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How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 2: Implementing Strategy

Despite President Biden’s vow to unify America, legislation in the new Congress appears poised to continue along strictly partisan lines. Is common ground really possible – and what will it take to get there?

In this second installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, Common Ground Committee sat down with its co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about strategies that can lead to more progress and less division.


Your work focuses on inspiring the exhausted majority to seek common ground. Once you’ve gotten their attention, what do you do from there?

Bruce Bond: There are lots of different things. There are a lot of groups out there, including us, that have put out positions on, “Here’s how you have good, productive conversations with people that you disagree with.” We can really look into moving the ball forward when it comes to finding a solution or, at the very least, engaging with people to understand what’s really involved in solving a problem.

You have these conversations with people you disagree with to understand what their position is and why they have them. And when you do that, you learn a lot, you have a certain empathy for the people that you’re speaking with, and it just puts you in a completely different position to have a conversation.

We explored this dynamic in a recent podcast episode with two young men from different sides of the aisle who took a cross-country roadtrip together. Ultimately, their commitment to connecting at a human level transcended their differences.

So knowing how to have the conversation is a key element in solving the polarization problem. It’s been said “It’s hard to hate up close.”

Does this apply to the general population, or the leadership?

Erik Olsen: Both. That is the next thing: what we can do from a leadership level? How can we convince our leaders at the top, particularly at the federal level, who really set the tone for this? If you can solve the problem of Congress in particular being so divided, then you would see a much different view by the public about the value of Congress, and the value of engaging in productive debate — as opposed to debate to win the argument.

So, you’re talking about getting folks to value productive debate instead of the art of winning, or the art of the food fight. Does that also mean electing people who have that mindset already?

Bond: Yes. Along these lines, we developed the Common Ground Scorecard, which is a tool that helps voters identify the person running for office that are most likely to reach across the aisle and find common ground with those that are the other side of the aisle, so to speak.

On paper, these are little things, but they are significant. If you can learn to have a conversation, and you can keep an eye out for people in or seeking office that are likely to work to find a solution rather than win an ideological argument or not engage in the debate for fear of being primaried, for example, which is a problem that we have now.

If you can get those leaders to say, Finding common ground is a better way, now you’re on to something. Leaders tend to fear the voters more than anything else. If the voters start voting with favoritism toward those who are common grounders, as we like to call them, you start to see some change.

Olsen: We’ve been offering new members of Congress the opportunity to take a pledge we call the Common Ground Commitments. And they’re saying, “Yeah, we do want to make these commitments,” because they’re now interested in trying to make Congress more common-ground-oriented.

They need to somehow deal with the leadership on this, and I don’t know exactly how that will happen. But one way that it will happen is if people, representatives, and legislators who are in power have more interest in returning Congress to a more balanced body. They see that polarization as not acting in their best interest.

Congress needs to be returned to a governing body that recognizes that the best interests of the country lie in finding legislators who are willing to work together to try to find common ground. And they’re more likely to stay in office because they’ve worked to solve the problem instead of just creating more problems.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of what it will take to dial back America’s political division. Coming soon!

Depolarizing America: Building Consensus Step-by-Step

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These political veterans disagree on many issues…but agree that now is the time for bridge building. Here’s why.

Kelly Johnston and Rob Fersh disagree strongly on many issues, and voted differently in the 2020 presidential election. But they are friends and “agree on major steps that must be taken for the nation to heed President-elect Biden’s welcome call for us to come together.”

Both believe that constructive steps must be taken to help build trust among Democrats and Republicans, despite deep polarization and a firm resistance to bipartisanship from both ends of the political spectrum. They encourage open dialogue between sectors and interest groups whose views diverge in an effort to deal with divisive political discourse.

Read more from Johnstone & Fersh in an op-ed for The Hill: “We agree on almost nothing except how to solve problems across the political divide.”

Rob Fersh founded Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, and previously worked for Democrats on the staffs of three congressional committees. Kelly Johnston, also a founding board member of Convergence, is a committed Republican and former Secretary of the U.S. Senate. In this episode of Let’s Find Common Ground produced in partnership with Convergence, we talk with both Fersh and Johnston about bridge building and why this work is so urgently needed in an era of political gridlock.

Click here for bonus audio: Rob Fersh describes the process at Convergence.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 23- Depolarizing America: Building Consensus

Rob Fersh

Rob Fersh is a Senior Advisor and the Founder of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 to promote consensus solutions to issues of domestic and international importance. Immediately prior, Rob served as the United States country director for Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution organization. While at SFCG, he directed national policy consensus projects on health care coverage for the uninsured and U.S.-Muslim relations.

