Webinar on Money in Politics, Voting Rights, and the Environment

Lean to the Green slide 1A webinar, “Lean to the Green,” produced by Friends of the Earth, addresses the twin problems of money in politics and voter suppression.

The webinar is designed to recruit participants in the Democracy Awakening event scheduled to take place April 16–18 (Common Ground for Texans is a member of the coalition). From the announcement of the webinar:

Do you feel like the Koch Brothers have too much influence over our politicians, while people like you and me are ignored? Do you wonder how you can change our political system so that it better represents your concerns for the environment, and not just those of corporations and the super-rich?

It has been six years since Citizens United opened the flood gates for anti-environmental mega-donors like Exxon use their deep pockets to poison our planet. It’s now clear that to make progress on the issues we care most about, we need to stand up and fundamentally change the way we do politics — locally and nationally. In 2016 the American people will take to the streets and ballot boxes to ensure a government that serves the many and not just the money!

Join Friends of the Earth and other leading environmental groups in a free online workshop to learn more about the issues and our plan to ensure a government of, by, and for the people — not a government bought and paid for by anti-environmental special interests!

The webinar’s slides are here.


Posted in Corporate influence, Events, Money in Politics, Voting rights | Leave a comment

Austin’s Campaign Finance System and Alternatives

Discussion of Austin's campaign finance system

Sara Smith leads a discussion of Austin’s campaign finance system and alternatives.

On January 16, 2016 Common Ground hosted a discussion led by Sara E. Smith, staff attorney for Environment Texas, on the Austin Fair Campaign Chapter (AFCC), its shortcomings, and possible alternatives to it.  It became clear within just a few minutes that although the AFCC may have been model legislation in the 1990s, it is now obsolete because City Council members no longer run at-large but now run in single-member districts.  Besides being out-of-date, the AFCC is not enforced because the city’s Ethics Review Commission is a volunteer board without the resources to investigate violations fully and promptly.

The current Austin campaign finance system designed to limit corruption includes these features:

  • Individual donor contributions are limited to $350 (adjusted annually for inflation).
  • Total donations from outside Austin are capped at $36,000 (plus $24,000 for a run-off election).
  • Fund raising cannot begin earlier than 6 months before a City Council election (this feature is designed to reduce pay-to-play governance).
  • Self-loans are unlimited.
  • Independent expenditures, typically from outside interest groups, are unlimited thanks to the Supreme Court Citizen United v. FEC decision.  In Austin elections, they do not have to disclose their donors.

The preamble of the Campaign Finance City Code:

The City election process and city government should be protected from potential undue influence by individuals and groups making large contributions to the election campaigns of candidates for mayor and city council. The City election process and city government should be protected from even an appearance of undue influence by individuals or groups contributing to candidates for mayor and city council. The public should have justified confidence in the integrity of its government.

With the goal of protecting city elections and city government from potential or apparent undue influence by individuals or groups making large contributions to campaigns, are there alternatives to the current AFCC?  Would they work in Austin?  If not, what might?

Sara explored several models with us:  Seattle’s Democracy Voucher system; New York City’s small-donor matching system; and Tallahassee’s Anti-corruption Initiative (for a detailed description of each system, see below).

After reviewing these models, what elements did we think were essential in a new Austin campaign finance system? Continue reading

Posted in Austin campaign finance, Clean Elections, Community Conversations, Electoral reform | Leave a comment

Ask Senate State Affairs Committee to Consider Judicial Selection Methods

The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee has an interim charge to  “examine the effect of eliminating straight-party voting for candidates for judicial office and make recommendations to ensure candidates are given individual consideration by voters.”  It is unusual for an interim committee to have a public hearing, but this committee has invited speakers. As part of the Texas Fair Courts Network, Common Ground for Texans plans to give testimony.  Please come and lend your support.
When: Thursday, February 18 beginning at 9:00 AM
Where: Capitol Extension E1.016

Here are a few paragraphs from our testimony:

Although we recognize that there can be no perfect system for judicial selection of judges, we do know that if we want a fair and impartial court with qualified judges who are beholden only to the law and not to their funders, the current system of electing judges must be changed.

The recommendation under your consideration to “examine the effect of eliminating straight-party voting for candidates for judicial office and make recommendations to ensure candidates are given individual consideration by voters” neither ensures qualified judges nor removes the real or perceived influence of the funders on their decision making.

Although we support removing judicial elections from straight party voting and feel it would represent an improvement in judicial selection because it would eliminate partisan sweeps of these important positions, we feel that this change does not go far enough.  It is our opinion that you must investigate the need for a completely new method of selection. 

We ask you to broaden your study to look at ALL judicial selection methods used across the country.
Posted in Judicial election campaigns, Money in Politics | Leave a comment

NRA: 100; public opinion: 0

On January 8, KUT broadcast an episode of On the Media called “Common Sense,” presenting a stunning example of a special interest’s success in influencing legislators and public policy to achieve results antithetical to public opinion. The special interest in question is the NRA, and the show examines

  • the cozy and lucrative relationship between members of Congress and the seemingly all-powerful gun lobby.
  • the time when the NRA supported gun control, and the staunchest supporters of “gun rights” were on the radical left.
  • whether a popular poll, asking Americans to choose whether gun “rights” or gun “control” are more important,  asks the right question.
  • the nearly twenty-year-old ban that effectively prevents the CDC from researching gun violence.
  • a recent, thorough study which found no correlation between public opinion and what policies get enacted in the U.S.
  • a California pastor’s project to expand the gun-reform conversation, catalyzed by mass shootings, to include inner-city violence.

