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Laws should unite, not divide

In this piece written for The Hill, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen make the case that laws should unite, not divide. You can also listen to a behind-the-scenes conversation with the authors below.

For the past decade-plus, we have made it our mission to improve political discourse through our nonprofit, Common Ground Committee (CGC). That mission hit a speed bump with Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB 8). As heads of a non-partisan organization, we don’t take a position on whether abortion should or should not be legal, but we recognize the strong moral concerns held by both sides. We even understand how it is that the Texas legislature would think this legislation is a good idea. But SB 8 sets a dangerous precedent and unnecessarily adds even deeper divisiveness to an already contentious issue.the hill logo

By putting enforcement into the hands of private citizens, and offering a significant financial incentive, the Texas legislature is effectively weaponizing disagreement.

Other states are following the Texas lead — Florida just introduced its own SB 8-inspired abortion bill. If this strategy proves successful, what would stop liberal-leaning states from passing similar restrictions on gun ownership? We wager that supporters of SB 8 would not approve.

Disagreement is fundamental to a healthy democracy. But when lawmakers are determined to take whatever means necessary to achieve their outcomes, we end up with laws like SB 8.

If we are to function as a healthy society, all citizens — no matter their political leanings — should speak out against laws that are designed to pit citizens against each other. We have plenty of laws that by their nature generate passionate debate. But deliberately designing into legislation the ability for citizens on one side of an issue to economically hurt fellow citizens on the other side will almost certainly inflame factional conflict and deepen even further the divisions that plague our nation.

To be sure, it is an open question as to whether the Texas law will stand, despite the Supreme Court’s “shadow docket” ruling, as evidenced by the ongoing court battle. But even if the Texas strategy is ultimately deemed unconstitutional, it did not occur in a vacuum; rather, the bill reflects a wider tendency by legislators to craft laws that reflect only the viewpoint of the majority. In short, it’s exactly what James Madison and the Founders were fearful of when they spoke of “tyranny of the majority.” It’s how we wound up with legislation like the “For the People Act” or the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017” — laws crafted with no input from the minority that effectively encourage bitter debate by the very nature of their partisan leanings, even if they aren’t signed into law.

Turning citizens into the enforcers is a natural evolution of this trend.

If Americans took the time to talk to one another, they would find the people they demonize are not morally bankrupt. In fact, they might have more in common than they think — even on issues as divisive as abortion. A 2016 poll from Gallup found that a majority of pro-choice and pro-life Americans agreed on 9 of 17 points, including making abortion illegal in the third trimester and making it legal in the case of rape and incest.

This doesn’t mean Democrats and Republicans will suddenly abandon their principles on abortion — for both sides it will always be a question of right and wrong born out of deeply held values. But conversation lets us see the other side as actual, reasonable human beings who arrived at their beliefs through their own experiences. Laws like SB 8 can only exist when legislators stay in their own bubbles and see a difference of opinion as a moral flaw. We need to burst those bubbles and elect leaders who are open to the idea that their perspective is not the end of the discussion.

Prior to the 2020 elections, we released the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool to help Americans see how likely members of Congress and candidates were to find common ground. The average score for all of Congress is 29/110. To put that into perspective, the average score for members of the House Problems Solvers Caucus is 55/110. As primary season fast approaches, these are the types of legislators we need doing business in Congress.

“If we took the same approach to our personal relationships that some members do to Congress, we wouldn’t have any functional relationships in our lives,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a member of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, in a past episode of our podcast series “Let’s Find Common Ground.” Fitzpatrick’s Democratic counterpart Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), said she has no interest in voting for a law that is everything she wants but has no chance of passage. For these two legislators, collaboration means progress, and progress overrules party.

SB 8 is a preview of what could come if politicians continue to let partisanship dominate the legislative process.

We are on a dangerous path, but it’s not too late to change course. We as citizens must stand up and push back against legislators who seek to divide us with laws and, if necessary, replace them with those who seek to unite us by finding the common ground that enables good legislation.

– This article was originally published in The Hill on October 15, 2021.

Infrastructure bill won’t end Washington’s problems. Neither would ending the filibuster

In this piece written for Roll Call, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen make the case that the only real way to fix America’s political system is to focus on electing leaders committed to bipartisan solutions. 

Proponents of common ground — like ourselves — received some welcome news earlier this month with the Senate’s passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It’s the largest investment in infrastructure since the 1950s, and it passed with 19 Republican votes. It’s a rare sight to see major legislation pass on a bipartisan basis, but, unfortunately, it does not necessarily signal a change in Washington.

