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In Michigan, it began with an MBA student’s Facebook post seeking a solution to gerrymandering shortly after Donald Trump’s election. In North Dakota, a coffee group of grandmas decided they’d had enough of corporate government rule.
They and others are now seeing their efforts pay off. Cities and states across the U.S. passed 15 anti-corruption measures Nov. 6 that were made possible by grassroots movements, according to RepresentUs, an activist organization that supports local efforts to improve voters’ and candidates’ access to the political system. The measures cover areas as diverse as automatic voter registration, anti-gerrymandering and the elimination of dark money in local elections. Those strides in fairness, activists say, will only beget more open democracy movements across the United States.
“For decades, voters have been getting more and more frustrated with the establishment status quo in politics and there’s been this overwhelming feeling of hopelessness,” says Joshua Graham Lynn, co-founder and managing director of RepresentUs.
“When voters realize their own power, it bodes well for more of the same in 2020,” he says.
Fifteen of 16 anti-corruption measures that were on the ballots passed Nov. 6, joining eight others approved earlier in 2018. Many of them will take effect before 2020, when Americans will not only vote for president and congressional leaders, but answer a census that will help determine new legislative district boundaries.
Katie Fahey, then a 27-year-old political rookie in Michigan, dreaded Thanksgiving after the 2016 election, knowing that emotions in her politically divided family would be raw. A couple of days after the election, she posted on Facebook that she wanted to address the gerrymandering that left the “purple” state with a heavy majority of Republicans in the state house, despite a roughly 50-50 division of votes between parties.
She indicated that anyone who wanted to help tackle the problem should let her know—she figured she’d find a group or movement to join, she says.
“I didn’t think it would lead to me running a ballot initiative in our state,” Fahey says.
The post attracted the attention of thousands of people, and soon she and a coalition called Voters Not Politicians had secured a ballot measure—Proposal 2—proposing an independent redistricting commission made up of regular Michiganders.
Michigan, where elected legislative officials had traditionally drawn the political boundaries, is known as one of the worst-gerrymandered states in America, according to Michigan’s Bridge Magazine. Fahey herself lives outside of Grand Rapids, an urban area that’s “cracked” into several separate districts, meaning its progressive population was split into more rural, conservative districts that don’t share much cultural or geographical commonalities with the city. It allows conservatives to secure more seats than what demographics might otherwise dictate. Take the Michigan House of Representatives: Though the total vote in 2016 favored Democrats by a half-percentage point, Republicans took 63 of the 110 seats.
To illustrate the situation, Fahey made a promotional video for Voters Not Politicians in which she ran across three legislative districts in the space of 46 seconds.
“If politicians draw their own lines, they target the people they’re scared of losing to,” she says. “Our incumbents will have to really be campaigning for the will of the people and can’t have that unfair advantage anymore.”
The measure’s victory, with 61 percent of the vote, will lead to the establishment of a citizen commission that will host hearings throughout the state and draw new district boundaries for the 2022 midterm election.
“The reality that really struck me throughout this process is that especially in a purple state … if the people didn’t actively choose to organize, this was never going to happen,” Fahey says. “A lot of people are sick and tired of politics as usual, and they’re ready for change.”
The measure’s victory will help reverse decades of incumbent politicians’ consolidation of power, says Jiggy Athilingam, state and local policy manager at Indivisible, an organization that lends support to grassroots political efforts.
“What we’re doing now is we’re undoing some of that damage so we can have a fair, representative democracy,” she says.
Other successful measures to that end include the initiative allowing former prisoners to vote in Florida; anti-gerrymandering victories in Colorado, Missouri, and Utah; and the establishment of publicly funded elections in Baltimore and Denver. North Dakota, propelled by a multipartisan group officially called North Dakotans for Public Integrity but self-dubbed the “Badass Grandmas,” passed a measure containing a full slate of anti-corruption reforms, such as requiring the reporting of large donations, banning the personal use of campaign money, restricting lobbyist gifts, and closing the “revolving door” of public officials leaving office to become lobbyists.
“Voters are completely fed up with what they see in politics,” says David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice, which supports municipal efforts to create publicly funded elections. “[With] the pressure on elected officials to raise money, voters feel completely shut out and don’t think politicians are working for them.”
The past 10 years have seen a dismantling of election integrity, from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision to its 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act that facilitated voter suppression measures in Georgia and other states. Trump’s election despite Hillary Clinton’s capture of the popular vote demoralized voters further, organizers say.
“People are more awakened to the crisis,” Athilingam says. “A lot of people came after the 2016 election and started participating in democracy more than they ever have before. Once you start getting in tune with politics … you quickly realize that things are not fair.”
