Looking for signs of hope and progress in America’s political dialogue? This look back at some memorable moments with our inspiring podcast guests, panelists and audience members at our public forums offers a reminder that there is a way through our challenges – and that it’s our job to shine a light on that path by seeking light, not heat.
In this piece written for THE HILL, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen argue that politicians and the media are taking the wrong lessons from a divided electorate.
During a time when millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, leadership should be driving their members to find solutions not to stubbornly stand their ground.
This election voters turned out in record numbers. Mail-in ballots alone exceeded the number of Americans who voted in 2016. Polling seemed to indicate that we would see a strong repudiation of President Trump and the Republican party. But while former Vice President Joe Biden did take the White House, voters sent another message with their ballots: They are as far apart on the direction of the country as ever.
As the heads of an organization, Common Ground Committee (CGC), that seeks to heal our political divides, you might think we are discouraged by an election that confirmed our divisions. It’s true that in our everyday life we see politics tearing friends and families apart. But we also think that the political class and media take away the wrong lessons from divided elections.
We are most certainly a country divided by politics, but the response to that shouldn’t be to dig-in further on the party line.
Partisans will always hope for that red or blue wave, but history shows it to be a rare occurrence.
When Republicans had control of the White House and Congress after the 2016 elections, it was only the fifth time since 1980. Control of the Senate has flipped six times since 1987, while the House has flipped four times since 1995. It’s time for our leaders to listen to the electorate. They didn’t want President Trump’s abrasive style, but they were also not comfortable with the Democratic party’s perceived leftward shift — as evidenced by unexpected losses in the House and (pending two run-offs in Georgia) a Senate still under Republican control.
This election was a clarion call for the collaborative government our Founding Fathers intended.
Unfortunately, leadership in Washington typically practices a “winner-takes-all” approach to legislation. President-elect Biden has encouragingly stated he wants to be a leader for all Americans, but he also indicated he would sign executive orders on Day 1 to eliminate many of Trump’s policies, when 8 million more voters supported him than in 2016. Republicans, meanwhile, have boasted that their continued control of the Senate gives them a mandate to continue to pursue partisan agendas despite the Biden-Harris ticket getting the most votes in history.
During a time when millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, leadership should be driving their members to find solutions not to stubbornly stand their ground.
While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continue to spar over the size and scope of a second COVID-19 stimulus bill, some Democrats and Republicans have already agreed on a compromise. The bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus put forward a $1.5 trillion proposal in September. These 50 Democrats and Republicans found a middle ground between their two different ideologies — because they listened to each other’s concerns and ideas instead of dismissing them outright as wrong. Meanwhile, leadership never gave the proposal serious consideration and entered election day with no deal.
To paraphrase Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), two members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus who recently spoke on our “Let’s Find Common Ground” podcast, government can’t function when leadership on both sides dislikes each other. Democrats and Republicans need to make a decision: Would they rather go to their constituents saying they supported a bill they knew would never pass or one that didn’t have everything they wanted but solved some of the problems hurting American families?
We must make it crystal clear to leadership that a divided election does not mean we want the status quo of gridlock.
There are many officials already working to make progress. Prior to the election nine elected officials and challengers made a pledge to uphold the spirit of what we call “common grounders” through the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool designed to provide an objective measure of a candidate’s willingness to work across the aisle. Seven of them won reelection, including Reps. Fitzpatrick and Spanberger. We urge Americans to publicly praise and reward those officials who are committed to common ground — and call on their representatives at all levels of government to work together.
The complete election results prove that the absence of President Trump will not immediately put an end to polarization. But President-elect Biden and Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have a chance to shift the narrative. If they commit to seriously collaborating to achieve solutions for the American people, we can begin the process of restoring competent governance. They ignore this opportunity at their own risk. A repeat of the last four years will promise an endless cycle of shifts in party control where the only winners are those who seek to exploit our differences.
– This article was originally published in THE HILL on November 21, 2020.
Many Americans feel that our political process has become more than dangerously polarized — that democracy as we know it is in fact broken, and requires concerted efforts to fix it.
But what constitutes “fixing?” Opinions and prescriptives are as varied as the people who vote at the polls. But there are some cornerstones of democracy that are held in high esteem. And in today’s culture of incivility, are the ones most agreed upon to need reform.
