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A Desperate Plea for a Renewal of Citizenship

Start listing, in your head, the problems with American democracy. You might come up with a list that looks like mine: the magnified influence of moneyed interests, the endless supply of ethically-challenged candidates, petty grifting and self-aggrandizement, the short attention span of the voters, the media’s fixation on the horse-race, the way long-term issues get lost in the shuffle of immediate concerns, the structural inequity of gerrymandering, the revolving door between K Street and the Capitol, … I don’t need to be exhaustive here.

To a certain extent we can all admit that democratic politics is messy by necessity, and that even in every healthy government the existence of both structural and cultural problems such as those listed above are pretty normal and not necessarily indicative of true decay or decline. If things were entirely clean and left undebated, we would likely become suspicious of just how smoothly things were going – after all, it is the most corrupt entities that seem to appear the most orderly.

But the sheer scope of the problems, and the tonnage of their dead weight on what should ideally be an enlightened dialogue about our collective future is corrosive to the republic. And the trajectory of those problems toward worsening is particularly relevant. We have to challenge ourselves to see if they’re not all just the symptom of causal problem, one closer to the root, the neglect of citizenship. Perhaps we don’t see ourselves as the problem, but hey, have you met us, the Americans, lately?

How many of the things on the list of problems with American democracy would decline in significance if an actual majority of our residents practiced diligent and rigorous adherence to the principles of democracy? We have a nagging little habit of describing ourselves only by remarkably narrow slices of what citizenship even means: voters, taxpayers, patriots, constituents. That habit probably originates from a type of semantic laziness, but I suspect there’s some actual laziness in there too – the unspoken hope that all it takes to be a good citizen is to go vote every couple of years. Sure these things are important, but we all know that they are merely nuggets of the full scope of expectations we should have of ourselves to make this whole participatory democracy actually run on all cylinders.

Citizenship is a verb, it must be done, it requires effort, it requires us to all be democrats (with a small letter d). This means embracing and encouraging dialogue. It means participating in our communities and civic gatherings, serving on committees and juries and councils, sharing our opinions publicly and being open to the scrutiny other reasonable democrats might have of those very opinions. We are majestically bad at this, and probably getting entirely worse at it as a nation.

So, for the sake of our own elucidation, let’s discuss that frighteningly minimal act of citizenship, the exercise of the voting franchise. Very few of us even do that. In the 2014 federal elections, turnout was the lowest it has been in 74 years, with less than half of the eligible population even bothering in 43 of the 50 states. In the three largest states the problem was magnified tremendously, with less than a third of eligible Californians and Texans voting, and a stunningly low 29% in New York (and they even had some state races appearing on the same ballot – along with 27 House races). The turnout across the country was a dismal 37 percent. That’s a rate so low that the only election with worse turnout was in 1942 during a massive world war deployment.

This isn’t even the worst part, not even close. In state and local elections, voter turnout is even more awful. When Muriel Bowser won the DC mayoralty, she won a contest with the lowest participation in more than 30 years. When Bill DeBlasio won the New York City mayoral race, he won a contest with the lowest participation in more than 50 years. According to research at the University of Wisconsin, only about one in five eligible voters even bother to go to the polls in municipal races.

Sure, strong voting traditions are not necessary for government to operate, but they are necessary for government to be representative. As Robert Putnam noted in his legendary tome about the massive recent withdraw of Americans from civic engagement:

“If we think of politics as an industry, we might delight in its new “labour-saving efficiency”, but if we think of politics as democratic deliberation, to leave people out is to miss the whole point of the exercise.”

If so few of us are even bothering to vote, what percentage of us are doing more than that bare minimum, like say, educating ourselves about government and politics?

A study at Tufts University concluded that most states do not emphasize civics education in the curriculum. Only 21 states require a social studies test in High School, and only 9 states require passage of such a test to graduate.

In a survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a full 35 percent of respondents were unable to name even one branch of the U.S. Government. Only 36% could name all three. Nearly 75% did not know how many votes it takes to over-ride a Presidential veto, and when asked which party had majorities in the House and Senate barely one of every three respondents were able to guess correctly.

Ideas are a manifestation of learning and experience, but they are also a currency. The sharing of ideas, the export and import of them between people are the main way that ideas are able to be polished and bettered. The product of idea sharing is the strengthening and improvement of ideas through the rigors of scrutiny and deliberation. Through this, we make the condition of one another stronger, and we make better choices in our democracy. We used to be able to rely on media to assist us in this obligation.

Unfortunately the provincialism of new-media has infested the dialogue with loads of bias. The increasing vacuousness of television media has caused us to become distracted by missing airplanes. The abandonment of (boring!) print media has caused us all to miss most of the relevant and rigorously accurate information. And the insulating effect of social media allows us to shun disparate points of view. The practice of idea sharing still takes place sometimes, but not for debate, instead it’s for the warm fuzzy feeling of having our biases confirmed, for the likes and re-tweets we can get from other like-minded people. Dare to be counter-intuitive, dare to try and dialogue on something, and you disrupt that constant chain of warm fuzzies and are blocked or unfriended. In the offline world we actively discourage any consideration of politics at all – forbidding discussion of political ideas at work, at church, at the Rotary Club, and the supermarket, and especially at family gatherings because it makes us feel uncomfortable to disagree in person.

We are deeply uncomfortable with our own role in the governmental system. It make us feel icky. Our responsibility is intimidating and politics feels like a gross endeavor, especially when it necessitates dialogue that might cause rifts, feuds, or quagmires to develop between us and the people we care about. The result is that since we learn through our interactions, and we have so few of them on politics, we are a remarkably uninformed people.

35% of Americans think that sexual orientation is a choice. Only 5 years after 9/11, a full 30% of Americans could not remember in what year that attack happened. 29% cannot find the Pacific Ocean on a map. More than one third of Americans can’t name the current Vice President. 27% could not say who was in charge of the Executive Branch.

It gets worse, though. Those are at least minorities of the population right? Majorities might be even dumber. More than half of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the United States Constitution. Most Americans don’t know what the letters GOP stand for. A whopping 80% of Americans don’t know how many United States Senators there are.

