Six civic engagement organizations were recognized Monday night for their work to strengthen democracy in a cross-partisan way.
The 4th annual American Civic Collaboration Awards, or Civvys, were more competitive this year as the 2020-21 cycle saw the most nominees since the awards ceremony was established by the Bridge Alliance and Big Tent Nation in 2017. Eighteen finalists were selected among the four dozen nominees for three categories: national, local and youth. From those finalists, six winners were chosen.
"While the headlines may show ideological division and entrenched partisanship, we the people are showing the way forward," said F. Willis Johnson, Jr., vice president of partnerships and programming for the Bridge Alliance. "This important work reflects the spirit of the Civvys as organizations and industries are coming to realize that it is collaboration, not competition, that will allow us to move America forward, combine our strengths to do more, do better and overcome partisanship and gridlock."
Here are this year's winners:
- National: The Civic Responsibility Project, for its work to support voter participation and civic engagement in the business community.
- Local: SA2020, for its work to reimagine the San Antonio community.
- Youth: Green Our Planet, for its work to promote civic responsibility through a nationwide school gardening program.
Three organizations were also recognized with the Committee Choice Award:
- Pandemic Voting Project, for its work to support safe voting in Missouri during the pandemic.
- Issue Voter, for its work to connect constituents to members of Congress using technology.
- DoSomething.org, for its work to amplify the voices of young people in the 2020 election.
The Bridge Alliance is a financial supporter of The Fulcrum and just announced it will take over as publisher in May.
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Much of the efforts to change the way states conduct elections, in the wake of last year's pandemic-era voting, are being done in favor of one major party or the other. Democrats are pushing voting expansions, while Republicans are backing restrictions.
But election reform advocates say it doesn't have to be this way. The Bipartisan Policy Center released a report this week in the hopes of cutting through the partisan noise. The new report details a dozen bipartisan recommendations for improving the voting process moving forward.
While election security experts have repeatedly confirmed that the 2020 election was the most secure in American history, the report says there are still many ways to streamline the voting process, bolster voter confidence and increase election security.
Because many of the changes implemented for the 2020 election were done quickly and at the last minute, a number of these recommendations emphasize the timing of passing and implementing new election rules. The policy proposals also underscore the importance of communicating any changes to voters.
"Some changes to the process are necessary and inevitable, but policymakers have fallen into a dangerous and unrelenting cycle of regaining interest in election administration only in the lead-up to major elections," the report says.
Here are the 12 policy recommendations curated by BPC's task force of 28 state and local election officials:
- "States should plan to enact legislative or administrative changes to standing election procedures outside the 90-day window before a general election."
- "Challenges to standing election procedures within 90 days of an election should be considered by courts only for future elections."
- "Courts should consider challenges to the merits of election administration changes in an election year on an expedited basis."
- "No later than 60 days before an election, counties and states should produce and publicly display detailed observation procedures for the voting process, ballot reconciliation and canvass, recounts, and audits."
- "States should create emergency election procedures that include contingencies for weather, terrorism, or other disasters."
- "States should require local election offices to develop emergency election procedures and submit them to the state for review and coordination."
- "States should mandate voting systems that produce voter-verifiable paper ballots. The voter-verifiable ballot should be the ballot of record for any audit or recount."
- "States should standardize and simplify ballot return deadlines. Local and state officials should conduct vigorous voter communication efforts to educate voters about return deadlines."
- "States should expand the options for the return of vote-by-mail ballots to include secure drop boxes."
- "Voters should have the option of voting early and in-person for a period of at least seven days in advance of a federal election. States should provide a balance of early, mail, and Election Day voting options that are informed by voter behavior."
- "States should codify a detailed certification timeline that includes all fundamental requirements and deadlines while thoughtfully balancing the amount of time devoted to state versus local responsibilities. County certification deadlines should be set no earlier than 14 days after a general election to provide time to complete precertification tasks."
- "Threats against election officials and all permanent and temporary elections staff should be taken seriously by policymakers and law enforcement. These offenses should be punishable by penalties equivalent to those assessed for threats against other public employees carrying out their official duties."
While these recommendations are not the only bipartisan solutions out there, BPC's report says they would be good starting points for bolstering the election ecosystem. The report urges state lawmakers to work across the aisle to implement changes that would fortify election security and improve the voting process, without overburdening local election administrators.
"The election process transcends politics and demands reforms that are in the best interest of all Americans, regardless of party," the report says.
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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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This is the ninth installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization advocates for nonpartisan political reforms and supports candidates committed to cross-partisanship. (Unite America is a funder of The Fulcrum.)
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
It's a cliche to say at this point, but last year was unprecedented. Culturally, politically, economically. Despite this, I think our biggest accomplishment came in our ability to adapt and overcome, reacting to the unknown unknowns. I'm proud to say that the pandemic didn't slow us down, it just shifted our direction.
Our biggest triumph was establishing the Unite America Fund, and mobilizing a cross-partisan community of donors to collectively invest in the reforms and candidates committed to reforming our democracy.
We are proud of all the campaigns and organizations we invested in, especially the successful ballot initiative for final-four voting in Alaska. Despite opposition from both political parties, the voters in Alaska prevailed.
And your biggest setback?
I think our setbacks were the movement's setbacks — court decisions that didn't go our way (often for very partisan reasons), the inability to gather petition signatures (due to Covid-19), and the general toxicity of the political environment that polarized what should otherwise be nonpartisan issues like access to voting.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
It was incredible to see organizations across the movement work together, build together, and support one another in our collective effort to ensure a safe and secure election for the American people. There was record turnout, and it worked. It's a good reminder of everything we can accomplish working together.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
We're focused on ensuring the victories in 2020 are just the start of a broader era of reform. We're going to amplify the 2020 victories, continuing to invest in their implementation, and share their impact to bring more people into the movement.
We are also prioritizing legislative campaigns across the country this year, including in three states where Unite America has helped to build bipartisan and bicameral legislative caucuses that are focused on electoral reform and evidenced-based policymaking.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
While Democratic control may open some new opportunities for electoral reform at the federal level, it won't change the way we work insofar as building support in both parties to ensure nonpartisan reform stays just that: nonpartisan. Like any other issue area, big change requires big majorities in order to be sustained and trusted — and that's especially true when it comes to writing the rules of our electoral system.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
The biggest challenge now will be to keep the foot on the gas; with a new presidency, there may be people who become complacent with the status quo.
Our job is to continue to make the argument that the divisive partisanship and threats to democracy that we saw over the last four years will not end with the Trump presidency. We must continue to work to change the underlying incentives that brought us here in the first place.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will …
will not fix itself. It's on us!
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