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Opinion

Don’t Let A Divisive Media Narrative Diminish Hope for a Better Republic

I have had the distinct honor of covering the nonpartisan reform space for the last seven years. In that time, I have seen it only build considerable momentum — and garner one historic victory after another.

These victories come despite a mainstream political media narrative that is divisive, hyperbolic, and gives the loudest megaphones to those who wish to keep the United States trapped in a perpetual partisan war between the “Right” and “Left.”

Nonpartisan reform efforts have, for the most part, flown under the national media’s radar because they do not serve an industry model that has long embraced treating politics as a spectator sport. These efforts are an antithesis to a false portrayal that the US is hopelessly divided, and if the wrong side wins it will be the end of the Republic as we know it.

Nonpartisan reform is about giving voters hope — hope for a meaningful voice in the process, hope for more choice and greater competition in elections, and hope for a political process that puts the will of voters above all else. 

The national political narrative, however, robs voters of such hope for a better way. Everything must be focused through a red or blue tinted lens, and people are expected to just pick a side.

The inability to make inroads with mainstream media outlets has been an ongoing frustration among many reformers. Yet, despite the absence of national coverage, nonpartisan reformers persevere:

Reformers had the biggest year in half a century during the 2018 midterms for pro-voter political reform, and are taking momentum from the midterms and 2019 successes into 2020.

At the foundation of reformers’ success is a steadfast commitment by individuals who believe in a path to a better democratic process for all voters, not just private political organizations and their members or special/moneyed interests.

Reformers have worked diligently to reach out directly to voters on the ground and online — speaking to the voters who largely feel unrepresented at the ballot box, in the legislative process, and the national political conversation.

Through targeted messaging campaigns, reformers control their own narrative, which would be extremely difficult in a cable news environment that would immediately turn it into a two-sided debate over which side benefits. This would diminish the goals of reformers considerably.

The point of nonpartisan reform is not to be anti-party, but it is also not about giving one group of individuals an exclusive advantage in the process. It is about empowering every single voter when they go to the ballot box.

This message resonates with an electorate frustrated and disillusioned with the political status quo that denies them meaningful choice and competition. And the results speak for themselves:

  • The nation’s largest city passed ranked choice voting in November 2019.
  • Maine not only approved the use of ranked choice voting at the ballot box twice, but used it for the first time in the 2018 midterms for state and non-presidential federal elections. Its legislature expanded the use of ranked choice voting in presidential elections in August 2019.
  • Another alternative voting method, Approval Voting, had a historic victory in 2018 when Fargo voters approved its use for local elections -- the first city to do so. Now, an overwhelming majority of St. Louis voters polled say they would vote for the reform.
  • 5 states approved anti-gerrymandering reforms in 2018, 4 at the ballot box and most with overwhelming support despite court challenges and opposition from partisan and moneyed interest groups.
  • Nearly two dozen anti-corruption proposals were approved by voters at the local or state level across the country.
  • Polls show majority support for nonpartisan reforms across the board throughout the US.

Voters clearly want change, and the victories above are only the tip of the iceberg. In the 7 years I have reported on nonpartisan reform, I have never seen so much momentum to carry these efforts forward to 2020 and beyond.

This is not to say, however, that building relationships in the press and gaining coverage is not important. Nonpartisan reformers are, in fact, scoring media victories where it matters most to their goals.

Ahead of the overwhelming victory for ranked choice voting in New York City in November, for instance, the New York Times endorsed the initiative. That is a major victory for nonpartisan reform — and builds on the status and prominence these efforts have in the public eye.

The same thing happened in Maine. The same thing is happening in Massachusetts and Florida and St. Louis and everywhere nonpartisan reform is being proposed to give everyone a better electoral and political process.

Media victories where reforms have been proposed are the victories that have mattered most, because as coverage builds in more localized media markets -- particularly big markets (like NYC, for example) -- it becomes harder for national networks and news platforms to ignore these efforts.

Like fixing the myriad of problems that plague the US political process, changing a media culture that thrives on division and political warfare between two sides is a process, and will require a “bottom-up” approach. But with each victory, reformers chip away at the false notion that we are stuck with what we got.

Meanwhile, more and more voters are taking notice, and public support for nonpartisan reforms across the board grows. Never has there been a time for greater optimism in the future of reform and unrigging the US political process.

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