Common Cause

April 16, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
October 10, 2018 Isadora
September 30, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
September 26, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby

Common Cause is a network of democracy experts, building public engagement and effective citizen participation through a combination of grassroots organizing, coalition building, research, policy development, public education, lobbying and litigation to win reform.

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Mission and Purpose

Common Causes's tagline is "holding power accountable" and its stated mission is to "work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process."

Origins and Development 

Founded in 1970 by John W. Gardner, a Republican Secretary of Health Education, and Welfare in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson as well as chair of the National Urban Coalition, it has been characterized as an advocacy group for minorities and the working poor in urban areas (Chapman and Ciment); it started with 4,000 core members to serve as a people's lobby,  and now boasts over a million members and supporters spread out between 30 states and Washington D.C.

Before the 1990s, the group was known for efforts to end the Vietnam War and lowering the voting age to 18, from 21. Its 1970s Colorado branch pioneered the campaign for state legislation as the nation’s first open meetings law, which passed in 1972 (Colorado Sunshine Law for open meetings). Since then, nearly every state — sometimes with Common Cause leadership— has passed laws that guarantee the people’s access to public records, require legislative hearings be open to the public, and bring more transparency to government budgets and spending.

Post-1990s (using the Wayback Machine internet archiving website, the first snapshot at December 1996) the emphasis had shifted towards the role of money in politics. The 1996 newsletter has an action alert highlighting campaign financing corruption in fundraising, soft money from special interests and a call for action targeting Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott from Mississippi via fax to shape the 1997 agenda on campaign finance reform after the group highlighted the Republican's $7.3 million "soft money" fundraising ranging from Fruit of the Loom to the NRA in the first four months of 1995. The focus on accountability for money in politics has been bipartisan, as demonstrated by a call in 1997 for Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate President Clinton's meeting with a Thai campaign contribution which led to the return of over a quarter million dollars given to the Democratic National Committee.

Continued focus on corrosive effect of money in American politics is patent when looking at the distribution of specialization and activities of their current work twenty years later, which regained traction after the 2010 US Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC.

Organizational Structure, Membership, and Funding

Common Cause is a 501(c)(4) non-partisan nonprofit, which relies on tax-deductible contribution to an organization in their state network, membership services and recurring monthly contribution to the Education Fund planned giving through estate, bequest, a retirement account or life insurance beneficiary; stock and securities gifts, and memorial or tribute gifts on behalf of another person.

Financials for it and its education fund are made publically available on its website. Total revenue for 2017 is reported at $17,039,285 (~13.94 million from contributions), while expenses ran at $15,361,092; compared to $14,712,392 (~12.19 contributions) revenue and $14,590,280 expenses in 2016, and $15,168,101 (~11.96 contributions) and $15,392,595 expenses in 2015.

A grant from the WhyNot Initiative sponsored Common Cause's 2016 fourth annual conference in DC, "Blueprint for a Great Democracy Conference".

Common Cause has chapters in 30 states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Specializations, Methods and Tools

The organization's efforts run on the national and state-level, the latter of which are coordinated by local state chapters of which there are 30. They use a variety of methods and tools to accomplish their work include grassroots organizing, coalition building, research, policy development, public education, lobbying and litigation to win reform at all levels of government. 

Through the network, Common Cause has established a non-profit affiliate for public education, engagement, and research called the Education Fund. It uses grants and tax-deductible contributions to build public engagement on democracy issues and promote the effective citizen participation critical for a healthy, robust democratic society. The organization also provides an 'election-reminder service' to individuals who supply their residence and contact information. 

Major Projects and Events

Its most prominent projects are run through state-chapters (as a function of the federal electoral system) for citizen-funded elections campaigns [see the Campaign finance in Money and Influence section]: a large focus of the organization which influence its other work on issues like vote integrity and media. 

Common Cause divides their efforts into six main axis of work:

1. Ethics and Accountability

Common Cause uses several tactics to hold politicians accountable to ethical standards so they serve the people, not themselves; campaigns are divided by government branches (legislative, executive, and judicial).

Legislative ethics

Mobilization of activists led to the House of Representatives' creation of an independent watchdog, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), in 2007, and to the passage of the Freedom of Information laws, the STOCK Act that prohibits legislators from profiting from insider information.

Executive ethics

Currently running a petition campaign under their Executive Ethics module, for Congress to pass the MAR-A-LAGO Act, which would make public visitor logs from the White House and anywhere else the President regularly conducts business, like the Florida estate that lends its name to the bill, as a way of holding President Trump accountable for reversing the Obama policy of publishing visitor logs through legislation. Another initiative under the banner of 'Executive ethics' is the organization's report on the state of the Domestic and Foreign Emoluments Clauses.

