Ordinary Citizens Reforming Our Democratic System

A New Book highlights how Average Americans are Effecting Voting Rights Reforms in Communities Across the Country

Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting, byJoshua Douglas, a University of Kentucky College of Law professor and expert in election law, is a well-researched account of how ordinary citizens are stepping up to make voters’ voices heard.  In example after example, Professor Douglas tells the compelling stories of the individuals leading grassroots reform efforts to make our electoral system more accessible, reliable and effective.  As Douglas affirms, “positive voting rights enhancements at the state and local levels can fundamentally change American elections.”


Local reform initiatives serve as an important counter-balance to the steady stream of accounts in the media of political parties passing measures to protect incumbents through gerrymandering, or making voting access more difficult.  Douglas argues that “[w]e can fix our election system. However, it won’t happen solely by legislative protests and filing lawsuits, by merely playing defense against voter suppression.  The power of grassroots movements to improve our electoral system will change the reality of voting rights in America.”


Reforms detailed in this book include measures to expand voter eligibility (lowering the voting age and reversing felon disenfranchisement), easing voter registration rules (e.g., automatic voter registration, online and same-day registration), making voting more convenient and secure (e.g., county-wide vote centers, assisting the disabled), taking politics out of redistricting, and campaign finance reform.


Vote for US includes stories of citizen reformers that have also been highlighted by Democracy4Change.org,such as Katie Fahey’ssuccess in fighting gerrymandering in Michigan and the importance of promoting “action civics” in our schools.


Just published in April of this year, “Vote for US” is a very timely contribution, surely adding momentum to the growing democratic reform movement by encouraging others to become active and support reform initiatives in their communities.  To assist those who do decide to take action, an appendix includes an extensive compendium of organizations working on voting rights, election reform, and civic engagement at the local, state, and national levels.



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Gang Member from Chicago’s Southside Turns to Public Service to Help His Neighborhood Combat Crime and Violence.

He credits his High School teacher and the civics class at Mikva Challenge for changing his life.

Rosy, a single mother and Mexican immigrant, settled in the Back of the Yards section of Chicago’s southside.  She worked long hours to provide for her children.  Her son, Berto Aguayo, turned to a local gang for acceptance when he was only thirteen. 

Berto’s story doesn’t follow the usual pattern one would expect from such a beginning.  After a brutal beating, Berto severed ties with his gang.  He credits his high school teacher introducing him to the Mikva Challenge’s “action civics” program, which placed him in a northside Alderman’s office, as sparking his interest in public service and deciding to get off the streets and leave the gang life.

In the Fall of 2016, the shooting death of a 16-year old girl in Back of the Yards sparked the community’s youth to organize a camp-out to create a safe space in their neighborhood.  At that time, Berto was a community organizer with the Resurrection Project, a nonprofit which trains young people ages 14 to 24 in civic action and leadership.  His involvement with the Back of the Yards’ camp-out led to other all-night events on the southside and evolved into a youth-led movement (#Increase the Peace) which he co-founded to create safe spaces in their communities and a culture of non-violence. 

The camp-outs often begin with a peace march through the neighborhood, followed by speakers and opportunities to learn about community services like affordable housing.  As it got dark, people started to play basketball, dance, and gather around a fire pit to talk.  As the movement gathered more supporters, other activities were incorporated – coordinating with community leaders, canvassing citizens, voter registration, and literally cleaning up the streets.  Berto’s story and #Increase the Peace were featured in both local media and national publications like Fast Company.

It’s not uncommon to see peace marches in Chicago’s neighborhoods torn apart by crime and violence.  #Increase the Peace is different because it is youth-led.  Through the initiative, Berto trained more than three hundred young leaders in community organizing, who in turn mobilized thousands of youth in Chicago to combat the issue of gang violence.  The initiative has now expanded to include Brighton Park, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Gage Park, Little Village, and Pilsen. 

