Q & A with an Accountability Expert

Jana Morgan, Director, Declaration for American Democracy

Can you tell us about Declaration for American Democracy and your role at the organization?

DFAD is a coalition of over 230 organizations focused on creating transformational democracy reform. We were established a few years ago knowing that out of the challenges of the Trump administration and everything that was happening at the time could come great opportunity. We saw the holes and problems in our system and we wanted to be prepared and ready to effect change. DFAD formed with the idea that we need holistic, groundbreaking transformational reform to our political system in order to prevent what happened with the Trump administration from ever happening again. Also, because the situation simply needed to improve. There are gaps, problems, and issues in our system. From corruption to partisan gerrymandering to voter suppression which we have seen explode in the last couple of years. The idea that we needed to get together and do something big to change our government for the better was the impetus for forming the coalition. I am the coalition’s director, so I run the national campaigns and work with a staff of seven as well as dozens of other groups that participate as working group leaders on our campaign committees, and many more groups that participate as coalition members in our activities.

What led you to this particular line of work?

I spent most of my career working on corruption in the extractive industries. It involved everything from conflict minerals, oil transparency, financial flows, ill-gotten gains, basically trying to stop corporate bullies from taking advantage of people, their natural resources, and violating their human rights. The one thing I noticed often is that for every bit of progress forward there were always some steps back. That was because of the massively corrupting influence of money in our political system. We know groups like the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, Chevron, U.S. Chamber of Commerce have huge political sway and part of that is because of our broken system. I wanted to work on corporate capture, which is what brought me to work at the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable. Then this job came up and I thought ‘this is it, this is what we need to do’. Before the pandemic, I went around the United States and talked with folks in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Maine, Colorado, and something I always knew but didn’t really know in my bones was how different it was to be a voter in a place like Arizona compared to Maine. I knew states had different rules after the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder that removed the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. I learned how many blockages there are for people in certain states to vote, so we really don’t have equal access to the ballot. I developed my passion for that as well in this role because it’s just the most basic tenet of our democracy that everyone gets a vote, and everyone gets a say. There are people who are trying to stop that for their own political gain, so just like corporate bullies we have political bullies that are trying to utilize laws in dastardly ways to prevent people from being able to exercise the basic right to vote.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A lot of times it’s answering emails and getting on Zoom calls but other times, we are planning big events, major mobilizations and escalations. We could be planning an event like the Deadline for Democracy event we worked on with Indivisible and many of our partners. There were 375 events across the country with that initiative – our biggest mobilization yet. We planned 150 Good Trouble Vigils for Democracy nationwide in honor of Representative John Lewis. We are often working on a number of innovative campaigns, events to raise awareness, put political pressure on our elected leaders to continue to prioritize democracy. As we see gerrymandering happening, we know people are being disenfranchised and so we’re always thinking about the level of influence and pressure that we need to be pulling or pushing to get the wins and the gains that we want. Working with my team is fantastic; they are an amazing group of people who are so smart, dedicated, and talented. I am usually doing strategy calls with them and our coalition partners. At other times, I am speaking with our Hill champions. The days can be different but they are always busy.

What are some of DFAD’s recent accomplishments and which are you most excited about?

We recently planned a big rally (Recess Can Wait) where we had 150 state legislators come in to D.C. Our Democracy Week of Action was exciting because at the time we secured a commitment from Senator Schumer to address voting rights as soon as the Senate returned from recess. It was an event we pulled together in about 10 days. We had a number of great speakers including Senator Rev. Warnock, Sen. Booker, Rep. Sarbanes and a whole bunch of other amazing speakers and more than 20 state legislators. The following day we had a march to the White House calling on President Biden to pick a side on filibuster or voting rights, because the White House has been largely silent on this issue, which is a huge problem. I was proud of that week because we pulled it together so fast but also because it was effective. I am also proud of the fact that since April, we have been doing days or weeks of action, pretty much every single month, and sometimes even two or three times a month. We have been going at it hard in fun, creative but also strategic, smart ways and implementing them around the same time to make sure the For the People Act remains a priority for political leaders. This month, several senators introduced the Freedom to Vote Act, revised legislation that upholds most of the key pillars of the For the People Act.