By any reasonable measure, these are not high-level questions. These should not be difficult questions for “the people” charged with the enormous task of self government. We need folks to be thinking about the tax code and budget priorities, not still stuck on the basics! We are failing ourselves through ignorance, which is precisely what Jefferson feared:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson

We need to re-calibrate our proud individualism to include more than just a nod toward the communitarian precondition for democracy. Being a part of a group effort brings with it a sense of camaraderie, friendship, and loyalty that can only be forged when one works alongside others. Sharing moments with others increases the passion of feelings and emotions, and magnifies those moments far greater than they would be if experienced alone.  A major accomplishment is sweetened through mutual cheering, and a major setback is softened through being taken as a mutual rather than individual burden. We must ask ourselves to what extent we owe the coarsening of our culture on the mass retreat from shared space and our unwillingness to view the making of a better society as an individual role.

The failure of the average man and woman to participate in the public sphere leaves that sphere to the people that are not average. It leaves that sphere to the inordinately ambitious, self serving, profiteering, ill motivated and uninspired individuals. The public sphere provides and protects the very things that bind us together, and the very things that save us from anarchy and despair. Yet, incoherently, we neglect it, ignore it, and see its maintenance as an afterthought or worse: somebody else’s job. Politics has become a game to us – a horse race about who is up and who is down.  A war not of ideas, but of idealogues. A battle not of merit, but of tactics and strategy. To get out the base instead of to persuade. Fundraising, media savvy, and the construction of a narrative have come to trump – in terms of utility in winning elections – the construction of sound policy proposals, solutions to long-term problems, and personal integrity. Voters may blame politicians for modern complacency, stalemate, and stagnation in Washington – but voters (and especially non-voters), ultimately, are complicit in the creation of a quagmire ridden political landscape. If the American people truly wished to punish legislators for failure to compromise, failure to fairly negotiate, and failure to make sound policy – then they do a remarkably poor job of punishment.

We have an affirmative obligation to self-educate on issues of political concern. Failure to do so should receive something more critical than some side-eye or excuses on their behalf. This means treating even the smallest form of participation, the vote, with due respect rather than an afterthought. It means forming political views through a conscious effort rather than through secondhand information, a product of the rumor mill, a product of interactions only with like minded individuals. It means seeking out new ideas, new directions, weighing them against each other, and arriving at an educated conclusion. Anything less is government by the ignorant.  Anything less is government by accident. Government by meager effort or no effort at all.

The whole concept of republicanism, where we elect representatives and those folks in turn make decisions on our behalf, relies on some level of effort on the part of those doing the selecting. Collective responsibility is a part of the social contract, but the principle of the social contract is neglected in common education – the concept of citizenship is neglected. Instead, the focus lately has been on self sufficiency and not relying on others, rather than making yourself the type of person folks are willing to rely on, and making yourself open to the idea of relying on others for the common good. We have been taught not to trust our fellow voters, but to mistrust them. We advocate for term-limits precisely because we mistrust the decisions of our fellow democrats. What does that say about democracy? We have been taught not to become more educated about the issues, but instead, to become as independent from the mess of society as we can – the ideal is always seen as private, whether that be living in a private gated community, sending our kids to a private school, getting private healthcare insurance, etc. The public space is neglected and seen as the space for those less fortunate. The ideal, insanely, is seen to be above politics instead of in the mix as someone trying to fix it. We actively disparage those who spend a life in public service – even without looking at what may very well be noble intentions.

A recognition that politics is broken would logically seem to cause a renewed interest in fixing it. Instead, Americans have chosen a second path: altogether abandoning it. To use a metaphor, the barn is on fire – and instead of putting out we are letting it continue to burn, continue to engulf, continue to make things worse for future fixers instead of jumping in to save it now. Our short term thinking, to save ourselves the trouble and indignity of getting our hands dirty in political work and dialogue, is going to inevitably cause things to get worse before they get better. Waiting for political wrangling to hit rock bottom (waiting for the barn to be nothing but ashes) before we find it in ourselves to renew civic participation. This is wrongheaded and foolish – potentially disastrous to our standing in the world as a superpower, our economic might, our respected place at the top of the international food chain, and to future generations – our children and their children. We must ask what kind of legacy we want to leave. We must ask the same questions they inevitably will wonder: Mom, dad, when the government was imploding in on itself, where were you?  When all we needed was good people to soften the radicalized edges of politics, to bring sensible thought back into the public space where were you? Why did you let the extreme poles fight each other to the death of the republic?

A focus on institutional legacy and institutional pride, longevity, the supremacy of law over man – used to be celebrated and held in non-ironic high regard. Today we might see a lofty quote above the entrance to a courthouse that in today’s political climate is more likely to inspire and eye roll more than a heartfelt sense of democratic awe. We used to build schools to look like iconic landmarks, we used to build courthouses to look like cathedrals. There was once a sense of pride in self-government. Today an announcement that you might want to help a person run for city council is more likely to be greeted with confused looks and the question: “What’s in it for you?”

We need to fight for common things again. The intangible things that surround us but inevitably improve the quality of life. Infrastructure, education, reliable systems of justice and deliberation, healthy engagement on environmental and resource issues, all the things that are too easy to leave to those with self-interest at stake – they have to be balanced out with the participation of those with less immediate self interest. That’s the only way this will work.

It’s the only way any of this will work.

Image by SarahPAC-USA


Staff Writer
Twitter 

Tess Kovach lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She has experience in various forms of rabblerousing, both in government and outside of government. She tweets at @KStreetHipster.

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176 thoughts on “A Desperate Plea for a Renewal of Citizenship

  1. “To use a metaphor, the barn is on fire ”

    Let. It. Burn.

    I didn’t start the fire. I wasn’t even around when the oil was thrown against the barn walls, and i sure as hell didn’t strike the match. I refuse to sacrifice my blood, sweat, and treasure by running into the barn alone to fix a problem started long ago. I’d much rather sit and watch those who started and abetted the fire be consumed in the flames.