Berto is the first in his family to attend college, graduating with high honors from Dominican University with dual bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Economics.  In 2017, Berto reopened the St. Michael community center as a safe haven for youth in the neighborhood.  In 2018, Berto became a national leadership trainer with the Obama Foundation and he is currently a member of the Back of the Yards College Prep Local School Council as a Community Representative. Most recently, Berto ran an independent campaign for Alderman of the 15th Ward. Although he was outraised eleven to one, he came just 277 votes short of a runoff.

Berto is also the recipient of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI’s) young Hispanic Leader Award, he is a scholar of the Aspen Institute’s Latinos and Society Program, and he is also a Civic Seminary Fellow at Citizen University in Seattle. 

Berto’s story underscores the value of “action civics” programs like Mikva Challenge, working collaboratively with the Chicago Public School (CPS) system, and with the support of philanthropies like the McCormick, MacArthur and Joyce foundations.

The educational model that Mikva Challenge has promoted in Chicago’s public schools for two decades believes young people can best be trained for their roles as citizens and leaders by actually allowing them a chance to participate in authentic democratic activities – from elections to advocacy, from public debates to the creation of new civic media.

The results have been impressive.  Not only have youth voter turnout rates improved, Mikva Challenge reports that 2,000 youth serve as judges at polling sites every election and youth councils have formed across the city’s high schools.  These youth councils help inform CPS policies on a wide range of student issues, from health and school lunches to juvenile justice and housing authority concerns. 

Motivated teachers are critical to empowering youth and providing them with the skills to speak out and actively engage on community issues that most affect their lives.  Chicago’s teachers have been supported along the way through professional development, new curricula, and extra-curricular activities offered by external intermediary organizations like Mikva Challenge, the McCormick, MacArthur and Joyce foundations, and the CPS Service Learning program.

Just as Berto credits the turnaround in his life to a high school teacher and the Mikva Challenge program, youth across the nation deserve the opportunity to find their voice through “action civics” experiential learning programs, which are discussed in more detail here.

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U.S. ranking among world’s democracies continues an 8-year decline — We’re now tied for 53rd with Belize

National polls indicate that a majority agreed that American democracy is weak and 68 % said it is getting weaker

As this blog highlights the inspiring contributions of citizen reformers to strengthen and renew America’s democracy, it is worthwhile noting the context of very real threats that our country faces.  A respected assessment of global freedom underscores a disturbing decline both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Freedom House ‘s “Freedom in the World 2019” report monitors the global status of political rights and civil liberties, as it has done annually since the early 1970s.  While remaining firmly in the “Free” category, Freedom House ranked the U.S. behind other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. “US rule of law declined as government policies and actions improperly restricted the legal rights of asylum seekers, discrimination became evident in the acceptance of refugees for resettlement, and immigration enforcement and detention policies were excessively harsh or haphazard. In contrast, freedom of assembly improved, with an upsurge in civic action and no repetition of the previous year’s protest-related violence.”

The report noted that “Freedom House is not alone in its concern for US democracy. Republicans, Democrats, and independents expressed deep reservations about its performance in a national poll conducted last year by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center. A substantial majority of respondents said it is “absolutely important” to live in a democracy, but 55 percent agreed that American democracy is weak, and 68 percent said it is getting weaker. Big money in politics, racism and discrimination, and the inability of government to get things done—all long-standing problems—were the top concerns of those surveyed.”

The President of Freedom House, Mike Abramowitz, noted that “the great challenges facing US democracy did not commence with the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Intensifying political polarization, declining economic mobility, the outsized influence of special interests, and the diminished influence of fact-based reporting in favor of bellicose partisan media were all problems afflicting the health of American democracy well before 2017.”

The report adds that “at the midpoint of his term, however, there remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles. Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections. Congress, a coequal branch of government, has too frequently failed to push back against these attacks with meaningful oversight and other defenses.”