Judicial ethics

 Successful focus on the role of money in judicial politics, especially for elected judges' political spending to be disclosed. Efforts by Common Cause to enforce the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which requires all federal judges to disclose their spouse's employer led Supreme Court Justice (unelected) Clarence Thomas to amend 20 years worth of financial statements and to disclose his wife, Ginni Thomas, as a paid Tea Party activist with the Liberty Central political education group.

2. Money and Influence

The Education Fund produces research and reports to document the influence of money in the political process, public education campaigns [targeting candidates or voters? Track record?] on the power of small-dollar donors.

Common Cause has identified campaign finance law violations and file complaints with the FEC, including a complaint against Kid Rock's false Senate run where he collected campaign contributions without registering, Walmart's use of illegal methods to persuade employees to donate to its PAC by using Walmart-charity donations filed alongside Public Citizen and the Our Walmart union, and complaints related to the 2016 election related to Russian interference, but their most high profile complaint is the January 2018 filing with the Department of Justice and the FEC about Michael Cohen's in-kind campaign contribution to Stephanie Clifford to avoid disclosures of then candidate-Trump's affair with her. In response to the Common Cause complaint, Cohen admitted to facilitating the payments in February 2018 and set off a criminal investigation of Cohen with the DOJ.

Corporate accountability

Common Cause joined the Corporate Reform Coalition in response to the 2010 Citizens United US Supreme Court case. Their goals are focused on a 3-pronged strategy: advocating for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to adopt a rule that would require publicly-traded companies to disclose direct and indirect political spending; supporting efforts by shareholders and investors to pass shareholder resolutions that require companies to publicly disclose their campaign and lobbying spending; and working in the states to pass disclosure and shareholder rights laws.

Common Cause worked on the California DISCLOSE Act, signed by Gov. Brown in 2017 requires the three largest funders of political ads to be clearly identified at the beginning of ads (TV, radio, print, and online ads) for ballot campaigns and independent expenditures.  Similar disclosure laws have been passed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Maryland, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, and Delaware with the help of Common Cause. It is also supporting a Santa Monica initiative for transparency in the ballot initiatives (SB 651) to disclose the top 3 funders and committee name of any petition on the petition or a separate document.


Common Cause works on lobbying laws that require strong disclosure and registration rules for lobbyists at both the state and federal level and stopping the revolving door. It has been instrumental in pushing key lobbying reforms through Congress, including the Lobbying Disclosure Act and the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which provided increased transparency for the American public and extended the “cooling off” period for former public officials before they can lobby their former colleagues (2 years).

One area of focus is ALEC. Using a whistleblower complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, Common Cause has presented evidence against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group that represents the largest corporations in the US, which crafts model legislations, pays for legislator expenses to go to ALEC conferences where representatives are lobbied and then campaign-financed to pass ALEC-written legislation on taxes and budgets, climate change and the environment, workers’ rights and collective bargaining, healthcare, telecommunications policy, election laws, and education. It charges that ALEC has violated its tax-exempt status by operating as a lobby while claiming to be a charity.

Campaign finance reform through citizen funded elections

campaigns at the state and local levels to pass and improve citizen funded election programs, including in Connecticut; Arizona; Maine; New York City; Los Angeles, CA; Montgomery County, MD; Howard County, MD; Suffolk County, NY; Berkeley, CA; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Santa Fe, NM; Albuquerque, NM; and Washington, DC, and has supported the introduction of federal bills in Congress to create a public campaign finance system based on matching donations, like the Government By The People Act and the Fair Elections Now Act.

Connecticut: spearheaded the Citizens’ Election Program (2005) which uses small-dollar donors and allowing people of modest means to seek and win public office to diversify representation in Hartford's legislature. The program lets anyone running for office apply for a grant of public funds after running a minimum amount of contributions, ranging from 5,000 total for state representative offices to 250,000 for governor. The amount of money received will depend on the stage of election, whether candidates are running unopposed, or opposed by a small party candidate, and the percent of votes cast for a small party in the previous election if running as a minor-party. In the 13 years it has been in use, it has allowed candidates for the state Senate, House, and constitutional offices to run without the need for large-donor contributions.

