and Michael Sozan is a senior fellow.