Democrats seem intent on going it alone, using the budget reconciliation process to push a separate multitrillion spending package, partially due to the threat of the filibuster. For such a hotly debated rule, it’s notable that the filibuster was essentially created by accident. As vice president, Aaron Burr argued in 1805 that a Senate procedure allowing a simple majority of legislators to end debate and move to a vote was redundant and should be removed. He got his wish when he left office, and the filibuster was born.

Whether or not a political party is in favor of the filibuster seems to hinge on its position of power in the Senate.

Before he called it a “relic of Jim Crow”— and it must be acknowledged that the modern filibuster was a favored tool of opponents of civil rights legislation — a young Sen. Barack Obama argued passionately in favor of the procedural maneuver when his party was in the minority. President Donald Trump wanted Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to eliminate the rule in 2018 to easily pass his agenda — much in the same way Democrats are now pressing President Joe Biden. Opponents of the filibuster say it’s an affront to how the Founders intended government to work and silences the will of the people. Proponents say it’s the one tool legislators have left to force bipartisan solutions and that its elimination would give the majority complete control to force through its agenda.

As heads of Common Ground Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing political polarization, we welcome any tool that would encourage Democrats and Republicans to come together and find solutions. But the filibuster is neither the solution nor the problem. What needs to be changed is the mindset of our leaders. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House wouldn’t vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate passed the  reconciliation measure. (In an agreement reached with Democratic moderates, both bills are now expected to receive votes in the House by the end of September.) In the Senate, McConnell has threatened “zero input” from Republicans if the filibuster is eliminated. We cannot afford this prioritization of conflict over solutions any longer.

We’re at a critical juncture as a nation.

If the filibuster is indeed removed or reformed, there will be little incentive for Democrats and Republicans to work together. If it remains, it will continue to be used as a tool to block legislation and stifle debate. Reforms such as a proposed plan to exempt voting rights laws from the filibuster would only slap a Band-Aid on the problem. The only path forward is to change the culture in Washington.

While there is evidence Americans want to see their leaders compromise, that sentiment isn’t reflected in who we elect to office. Prior to the 2020 elections, our organization released the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool to help Americans see how likely members of Congress and candidates were to find common ground. The average score for members of Congress and governors was only 25 out of a possible 110. There are exceptions, such as members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, but when the vast majority of our government leaders are incentivized to pursue partisan agendas, it’s clear we as citizens have not done enough to encourage them to work together. Our votes give us the power to make them listen.

It’s time to end this back-and-forth on the filibuster and put governing back in the hands of the legislative branch.

Rather than pressure our elected leaders on a Senate mechanism, we should focus our energies on backing candidates committed to bipartisan solutions — members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, for example. Tools like the Common Ground Scorecard and the Bipartisan Index from the Lugar Center can help voters identify those candidates.

The best policies are those that include the input of multiple points of view, that won’t be reversed when there is a change in power, and that are representative of the majority of Americans. That requires bipartisan work and support. Until elected officials feel political pressure to work together, we will fail to make that kind of badly needed progress on the most pressing issues facing our nation, regardless of whether or not the filibuster exists.

The filibuster may have been created by accident, but it’s now become a favored tool of whichever party is in the minority. Its elimination will not end the dysfunction in Washington. That will only happen when we as citizens decide we’ve had enough of fighting and gridlock, and support politicians who put country over party.

– This article was originally published in Roll Call on August 25, 2021.

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Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground

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.

America needs vote-by-mail in November. Here’s why both parties can embrace it.

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.

Common Ground Committee featured on the TODAY Show & MSNBC Live

NBC anchor Craig Melvin shines a spotlight on Common Ground Committee, after moderating forum with Petraeus & Rice

Common Ground Committee had the pleasure of working with NBC news correspondent Craig Melvin, co-host of Today Third Hour and host of Craig Melvin Live on MSNBC, at our November 19th forum on Finding Common Ground on the New Cold WarMelvin, who served as moderator for the forum featuring General David E. Petraeus (US Army, Retired) and former Ambassador Susan Rice, talked with Al Roker, Dylan Dyer and Sheinelle Jones about his positive impressions during Today Third Hour on November 25th:

Melvin also interviewed CGC co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen on MSNBC Live about how Common Ground Committee works as a citizen-led initiative to inspire people to find common ground in a political world that has become polarized: