News: Renewing the Cause

Common Cause president pushes for election overhaul

 
Emily Maxwell


Bob Edgar hopes that legislatures in 12-14 key states help him change how the Electoral College selects presidents.



Bob Edgar wants to change how the United States elects its president. That's just one of the goals that Edgar — a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania — has championed since he became president and CEO of Common Cause last spring.

Founded in 1970, Common Cause is a nonprofit advocacy group (www.commoncause.org) that works to make government and political institutions more open and accountable to citizens. The organization is best known for its efforts at campaign finance reform. In 1974 it led the push to pass the Federal Election Campaign Act, which created the system of public financing in presidential campaigns still in use today.

Since the late 1980s, however, the organization has floundered somewhat as other progressive groups moved to the fore. The age of Internet organizing and fund-raising has also reshaped how effective movements operate.

Those trends are why Common Cause's board of directors turned to Edgar for help. A former Methodist minister who also was general secretary for the National Council of Churches, he quickly began streamlining and modernizing the organization.

When he took the CEO job, Common Cause hadn't had a balanced budget in eight years.

Edgar put the group back in black within seven months.

Now he's traveling across the nation to help revive some of Common Cause's state chapters that had fallen on hard times, including Ohio's. He was in Cincinnati April 24.

"We're trying to lift Common Cause to scale, to re-energize it, renew it and reinvigorate it, and Ohio is very important in that process," Edgar says. "You only have to go back to the '04 (presidential) election to see the challenges and mistakes that have been made. We're actually very pleased with the secretary of state here (Jennifer Brunner), who decertified (voting) machines that did not have the ability to be audited and made recounts very difficult."

Common Cause describes itself as "trans-partisan" and has about 300,000 members nationwide. Edgar is refining the organization's mission and including as its primary goals increasing public financing of political campaigns and converting to a system that allows for the national popular vote to determine the winner in presidential races, not the Electoral College, as well as continuing to push for ethics and lobbying reforms.

The organization is spearheading the effort to have individual state legislatures enact identical laws that would mandate its electors to the Electoral College cast their votes for whomever wins the popular vote nationwide in presidential elections. Common Cause believes this would better reflect the will of voters and help regain power for the politically disenfranchised.

"It doesn't technically get rid of the Electoral College, which would take a constitutional amendment," Edgar says. "We're in favor of an interstate compact that would provide — when enough states passed the identical language — a mandate that their electors will only support the person who wins the national popular vote."

Three states have already enacted such legislation: Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland. The exact number of states needed depends on the size of the states and how many electors each one has to get to the threshold, probably between 12 to 14 states.

"When we have 271 electors in that combination of states, we will have changed the system," he says. "The Founding Fathers and Mothers did not dictate in the Constitution how the Electoral College was to work; they gave that up to the states. In fact, we've had a number of different systems over the years, evolving into the current system."

Many medium-sized states are interested in the concept, partially because presidential candidates often overlook them. In the 2004 presidential election, Ohio — an important Electoral College battleground — got 66 visits by presidential candidates in the general election campaign, while Illinois received none.

"Illinois had zero because it's not a battleground state," Edgar says. "Why would a candidate go there? People don't understand that as soon as the conventions are over this year, only those states that are battleground states will be in play.

"Consider this scenario: Suppose Sen. McCain wins the Electoral College vote but either Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama wins the popular vote by 5 or 10 million votes, and then wins those votes by young people and people of color. We will have, at a minimum, an angry nation and we could have a nation similar to the 1960s. I think young people, persons of color and women think their votes should count."

There was a push for electoral reform after the disputed 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, but it sputtered out. The momentum has grown again recently, Edgar says.

Ideally, Common Cause would like the conversion completed by the 2012 presidential election.

"It's difficult," he says. "This nation is rarely led by the top. It's led by the bottom up, by the push from average, ordinary people. That's the beauty of democracy, but it's also the challenge. Keeping people's attention on issues of process is hard.

"For example, everyone thinks that health care will be dealt with next year. I'm trying to convince those movements for health care (reform) that they've got to work on some of the process issues to get public officials elected who are going to look at the health issue from the perspective of what's in the best interest of all the citizens and not just the pharmaceutical companies and the medical industry. We saw that happen a few years ago with the prescription drug bill."

Many of the same issues that affected the nation when Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient John Gardner formed Common Cause 38 years ago still exist today — they've merely changed form.

"On Aug. 18, 1970, he sent out his first press release," says Edgar. "He said the primary purpose of the organization was to address poverty and racism and to work to improve the quality of our public education and our health care. I think many people across the country are really quite frustrated that Democrats and Republicans can't work together on these issues, that the system is broken and that partisanship is so ingrained into our system."

Edgar says that Common Cause is needed now more than ever.

"Sen. Obama, Sen. Clinton and Sen. McCain are riding the crest of a melody that they did not create, and that is dissatisfaction from both Democrats and Republicans," he says. "Most people don't wear their political hats that strongly, and they wonder why we can't address health care and global warming, why we're a nation that is known for torture, secret prisons and secret detentions." ©

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