But recent years have seen a surge in anti-corruption progress initiated by voters themselves. They not only tend to increase voter participation, but can alter state legislatures and congressional boundaries and help elect more progressive candidates, says Rita Bosworth, executive director of the Sister District Project, which works to elect Democrats to disproportionately Republican state chambers.
“When there are more things on the ballot that are super important, that helps drive turnout,” which favors progressives, Bosworth says.
So where will these reforms hit next? It’s too early to tell for the most part, Athilingam says, because initiatives haven’t been certified for the next election.
But Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Austin, Texas, are poised to pass public campaign financing in their city halls, Donnelly says, inspired by a system passed in Seattle in 2015. And the expansive progressive flips in state chambers across the country, such as in Virginia in 2017 and New Hampshire this year, could make those state governments more amenable to passing reforms so that activists don’t need to take up the mantle, Athilingam says.
And election fairness appeals to people of all parties, Lynn of RepresentUs says.
“The power of the people in this case and the power of unity and cross-partisanship is going to continue to be what moves the needle [in election integrity],” he says. “The more we move the needle, the more it becomes a mandate for our elected leaders.”
The controversial Clean Elections rules that led Republican lawmakers to attempt to curb the agency’s authority through Proposition 306 may be here to stay, even if voters approve the measure.
Prop. 306 would subject the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which administers the state’s public campaign financing system, to the same regulatory rulemaking restrictions as other state agencies, including oversight by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council (GRRC), whose members are appointed by the governor.
Republican lawmakers included that provision in the measure in response to a years-long fight between the Secretary of State’s Office and the commission over the extent of its regulatory authority over outside independent expenditure groups that spend money in Arizona elections.
Under state law, “dark money” groups and other outside campaign committees must file campaign finance reports for each quarter and for other designated reporting periods during election years. However, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission requires them to report that spending more promptly: within 24 hours during the two weeks before an election, and by the following Tuesday outside that two-week window.
Late in the election season, the Clean Elections reports are the only way the public can track campaign spending by outside groups in a timely manner. The last campaign finance reports of the 2018 election cycle were due Oct. 29, and covered the reporting period that ended on Oct. 20.
So, without the Clean Elections reports, voters would know little about independent expenditures during the critical last weeks of the election. The Legislature in 2016 eliminated similar “trigger reports” that independent expenditure groups had to submit to the Secretary of State’s Office, which left Clean Elections as the only entity requiring spending-driven reporting by independent expenditures.
At the heart of the dispute is not just the reporting requirements — those are part of the statutes approved by voters in 1998 when they created the Clean Election system — but the commission’s authority to enforce them. Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan and other Republican critics have argued that the Clean Elections Commission is acting beyond the scope of its jurisdiction and has usurped the secretary of state’s authority, creating a confusing and dual enforcement system for campaign finance laws where groups that spend money in elections can be punished for alleged violations, even if other election officials have determined that they didn’t break the rules.
Clean Elections advocates, however, tout the commission as the only truly independent entity regulating campaign finance, and argue that its independence will be hindered if it’s subject to the whims of GRRC, whose members are appointed by the governor.
In at least one high-profile case, the Clean Elections Commission took action on a campaign finance enforcement matter after other elections officials have declined to do so when it levied a $96,000 fine against Legacy Foundation Action Fund, a dark money group that aided Gov. Doug Ducey during the 2014 election with television ads against one of his rivals in the Republican primary. Legacy Foundation challenged the commission’s authority in a lawsuit, but lost after courts ruled that it missed a key deadline.
Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s office filed a complaint with GRRC, which vets and approves regulations by state agencies, in a bid to overturn the Clean Elections rules governing reporting by independent expenditure groups and traditionally funded candidates, which includes civil penalties for those that don’t comply. The council ultimately ordered Clean Elections to rescind the rules, but the commission refused, saying the council lacked the authority to do so.
Prop. 306 would place the commission explicitly under GRRC’s authority, which could preempt future fights over how far Clean Elections’ authority extends.
It would also prohibit Clean Elections candidates from giving any of their public campaign funding to political parties. That became a controversial issue after the commission in 2017 passed a new rule clarifying publicly funded candidates’ ability to make payments to political parties and nonprofit organizations, and imposing new reporting standards for such payments.
Advocates of Prop. 306 cite that rule as the primary impetus behind the ballot measure, while critics describe it as a Trojan horse meant to secure voter approval for the regulatory overhaul.
The fate of that rule if Prop. 306 passes is unambiguous, since the measure will ban outright any such payments to parties. But it’s unclear exactly what, if anything, would happen to Clean Elections rules on independent expenditure reporting in a post-Prop. 306 world.