In the 1986-98 period, Rob served as president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a leading NGO working to alleviate hunger in the United States. Rob also served on the staffs of three Congressional committees, working for U.S. Representative Leon Panetta and for Senators Patrick Leahy and Edmund Muskie. While a Congressional staff member and at FRAC, he was deeply involved in shepherding passage of bipartisan legislation to reduce hunger in the United States. Rob has held additional positions in the federal executive branch and non-profit sector. He was a 1994 recipient of the Prudential Foundation Prize for Non-Profit Leadership. Rob holds a law degree from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, where he has served as a guest lecturer and co-instructor of a course on collaborative decision making and public policy. He is married, has four children, and two grandchildren.

Kelly Johnston

Kelly Johnston retired from the Campbell Soup Company in October 2018 after a 16-year career as Vice President-Government Affairs. Previously, Kelly spent nearly 25 years in Washington, DC in several leadership positions within the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, politics, and the trade association world. He was Executive Vice President for Government Affairs and Communications at the National Food Processors’ Association (NFPA), serving as the organization’s chief government affairs and communications officer for nearly 6 years.

From 1995 to 1997, he was the Secretary of the US Senate, the Senate’s chief legislative, financial and administrative officer. Kelly has also served as Staff Director of the Senate Republican Policy Committee; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of Transportation; and chief of staff or press secretary to three Members of Congress.

Kelly remains active in the non-profit community. He is a founding board member of the Bonnie and Bill Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communication at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. He also currently serves on the board of Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), which is dedicated to helping employers educate their employees on public policy issues of importance to their jobs. He is a former chairman of the Canadian American Business Council and former co-chair of the Congressional Management Foundation. He blogs on public policy issues, history, and politics at Against the Grain.

A native of Oklahoma, Kelly earned his B.A. degree in Communications in 1976 from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, where he has been named to the Alumni Hall of Fame. He attended Georgetown University’s Graduate School of Demography in Washington, D.C. He has guest lectured on politics, government, lobbying and communications at several universities, including Yale University, the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, Shepherd University, and Burlington County College in New Jersey.

He and his wife, Adrienne, live in Arlington, Virginia. They have two sons.

American Flag Divided

How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 1: Taking Stock

Inauguration day has come and gone, and we’ve had a more peaceful transition of power than many thought possible. There was no violence; the ceremony was beautiful, reverent, and calm; and the mittened Bernie memes might be the most bipartisan political laugh we’ve seen in years.

But that doesn’t mean “problem solved”; far from it. We have a tremendous job ahead of us—as a nation, a President, a Congress, and an electorate—to find a way across the aisle that’s become an abyss, and have productive legislative conversations. There isn’t a mandate of a clear majority in favor of Biden’s goals, policies, and views, and there’s even significant division within each party when it comes to how to move forward.

Common Ground Committee turned the microphone on its own co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about what it’s going to take to fix our polarization problem.


So here we are post-inauguration, a place that glowed on the calendar with the expectation of progress toward unity. But so much has happened in January alone. Are we in a different place than we were in 2020?

Erik Olsen: Yes. Some Democrats are reaching out to engage with their Republican colleagues to find common ground despite the violence on January 6th. However, the two parties are currently fractured, with three quarters of lawmakers still in the middle.

The country is tired and looking for a way forward. As we move past the inauguration and the news cycle moves forward, the President has expressed a desire for more unity. Now Congressional leadership has an opportunity to emphasize such unity. However, they need to strike the right tone. We are concerned that with the significant use of executive orders and the impeachment trial, we aren’t getting off to a great start.

How do we begin to approach fixing the polarized situation we’ve been steeped in for years?

Bruce Bond: It starts with people thinking, first, that we need to have a change, that polarization needs to be fixed. While there’s been a general view that polarization is a bad thing, until Jan 6 there was no sense of urgency. What we’re seeing since the occupation of the Capitol is that it’s becoming more important — that people are becoming more and more concerned about it.

There is a study done by More in Common in 2018, which essentially described 77 percent of the electorate as what they called the “exhausted majority.” And that’s significant, because that group wants change, wants leaders to work together, unlike the 23%, some from the left and some from the right, who are entrenched in their positions.

But with a closely divided Senate and House, the common grounders have an opportunity because they will be courted by both sides. That gives us hope for finding common ground and thereby making real progress.

