Growing up in Milwaukee, Steven Olikara felt that playing music was the only way to bring people of all backgrounds and ideologies together — until he was inspired to launch the Millennial Action Project.
Believing the trend toward polarization had put American democracy on perilous footing, Olikara decided to translate his musical performances into political involvement on a national scale. In 2013, he officially launched MAP with the hopes that the next generation could bridge the political divide and put America on the right path forward.
Now, after nearly a decade at the helm, Olikara has stepped down as both he and the organization enter new chapters. On Wednesday, the organization announced as his successor Layla Zaidane, who previously served as MAP's executive director and COO. As for Olikara's next steps, the 31-year-old has his sights set on a potential Senate run next year when Republican Ron Johnson's seat is up for election.
"I'll be focused on how we can raise the consciousness of our politics and how we can bring the MAP model to a new level in our country," Olikara said. "I'm very deeply engaged in how that model can make a positive impact in my home state of Wisconsin."
His name is one of several that have been thrown out as possible Democratic contenders for Wisconsin's hotly contested Senate seat. Others include: Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry and state Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
There's a chance Johnson, who is in his second term, may not seek re-election, which would dial up the competitiveness of that race. The 65-year-old senator has said previously that he intended to serve only two terms, but he has not yet made an official decision. If Johnson decides to retire, his open seat would be one of two in a state that went to Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. (The other is held by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who announced his retirement last October.)
Regardless of where Olikara's political career takes him, he will stay involved with MAP as founder and senior advisor. (Olikara also serves on the board of directors for Issue One, which owns, but is journalistically independent from, The Fulcrum.) Over the last few months, he has been transitioning out of his leadership position while MAP's board of directors vetted more than 100 candidates for the role.
Ultimately, Zaidane was chosen because "there was no one quite so intimately connected or committed to MAP's mission and vision as Layla," board Chair Nicholas Maschari said in announcing her promotion.
Since joining MAP in 2016, Zaidane said, she has been "truly inspired by MAP's vision of a more inclusive democracy, led by young people."
As the new CEO, Zaidane will continue to grow the organization's Future Caucus Network, a bipartisan coalition of young legislators from across the country. Through this work, MAP and its caucus members will develop future-oriented solutions on issues such as climate change, criminal justice and democracy reform.
"It's hard to imagine a more important time for our country to move beyond the partisan framework that's defined our politics for far too long, and I am honored to be leading MAP and our network of young legislators in this movement," she said.
Zaidane, before joining MAP, was managing director of the youth-oriented Generation Progress and a marketing specialist for LivingSocial. She earned a degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
During his time leading MAP, Olikara said his biggest accomplishments came when he saw the hard work of his staff and legislators in the Future Caucus pay off.
"Often it happens behind the scenes where they exhibit tremendous political courage to get a bill over the finish line or when they reach across the aisle to build a coalition," he said. "That always speaks deeply to the possibilities of this movement, so it's these stories of growth and leadership that, to me, are the most personally meaningful."
And millennials' impact on politics will only continue to grow. Last year's election saw more victories from young candidates than ever before: 1,641 people under the age of 45 were elected to state legislatures — representing nearly a quarter of the total seats. And 81 young members from both parties, including 23 freshmen and 58 incumbents, were elected to the House of Representatives.
Plus, Democrat Jon Ossoff won his January runoff in Georgia, making him at age 33 the youngest person elected to the Senate since Joe Biden in 1972. Another young senator, 43-year-old Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas, was re-elected last year.
Olikara is hoping these young representatives will help inject new life into politics and political decision-making. One of the biggest problems MAP has tried to tackle from the outset is what he calls the "short-termism" of politics.
"It's all about short-term wins and short-term fixes, often at the expense of the long-term health of our country," he said. "It's been too politically convenient for our leaders to just kick the can down the road on a lot of generational problems, whether it's climate change or the national debts or preparing our workforce for the jobs of the future."
Having young people represented in state legislatures and Congress, Olikara said, is going to have a huge impact on policymaking because their generation brings different life experiences and ideas.