- Threats to the freedom to vote
- Excessive money spent in pursuit of elected offices
- The influence of outside parties and special interests
- Lack of representation of our diverse electorate
- Incivility in political discourse
Common Ground Committee examines these in a multi-part blog post series.
Today, there are hundreds of organizations working to foster a more functional, representative, and accountable government. They focus on a variety of strategies. Some stress the importance of changing electoral rules, or smoothing the path for more diverse candidates; some focus on supporting nonpartisan candidates who have a track record of reaching across the aisle to accomplish change. Others like Common Ground Committee strive for bringing leaders and citizens together to find commonality, civility and make progress.
An important step in the right direction was the passage of H.R. 1 a year ago. This historic democracy reform legislation, also known as the For the People Act, kicked off a surge of reform motivation at the local, state, federal, and presidential levels.
What is H.R.1?
H.R. 1 has three pillars of reform, each with policy solutions aimed to strengthen democracy and more fairly represent all people and communities in the U.S.
- Protect and expand the right to vote. Some of the strategies include creating automatic voter registration nationwide, instituting same-day registration, expanding early voting, prohibiting inappropriate purges of voter rolls, and committing to restore the Voting Rights Act. Particularly notable recommendations: establishing independent redistricting commissions to ending partisan gerrymandering, and focusing on blocking infiltration of outside parties and influences trying to undermine legitimate election results.
- Shrink the corrupting influence of special interests that dominate the federal policymaking process. Among the solutions: restructuring the Federal Election Commission, so that the agency can robustly enforce election laws. Especially significant: a new federal matching system for small donations. This will give the American people a stronger voice in politics while making it easier for a diverse range of candidates and candidates without wealthy donor networks to run for public office.
- Restoring ethics and accountability for government officials by breaking the influence economy in Washington. Solutions: expanding conflict of interest laws, requiring top elected and appointed officials to take commonsense steps to divest from their financial holdings, slowing the revolving door between government and the private sector, and mandating presidents to disclose their tax returns. Especially noteworthy reforms include overhauling the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and ensuring that government watchdogs finally have the resources they need to actively enforce the law.
The proclamations of support for these reforms represent significant mile markers on the road to creating a political system that works for everyday Americans instead of only for corporations and special interests. And represent a critical first step in restoring public trust in the U.S. federal political process.
Check back for our upcoming post where we interview Jeremy Garson of the Bridge Alliance Movement.
Our series of monthly actions invite Common Grounders to bring light, not heat, to the work of leading progress on America’s most pressing issues. This month: as tensions rise during election season, prepare yourself with tools for leading better political conversations.
August 2020 Action: Find More Common Ground in Your Political Conversations
With the countdown to the general election now underway, political divisions can be more fraught than ever – particularly at home, where the emotional stakes are high. This month, prepare yourself to lead better conversations with family and friends who may hold opposing political views.
5 tips for better political talks
Turns out, (nearly) everything we need to know about successful political conversations we learned in Kindergarten: take turns, be curious, and be respectful.
Looking to go a bit further? These five simple tips from Common Ground Committee co-founder Bruce Bond, Living Room Conversations co-founder Joan Blades and Bridges USA co-founder Manu Meel will set you up for more successful conversations with loved ones on some of today’s most divisive issues.
- Examine your motives. Before engaging in conversation on a politically charged topic, be honest with yourself about what you hope to achieve. Is your goal to change the other person’s mind, or to understand them better so you can begin to bridge divides? (The latter, as you might guess, has a much greater chance of success.)
- Don’t go in cold. The first step in any successful conversation is relating to the other person as a human being. Before delving into a politically sensitive topic, look for a way to break the ice and reinforce your personal connection.
- Listen to understand, and show it. When it comes to political conversations, are you simply listening for points you can successfully argue? Or to truly understand the other person’s motivations and perspective? To have a productive discussion, you must first understand the personal reasons someone holds a certain view; then show you’ve really heard their contribution to the conversation. That can open the door to an “a-ha moment.”
- Look for shared values. Conflict resolution experts who utilize interest-based bargaining offer a good lesson on navigating high-stakes issues. Rather than delving into where each of you stand on specific policy positions – for instance, immigration reform – go deeper. Try to identify shared values, such as your support of an inclusive society or the pursuit of the American dream. From there, it can be easier to find areas of common ground.
