Can comics help democracy? This Berkeley expert on campaign financing hopes so

In a new graphic nonfiction book, ‘Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy,’ Daniel Newman, founder of Maplight, says people can be the change.

Daniel Newman during a Zoom interview with Berkeleyside. Image: Frances Dinkelspiel

Daniel G. Newman knows better than most about the problems plaguing the U.S. electoral system.

As the founder of Maplight, a Berkeley-based nonpartisan nonprofit that examines the influence of money in politics, Newman has seen up close how large donors get almost unfettered access to members of Congress — and often get the bills they want passed.

Newman hasn’t just focused on the national landscape. He worked for years to get “big” money out of Berkeley politics, too. (The maximum donation in Berkeley is $250.) He helped to determine that about 1% of Berkeley’s population, about 350 donors, many belonging to the real estate or development community, were the major funders of Berkeley mayoral and city council campaigns.

That’s why his organization joined the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition to craft and pass Berkeley’s groundbreaking public campaign financing law in 2016. The public money has democratized local elections, leading to a greater diversity of candidates running for council seats in 2018 and to more donations from a broader group of people.

Now Newman has written a book about this country’s “broken democracy.” But to appeal to a broad range of people (since a mass movement will probably be necessary to change this country’s electoral system) it is a graphic novel. First Second Books, a division of Macmillan, will publish Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy today. It is the first in a series of non-fiction graphic novels designed to equip readers “to become active citizens and informed voters.” George O’Connor did the illustrations. (See below for an excerpt).

“I thought this medium would be terrific for reaching people who might not read a thick prose book and to reach people who do and might find it fun,” said Newman.

Newman, who lives in Berkeley with his wife and two daughters, is a character and the narrator of the book. Drawn dressed in a blue-checked collared shirt (O’Connor gave Newman a choice of attire and Newman told the artist he is a collared-shirt type of guy) Newman leads readers on a tour through what he calls the “rigged” electoral process.

Unrig discusses it all: how the few rule the many, how older white men dominate lawmaking, partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, and how presidents aren’t elected by popular vote but by the Electoral College. In one section, informed by Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right and Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Unrig discusses how powerful people like the Koch brothers have pushed through laws to disempower the majority. The Kochs and other ultra-conservatives want to undermine people’s faith in government so as to render it ineffective, thus stripping the government of its authority, writes Newman. (People’s willingness to wear masks during the pandemic is a reflection of how so many don’t trust the government, he said.)

Unrig also discusses “dark money,” where corporations and wealthy individuals can anonymously donate funds to candidates and a system where members of Congress have to spend four hours a day dialing for dollars for their re-election, leaving them little time to actually make laws or respond to constituents.

Even though Newman founded Maplight 15 years ago, he did a significant amount of research, reflected in the endnotes.  for the book. He interviewed specialists, read studies and books, and poured through news reports.

The purpose of Unrig, said Newman, is not to depress people, although that may be unavoidable. It is to inspire them to act.  Small groups of people can make change — and have — particularly around public campaign financing.

It can take time and coalition building though, Newman writes. He and a colleague first tried to get a public financing measure passed in Berkeley in 2004. It failed miserably.  But in 2016, Measure XI passed with 65 % of the vote. Now Berkeley matches city council and mayoral donations at a six to one ratio, so $50 turns into $300.  for a maximum matching donation of $40,000 for city council candidates.


In this excerpt from ‘Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy,’ Newman addresses Berkeley’s Measure XI law:

[pdf-embedder url=”https://www.berkeleyside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/UNRIG-Berkeley-1.pdf” title=”UNRIG-Berkeley (1)”]


Seattle residents passed a novel campaign finance law in 2015 that gives $100 to every resident, who then can give funds to whichever candidate they choose. The vouchers are mailed to voters for each election. Candidates then exchange the vouchers for city cash. In 2017, Seattle mailed out 80,000 “democracy vouchers.” Prior to that election, the major donors to political campaigns were rich white donors with view homes, according to the book. The vouchers resulted in more people from more diverse areas contributing to campaigns.

These kinds of positive changes led by average citizens “don’t make it into news coverage, they don’t make it into most books,” said Newman. “I met so many people … who are improving their own city, their own state. Part of the book gets really specific about ‘here are some solutions that are actually working and here are some people just like you who have made them happen.’”

Newman said there are signs of movement towards democracy reform. During this session of Congress, the first bill the Democrats introduced was HR1. It included expanding voting rights, it included stopping partisan gerrymandering, having publicly funded elections and more.

“This is such a sea change from 15 years ago, that the Democratic Party is putting this forward as their very first priority,” said Newman. “So I am optimistic. I have never seen so much attention and awareness of how the system is being rigged and how unrigging it is the only way forward.”

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.