Reflecting on his time at MAP, Olikara said there is no person better suited to lead the organization into its next chapter than Zaidane.
"For over four years, Layla has been by my side for every major decision at MAP. She brought energy, conviction and dedication to her role first as COO and then as executive director & COO," he said. "As I step down from serving as CEO at the organization I helped found over eight years ago, I'm proud to pass the baton to such a capable leader. It's honestly a dream come true."
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Despite record-high turnout in last year's general election, a new report found that a majority of congressional elections in 2020 were determined by only a small number of voters due to the widely used partisan primary system.
Unite America, which released "The Primary Problem" on Tuesday, found that just 10 percent of voters cast ballots in primaries that ultimately decided the winners of 83 percent of House seats. These "safe" seats are in districts that are reliably retained by the same party in nearly every election, so the real competition is not in the general election but in the primary.
The resulting problem, the report concludes, is high re-election rates for members of Congress, even though most voters don't feel adequately represented by their elected officials or approve of the job they are doing. Unite America's solution: Adopt open and nonpartisan primaries.
In most states, primaries are closed so only registered Democrats or Republicans can vote for which of their party's candidates they want to advance to the general election. This not only leaves out millions of minority party or unaffiliated voters, but it also leads to more polarizing politics.
Candidates in those districts tend to fall more on the extreme ends of the political spectrum in order to have a better chance at winning a partisan primary. Therefore, districts are pushed further into uncompetitive territory when it comes time for general elections.
Last year, in 151 of the 361 congressional districts considered "safe," candidates for the dominant party ran unopposed in the primary. In the remaining 210 "safe" districts, voters in the non-dominant party "effectively had no voice in choosing their representative," per the report.
Unite America, which is a financial supporter of The Fulcrum, says more states adopting nonpartisan primaries will help solve the country's twin issues of dysfunction and polarization.
Nonpartisan primaries are designed to serve the voters, the report says. "They can give every citizen an equal voice, produce more representative outcomes, and improve governing incentives by ensuring our elected leaders are accountable to a broader swath of the electorate."
The most recent state to adopt such a system is Alaska. In last year's election, voters approved a nonpartisan top-four primary system that also uses ranked-choice voting. Starting in 2022, voters will rank their top candidates, with the four who receive the most support advancing to the general, regardless of party. California, Nebraska, Louisiana and Washington also use nonpartisan systems in which all candidates appear on the same primary ballot.
But most of the country uses some form of a partisan primary system. Nine states have closed primaries in which voters must be a registered Democrat or Republican and all other voters are excluded from participating, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 15 states, unaffiliated voters can participate in primaries, but the contests are still closed to cross-party voting. Six states allow voters to cross party lines in a primary, but they must publicly declare they are doing so. And the remaining 20 states are considered to have open primaries that either have all candidates listed on one ballot or allow voters to privately choose which party's ballot to vote.
There has been recent movement in Wisconsin to change the state's primary system to a nonpartisan one. Last week, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a bill to adopt "final-five voting." Under this system, there would be a single ballot for all primary candidates and the five who receive the most votes would advance to the general election. Then, voters would rank candidates in order of preference to determine the winner.
Democracy Found Executive Director Sara Eskrich, whose organization advocates for final-five voting in Wisconsin, said she's seen a lot of interest in this reform from voters and legislators alike because they recognize there is a systemic problem and the nonpartisan solution benefits everyone.
"Until major systemic reform is undertaken, it is likely incumbents will continue to change their behavior to avoid being primaried, rarely lose to more moderate challengers, and continue to put the interest of their narrow primary electorates over the public interest," the report concludes.
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Google announced Tuesday its plans to expand free election security services to elected officials and political campaigns across the country.
During the 2020 election cycle, the tech company, in collaboration with the nonprofit Defending Digital Campaigns, provided cybersecurity support to federal campaigns. Google's new 50-state venture builds on this by expanding services to eligible campaigns and political parties, committees and related organizations, as well as elected officials and their staff.
