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Opinion: Our democracy needs a wake-up call

Actor Sam Waterson and activist Nick Nyhart explain how they're taking on the influence of money in politics.
Demonstrators casts shadows as they gather outside the Holiday Inn Express in Janesville, Wis. on March 29, 2016. (Photo by Nam Y. Huh/AP)
Demonstrators casts shadows as they gather outside the Holiday Inn Express in Janesville, Wis. on March 29, 2016.

Everyone knows it: Congress is dysfunctional. Everyone knows a big part of the reason why is money in politics and the lack of election reform. That’s why we’re joining the Democracy Spring march this week as it passes through Baltimore on its way from Philadelphia to Washington.  Please join us for part of the way or the whole trip. The time is now to give our Democracy a wake up call.

As Americans, we take pride in our values of democracy for all and government of, by, and for the people. Throughout the history of our nation, there has always been a struggle to broaden our democracy and form a more perfect union.

From the Boston Tea Party to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement, Americans have come together again and again to tear down the barriers preventing us from having a democracy in which every voice matters.

Today we face new challenges. Money is pouring into our elections largely from super-wealthy, white, male donors while politicians are picking their voters by throwing up obstacles to the ballot box instead of voters picking their politicians. 

In the presidential election, fundraising has already surged past $1 billion dollars — two and a half times more than fundraising at the same point in the last election — and it's money that mostly comes from an affluent elite.

RELATED: Maryland restores voting rights for over 40,000

As our democracy grows more out of balance, catering to the desires of the wealthiest among us, others pay the price. Wall Street rakes in profits while Main Street struggles. The pharmaceutical industry profits while healthcare costs go up. Corporate polluters profit at the expense of our climate, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.

It’s no surprise then that three-quarters of Americans believe our federal government is corrupt, according to Gallup.

But no longer are Americans, including Marylanders, sitting quietly by. They’re taking action. This month, thousands of people fed up with dysfunction in our nation’s capital are coming together for historic mass actions called "Democracy Spring" and "Democracy Awakening."

As part of the Democracy Spring, hundreds of Americans from all over the country are marching from Philadelphia, through Baltimore, to Washington, D.C., in a people-powered movement to demand change. Thousands more will converge on Washington, D.C., next week as part of the Democracy Awakening. Both efforts will use nonviolent civil disobedience to shake up business as usual on Capitol Hill.

In the face of a Congress that won’t budge, it will take many voices rising up to demand Congress pay attention to the public discontent.

A broad coalition of more than 270 labor, environmental, student, racial justice, civil rights, and money-in-politics reform groups have come together this month to fuel a new, people-powered movement to set our democracy straight.

You don’t have to look far for solutions that restore balance to our democracy.

In Maryland where we will be marching, the state legislature restored voting rights to 40,000 previously incarcerated Marylanders who have paid their debt to society, and the Maryland Unlock the Vote coalition is working to enact automatic voter registration this year.

RELATED: Iowa high court hears challenge to felon voting ban

Maryland is also leading the way in the fight against big money. Montgomery County passed a citizen-funded campaign finance system that matches small campaign donations with public funds to give everyday people a bigger say in county elections. Howard County is considering a similar system.

Cities and states across the country are showing the way for the rest of the nation by passing initiatives — from Maine to Seattle — that raise the voice of regular people within the political process. They open the door for people from all walks of life to run for office without relying on connections to wealthy backers.

We can build on these successes and continue to work towards a democracy that lives up to American ideals of government rather than a political establishment of,  by, and for big donors.

Two bills would do just that: the Government By the People Act in the House of Representatives and the Fair Elections Now Act in the Senate. Congress can also act to restore the Voting Rights Act, ensuring every American’s right to vote is protected.

We have the power to fix our system of government — yet we need more Americans to demand action from our leaders.

Together, we can show our political leaders that enough is enough. It’s time to push forward serious solutions that will restore power to everyday people in our democracy.

Sam Waterston is an actor and advocate for democracy reforms.

Nick Nyhart is president and CEO of Every Voice Center, a national nonpartisan organization fighting for a democracy that works for everyone.