Freedom House’s poll found that a strong majority of Americans, 71 percent, believe the US government should actively support democracy and human rights in other countries. But Mr. Abramowitz states that “America’s commitment to the global progress of democracy has been seriously compromised by the president’s rhetoric and actions. His attacks on the judiciary and the press, his resistance to anticorruption safeguards, and his unfounded claims of voting fraud by the opposition are all familiar tactics to foreign autocrats and populist demagogues who seek to subvert checks on their power.”

“Such leaders,” Abramowitz continues, “can take heart from Trump’s bitter feuding with America’s traditional democratic allies and his reluctance to uphold the nation’s collective defense treaties, which have helped guarantee international security for decades. As former US defense secretary James Mattis put it in his resignation letter, ‘While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.’”

Freedom House stresses that “we cannot take for granted that institutional bulwarks against abuse of power will retain their strength, or that our democracy will endure perpetually.”  It calls for Congress, the courts, and the media to perform their vital roles “to defend [our democracy’s] rules and norms. Just as importantly, the report states that citizens, “ including Americans who are typically reluctant to engage in the public square, must be alert to new infringements on their rights and the rule of law, and demand that their elected representatives protect democratic values at home and abroad.”

The findings and analysis contained in the Freedom House report should serve as a important reminder that ordinary citizens cannot take their democracy for granted.  Let us learn from the example of citizen reformers and consider how each of us can find a way to join them, support them, or emulate their contributions in our own unique way.


Freedom House is a U.S.-based 501(c)3 U.S. government-funded non-governmental organization (NGO) that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.  Freedom House was founded in October 1941, and Wendell Wilkie and Eleanor Roosevelt served as its first honorary chairpersons.  The organization’s annual Freedom in the World report, which assesses each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties, is frequently cited by political scientists, journalists, and policymakers.

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Virginia Voters Eager to Break Political Gridlock are Organizing for Electoral Reform

Just as national polls show the American public’s deep dissatisfaction with Congress, Virginia voters are similarly fed up with the inability of their state legislature to avoid gridlock and pass common sense legislation.  A September 2018 statewide survey conducted by the Unite America Institute of over 400 likely voters found that 61% of Virginians don’t believe that Republicans and Democrats are working well together in Richmond.

Virginia has received F’s from the Center for American Progress for the openness and accessibility of its elections. In the Center’s interactive assessment of the strength of the democratic process in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Virginia ranked 50 out of 51.  But this may be about to change. Several nonpartisan grassroots reform efforts are underway to fundamentally change the electoral system in the state by tackling redistricting reform, campaign finance reform and pushing for an alternative voting method.

The most promising reform involves an end to the system of gerrymandering districts to favor one party or another.  An amendment to the state constitution, which enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support (the 2018 Unite America Institute survey found that 65% of Virginians said they supported the cause), was approved by the General Assembly earlier this year.  This was an important initial win, but two more steps

are required. This amendment must, without any changes, pass the General Assembly again in 2020. It must then win the approval of Virginia’s voters in a statewide referendum on the November 2020 ballot.

The amendment includes many of the reforms proposed last fall by the Citizens Constitutional Amendment Drafting Committee (composed of bipartisan former legislators, policy professionals and election law experts) and convened by the nonpartisan redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021.  For the first time, Virginia’s political districts would be drawn by a redistricting commission, rather than by the legislators whose districts are at stake.

Virginia’s current voting districts were drawn in 2011 to protect the majority in each chamber, as the House of Delegates was then held by Republicans and the State Senate was held by Democrats. As OneVirginia2021 explains, this gerrymandered situation works against the will of the voter in several ways: it carves up communities (see the two examples below); removes competition; eliminates moderate influences; and creates partisan gridlock.














Gerrymandering in Virginia is nothing new.  In fact, it dates back to 1788 when Governor Patrick Henry attempted to influence the Congressional race between James Madison and James Monroe, the only instance of one future president running against another in the same Congressional district.  Today, the conflict of interest is clear when the legislature draws its own district lines. Gerrymandering is not a right versus left issue.  It is an issue of respecting citizens voting rights.