- Know when to redirect. The ability to use and accept facts is a prerequisite for productive conversation. So, if your trusted experts are different and there are no shared facts, it may not be possible to have healthy discussion with someone on a divisive political issue. Accept that we all must live with and love people with different viewpoints, and that de-escalating a heated situation may be the most constructive action you can take.
In a polarized political atmosphere and heated election season, we can each play a role in bringing light, not heat, to the nation’s civil discourse. Get more insight on how you can heal the divide (and talk politics) by watching our full webinar with Living Room Conversations and Bridge USA, and by downloading our Common Grounder guide.
In 1986, a Black blues artist and a white Ivy League graduate made history. Today, their music lives on through a new generation – and has sparked a new call for hope & unity.
This spring, in the midst of the unfolding coronavirus crisis and national protests over police brutality and racial inequity, Common Ground Committee co-founder Bruce Bond opened his inbox to a message from his old college roommate, Adam Gussow.
Gussow, a well-known musician on the blues scene, had just gotten out of the studio after recording a new album by Sir Rod & The Blues Doctors. Its title song, “Come Together,” spoke to the mission of healing polarization in America. His offer: would Common Ground Committee like to use the music as an inspirational message to followers?
The answer, of course, would turn out to be yes. As a musician himself, Bond recognized the power of music to touch people’s souls. And as a friend watching Gussow’s life-changing odyssey through the blues, he had seen firsthand that it can be a truly transformational force.
Satan & Adam: an unlikely pair becomes a force in the blues world
When Bond and Gussow first met as students at Princeton University in the late 1970s, Bond couldn’t have predicted that Gussow would become an internationally recognized blues harmonica player.
“I had him pegged as a professor,” says Bond, recalling that Gussow was into literature. “He was always a very good thinker, and a very good writer.”
Bond and Gussow did, however, share an interest in playing the guitar. Eventually, they joined a pair of other students to rent an off-campus apartment; a maverick move, in those days. Although he had played blues harmonica back in high school, Gussow had gained a reputation as a funk guitar player for Spiral, a band Bond calls “the best jazz band on campus.”
It was later, in 1986, that a chance meeting changed the trajectory of Gussow’s life. By then, having dropped out of grad school at Columbia, Gussow was tutoring at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. He had also started playing the harmonica again in the aftermath of a bad breakup. Gussow was wandering the city with his harp in his pocket when, busking on a Harlem sidewalk, he saw an older musician at work whose voice was reminiscent of the raw power of Muddy Waters, and his mastery of the guitar effortless.
In a city then brewing with racial tension, on a block just down from the Apollo Theatre, there were no white faces to be seen. But Gussow had to stop and listen to “Mr. Satan.” After a bit, he pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and asked if he could play along.
After Gussow’s promise that he wouldn’t embarrass him, Satan agreed. Soon, they found a natural groove together. Gussow asked if he could come back again the next day – and kept coming back.
It took some time to discover who Mr. Satan really was: a virtuoso of the 1960s music scene, Sterling Magee. Originally from Mississippi, Magee was a natural guitar prodigy who had recorded with Marvin Gaye, Etta James and more, as well as writing songs.
Despite his talent, Magee had failed to reach stardom himself. Suppression by record labels and unfair compensation for Black artists convinced him to leave the industry; and, by the 1980s, he had reinvented himself as a one-man band and street prophet, playing on the Harlem streets for “his people.”
Enthralled by Magee’s hard, deep blues, Gussow committed himself to the duo. For his part, Magee recognized the harmonica and the unlikely pairing of the two musicians on the streets of Harlem made the act a greater success. Inevitably, a white Jewish Ivy League student & black Misississippi blues man playing music in the streets began to attract attention. Documentary makers began filming footage of their story. Perhaps their biggest break came in 1987 when the Irish band U2 saw them playing in the streets and included a 30-second clip of Magee’s song “Freedom for My People” on their Rattle & Hum album.
By 1990, with the release of their first demo cassette, they officially became Satan & Adam, a musical duo who would help shape the New York blues renaissance of the 1990s. It was the beginning of what felt like a meteoric rise. Satan & Adam started getting bigger bookings for bigger crowds. They recorded several albums and began touring internationally.
That came to a halt in 1998 when Magee, who had moved South with his wife, disappeared. It would take years for filmmakers to track him down again. After suffering a nervous breakdown, and eventually a stroke, Magee had lost his ability to play guitar and had entered a nursing home.