    Besides, voting is violence and I’ll not be a part of it.

    http://voluntaryist.com/articles/103.html#.Vvux3OIrLRY

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    • It’s your own barn, and it’s your own people who are suffering from the fire. But if you want to just chill and watch, I guess you can. Go grab a beer and watch the world burn while being self-righteous and pedantic about who started the problem. As Anderson Cooper recently pointed out to Donald Trump, “He started it!” is a 5 year old’s argument.

      In my view, we all have a responsibility to contribute as citizens to help improve our lives, the lives of others, our communities, and the quality of our government. Anything less is to throw in the towel and abandon the principles of democracy – to throw our hands in the air and allow people to suffer. It is not necessary or ethical to scoff at the problems we face without trying to be a part of the cavalry.

      Tess

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      • My own people? “My people” don’t constantly tell me what i can and cannot do with MY money, property, and my own life. I had two parents who raised me to be an adult. I’ve been around for quite a while now and do not need a nanny.

        I was raised such that you fixed your own damn mess. I’m not fixing anyone else’s. I didn’t contribute to the current problems and accept no blame for them, nor any responsibility to fix them. I have NO responsibility to anyone else for anything other than basic courtesy and not to inflict harm/commit violence upon them.

        Quoting an obnoxious tele-prick talking about another obnoxious prick doesn’t really sway me.

        Stop living in the fantasy that you still live in a democracy and that you matter to your governmental masters.

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        • What’s left, I’ll happily sacrifice to watch the quislings roast.

          How dare anybody tell you what to do with your property, but eh, your property isn’t all that important?

          Makes sense to me.

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            • I guess so. I just don’t see why anybody else would care more about your property than you do.

              Care about whatever you like, and accept responsibility for whatever you like, but the consequences of the “mess” aren’t going to pass you by because you throw up your hands and say you have nothing to do with any of this. If you choose to be one of those men who just wants to watch the world barn burn, that’s on you, but it seems like one of the least rewarding things one could do with it to me.

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              • I never said I’d avoid the consequences of the barn burning. I just said I wasn’t going to lift a finger to fix it. I’m fully aware of what the consequences could be and frankly, I’m cool with it. You are under the impression that the barn can be saved. I’m not. I’ve resigned myself to that fact. Might as well get whatever enjoyment out of it that you can.

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                • Damon:
                  I never said I’d avoid the consequences of the barn burning. I just said I wasn’t going to lift a finger to fix it. I’m fully aware of what the consequences could be and frankly, I’m cool with it. You are under the impression that the barn can be saved. I’m not. I’ve resigned myself to that fact. Might as well get whatever enjoyment out of it that you can.

                  So if someone believes there’s some hope of saving the barn, and all it requires is for them to take what remains of your property and liberty, they should just go ahead, right? Accepting your hypotheses about the nature of the barn and the people who care about keeping it from burning, that seems like a particularly likely outcome, after all.

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                  • So, like more of the same I’m dealing with currently?

                    They aren’t interested in saving the barn. That’s the lie they tell you to get your compliance and complicity.

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                    • So, like more of the same I’m dealing with currently?

                      If you see it that way. I just don’t see where you’d have an expectation that they wouldn’t behave that way.

                      They aren’t interested in saving the barn. That’s the lie they tell you to get your compliance and complicity.

                      I expect some are interested, and others aren’t.

                      On the other hand, my “compliance and complicity” (which I guess means “paying taxes” and “obeying laws that are often kinda stupid”) is not obviously working out too horribly.

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          • I don’t agree with , but their position seems at least consistent. It’s reasonable for the “what to do” part to be a bigger deal than the “with my property” part.

            When the Tsar sought to conscript the Doukhobors, they sent soldiers with bags of rifles to Doukhobor villages, and said “By this date, each of these rifles will return to us, carried by a young man from this village, who will supply his own coat and boots, and will serve the Russian army as a soldier.”

            The Doukhobors burned the rifles rather than violate their pacifism.

            The Tsar sent soldiers to terrify the Doukhobors by burning down their homes.

            The Doukhobors burned down their own homes to demonstrate that threats could not intimidate them out of pacifism.

            The issue was not that the Tsar was requiring the young Doukhobor men to use their own boots and coats, and allowing them to do what they abhorred entirely with government property would have been entirely irrelevant.

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            • Sure, if the most important thing is maintaining a specific virtue, like pacifism, then I think it’s entirely consistent. Maybe that’s what’s going on here, and suggesting that should participate in the American political process to preserve his life, liberty and property is like suggesting that the Doukhobors should shoot people for the Tsar.

              If that’s the case, and he’s right about the whole system being on the road to ruin, I wish him all the luck in the world. He’s certainly going to need it.

              If, on the other hand, the fundamental problem has a somewhat different shape to it–and I think it does–withdrawing from the political process seems like a very bad way to defend the things he values. That’s true if he only values his own rights, or if he values everybody else’s, too.

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  2. In the face of people’s preferences to do something other than vote (of which you provide ample examples) and further in the face of the failure of actual public deliberation (viz social media) it seems you need to do more to justify your democratic communitarian values. For any value X, if you are going to describe lots of people not subscribing to that value as a problem, you need to do some work to showing why people should subscribe to X. Perhaps you could elaborate in the comments.

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    • Because the only way to improve the community through thoughtful deliberation and conscious action is to try to improve it through thoughtful deliberation and conscious action. Am I missing something here?

      I’m not going to just type up some kind of defense of democracy and caring for others. If that’s something that’s necessary, then our problems go even deeper than I had imagined.

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      • They do go deeper than you imagined. I’m probably the biggest sceptic about democracy you will find on this site. But let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s grant that we’re stuck with democracy for good or for ill and ask, instead, what kind of democracy is better. We could have a schumpeterian democracy where the formal democratic institutions are in place but everybody or almost everybody is politically apathetic. That is one extreme. On the other end of the spectrum, you could have much more deliberative and active electorate. The mere fact that we should have (or are stuck with) some kind of democracy does not mean that the kind we should have is the one with wide deliberation and participation.

