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Meet Jonathan Mehta Stein, Executive Director, Common Cause California

California Common Cause is dedicated to building a democracy that includes everyone. They work on voting rights, redistricting reform, government transparency, and money in politics to end structural inequities in our state and local democracies and to create governments at all levels that are accountable to and reflective of California's communities.

This interview has been truncated for length.

1. Common Cause is one of the most important good government organizations in the Bay Area. What brought you to the social justice work you do?

One of my first political memories is when my working Mom dropped us off at the Clinton-Gore campaign office in 1992 to stuff envelopes. I was 9 and my brother was 7. We didn’t know who Bill Clinton or Al Gore were but it really left us with an impression that even we could make a difference. Only later in life did I realize my mom, who is an Indian immigrant, was not a naturalized US citizen in 1992, so she couldn’t even vote in that election. We were just raised with a belief that we all had a role to play in our democracy and that everyone in our community should have a voice.

What brought me to my current work…. Read the rest of the interview here

….was the fact that I was a reporter for Mother Jones magazine covering the presidential election in 2008, the presidential transition, and the new Congress. Setting aside what you think of Barack Obama’s agenda -- at that time it had a broad popular mandate, and I watched as it ran headlong into the meat grinder that was the US Congress and all the institutional powers and special interests that had a chokehold on our legislative process. Campaign contributions from insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies made their opposition to the ACA equal to the support of hundreds of millions of Americans. I eventually decided I could no longer write about people trying to build a better democracy and needed to go and do that work myself.

2. You’ve been part of a new coalition called Democracy Dollars. What do you see as barriers as you try to bring awareness of this initiative to various diverse communities?

In a previous role as a voting rights attorney, I was doing voter registration and Get Out the Vote work at a day worker center in Santa Cruz. And one gentleman raised his hand and said he didn’t feel comfortable voting because no one had ever contacted him to give him information about what he would be voting on. I shared that other households, like mine and probably yours, are flooded with campaign information every election season. It really focused for me that our political system and our political parties target all of their engagement at some households and neighborhoods and none of it on other households and neighborhoods. Democracy Dollars is a way to make every household worthy of engagement and outreach, and as a result, a way to make everyone’s voice matter.

3. Let’s take a closer look at the Democracy Dollars idea which helps to amplify the voices of small donors. Can you talk about this a bit?

The Supreme Court has made it impossible to limit the influence of special interests and wealthy donors. But that doesn’t mean all solutions to the problem of money in politics are lost. We can use public financing strategies to amplify the voices of regular people and level the playing field. Seattle uses the Democracy Dollars system -- they send four $25 vouchers to every resident of the city, which can be donated to any candidate or campaign. It puts giving power in the hands of families, neighborhoods, and communities that would otherwise have none. The results have been dramatic: the program increases in the diversity of the donor pool, the candidate pool, and the number of small donors, and as well as increasing voter turnout among first-time voters. One candidate who was a long-time advocate for Seattle’s unhoused community used Democracy Dollarsfrom unhoused folks to run a credible campaign for city council. He didn’t win, but he elevated the issue. There is simply no way that would happen in any other circumstance.

Democracy Dollars have the power to democratize our local democracy and to make people feel like their voice matters. Our federal government is mired in gridlock and is incapable of promoting a healthy democracy right now, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. A better alternative is to turn our attention at the local level. If we do it at home, we can inspire a better democracy at the state level and then be a model to the nation.

4. Asian and Latinos have the lowest turnout in California and you’ve done work with the Asian Law Caucus. Are there distinctive issues with the Asian community?

Yes, there are a number of issues. First, data shows that the Asian American community does not vote as consistently as other groups and are not predictably a voting block for Democrats or Republicans, so political party outreach to our community is very low. Additionally, the Asian American community is very diverse and a very high percentage is foreign born. That means community members have to overcome language barriers and outreach needs to happen in a really wide range of languages.

5. How did you first come to know the League of Women Voters, especially here in Oakland?

Who doesn’t know the League of Women Voters! When I was on the Oakland Public Ethics Commission a few years ago there were League members on the Commission with me and League members who followed the Commission’s work closely. If you cared about a strong democracy and a healthy city government in Oakland, you were aligned with or working with the League. And as a voting rights attorney who works to pass legislation that increases access to voter registration and voting, I have partnered with the League in Sacramento repeatedly. They do great work there.

6. You are still relatively young so what community impact are you most proud of so far in your career?

I wrote sections of the California Elections Code that mandates language access for California’s limited-English speaking voters, which I’m enormously proud of. When I became head of the voting rights program at Asian Law Caucus, we ran poll monitoring programs and realized that counties were ignoring state language access laws. We also knew that the federal Voting Rights Act only ensured access for the largest language communities, and California has lots of smaller language communities that needed assistance as well. So we wrote a law called the California Voting for All Act expanding translation assistance for smaller language groups and ensuring access for a wider range of immigrant communities.


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