For Gussow, who still recalled the master musician who was his blues apprentice and idol, his first visit to Magee in the nursing home was both shocking and saddening. Yet that was not to be the end of the music.
A staff member at Magee’s nursing home, after discovering Magee’s story on the internet, invited a local blues musician to come in and play. Immediately, the music brought Magee to life. After a few visits, he took the guitar off his wall and began strumming along – and with every session, he was restored.
Before long, Gussow and Magee reunited and the unlikely duo was playing gigs again. From local bars to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Satan & Adam played a second verse in their act, recording several albums and touring.
Their remarkable journey has been captured by Gussow, who, as a Professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, has written several books about the history of the blues and their story as “blues survivors.”
And, after decades in the making, filmmakers released the documentary Satan & Adam through Netflix in 2019. Gussow often hears from people that the film made them cry, and he has his own theory on what brings the tears.
“The concept of ‘beloved community’ was a civil rights dream in the era of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” says Gussow. “For a variety of reasons, that dream went away. But I think seeing the story of us making music together reminds people what’s possible.”
A new generation reprises the music
This remarkable second act was, once again, not the end of the story. In the summer of 2019, Magee’s nephew Rod Patterson watched the documentary Satan & Adam and realized both he and Gussow had learned the blues from Magee.
Patterson’s mother, Ollie Mae, was Magee’s sister. Before moving to Harlem and pairing up with Gussow, Magee had spent some time living with the family. As a young boy, Patterson’s first exposure to live music was watching his uncle play guitar and sing in Ollie Mae’s living room.
“He would jam in the living room, and it made a big impression on me,” recalls Patterson. “I remember him smiling while performing.”
Patterson himself has experimented with many art forms over the years. As a teen, inspired by Michael Jackson, he fell in love with dance and beat hundreds of other performers at his first dance competition at age 15. As an adult, he built on his love of dance and music to engage students with an anti-bullying message he brought into Atlanta schools, preventing several teens from committing suicide. And as a graphic designer, he worked on the music scene and began to explore photography.
For most of his life, however, Patterson’s most intense vocal performances had been reserved for karaoke Motown tunes after a long day of work – truth be told, he says with a laugh, a habit not strongly encouraged by his wife.
That changed one day when Patterson was taking photos at a nursing home full of Black residents, where a performer was singing John Denver songs to polite acclaim. Patterson, invited to take his turn at the mic, pulled up a Sam Cooke karaoke number on his phone. Suddenly, the audience came to life.
“It went from a sleepy affair to a full-fledged celebration,” he remembers.
When doctors and nurses started coming out to listen to the number, both Patterson and the management realized his vocal performances had real star appeal. Administrators asked him to come back, and began sending him out to sing at other nursing homes.
Along the way, Patterson saw for himself how powerful music can be as a healing force. Once, after singing to a woman with dementia and touching her hand, her aide excitedly reported that for the first time in years the woman was responsive.
“Miss Agnes came back!” she told Patterson.
It was a few years later that Patterson, singing along to some recordings of his uncle’s music, found his voice twinning with Magee’s.
“That was the first time I thought, ‘I think I could sing his stuff,’” Patterson recalls.
Moving to the blues began to seem like the next step. In November 2019, after seeing the Satan & Adam documentary, Patterson emailed Gussow to explore performing some of Magee’s music together.
“It’s a shame that his music has to stop,” says Patterson. “I don’t want to take over the music, but I do want to pay tribute to it.”
Together, Gussow and Patterson devised a plan for Patterson to travel to Oxford, Mississippi in February 2020 and record a demo album of Satan & Adam tunes with Gussow’s current band, The Blues Doctors.
Knowing it’s not always easy for a new artist to jump in with band musicians, Gussow wasn’t sure the sessions would be a success. But Patterson fit right in – in more ways than one. On a personal level, Gussow and Patterson shared similar recollections of Magee’s habits and philosophy on the blues.
“As we started talking, we realized we often had the same story,” recalls Gussow.
Musically, too, things quickly fell into place. On his first day in the studio, Patterson recorded six to eight songs with The Blues Doctors.
“It was uncanny – familiar and strange at the same time,” says Gussow. “We knew an act had been born.”
A rallying call for hope and humanity
While the plan was to stick to material from the Satan & Adam songbook, at the eleventh hour, a new song was born that both Patterson and Gussow immediately saw held special power.
