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Working Around Polarization

National organizations that represent states and localities are finding ways to keep partisanship out of their ranks.

The national organizations that represent lawmakers and statewide officials have vigorously protected their bipartisanship over the years. They have tried to keep their heads down and focus on good governance, even as the relationship between the two major parties has frayed. But lately, that's gotten harder and harder to do.

David Adkins, executive director and CEO of the Council of State Governments (CSG), said he feels the impact of polarization intensely. "I won't lie about the corrosive impact of some of the trends," he said at the National Association of Secretaries of State's (NASS) annual meeting in February. "There are more and more people who seek elective office and are elected who frankly hate government and don't have an interest in governing. The truth that they bring to the public square is an absolute truth, and compromise for them is not an option."

This reality has forced national organizations to redouble their efforts to emphasize bipartisanship. 

At the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), officials became concerned in 2010 when several AGs went to other states to campaign against an incumbent -- something that broke an unwritten but longstanding practice within the organization, according to Jim McPherson, the group's executive director, who was also at the NASS meeting. NAAG has a strict process for choosing its formal policy positions. NAAG requires 36 member AGs to sign off on the policy, meaning that an issue needs to have broad, bipartisan support before the group takes a stand.

Some issues still manage to reach that threshold, such as a recent letter that attracted signatures from 39 AGs; the letter urges nine major oil companies to make sure their branded stations are not selling synthetic drugs. But whereas AGs not long ago collaborated across party lines to push a landmark tobacco settlement, AGs today are better known for facing off over the Affordable Care Act, with Republicans seeking to overturn it and Democrats seeking to protect it.

Meanwhile, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has nine standing committees that develop policy directives. Before any of those directives are adopted, they must win three-fourths approval of the states. In addition, the chairs and vice chairs of every committee have to be balanced by party. These parameters send a message "that we work in a bipartisan manner, and I think that comes through," said Neal Osten, NCSL's Washington office director, at the February NASS meeting.

Still, despite the concerns over partisan polarization, some say there are a few areas where Republican and Democratic members are continuing to find common ground, including criminal justice, cybercrime, highway funding, internet taxation and veterans' voting.

Secretaries of state have been divided along partisan lines on such issues as voter ID laws and same-day registration, but there has been near-unanimous agreement on the importance of enabling veterans stationed far away from home the opportunity to vote. "What's been really exciting is the technology being developed and the integrity measures being taken to protect that vote and reduce the risks," said Tom Schedler, Louisiana's secretary of state and the president-elect of NASS. "There's no person alive who wouldn't say that the person risking their life every day for us shouldn't have the ability to exercise the franchise."

The broad-based support seen on such issues as these provides a measure of comfort to these longtime state policy experts. "If I read the papers on a daily basis, I get incredibly depressed," Adkins said. "If I read the comments to blogs and social media, I become someone in search of medication." Still, Adkins added, "for the people who are doubting the corrosive nature, go meet the people doing the jobs, and most of the time what you'll find are really good things happening."

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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