Building a Better Democracy in the Backyard
Many Americans are focused on national politics where they act as spectators at the cost of involvement in their city and county. This is despite the fact that city and county involvement is where one can have a much larger impact on shaping policy. As the country sprints towards constitutional, climate, economic, and racial crises, we all hope to avoid disaster but many feel helpless to make the big changes necessary to divert them.
Only by re-engineering our political systems and getting involved locally, can we gain the necessary agility provided by diversity of thought and experience. Expanding voter registration, implementing campaign finance reforms, and adopting ranked choice voting are among many measures that local jurisdictions can advance in order to have measurable impacts on building a more responsive and resilient democracy.
According to The Center for Popular Democracy, In the 2016 general election, almost 87% of eligible voters participated in the election. However, this number represented only 61% of the eligible voting age population. As it turns out, when people are registered to vote, they do indeed vote in greater numbers.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. What these numbers also tell us is that nearly 40 percent of eligible voters did not participate in our election. The antiquated system of voter registration pretty much ensures that anyone willing to jump through the hoops to register will be more engaged and thus, more likely to vote; but the problem lies in the inability to have broad registration of voters.
A community with strong participation in voting is a community whose members are connected to the community and are engaged in shaping it. A democracy in which members have equal access to participation will be a stronger and more agile democracy; better able to adjust policy to represent and care for the interests of the community as a whole.
Conversely, a community where only a select few can participate leads to voter apathy, and disengagement resulting in a government that is perpetually behind the curve on changing citizen needs. This type of community is less likely to compete for jobs, residents, strong leadership, or develop a community culture.
Fixing the Registration Problem
Registration hurdles are not equally easy to overcome for everyone and placing limitations on when, where, and who can register to vote means that certain demographics are systematically discriminated against.
According to data from the US Census Bureau, registration and voting rates are significantly lower among minority communities and lower-income areas. Per US Census data, potential Latinx voters are only registered at 57%. Younger Americans are also left out of registration at disproportionately high numbers at just 55% registered to vote.
So what hurdles must be overcome to participate and why are they harder for some than for others?
One answer is where voter registration takes place. In 2020 there are still 10 states that do not allow for online voter registration. This means that people looking to register need to take them time to travel to a government elections office during normal business hours. This requirement disproportionately affects not only those with jobs that don’t allow the flexibility to leave mid-day, but also those without adequate access to transportation, those with disabilities, and those with additional care responsibilities.
In short, minority and lower-income individuals.
While making online registration more widespread, it won’t work to fix the problem of disproportionately low registration numbers among minority communities since access to a computer becomes a requirement.
A better solution to address the problem of lower voter registration among younger, poorer, and minority communities is to place the services where people already are. A growing policy proposition called Agency-based registration works to do just that.
Agency-based registration involves allowing people to register to vote at state public agencies such as those providing humans and social services, affordable housing, or public health. Providing registration services at these agencies strategically targets lower-income voters who are already more likely to visit the public agencies.
By simply resolving that city or county agencies are required to offer voter registration as a part of their services with community members, these jurisdictions can expect to see an increase in voter registration among those least likely to have previously registered in person at election offices or online.
According to a report from The Center for Popular Democracy titled Deepening our Democracy: How Localities Can Expand Voting Rights, well-administered voter registration programs established at state public assistance agencies have registered 15 to 20 percent of their agency applicants. The National Voter Registration Act data shows that low-income and communities of color are more likely to be registered to vote at public assistance offices, with Black and Latinx voters three and four times more likely to register in these locations than white voters.
Additionally, public schools have all the tools necessary to register high-school seniors to help build the next generation of active voters. Many high schools already offer civics or government classes. A simple administrative task to build on the offered curriculum by presenting registration forms, answering questions, collecting forms from students, and returning the forms to election offices, would have a measurable impact in building civic engagement habits among youth.
Finally, one of the biggest reasons that people need to register in the first place is because of a change in address. Many states require an update to voter registration when they change their address. Like before, we can see how this would affect lower-income and younger people as they are more likely to change addresses between elections.
To combat this, renter registration ordinances simply require landlords to provide new tenants with voter registration forms. In conjunction with agency-based and school registration, a lower-income person could get their registration form upon moving into a new building and return their form when registering their child for school or when visiting the local disabilities office.
The 2020 presidential campaign is estimated to have cost upwards of $11 billion. It is true that a federal campaign will cost more than a local one but the upward trend of campaign spending isn’t limited to national campaigns.
As costs continue to rise at the federal level, we can also expect to see savvy party analysts recognize the higher return on investment by pouring money into local campaigns.
In fact, this is a trend we are already seeing with the average campaign spend for a city council position in a major city being nearly $200,000 per candidate according to Ballotpedia. This presents a major problem for non-traditional (read not whilte or wealthy) candidates. With the cost of participation so high, many people are again systematically excluded from running for office and representing the needs of their community.