While election security concerns took a backseat in last year's election to the more pressing problems presented by the coronavirus pandemic, cybersecurity will remain a critical issue for campaigns in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms and beyond.
Last year, Google and Defending Digital Campaigns provided more than 140 federal campaigns with free two-factor authentication keys to help protect against phishing and other cyber attacks. Defending Digital Campaigns also partners with Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and several other tech companies to provide cybersecurity services and protection.
In addition to continuing its technological support for political campaigns, Google and Defending Digital Campaigns will also provide free, virtual security training in all 50 states by the end of this year. Through these sessions, state campaign officials and staff members will be able to learn the basics of how to protect their organizations, keep their information safe and use security tools.
Google will also establish an election security help desk and "best practices" knowledge base as a resource for campaigns and to help answer their cybersecurity-related questions.
The tech company, in partnership with the National Cybersecurity Center, is extending its support to elected officials as well by providing virtual training sessions in all 50 states throughout this year. The goal is to educate state lawmakers and their staff on how to safeguard against digital attacks.
"Keeping everyone safe online remains our top priority and we look forward to continuing our work in 2021 to make sure campaigns and elected officials around the world stay safe online," Mark Risher, director of product management, identity and user security at Google, wrote in the company's announcement.
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While American politics comes off like a death match between Democrats and Republicans, off camera more and more voters are choosing not to affiliate with either party — and those numbers look destined to grow.
The share of independent voters has trended upward in the past two decades, and this fall accounted for 36 percent of the electorate, according to Gallup. A report released Monday projects this unaffiliated population will continue growing over the next 15 years.
With the electorate continuing to move away from past loyalties to the red and blue teams, many democracy reform groups see the time as ripe to make the political system adapt to better represent and accommodate independents. The report was prepared by the Open Primaries Education Fund, which is aligned with one such group that advocates for policies weakening the red and blue duopoly.
In 30 states, citizens may choose whether or not to affiliate with a political party when registering to vote. Nineteen states do not register voters by party, and North Dakota doesn't require registration at all.
The Open Primaries report projected that, in the states with partisan voter registration, nearly three-quarters are expected to see an increase in independent registrations by 2035. Four of this year's biggest presidential battlegrounds are forecast to see growth in unaffiliated voters.
Of the states carried by President-elect Joe Biden, North Carolina is estimated to have the biggest increase, at 14 percentage points, followed by Arizona (10 points) and Pennsylvania (2 points). The growth is expected to be 8 points in Florida, where President Trump this fall continued a string of narrow wins in statewide races for Republicans.
Just four states are on course to see their shares of independent voters decline: Utah (34 points) and Idaho (24 points) among places now dominated by the GOP; New Jersey (18 points), Rhode Island (5 points) and Connecticut (4 points) among the Democratic states; and purple-these-days Maine (3 points).
As the share of independent voters increases, the number of Americans registered with the Democratic or Republican party is expected to dwindle. Thirteen states are expected to see a registration decline or stagnation for both major parties, and another 13 will see a drop in just one party's registration.
Source: Open Primaries Education Fund
Independents currently make up the plurality voting bloc in nine states with partisan registration, and the report predicts that will become the No. 1 registration choice in four new states during the next 15 years.
The report concludes that in order to keep up with these voter affiliation shifts, more states need to eliminate the party registration requirement and adopt open nonpartisan primaries in which all voters can participate.
Alaska voted this fall to join California and Oregon as states with singular primaries for Congress and all state offices — open to all registered voters, and with candidates of all stripes listed on the same ballot. The ballot measure Alaskans approved will advance the top four finishers to the general election. A solid majority of 57 percent of Floridians voted for top-two open primaries for state positions, but a supermajority of 60 percent was required.
"The United States is going through a political realignment," the report concluded. "Unlike past realignments, which involved the emergence, repositioning, and/or obsolescence of entire political parties, the accelerating national trend of the last 30 years is voter disaffiliation from the Democratic and Republican Parties."
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