Oregon: with the help of Common Cause, which brought together in a coalition of more than 30 organizations called A Voice for All Portland, the representatives of the City of Portland council launched an opt in Small Donor Election Program for candidates of the 2020 election who agree not to take contributions over $250. In exchange, the first $50 of a contribution is matched by 6x public funding.

Maryland: citizen-funded elections at the county level started in 2014 in Montgomery, then 2017 with the Howard county setting up a program for the 2022 election, and Prince George county is working with Common Cause on an ongoing project; at the gubernatorial level the 2014 election used at he Fair Campaign Finance Fund. Work has also been conducted through the Fair Elections Maryland coalition.

Los Angeles, California: active campaign, two primary goals for public financing reform are reducing elected officials' dependence on outside interest's money and allowing people without personal wealth or access to donors but strong community ties to run for office. Working with the  LA City Ethics Commission, the program matches constituents' small dollar donations with public money, which means candidates have a bigger incentive to spend time with their constituents to incentivize donations, in turn voters feel greater ownership over local elections, and are more likely to participate in elections. Their current campaign supports the LA Ethics Commission's recommendations to increase fund rates to a 6:1 ratio and raising maximum fund allotments for specific primary and general election.

Strengthening accountability institutions like the Federal Election Commission (FEC), so that it has the power to decide cases and enforce punishments independently, without having to go to court, to stop illegal political activities when issues are raised before elections, instead of retroactive accountability years afterwards; has also worked to push the Department of Justice and other federal agencies to enforce electoral laws so the campaign finance system has a cop on the beat.

Repealing Citizens United through a Constitutional Amendment: as a response to the 2010 Citizens United judicial decision that allows interest groups unlimited spending on elections, Common Cause has joined partner organizations to amend the US constitution with an amendment, Democracy for All. A vote was carried out in 2014 in the Senate but a Republican filibuster blocked it.

Disclosure and transparency: Federally, Common Cause is currently working on disclosure legislative and executive/administrative reforms that echo state laws and initiatives that have successfully passed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Montana, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, like: the DISCLOSE Act and Honest Ads Act; petitioning the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to approve a new rule governing secret money groups that abuse the tax law; advocating for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to adopt a rule requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending to shareholders; pushing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to approve new rules for broadcasters that increase transparency on political advertisements; petitioning the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to strengthen and enforce disclosure rules; urging the President of the United States to sign an executive order requiring federal government contractors to disclose their political spending.

3. Gerrymandering and Representation

Common Cause Education Fund is engaged in key court cases with national implications: Common Cause v. Rucho (North Carolina), Gill v. Whitford (Wisconsin), and Benisek v. Lamone (Maryland).

In Michigan, Common Cause filed an amicus brief with former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) after having led the effort to create a citizen redistricting commission in California and other states, in order to support the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative, which was under review by the Michigan Supreme Court  following a well-funded special interests lawsuit to keep the initiative off the November 2018 ballot. In August 1st, the Michigan SC voted 4-3 to reject that lawsuit, meaning the state voters will vote on whether to change redistricting powers by stripping state legislators of their power (which often leads to political gerrymandering) in favor of an independent citizen redistricting commission who would draw the U.S. House and state legislative districts after each decennial census. Colorado, Missouri and Utah – are also looking to the November 2018 ballot to approve proposed redistricting reforms; Ohio approved reforms in May 2018.

4. Voting and Elections

Expansion of voting rights and election integrity through several initiatives.

National Popular Vote drive

To avoid presidential candidates winning the electoral college without having won the popular vote, as two of the last five presidential elections, and to create campaigns that are more responsive to all Americans instead of swing states, Common Cause is lobbying for a states to  join the National Popular Vote Compact, so they allocate their votes according to the national popular vote winner instead of the state winner, which means no constitutional amendment would be necessary. Washington, California, Illinois, Maryland, New jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont, Hawaii, and DC, have joined the compact.

Protection of the right to vote

After the 2013 Supreme Court revisal of the Voting Rights Act, Common Cause is pushing for the adoption of the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) would restore the VRA’s critical voting protections, and to fight back on 20 states' recent voting restrictions (cutting early voting, strict voter ID requirements, rolling back reforms).

Voter registration modernization:

implementation of four methods that increase turnout: automatic voter registration through motor vehicle agencies that keep systems up-to-date, same day registration during election day, registration online through secure government websites, and pre-registration of high school students which is automatically activated when they turn 18. Because voting is organized by states, Common Cause has worked with 13 states on adopting Automatic Voter Registration that reaches voters despite their party preference. The 2017 report by the US Election Assistance Commission documented how after Oregon's automatic voter registration law passed, there was a 12% increase in registered voters, Vermont's added more than 12,000 voters in the first six months after passing in 2017, almost double the amount in the previous (election) year.

