Better Together

It's been said time and again that "all politics is local." Truth be told, most people think of politics in national terms -- this year more than ever. But the greatest potential for rethinking American democracy may lie in working at the regional level. A largely under-the-radar experiment underway in a politically important five-state area of the country could change that.

We formed the Midwest Democracy Network in late 2006 to knit together state-based reform organizations, academic institutions, and national research and policy organizations to address the condition of democracy in five Great Lakes states -- Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Groups are working together across state lines to pool resources, learn from each other's failures, share solutions and build a grass-roots reform movement that is big enough to matter.

Through collaboration, the Midwest Democracy Network has already established a far bigger presence on the public-policy stage than any single state-based organization could. The Network demonstrated this clout with our survey of the reform positions of the presidential candidates. Coming from organizations representing a number of key battleground states, the Network's questionnaire received thoughtful answers from several presidential candidates. Little did we know when the questionnaire results were made public in January 2008 that Barack Obama's response indicating he would participate in the public-financing system would become national news several months later when he opted out of the system. Obama's answer to our questionnaire was raised in editorials and in debates and provided great fodder for columnists, ultimately provoking a national discussion of the public-financing system.

In announcing his decision to eschew public financing, Obama labeled the system badly broken. He promised, if elected, to revisit the presidential public-financing program and work to restore it. While this is a little like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, now that Obama is the president-elect, it nevertheless is an opportunity to thoughtfully and creatively re-examine the campaign-finance issue -- an opportunity the Midwest Democracy Network plans to seize.

Many reformers point to the millions of Americans who helped finance the campaign -- mostly with small donations of $100 or less, many given via the Internet -- as new evidence of a resurgent democracy. We noticed, too, but wonder if the bountiful harvest of such donations that was central to the success of the Obama campaign can be replicated in state or local contests. Can more obscure, less charismatic figures running in more mundane races make such prodigious use of online tools and new fundraising methods? Can programs that encourage small-donor support also serve to enhance the voice and the participation of voters? We aim to find out. We'll be putting the viability of small-donor programs to the test in our region and looking for ways to make them relevant to down-ballot elections.

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The Midwest Democracy Network is working toward not merely campaign-finance reform or particular legislative goals but the restoration of confidence in democracy in the region. In the spring of 2008, the network commissioned a poll by the national independent research firm Beldon, Russonello & Stewart, which found that Midwesterners' trust in state government sharply declined during the past two years.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they couldn't trust government to do what is right most of the time, a seven-point increase from the same question asked in a 2006 survey by the same polling firm. The 2008 poll found that Midwesterners' level of concern about the influence of money in state politics was on a par with worries about bread-and-butter issues like health care, public education, and state taxes. Respondents strongly supported a number of specific reforms on open government, campaign finance, judicial independence, and redistricting. A large majority -- about 80 percent -- believed that a comprehensive platform of reforms would make state government work better.

When all the findings are put together, three messages come through. First, Midwesterners don't want reform for reform's sake. They want a healthy economy, good jobs, access to health care, and quality schools for their kids. But, second, they have little faith that a dysfunctional government will deliver such change, and believe that reforms can eliminate the conditions that prevent real progress. Third, voters are wiser than we often give them credit for. They recognize that no single reform will do the trick, and they are capable of thinking creatively about democracy.

A case in point is the growing threat to the independence of our state courts and the fairness and impartiality of judges, a central concern in the Midwest. Some of the ugliest and most demeaning state Supreme Court elections have taken place in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Judges are supposed to be accountable only to the law and the Constitution, but the way we finance most state court elections puts this bedrock principle of our court system at great risk.

States throughout our region are working to turn judicial auctions back into court elections. But we're also working together on other fronts to improve the conduct of judicial elections in the Midwest. Network groups collaborated with the Justice at Stake Campaign to develop a handbook of best practices for judicial candidates. The guide, sent to over 700 judicial candidates, provides concrete proposals and commonsense wisdom to help them keep campaigns from becoming a race to the bottom. The recommendations cover judicial campaign speech, financial contributions, and the growing role of interest groups in judicial elections. In addition, the guide offers practical advice on judicial-campaign oversight committees, the appropriate responses to judicial questionnaires, and participation in voters' guides, debates, and public education. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the handbook was effective in some races, particularly for the lower courts. In the coming months, the Midwest Democracy Network plans to follow up on this effort by bringing judges together to share best campaign practices.

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The groups that came together to form the Midwest Democracy Network are very diverse. Some have toiled for years for campaign-finance reform. Others specialized in voting rights and election protection. Others followed the money and made what they found available to journalists and citizens or served as watchdogs and shined light in the corridors of power. We have been joined in this effort by state-based organizations representing people of color, immigrants, consumers, and the environment, as well as academics, legal scholars, and national think tanks. It is a new model of collaboration that looks at issues both broadly and deeply and is rooted in local experience.

Our founding idea is reinforced by the Midwestern wisdom reflected in the polling data -- that no single reform will cure what ails our democracy and government. Change will spring from on-the-ground activism that is scrupulously tailored to local needs, issues, and interests. In fact, we are convinced that's the only way change will happen. What's sorely needed in Illinois is in some cases already law elsewhere in the region. What will fly in Minnesota or Wisconsin, for instance, might not stand a chance of getting off the ground in Ohio or Michigan.

Counterintuitive and seemingly contradictory though it may be, we've discovered great promise in interstate collaboration, even as we practice a highly decentralized form of advocacy rooted in a belief in the superiority of autonomous state-based reform efforts. One-size-fits-all reforms fashioned in isolation in Washington, D.C., won't work if we desire change that is sensitive to the variations in history, process, and practice at the state level.

What we have in common is a view of democracy as an ecosystem. Yes, all the money in politics has priced too many citizens and candidates out of the political marketplace and given wealthy interests too much control over our elected officials. But campaign-finance reforms in isolation will deliver unsatisfying results. Voters are supposed to choose their representatives, but the way congressional and state legislative districts are currently drawn means that representatives have fashioned districts that stack the odds in favor of their re-election. The promise of campaign-finance reform will amount to little if most districts are uncompetitive by design. That's why one of the Midwest Democracy Network's next big initiatives is a multiyear effort to address how the U.S. census is used for redistricting. Our goal is to get out in front of this issue and encourage the public to participate in the redistricting deliberations, rather than just accept the map as drawn by political insiders.

The old approach to reform overlooked the interconnectivity of issues -- for example, how the combination of redistricting, campaign financing, and ballot-access laws conspires to reduce electoral competition. Or how progress achieved in the legislative arena can be so easily undone by courts that hew to the status quo. Our failure in past efforts to acknowledge interconnectivity was very much on our minds as we cooked up the Midwest Democracy Network and set out to knit together single-issue and multi-issue groups alike into a more cohesive community of reform advocates.

Much of the work we've done together involves pooling our energy and resources to make possible not only such undertakings as our presidential questionnaire but also efforts that no one of us has the means to do alone, such as sustained public-opinion research and systematic tracking of political advertising. In acting together, we look to create a regional if not national presence and an amplified voice for democracy reform that can be heard beyond the borders of our individual states.

In the end, of course, all that really matters is whether our experiment helps make democracy in the places we call home healthier and more worthy of the name. Alone, we face steep odds. Together, we like our chances.

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