Don’t forget. On March 16th at 5:30 PM ET, we’re proud to co-host our event with Persuasion, featuring Eliot Higgins (founder of Bellingcat), Garry Kasparov (RDI chairman), and Yascha Mounk (founder of Persuasion). Make sure to sign up while you can. Tickets are free, but limited. Register here.
And here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Georgia Passes Law to Limit Voting, as Wave of Voter Restrictions Sweeps America
2. Universal Basic Income Program a Success in Stockton, California
3. Violence in Myanmar Escalates as Military holds onto Power
Georgia Passes Law to Limit Voting, as Wave of Voter Restrictions Sweeps America
Georgians face long lines to vote in Georgia’s June 9 Primary.
Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Getty Images
After historic state turnout and a surprising Democratic victory in Georgia last November (and again this January), the Georgia State Senate passed a new bill this Monday to restrict absentee voting in the Peach State.
The bill, SB 241, will have major effects: more than one million Georgians cast their ballots this November through no-excuse absentee voting, a system created in 2005 by the state’s Republican legislature. The new law places severe restrictions on who can vote by mail, limiting absentee ballots only to select groups and requiring absentee voters to present photo ID’s.
The Senate will also soon vote on several other restrictive election laws, including a bill to end automatic voter registration when people get their driver's license. Another bill that recently passed the Georgia House will prevent volunteers from providing free food to people waiting in voting lines, restrict the use of ballot drop boxes, and limit early voting on Sundays.
It is very likely that Black and Democratic voters will be disproportionately affected by these new rules. African Americans tend to face longer lines, and have historically voted in large numbers on Sundays with their church communities. And though Republicans and Democrats used to vote absentee at relatively equal rates, misinformation and the pandemic mean that Democrats have become more likely to vote by mail.
1. Are other states considering similar pieces of legislation?
The Peach State is not alone in its attempts to restrict voting. Across the country, GOP lawmakers are currently considering over 250 bills with provisions to limit voting in 43 states. Many of these bills seek to limit access to absentee voting and to require voter IDs at the polls.
Republicans argue that these laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, a crime they claim was widespread during the last election. There is currently no evidence to support this claim, however, and Republicans lost every single court case alleging voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Moreover, experts on the right agree that eliminating absentee voting does nothing to combat fraud—already a rare and isolated phenomenon—and “may instead suppress voter turnout.” A report from a conservative think tank, R Street, found that policies that result in exceedingly long voting lines do qualify as voter suppression, and threaten to undermine voter confidence in the electoral process.
2. What can we do to protect the vote?
If new voting restrictions disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, then these bills could be subject to lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, recent Supreme Court rulings have greatly weakened the landmark 1965 voting law, and just this week, the Supreme Court seemed poised to make it more difficult to challenge potentially discriminatory legislation.
This means that restrictive voting laws may be more successfully addressed through legislative and executive avenues, rather than through the courts.
One option for doing so is through HR1, a massive voting rights bill that just passed the House this week. Among other provisions, HR1 would create new national automatic voter registration, expand early voting, prohibit states from restricting vote-by-mail, end partisan gerrymandering, and restore voting rights to ex-felons. In short, HR1 could revolutionize the American voting system--but it has slim chances of passing the Senate, where it needs at least ten Republican votes.
Though electoral reform has become a partisan issue, it shouldn’t be. Attempts to restrict access to the ballot box represent an existential threat to our democratic system. Ensuring fair and equal access to the vote is a matter of living up to our country’s values, and ensuring the integrity of our democracy for years to come.
Universal Basic Income Program a Success in Stockton, California
Former Stockton, California mayor Michael Tubbs, who championed the pilot program, in 2018. Credit: Jane Ross/Reuters
This week saw renewed interest in the viability of a universal basic income (UBI) after the release of encouraging preliminary results from a $500-a-month guaranteed income pilot program in Stockton, California. A pair of independent researchers analyzed data from the first year of the experiment (up to February 2020) and found that compared to a randomly-selected control group, the recipients:
Found employment at a 7% rate higher than that of the control group.
Did not generally squander the money on “temptation goods,” spending less than 1% of the money on alcohol and tobacco.
Experienced improvements in mental health on average equivalent to “moving from likely having a mild mental health disorder to likely mental wellness.”
