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Citizen Reformers

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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Kyle Bailey: Advocate for Ranked Choice Voting

Kyle Bailey organized a volunteer movement to win approval for Maine to become the first state in the union to use Ranked Choice Voting

As Campaign Manager for The 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.

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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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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Grassroots Campaign Ending Gerrymandering in Michigan

Katie Fahey started a grassroots movement to amend the Michigan State Constitution to end partisan gerrymandering.

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.

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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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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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.

 

HOUSE OF DELEGATES DISTRICT 72

DRAWN BY REPUBLICANS

 

 

 

 

 

STATE SENATE DISTRICT 37

DRAWN BY DEMOCRATs

 

 

 

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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