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Citizen Reformers

Kyle Bailey: Advocate for Ranked Choice Voting

Campaign Manager for Maine's Committee for Ranked Choice Voting

Kyle Bailey organized a grassroots movement to undertake ballot initiatives and twice win statewide approval for Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), overcoming legislative and court challenges. RCV was successfully used in the 2018 midterm elections. In 2020, Maine will become the first state to use RCV for a Presidential election.

Listen to the podcast here

 

 

Read more about Kyle’s campaign in The American Leader here.

Read about how Ranked Choice Voting fits into the broader context of Voting Rights  and Voter Suppression in America in The American Leader here.

The American Leader

The American Leader, a nonprofit, progress-oriented news and knowledge center, is committed to giving the public an unrelenting view of the systemic problems that affect our lives and the progress being made to resolve them.

Rather than report on breaking news, The American Leader gathers the best available datapoints and connects them so that the reader can stay focused on the problems that matter most.  Learn more here.

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Virginia among the worst states in the union in terms of ethics and transparency

Shruti Shah - President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity

The Coalition for Integrity’s S.W.A.M.P. Index casts spotlight on state’s poor record fighting corruption.

Listen to the podcast here:

For decades, Transparency International has rated governments worldwide on their ethics, transparency, and anti-corruption regimes.  Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity (formerly known as Transparency International – USA) said her organization would flag countries like Nigeria or India for not having laws in place and say that was terrible.  But when they analyzed U.S. results, Shah stated “it was ironic, we were actually quite shocked at what we found.  States didn’t do very well at all…and Virginia in particular.”

While Shah didn’t expect Virginia to come out really strong on ethics, especially after having witnessed former Governor Robert McDonnell’s prosecution on corruption charges, she was surprised to learn that Virginia scored so poorly – only 35 out of one hundred, ranking in the bottom 10 percent of all states, the lowest category possible.

The Coalition for Integrity released the S.W.A.M.P. (States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials) Index in 2018, ranking all 50 states and the District of Columbia on laws regarding the establishment and scope of ethicsagencies, the powers of those agencies, acceptance and disclosure of gifts by public officials, transparency of funding independent expenditures and client disclosure by legislators. 

Virginia is one of only four states with no limits on campaign contributions and no restrictions on politicians or their relatives spending funds from political action committees for personal expenses. 

One key Virginia finding in the S.W.A.M.P. Index was that the state’s three ethics agencies had no enforcement powers.  Virginia improved its ethics laws with respect to gifts following the troubles of Governor Robert McDonnell but has done nothing to address the lack of enforcement power of its ethics agencies.  Shah stressed how important it is for state ethics agencies to have the power to independently investigate, hold public hearings, and issue subpoenas, reprimands, and fines.  She said “a toothless ethics agency cannot serve the public well and will be unable to effectively carry out its mission.”

Having previously worked for over a decade with Big 4 accounting firms in the U.S., the U.K., and India, Shah’s experience is extensive, particularly in anti-bribery compliance and anti-corruption issues.  A resident of Arlington, Virginia, Shah has a personal stake in the state’s ethics deficiencies.  She strongly believes “addressing ethics, transparency, and anti-corruption underpins solving every issue that matters to you: whether its gun control, climate change, healthcare, or the quality of your children’s education.”

“addressing ethics, transparency, and anti-corruption underpins solving every issue that matters to you: whether its gun control, climate change, healthcare, or the quality of your children’s education.”  Shruti Shah

Shah and the Coalition decided to tackle ethics issues in Virginia by launching the Virginia Integrity Challenge, asking candidates to make personal, campaign finance, and gift disclosures easily accessible on their websites, and support legislation to give enforcement power to Virginia’s ethics agencies.  In 2017, 19 candidates (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) accepted the challenge and last year 25 candidates did so, 11 of whom were elected.

The next step according to Shah is to work with a champion to enact legislation giving Virginia’s ethics agencies real enforcement power.  Shah is emphatic that “we will not get stronger accountability, or stronger transparency or ethics in Virginia until we demand it.  I think it’s up to each constituent in Virginia to make their priorities clear to the candidates. If you haven’t engaged with your candidates, please do so.”  This is particularly important given the legislature’s lack of any concrete action to date to remedy the situation.  The various campaign finance bills introduced in the current session of the General Assembly (including banning donations from public service corporations like Dominion Energy) were all defeated, as were 10 such bills during the 2019 session.

