By Jessica Lieberman, Program Officer for American Institutions, Society, and the Public Good, and Zachey Kliger, Program Associate for American Institutions, Society, and the Public Good
When looking at American politics at the national level, it is easy to become cynical about the future of our democracy. High levels of polarization persist, and the headlines all too often are dominated by stories of government dysfunction.
Looking at the local level, however, reveals a very different picture. Cities and towns across the United States are taking steps to make government more responsive and to bring new, diverse voices into the decision-making process. In December 2022, the Academy hosted a three-day virtual conference, Reinventing Democracy: How Hometowns Are Strengthening America, to highlight and help build on these stories of democratic renewal.
Our Common Purpose at the Local Level
The conference stemmed from the Academy’s ongoing commitment to advance the recommendations in Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, the 2020 report of the Academy’s bipartisan Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. Our Common Purpose is premised on the idea that political institutions, civic culture, and civil society reinforce one another, and that reform is needed across all three to improve the health of our democracy. To that end, the report offers six broad strategies and thirty-one specific and actionable recommendations.
A great deal of the progress that has been made toward these recommendations has come from the local level, as communities across the country have adopted reforms like ranked choice voting, clean elections programs, participatory budgeting, and more. Inspired by these successes, the conference aimed to provide practical advice to local leaders interested in bringing the Our Common Purpose recommendations to their own communities.
Convening Local Leaders
In addition to keynote speeches from Judy Woodruff, anchor of PBS’s NewsHour, and Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University and cochair of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, the program featured six panel discussions. Each panel focused on a different set of recommendations and brought together subject-matter experts and local leaders with experience implementing the reforms.
The first panel looked at ranked choice voting (RCV) in local elections. In this increasingly popular system of voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated and votes for that person are allocated to the voter’s next choice. This process continues until a candidate earns more than 50 percent of the votes. As the Our Common Purpose report explains, “in the ranked-choice model, candidates have an incentive to speak to a broader group of voters. The result: more moderate candidates and campaigns, a more welcoming environment for third-party candidates, and greater confidence among voters that their votes are not being wasted or distorting the outcome.”
RCV has now been adopted in more than fifty jurisdictions across the country, and the panel reflected the broad range of communities that have implemented this reform. The panel included Kelleen Potter, the former mayor of Heber City, Utah, whose seventeen thousand residents used RCV for the first time in 2021, and Rosemond Pierre-Louis, who served as an Executive Board Member of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting in New York City. These panelists and other experts shared some practical advice for other communities considering adopting this reform.
On a later panel, local officials from Petaluma, California, and Durham, North Carolina, shared their cities’ successful programs to increase citizen participation. Since 2019, Durham has had a participatory budgeting program that has allowed residents to suggest and vote on projects that improve their community. Last year, Petaluma used a lottery-selected citizen panel to bring new perspectives into the decision-making process on a contentious issue involving the future of a key piece of property. Both programs are consistent with the recommendations in Strategy 3 of the Our Common Purpose report and have had far-reaching positive effects. “Local government needs to grab hold of the wonderful resources and the expertise in our community and run with it,” Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn remarked.
Other panels focused on adult civic learning and engagement, K–12 civic education, and local campaign finance reform programs such as “democracy vouchers” and public matching funds. The final panel explored the role of community groups and “civic infrastructure” – the local places, programs, and people that encourage all residents to interact, find common ground, and solve problems together–in creating a healthy local democracy.
The online audience included mayors, city councilors, and other local government officials from across the country, as well as scholars, advocates, and non-profit leaders. The conference was truly nationwide, with audience members joining from forty-three different states.
Several of the speakers stressed the importance of conversations like those featured at the conference. In her keynote speech, Judy Woodruff noted that “time and time again, we’ve seen that it’s at the local level where solutions bubble up, where people are tackling some of the toughest problems of our lives.” Pete Peterson, dean of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, who moderated the adult civic education panel, echoed this sentiment: “So often the discussions around civic learning and the state of our public square are focused on the national or federal level. To look at these issues at the local level, at the grassroots level, sometimes is lost. I’m so grateful to the Academy for organizing this event to really look at what’s happening at the local level.”
Launching the Our Common Purpose Communities Project
The conference also launched a new initiative: the Our Common Purpose Communities Project, which aims to connect communities committed to democratic reform to each other and to experts who can help advise and support their efforts. Lexington, Kentucky, is the first city to join this network. Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton announced that her city will work toward adopting two Our Common Purpose recommendations: 3.1 (Making Public Meetings More Accessible) and 6.5 (Investing in Civic Education). “We look forward to collaborating with the Academy and the OCP Champion community to continue to find new ways to enrich our democracy at the local level,” she said. The Our Common Purpose Communities Project, like the conference that launched it, is grounded in a recognition that local leaders will play a pivotal role in reinventing our democracy and that they deserve our attention and support.
For more information about the conference and the Our Common Purpose Communities Project, visit www.amacad.org/ourcommonpurpose.