        The problems you list out in your article with actual voters and actual public discussion hint at why the more deliberative kind of democracy is the wrong kind of democracy to have. I’ll link to some old posts of mine to make this point more forcefully:

        http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/2012/07/31/discourse-failure-and-why-both-sides-do-it/

        http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/2011/11/22/murali%E2%80%99s-democratic-impossibility-theorem/

        Sometimes, if you can’t do something well, don’t even try.

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  3. There appear to be several different arguments in this piece. Here are three that I’ve gotten from it:

    1. The fact that more Americans abstain from voting now than before suggests Americans aren’t doing even the bare minimum that their citizenship should require of them. Therefore, at the very least, Americans should vote.

    2. Americans used to have a strong commitment to civic engagement and the public good and have now declined from that commitment.

    3. The chief culprits for no.’s 1 and 2 are apathy and ignorance.

    If I’m misconstruing things, if these are not in fact arguments you are making, please correct me. I don’t want to straw man you.

    I see the issue differently at least as concerns these two arguments.

    Voting perhaps is the minimum one can do, but one can be a very involved citizen without voting. And it’s not clear to me that people who don’t vote as a rule are not involved in other ways. I’m inclined to think that someone who works hard, who blogs and who participates in civil society–are church members, members of the proverbial bowling clubs, etc.–are also participating as citizens, even if they don’t vote.

    At least some of the decline in voting–depending on what years and localities we’re comparing to–have to do with the fall of political machines that could mobilize large masses of people to vote a certain ticket. I’m not convinced those machines were conducive to the deliberative republicanism the OP appeals to. I’m not convinced it wasn’t, mind, but it wasn’t necessarily public good centered.

    I also suspect that more people exercising their franchise could be an example of less, not more, deliberation. If you’re on my side of the aisle, you probably bemoan the fact that people like Trump appear to be gaining momentum. Maybe that’s because not enough people are voting, or maybe it’s because more people are voting. Similar to Bush Jr. in 2004–liberal-leaning people might have been dispirited by his presidency and therefore abstained from voting, but others came to the polls in droves in response to Rove’s “let’s put social issues on the ballot” strategy. If you’re not on my side of the aisle, you can point, for example, to 2008, when masses of young people flocked to the polls to vote for some substantive issues–like universal health care or a tax on a mythical over $250,000 earners–which probably counts as deliberative democracy. But there was also a sense that they were just voting for “hope and change”….more of a bandwagon effect and not much substance there.

    I’ll also suggest that voting is fine. I can’t think of a better way of choosing our leaders and our representatives than by open, free, and fair elections. But in large elections–i.e., maybe not for dog catcher, but for state legislator or higher or mayor of a medium or larger sized city–one vote really doesn’t make the difference. That’s an explanation for the apathy that you seem to suggest bedevils our society. But if it is apathy and if voting is posited as a cure for that apathy, voting becomes an exercise, sort of like the civic equivalent to holy communion, where the pious participate to demonstrate their piety. It’s not quite deliberation.

    As for apathy and ignorance in general. Ignorance isn’t always ignorance. People might not know that GOP means “Grand Old Party,” but they have heard of the Republicans and have an opinion about them. If you ask someone “who heads the executive branch,” they might not be able to say it’s Obama, but if you ask them who the president is, they’ll know it’s Obama.

    I don’t want to take this too far. We do miss something when people don’t know what a veto is and how Congress can override it. But the issue is, I can know all that–and more–and yet not exercise any real influence in public deliberation other than writing a letter to my Congressman and getting a letter in return telling me he’s going to vote the way he was already going to vote. I do concede though that If a thousand people wrote a similar letter, then that would probably move him.

    Probably it would be different and better if we “elevated” our public discourse. You’re not saying it’s a cure all, just part of what needs be done. Perhaps what I just wrote above confirms the points you’re making rather than contradicts them and I am part of the problem.

    (By the way, thanks for writing this. I see most of these issues very differently. But these are ideas that need to be discussed and it’s good that you’re airing them. I have to go to work now, but I’ll read any responses later this evening.)

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      • This seems like a rather useless sentiment, since the people who are (per that argument) most likely to have a duty not to vote are the people who are least likely to realize that they have a duty not to vote.

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        • Maybe, but if a whole bunch of people have, for a variety of reasons decided to remain ignorant of politics and also decided not to vote, let’s not try getting them to vote.

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      • I know that once everybody is informed and up on the latest ideas that everybody will see things the same way. That is the reason the good doctors Mengele and Guevara both belonged to the same political party. Or in other words, I call bullshit on the idea of literacy tests to vote.

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    • If you’re on my side of the aisle, you probably bemoan the fact that people like Trump appear to be gaining momentum. Maybe that’s because not enough people are voting, or maybe it’s because more people are voting.

      Republican primary turnout is 50% greater than any year since at least 1980. Interestingly, Democratic turnout is not particularly high, despite the Cult of Bernie.

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    • If we accept that voting is as available as it needs to be (i.e. we ignore laws and extralegal tactics of voter suppression), and that voting is the cure to civic apathy, then we are left to conclude that current levels of apathy are unavoidable.

      But voting isn’t just voting.

      As you point out, a single vote, or even the collective voting power of a hundred like-minded people, is very unlikely to make a difference in any large election under current voting rules. I think this may be nowhere more true than in the US presidential election – between the size of the voter pool, and the precision-stripping effects of the electoral college, there are only a handful of states where, even if you have made it to the polls, it is worth the additional fraction of a second’s effort to mark the ‘president’ section of the ballot paper.

      In Canada, after every federal or provincial election for some time now, there comes coverage of just how big the difference is between the distribution of popular vote and the distribution of seats in Parliament.

      This past federal election three of the five major parties running (or as few as two of the three, depending how you define “major”) included electoral reform in their platforms. The new governing party (with, as usual, a strong majority in Parliament despite getting only a minority of the popular vote) was one of those, so it’s possible we’ll actually see electoral reform before the next election. I’m certainly hoping we do.

      And I think that may help with voter turnout in Canada. I’ve voted in every federal and provincial election since I was of voting age, and I think there might have been one or two elections that whole time when there was any doubt beforehand of the outcome in my riding.