What effect does an exhausted majority have on polarization?

Bond: That group used to be called the silent majority, and now it’s called the exhausted majority. That’s profound because what it says is that there’s now an emotional element attached to this not being on the extremes. The extremes are becoming irritating to people, and also, some are seeing that they’re not helpful but destructive. So that’s a start, and we see that as one of the first steps.

The next problem is that you have people in the exhausted majority, who may have hope that things can change, but they don’t know how it will happen or what they can do about it. One of the things that we’ve been working on here with our events, and our podcasts, and much of our programming has been demonstrating what good looks like – demonstrating people of note engaging in passionate but constructive conversation that exposes common ground.

And if you can do that, if you can show people how common ground is found, we validate their hope, confirm there is reason to believe that we can change this, and inspire them to make the effort to find common ground in their own experiences with family, friends and colleagues. And, to begin to expect their leaders to do the same.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of strategies that can lead to more progress and less division. Coming soon!

Tania Israel - common ground

De-polarizing America. What Can We All Do?

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Finding common ground is more vital than ever. How can we reach across deep divides?

The important task of finding common ground in American politics became much more difficult and vital in the wake of the traumatic violence and mayhem at the U.S. Capitol. While most Americans viewed the pro-Trump crowd as thugs, many thought of them as patriots.

This podcast is the first in a new series that deals with the issue of polarization. We speak with professor Tania Israel, author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work. Dr. Israel is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and past-President of the Society of Counseling Psychology.

We discuss practical, concrete steps listeners can take to conduct meaningful conversations that reach across deep divisions. “One of the things I recommend is being curious. Try to find out more about what’s behind what somebody says,” she tells us. Join us as we examine the means and methods for de-polarizing America.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 22- Depolarizing America

About Tania Israel

Tania Israel is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Israel teaches about helping skills, leadership, and community collaboration, among other things. She has facilitated educational programs and difficult dialogues about a range of topics, including abortion, law enforcement, religion, and sexual orientation. Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work (APA, 2020) grew out of Dr. Israel’s skill-building workshop that she developed and delivered to hundreds of participants following the 2016 election. It draws on her strengths as a psychologist and community organizer to prepare people to engage in dialogue across political lines. Dr. Israel’s honors include 2019 Congressional Woman of the Year (CA 24th District), Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Award for Excellence in Mental Health from the California Asian & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, and Emerging Leader Award from the APA Committee on Women in Psychology. To learn more, visit taniaisrael.com or connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

The Art of Compromise and Pragmatism

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In a fractured and anxious moment, what can we learn from “The Man Who Ran Washington”?

James Baker was at the center of American political power for three decades. His resume is exceedingly impressive — Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and White House Chief of Staff twice. Baker’s accomplishments were far-reaching — he helped end the cold war, reunify Germany, assemble the international coalition to fight the Gulf War, negotiate the rewriting of the U.S. tax code, and run five presidential campaigns.

Quite simply he was “The Man Who Ran Washington,” which is the name of the highly-praised new book co-authored by our guests, New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker (no relation) and his wife, Susan Glasser, staff correspondent for The New Yorker.

In this episode, we discuss how Washington has become a more angry, anxious place in recent years, Baker’s steely pragmatism and remarkably successful approach to power and governance – an approach that stands in stark contrast to the fierce tribalism that led to violence in our Capitol this week – and why the art of compromise is crucial to almost any negotiation between powerful rivals.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 21- The Art of Compromise

Peter Baker & Susan Glasser

Peter Baker and Susan Glasser are longtime Washington journalists who have written about the intersection of politics and the world. Baker is chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and an MSNBC political analyst. He has covered four presidents and is author or co-author of six books, including Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. Glasser is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the weekly “Letter from Trump’s Washington” as well as a global affairs analyst for CNN. She previously was the editor of POLITICO and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine.

Episode 20 - Let's Find Common Ground Podcast

2020 Special Moments: Our Search for Common Ground

Episode 20 - Let's Find Common Ground Podcast

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In a year marked by crisis, we look back at remarkable moments of hope, collaboration and healing.

From the tragedy and disruption of COVID-19 through impassioned pleas for racial justice heard across the country, to the deep divisions in our politics, 2020 was a year like no other.

In the first year of our “Let’s Find Common Ground” podcast, we’ve enjoyed a mix of thoughtful, personal and surprising conversations about some of the most important topics of our time. We revisit a few of the most memorable and special moments in this year-end episode.