Instead we can take measures to lower the bar for participation as some localities in Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, and California have already done. These policies include full disclosure of campaign fundraising and spending.
A 2018 law passed in California known as The Disclose Act requires all independent political committees that support candidates or ballot measures to display information about funding. This information about funding is required by the law to be displayed on all political advertisements. As a result, when residents of Richmond, CA receive mailers about city-council races, they can see clearly that the mailer was paid for by Chevron. In a town where the corporation pays upwards of $3 million to influence candidates and policy, this has become a welcomed tool in combating the oversized influence of the corporation and has helped the city elect pro-environmental officials and run more modest campaigns.
A second policy solution involves direct contribution limits on campaigns
Each city or locality can set their own limits on how much an individual or corporation can donate for a specified office. Some localities even have chosen to disallow corporate donations entirely. By limiting the amount of money that can be introduced into a single campaign, you can limit the spending arms race between candidates. Following this path, a non-traditional candidate can better compete against more traditional candidates representing business and other moneyed interests, again, making our democracy more representative and putting more control into the hands of citizens.
Public Financing Systems
Public financing of campaigns greatly amplifies the voices of traditionally excluded groups by offering donation matches from the public fund in exchange for the candidate agreeing to limit the size of the donations they will accept.
In localities where both candidates can agree to accept small donations only, the arms race is scaled back greatly; making participation as a candidate from all socioeconomic levels easier. This will produce more diverse candidates who bring distinct and fresh voices to our civic discourse. Fixing campaign spending should be a major concern for anyone interested in a strong democracy.
Ranked Choice Voting
In a traditional election, candidates run against one another and whoever gets more votes wins. This is a simplistic, if not outdated and inefficient model. The problem with the current model is that in a more polarized age, the winning candidate is likely to have vehement opposition even after being elected; making it hard to govern effectively.
Instead of everyone getting a representative who they like (or at least can stand) half the population ends up with a candidate who stands against everything they stand for. This binary choice requires candidates to make bigger efforts to differentiate themselves from their opposition and opposition supporters. The more extreme positions force voters into boxes where they are less likely to be onboard with all of their candidates policies and more likely to be voting as negative partisans against the other party policies. Each side wins by amplifying fear of the other candidates.
While it is mostly seen only at the national and state levels, it is only a matter of time before this culture leaches into local politics as well.
According to Fair Vote, a non-partisan group that champions electoral reforms to give voters greater choice and a stronger voice, ranked choice voting is a small change that can have a big impact. The idea is that multiple candidates run for an election and voters rank each candidate. In a race where a single candidate is to be selected, only the candidate who gets more than 50 percent of first-choice votes is the winner. If no candidate achieves 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the least amount of first-choice votes is eliminated and voters who had chosen that candidate as first-choice will have their votes recounted for their second choice. This process will continue until there is a majority winner.
The adoption of ranked choice provides many benefits. First and most obvious is that less people will be stuck with their least-favorite candidate. While there are likely to be candidates at both extremes of the political spectrum, it is equally likely that their appeal will be less broad and they will be likely to receive the least amount of first-choice votes. As such, they are eliminated early on and nobody is “stuck” with an extreme opposition candidate.
Another benefit is that because each candidate is trying to be the second-choice to their opponent’s base, they are unlikely to employ harsh campaign rhetoric. This is in fact, the behavior we have seen in states where ranked choice voting has been the voting method for many years. Campaigns tend to be run on policy issues rather than identity issues and candidates are more likely to speak highly of their opponent while disagreeing with the policy.
Finally, a 2018 study by FairVote found that in 11 California cities that used ranked choice voting, there was an 8.4% increase in the number of candidates of color and an increase of 4.4% in the probability of a female candidate winning her race.
Putting it all together
The country is at the brink of converging crises from global climate change and pandemic, to a widening wealth gap and a reckoning with a racially exclusive past. If we are going to overcome these challenges without resorting to violence, the government at all levels will need to be agile in making changes that support local needs.
While it would seem like we are too far removed from being able to accomplish any real change in our current climate, the strength of our democracy will depend on its ability to represent citizen’s best interests as a whole. This requires changes to our decision making system to expand democracy and to make participation therein more inclusive.
Instead of rule by a minority group, we can make changes to include the poor, young, disabled, people of color, women, and people of all occupations and education levels. There are myriad ways to accomplish this radical inclusivity; taking simple, mostly non-controversial steps at the local level, can provide big changes across the entire democratic system of our country.
When locals gain the ability to govern in their own city and county, they gain the power to pass legislation to regulate industry and limit pollution, reform police departments, and set standards for pay and working conditions. The future of our country lies in changing the mechanisms we use to govern to represent all Americans while giving everyone a voice.