Needless to say, 2021 did not start out great on the democracy front — with the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. While it was a low point as far as politics go — it was the first time in U.S. history that a peaceful transfer of power, a cornerstone of democracy, was threatened — the U.S. and countries around the world went on to make history in areas of politics and policy.
Kazakhstan and Sierra Leonne became the latest countries in the world to abolish the death penalty. Virginia became the 23rd U.S. state to abolish the death penalty. Hundreds of young, diverse, and non-traditional candidates signed up to run for office. The U.S. got its first Native American serving in a Cabinet position — one that appropriately oversees U.S. lands, seas, and natural resources. Washington state banned for-profit jails, New Mexico ended qualified immunity, and community colleges used pandemic relief dollars to forgive student loan debt.
These are just a handful of ways the U.S. and the world made progress in politics and policy in 2021 — and it's all worth celebrating as we look forward to advocating (and voting!) for even more progress in 2022:
Good Political News In the United States:
Deb Haaland is the first Native American to serve in a Cabinet position as Secretary of the Interior, overseeing U.S. lands, seas, and natural resources
Deb Haaland made history this week — for both being the first Native American to serve as secretary of the Department of the Interior, and the first Native American in history to serve in a Cabinet position in general.
Haaland is a 35th-generation New Mexican from the Pueblo of Laguna, and was in her second term serving New Mexico in the House.
Her appointment to not only a Cabinet position, but specifically as the Secretary of the Interior is especially significant and gives us so much hope. As an Indigenous woman, she'll bring a unique, much-needed, and long-overdue perspective to the protection and conservation of public lands, waters, and natural resources. Her representation in the Cabinet, in this way, is invaluable.
"This historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say it's not about me. Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us," Haaland said during her confirmation hearings. "This is all of our country. This is our mother. You've heard the earth referred to [as] 'Mother Earth.' It's difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land and I feel that every Indigenous person in this country understands that."
More than 7,500 young, diverse and non-traditional candidates have signed up to run for office through Run For Something since Election Day 2020
Government is not something distinct from those who are a part of it. It's not a robot, machine, or an algorithm. Government is people sitting in rooms making decisions that impact policy outcomes — for your community, state, and the country.
It *really* matters who's in those rooms.
After working on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns, Amanda Litman founded Run for Something, an organization dedicated to helping young and non-traditional candidates successfully run for office.
Run for Something removes barriers to entry in elections — local, state, and even federal! — by providing assistance with behind-the-scenes mechanics, tactical and strategic support, advice, mentorship, training, and everything in between.
Between 2017 and 2020, they’ve helped elect nearly 500 candidates in 46 states.
Virginia became the 23rd state to outlaw the death penalty
Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation to repeal the death penalty in Virginia — making it the 23rd state to officially outlaw the death penalty.
This is incredibly good news for progress toward abolishing capital punishment everywhere — and it's especially good news for Virginia.
The state has a devastating history with the death penalty, executing more people in history than any other state (nearly 1,400 people) according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 113 people have been executed in Virginia, second only to Texas.
We need to abolish it everywhere:
— It's irreversible, and the margin of error is unacceptably high.
— It exacerbates a cycle of violence, rather than deterring crime.
— It's discriminatory, disproportionately impacting people of color, people with mental illnesses, and low-income individuals.
— It's expensive and both the use of and public support for it is declining everywhere.
We're celebrating Virginia taking this step to outlaw the death penalty, and are hopeful more states — and the whole country! — will soon follow.
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New Mexico is now the third U.S. state to end qualified immunity
Last week, New Mexico became the third U.S. state to abolish qualified immunity, following Colorado and Connecticut, who did last year.
Qualified immunity protects the actions of police officers and other public servants from civil rights lawsuits, unless they violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."
The original intent of qualified immunity was to protect public officials from "frivolous lawsuits," but its impact has been broader and more far-reaching, enabling officials to act with impunity, without consequences or accountability for misconduct that doesn't fall in the "clearly established" category.
New Mexico is now the latest state to rein that impunity in.
"This is not an anti-police bill,” New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a news release. “This bill does not endanger any first responder or public servant — so long as they conduct themselves professionally within the bounds of our constitution and with a deep and active respect for the sacred rights it guarantees all of us.”