To learn more, you may want to view a documentary about gerrymandering with a focus on Virginia produced by WCVE/PBS in 2015 (“GerryRigged: Turning Democracy On Its Head”).  You can find the full film here. (56 min.)  You can find the shortened version here. (26 min.)

 For more information on the 2019 amendment, visit OneVirginia2021’s website here.

Virginia’s grassroots democratic reform movement is not limited to eliminating gerrymandering.  Campaign finance reform and addressing hyper-partisanship through alternative voting methods such as ranked choice voting are also gaining support.  Fully 28% of Virginia voters self-identify as Independents (compared to 32% each for Republicans and Democrats).  When queried as to why they are independent, the survey cited above found that the vast majority of independents say that “both parties care more about serving their special interests than the people” –– with 51% strongly agreeing and another 21% agreeing with the statement.

FairVote Virginia is promoting a new voting method designed to give Virginians the chance to fight the increasing political polarization through a fairer process for determining who represents them.  Its called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and it allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference.  If no candidate receives a majority on the first count, the candidate with the least amount of first place votes is eliminated until one candidate obtains a majority. RCV allows ballots to be counted in a way that whoever wins does so with majority support.  It doesn’t ‘waste’ a voter’s preference for an independent candidate and it encourages candidates who seek compromise rather than appealing to the parties’ more extreme positions in primaries.

The Unite America Institute survey found that 42% of Virginians support a measure to introduce RCV and 20% remain undecided.  FairVote Virginia is the local chapter of the national FairVote movement, a non-partisan, non-profit organization composed of  Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, and independents from across the Commonwealth.

In the current session of the state legislature, Delegates Nick Freitas (R – Culpeper) and Patrick Hope (D – Arlington) have sponsored HB2097 to bring ranked choice voting to Virginia. The bill would grant Virginia cities and counties the option to use RCV in their local elections. In 2018, Utah passed a similar bill  and Maine became the first state to use RCV in statewide elections.

To learn more about Fair Vote Virginia’s work on RCV and how you can support it, you can go to  fairvoteva.org/join.

Virginians also overwhelmingly support changing campaign finance laws. According to the Unite America Institute poll, approximately 75% of Virginians (66% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats) support limited matching public funding if candidates refuse to accept corporate and PAC contributions.  Virginia is one of only five states that set no limits on what companies can give legislators’ or legislative candidates’ campaign funds.  Most other states set limits on how much a donor can give and, in some states, who can give.

Because Virginia’s ethics laws rely on disclosure, the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) believes it is imperative that citizens have easy access to public documents related to money in politics.  This organization posts fundraising information and other pertinent details about those seeking elec

ted office.  VPAP is fiercely nonpartisan and its singular focus is to give Virginians the information they need to make informed decisions.  VPAP, which grew out of a joint effort by the state’s five largest newspapers to track campaign contributions, has won awards from numerous organizations for its excellence and nonpartisan approach.

Unite Virginia is one grassroots democratic reform organization which is focused on this issue and supports members of the Virginia General Assembly who believe that Virginia needs campaign finance reform.  RepresentUS, a cross-partisan grassroots democratic reform organization, is in the process of organizing local chapters in Virginia.  Read more about their support for the American Anti-Corruption Act, which sets a standard for state, local and federal laws, in my blogpost on “Citizen Reformers – Most Americans believe politics are rigged to favor big money and special interests. Fed up and demanding change, grassroots initiatives by citizen reformers are beginning to make an impact.”

Consider supporting the nonpartisan reform organizations mentioned in this post and sharing information on other grassroots initiatives focused on strengthening democracy in Virginia.

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Citizen Reformers – ‘Badass Grandmas’ in North Dakota Fighting Corruption

Kathy Tweeton (Treasurer), Ellen Chaffee (Democrat Co-Chair) and Dina Butcher (Republican Co-Chair) - North Dakotans for Public Integrity

Against Huge Odds They Mobilized Support for An Amendment to the State Constitution – and Won!