In 2017, in a band “woodshed session,” The Blues Doctors recorded an instrumental track called “Yes We Do.” A euphoric blues rock song that strayed into jam band territory, Gussow realized the music was striking a chord with The Blues Doctor’s YouTube following.
At 4 PM the day before he was scheduled to drive to Mississippi for the final recording session, Patterson opened his email to find a message from Gussow inviting him to check out the tune and possibly write some lyrics. With so little time left in the studio, Patterson’s first reaction was to hope he wouldn’t like the music.
That was not to be.
“The second I clicked on it, I fell in love,” Patterson recalls. “It spoke to my soul.”
Inspired by the hippie vibe of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” he poured out a set of lyrics with a rousing call to overcome difference, see the humanity in others and unite to make positive change.
“I love people, and I hate division,” says Patterson, of the song. “We need to come together. We have bigger fish to fry than this black & white thing.”
Written in mid-February, Patterson’s lyrics were penned at a time when COVID-19 was not yet an American crisis and the killing of George Floyd, on the heels of other incidents of racial violence, had not yet sparked nationwide demonstrations and friction. Just a few weeks later, the music would seem even more prescient.
“It’s prophetic,” says Gussow. “It speaks to where we are today, with this pandemic and also the virus of racism.”
Knowing Bond to be a fellow musician, and appreciating the work Common Ground Committee is doing to overcome division and move toward progress, it was a natural inspiration for Gussow to reach out with an offer to share the song and its message of hope.
“We so much need organizations like Common Ground Committee that speak to the liberal center,” says Gussow. “We need to do something to heal the polarization in this country. Like the song says, ‘You wear red, I wear blue. We’ve got to heal our vision.’”
For his part, Bond recognizes in Gussow the essence of what it means to be a Common Grounder.
“He is constantly checking the way he thinks about things, and seeking to understand rather than demonize,” says Bond.
In the words of “Come Together,” Bond hears a message that is spot on. It was a natural fit to put together a video that marries the song’s stirring music and lyrics with imagery of Common Ground Committee guests – including some of today’s luminaries in the world of politics, foreign policy and more – finding agreement on some of today’s most divisive issues.
“Coming together is what we need to do in this country, and the lyrics are exactly what we preach,” Bond says.” Open your eyes, and open your heart. It takes real humility, a willingness to be vulnerable and to listen to what others have to say.”
At a time when people are missing the connection of live performances and surrounded by division among neighbors, Bond hopes the song will leave listeners with a renewed sense of joy and possibility.
“The world is in need of hope, and there’s reason to have hope,” says Bond. “At our forums, we are seeing people put aside their differences and work together. So we hope the spirit of this song and video will remind people what’s possible. You know, when you see Condi Rice and John Kerry laughing together and agreeing on things, it makes you stop and think.”
For Gussow and Patterson, amongst the joy of renewing the magic of Satan & Adam and creating new art that speaks to what the nation needs, there is a bittersweet note.
Magee, now 84 years old, hasn’t yet heard “Come Together.” Last week, he was admitted to intensive care with a diagnosis of coronavirus. While he can’t receive visitors, they are hoping a kind nurse and the power of technology will let him hear the album and how his nephew is carrying on his legacy.
And with the power of music…who knows?
UPDATE: Since this story was written, Sterling Magee has recovered from coronavirus and has been discharged from the hospital. As Gussow says…you can’t kill Mr. Satan.
In these unprecedented times of crisis and division, can we find a healing path for moving forward? If you haven’t yet tuned in, check out our new podcast Let’s Find Common Ground to explore how we can seek points of agreement and make progress on critical and timely issues. Our hosts talk with smart thinkers with different points of view to examine ways we can bring light, not heat, to issues that matter including:
- What racism means to two of our distinguished guests: professor, community activist and lawyer Ilyasah Shabazz, and trauma care surgeon Brian Williams, MD.
- How we can effectively dismantle racism with Daryl Davis, a Black musician and race reconciliator who helped more than 200 KKK members renounce their ideology.
- What history can teach us about creative strategies for emerging from a global pandemic with Admiral James Stavridis, (Ret.).
- How we can all rise to the challenge of a shared national sacrifice with Dr. Paul C. Light, Professor of Public Service.
- How emerging models of leadership in times of crisis hold lessons for America’s future with General Wesley K. Clark, (Ret.).