The study’s authors hypothesized that having greater financial freedom liberated participants to set goals and seek more stable employment. For instance, one man who had been eligible for a real estate license but couldn’t afford to take time off his job said that thanks to the money, his life was “converted 360 degrees.”
It is important to note that this study was quite limited: just 125 people received the payments and these are preliminary findings, so the significance of the results should not be overstated. However, they are consistent with the results of more comprehensive research on guaranteed transfer programs.
1. Does this mean UBI is sound public policy?
Not necessarily, but wherever people land on this question, we should set ideology aside and focus on evidence.
First, it is important to note that the Stockton trial targeted low-income neighborhoods, and thus did not involve a bona fide universal basic income, because it was not provided to everyone.
In support of a UBI, most evidence suggests that giving money directly to those in need is more beneficial than the government spending it on their behalf, denying recipients agency and choice. In the words of Milton Friedman, “nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” Furthermore, research to date has suggested the proposal is unlikely to strongly disincentivize work and that households typically spend the money on necessities or save it rather than indulging in vices.
However, many UBI skeptics point out that the payments would likely be fiscally ruinous due to their universality. Arguably the most rigorous study conducted to date found that even at a level just half that of common proposals ($6,000 per year), by 2032, a federal UBI would cause a cataclysmic increase in the national debt (81%) and, due to “crowding out,” an unprecedented decrease in GDP (9%, about twice the drop experienced during the Great Recession).
For more information on this complicated topic, Intelligence Squared’s UBI debate is a great resource.
2. Why might UBI be important for our democracy?
Many UBI advocates frame the policy as a necessary response to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), which could cause mass unemployment that could in turn trigger political radicalization.
AI innovations have the potential to raise global GDP by a massive 26% by 2030, but could also automate away up to 47% of American jobs over the next few decades. While automation has historically created jobs faster than it has replaced them, many argue this transition is fundamentally different because fewer workers are needed to train robots capable of training themselves, among other reasons.
Establishing a basic safety net may also quell some of the economic anxiety that empowers ideologues: research has directly linked automation with increased support for populism, and the issue may have even swung the 2016 election to a candidate with authoritarian tendencies.
Figures from Martin Luther King Jr. to Milton Friedman have supported versions of a UBI because it would ensure that no American would suffer from material deprivation. This is a perfect example of a policy that could have a transformative impact on our democracy in a way that transcends partisanship. However, if put in place, the policy could prove very difficult to roll back—we must follow a data-driven approach, cautious following where the evidence leads.
Violence in Myanmar Escalates as Military holds onto Power
Protestors in Yangon. Credit: The New York Times
Since our February 18th newsletter, military forces have increasingly cracked down on protesters. The arrest toll has reached 1,900 while the rising death toll (more than 60) now includes two members of the deposed leader’s party, at least one of whom was "tortured to death in his cell." Social media posts document egregious acts of violence involving tear gas, grenades, rubber bullets, and evening patrols accompanied by "heavy weapon fire."
This past weekend, to consolidate control, police occupied schools and hospitals, clearing campuses by force. Targeting ambulances, military personnel are arresting wounded individuals under the assumption that they have taken part in the protests. Deposed leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi has been tried twice without any legal assistance.
1. How have the people of Myanmar responded to this violence?
Myanmar’s citizens have collectively taken on an activist approach, participating in widespread strikes that have brought the country’s economy and government to a standstill.
Women have been at the forefront of this civil disobedience movement, with hundreds of thousands participating in the protests. Unions dominated by female members, such as those in the education, medical, and textile industries, have led the strikes. And female martyrs like Ma Kyal Sin, an 18 year-old woman who was shot dead by agents of the military on March 3rd, have inspired protesters to march on. Kyal Sin was one of at least 38 protesters shot by the regime on the bloodiest day of demonstrations so far.
2. Why should we care?
Myanmar’s story is important even in America. Every democratic institution in our global community is interconnected, and a win for autocracy abroad is a loss for democracy at home. Democracy is like a muscle—it must be flexed and trained constantly to maintain its strength and vigor. As authoritarians continue to gain power throughout the world, the bravery of the people of Myanmar shows us how everyday citizens are willing to sacrifice their lives just for a chance at a democracy.