      The closer we get to some proportional representation system, the more likely I think people in what used to be stronghold ridings will see a reason to go vote.

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      • The difficulty you get with list PR is that it generates tendencies toward parties governed by bosses who draw up the slates. I think parties in Israel are more internally democratic than they used to be. They were very boss-ridden as late as 1977.

        Another problem you get is that you have to have contrivances to substitute for constituent-service arrangements.

        Your problem in Canada might be partially resolved by some delineation rules which give you ridings of more equal dimension and shifting to ordinal balloting with tabulation according to the conventions of the alternate vote. First-past-the-post is long past its sell date. It really only works passably in strict two party systems.

        Btw, a velvet divorce between Anglophone Canada and Quebec would take some issues off the table and allow bodies politic on each side to proceed without the distraction of the national question.

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        • At the moment, there is no decision on what the new form will be – ranked ballot, PR (and if so of what type) single MP per riding, combined ridings with multiple MPs per, do away with ridings altogether, etc.

          The NDP and Greens were promising some form of PR (specifics TBD). The Liberals only promised something other than first past the post.

          It sounds like you’re favouring single-MP-per-riding ranked ballot – which would resolve some intra-riding vote splitting problems, but not inter-riding vote dispersion. Also it would probably mean the Liberals run the show for the rest of time, because they’re everybody’s second choice. (The cynic might say that they have “centrism” staked out, and carefully pace the Overton window with a tape measure every morning to know what their immovable principles are.)

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      • Those are all very good points, , though I’m ashamed to say I don’t know enough about Canadian electoral rules (I should know more than I do, because I’ve studied Canadian history. But I don’t know enough.).

        I will say that for all my reservations about the value of the vote and of my own individual vote, I vote in almost every election in which I’m eligible. (Except for the primaries, for mostly bad reasons.)

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  4. Do you know why rich people don’t vote?
    They pay other people to vote for them.

    You haven’t given one shred of thought to modifying the game theory of our goverment.

    Telling us to be “more engaged” is… fine?

    But it doesn’t fix the unresponsiveness of the government.

    It really doesn’t fix the bribes or blackmail.

    Do you even know how much a favor in government costs? If you don’t know that, how the hell do you think you’re going to manage to change a damn thing?

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    • 1. Rich people do vote, they vote at an entirely higher rate than other demographics. 2. My post was not about game theory, it was about civic duty. 3. My premise is that the bad responsiveness of government is our own fault, through our neglect of our role in our system of government, our inept decisionmaking, our abject civic ignorance, and our disdain for matters of public rather than private concern, and that the only to fix it is to try harder and be more discriminating in the decisions we make – including our selection of officeholders. 4. Re: “a favor in government” I worked in the lobbying industry for five years, and actually did client billing, so sure, I might be one of about 10K people who know more about that particular topic than anybody in the world. 5. Don’t insult me.

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      • Tess,
        1) you’ve got stats for people who own more than $6 million dollars? Love to see ’em.
        2) I claim that there’s a good reason why our government is not more responsive to people, and that’s because we didn’t design it to be. If we designed a better system, we’d get a better “citizenship”
        3) Will you vote for Trump then? If you want to change the system, destroying outdated coalitions seems to be well-warranted behavior.
        4) I apologize. Will you allow me to check some numbers with you, as you’re an expert? How much do you think a minor bribe costs? (by which we’re talking “steer gov’t business to my business” — nothing too outlandish).

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        • I don’t have access, that I know of, to a statistic on that particular income figure. That said, I do know that 80% or more of those who make more than $150,000 per year do cast a vote in presidential years.

          As for designing a better system, I don’t see how we make that happen unless we the people make it happen by selecting representatives who intend to make such a reform. What’s the alternative, magic?

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          • Tess,
            Most of those people aren’t rich, merely well-to-do and living in Cali or NYC. I got the quip on “the rich don’t vote” from a friend of mine who was calling rich folks for donations on behalf of the Jeb! campaign last year.

            You either take the position that “working within the current system of coalitions” we can affect change — or you pull a Bernie Sanders. You gotta know that it would destroy the Democratic Party if he got elected President. If you’re at the point of saying, “these people won’t willingly relinquish their power and stability” (and most “better citizenship” ideas start with, at their core, a more responsive government — which means voting officials out…), then you’d better come up with something radical enough to blow up the current coalitions.

            Trump works (mostly because the GOP coalition was already ramshackle as all get out).
            Sanders works (except, he really doesn’t, because he’s Definitely not strong enough to overpower the superdelegate advantage of the Democratic Party Establishment).

            Sometimes, a bit of creative destruction is absolutely crucial to any progress at all being made.

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  5. Another fine piece Tess. Welcome aboard!

    I think I must echo @damon’s comments above. A rethinking of what makes one a citizen is in order now the we have reached the height of civic nationalism and mass participatory democracy. All the items you list in your final paragraph (education, infrastructure, justice), while vital, require closer bonds within a community than we as a state currently hold to repair in any meaningful way.

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  6. A rethinking is in order of what we want to achieve with government.
    In political discussions it’s often just assumed that the most fundamental things like rule of law and basic human rights are fixed and naturally ocurring, requiring no effort or support from us.
    But a quick look around the world shows that the darkest dystopian nightmares could easily occur, if we allow it.

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  7. This is a really good piece. I have historically been somewhat dismissive of a lot of “what people don’t know” statistics and particularly interviews. But in the aggregate, it’s mighty depressing.

    It does lend itself to a lot of thoughts I’ve been having about simplifying the process to a degree. Namely in limiting the number of elections and elected officials. Depending on where you are, it gets pretty insane sometimes. Which is good for political geeks like myself, but even I find myself exhausted by it as it gets older. Having only one set of elections a year, getting rid of judicial elections (a good idea in its own right), and folding local governments in with one another.

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    • This would make a very good follow up article. I agree, if we make the methods of engagement more straightforward, it would be a great service to the electorate/citizenry. Ballot fatigue is real – with ballots in some places having more than FIFTY choices to be made, depending on the time of year.