- How we can save both lives and the economy with Jared Bernstein, economic advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
With society’s future in the balance, come along as we shine a light on how to solve the challenges of incivility and polarization. Subscribe now to get new episodes as they are released, and hear from top leaders in policy, finance, academe and more as they provide illuminating insights on today’s most vital issues.
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Though social distancing might have you staying at home, you’re still empowered to make change. We’re excited to introduce a new series of monthly actions that invite Common Grounders to bring light, not heat, to the work of leading progress on America’s most pressing issues. First up: get educated on your options for voting during COVID-19.
May 2020 Action: Make a Plan for Voting
As the global pandemic impacts America’s economy, education system, healthcare and more, the stakes are high for voters to make their voices heard to reimagine our collective future. But with states making varying decisions on how to conduct elections during an unpredictable health crisis, it’s key for voters to act well in advance to understand how they can weigh in – not just in November, but in any primaries and special elections.
This month, make a plan for voting by visiting your state’s election office website and answering five quick questions:
1.) What is your state’s vote-by-mail policy for COVID-19?
Every state has some method of voting by mail, but some state’s laws require a voter to meet eligibility criteria to receive an absentee ballot. See if your state requires an excuse, and/or has made temporary procedural changes to increase access to voting by mail.
2.) What do you need to do to get an absentee ballot?
Some states will automatically send ballots to registered voters. Others will send voters an application to request an official ballot. Or, voters may need to reach out to request a ballot for voting by mail. Do your research now to determine the process, and keep an eye out for changes between now and November.
3.) Is there a primary or special election coming up?
Though the general election may still seem far off, some states rescheduled their primaries and special elections from the spring to early summer – so your next opportunity to vote may be just around the corner. Find out what state and local elections may be coming up, and when.
4.) What is your deadline to act?
Often, absentee ballots must be requested well in advance. They may also need to be received or postmarked by a specific date in advance of Election Day. Find out these dates – then make a reminder on your calendar well in advance.
5.) And make sure you’re registered to vote!
Not yet registered? Act now to give yourself enough time to complete the process. (Some state’s deadlines are up to 30 days before an election.) Haven’t voted recently? Check your registration status to ensure your name has not been purged. If you are no longer showing as an active voter or have moved to another state, it’s time to re-register. It’s always a good idea to check your registration to ensure it’s current, even if you’ve voted recently.
In times of social turmoil and economic uncertainty, the American people have looked to elected officials for both hope and leadership. Here’s what presidents throughout history have shared as a common message in times of crisis – and why it’s so essential to our work in the present moment, as we seek to navigate a shared path through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this piece written for USA Today, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen call for bipartisan support for voting by mail to preserve the health of voters – and our democracy.
We’re facing a scenario where many people may decide not to vote in November because of the pandemic. This doesn’t have to happen.
Last month, Lee McFadden Jr., 63, made a choice. After recovering from COVID-19, he made the trek to vote in Wisconsin’s primary. He told a PBS reporter he confronted long lines and, unable to stand for long, went home. McFadden’s decision could be a portent of things to come in November.
The risks related to COVID-19 are considered more acute for seniors. This means long-term, faithful voters, who for decades have done their civic duty, are being asked to choose between voting and their health concerns. A record number of voters cast their vote by absentee ballot in Wisconsin’s primary election, but partisan bickering, legal maneuvering and an overwhelmed system made it so voters like McFadden didn’t have a choice.
We’re facing a scenario where a significant part of the population may decide not to vote in November. This doesn’t have to happen. The organization we co-founded, Common Ground Committee, is dedicated to bringing healing to the challenges of incivility and polarization by showing Americans that consensus can be found and progress made through passionate but civil debate. In the case of vote-by-mail the common ground is right in front of us: At least for November, surely we can all agree that voters like McFadden should feel safe when casting their ballots.
The bickering over how to expand vote-by-mail is more intense than it ought to be. Both sides are seemingly entrenched in their positions — Republicans that the system is vulnerable to voter fraud and Democrats that not offering universal vote-by-mail is another form of voter suppression. But if the two parties look beyond their talking points, they will see there are ways to implement vote-by-mail they can get behind.