What are some of the biggest challenges the coalition has faced to date?

Trying to operate under a pandemic has certainly been a challenge. A lot of the work we do involves mobilization of people. But I think we did a wonderful job of adapting to that with our Protect Our Vote town hall that we held last year. We had incredible speakers like Rev. Barber and Speaker Pelosi participate in some of our events during the town halls – she’s been a champion of voting rights. The political punditry in D.C. got it wrong when they called the voting rights act dead. We continued to push past that silly narrative about the bill not having a path forward. There’s a path forward, and the path forward is finding a way around the filibuster, whether it’s a rules change or whatever needs to be done to overcome the filibuster is what needs to happen. We need President Biden to be engaging on this 100 percent and I think there has been a real lack of robust engagement from the White House. We are looking to tackle and combat that now.

DFAD has been vocal in its criticism of the filibuster. What are the changes you would like to see made to it?

There are a lot of different avenues to go down: they can fix it, they can eliminate it. I’m not prescribing what that fix is. I am just here to demand that they get it done. As long as we can overcome it and not allow the Jim Crow filibuster to continue to be an impediment to passing voting rights legislation that is critical to a functioning democracy, how they do it is less relevant to me. We just want them to do it as soon as possible.

In the face of such challenges, what keeps you motivated to continue to advocate for democracy reform and accountability in government?

We have no choice. We saw a massive attempt to suppress the vote during the last election that was fought off by great people doing great work to make sure everyone could access the vote during the pandemic. Then we saw massive lies and propaganda about that election, an attack on our country on January 6 – the very first on a peaceful transition of power in American history. Then we saw America downgraded from a democracy to an anocracy in the eyes of the international community, and then we have had over 400 anti-voter laws introduced in states across the country, 30 of those have been passed. Our democracy is in crisis and if we want to keep this republic, we need to take action. I am also motivated because I know that we can succeed. I have seen people step out there to do good work, put themselves at risk – risking arrest, risking voting during a pandemic – to fight for each other and the right to vote. I feel confident in what I am seeing people do to step up and defend our democracy to make sure everyone’s vote counts. No doubt, there’s a lot of power and a lot of money going against us. However, I think we are going to be successful and I would invite anybody who is a patriot and believes in the very founding principle of our nation that every person should have the right to vote to join us. We are not trying to go back to a pre-Trump America. We are trying to build a better America.

What does DFAD hope to accomplish in the remainder of the year, and how can Open The Government and the rest of the coalition help you accomplish these goals?

I think people need to be loud when they are doing interviews, writing thought pieces, op-eds. Make sure you’re talking about the voting rights bill with coalition members and with the press. We want organizations to have their actors participate or sponsor events, even if the groups are not part of membership organizations. There are still ways people can participate whether it’s digitally, or spreading the word to their partners. There are lots of ways people can engage, all they have to do is reach out and we’ll plug you in.

What’s the most beneficial part of being part of having Open The Government as a coalition partner?

We love having OTG as a partner and enjoy having access to organizations that have great expertise and knowledge about transparency issues. There are always niche roles organizations can fit into and we need every single one. We need groups that have mobilization or amplification power, credibility and knowledge. All of that is super important. Having a diverse coalition of groups with different strengths we can rely on is super critical.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Before the pandemic, I would frequently go to karaoke with my friends, which was very fun. I am hoping to be able to start doing that again sometime in the near future. I like to get outside and ride my bike, that’s something I took up during the pandemic. I used to just ride my bike getting to and from places, now I ride my bike for actual exercise and enjoyment. My longest ride since the pandemic started has been 48 miles. I never thought I would ever bike that far. Then I set a goal for myself last September to ride my bike 500 miles. I’m hoping to do something like that again in a month, maybe push it up to 600 miles or something like that, and challenge myself.

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