Among the highlights: Houston’s Chief of Police Art Acevedo, and New York City civil rights activist and mayoral candidate, Maya Wiley, discuss ways to find common ground on police reform. Eva Botkin-Kowacki of The Christian Science Monitor talks about how environmental activists and farmers use different language to discuss the threat of a changing climate. Republican Brian Fitzpatrick and Democrat Abigail Spanberger reveal how they work together to pass laws and find solutions to controversial issues in a dysfunctional Congress.

We also listen to remarkable insights from an inter-racial couple, Errol and Tina Toulon, about their marriage and the story of Jordan Blashek and Chris Haugh, two young men with different political backgrounds who took a cross-country road trip across an ideologically divided nation  to explore an important question – how far apart are we really?

Join us for our special moments of 2020 in the search for Common Ground.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 20- Special Moments

Seeking Common Ground in Congress

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With a bitterly contested election underway, is it possible for Congress to work across partisan divides?

With just days to go before a bitterly contested election, we speak with two Members of Congress, one Republican and one Democrat, who are reaching across rigid partisan divides to seek out compromise and constructive change.

Democrat Abigail Spanberger is the U.S. Representative for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, who is serving her first term. In 2018, she defeated a Republican incumbent to win the district, which includes most of the northern suburbs of Richmond.

Brian Fitzpatrick is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional district. His district includes all of Bucks County, a mostly suburban area north of Philadelphia.

Reps. Spanberger and Fitzgerald both score highly on the new Common Ground Scorecard rankings.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 15 – Seeking Common Ground in Congress

Brian Fitzpatrick

After dedicating his professional life to service and protecting others, Brian Fitzpatrick was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2016 to represent the people of Pennsylvania’s Eighth Congressional District. Following redistricting in 2018, Congressman Fitzpatrick was elected to represent the people of Pennsylvania’s First District which includes all of Bucks County and a portion of northwestern Montgomery County. His top priorities in Congress are increasing economic opportunity and keeping our nation safe.

A Levittown native and graduate of Bishop Egan High School, Brian is a graduate of LaSalle University, Penn State University and the Dickinson School of Law. He is a licensed Certified Public Accountant, Emergency Medical Technician as well as an attorney – having previously served as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney focused on drug crimes.

For 14 years prior to running for Congress, Brian served our country as an FBI Supervisory Special Agent fighting political corruption and supporting global counterterrorism efforts – including being embedded with U.S. Special Forces as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Working to promote freedom and democracy, Brian also served as National Director for the FBI’s Campaign Finance and Election Crimes Enforcement Program and as a national supervisor for the FBI’s Political Corruption Unit where he is recognized as an expert in restoring integrity to governmental institutions. For his work, Brian was an inaugural recipient of the FBI Director’s Leadership Award in 2015 and was named “Investigator of the Year by the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation.

In the 116th Congress, Brian is a member of the Foreign Affairs and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. Brian is the founding member of the Congressional Citizen Legislature Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers committed to fighting for term limits and Congressional reforms, and a member of the No Labels ‘Problem Solver Caucus.’

Abigail Spanberger

U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger is proud to represent Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which is comprised of ten counties throughout Central Virginia.

Representative Spanberger began her career in public service, first serving as a federal agent with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigating money laundering and narcotics cases, and then serving as a case officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As a CIA officer, she worked at home and abroad to collect vital intelligence, keep our country safe, and work in furtherance of our national security priorities. In the private sector, Representative Spanberger worked with colleges and universities to help them diversify their student bodies and increase graduation rates.

Representative Spanberger serves on the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture and the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. On the House Agriculture Committee, she serves as Chair of the Conservation &  Forestry Subcommittee and as a member of the Commodity Exchanges, Energy, & Credit Subcommittee. And on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Spanberger serves as Vice-Chair of the Europe, Eurasia, Energy, & the Environment Subcommittee and as a member of the Asia, the Pacific, & Nonproliferation Subcommittee.

Representative Spanberger grew up in Henrico County. She earned her B.A. at the University of Virginia and her MBA at a dual degree program between Purdue University’s Krannert School and the GISMA Business School in Hanover, Germany. Representative Spanberger resides in Glen Allen, Henrico County, Virginia with her husband, Adam, and their three children.

Reforming Politics: Civility, Compromise and Common Ground

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Americans say our divisions are getting worse. How can voters lead constructive change?

More than 8-in-10 Americans think the country is divided, and a large majority says public debate has gotten worse in recent years. The deep partisan gap in politics is a major barrier to constructive change.

