Money and Politics
A healthy democracy depends on careful nurturing of the bedrock values of trust, fairness, choice, freedom, and knowledge. This sense of community is undermined when our systems of government are weakened by political corruption, special interest influence, and closed-door deal making.
Communities in the Great Lakes region are grappling with volatile economic, social, and political realities. Economies are declining. Budget gaps are increasing. Populations are shifting. Several states in the region are likely to lose a congressional seat after the 2010 census. State legislatures are struggling to address these challenges at a time when public confidence in government is reaching all-time lows across the country.
Midwesterners—especially during these trying times—deserve honest, accountable, and responsive governments that work to solve the problems that matter most to our communities.
Since 1995, Joyce has funded efforts to combat the corroding effects money can have on politics, with an initial focus on reforming the national system of financing election campaigns. In the early 2000s, political scandals that rocked Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin galvanized the Foundation to move toward a more regional reform approach—strengthening democracy not only by promoting campaign finance reforms, but also supporting efforts to protect government openness and ethics, fair and competitive elections, an independent judiciary, and informed citizen participation.
Enter the Midwest Democracy Network. In late 2006, with support from Joyce, a fresh, new coalition came together to give voice to this broad-based democracy reform agenda in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
The Network’s members work across state lines to bring together uncommon allies in the battle for a healthy democracy. Participants include political reformers, civil rights advocates, grassroots organizers, civic educators, legal experts, academics, researchers, and policy analysts from state-based groups, as well as regional and national institutions. This diverse array of people and organizations mobilizes all the skills required to create meaningful social change.
“The Midwest Democracy Network was founded on the premise that there is strength in numbers in leading a pro-democracy movement in the region,” says Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action Minnesota and Network steering committee chair. “Our states may face different challenges, but we share core democratic values and by learning from each other’s successes we are building a coalition that is advancing a real reform agenda.”
Since Network partner organizations joined forces, they have had a string of successes. Each victory illustrates the promise of this unique alliance.
In 2009, in the case of Caperton v. Massey, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state supreme court justice could not hear a case involving the financial interests of a major donor to the judge’s election campaign. Capitalizing on this opportunity, after more than a decade of groundwork with input from national Network partners, Wisconsin state-based reform groups won the adoption of a public financing system for its state supreme court elections—only the third state in the nation to do so.
Network partners worked to encourage another national model in Michigan when the state’s supreme court considered toughening standards on when judges must remove themselves from hearing cases. According to the Justice at Stake Campaign, a majority of the justices voted to authorize the entire state supreme court to review whether there is an unacceptable ethical conflict on decisions made by individual justices.
With great effort from Network partners, lawmakers enacted Illinois’ first-ever limits on individual, corporate, and group donations to political campaigns, putting the state on a path to cleaning up its culture of pay-to-play politics.
Currently, Network partners are engaged in a regional campaign to ensure electoral districts are drawn in a way that is fair, accountable, and reflects the diversity of the populace. With guidance from the Brennan Center for Justice—which counsels advocates across the country on redistricting reform—Midwest groups are working together to develop new and effective redistricting policies and shed light on the process. On the cutting edge of engagement around this issue, Network partners with Ohio’s Secretary of State organized a redistricting competition in 2009 and found that even the worst-scoring plan for congressional districts submitted was rated superior to the actual 2000 redistricting plan.
“Too often, redistricting happens outside the public eye and supports the political interests of elected officials,” says Susan Liss, Democracy Program Director at the Brennan Center. “By shining a light on the process and seeking real reform, we can help make sure that deliberate gerrymandering of election districts stops and those voted to office become more responsive to public interest.”
The Midwest Democracy Network experiment continues in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which lifted corporate and union bans on spending treasury funds in federal campaigns. State-based groups and the constellation of resource organizations supported by Joyce are sorting through the game-changing impact the ruling has on state laws and refining their democracy agenda to meet the challenges ahead.