AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tuesday evening at the Union Theater at UT Austin, a group of journalism outlets and academic leaders hosted a public discussion about flaws in American democracy and potential solutions to improving voter turnout and access to voting.

Journalist and filmmaker Hedrick Smith answers questions from Texas Tribune co-founder Ross Ramsey. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

The night kicked off with a screening of an upcoming public television documentary called, “The Democracy Rebellion” which touches on topics like campaign funding and redistricting, and “that tells the stories of grassroots reformers putting solutions to work.” The documentary was made by Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and Emmy award-winning documentary producer Hedrick Smith,

Afterward, Texas Tribune co-founder Ross Ramsey asked Smith questions about the film and about what he learned over the course of studying voting and elections across many states.

“If you’ve got gerrymandering problems, you’ve probably got voting rights problems,” Smith said matter-of-factly.

Smith acknowledged that there isn’t one state in the country that should be seen as a model for how to ensure voter access. However, said the state that’s gotten the closest to an exemplary model is California.

Smith has noticed many states looking into how to make campaigns publically funded.

“I think it’s one of the reasons the failure of the media, the national media, to cover this as a movement story,” he said, pointing to efforts by groups like League of Women Voters and Common Cause to register people to vote and to make elections fairer.

“I happen to thinks there’s something percolating in America today which is similar to the Progressive Era. has it gone as far? No? But it’s incipient,” Smith said.

KXAN’s Josh Hinkle also hosted a discussion with Connecticut State Senator Gary Winfield, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and Executive Director of Common Cause Texas Anthony Gutierrez.

The speakers

KXAN’s Josh Hinkle speaks with Connecticut State Senator Gary Winfield, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and Executive Director of Common Cause Texas Anthony Gutierrez (pictured left to right). (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

Dana DeBeauvoir

DeBeauvoir is the Travis County Clerk who is responsible for overseeing elections. She has first elected to that role in 1986 and has since focused on issues such as secure voting systems and using technology to manage costs in elections.

DeBeauvoir said that following the 2010 Census, Travis County “was just carved up so badly” by gerrymandering that the county brought in a program called “vote centers” which are polling places that combine several precincts.

“Vote centers have now turned out to be the way to counter a lot of the problems that have been foisted on voters by folks who don’t want to see ‘them’ voting,” DeBauvoir said. “I want to talk more about how we can figure out good ways that we change around vote centers in order to offer better locations, as opposed to the closing of vote centers that is designed to harm voters.”

The Travis County Clerk believes the newly-in-effect state law banning mobile voting centers will leave the voters who relied on those polling locations “stuck.”

“They are absolutely harmed,” she added. The county had relied on these mobile polling locations to reach voters in rural areas or especially dense areas.

DeBeauvoir said that it would have cost the county one million dollars to put permanent voting locations where the mobile ones had been.

She was excited, however about the new voting machines debuting in Travis County during this November election, featuring both touch-screens and a printed out paper artifact that can be audited.

DeBeauvoir said these voting machines cost the county $9 million and all of that money was funded locally. She wants to see state and federal entities make room to fund local election efforts in the future.

Gary Winfield

Winfield is serving his 4th term as a Connecticut State Senator, he previously served three terms in the Connecticut House of Representatives. Issues important to him include criminal justice, juvenile justice, and immigration policy.

He has also been a proponent of Connecticut’s Clean Election Fund. 

“I want to protect the system that we have in Connecticut and I want to expand it to other places,” he said of the state’s public campaign financing program. “I think all of us who are elected should have the potential for a real challenge.”

Smith believes having publically financed campaigns allows more people to run for office who may not have otherwise run.

Anthony Guiterrez

Guiterrez is the executive director of Common Cause Texas and works on legislative advocacy and grassroots organizing there. Common Cause aims to reduce the influence of money in politics and to end partisan gerrymandering. Gutierrez also has worked in Texas politics for the past 15 years, including some spent working on campaigns and political consulting.

In particular, Guiterrez talked about possible solutions to address gerrymandering.

“There are lots of reforms we could try to adopt to fix the process,” he said. “One of the biggest problems is: do we expect [politicians] to draw maps that are going to maximize their own power? Well, of course, they are. That’s one of the things of how power works.”

About the event

The Solutions Journalism Network and The Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin are sponsoring the event. KXAN, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune are co-sponsors of the event.

KXAN has begun incorporating principles of what is known as “solutions journalism” into our work. This summer and fall, KXAN launched the “Save Our Students” initiative, an ongoing project looking for solutions relating to mental health and school safety.