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Our Democracy Is in Danger

According to Freedom House, the growth and spread of democracies that defined the 20th Century peaked in the early days of the 21st; since 2005, the state of democracies around the world has receded. In countries like Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Venezuela, autocrats have slowly dismantled democratic systems, leaving governments that are for the most part democracies in name only. Recent events in the United States have sounded a powerful alarm that, if we are not careful, our democracy could suffer a similar fate. The actions of domestic leaders who exhibit decidedly illiberal and autocratic tendencies has exposed an undercurrent in our politics that has been building for years and threatens our democracy. For example, thirty years ago, one in sixteen Americans expressed comfort with the idea of military rule; today that number is one in six.

Protect Democracy formed to prevent American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.

Protect Democracy was founded in early 2017 by a group of former high-level executive branch officials who served in the White House Counsel’s Office and upper echelons of the Department of Justice and have unique knowledge of the norms that have constrained presidential power for decades and when those in power may be tempted to violate them. As many of us defended past presidents against legitimate oversight and illegitimate attacks, we also know how to leverage tools outside government to prevent the exploitation of power within it. We have since assembled a group of some of the world’s leading experts who have studied how other democracies have declined in the 21st Century as advisers, and are backed by a Harvard Law School clinic, pro bono relationships with many of the country’s leading law firms, and a cross-ideological advisory board ranging from President Obama’s former Solicitor General to former Reagan White House officials.

Our work is producing impact

Some of the leading scholars on autocrats helped us identify the six tactics those leaders typically employ to dismantle democracies. Our recent work has been organized around preventing each from happening here:

Preventing the corruption of elections – We built a software application that is used by Republican and Democratic election officials to protect voter registration databases from foreign hacking. Through advocacy and litigation, we pushed South Carolina and Pennsylvania to replace their aging and vulnerable voting machines in time for the 2020 election. We succeeded in helping shut down the Pence-Kobach “Voter Integrity” Commission, and sued one of the Pence-Kobach Commission members for intimidating lawful voters in his work outside the Commission. In 2018, we forced Brian Kemp to resign as Georgia Secretary of State so that he couldn’t oversee the vote count in the gubernatorial race in which he was running, and established key legal precedent in the process. We organized the National Task Force on Election Crises, a cross-partisan group of experts working to identify and mitigate potential electoral crises that could impact a free and fair 2020 election. The Task Force educated and organized key stakeholders and decision-makers across government, media, and entertainment on best practices for mitigating the chance of an electoral crisis, briefing groups like the National Association of Secretaries of States; major tech companies like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter; and convening a media summit that featured attendance from nearly every major outlet. And we sued Wisconsin for failing to provide a safe election to its citizens during the April 7, 2020 primary election in order to prevent a replay of the mass disenfranchisement of Wisconsin voters during the 2020 general election.

Preventing the executive from aggrandizing power at the expense of competing institutions – We forced the release of the “Watergate Roadmap,” a document that had been secret for 44 years which laid out the evidence of criminal activity by Richard Nixon to the House Judiciary Committee. That document served as a blueprint for the House Judiciary Committee’s victory in their petition to unseal grand jury evidence from Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation before impeaching President Trump. We challenged the President’s abuse of the pardon power and persuaded the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to appoint a special prosecutor in ongoing litigation over the pardon issued to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We also defeated President Trump’s legal team in multiple cases in New York State courts in which they claimed that the president is immune from civil suit in state court while in office. And we invalidated President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency along the southern border, which he issued to circumvent Congress to fund his border wall. A Texas federal judge issued a nationwide injunction in the case, holding that the President’s declaration violated federal law, which we are now defending on appeal.

Preventing the delegitimization of vulnerable communities – We secured a nationwide injunction blocking the Trump Administration from implementing a rule designed to make it harder for lower-income green card holders––disproportionately people of color––to become citizens. Our lawsuit forced the Justice Department to admit that a government report linking immigrants to terrorism, which was released in conjunction with the Travel Ban, was based on erroneous statistics. As part of the coalition working to ensure a fair and accurate census, we helped expose and then thwart the appointment of an unqualified partisan to a top operational role at the Census Bureau. We also filed a lawsuit against a previously secret Department of Homeland Security surveillance operation targeting those who speak out against the administration’s immigration policies, securing a court ruling moving forward our efforts to stop this unconstitutional behavior.

Preventing the politicization of independent institutions – Our organizing of more than 2,500 alumni of the Department of Justice calling for the resignation of Attorney General Bill Barr and criticizing the politicization of law enforcement caused a media firestorm that helped force Department of Justice leadership to reverse course on its interference in the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone, and helped pressure the Attorney General to publicly rebuke the president’s interference in Department of Justice prosecutions. At a time when independent scientific expertise is under attack, we won an appeal of our lawsuit aiming to block an effort by former EPA chief Scott Pruitt to kick expert scientists off of EPA advisory committees in order to stack those committees with industry-paid members. The appeal ultimately led to the EPA rescinding its policy.

Preventing the government from spreading disinformation – We have repeatedly forced the federal government to disclose documentary evidence showing that President Trump had lied: we exposed that the White House lied about the FBI being in disarray under Director James Comey, that President Trump lied about information he claimed was provided by federal agencies to justify his Travel Ban, and that he lied about who was truly to blame for the family separation policy at the southern border.

Preventing the government from being able to quash dissent – In a landmark First Amendment lawsuit, a court ruled in our favor that the president’s retaliatory actions against media outlets whose coverage he doesn’t like may violate the Constitution, allowing us to proceed to discovery. We also filed a lawsuit against a previously secret Department of Homeland Security surveillance operation targeting those who speak out against the administration’s immigration policies, securing a court ruling moving forward our efforts to stop this unconstitutional behavior.

But this is just a sampling of our work. Beyond these projects, Protect Democracy has filed more than fifty legal actions to protect democratic institutions, generated a forward-looking policy agenda for restoring democratic guardrails that is already being embraced by members of Congress and other leaders, and used strategic interventions to generate hundreds of stories in the media designed to educate the public and pressure key actors on the threats facing our democracy.

Read our most recent IRS Form 990 reports, for the Protect Democracy Project and United to Protect Democracy, here:

The Protect Democracy Project is a 501(c)(3), United to Protect Democracy is a 501(c)(4). Learn more about the difference.

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