Americans are increasingly frustrated by the inability of politicians in Washington to get things done. They see both parties engaging in partisan rhetoric rather than advancing solutions to common problems. While toxic partisanship plagues national politics, another narrative is playing out in communities and states throughout the nation, one with the potential to improve the political climate and the capacity for public problem solving. In many communities, elected officials and concerned community members are working across the aisle – or without regard to party – to respond to public concerns. And in many states, citizen leaders are working to change the system so officials can find common ground and forge compromises.
Read a summary of the 50 State Solution project
The Way Forward:
The 50 State Solution project sought to baseline some of these state-based efforts and convene citizen leaders to explore ways to encourage communication among reform groups for the purpose of catalyzing and accelerating change.
Overall, participants were optimistic that change was possible and even refused to accept the status quo. They endorsed the premise that they were more likely to succeed if they engaged with others to share lessons learned and promising strategies, emerging analysis and political opportunities.
This summary of the 50 State Solution convening in San Francisco on January 2017 is intended to inform future activities of a collective effort.
California Forward (CA Fwd) is a bipartisan governance reform organization advancing analysis and innovations to develop, enact and implement pragmatic solutions that grow jobs, promote cost-effective public services and create accountability for results. CA Fwd has worked for a decade to make political systems more responsive to the public interest, restore the ability of elected officials to solve problems, modernize the elections process and encourage ethical behavior.
CA Fwd has helped to develop, advocate for, and implement citizens’ redistricting, top-two primaries, term limit modification, budget process reform and legislative transparency.
Just as CA Fwd looked to its colleagues in other states for wisdom and inspiration, CA Fwd is frequently asked for its lessons learned. The 50 State Solution project was designed to identify ways to satisfy this thirst for shared knowledge.
The project was generously supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Thornburg Foundation and the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. Senior Fellow Chris Gates and Research Analyst Caitlin Maple lead and managed this project under the guidance of CA Fwd Leadership Council Co-chair Lenny Mendonca. This summary was prepared by intern Vincent Palumbo-Smith.
History of Project
The 50 State Solution was conceived in early 2016 by California Forward (CA Fwd) as a transpartisan effort to build supportive infrastructure--and a platform for sharing information and ideas--among those working on political reform at the state level. While CA Fwd served as the initiator and early catalyst of the effort, the vision for 50 State Solution was that it became an ongoing effort with shared leadership from the political reform community. The goal of the effort was explicitly not to make sure every organization is doing the same work or working on the same issue. Instead, the goal was create a learning community where reformers can share stories of success and failure, find allies, create coalitions and build community.
Within CA Fwd, the work of 50 State Solution was led by Lenny Mendonca, co-chair of the CA Fwd board of directors, Jim Mayer, president and CEO, Caitlin Maple, project director, and Ed Coghlan, communications director.
Chris Gates, a Senior Fellow with CA Fwd, has played a leadership role in the conception of this effort and the development of the project. Gates previously served as the head of the Sunlight Foundation, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement and the National Civic League.
CA Fwd has been a key player in helping identify and implement reforms that have made California a leader in governance reform. From citizens' redistricting to open primaries, California has transformed the way it’s governed itself in the last decade. What California learned can help inform state and local reform advocates across the country.
Work of 50 State Solution
The 50 State Solution had three major components, a state-by-state status document, an interactive website, and a convening held in early 2017.
The state-by-state status update, the "State of the Field" was built by CA Fwd and summarized how each state registers voters, conducts primaries and general elections, discloses campaign contributions, regulates campaign contributions and conducts redistricting.
In addition to summarizing how each state organizes and conducts its electoral process, the State of the Field resource tracked major reform efforts going on in each state. There is far too much going on all over the country for one organization to track all activity, but if the field can find a way to take this work on collectively, we can create a resource that will serve the work of all.
The 50 State Solution page served as the home of the State of the Field resource and serves several other purposes as well. It included a curated feed of political reform news from all across the country, is the home for a blog where activists and thought leaders can share their ideas and perspectives.
Finally, the 50 State Solution held a face-to-face convening in San Francisco in January 2017, where leaders of the state-based reform community came together and talk about how they can keep this effort moving forward and find ways to support and accelerate the innovative experiments that are taking place in every state in the nation.
Read a summary blog of the 50 State Solution convening: CA Fwd rallies political reformers from across the US around nationwide agenda for change
The convening was co-chaired by Leon Panetta, the former co-chair of CA Fwd and former Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, White House Chief of Staff and member of Congress, and Ashley Swearengin, the Mayor of Fresno and leading Republican in the state of California.
While CA Fwd served as the host and convener of this event, our hope that this will be the first of a series of annual or semi-annual meetings and that other organizations will step up in the future to convene this field and host this important conversation.
Why This Matters
While institutions in the nation’s capital are as gridlocked as ever, some progress is being made in states to re-engineer political procedures to reduce partisan stalemates and strengthen the connection between elected leaders and voters. Those reforms include independent redistricting and voting process reforms. Similarly, a growing number of diverse political actors are interested in finding ways to reduce campaign spending, which is increasing the influence of a few, distorting political discussions, and disaffecting voters.
As political conditions deteriorate nationally, the success of even modest reforms at the state and community levels becomes even more important. And it is essential to determine how to encourage, accelerate and strengthen them.
These reform efforts can only be considered experiments in “laboratories of democracy,” if there is a deliberate effort to assess and learn from individual efforts to inform and adapt solutions. Or to put it in the context of innovation, these developments can only be scaled in impact if the individuals and organizations involved learn from their failures and the failures of others, and build upon the success of others.
Our imperative is to “softly organize” an effort to distill learnings, replicate promising reforms, build relationships, create collaborative learning and systematically explore the horizons of additional reforms.