Reform Movement Picks Up Steam Ahead of Midterms

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Political America is fixated on the congressional midterms even though little good is likely to come out of them. Unfortunately, it’s paying too little attention to political reform efforts in more than two dozen states and localities, a trend that could have major impacts.

Democratic takeover of the U.S. House would provide much-needed oversight of the Trump administration, but with the Senate likely staying in Republican hands, the chances of passing meaningful legislation in the next two years are slim.

And if House Democrats run amok with investigations or launch premature impeachment proceedings, it’ll only widen the tribal divide that afflicts the country.

If Republicans keep control of both chambers, President Trump is certain to take it as vindication of his leadership, double down on his divisive policies and pronouncements -- and likely fire every subordinate he doesn’t like, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller.  

Though there’s reason for pessimism about where the federal government is headed, there’s also cause for optimism in the states. Citizen groups — with national backing — have put initiatives on 2018 ballots all over the country to end gerrymandering, impose stricter ethics laws, mandate open primaries and make voting easier.

“Practically every major social and political reform in U.S. history has started in the states, not Washington,” said Josh Silver, director of Represent.Us, “whether it was giving women the vote or legalizing gay marriage. We’re out to change Congress from the state level.”

With 41 chapters in 21 states, 10,000 active volunteers and a $5 million annual budget, Represent.Us is the largest national group backing political reform. It specializes in offering strategic advice, social media services, grassroots organizing help and some celebrity assistance to local groups working on reform.

Silver said his group also works to attract conservatives to the reform effort to make it clear — often against Republican Party assertions — that reform is not designed to elect more Democrats.

Represent.Us is just one of several dozen national organizations trying in various ways to combat the GOP-Democratic “duopoly” that’s systematically polarized voters into red and blue tribes increasingly at war with each other.

These groups often raise the banner espousing “country over party” and say they are intent on “unrigging the system,” “ending corruption” and “saving” or “restoring” democracy in America. It’s a much under-recognized movement whose activities can be tracked online here and here.

The movement has already scored some successes this year. Four states approved measures whereby any citizen-government interaction, such as when one renews license plates, would automatically register a citizen to vote. Michigan and Nevada have automatic registration initiatives on the ballot this year.

Meantime, against opposition from both parties, in June Maine voters made their state the first to adopt ranked-choice voting, a system designed to give independents a better chance to win elections.

And Ohioans voted 75 percent-25 percent in May to reform the state’s congressional redistricting procedure, which in 2011 produced one of the most gerrymandered maps in the nation.

That followed a citizen effort that amassed 200,000 signatures and persuaded the state legislature to put the reform measure on the ballot.

Reformers want to take the redistricting process away from state legislatures because both parties, when in power, draw district lines to protect incumbents, maximize their representation at the expense of the other party and create “safe seats” that discourage candidate appeals across party lines.

GOP-dominated legislatures elected in 2000 redrew maps in several states that resulted in a decade of lopsided Republican domination of legislatures and congressional delegations. Democrats did the same in states where they won control.

This year in Michigan, the citizen group Voters Not Politicians gathered 425,000 signatures to put congressional and state gerrymander reform on the November ballot against fierce and continuing opposition from the state GOP, chamber of commerce and a political group founded by Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Polls indicate strong — but not yet decisive — support for the measure.

Against some Republican opposition, polls show a proposition to establish an independent redistricting commission in Utah has a 2-to-1 lead among registered voters. Colorado is also likely to pass redistricting reform, unanimously put on the ballot by the state legislature.

Another Represent.Us-aided group, Clean Missouri, gathered 340,000 signatures for a comprehensive reform proposal — fought by the state chamber of commerce -- that would eliminate lobbyist gifts to politicians, require former legislators to wait two years before lobbying and establish an independent redistricting commission. One poll shows it’s likely to pass.

Ethics-reform constitutional amendments are on the ballot in New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota — and the subject of some bitter battles.

In North Dakota, oil and gas interests and the state chamber of commerce are fighting a measure put on the ballot by North Dakotans for Public Integrity that would ban foreign campaign contributions, establish an ethics commission, require disclosure of campaign contributions and forbid lobbyist gifts to public officials. One poll showed it had 41 percent support vs. 28 against opposed and 31 percent undecided.

South Dakota voters are deciding whether to resurrect a similar ethics measure passed by referendum in 2016, then struck down by the GOP-dominated state legislature. It was opposed then — and now again — by the Koch brothers’ political organization, presumably because it requires full disclosure of campaign contributions.

Represent.Us is not the only national reform group at work. Unite America, dedicated to helping independents gain power, expects to actually elect only one of its five endorsed candidates, Steve Poizner, who is running for California insurance commissioner.  But the group’s executive director, Nick Troiano, said 17 legislative candidates may begin taking influential balance-of-power positions in six states.

In Washington, D.C., 20 of the 42-member House Problem Solvers Caucus, the reform group begun by No Labels, have pledged they will band together to withhold their votes for the next House speaker in January unless they get assurances on changes in House rules.

One change would eliminate the “motion to vacate” procedure — essentially a “no confidence” vote that the House Freedom Caucus has used to threaten speakers to toe their line.  Another would assure that party distribution on the powerful House Rules Committee — which sets the terms for debate — reflects the balance of the whole House.

And others would narrow the ability of House leaders to limit debate and amendments with “closed rules” and require any bill with 290 co-sponsors to get a floor vote. It remains to be seen how many of the 20 will win re-election and whether they actually stand up to their party leadership.

Meantime, of course, there are retrograde anti-reform efforts underway — including the notorious effort by Georgia Secretary of State (and gubernatorial candidate) Brian Kemp that critics say would suppress minority voter turnout, along with stringent voter-ID constitutional amendments on the ballot in Arkansas and North Carolina. In addition, Memphis voters are trying to prevent the city council from killing a ranked-order voting system previously approved in a referendum by 71 percent.

But political reform is a movement on the move, with plans to expand its efforts in 2019 and 2020.

One example demonstrates the need. In response to well-documented Russian interference in 2016 U.S. elections using social media, the reform group Issue One has promoted an “Honest Ads Act” in Congress to require online political ads to contain the same sponsor identification that federal law requires of TV and print ads.

And despite sponsorship by 31 senators and 24 House members, along with support from Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM, the bill has never had a hearing in either chamber of the GOP-controlled Congress.

But if lawmakers can’t — or won’t — protect democracy, reformers at least are trying. 

Morton Kondracke is the retired executive editor of Roll Call, a former "McLaughlin Group" and Fox News commentator and co-author, with Fred Barnes, of “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America.”

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