The Fahey Q&A with Jamie Lyons-Eddy, grassroots field marshal with lessons for organizing in a pandemic
After organizing the Voters Not Politicians 2018 ballot initiative that put citizens in charge of drawing Michigan's legislative maps, Fahey became founding executive director of The People, which is forming statewide networks to promote government accountability. She interviews a colleague in the world of democracy reform each month for our Opinion section.
This is the fourth in a series of opinion pieces we are publishing during Women's History Month to recognize the contributions of women to the democracy reform movement.
When I think of campaign powerhouses and those who can succeed against all odds, I immediately conjure up Jamie Lyons-Eddy. She was a co-founder of Voters Not Politicians and drove our signature-gathering and voter outreach operations as state field director. Jamie now helps lead the organization as director of campaigns and programs. We had an extremely timely conversation about strategies for advancing grassroots reform efforts during the coronavirus outbreak, the critical role women leadership plays, and Voters Not Politicians' continued work in Michigan.
Our recent conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fahey: How did you initially get involved with Voters Not Politicians?
Lyons-Eddy: I answered a Facebook post. I had just retired from teaching math, and taking on partisan gerrymandering felt like a natural way to connect with politics using math. The Roeper School, where I taught, was founded by Holocaust survivors, so there was a culture of responsibility to use our skills and talents to do good in the world.
Fahey: What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Lyons-Eddy: The biggest challenge was trying to create a campaign from scratch and keep everyone moving in the same direction. We tried to get as much information as we could. Then, after learning from others, we had to invent and innovate without a budget.
At one point I almost quit because the task seemed so large and I had never done anything like it before. Then a female colleague said, "If you were a man you wouldn't be feeling this way. If you were a guy you would just fake it until you make it." That was an "Aha!" moment. Many women tend to second guess ourselves and feel we shouldn't do things unless we can do them perfectly. That moment I realized that when something seems really hard, it's because it is really hard, not because I'm not good enough.
The biggest lessons about organizing a volunteer army are about delegation and communication. It takes time to train someone, but once you do, they share the ownership as well as the work. Very clear communication solves all kinds of problems. It's something we had to learn and reinforce until the campaign ended: Have good training, handbooks, conference calls, websites and emails. When people dedicate their time you owe them a clear understanding of what's going on.
Fahey: What was the most gratifying aspect of getting 61 percent of Michiganders to end the political gerrymandering of our state?
Lyons-Eddy: We felt so much responsibility to the volunteers. We asked so much of them. Once we won, we all knew all their tireless efforts had been rewarded.
Fahey: We face so many challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, including those of us working to improve our democracy needing to find creative ways to continue our work. Plenty of groups, including Voters Not Politicians, are working to get many thousands of signatures on petitions to put referendums on the November ballot. What are some lessons from Michigan in 2018 that might be particularly helpful this year?
Lyons-Eddy: In general there are huge challenges. People won't want to touch each other or share pens, and there won't be large gatherings. This is where digital organizing tools — peer-to-peer texting, an easy-to-use website and a robust social media presence — will be critical to raising awareness about the need for voters to physically sign petitions and educating them how to do it.
Two years ago one of our volunteers came up with a "micro-circulator" program. It didn't focus on large crowds as the places for gathering signatures. Instead the focus was on getting lots of people to go to work getting signatures from people in their personal networks, then getting each of those friends and family members to gather a few signatures from a few more people.
To make this successful we made sure volunteers had guidance that was clear and easy to understand. Amelia Quilon, another Voters Not Politicians co-founder, designed a mock petition with instructions overlaid on it — and with an FAQ on the back. This ensured people knew how to sign the petition, and why.
Volunteers need to understand how they get blank petitions and how they send in signed petitions. With limited access to physical shared spaces, campaigns may want to rely on mailing micro-circulator petitions and training. Overall, though, campaigns need to be thinking about how to put the safety of our fellow voters as their top priority.
Fahey: What are you working on now?
