While the democracy reform and depolarization movement is considered a young, emerging force in American politics, some organizations have established deep roots and can point to a record of significant successes.
Take, for example, RepresentUs.
One of the nation’s largest nonpartisan reform organizations, RepresentUs is marking its 10th anniversary this year. To celebrate a decade of fighting corruption and changing the political system, RepresentUs released today “We the People,” a report cataloging 161 successful reform campaigns championed by the organization and its allies over the past decade.
Those “wins” include changes to campaign finance laws, expanding ballot access, anti-gerrymandering efforts and the expansion of ranked-choice voting. But despite the impressive list of accomplishments, no one is sitting back and thinking the job is done.
“Democracy is facing dark times so our work is more urgent than ever,” said RepresentUs CEO Joshua Graham Lynn. “The RepresentUs vision is, what does it take to make America the world’s strongest democracy by 2050?”
The answer, in Lynn’s opinion, requires remaining “diligent and focused” on advancing RepresentUs’ core issues: gerrymandering, campaign finance, ethics and ranked-choice voting.
“It’s not enough to just respond to the Big Lie, the election denial crisis,” Lynn said, explaining that the underlying elements of the system need to be fixed.
How it all began
In 2011, Lynn was working on consumer strategies in the sustainability space. His friend Josh Silver was running Free Press, a nonprofit focused on improving the media industry. They would often talk about the problems facing the nation, and those conversations evolved into a plan.
“The key thing was looking at the landscape of political advocacy groups and recognizing there wasn’t a place for nonpartisan work focused on the corruption of democracy,” Lynn said. “We thought there’s a huge opportunity there … to get people involved in the solution.”
The duo formed RepresentUs in 2012 and achieved their first big win in November 2014, when the city of Tallahassee passed the Anti-Corruption Act.
RepresentUs had developed model legislation and had been attracting grassroots support to achieve change at the local level. “The city of Tallahassee had corruption and transparency problems. It was a community looking for this solution,” Lynn said. “It became the model for what can be done.”
The law had a big impact locally and nationally, according to Lynn, who pointed to an FBI investigation and other methods of holding city officials accountable. And that “proof of concept” led to the passage of campaign finance legislation in Seattle and the organization’s first statewide victory in South Dakota in 2016.
“The Tallahassee and South Dakota victories allowed people to take us seriously,” said Lynn, who explained that those campaigns launched future successes by showing that it’s possible to take “a boring, ignorable issue like democracy or campaign finance and make them approachable to everyday people.”
Those early anti-corruption campaigns were just the start. RepresentUs has cataloged 161 anti-corruption acts and resolutions that have been passed across the country. They include:
- 73 anti-corruption resolutions.
- 37 instances where ranked-choice voting was instituted.
- 15 successful anti-gerrymandering campaigns.
- Dozens of other successful efforts to expand ballot access and change ethics laws.
Lynn, who was elevated from president to CEO in January when Silver stepped down, described how his priorities have evolved over the decade.
“I was originally inspired because public interest outcomes were not coming from former officials,” he said, pointing in particular to failures of the campaign finance system. But now, he is more focused on ranked-choice voting, top-four and top-five election systems and gerrymandering – what he referred to as “cheating in election.”
While RepresentUs has built a grassroots system that enables local organizations to take lead on many of campaigns, it has also relied on celebrity engagement to drive interest, drawing on some of the biggest names in pop culture, including Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Helms, Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry, Omar Epps, Michael Douglas and Adam McKay.
“One of my founding objectives was to make something that people really want to associate themselves with,” Lynn said, explaining their growth plans would be a success when people start wearing RepresentUs t-shirts. “That’s a fierce commitment to not being partisan.”
Unbreaking America: Solving the Corruption Crisis www.youtube.com
"I'm lucky to count the two Joshes -- Silver and Lynn -- as good friends. They've turned a great idea into a bold reality over the last 10 years," said Nick Penniman, founder and CEO of the cross-partisan reform group Issue One. "When they got started, our democracy was in serious need of repair. Now it's in dire need of saving. The cross-partisan path they chose was the hardest imaginable. It's much easier to get people together who come from the same political tribes. But it was also the most necessary, because we can't just confine democracy work to blue states, and we can't fight authoritarianism with liberals alone."
What comes next
While RepresentUs touts its victories, its nearly 25,000 volunteers, its nearly 39,000 donors in 2021 and its growth to 60 employees in the report, Lynn really wants to see more organic growth outside the organization.
“The thing I’m most proud of is when it’s not RepresentUs staffers making the change, when we have inspired, impacted and empowered others,” he said, pointing to examples like Katie Fahey’s successful campaign to end partisan gerrymandering in Michigan and the “BadAss Grandmas” trying to stop corruption in North Dakota.
“Those are the stories that actually matter because they speak to scale and momentum,” Lynn said.’’
Fahey, starting from a Facebook post, built Voters Not Politicians to push the anti-gerrymandering effort in Michigan and now leads The People.
"Many traditional good governance organizations were very skeptical of our citizen-led nonpartisan campaign. RepresentUs was different, they were one of our earliest supporters willing to return our calls and give us feedback on our strategy,” she said. “They helped elevate the profile of our campaign by talking about it and giving us a platform at their annual Unrig conference – the largest gathering of reformers in the country that year. This paved the way for other organizations and even funders to want to reach out and get to know us.
Lynn explained that one of the challenges he’s facing when discussing these campaigns is a concern that larger problems, like the Big Lie, needed to be addressed first. He likened it to people asking, “How can you be thinking long term when the house is on fire?”
The answer doesn’t involve ignoring the big problem but rather getting to the root cause.
“We’re turning off the gas main,” he said, “not tinkering with the sprinkler system.”
And the way to get that done is by engaging people in a nonpartisan way when they are accustomed to partisan politics.
“We in this country have to get as activated on this as we do for candidates,” he said. “Without structural underpinnings, the whole thing falls apart.”