Common Cause pushes for change

By Leslie Williams

RALEIGH, N.C. — Legislative accountability and multiple reform proposals facing state lawmakers are keeping Common Cause North Carolina busy.

With the mission of improving government accountability and efficacy, the group is focusing of issues that lawmakers and advocates have been pushing.

The Raleigh-based nonprofit is calling for less-costly political campaigns, fairly-drawn congressional districts, same-day voter registration, easier access to ballots for third-party candidates and continued improvement of lobbying and ethics laws.

Josh Glasser, the field coordinator for Common Cause North Carolina, an affiliate of Washington, D.C.-based Common Cause, singled out the transparency of ethics hearings as a key concern.

Over the last month, editorials in The News & Observer in Raleigh, The Charlotte Observer and the Winston-Salem Journal have called on lawmakers to open meetings of the State Ethics Commission to the public and news media.

Historically, those meetings have been open to the public, but when lawmakers passed lobbying reforms last year, the doors were closed.

The News & Observer called the move “self-serving,” and Glasser says legislators are doing the public a disservice by skirting the old method of closing meetings only after establishing probable cause.

In a move to emulate a system already in place for judicial races, Common Cause also is looking to establish a public-financing alternative for executive and legislative races.

The current judicial-election system allots up to $4,000 to each candidate with the requirement that candidates not seek funding from other sources.

It also provides emergency funds to candidates whose opponents opt out of the system and raise large sums of money.

Glasser says most government officials, such as members of the N.C. Industrial Commission, often must stump for funding among people they are meant to regulate.

“With judges, the problem was the only folks spending money on campaigns were lawyers and people who had business in the courts,” Glasser says. “It just creates a system where it’s somewhat pay-to-play.”

North Carolina was one of the first states to institute a public-financing alternative for judges, but the change was recent one, with only two election cycles under the new system.

However, Glasser says, the successes of the system have been notable thus far.

Out of the 28 judges who have run with public funds in the last two elections, 20 won their races.

In a guest opinion column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, North Carolina Appeals Court Judge Wanda Bryant attributed her 2004 victory to the public financing option.

“I chose to run under the new public financing system because the system is such that I could focus on talking with voters about my legal experience and qualifications instead of spending countless hours dialing for dollars,” she wrote.

Common Cause also is focusing on passing a same-day voter registration bill into state law.

The measure passed the House, and Glasser says Common Cause believes it has a “reasonable chance” of making it in the Senate.

Same-day registration has been a boon to voter turnout in other states where it was instituted, Glasser says.

While Common Cause North Carolina has some ambitious policy items on its agenda, it is also working to bolster its existing membership and engage new activists in the fight for government accountability.

Glasser says much of that work is under way on college campuses, where an important subset of voters is just waiting to be mobilized.

Common Cause North Carolina is a grantee of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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