This past June, Karen Hobert Flynn was appointed as the tenth president of Common Cause, the nonpartisan government accountability advocacy group founded in 1970. Hobert Flynn has been involved in Common Cause for more than 25 years and has delved into reform efforts in a number of areas ranging from political money and democracy to voting rights. She headed up the group’s Connecticut office for more than a decade and helped implement one of the strongest state campaign-finance reform laws in the country. The American Prospect sat down with her to talk about her new role and her thoughts on the issues confronting our democracy today. This is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Jennifer Baik: We are at a pivotal moment in our history where the United States could creep into authoritarianism, continue on our current trajectory, or move in a more progressive direction. How would you characterize the historical moment?
Karen Hobert Flynn: I have never seen—in the 30-plus years I’ve been working in the democracy space—more agreement about the problems we face as a democracy. The outsized role that money plays in our politics concerns Democrats, Republicans, and independents across the political spectrum. At the same time, we've seen, especially at the congressional level, unparalleled gridlock where the Republican Party has moved so far to the right, and there is polarization where you see some Democrats moving to the left. But it really is asymmetrical polarization. In Congress you can’t even find agreement around issues like disclosure.
At the same time, at the state and local levels, we do see the ability for Democrats and Republicans to work together on issues like disclosure, small donor public financing, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and a broad array of voting reforms. We have seen restrictive measures that are cropping up state after state that create barriers in access to voting.
But we are also seeing reforms moving at a really remarkable pace. We have online voter registration that has passed in 38 states. Common Cause chapters helped work to pass it in California and Oregon and now it has moved through five states (Oregon, California, West Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, Illinois). This legislation has been introduced in close to half the states, so we are seeing bipartisan support to shift the burden of registration onto government to greatly expand the ability to get out the vote.
What we're seeing crop up on the state level on small donor public financing and voter reforms makes us very optimistic for the future: Nearly half of members of Congress come from state legislatures, and that innovation and willingness to work in a bipartisan way to solve some of the problems of our democracy will eventually make its way to the federal level.
You’ve had a lot of experience in moving legislation—including securing a very strong campaign-finance statute in Connecticut. Campaign-finance reform remains a controversial issue. What were some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Many of the issues Common Cause works on are issues that take on power: The power of money and special interests, the power of incumbents and incumbency, and the power of status quo. Those kinds of battles are difficult and they require a lot of work, such as strong, broad, and diverse constituencies engaged in the fight, developing outside pressure to bear on a legislature and working to develop relationships with both Republicans and Democrats over time who may lead the effort to move reform.
We worked for over ten years to pass public financing in Connecticut. When you take on an issue as complex as a small donor public financing system, for a legislature that is new to that idea, the thought of allowing challengers to have money to create more competition is an issue that they aren’t very interested in learning too much about.
While pushing for a big reform like public financing, you create pressure in a legislature through your grassroots organizing and pressure [it] to move some kind of reform. Along the way, we passed reforms like disclosure and closed down loopholes. We started to create the infrastructure that public financing would need to succeed along.
So when scandal struck, [in 2004, former Connecticut Governor John Rowland resigned; he later pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges] we had a 50-organization coalition that had worked on this for many years together. We had shared agreement on what we wanted to do, we had raised the resources we needed to sustain a long-term effort, we could hire organizers on the ground to mobilize and engage activists. So, over a 15-month campaign we were able to succeed. It wasn't as if scandal struck and in a couple months we passed transformative reform. Instead, that ten-year work laid the important foundations so that when a scandal struck—like a governor going to jail—we were able to move it over the top.
Which issues are at the top of the Common Cause agenda?
An issue that has been cropping up in states that many people are not aware of is the right’s call for an Article 5 convention for a balanced budget amendment. The Tea Party and the American Legislative Exchange Council [a conservative lobbying group] have put a lot of time and attention in trying to pass through state legislatures—it doesn’t have to go through a governor—resolutions calling for an Article 5 convention to pass a balanced budget amendment.
Every amendment to our Constitution has passed not through calling a convention, but from Congress introducing a constitutional amendment that has to be ratified through the states. If this resolution is passed in 34 states, an Article 5 convention is called. There are no rules in the Constitution, or on the books, about how you select delegates to the convention, whether the subject of the convention is limited to what the resolutions say or if it could be wide open to include all kinds of other issues.