Election Protection:

Common Cause mobilizes volunteers to be on the ground to be poll monitors, and teams of legal experts on a hotline that fights back against voter suppression and illegal intimidation practices. Patterns and practices are studied and brought to the attention of administrators to preempt their repetition and to diffuse hotly contested races where confusion and complications may be more likely. Monitors also help inform voters in real time.

Election integrity:

Common Cause delineates risk-limiting practices that protect from cyber-attacks and ensure accurate, secure, and fair elections against domestic and foreign vote-counting hacks through upgrading technology against old and outdated voting machines, and returning to paper ballots in every state, post-election audit of ballots, paper back-ups of voter registration databases and electronic voter rolls. Publication of a state-by-state assessment and state-of-technology of online voting and its points of vulnerability (see publications, The Secret Ballot at Risk).

In 2018 it, along with the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, the National Election Defense Coalition, and Verified Voting published a toolkit for advocates and election officials to put to use the $380 million Congress approved for administration officials' election technology and electoral security. Replacement of machines that do not retain paper records (direct-recording electronic machines that store records directly onto the computer memory) for recounts and audits must be replaced immediately with voter-marked paper ballots (VVPATs) to follow best practices for post-election audits, replacement of machines where the vendor cannot service the original software or where machines are no longer manufactured and thus any hardware malfunctioning  cannot be replaced unless parts are found by third party unregulated vendors. 33 states reported equipment must be replaced by 2020 and 22 of these states do not have the funds to do so. The toolkit places emphasis on the need for systems that allow for secure post-election audits which are ensured by voter-marked paper ballots, and that voting equipment not have wifi capability.

Finally, Common Cause has made a political argument that candidates who win within a framework of insecure voting machines must put country over party and secure voting machines as part of a paradigm shift which echoes the Netherlands, France, Britain and Germany's rejection of machine counting of votes.

5. Media and Democracy

promotion of free speech and accountability in the media through the Common Cause Education Fund, working towards protecting an open internet against media monopoly consolidation, for affordable high-speed internet access. Currently, it is running a campaign in California for the Social Media disclosure act (AB 2188) as a follow up to their supported California Disclosure Act (passed with support from Common Cause, signed by Governor Brown in 2017), requires all online social media platforms to include "who funded this ad" information on sponsored posts, which will list the top three funders of the ad, disclosing advertisement and public information on political ad funding on social media.

On net neutrality, Common Cause has Michael Copps, former FCC commissioner during the W. Bush administration and acting Chairman during the first six months of the Obama Presidency, as special advisor.

Successful efforts for net neutrality

In Oregon, Common Cause helped the state pass a net neutrality bill that requires state and local governments to do business only with ISPs that observe net neutrality protections, which was signed into law by Governor Kate Brown in April and kicked in in June, although their law is less restrictive than Washington state's. Oregon has led states rights causes in the matter of net neutrality, being the first to unexpectedly pass their bill, with overwhelming public support.

New York, the Common Cause chapter joined advocacy groups in 2014 to oppose the Comcast-Time Warner merger, and the Public Service Commission rejected the deal.


In California, they are supporting SB 822, which mandates net neutrality in the State, and prohibits state agencies from using or funding ISPs who violate net neutrality principles, and has been called the "gold standard" of net neutrality for its stringent protections.

Colorado: informal (no concrete legislation in the works) congressional lobbying to reinstate net neutrality protections. Common Cause Colorado also works on high-speed internet access, has informal efforts to combat the 2005 state act that restricts communal and municipal networks by requiring a ballot initiative at a cost to municipalities.

New York: fighting the FCC so that New York can enforce its own open internet rules given the FCC's reversal, and supporting federal efforts to use the Congressional Review Act to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality rules.

Other NY efforts: Common Cause has an informal effort for closing the digital access divide, especially in rural areas, poor urban neighborhoods and tribal land, but particular initiatives are not explicit. They are, however, fighting the monopoly power or telecommunication companies by forming a coalition with the Consumer's Union under the Waiting4FiOS campaign which calls for and aggregates consumer interactions with Verizon in order to pressure them to complete building their Fiber Optic Service as per its 2008 NYC franchise agreement, to sign a petition for the NY city council, and to attend official public forums.

Rhode Island has an informal axis for net neutrality but no concrete plan of action at the state or state-to-federal level.

