Catherine Weller: Press candidates on how they will move our country forward

(AP file photos) Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Calif. Sen. Kamala Harris will participate in the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah on Oct. 7.

This week, vice presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence will take the debate stage here in Utah for the first time together and go head-to-head on some of the most pressing issues facing our country, including democracy reforms.

At the League of Women Voters, we’ve long recognized the value of candidates coming together to publicly state their positions on how they plan to move our country forward. As an early sponsor of the televised presidential debates, we’ve convened candidates at the federal level down to the local, allowing voters to have a front-row seat and direct connection to those aiming to represent their interests. For many voters, debates are some of the only opportunities to see candidates in action for more time than a sound bite in a news story.

While debates have since evolved, we know this week’s event will address the most urgent crises affecting communities across the country — from the pandemic and access to health care, to police brutality and climate change. But as we look at where change must begin, it is critical we hear from the candidates on how they will repair the very foundation these policies are built upon: our democratic systems.

Our democracy is in a crisis. In the past few years, we’ve seen rampant corruption and a disregard for ethics, accountability, oversight and rule of law. The influence of corporations and wealthy interests in shaping our nation’s policies drowns out the voices of everyday voters.

We’ve seen this corruption trickle down into elections across the country. Earlier this year, during primaries in states like Wisconsin and Georgia, voters — particularly disenfranchised communities such as Black people and people of color — stood in line for hours as the number of polling stations was sliced in half, and were turned away from casting their ballot without clear explanation. These were two of many statewide deliberate efforts to suppress the voice of voters across the country.

While Utah is one of the few states leading the way in ensuring easy access to mail-in voting during the pandemic, our state is not without its challenges. For example, Native voters in San Juan County and rural voters in Garfield County faced widespread frustrating barriers to registering to vote. Some voters would drive hours to register only to find out they weren’t eligible because of obscure and confusing documentation requirements, with others simply gave up on trying to register, due to the financial and time constraints, after multiple hurdles that started to add up.

To make a meaningful step toward change in our democratic systems, the administration in the next presidential term must make democracy a priority on day one. This includes being a champion of the For the People Act, a once-in-a-generation democracy reform package to clean up our political system and restore a democracy that responds to the needs and priorities of voters — not wealthy donors and corporate interests. If passed by Congress, the next administration should support and sign this important legislation into law.

Without rebuilding our democracy first, we’ll be unable to see meaningful progress on the many other issues facing our country. The environment, economy, education, racial justice and health are all on the line.

As debate moderator Susan Page presses the candidates on how they will move our country forward, I urge her to ask the hard questions about how they will repair our democratic systems from the ground up.

The American people, including here in Utah, cannot wait any longer. We have a long road ahead of us to rebuild what’s been long broken, but we can start to make meaningful change if repairing our democracy begins on day one.

Catherine Weller

Catherine Weller is co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah.