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Ellen-Earle Chaffee

The BadAss Grandmas "practiced politics, home-style," according to Ellen-Earle Chaffee.

Eight democracy reform lessons from the BadAss Grandmas

Chaffee is a founder of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, which works to promote integrity and accountability in government, and of the BadAss Grandmas, who encourage boomer women to engage with the democracy movement. She is a university governance consultant.

Voters shocked the entrenched North Dakota political system last November by approving a new article in the state constitution with three strong anti-corruption policies. Article XIV reveals who is spending money to influence voters, prohibits gifts and other undue influence on public officials and establishes an ethics commission.

The Republican Party, with support from an estimated 76 percent of adults, has held a super-majority in the Legislature and all statewide elected offices for years. The powerful state chamber of commerce never thought Measure 1 would pass.

Big business led a fierce, often dishonest opposition campaign. A mainstream faith denomination vigorously opposed the measure. It seemed obvious that the people who elected those officials, and received this apparently credible messaging, would side with the status quo.

The proponents, newly formed North Dakotans for Public Integrity, started with four retired friends discussing over coffee the increasing corruption associated with our state's oil boom. Adding a few key people for expertise and diversity, we met every Tuesday morning for more than a year, wrote the ballot initiative, partnered with four national democracy organizations — and got a world-class education in political activism. We had only skeleton staff because most in-state major donors are with the super-majority and others felt hopeless. The opposing coalition funded its campaign in six weeks with just 19 checks, outspending us by 20 percent.

Yet we won with 53.6 percent of the vote. What does this say about democracy reform? Here are eight takeaways.

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Government Ethics

Watchdog group wants D.C. to see what the states know about revolving doors

Iowa, Maryland and now North Dakota stand out as the states with the hardest brakes on the revolving door between their legislatures and their lobbyists.

That's the assessment of Public Citizen, whose new national study of the rules in all 50 states finds most are tougher or better enforced than what's on the books at the federal level.

The prominent watchdog group is among those hoping to change that — in part by shining new light on the places where it sees ethical governance promoted above special interests' influence.

The limited way that Washington restricts the flow of people from Capitol Hill and the executive agencies down to K Street (and oftentimes back again) is maddening to advocates for a more open and cleaner government — and was raised to new national consciousness by Donald Trump and his "drain the swamp" campaign mantra of 2016.

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St. Louis may become just the second city – after Fargo – to move to "approval voting."

It's not just ranked-choice. Approval voting is also in the offing.

While ranked-choice voting may be the more fashionable choice among those favoring an upheaval in the system of American elections, that is not the only alternative to the traditional first-to-the-post system that still dominates contests for public office.

Say hello to the newest option, "approval voting."

This method has been approved for use in just one jurisdiction: Fargo, the biggest city in North Dakota (population 125,000). Now, proponents are going after a much bigger prize – hoping to get a referendum on the ballot to change the municipal elections to approval voting in at least one major league city, St. Louis (population 303,000).

Under approval voting, citizens may vote for – or approve – as many names on the ballot as they want. The winner is the person who has the broadest approval, by being endorsed on the most ballots.

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