Balancing the Scales: The Fight for Our Democracy – State and Local Reforms are Paying Off

December 1, 2017

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Voqal embarked on a follow-on research effort to understand more deeply the shifting dynamics of the money-in-politics (MiP) field and identify the best role for Voqal going forward. In the first entry of part two of our series focused on Voqal’s strategic review of its philanthropic investments to get money out of politics, we take an in-depth look at the first of four themes that arose from that research.

Theme 1: State and local reform efforts are paying off

Interviewees were nearly unanimous in linking recent policy victories to the intentional engagement of communities at the local level. “I think it’s very much grassroots movements that are thinking out of the box, that are connecting the dots, that are recognizing the limits of their ability to make change without addressing the fundamental question of money and power,” said one key informant when asked to attribute credit for the recent spate of successful MiP campaigns.

Recent victories in Seattle, WA; Howard County, MD; Albuquerque, NM; Berkeley, CA; Portland, OR; and the states of California, Maine and South Dakota have buoyed reformers. “Because the prospects of federal action are bleak, it will take sustained efforts at the state and local levels to advance the values of an open, transparent and inclusive democracy,” wrote former Federal Election Commission (FEC) Commissioner Ann Ravel in a January 2017 op-ed for The Sacramento Bee, just before submitting her resignation from the FEC in February.

According to one key informant who also supports litigation, data and transparency, “We want to engage and mobilize people in communities, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color and young people, in being able to participate more powerfully in democratic processes locally and nationally.” Key informants cite promising momentum that has the potential to counteract the “outsized power of Wall Street with people power from the ground up.”

Grassroots power is not the only factor, but it was seen as significant by all interviewed. A recent report, produced by University of California Santa Barbara Political Science Professor Hahrie Han for the Ford Foundation, is instructive on this point and describes traits of grassroots organizations that can lead to more meaningful and active community participation. One key informant suggested that, while they may be limited geographically, these local victories are resonating more broadly and have the potential to spur a fundamental shift in perspective by advocates and funders nationwide.

For a more extensive analysis of Voqal’s work to reduce the influence of money in politics, download the Taking Money Out of Politics: A Weighty Lift and Balancing the Scales: The Fight for Our Democracy reports.