Tom Collins, the executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, emphasized that the disputed reporting requirements are in state statute, and that the commission’s authority to enforce those requirements emanates from that. Because of that, Collins questioned whether the commission even needs specific rules to authorize its enforcement of those laws.
“They’re not amending that part of the statute,” Collins said of Prop. 306.
State Election Director Eric Spencer, who wrote the GRRC complaint from the Secretary of State’s Office against the Clean Elections Commission, took a similar view. He said his understanding is that Prop. 306 will apply to future issues, and he said he would be surprised if it resurrected the feud over Clean Elections’ reporting rules.
“I have never assumed that, if Prop. 306 passes, it will put that controversy back on the front burner. I just have assumed that it will apply going forward. But I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Spencer said.
The Arizona Department of Administration, which is GRRC’s parent agency, declined to comment.
“Saying anything prior to the election would be speculation. I’m sure there will be additional clarity after Nov. 6,” ADOA spokeswoman Megan Rose said.
GRRC member Frank Thorwald also declined to make any predictions about what would become of the disputed rules.
“I’m not going to speculate on anything at this point. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
The Clean Elections spending reports can be a timely source of information about election spending for members of the public. But finding those reports can be a challenge.
During the 2016 election cycle, those reports appeared exclusively on the commission’s website, but not on the secretary of state’s website because of its dispute with Clean Elections over the extent of the commission’s authority. Since then, Clean Elections and Reagan’s administration put their differences aside and agreed to put the reports on the secretary of state’s new campaign finance website, known as See the Money.
But Collins said the secretary of state’s system is unreliable, and recently resumed posting independent expenditure reports on the Clean Elections website.
BRADENTON BEACH, Fla. — The billboard flickered from the side of a truck, displaying an image of Representative Vern Buchanan, Republican of Florida, wearing a yachtsman’s cap. Keith Fitzgerald, a local dignitary invited by the group Floridians for a Fair Shake, stood before it as he tore into the lawmaker’s record.
The congressman embodied “deep and profound corruption,” Mr. Fitzgerald told a thin crowd. The nautical caricature of Mr. Buchanan, a wealthy auto dealer, alluded to his purchase of a multimillion-dollar yacht on the same day he voted for a bill cutting upper-income tax rates.
Floridians for a Fair Shake has criticized Mr. Buchanan for months, with paid advertising, campaign workers, and events like this, on a recent Sunday in a beachside parking lot. Yet Mr. Fitzgerald, a former Democratic state legislator and something of the guest of honor, confessed, “Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about this group.”
“They told me what they were doing,” he continued. “I’m not sure where the money comes from.”
A structure unknown even to some of those involved, Floridians for a Fair Shake and 13 other groups around the country are funded and coordinated out of a single office in Washington, with the goal of battering Republicans for their health care and economic policies during the midterm elections.
At the center of the effort is an opaquely named Democratic organization, the Hub Project, which is on track to spend nearly $30 million since 2017 pressuring members of Congress in their districts. The great bulk of its funding has come from so-called dark money — funds from donors who are not legally required to reveal their names.
With that money, the Hub Project — in an initiative run by a former Obama administration official and public relations specialist, Leslie Dach, and Arkadi Gerney, a former political strategist for the liberal Center for American Progress — set up an array of affiliate groups around the country, many with vaguely sympathetic names like Keep Iowa Healthy, New Jersey for a Better Future and North Carolinians for a Fair Economy. The Hub Project then used them to mobilize volunteers and run advertising on policy issues against Republican members of Congress many months before the election.
More than a dozen of the targeted lawmakers remain among the most endangered incumbents this year, including Representatives Rod Blum of Iowa, Bruce Poliquin of Maine, Steve Knight of California and George Holding of North Carolina.
The quiet onslaught embodied two of the most important strategic choices by Democrats in the 2018 elections — putting health care and taxes at the core of their message, and using invigorated fund-raising on the left to challenge Republicans even in conservative-leaning areas. Several Democratic operatives involved in the group likened its role to that of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy network funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, during the Obama administration, albeit on a significantly smaller scale.
While some of its visible activities during the midterms have been previously reported, the Hub Project has never before disclosed the scale of its efforts or discussed them extensively on the record.
Mr. Gerney, the group’s executive director, said in an interview that the initiative targeting several dozen congressional districts had been designed to keep the focus on the Republicans’ legislative agenda in an election heavily dominated by President Trump’s personality. He described it as a test case for a larger theory of Democratic politics, defined by continuous attacks on Republican policies rather than on Mr. Trump.
“It’s a very chaotic media environment and, understandably, lots of people are chasing Trump’s Twitter feed,” Mr. Gerney said. “But for most people, their health care, their family finances, their economic future — these things really matter.”