The North Dakota oil boom has produced a billion-dollar budget surplus, or as North Dakotans for Public Integrity co-chairs Dina Butcher (a Republican) and Ellen Chaffee (a Democrat) pointed out: “it brought what many have described as the best state government money can buy.”  The oil boom, which has been hard on the land and the water, has also led to North Dakota getting a D- minus in a government integrity report three years ago.  That’s when Dina and Ellen said enough, and agreed that “fixing corruption fixes everything.”

North Dakotans for Public Integrity was organized “to educate and inform our state about the importance of integrity and public accountability by government institutions, to promote efforts to increase accountability and integrity of government institutions in North Dakota, and to support proposals which will increase the people’s confidence in the honesty and transparency of their government and public officials.”

The debate over whether the state needed an ethics commission had been ongoing for years, and four times initiatives had been defeated by the legislature. With 19 multinational and state corporations, trade associations, the ACLU, and the Catholic Conference opposed to an anti-corruption initiative, the deck was definitely stacked against them.

Dina’s grandson gave the ladies their moniker ‘badass’ after commenting on one of their early brochures – and it stuck.  What began as early-morning, small group discussions over cookies and coffee, mushroomed into more than 36,000 signatures supporting the creation of an ethics commission.  Speaking at the recent Unrigged Summit in Nashville, Dina credits the fact that the North Dakotans for Public Integrity (which includes independents and libertarians as well as both Democrats and Republicans)  didn’t bring politics into their advocacy efforts.  They tapped into the ‘righteous indignation’ of ordinary citizens about corruption – something that had happened to them directly or after having read stories about the lack of transparency in state government and how laws had been passed in the previous session.

As the ladies traveled across the state, the people they talked with found them to be authentic.  “At our age, we have nothing to gain – we have no political agenda,” Dina explained.   “Both Ellen and I are losers in political campaigns on either side of the aisle, but ultimately, I think the authenticity and our honesty and wanting to make North Dakota a better place for our grandkids did the trick.”

Another big factor for their success was the support and encouragement Ellen, Dina and their organization received at the 2018 Unrigged Summit, where they realized there was a growing pro-Democracy movement in the country.  In accepting this year’s Unrigged ‘Courage’ award, Ellen said that attending last year’s summit “just opened a whole new vista I think for all of us and that kept us going. So many of you here and certainly many, many of our wonderful friends at home wrapped themselves around us and said ‘you’re okay, we’re gonna get this done.’  We made a lot of mistakes but people here and there made it safe and inspired us to continue.”

Last November, voters in North Dakota passed a constitutional amendment to overhaul government ethics oversight, one of the nation’s toughest ethics and transparency laws.  The initiative has provisions to ban foreign money from elections, restrict lobbying and create an independent ethics commission.

If these Badass Grandmas can beat the odds of going up against Big Money in politics, so can other ordinary citizens like you and I.  Consider joining one of the grassroots democratic reform organizations that are pressing for bipartisan solutions to our rigged political system.  Read more here.

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Most Americans believe politics are rigged to favor big money and special interests

Fed up and demanding change, grassroots initiatives by citizen reformers are beginning to make an impact.

The vast majority of Americans believe the political system is rigged in favor of the super-rich and organizations representing corporate interests.  The good news is that most Americans are in favor of reform measures designed to unrig the system and restore political power to the people.  A growing number of grassroots initiatives have emerged to take on gerrymandering, restrictive voting practices, polarization and tribalism, and the influence of big money/lobbying.  Unfortunately, their stories aren’t getting told or are being drowned out by the partisan battles being waged largely by the more extreme segments of the political landscape.

There are more than 130 non-partisan or cross-partisan organizations dedicated to one form or another of reform measures to fight corruption and restore a voice to everyday citizens.  RepresentUS, one of those organizations, produced a video with Jennifer Lawrence which describes just how rigged our system is.  The video cites a Princeton University study which concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress (according to a 2018 Gallup poll)  and there is a good reason why.  The Princeton study looked at 1800 public opinion polls over a 20-year period and found that no matter how much support from average Americans, there is only a 30% chance that a law will be passed.  “Preferences of the average American have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically insignificant impact on public policy.”