We're celebrating this news with the state of New Mexico, and are hopeful it's a sign of more challenges to qualified immunity to come.
Washington state passed a bill banning all for-profit jails
Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law banning private, for-profit detention centers. The new law will shut down one of the U.S.'s largest for-profit, privately run immigration jails by 2025 — the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
“Washington has not supported use of private prisons, and this bill continues that policy by prohibiting private detention facilities from operating in the state,” Inslee said before signing the bill.
Washington joins states like California, Nevada, New York and Illinois in passing legislation to reduce, limit, or ban the operation of private prison companies in the state. Washington is now only the third — following Illinois and California — to include immigration facilities as part of that ban.
“Widespread civil immigration detention is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice that currently exists in our political system,” Matt Adams, legal director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told the Associated Press in an email. “The enactment of this bill is an important step towards rejecting the privatization and profiteering model of immigration detention centers that has pushed the massive expansion of immigration detention."
U.S community colleges are using coronavirus relief dollars to forgive millions in student loan debt
Community colleges across the country are leveraging federal coronavirus relief dollars to forgive student debt accrued during the pandemic, a move some administrators hope will stanch continuing enrollment declines at the two-year institutions.
The money, available through both the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the more recent American Rescue Plan Act, allows eligible colleges to wipe out student debt and provides grants directly to students in need.
At El Paso Community College in Texas, for example, administrators last week cleared more than $3 million in debt for roughly 4,700 students using CARES Act funding, then encouraged eligible students to apply for additional financial aid via allocations from ARPA.
“Students have been adversely affected by the pandemic and we want them to be able to stay on their path to completing their degree," Keri Moe, the college’s associate vice president of external relations, communication and development, said in a statement. “We want to help students find the resources to emerge from the pandemic, regain financial stability and to be able to continue to pursue their dreams."
Other two-year colleges have announced similar measures. Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, a 17-campus system with a mix of two- and four-year colleges, said it would forgive $17 million in debt that community college students “took on or could not repay because of the pandemic.” The policy will impact more than 18,000 students, with no strings attached and no requirement that recipients enroll in classes in the future.
Good News in Politics Around the World:
A record 58 women were just elected to Scottish parliament – now making up 45% of its members
A record number of women were elected to Scottish Parliament in the country's latest elections, with 58 women winning seats.
This is up from 45 total women in the previous Scottish Parliament. Women now make up 45% of all Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs).
According to reporting from the BBC, among the group of newly-elected MSPs are the first two women of color, Kaukab Stewart and Pam Gosal, as well as the first person to use a wheelchair, Pam Duncan-Glancy.
“I promise to do everything in my power to make sure that the path for the next disabled and permanent wheelchair-using MSP is nowhere near as hard as it has been for the first,” Duncan-Clancy told reporters. “It really has been an incredibly special day for equalities."
Good news for representation among elected officials!
Kazakhstan abolished the death penalty
This good news from Kazakhstan comes as President Trump’s administration is finishing its time in office on an execution spree — executing more Americans than all U.S. states combined.
According to The Guardian: “In the course of 2020, in an unprecedented glut of judicial killing, the Trump administration rushed to put 10 prisoners to death. The execution spree ran roughshod over historical norms and stood entirely contrary to the decline in the practice of the death penalty that has been the trend in the US for several years.”
In an article for The Intercept, prisons and harsh sentencing reporter Liliana Segura said, "If there is any silver lining to Trump’s execution spree, it is that it has reinvigorated momentum against the death penalty."
Switzerland just voted by a near two-thirds majority to make same-sex marriage legal
Switzerland just became the latest country to legalize same-sex marriage! In a national referendum over the weekend, 61.4% of voters voted in favor of same-sex marriage.
The new law, which is expected to go into effect in July 2022, will make it possible for same-sex couples both to get married, and to adopt children. Additionally, married lesbian couples will be allowed to have children through sperm donation, which is currently only legal for married heterosexual couples.
In response to the results of the vote, Amnesty International said in a statement that opening civil marriage to same-sex couples was a "milestone for equality".