Lyons-Eddy: Defending and ensuring the successful implementation of Michigan's new redistricting process, then continuing work on structural democracy reforms in the state. Short-term, that means extending local clerks' office hours to increase voting access. And making state government more accountable. The Center for Public Integrity rates Michigan dead last in government integrity.
Fahey: Since it's Women's History Month, what are your reflections on the role women's leadership played in our campaign?
Lyons-Eddy: We succeeded because we were woman-run. Our focus was always on our goal. We had a lot of extremely competent women who were very supportive of each other.
Fahey: What's your message to young women about what it means to be an American and what role women have to play in developing our democracy today?
Lyons-Eddy: I hope the work of Voters Not Politicians and other similar stories are shared so young women know they have more power than they might imagine. Young women don't have to get permission from anyone. If they are willing to work hard, to risk failure and to put themselves out there, they can fix the problems they see in the world.
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Morgan is director of the Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of 145-plus organizations from the labor, racial justice, faith, women's rights, environment, good government and many other communities.
This is the second in a series of opinion pieces we are publishing during Women's History Month to recognize the contributions of women to the democracy reform movement.
This month is a time to reflect on the incredible work women activists have done to gain full and equal participation in democracy. It's also a time to reflect on the ways our democracy still shuts people out — and how we can join reformers to push solutions forward.
Women have been driving democracy reform for centuries. The dominant narrative of the suffrage movement is familiar, beginning with the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, featuring well-known activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and culminating with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. These bold reformers redefined democracy for women. Thanks to them, this Women's History Month we celebrate not only the successes of the suffrage movement but also a record number of women in Congress and the multiple women who have sought the presidency this year.
The centennial of suffrage is well worth celebrating. But we must also acknowledge the 19th Amendment granted the vote in practice only to white women. Before and during the time white women were demanding the vote, black women like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells were demanding a voice for African-Americans. As hard as the fight for women's suffrage was, people of color had to fight all the harder to secure their rights to vote — and they are still fighting today.
The groundbreaking Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965 because, despite the fact that every American technically had the right to vote, discriminatory practices — from literacy tests and poll taxes to outright violence and intimidation — were being used to prevent African-Americans from exercising their right to vote. Though we have made great strides in combating these practices, voting rights are still under attack 55 years to the month after the voting rights marches across Alabama known as Bloody Sunday.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, freeing up states to once again pass laws that restrict access to the ballot. Georgia, Florida, Texas and other states have done just that.
The good news is that reformers across the country are fighting back. Women are still leading the charge, tackling modern threats to our democracy like voter suppression and big money in politics. For example, Stacey Abrams — who in 2018 narrowly lost a bid to become Georgia's first black female governor due to voter suppression — is spearheading a major initiative in her state to defend voting rights, overcome suppression of black and Latino votes, and get more people registered to vote.
Women and our allies work to push democracy reform forward because we are acutely aware that historically, our democracy has not fairly represented everyone. Further, we understand that we cannot make progress on the issues we care about most, from reproductive rights to health care to climate, without first ensuring that all voters' can actively participate free from impediments.
That is why women's issues, like all other political issues, are democracy reform issues. Until we return political power to voters — all voters, regardless of gender, race or income — we can't count on the democratic process to enact our will.
There already exists a powerful next step for democracy reform that urgently needs our attention. While celebrating Women's History Month, we also mark the one-year anniversary of House passage of HR 1 — the most comprehensive package of democracy reforms in a generation. The bill, titled the For The People Act, would reduce the influence of big money and corporate lobbyists in politics, protect and expand the right to vote, and restore ethics and accountability to government.
Another bill passed by the House last year, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore the Voting Rights Act and stop state-sponsored efforts to discriminate against minorities at the polls. Both of these crucial bills are stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to bring them to a vote.
It is long past time for the Senate to take action on these two bills. As we recognize the important contributions of women, we can honor the mission that women democracy reformers embarked on over a century ago: to make good on the promise of democracy by guaranteeing an equal voice for all Americans.