The system doesn’t work, in large part, because of the influence of Big Money and lobbyists.  Politicians are spending up to 70% of their time raising funds for re-election after they get into office.  In certain races, you would have to raise $45,000 every single day, 365 days a year, for 6 years in order to raise enough money to win (per OpenSecrets.org).  Politicians have become completely dependent upon the 0.05% of Americans (billionaires and special interest groups) who fund their campaigns.

Many voters feel their vote does not count.  According to FairVote, only 14% of House campaigns are actually competitive, in large part due to gerrymandering – the way that politicians (Democrats and Republicans) draw up congressional districts.

In addition to believing their vote does not count, citizens have been frustrated by the increasing polarization that has us caught in a spiral of conflict and division.  But new research based on a large-scale national survey of Americans ( “Hidden Tribes – A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”) uncovered a different story.  While it provides substantial evidence of deep polarization and growing tribalism, it also provides some evidence for optimism, showing that 77 percent of Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.

America’s political landscape, the study finds, “is much more complicated than the binary split between liberals and conservatives often depicted in the national conversation.”  The research identifies seven segments of Americans (or “tribes”) who are distinguished by differences in their underlying beliefs and attitudes.  Among the seven tribes is an “Exhausted Majority,” whose members do not conform to either partisan ideology. “The Exhausted Majority contains distinct groups of people with varying degrees of political understanding and activism. But they share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation… They overwhelmingly believe that the American government is rigged to serve the rich and influential, and they want things to change.”

That is where non-partisan or cross-partisan reform organizations come in.  Not many are aware that there are more than 130 such organizations working to foster a more representative, functional, and accountable government through a variety of strategies across three themes: Civic Engagement, Electoral Systems and Campaigns, and Governance and Policy Making.

RepresentUS, for example, has bundled a number of reforms into a model law and named it the American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA), including:

  • End gerrymandering with independent re-districting commissions

  • Create ranked choice voting so third parties and independents can run and win

  • Implement automatic voter registration and vote from home

  • Overhaul lobbying and ethics laws, and close the revolving door so politicians can’t be bribed with high paying job offers

  • Mandate full transparency of political spending, so we know who’s trying to buy influence

  • Give every voter a $50 or $100 tax voucher so politicians spend time fund-raising from their constituents, not just that 0.05%

When surveyed, 87% of Americans believe the AACA should be the law of the land (91% of Democrats and 83% of Republicans).  Since Congress has little incentive to enact such a reform, despite such overwhelming support from the American public, RepresentUS has adopted a grassroots strategy to promote reform at the state and local levels across the country.  As of mid-April, 103 anti-corruption acts have been passed.

Ordinary citizens are stepping up, finding their voice, and making a difference.  Almost by accident, Katie Fahey started a political movement in Michigan and changed careers. Feeling that divisiveness in politics had reached a critical point following the 2016 election, Fahey posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to help her take on gerrymandering. In a few short months, that group of volunteers (which grew to 5000) decided they were going to amend Michigan’s constitution to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to end gerrymandering once and for all.  Last November, Michigan voters approved that amendment.

Last year, the Chamberlain Project Foundation and the Foundation for Independent Voter Education launched a joint effort in Maine to make sure voters were comfortable and aware of ranked choice voting, which helps broaden candidate pools beyond two parties, increase voter turnout and give more power to each vote. Winners of one of the 2018 American Civic Collaboration Awards, which highlight outstanding efforts of civic collaboration making impacts in local, national and youth communities, these foundations’ work created a transformational change in the way the state of Maine elects its leaders,

Such grassroots approaches mirror what has worked throughout American history — passing state laws leads to federal victory, as reflected in a Bloomberg News study.  The Women’s Suffrage and the Interracial Marriage movements are good examples.  The success of grassroot initiatives to date is just the beginning, as the tipping point may likely require a tenfold increase in such state and local level reforms.