Mr. Gerney displayed no ambivalence about using undisclosed contributions — traditionally a source of dismay for Democrats — to punish Republicans for last year’s $1.5 trillion tax law and their attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“We don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” Mr. Gerney said.
Mr. Gerney and others involved in the effort described it unfolding in stages, first targeting five congressional districts in the summer of 2017, then expanding to a map of 19 seats over the next 11 months. In some districts, the Hub Project’s state affiliates were running paid advertising months before other outside groups got involved — and before members of Congress mobilized to defend themselves.
A former senior official with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Jessica Floyd, has overseen the advertising.
Polling conducted for the Hub Project, and scrutinized by a pair of Stanford University researchers in an analysis shared with The New York Times, found that voters in districts where its affiliates operated were likelier to remember their representative’s votes on health care and taxes, though in some cases ad campaigns also appeared to generate backlashes among Republicans.
In North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, the affiliate group North Carolinians for a Fair Economy spent about $736,000 criticizing Mr. Holding, a third-term lawmaker in a conservative-leaning district, and pressuring the Republican in television ads to “stop raising the cost of health care.” Carter Wrenn, a political adviser for Mr. Holding, said the attack had come as something of an ambush and forced Mr. Holding to scramble to air an ad defending his record.
“They made the first big attack on George,” said Mr. Wrenn, adding that he had sought unsuccessfully to discern who was behind the attack: “We tried to figure out who they were, but there’s not much you can tell about who funds them and who they are, exactly.”
Mr. Holding is battling for re-election against his Democratic challenger, Linda Coleman.
There are some clues about the campaign’s financing: In July, Politico reported that an “obscure nonprofit” known as the Sixteen Thirty Fund was pouring millions into state-level advocacy groups, including Floridians for a Fair Shake. That same nonprofit funds several other initiatives linked to the Hub Project, including a health care advocacy program called Protect Our Care and a group, Not One Penny, that organizes opposition to Republican tax policies.
Mr. Gerney confirmed that the Hub Project controls the money flowing from the Sixteen Thirty Fund into the state-level groups, but the larger nonprofit does not have to disclose its funding sources.
Mr. Gerney also confirmed that the Hub Project controls a super PAC of its own, Change Now, which has been funding advertising this fall against a smaller list of Republican-held districts that includes some of the same targets. The group has filed a report with the Federal Election Commission showing it received $1.75 million in funding from the League of Conservation Voters, the influential environmental group, and several people involved with the effort said future reports were expected to show contributions from national labor unions.
Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, a Democratic group that supports stricter campaign finance regulation, said dark money contributions were largely unpopular with voters. But she acknowledged that groups with “really innocuous-sounding names, like Americans for a Better America,” could leave a lasting mark with voters in part because they are perceived as independent from candidates.
“They really dislike dark money and any type of political spending,” Ms. Muller said of voters. At the same time, she noted, research suggests “voters trust outside-group ads more than they trust candidate ads.”
Mr. Dach said that the network of state groups had bolstered the Hub Project’s credibility with voters, connecting it with local activists who in some cases ended up starring in ads. Mr. Dach, a former Obama administration health care official, said the 14-month advocacy campaign had helped keep policy at the forefront of the midterm election.
Mr. Dach and Mr. Gerney both said they decided to go on the record with the details of the campaign because they hoped Democrats would adopt it for future election cycles. In the past, Mr. Dach said, Democrats had lacked the funds and focus to sustain an argument on core issues like health care.
“These issues are clear, they’re understandable to people, but I think we neglected and we were financially unable to sustain this kind of work before,” Mr. Dach said. “We have been on the same message — pre-existing conditions, age tax, health care costs, sabotage — from day one.”
The event in Bradenton Beach taunting Mr. Buchanan was emblematic of the group’s approach — and its limitations. Democrats had been hopeful of flipping the conservative-leaning district, anchored in the comfortable and predominantly white suburbs on the south end of Tampa Bay. A prominent local trial lawyer, David Shapiro, jumped in as the Democratic candidate and the race intensified after a Hub Project researcher discovered Mr. Buchanan’s yacht purchase.
Yet as voters on the right have grown more energized about the midterm elections, Mr. Buchanan has appeared somewhat more secure in his re-election prospects. As Mr. Fitzgerald assailed the Republican’s voting record, flanked by an activist dressed as a yacht captain, Vince Cavell looked on skeptically from a short distance.
Mr. Cavell, 66, who retired to the area after a career in the computer business, shrugged at the attacks on Mr. Buchanan’s support for the tax law.
“I’m enjoying the lower taxes,” he said.
VPA Arizona is an Arizona nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of Arizonan voters through participation in the electoral processes. VPA Arizona will work to increase ballot petition efforts, voter registration and leadership development.