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Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for policy changes that would result in more women holding elected office.
This is the first in a series of opinion pieces we are publishing during Women's History Month to recognize the contributions of women to the democracy reform movement.
Abigail Adams wrote to her husband at the Continental Congress in 1776, warning John: "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." That famous quote is a timely reminder that women have long been at the forefront of democracy reform to demand that our voices be heard.
As our country celebrates a century of the 19th Amendment and the "universal" suffrage that came with its ratification, we also must reflect on the slow and minimal progress we've made in the past century.
Despite historic numbers of women in both houses of Congress, the United States ranks 82nd in the world for women's representation in national legislatures. And unfortunately, progress for women — especially women of color and conservative women — will continue to be slow because we have antiquated electoral norms that favor the status quo. The Founding Fathers didn't create a system or a country to benefit or include women; they built one to support and represent the powerholders at the table: white men.
There are various strategies to advance women's representation and leadership, but the data shows the most impactful and enduring tactics must include tackling an unrepresentative — and, at its heart, undemocratic — electoral system. The only way to achieve balanced representation of women in our lifetimes is by making changes to the rules and systems that have reigned unquestioned for more than two centuries. Fortunately, the United States has a long history of structural reforms to level the playing field and create equal opportunities to participate including the 19th Amendment (1920), the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), Title IX (1972) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) — all of which reformed institutions, not the individuals marginalized by institutions.
Problems remain. Women are underrepresented because of the political gatekeepers and structural barriers that hinder their chances of success at every stage of the electoral process, not because of a lack of ambitious, and qualified, women to run for office. According to RepresentWomen's research, many of the countries that rank above the United States for women's legislative representation have party and state rules that increase the number of women who run and subsequently win, rules which can easily translate to the American electoral process.
Our political parties are not strangers to affirmative action rules or even gender quotas. In 1978, the Democratic National Committee implemented the Equal Division Rule, requiring state delegations to the national convention to be gender balanced. At its heart, the rule is a gender quota for elected positions within the Democratic Party; a rule that has been upheld by the Supreme Court and could be applied to other elections and races. Political parties are inherent gatekeepers in the electoral process and have a transformative role to play in balanced political representation.
Even after women enter an election, they face structural and gendered roadblocks including hyper-partisanship, a winner-take-all voting system and a power of incumbency that tends to benefit white men already in power.
RepresentWomen has found that municipalities with a ranked-choice voting electoral system often have better representation of women and people of color. As of January, 49 percent of the city council seats and 50 percent of the mayoral offices that use RCV are held by women. Additionally, so-called RCV increases civility during elections, eliminates the threat of vote-splitting and decreases the cost for candidates to run and cities to hold elections. The design of legislative districts also impacts the chances that women will get elected when they run. Our research found that states that use multimember districts for their legislatures are electing twice the number of women as single-member districts in the same states.
At the heart of the democracy reform movement is creating a truly representative governing system, which includes increasing opportunities for women and people of color to participate in our electoral process. There are many amazing women and women-run initiatives to create a more effective and reflective democracy. They include:
- Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates balloting by mail to increase participation especially of voters who traditionally don't have easy access to the polls.
- Jessica Byrd, founder and CEO of Three Point Strategies, a political consultancy that supports candidates running to implement transformative change and further social justice.
- Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, which encourages women to consider running for office.
- Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, which equips women to run for office.
- Susannah Wellford, founder and CEO of Running Start, which provides young women with the tools and skills needed to run for office.
- Michelle Whittaker, director of RCV for Maryland, a coalition of organizations working to bring ranked-choice voting to Maryland.
Suffragist and Equal Rights Amendment advocate Alice Paul said of the women's movement: "I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end."
Our democratic mosaic is far from done, but luckily there are many individuals and groups adding their stones. Our "stone" is to research and advance systems strategies to increase the number of women who run, win, serve and lead so that Abigail Adams' plea to "remember the ladies" is finally fulfilled.
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