American Promise, another cross-partisan reform organization, is leading an effort to pass a 28th Amendment, which would put the rights of individual citizens before the privileges of concentrated money, corporations, unions, political parties, and superPACs.

At the recent Unrig Summit in Nashville, thousands of democracy reform advocates—including citizens, politicians and celebrities—from both sides of the aisle — came together to share knowledge and develop tangible democratic reform actions.  Issue OneUnite America and Vote at Home, joined RepresentUS and American Promise in organizing the summit, which included members of many other reform organizations.  The Bridge Alliance and the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers are helpful organizations to learn more about and become active supporters of the broad array of democratic reform organizations.

The challenge over the coming decade will be to grow these and new grassroots movements and substantially expand their financial base.  If not, the promise of real reform will not be realized.  Collectively, this democracy reform movement engages fewer than three million Americans today and has an annual operating spend of less than $150M.

Rob Stein of the Cross-Partisan Action Network believes that the mission of these democratic reform organizations “should be to become a force for change – a cause – which supports open-minded Republicans, Democrats and Independents passionately committed to a cross-partisan agenda that promotes country over party, rigid ideology, and/or a single-issue agenda.”  Stein observes that “the majority of these groups remain relatively small and currently lack a shared strategic vision, integrated operations, the data analytics or financial resources necessary to build a sustainable constituency. However, in the aggregate, they represent a potentially powerful alliance because a meaningful number of them have respected managers, board members, supporters, programs and capacities, are ready to expand their operations and are poised to mobilize a potent new cross-partisan constituency.”

As an umbrella entity representing nearly 100 of these democratic reform organizations, the Bridge Alliance says that “it is now widely understood that for maximum effectiveness and productivity, these organizations must work together to boost efficiency in order to leverage funding and impact… Despite the many noteworthy achievements in reforming and revitalizing our political process, too few Americans know there is a cohesive, organized movement in-process. This must change, to demonstrate that there is an alternative for those who’ve grown weary of the party-first, establishment quo paradigm.”

My wife and I were encouraged to see several democratic reform organizations come together on the steps of the Supreme Court on March 26, when the North Carolina and Maryland landmark gerrymandering cases initiated oral arguments before the court.  FairVote,  Common Cause, Unite America, and OneVirginia2021.org were all present to speak about how politicians in both states had drawn voting districts so as to protect incumbents and the parties in control of their respective state legislatures (Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland).  This was a good example of collaboration among reform organizations, uniting to inform the public and draw attention to how gerrymandering undermines the vote of individual citizens.

Watch the RepresentUS video and check out some of the democratic reform organizations mentioned above.  You will see what many citizen reformers are doing to unrig our political system, working across party lines – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.  Please share your thoughts and, particularly, any inspiring stories of citizens you know that are taking action to put voters over parties, lobbyists and special interests.

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Defeating Gerrymandering

Ending Gerrymandering in Michigan – How a grassroots, citizen-led organization led a successful 2018 redistricting reform ballot initiative.

Katie FAahey

On November 6, 2018, 61% of Michigan voters passed Proposal 2 which put the power to draw future election district maps in the hands of voters – not politicians. Now, Voters Not Politicians is focused to make sure the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is implemented fairly, impartially, and transparently.

Voters Not Politicians built a 5,000+ volunteer grassroots, citizen-led organization from scratch.  It collected more than 425,000 signatures, representing each of Michigan’s 83 counties, to get Proposal 2 on the ballot.

According to The Center for Michigan, Michigan has some of the nation’s worst election maps.  In the 2016 election, Michiganders cast close to equal amounts of votes between Republican and Democratic candidates in congressional seat races. However due to gerrymandering, zero congressional races were decided by a margin of victory below 10% and Republicans took 64% of the seats. 

