Veterans for All Voters (formerly known as Veterans for Political Innovation) is a nonprofit driven by the vision of enlisting the veteran community in the fight for electoral reforms. With the core mission of fostering a less toxic political climate and a more effective government, VAV aims to channel the discipline and unity of military service into revitalizing our political institutions.
Since its inception in October 2021, VAV has expanded geographically and deepened its impact, empowering veterans to lead the charge on election reform. To learn more about how veterans play a crucial role in nationwide election reform, we spoke with Todd Connor, founder and CEO of VAV, and Eric Bronner, founder and COO of VAV.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Unite America: What inspired you to get involved in election reform and found Veterans for All Voters?
Todd Connor: I have tried sincerely to engage in politics in this country but personally concluded in 2020 that the country fundamentally isn't working. The political system is broken in ways beyond the talking points, and I needed to figure out my role to play in that. [I kept asking], what is the thing that we can do to solve this crisis?
I've tried running [for office], I've tried working with Republicans, I've tried to work with Democrats, but kept coming back to, what is the system solution? So, compelled by that question […] I started to think [a systems solution] is the thing that could have an outsized impact in restoring the United States. And that's where we started.
Eric Bronner: I'm a lifelong independent — I’ve never joined or affiliated with either party — and grew up in Wisconsin. It was in the fall of 2018, after a reunion with some of my Navy buddies, where we watched John McCain's memorial service from beginning to end. And [during this time], we all began lamenting the direction of our country. We all asked, “Why is someone like John McCain [a war hero who overcame being a prisoner of war in Vietnam] not held in higher regard? What can we do about this?”
Shortly after, I heard the Freakonomics Radio podcast, [America's Hidden Duopoly] It was so compelling. My first question was, who's doing the work? Two of the first national organizations I learned about were RepresentUs and Unite America. But the next question was, who's doing this work in Missouri?
There was a brand new organization called Show Me Integrity, [which is Missouri’s only cross-partisan reform organization working to foster a government that is transparent, efficient, and accountable.] I aligned with their mission, approached their door, and said, “I'm all in. What do you need?” This [interaction eventually led to me] working the polls in 2020 in St. Louis City for the nonpartisan approval voting system. During this time, a veteran saw my passion for the work and said, “Eric, you should do something to get more veterans involved.”
It seemed like a good idea, but for a real estate attorney, how is that going to happen? Then I was introduced to Todd and some other incredible veterans from across the country and the political spectrum, and they've been the rocket fuel to take this small idea and make it a reality.
Unite America: How does your organization uplift veterans in its approach to support and amplify state-based reform efforts?
Todd: We follow nationwide state-based reform efforts to determine [where veterans can make the biggest impact.] Americans trust veterans and their ability to talk beyond the noise about why [reform] is good, which allows us to play an outsized support function as powerful messaging agents. Our veteran leaders speak from a place of moral authority. This is a tone that we try to cultivate and is important to us.
It’s the moment when a veteran will get up and say, “I went to go vote, and I couldn't. That's [bs]. I didn't go to Iraq for two tours to come back here and be told I can't vote.” That’s pure gold. It’s the authentic stories veterans can tell [that make the most significant impact.]
Unite America: How have you been able to organize in so many states?
Todd: An interesting thing about the veteran community is that [while it’s pretty] thin, it has a broad reach with veterans in every community in the country. Historically, they have organized themselves through chapter-based models with a strong national brand and are locally activated in cities nationwide. These organizations include the Legacy Big Six, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and Veterans of America — and now ours.
Under this [chapter-based] model, we’ve boomed within two years and have 45 chapters nationwide. That's hard to do in many communities. [However,] it works in the veteran community because of that affinity that we feel for each other because of that thin layer of representation across the country. It's just a very efficient way to get a national [presence established] quickly while also allowing the local chapters to mirror the context of the local community. [This model] allows for some localizing flavor regarding the politics and how they talk. So that's an asset for us that I think is powerful on the belief systems.
Unite America: What about veterans’ ideology makes them powerful advocates?
Todd: We know [most veterans] skew center [politically]. They also can easily suspend their partisan identity and have a different conversation in a room full of [fellow] veterans. We are convening spaces where people know I'm a Democrat; I ran for office. But they can also move beyond [my party affiliation] and focus on the real issue: “The system's broken; here's how we have to fix it.”
We've seen a natural ability to convene veterans in the conversation. On average, our monthly state leader calls have between 100 and 150 people. You’d think it could be a hair-triggering environment for people to be offended because you have some super conservative and some super progressive people on the same call. But [these calls are always] held without issue because there's this shared understanding [of what we are working toward.] Everyone sees a system failure [with our government], so we can put aside other issues because we're all here to solve that one [unifying] thing. I've been inspired and delighted by that reality.
Eric: There's definitely an independent-mindedness that seems stronger among veterans than the general population. George Casey, the former Army Chief of Staff, spoke at our DC event about a year ago and [touched on this topic.] He’s seen the importance of being nonpartisan and apolitical, not only when leading the army but even after he got out. He's made a conscious decision not to be viewed as a partisan actor because he doesn't think that's the best way to serve his country. And so I think there's just an openness to how we get past this partisan decay we're stuck in right now.
Unite America: How does your organization actively honor and integrate veterans' experiences into the movement?
Eric: I get asked regularly, what do you do for veterans? And my answer is we are [empowering veterans] to help solve the Primary Problem that's underneath every other problem in America that's not being solved — including terrible healthcare outcomes for veterans and mental health issues for veterans. People usually recognize that we are a bunch of veterans working to solve a huge problem [that negatively impacts veterans in numerous ways.]
Todd: Part of it is letting [veterans] use their own voice, which fosters a real respect for who they are and their opinion. The more you respect people, the more they rise to the challenge. We give [veterans] the space to build their own capacity and find their own voice in this work. And sometimes it doesn't match the talking points sent over by the political consultant, but you're like, “I'm okay with that. I'll just take that trade-off. Because it's ultimately about respect.” One of our organizational values is that we know that we'll be friends when our work is done, and it's this idea of enduring relationships [within the veteran community.] So, our work is much more of a shared service — we're here to serve you for what you need out there.
Unite America: How has your organization's initiative to engage veterans as volunteers evolved since its inception, and what are the current opportunities for involvement across the United States?
Todd: Our first event was held in Wisconsin on October 15, 2021. Two years later, we've built a national platform with over 260 volunteer veterans representing 47 states. These are not just volunteers on a list who have come public with their association with us. We are still growing and plan to have representation in all 50 states by the end of the year. If anyone is interested in learning more on how to get involved as a volunteer or a donor, please don't hesitate to contact us.
From our entire staff at Unite America, we extend our sincere gratitude to veterans for your service. We encourage you to read this informational message from our partners. And check out their video to learn more!