On the Media is broadcast by KUT (90.5 FM) every Sunday at 9:00 AM. Its hosts, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, maintain the civility and fairness that are hallmarks of public radio as they tackle sticky issues with a frankness and transparency that has built trust with listeners and led to more than a tripling of their audience in five years.  The show has won Edward R. Murrow Awards for feature reporting and investigative reporting, the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism, and a Peabody Award for its body of work.

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The Virginia GOP’s Loyalty Pledge

Last month, the Virginia Republican Party asked the state’s election board to require Republican voters to sign a loyalty pledge to accompany their ballot in the March 1 primary. The request was approved. The statement will read, “My signature below indicates that I am a Republican.”

Although Virginia has open primaries, state law allows parties to request that voters be required to sign such a pledge or statement of party affiliation. The state Republican Party required such a statement in the 2000 primary, when George W. Bush’s candidacy was being hotly contested by John McCain. In 2012, the party proposed a similar pledge, but withdrew its request before the primary.

On December 27, Donald Trump took to Twitter to condemn the loyalty pledge, which some see as an attempt to limit turnout of his supporters:

On January 6, three Trump supporters (who are also black pastors) filed suit in federal court, claiming that the loyalty pledge would discourage poor and minority voters and impose unfair burdens on them, and that it would amount to a literacy test.

I find this story interesting on at least two different levels. First, it’s another battlefield in the ongoing saga of Trump vs. the establishment GOP, and beyond that, it raises some timely questions about the Republican Party and its image in the general electorate. Many GOP analysts see a need to broaden the party’s appeal to independents and new voters; this pledge will interfere with such efforts. Maybe that’s why the Democratic-controlled election board “gleefully approved” the Republicans’ request (in the words of a conservative writer).

Continue reading

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Big wins for the people in Ohio, Maine and Seattle

In the recent November elections, various citizens’ ballot initiatives advanced the electoral voice of the people. Ohio passed the Bipartisan Redistricting Amendment (Issue 1 on the ballot) with 71% of the vote. And Seattle and Maine passed measures that limit the influence of big money on our elections. Continue reading

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Meeting Notes: Reforming the Electoral College

On Saturday, September 12, we held a meeting on the subject of the Electoral College — how it works, its history, and what to do about it. I was honored to be part of a panel that also included Professor Brian Roberts of the University of Texas Dept. of Government, Jan Soifer, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, Kurt Hildebrand, chair of the Libertarian Party of Texas, and moderator Mike Ignatowski. Below are some of the main ideas that were discussed, based on my recollections and notes from fellow Common Ground board members.

I started out with an extended backgrounder, covering the rules by which the Electoral College operates, its origins in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and a brief history of its development over more than 200 years since then. I reviewed the four elections which are commonly cited as electing a President who did not win the popular vote — 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 — as well as 1960, when the Dixiecrat movement gave 15 electors to Harry F. Byrd, raising an interesting question about Kennedy’s popular vote tally. I concluded by mentioning the four main options for reform:

  1. a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election by the people
  2. the district method, already used by Maine and Nebraska
  3. the proportional method, in which each state would split its electoral vote in proportion to its popular vote
  4. the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), a way of making the national popular vote decisive without the need for an amendment to the Constitution.

See the handout I prepared for the meeting for more details on this background. Next, we heard opening remarks from Jan, Kurt, and Brian before opening up the discussion to audience questions.

Continue reading

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Panel Discussion: “What is corruption in a political context?”

Roger Borgelt, Kurt Hildebrand, Sanford Levinson, Mike Ignatowski, Jan Soifer,

From left: Roger Borgelt, Kurt Hildebrand, Sanford Levinson, Mike Ignatowski, Jan Soifer, James Dickey, Joanne Richards

One of CG4TX’s regular monthly meetings, this panel discussion took place on 2 May 2015 at Austin’s Yarborough Public Library.

Moderator: Mike Ignatowski


Sanford Levinson- Professor, University of Texas School of Law, and Professor of Government
Roger Borgelt- Austin lawyer specializing in campaign finance and election law
Kurt Hildebrand- Chair, Texas Libertarian Party
Jan Soifer- Chair, Travis County Democratic Party
James Dickey- Chair, Travis County Republican Party

Sanford Levinson began by providing historical background, emphasizing that from the founding of our nation there has never been agreement on what counts as political corruption. Early on there was a tension between interpretations of the First Amendment and the republican form of government clause. Since the founding of our nation, views on public corruption have evolved from James Madison’s belief, expressed in Federalist 10, that corruption arose from “politics of faction” and political leaders who put private interests above the public interest, to the 19th century reformers who focused on curtailing the political “spoils system.” He explained that concern over campaign funding as the cause of political corruption is largely a 20th-century idea.

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New White Paper: Options for Electoral College Reform

We hereby announce a new Common Ground for Texans white paper on electoral college reform. “Options for Electoral College Reform” examines, in as brief a form as possible, the main arguments in favor of and against our complicated system of electing the President, and what alternatives are most feasible.
Options for Electoral College Reform

There was surprisingly little momentum for reform after 2000, when the popular-vote winner, Al Gore, was not elected. Why? This has happened several times in American history, and there is nothing to prevent it from happening again. As we approach another election year, it may be timely to review the problems with the electoral college and what can be done to fix them.

Posted in Electoral reform | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment