Getting Past Democracy's Boom-and-Bust Cycle

How some census "complete count committees" are turning into regional civic and economic development vehicles. Plus, the collapse of the For the People Act was predictable--now what?

Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau builds an enormous, temporary infrastructure to count America’s population, hiring several hundred thousand census takers to fan out across the country to knock on doors and focus on hard-to-count precincts. Going back to at least 1990, the bureau has also begun encouraging counties and cities to form local “complete count committees” (CCC) to help ensure that all residents would be educated about the importance of the census and motivated to take part. Such committees were urged to build a broad table of partners—government and community leaders from the business, education, healthcare, media, faith and philanthropic sectors—who could act as trusted messengers to their local residents. And to support these CCCs, the bureau hired more than 1,500 partnership specialists to liaise with and help them organize.

One of the people who helped run the bureau’s partnership specialist program for 2020, Karla Lopez del Rio, is now co-directing one of the most interesting civic infrastructure-building efforts I have come across in a while, the Census Legacies project. Gestated inside the CCC for the Inland Empire, the California region encompassing Riverside and San Bernandino counties’ 4.6 million residents, the project is working to re-purpose these local civic tables into ongoing broad-based bodies that work to ensure that historically undercounted communities have an equal voice in shaping their future. Housed at Center for Social Innovation at UC, Riverside, which is directed by Karthick Ramakrishnan, Census Legacies is still at an early stage. But it can already point to Inland Empire COVID-19 Response and Inland Empire RISE, as pilots of what is possible when a local civic table is organized around a broader set of goals. IE COVID-19 Response has held dozens of weekly community webinars throughout the pandemic to coordinate responses, share lessons learned across the region and bring together various constituencies. And Inland Empire RISE, which stands for Roadmap for an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy, has mapped a 2030 vision for the region that covers everything from racial justice to economic development, workforce development and transportation.

Here’s how Lopez del Rio described Census Legacies in a conversation we had a week ago: “Building more inclusive and equitable regions is the Census Legacies mission. We are growing a network of funders, nonprofits, businesses, government agencies and census coalitions from around the country to ensure that our communities have a voice.” Unlike other efforts that have tried to tackle pieces of the civic infrastructure problem, Census Legacies is trying for a holistic approach that is rooted locally and responsive to local communities’ priorities. To Lopez del Rio, civic infrastructure is “all of the organizational structures, networks, and friendships necessary for a well-functioning society.”

She says, “There are three key insights that we found from our work. First, trusted messengers are essential, particularly when the trust in government is low. Second, community input has to be inclusive. What's most important about these being inclusive tables is not just that they're having all these different sectors [represented…Having a] table of trusted messengers and then codesigning these solutions with community usually makes the infrastructure way stronger, more adaptable to the local needs, as well as the brings up the expertise and leverages the funding that we have with different partners and different pools of money.” Finally, she adds, “We are also trying to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle of community partnerships. There are several times throughout the inter-decennials where there are partnerships being built. You see it in get-the-vote-out efforts or get-the-count-out or [now with] vaccination campaigns, all of these have these relationships that boom and bust.” For building the type of inclusive civic infrastructure that Census Legacies envisions, the work needs to be year-round and focused on solving hard problems that go to the heart of inclusive economic development, like affordable childcare or opportunities for youth.

I don’t know whether Census Legacies is going to demonstrate more traction or fall victim to the boom-and-bust cycle of funding for civic engagement work. But I do think the idea of building on top of complete count committees has merit. In politically diverse areas like the Inland Empire, the CCC was, from its inception, broadly inclusive and co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat. It may be hopelessly idealistic to imagine that in today’s hyper-polarized political climate, people can agree to work together across the aisle. But as writers like James and Deb Fallows have been telling us for a while, below the national level, lots of cities and regions have been finding their own paths toward economic revival. So for my money, Census Legacies bears watching.

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Democracy, We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

I’ve been skeptical of the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) since early this year. As I wrote back in February, the omnibus bill felt overloaded and undersupported, with provisions covering everything from reducing gerrymandering and creating a new system of publicly financed matching funds to requiring all states to offer online voter registration, same day registration for federal elections, and heightened transparency for independent expenditures and lobbying. The bill was initially pulled together by House Democrats in 2018 as a “messaging bill” that they wanted to use as a wedge to run on, not necessarily as something that was meant to become law. So the weaknesses of the coalition behind it didn’t need to be addressed. But the problems with the drafters’ “everything and the kitchen sink” approach showed, most notably with provisions on election reform that were written with no apparent consultation with election administrators.