      The thing of course is…the only way we get there is to take it upon ourselves to work for that. And that requires engagement and good citizenship first. Chicken, meet egg.

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    • There is a counter-argument to this, though.

      Increasing voter turnout without increasing voter participation doesn’t necessarily result in better elected officials, it results in… statistically somewhat predictable advantages that are embedded in process, instead of participation. That’s… probably bad?

      For example, if your local election is dominated by 70% “informed” voters and 30% “uninformed” voters, the structural advantage given to somebody by, say, their position in the ballot (which, yes, does give you a structural advantage) is outweighed by the fact that more/most of the voters are voting on information, not randomly.

      Position on ballot matters. It’s not a huge advantage, but it matters. It can be easily overcome if most of the electorate is paying attention.

      On the other hand, unified elections? Well, suddenly you may have a turnout where 70% of the electorate knows who they want to vote for in the Presidential race, but only 53% of them actually have been paying attention to the Local Comptroller race. 30% of the overall group of folks are uniformed about the Presidential race, but *47%* of them are uniformed about the Local Comptroller race.

      Many of them will not refrain from checking a box down ballot because they really got out to vote for President, but they feel an obligation to check some box in the Local Comptroller section.

      Suddenly, the first letter of your last name or the random draw of ballot apportioning can give you enough votes to matter, because the relative number of folks who are paying attention is lower.

      This is not, in and of itself, an argument against more unified elections. It just means that if we go that route *before* having a more informed electorate, we *may* also need to make sure we’re limiting those little structural factors that could influence elections. Random ballot distributions, etc.

      These aren’t big problems in any way, but they are something to consider.

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      • On the other hand, unified elections? Well, suddenly you may have a turnout where 70% of the electorate knows who they want to vote for in the Presidential race, but only 53% of them actually have been paying attention to the Local Comptroller race. 30% of the overall group of folks are uniformed about the Presidential race, but *47%* of them are uniformed about the Local Comptroller race.

        Yes. This is why I disagree with putting all elections together and I look instead at basically one a year, timed mostly on level. Federal (and state legislature) elections on divisable-by-four years, state elections on other divisible-by-two years, and local elections on odd years. There would be some federal-state overlap for the legislature in state/US House representatives, but that would be the exception.

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        • Agreed. What you would benefit from is a quadrennial calendar. Federal offices in year one; local offices with general and miscellaneous responsibilities in year two (e.g. municipal councils, county councils, mayors, and county executives), the governor and state legislature in year three, and specialty offices in year four (e.g. school board and sheriff and state treasurer). Have your referenda, judicial elections, and elections to offices which monitor rather than implement policy in May, have your primaries in late August, and then have your general elections in November. Also, require local electorates to reconfirm the elective status of a specialty office at least once every thirty years in a referendum. New York’s portfolio of elective offices has masses of barnacles upon it, and New York is fairly conservative re the number of elective offices.

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  8. Excellent piece.

    Two observations… there’s some sketchy indications that universal vote-by-mail helps a bit. I expect Arizona and California to adopt that within a few years, and look forward to the before-and-after numbers when that happens. There’s a better case that hot ballot initiatives drive turnout — eg, Colorado went above 70% in 2012 when recreational marijuana was on the ballot.

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      • If you’re going to argue in favor of citizenship, I think it’s kind of hard to argue in favor of making it harder for people to engage in the political participation that comes along with it. Especially since there’s not just the question of whether some now-marginal voters cast their votes, but also the question of people who are making substantial investments just to vote[1] may be freed up to participate more completely and competently.

        [1] E.g., standing for hours to in front of a polling place.

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        • Having people show up at a polling place and flash a picture ID is not ‘hard’. Neither is filling out a form at the post office when you’ve moved or when you’ve been purged from the rolls because you haven’t voted in four years. Just changing election days from Tuesday (a mid-19th century market day) to Saturday (a general day off since 1920) would remove an impediment without compromising ballot security.

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        • [1] E.g., standing for hours to in front of a polling place.

          Where does this happen? I don’t think I’ve ever had more than a single digit population standing in front of me, no matter what time of day I voted. Are you voting in some state that has giant precincts?

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      • It helps if the state sends out voter information pamphlets ahead of or with the ballots.

        WA has vote by mail, and the voter pamphlets are a critical part of the process. If we are going to have numerous elections and positions to elect, the time has passed to rely heavily on the polling place. There is just too much information needed to vote well in the time allotted at a voting booth.

        Hell, in Utah they just held a primary election using blockchain voting.

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  9. Low voter turnout is a good thing. Voting is strongly correlated with education, with the result that more educated people are overrepresented in elections. And the more educated someone is, the more likely that person is to have at least some vague approximation of a clue about things like government, economics, statistics, science, and other things people need to know to be good voters.

    Yes, I get that you want everyone to vote in an informed manner. But that’s not going to happen. Many people just don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand the issues, no matter how much effort they put in—really, a deep understanding of the issues a voter needs to know is a huge undertaking even for very intelligent people. Many don’t even learn important things that will help them directly in their daily lives, so what makes you think they’re going to learn about things that only make them better voters?

    I’m all for a more informed populace, to whatever extent that’s achievable. But trying to increase voter turnout is the last thing we should be doing.

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    • I have to agree with BB here and as such I think that America needs a poll tax. Never forget that the extermination camps were designed by people with engineering degrees. Or in other words I call bullshit on the idea that we should be working to keep people from voting.

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      • I get that you think you’re making some kind of cogent point here, but I assure you that you’re not. I’d say I expect better from you, but that would be a lie.

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        • BB, You say that the electorate needs to be educated to vote as if that would ensure everybody would see the light and vote for your candidate and I call bullshit. If that bothers you then I recommend that you start saying things that have validity in the real world instead of the right wing bog of failed ideas you call reality.

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          • It’s not about voting for my candidate. While support for more libertarian policies (both social and economic) positively correlates with intelligence and educational attainment, even at the highest levels libertarians are a minority. So that’s not going to happen, regardless.