“we will not get stronger accountability, or stronger transparency or ethics in Virginia until we demand it.  I think it’s up to each constituent in Virginia to make their priorities clear to the candidates. If you haven’t engaged with your candidates, please do so.”  Shruti Shah

The S.W.A.M.P. Index can put pressure on states with poor records as well as document the positive measures that the leading states have taken.  Shah said that no state is perfect, and there’s always room for reform.  But you can look at states like California and Washington which are usually around the top of these rankings.  New Mexico is a recent example of a state that was at the bottom along with Virginia and did not have an ethics agency.  In 2018, New Mexico passed a constitutional amendment to create an ethics agency and implementing legislation was adopted last year.  In the span of a very short time, New Mexico took concrete action because the voters, journalists and the media took notice and pressed for reform.

The same can happen here in Virginia, says Shah.  She believes that collaborating with non-partisan democratic reform organizations like the two dozen members of the Virginia Swamp Busters partnership can put pressure on legislators to take ethics, transparency and corruption matters seriously. 

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Grassroots campaign to end gerrymandering in Michigan

Katie Fahey established Voters Not Politicians to advocate for a ballot initiative that would amend Michigan’s Constitution

Following the 2016 election, Katie Fahey’s Facebook post started a 5,000+ volunteer grassroots movement, collecting over 425,000 signatures to support an amendment to Michigan’s constitution to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to end gerrymandering. The amendment passed with 61% of the vote on November 6, 2018.

Listen to the podcast here:

Read about Katie’s inspiring story in The American Leader here.

Read about how gerrymandering fits into the broader context of Voting Rights  and Voter Suppression in America in The American Leader here.

The American Leader

The American Leader, a nonprofit, progress-oriented news and knowledge center, is committed to giving the public an unrelenting view of the systemic problems that affect our lives and the progress being made to resolve them.

Rather than report on breaking news, The American Leader gathers the best available datapoints and connects them so that the reader can stay focused on the problems that matter most.  Learn more here.

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National Popular Vote Initiative

Initiative to Neutralize Electoral College Advanced in 2019

Four states joined the National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative in 2019, bringing it closer to its goal of neutralizing the Electoral College in favor of strengthening the voice of individual voters – and holding candidates for elective office more accountable to voters in every state rather than just the “swing states”.

Read about the National Popular Vote Initiative in The American Leader here.

The American Leader

The American Leader, a nonprofit, progress-oriented news and knowledge center, is committed to giving the public an unrelenting view of the systemic problems that affect our lives and the progress being made to resolve them.

Rather than report on breaking news, The American Leader gathers the best available datapoints and connects them so that the reader can stay focused on the problems that matter most.  Learn more here.

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Voting Rights Timeline

When the nation was founded, voting was almost exclusively reserved for propertied white men. Since then, voting rights have slowly grown more inclusive, expanding to an ever broader cross-section of the American public, but this progress has almost always been hard won.

The history of voting rights in the US is largely the story of the struggles of women, former slaves, native peoples, and immigrants to secure the right to vote – then to keep it. Repeated attacks on voting rights and efforts to manipulate the outcome of the vote continue up to this day, as discussed in The American Leader’s  problem brief on voting rights.

This timeline in The American Leader offers a brief glimpse into the steady but often challenged expansion of voting rights.

The American Leader

The American Leader, a nonprofit, progress-oriented news and knowledge center, is committed to giving the public an unrelenting view of the systemic problems that affect our lives and the progress being made to resolve them.

Rather than report on breaking news, The American Leader gathers the best available datapoints and connects them so that the reader can stay focused on the problems that matter most.  Learn more here.

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Voting Rights, Gerrymandering, Voter Suppression and More

Despite the steady expansion of voting rights throughout the course of US history, groups of eligible voters have frequently faced oppressive laws and intimidation designed to keep them from voting. Today, active voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other systemic features of our electoral system are currently undermining the right to vote and to have that vote count in a meaningful way. When voters believe that their vote doesn’t mean anything, they will often stop voting. Much of the activity has occurred at the state level and in the courts, which have issued several recent rulings regarding voting rights, gerrymandering, and laws involving voter IDs and other suppressive election rules.

Read the full  problem brief on voting rights in The American Leader.

The American Leader

The American Leader, a nonprofit, progress-oriented news and knowledge center, is committed to giving the public an unrelenting view of the systemic problems that affect our lives and the progress being made to resolve them.

Rather than report on breaking news, The American Leader gathers the best available datapoints and connects them so that the reader can stay focused on the problems that matter most.  Learn more here.

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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.

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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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