Almost by accident, Katie Fahey started a political movement in Michigan and changed careers. Feeling that divisiveness in politics had reached a critical point following the 2016 election, Fahey posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to help her take on gerrymandering. In a few short months, that group of volunteers decided they were going to amend Michigan’s constitution through creating Proposal 2 to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to end gerrymandering once and for all.

As Fahey explained, “the people of Michigan have been locked out of effective change-making opportunities, but we have the power, energy, and drive to create a solution that ends gerrymandering and reinvigorates the very spirit of our democracy.”

Voters Not Politicians held 33 Town Halls in 33 days – from Marquette to Monroe – in 2016 to gather feedback from Michiganders about how they would like to see the system change. This feedback was used in addition to guidance from local organizations and national experts.  The solution they came up with was Amending Michigan’s Constitution to put an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission of 13 voters – not politicians – in charge of drawing the state’s election maps.

While the main goal of Voters Not Politicians is to end partisan gerrymandering, the group hopes to inspire other states that positive, lasting change can come directly from the people and that voters across the political spectrum can reform the status quo instead of settling for the way things are always done.

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Civics in Action

Strengthening America’s Democracy by motivating young people to become informed citizens and participate politically in their communities

Gridlock in Congress, the highly polarized nature of today’s political dialogue, and the power of money and special interests are among the more prominent reasons that millennials have tuned out to politics. If democracy in America is to survive and thrive over the longer haul, more emphasis needs to be paid to teaching young people civics in a more dynamic way. Unlike the emphasis on the STEM (Science, technology, English and math) subjects, civics is taught more by rote and lacks relevance to students’ lives. That is beginning to change, however, as organizations like Generation Citizen and the Mikva Challenge are introducing “Action Civics” to classrooms across the country. Action Civics is an educational model that trains students to assume roles as citizens by allowing them a chance to participate in authentic democratic activities – from elections to advocacy, from public debates to engaging politically in their communities.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) found that only a quarter of young people reach “proficient” on the NAEP Civics Assessment, and white, wealthy students are four to six times as likely as Hispanic or Black students from low-income households to exceed that level. Where civic education does still exist, it most often deals solely with rote historical and governmental knowledge. It lacks the local focus that could enliven students’ appreciation of the relevancy of civics in their lives, or interactive components, foundational to Action Civics, that foster the skills, critical thinking, and foundational experiences that lead to lifelong civic participation. Taught the same way it was decades ago, most civics curricula have not been updated for the 21st century. Engaging pedagogy that combines civic content and civic practice is far from the norm, a reality underscored by the fact that only ten states actually require teachers of civics or government to be certified in the subject.1/

In action civics, by contrast, students are not taught about civics, but rather, they are taught to “do civics and behave as citizens”. Generation Citizen and the Mikva Challenge engage students in a multi-step process to identify key issues in their own communities, conduct research, strategize, and take action, all while teaching the necessary political and civic knowledge to be effective.2/


1/ CIRCLE. (2013). All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement: The Report of the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge. Medford, MA: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

2/ CIRCLE Working Paper #78, “Building an Evidence-Based Practice of Action Civics: The Current State of Assessments and Recommendations for the Future” by Jessica Gingold, Harvard Graduate School of Education


Generation Citizen

GC began in 2008, when eight Brown students began teaching action civics in four Providence school classrooms, helping secondary school students realize the power of their voices to make a difference in their communities. By 2015, over 30,000 students have learned to drive change through action civics. Generation Citizen has grown to run its action civics programming in four sites across the country, is currently expanding to Central Texas and Oklahoma City, and has partnered with organizations both nationally and internationally on related projects

The Mikva Challenge

a non-partisan, not for profit founded in Chicago in 1998, with the idea of opening up democratic spaces for youth living in under resourced neighborhoods and politically “insignificant” communities. Today Mikva Challenge serves over 15,000 youth every year with offices in Chicago, Southern California and Washington D.C., and partnerships with many school districts across the nation.

Posted by M.Deal in Citizen Reformers, 0 comments