            The problem is that voter ignorance results in both parties fielding worse candidates who propose worse policies in order to cater to ignorant voters. With a more intelligent, more informed electorate, Democrats and Republicans would still win all the elections. But they’d be better Democrats and better Republicans, and the country would have better policy. Not exactly the policy I want, but at least some of the really stupid shit would be off the table.

            But hey, if you think it’s really important that we get out the low-information vote, enjoy your eight years of President Trump.

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            • BB, You came so close to writing an entire reply without any snottiness. I do have to give you kudos for the first two paragraphs though and a hearty thank you for the reply.
              Question: As a libertarian who believes that free trade is great , how do you go about teaching the people that it is responsible for a huge amount of the pollution that is causing global warming?
              Purely anecdotal, but I do not worry about a Trump presidency because my entire family, except for my wife and one of our children, are hard core republicans who say that under no circumstance will they vote for Trump. They have even said that they would vote for the socialist before Trump.

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      • Exactly. Different people understand their interests differently, and no matter how sophisticated someone’s education, that’s doesn’t qualify them to properly determine how someone else ought to advocate for himself in a democratic system.

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    • Low voter turnout is not a good thing. It’s just reflective of problems rather than the generator of problems that the League of Women Voters types imagine. These people picked the low hanging fruit a long time ago. (For instance, as recently as 1959 in Upstate New York, you had to register in person every year at the board of elections or at the town clerk’s office). Nowadays, you hear claptrap about ‘voter suppression’ when legislatures institute requirements that voters show picture IDs and you have ill-advised schemes for convenience voting along with wholly unnecessary institution of technological applications which damage ballot security and voter confidence.

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      • How do you figure it’s not a good thing? Do you think we would have higher-quality government if the least-informed citizens were better represented in the electorate?

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        • Once again I have to agree with BB. We would have a much better government if everybody had a good education. Then people would know that free trade is not only not free, but a major source of global warming. And if that was the case we would not have Senator Inhofe standing in the senate chamber saying that a snowball in winter proves there is no global warming.

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        • My contention is that it’s a barometer. Your barometer readings are indicative of your problem. They’re not causing your problem.

          Turnout declines when you have voter disaffection. People of a given level of intelligence can be more or less attentive and more or less disaffected. You’re positing that voter disaffection is not correlated with voter ignorance, and that’s a dubious claim. Alternatively, you’re playing Charles Murray and you fancy that IQ is good even if the Mensa dweebs in question know not a blessed thing about a subject. Ergo, a smaller electorate is better even if they’re more disaffected and just as ignorant as the large electorate of 1960. Alternatively, you have some scheme in mind to reduce the dimensions of the electorate. There’s a reason we have some simple rules to determine who is and is not a part of the electorate. As a country we-been-there-done-that with property qualifications and poll taxes.

          I’d refer you to William Schneider on this question (who was writing on the academic research with which he was familiar ca. 1985): non-voters do have different opinions than voters, but the differences are small and not of much consequence. (Shneider was writing in counter-point to red haze types fussing that Ronald Reagan did not have a mandate because 45% of the electorate did not vote).

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    • more educated someone is, the more likely that person is to have at least some vague approximation of a clue about things like government, economics, statistics, science, and other things people need to know to be good voters.

      I hear this a lot, and from mostly liberal folks as well although they usually spin it in the positive way.
      Its kind of intuitive isn’t it, that the more educated we are, the better choices we make in governance? All very New Frontier, Best and Brightest Camelot sort of stuff.

      Except I don’t see it borne out in empirical evidence.
      Where do we see highly educated people making good smart wise decisions, leading to better outcomes?

      Exhibits A and B- the Vietnam War and Iraq War were brought to us by the very best minds that the Ivy League could churn out, and both were debacles that became blindingly obvious to even the most illiterate peasant long before they were apparent to the BestnBrightest.

      Exhibit C and D- The Wall Street meltdowns of 2008 and savings and loan collapse of the late 90s; Weren’t these the product of the smartest guys on the planet, the Master Of The Universe who are allegedly worth the billions they take home?

      I mean, yeah these are easy targets, but seriously, where do we see evidence that highly educated people produce superior outcomes in policy?

      The theory that is being put forward here is (ironically) a very liberal one, that governance is the product of technical knowledge and education, instead of wisdom and moral vision.

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      • The problem with this argument is that you have no control group. Sure, smart people do stupid stuff sometimes, but do you really think it would be better, or even as good as it is, with high school dropouts and graduates with an average IQ of 90 calling the shots?

        While there’s no real control group, we can look at the policies people with low educational attainment actually favor. Support for the Iraq War was negatively correlated with educational attainment among Democrats and Independents, and overall (although it was uncorrelated in Republicans). I can’t really think of a relevant test for banking, but I can’t imagine you agree with the proposition that people with below-average intelligence who don’t know anything about finance would do a better job of running banks. Educational attainment is negatively correlated with support for Donald Trump and for teaching creationism in schools, and positively correlated with support for gay marriage, legal abortion, and belief in global warming.

        Technical knowledge and education are part of wisdom. You can’t know what the right policy is if you don’t understand what the effects of a policy are likely to be.

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  10. I had a quixotic reaction to this, most excellent, post and I’m going to just lay out the thoughts. I don’t know that I fully subscribe to it, just spit balling here.

    Maybe, contra to Damon, the barn isn’t on fire. Maybe the aggregate masses of this very large populous country and mostly ok with how things are going? Maybe the low voter turnouts are reflective of how low the stakes are in politics for the vast majority of the citizenry. I mean contrast our current state of affairs with the same fifty years ago. Fifty years ago the big political danger looming over this country was the imminent possibility that everyone and everything would be consumed in nuclear fire; now the big political danger is that each individual has some very low odds of being killed in a terror attack by some antediluvian Islamic nutbags (roughly the same odds as, what, electrocuting yourself in your tub with an appliance? Getting struck by lightning?). Fifty years ago the state could be taking upwards of more than half your income in taxes, now it’s a hell of a lot lower. Fifty years ago the global stage was locked in a revolutionary debate between state controlled command economies and liberal market economies. Now liberal market economies are universal (warts and all) and command economies are a punch line- even all but the most fringe of the leftists just want somewhat more leftward liberal market economies; the hammer and sickle is nowhere in sight.