The right has talked about using this as an opportunity to constrain the federal government on a number of issues. There has been talk about undoing marriage equality, looking at undermining Roe v. Wade, putting limits on the federal government’s ability to increase spending in times of war or natural disaster. So we see this as a real threat to our democracy. There have been 28 states that have passed this call, and they are only a few states short of the 34 that they need.
Their target list of states are states that are very red states such as Arizona, Texas, South Caroline, and Idaho. It’s a stark landscape, and will be very difficult to defeat. It is not one on the public’s radar—they know very little about it. We did a briefing for senators on Capitol Hill a month and a half ago and most of them were not aware that this was going on at the state level. If Congress doesn’t know what’s going on, then this is very concerning.
Barriers to participation and voting are also important. Redistricting is a huge issue that crops up every ten years. In most states [district lines] are drawn by state legislators. They are drawn in ways that protect their own interests where they choose their voters instead of having their voters choose their elected representatives. We have a few states that use some kind of commission, whether that is a legislative commission, like in Indiana, or an independent citizen commission, like in California. But for the most part, we have incumbents drawing lines in ways that protect themselves. We can pass voting reforms and campaign-finance reforms, but if incumbents are creating districts that can disempower African American voters or Latino voters, or handicap any potential challenger and draws them for their own benefit, then we still have a problem making sure everybody's vote counts.
Was there a particular political event or moment that inspired you to go into this line of work?
As a young girl my father would talk about politics and bring me articles from the newspaper for me to read. Growing up, we would debate them—my sister, too. It was only as an adult that my sister said, “You didn't notice that I never read them.” Later, I watched all the televised Watergate hearings. My father was a very conservative Republican. He said, “Richard Nixon is innocent.” I started learning more about what was happening—I was only in fifth grade. When I heard Nixon resign, I thought my father had it completely wrong. This man was guilty, and I decided that I had to seek out other points of view and learn as much as I can because people can be wrong about their elected leaders. As a college student, I was very concerned about Ronald Reagan’s defense build-up. It was an issue I was very passionate about. While the American people wanted to see reforms, they did not want to develop a Strategic Defense Initiative or any other first-strike capabilities, and we had a government that ignored the will of the people. So those issues brought me to working at Common Cause.
You’ve talked about the New American Majority, which you stated was “more diverse, less ideological, and more engaged.” What is your definition of democracy reform?
When we talk about democracy reform, we talk about a broad range of issues: Transparency around what government does and how they do it, like open data, and having more information about how government does its work. It also means we look at how our courts operate and whether people have access to an attorney. Do they get a fair trail, who are the judges, and do they reflect the communities that they come from? Do we have a fair and accessible media? Do we have a diversity of voices in our media? Are we seeing more and more consolidation of power by corporate interests controlling that media? Does everyone have access to the internet?
Common Cause looks for strategic openings to move reform depending on what’s needed from strong redistricting reform in California, to passing automatic voter registration in Oregon, and looking at small donor public financing in New Mexico, California, and Connecticut. Showing that you can move reform creates a road map and examples of reform that can have an impact at the state level. And, if you can do that in enough states, when Congress gets to the point where they are ready to act or be open to these, there are case studies for them to look at to help them do that at the federal level.
Automatic voter registration means you shift the burden but that registration should be updated regulated and should be portable so that if you move from California to Florida then it moves with you—and the only way we can do that is if we pass it at the federal level. The same with redistricting: You can pass standards to create citizens commission where citizens are drawing their district lines rather than incumbents. That could cover the entire country.
One of the things that polls are showing us is that younger Americans—Americans coming from a more diverse backgrounds—are more concerned with democracy issues which are that people have the right to have their voice heard, that [they] have an opportunity to influence those they elect, that there is a pathway for them to participate as voters and donors as people running for office and serving in some kind of capacity. The kinds of activity that we saw around Bernie Sanders’s campaign shows that issues—delegate selection process, the role of super-delegates, and the impacts of primaries and caucuses on political participation—appeal to younger voters in a way that hasn’t been seen before.