Interviews & Profiles

A Q&A with Common Cause Pennsylvania's Khalif Ali

Khalif Ali

Khalif Ali Photo courtesy of Khalif Ali

Pennsylvania state government has been no stranger to the spotlight over the last year. 

From administration of the state’s election laws and the drawing of political maps to efforts to overhaul lobbying and transparency laws – reforms to how state government operates have been a focus of Democrats and Republicans alike, even in times of intense partisan division.

Led by its executive director Khalif Ali, Common Cause Pennsylvania has been enmeshed in every single one of those conversations as an organization dedicated to increasing access to the ballot and reforming how state and local governments operate.

City & State spoke with Ali about why he thinks reforms are needed in Harrisburg and what he is doing to restore confidence in government during such politically divided times. 

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

You joined Common Cause Pennsylvania last year as the organization's new executive director. What has your first year or so been like?

As an executive director, you’re responsible for organizational development and advancement as well as external relations with legislators, other government entities and coalitions that are doing very similar work to yours, so a lot of moving pieces that all need to fit together pretty neatly in order for our work to get done. But it's been great. It’s work that I really love and I’m very passionate about democracy and so I've been enjoying it thus far.

Was there a particular moment or experience that kick-started that interest in democracy issues for you?

I’m a social worker by trade and so on the ground level … you realize at a certain point that you're just not making the impact that you thought you would … You realize that there are some fundamental issues with the overarching structure – which is our democracy – that impact everything that we see on the ground. I began taking a broader look at democracy as a whole and focusing on government accountability. And this was, maybe eight years ago at this point, and realizing that a lot of the issues that I'm dealing with at the ground level, specifically the implementation of laws that are meant to help vulnerable populations – that there needed to be some work at the top in order for it to impact what was happening at the grassroots level … I realized that I needed to focus on democracy. Eventually, I ended up at Common Cause.

When it comes to democracy and good government, what are some of your top priorities at Common Cause right now?

So the [primary issues] have to do with my vision, and my vision has to do with my personal interactions with elected officials and individuals who are impacted by a lot of the laws that we're seeing passed. So, when you talk to people and when you look at Franklin & Marshall polls, we see something very interesting – we see that the vast majority of people, at least in Pennsylvania, still believe in the values that are associated with a democracy – protection of all human/civil rights – all of those things. 

We tend to believe in those values, but what the research and my conversations also tell us, on the flip side of that coin, is that there's a growing disenchantment with democracy as a political system that can potentially solve our problems. And there's that perception of democracy because decisions that are being made by government are inconsistent with democratic values, as well as the will of the people … It has nothing to do with the system, but instead with the systems that could be better.

Are there specific instances that come to mind that you think are particularly good examples of that?

Statistics tell us that if decisions that elected officials made were consistent with the will of the people, minimum wage would be higher. We know that gun laws would have more restrictions. We know that marijuana would be legal. I'm just giving you some very basic rudimentary examples. We're not being listened to. And that's clear based on some of the big issues that we're facing that decisions have already been made or made about.

When you look at potential reforms to democracy and government as a whole, are there any that you think need to be prioritized ahead of others to make sure that our governmental systems react better to the will of the people?

Something I tend to talk to elected officials about … is thinking about creating a space where constituents can be a meaningful part of some of the larger decisions that elected officials make. A lot of us tend to elect legislators to make certain decisions independently: “You know what's best. As long as it’s in the interest of the people, you make that decision.” But I think there has to be a space for those who are interested in those decisions to be able to be a part of the conversation. 

When you think about welfare reform, no one who was actually on welfare, or who had made the transition out of welfare, or who had fallen into poverty and had to go to welfare – was really a part of those conversations in the 90s related to welfare reform. So, what you come out with is a law that doesn't reflect any type of empathy or any type of knowledge of what it means to live in poverty on a day-to-day basis. And so it ends up with these very poor and harsh welfare reform laws that don't really make sense to the people who are living in poverty.

Reforms have to do with the willingness of elected officials to interact more closely and do a little bit more research as it relates to laws and those who are impacted by those laws.

It sounds like public input is really the crux of that, right?

One hundred percent. When I think about leadership, I think about those who act not because it is part of law, but those who understand the moral responsibility of being a leader and being in an elected position.

The law does not cover or govern every single action that any of us makes, so we have to depend upon a developed sense of morality to act when appropriate, right? But people will say, “Oh, well I'm not bound to that by law.” But is it morally correct? Does it make sense morally? Is it an unethical or ethical decision that you're making? We just don't talk like that anymore and that concerns me.

I want to shift gears a bit to redistricting efforts … Lawmakers have pledged to make the process more transparent. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has also voted to count prisoners in their home districts. Do you like what you've seen so far in this space?

It's different. It's much more improved from what we saw 10 years ago. That's easy to say – easily done. What I'm saying is that what we're seeing now is the basis for a good process, but there's more that needs to be done. There has to be, along with transparency, a vehicle for not only taking public input, but weighing it and integrating it into the decisions of drawing the map. We're off to a good start, but a lot more work to be done before the maps come out.

Since you joined Common Cause, there's been a lot of debate around the state’s elections, from conducting an audit of results to implementing things like voter ID. As someone who’s focused on democracy and good government issues, what changes do you think need to be made to make elections both accessible and secure?

First of all, we need to have a very firm concept of democracy in our minds. Democracy isn't a system that is broken if we don't get what we want. If you don't get what you want, that doesn't mean the system is broken and needs to be totally torn down and rebuilt. It means that we need to take a look at where people feel less confident and determine whether or not there needs to be some type of reform and respond appropriately. That’s public policy. Public policy is literally the government's response to issues that are posed by the public or that they themselves see as an issue. It's a response.

I don't believe that we've seen a perfect election yet. But there's a far cry from perfection and fraud. We look at them as some inconsistencies that could easily be remedied. We think that there should be some additional training, mandatory training, that should come about for poll workers. There's a lot of changes that have been made through Act 77, and we believe that there has to be regular training to keep poll workers up to date to prepare to answer questions and respond to issues that we see during elections … I honestly thought that was something that was in place, but it's not. And that's something that we need to get to. I think that would make more people comfortable.

There has to be an audit in place – a post-election audit that's in place. We're under a consent decree and there has to be one by the spring of 2022, in relation to the Jill Stein lawsuit. I think that lawsuit calls for, very abstractly, a robust auditing infrastructure in place post-election. We believe in the risk-limiting audits, and that's something that has been piloted by the Department of State here in Pennsylvania.

Given all of the partisan rancor and frustration about elections and democracy and everything in between, do you think it's possible to restore trust in government when people are so quick to disagree?

Absolutely. The faith in our democratic process is not because of the process itself, because the values are there and we all believe in those values – it’s based on poor decision making. It’s based on decision-making that is inconsistent with those values, and it’s based on misinformation that is not being corrected by elected officials. Now, if we can deal with all three of those, I think we're in a very good position to re-instill, and even reinforce our belief in democracy as our political system.