No explicit effort on Media and Democracy in general, nor net neutrality specifically: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

6. Constitution, Courts and other Democracy Issues:

Rejecting an Article V Constitutional Convention:

Common Cause is ringing the alarm against the constitutional convention that wealthy special interests (ALEC and the Koch brothers' organizations) are pushing to convene for a constitutional convention to adopt a "balanced budget amendment" as a means of forcing cuts to the social safety net, as documented by historian MacLean (video interview); and 28 of the necessary 34 states have passed resolutions calling for it to occur. The other proposed amendments, commonly known as the "Liberty Amendments" include: repealing the 17th Amendment (popular election of the Senate, in favor of a return to state legislature-elected Senators because state legislatures can be captured by special interests more easily and cheaply), subjecting federal departments to periodic reauthorization and review (which further politicizes their regulatory work), imposing term limits for Supreme Court Justices and restricting judicial review (which also politicizes the courts), creating a more specific definition of Article I, section 8, Clause 3 (known as the Commerce Clause), limiting eminent domain powers, allow states to bypass Congress more flexible by making the adoption of Constitutional amendments easier, including the reintroduction of the concept of nullification of federal laws by states by creating a process where 2/3 of states can nullify federal acts, and requiring photo ID and limiting early voting. 

Fair Courts:

advocacy for a transparent and fair process in selecting judges (additional information on specific campaigns is not available on their website).

Legislative gridlock relief:

Previous successes have included Senate reforms on silent filibuster rules, transparency in the legislative process, its budget and spending; advocating for no special interest giveaways in budgeting, scrutiny over hearings and processes to screen unqualified presidential nominees to the judicial or executive branches.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Want to contribute an analysis of this organization? Help us complete this section!


Common Cause's resource section includes coalition statements, court filings where Common Cause is suing, presenting a complaint, or presenting an amicus brief. It also presents original research and reports (whether as a single or co-author), with their archive going back to 2012, plus one report from 2008 on voting rights and election integrity.

Selected publication highlights (not a comprehensive list):

ALEC in Louisiana, 2018, traces how members of the Louisiana legislature with ties to ALEC have voted, and documents the tax-abuses of ALEC.

Power Shift makes the case for federal campaign finance in light of the NRA's influence on the Legislative branch, and lists top recipients since 1989 in both chambers.

State of the Swamp [part of the Executive Ethics campaign]: a review of conflicts of interest and ethical challenges of President Trump’s first 100 days in office in a report.

Municipal Democracy Index is a comprehensive survey of the governance, election, and campaign finance practices of all 482 California cities published in 2016. Highlight findings: The 2015 California Voter Participation Rights Act, prohibits cities from holding off-cycle elections if it results in turnout that is 25% lower than state elections: as a result, 31 additional cities have passed laws to on-cycle elections, many in just the past few months. Also as a result of recent legal changes (the California Voting Rights Act of 2001) and ensuing civil rights litigation, many large cities have changed their election system from at-large (city wide  election) to by-district council election. Compounded with this this change, by-district systems review their district map boundaries to ensure substantially equal population representation every ten years, and eight charter cities (prevalent in big cities) have established independent redistricting commissions which are non-partisan [key findings direct linkfull report link].

The Secret Ballot at Risk: coauthored by Verified Voting Foundation, EPIC Electronic Privacy Information Center and Common Cause, the Secret Ballot at Risk Report finds that given current technological standards, letting states transmit ballots online, which is allowed in 44 states, and statutory provisions in the other 6, erodes state-constitutionally protected secret ballot rights which conflict with 32 state's practices given current technological limitations. Alaska makes explicit a warning when voting online that the risk of a faulty transmission may occur explicit on absentee ballots. While risks are addressed, Common Cause is asking states to present alternatives for verifying ballots with privacy envelopes when mailing the ballot, and to use printed ballots mailed or deposited in safe election office drop-boxes. In an editorial, the organization also advocates for quarantining all ballots received through the internet since a voter's computer integrity cannot be known. These ballots should be assumed to contain malware and results from them should be manually added these tallies instead of introducing them into the system.

See Also


Voter Information Services

Community Organizing


Roger Chapman, James Ciment 2014. Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints and Voices. Routledge

External Links


Two attempts to contact the organization for further background and documentation of their history were made by Isadora Borges Monroy, one through their contact us section, and another by emailing both media and grassroots question people, but the only reply obtained was an automated message saying that due to the volume of emails they could not respond. 

Lead image: Common Cause/Facebook