In this podcast, we explore the need for common ground with Amy Dacey, Executive Director of the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics at American University, and Pearce Godwin, CEO of Listen First Project, and a leading member of #WeavingCommunity.

During the 2016 presidential election, Amy served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Democratic National Committee. Pearce is from a conservative political background, and formerly worked on Republican Party campaigns.

We speak with both of them about the new Common Ground Scorecard initiative and other recent efforts to boost civic engagement and compromise.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 13- Reforming Politics-Civility, Compromise and Common Ground

Amy K. Dacey

Amy K. Dacey is Executive Director of the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics at American University. For more than two decades, she managed prominent national organizations, advised leading elected officials and candidates, including President Barack Obama and Senator John Kerry, and counseled a variety of nonprofits and companies.

Before joining AU, Amy was President of AKD Strategies, a strategic firm working with nonprofits, and Foundations in the progressive policy space. During the 2016 presidential election, she served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Democratic National Committee. During the 2004 elections, she worked for then-Senator John Kerry on his presidential campaign and, following his narrow loss, helped to lead Kerry’s political operation. She also managed Rep. Louise Slaughter’s congressional campaign in 1998.

From 2010 to 2013, Amy served as Executive Director of EMILY’s List, the organization dedicated to electing Democratic women to national, state, and local offices, and led the organization’s revitalization, restructuring and rebranding efforts. In addition, she served in various leadership positions for several other organizations, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Fund for America, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Recently, Amy served as Executive Vice President and Managing Director for MWWPR, one of the world’s top independent public relations agencies.

A native of Auburn, New York, Amy received her bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University and her master’s degree in political science from American University.

Pearce Godwin

Pearce Godwin—described as the national voice for bridging divides—is Founder & CEO of Listen First Project, Executive Director of National Conversation Project, and leader of the #ListenFirst Coalition of 300 partner organizations. He catalyzes the #ListenFirst movement to mend the frayed social fabric of America by building relationships and bridging divides. His passion is combating the universally felt crisis of distance, division, and dehumanization across differences with conversations that prioritize understanding.

Pearce graduated from Duke University and received an MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill. He spent five years working in Washington, DC—in the U.S. Senate and as a national political consultant for presidential and statewide campaigns. Before moving home to North Carolina in 2013, Pearce spent six months in Uganda, Africa where he wrote It’s Time to Listen. That message—printed in dozens of papers across the United States—launched Listen First Project and led thousands to sign the Listen First Pledge—“I will listen first to understand.”

In 2017, as division turned to violence across the country, Pearce left his marketing job, fully committing to turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division with the #ListenFirst message. In 2018, Pearce helped create the first National Week of Conversation and hosted the kickoff event, Listen First in Charlottesville. Pearce then launched the overarching, collaborative movement platform National Conversation Project, which scales the #ListenFirst movement by promoting annual National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, Rapid Response & Featured Conversations on Major Issues, Locally-Focused #ListenFirst Movements, and any conversation creating social connection. This burgeoning movement has already reached millions of people with the #ListenFirst message—5 million during National Week of Conversation 2019 alone as 100+ organizations have adopted the common #ListenFirst message for mainstream scale.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Pearce is leading the #WeavingCommunity campaign in partnership with David Brooks’ Weave Project and powered by hundreds of partner organizations in service to our neighbors and nation, with support from Facebook and other sponsors. America is divided and broken, but we can make it stronger by building relationships starting where we live. #WeavingCommunity is a campaign celebrating acts of bravery, caring and connection that heal the pain and weave the future we want.

The #ListenFirst movement has been recognized by journalists at CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, USA Today, Associated Press, and The New York Times as Pearce has spoken about the mission on national television and to live audiences around the world. Pearce recently shared his perspective on current events in USA Today: “It feels like the American experiment is failing. Here’s how we can still save it.”

WATCH: Introducing Our Common Ground Scorecard

Want more progress and less division in politics? Our new Common Ground Scorecard can help inform your vote.

We all need our government to work effectively – but it won’t unless we elect those with the capacity to reach across the aisle. That’s why we created the Common Ground Scorecard, a free mobile-friendly tool that helps voters of all parties evaluate how well your elected officials are doing at listening, leading productive conversations and finding bipartisan points of agreement.

VIDEO: View our short tutorial on how to use the Common Ground Scorecard.

Give the scorecard a try, and see how it can help inform your vote for candidates who will work for more progress, and less division.