As one state-level election director in the Southeast, a Democrat, told Jessica Huseman of VoteBeat back in April, “If the law passes, I’ll follow it. But I can’t guarantee it’s not going to be a total clusterfuck the first election.” The bill “as drafted would make elections less secure by forcing states to rush gargantuan changes on deeply unrealistic time frames,” Huseman wrote. “The fixes needed are many and are doable, so it’s unacceptable that the authors of the Senate bill bypassed the chance to improve it.” But of course, if you know a bill isn’t going to make it into law, why bother making those fixes? Instead, grassroots Democrats have been urged to whip up support for the act as is, while Republicans at the state level have launched a much more targeted assault on voting rights and election administration. Why we needed such a broad bill and how it was supposed to get through a Republican filibuster was never explained. And now, as has been obvious from the beginning, the bill has been stopped in its tracks in the Senate, and the White House appears to be focusing instead on its multi-trillion-dollar spending bills.

I hate to say it, but I think this is what happens when self-styled political reformers and lawyers spend most of their time just talking to each other. From what I understand, much of the drafting of the For the People Act was led by Fred Wertheimer, a lawyer and lobbyist started working on these issues back in 1971 with Common Cause, which later served as president for 14 years. He is credited with leading its campaign to pass the 1972 Federal Election Campaign Act, which created the Federal Election Commission, and years later in 2002 he played a key role in the drafting and passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold), which mainly sought to close the soft money loophole. The political reform laws that Wertheimer and his colleagues have steered are always the products of intense internal maneuvering among a handful of well-connected advocates; unfortunately this doesn’t produce a strong base for change since the main people being engaged are lawyer-lobbyists and legislators. The For the People Act didn’t grow out of a grassroots movement for comprehensive political reform; it grew out of the head of a fifty-year veteran Washington player. (It’s telling that voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, who has been doing the hard work of grassroots organizing in Georgia for more than a decade, has signaled her support for a compromise on voting rights, by the way.)

Now, a top adviser to Reid Hoffman, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors, has done us all a favor by declaring that the emperor is naked. According to emails obtained by Politico’s Alex Thompson, Dmitri Mehlhorn, one of Hoffman’s lieutenants, told advisers to other megadonors that the push to pass the For the People Act was essentially a waste of valuable time. He wrote in one exchange, “I would love to have nonpartisan redistricting and automatic voter registration, but I have not heard a plausible path to getting that into law,” he wrote in one exchange, which took place on an informal thread involving many influential advisers. “[W]e can't remain silent forever as more and more donor meetings end up becoming exercises in unreality.” Of course, for people like Mehlhorn and Hoffman, the For the People Act’s provisions forcing more disclosure of their political spending might also be, shall we say, inconvenient.

Right now, what’s missing in the fight for democracy in America is clear message from the pro-democracy side that what is at stake is raw power. By lashing Democrats to an overstuffed and muddled bill, the sponsors of the For the People Act have gotten in their own way, putting advocates in the position of talking about process reforms instead of results. “Sell the cake, not the recipe,” as Anat Schenker-Osorio likes to say.

Odds and Ends

Tech VC Marc Andreesen has some smart things to say in this interview with Noah Smith (for example, about why “artificial intelligence” is a misnomer) but he also says some remarkably dumb things too, like this: “the West's technology champion, the United States, has decided to self-flagellate -- both political parties and their elected representatives are busily savaging the US technology industry every way they possibly can. Our public sector hates our private sector and wants to destroy it, while China's public sector works hand in glove with its private sector, because of course it does, it owns its private sector. At some point, we may wish to consider whether we should stop machine-gunning ourselves in the foot at the start of this quite important marathon.” (h/t Cyd Harrell)

-The House Judiciary Committee has passed a suite of bills aimed at curbing the power and heft of Big Tech, but this vital legislation is a long way from becoming law. And a lot of lobbying muscle, as outlined here by Shoshana Wodinsky in Gizmodo, is lined up against it.

-Higher Ground Labs has announced its 2021 investment cohort. Of greatest interest to me are Junto, which structures small-group video conversations for organizations, and Votus, which helps organizations identify and engage their supporters through one on one conversations across a variety of social networks.

-The Teamsters union is launching “the Amazon Project,” a major new organizing effort forcused on the giant company, Lauren Kaori Gurley reports for Vice.

-Serial civic tech whiz Erie Meyer has been named the Federal Trade Commission’s chief technologist, The Information’s Josh Sisco reports. (h/t Nancy Scola)

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