Some states have already realized that vote-by-mail, if properly implemented, can enable both secure elections and allow eligible voters to legitimately cast their ballots. Ohio, for the first time, held its primary election by mail. Two-thirds of states allow voters to request a mail-in ballot without having to give a reason. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — vote almost entirely by mail. Vote-by-mail enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support in all five. Utah, a state with a predominantly conservative electorate, has the second highest rate of support among that group.
Concerns about fraud are legitimate and should be bipartisan. Across counties in red and blue states, Judicial Watch found at least 2.5 million voter registrations incorrectly listed as valid. Proposals that advocate absentee ballots for all without verification of eligibility would make it easier for bad actors to commit fraud.
Fortunately, we’ve seen there are ways to balance safety and security. Data has shown almost no reported incidents of voter fraud in the five states that employ vote-by-mail. Most importantly, no election results have been overturned, according to data from conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. In Washington, the office of Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, crosschecks ballot and voter registration signatures and uses national data sets to verify voter identity.
A 2005 report authored by former President Jimmy Carter and James Baker is often cited by those with reservations about vote-by-mail. It found absentee ballots are more susceptible to voter fraud and intimidation. Yet it also notes Oregon avoided significant fraud through its safeguards.
Now, President Carter, in part because of concern that the pandemic will discourage the most vulnerable from voting, has called for expanded access to absentee ballots saying, “since 2005, many states have gained substantial experience in vote-by-mail and have shown how key concerns can be effectively addressed through appropriate planning, resources, training, and messaging.”
Both parties can benefit
The general perception is that vote-by-mail would benefit Democrats. At least in 2020, this is a questionable premise. Polls show Republicans typically do well with voters over 65, the demographic most likely to avoid showing up at polls because of the coronavirus. Utah implemented vote-by-mail in 2012 and still has a Republican controlled state legislature. And in 2018, turnout in the state exceeded the national average for the first time in 20 years.
To be sure, vote-by-mail is not perfect and there are real hurdles to overcome. The experiences of the five states notwithstanding, there is always a risk of voter fraud and states will have to invest significant money and resources to minimize that risk. We also recognize that many voters will insist on the need for transparency regarding how disputes would be settled and what constitutes a valid ballot. Even though Congress has provided vote-by-mail funding for states for some, it isn’t enough.
Voters need to feel safe
Still, these hurdles are outweighed by the need to ensure folks, who have voted for years and now fear doing so, can feel safe casting their ballots. We hope states that cannot overcome those hurdles will work to find ways to get mail-in ballots to their most vulnerable, eligible citizens.
Secretary Wyman recently told KIRO Radio that we shouldn’t view this issue through the lens of our parties. “We need to make policy that’s good for our voters, allows a lot of access, and is secure,” she said. We couldn’t agree more.
Vote-by-mail may or may not be the best election system over time. But in this election, it is worth the investment so states that have the means to implement it can help their most vulnerable citizens feel safe.
There will be time after November to assess the lessons learned to determine vote-by-mail’s long-term viability. Now, there is enough common ground for both parties to feel comfortable doing right by our long-term, faithful voters. We hope the states that can will seize this opportunity and implement vote-by-mail for November.
– This article was originally published in USA Today on May 12, 2020.
No doubt, these are challenging times. But in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic there are signs of hope – like legislators of both parties voting unanimously to pass the largest economic package in our country’s history. How can we keep this spirit of cooperation going?
For some key lessons for this pivotal moment, we looked back at highlights from a 2013 forum on how President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill transcended a fierce political rivalry to create a bipartisan working relationship
Finding Common Ground Then & Now: Lessons from President Reagan & House Speaker Tip O’Neill
As the nation’s leading conservative and a classic liberal, these two leaders held very different ideological views. But several key factors made it possible for them to work together to make progress on important issues like stabilizing Social Security and reforming the tax code, including:
- A common background and time spent together socially, which opened the lines for regular one-on-one communication
- A shared experience as part of a World War II generation that thought of themselves, first and foremost, as staunch Americans
- A sense of urgency to not just make speeches that appealed to their bases, but to deliver the goods by creating policies to benefit all Americans
- A willingness to persuade allies to make concessions for the sake of progress
Today, our leaders no longer share the common experience of having lived through a world war that inspires citizens to put country before party. Yet the moment we are now living through is creating a new shared experience that calls us to set aside differences, and work for the collective well-being of every American.
As leaders, citizens and neighbors, let’s seize this moment to build on this spirit of cooperation by putting our focus on rising above party politics, and seeking ways to advance the common good.