    Perhaps the masses ignore government or treat it as a game because entertainment is mostly how they see it? Maybe engagement is so low, maybe the system is the way it is, because for most people* the stakes are really low?

    *Not minorities or single issue voters or perennial political kooks.

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    • You should check the seismographs more often, sir. Simply because the media doesn’t bother reporting on something, doesn’t mean it’s not still a danger.

      What are the stakes? Rural America, for one thing. I can point to the laws intentionally created to destroy rural America, if you’d like (even got an article or two on Wall Street’s involvement).

      What are the stakes? In five to ten years, we may see the loss of the entire globalized economy. I know someone who’s buying up tools now to sell to American Entrepreneurs, just in case. (Same guy that made a mint selling Confederate flags… so it’s a bet, capiche?)

      How many people in America are living in places where they won’t be able to sign a 30 year mortgage thirty years from now? Those people stand to lose their entire life savings. (if you must flee a place, be the first one out, not the last. The last won’t keep their shirt).

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            • You are incorrect about that, North.
              Today, the demise of rural America is about them not being fed (wall street’s found something they care about more than food).
              Tommorrow, the climate refugees destitution may be about the spread of disease (and if not “being fed” it’s at least in the right ballpark)

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              • Ruralia will be used to produce adequate food until some kind of hydroponics replaces it. Whether many people live in it or not will be mostly incidental.

                Global Warming may or may not be a thing. The masses are not likely to give much mind to warnings about an invisible ecological catastrophe that will wreck the world for their grandkids. They especially won’t give much mind when the environmentalists describing the (same as they every prescribed) privations that must be endured to prevent AGW have an expression like they’ve got an erection going on under the desk. The masses don’t swing that way.

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                • I never said I wasn’t for the demise of ruralia.
                  (It’s will who’s probably not, fwiw).

                  “Global Warming may or may not be a thing.”
                  What part of a 300 year trendline have you failed to grasp? The consequences of global warming are hitting us now, both politically and economically. It will only get worse from here.

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                  • I’m trying to speak for the masses Kimmie, not myself and we both know that AGW has risen in mass consciousness to roughly a “I’ll pitch in a buck to deal with it so long as it doesn’t seriously impact my life” level at most.

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    • The thing is, the US started at a lower rate than other countries from the start though. Plus, even with a drop in turnout among other advanced countries, nations such as Germany still has turnout around 80%. The fact they have a slightly higher tax rate doesn’t account for a 20% difference between elections.

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      • Globally, yes, Venezuela was always a punch line and her command economy was one as well. For the masses in America Venezuela wasn’t even a punch line, it was “isn’t that a place you can take a vacation to in Mexico?”

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  11. First off, excellent piece, Tess. Thank you.

    I find sympathy in your sentiment, but the solution you suggest is, I’m afraid, too little to get the job done.

    First, you have the problem of size. Civic engagement at town/city levels is, for most people, doable. You can engage, and be heard, and feel like you are making a difference, and still have a regular job/life. It gets a bit tougher at the state level, especially in the densely populated states, but if you make it a serious ‘hobby’ you can get things done despite career politicians being in the mix. At the federal level, it becomes a full time job just to get a foot in the door, and you gotta really want it (absent friends in the right places, or a large donation). Most people are not interested in that level of commitment. Voting is what they got, and even that feels so diluted that it’s a hard sell for the effort, especially for people who are struggling.

    Add in to that a two party system that has so entrenched itself that other voices have a hard time being heard (big tent promises just let you in the tent, they don’t guarantee a place at the table or podium), and often the only way you can hope to effect change is to ingratiate yourself into a party and hope you can convince them you drank enough of their kool-aid to be trustworthy and loyal (thus the reason both parties are shatting bricks over Trump & Bernie).

    In short, the system is big and deeply rigged. People are quite understandably feeling wholly disenfranchised all up & down the social scale.

    Think about your claim that people are retreating into private enclaves. They do this because it gives them a measure of control that they lack otherwise, and arguably the people who are doing the retreating are the people who are well educated and moneyed and can, if they felt it worth their while, actually engage the system. And they don’t, either because they feel disenfranchised, or just as likely, because they are quietly engaged with the system, and it largely works for them, because it lets them retreat into private enclaves and keeps the Hoi Polloi off their doorsteps.

    I’m happy to help you fight the barn fire, but less because I think the barn is worth saving, and more because I don’t want the fire to spread to the other buildings. Personally I think large parts of the barn structure were rotted prior to the match being struck and even if the fire is put out, the barn is gonna need to be rebuilt.

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  12. Also, while I agree with the larger premise, I question the specialness of American when it comes to polls like this that proves Americans know nothing. I mean, for instance, are we really sure that fewer than 33% of Germans or Japanese don’t know who the Deputy PM is in their nation? Or do we just poll people a lot more in America?

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  13. A very thought provoking piece.

    There is evidence that the politics become more moderate through interaction and learning that the other side is human. There is also a lot of evidence that political polarization might be the norm rather than the exception. There was a brief window in the United States during the post-WWII era where the GOP made peace with the New Deal and supported the Great Society but Rick Perlstein’s excellent histories of the modern right show that the movement began as soon as WWII ended if not before.

    In the end, there is not much you can do if people have vastly different philosophies and the purpose and scope of government. Some bridges might be too far to gap and there seem to be increasing social and economic chasms between the Democratic and Republican Party. At least the people in the parties who take ideas seriously.

    Oscar also brings up some good points. Civil engagement is easy at a local level and harder at a national level. I am a liberal Democratic type who lives in San Francisco. I need to travel pretty far before getting into red country. I can engage in democracy all I want in SF but not do anything to decrease polarization.

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  14. 1. You’re not going to get much in the way of corporal participation by ordinary people bar in local government (and in state government in a few loci like New Hampshire). Even in these circumstances, it’s a modest minority who will do so.

    2. In order to do that, you need to end the practice of making use of local governments as conduits for federal policy and state policy. This requires changes in statutory law and financing practice. As a rule, federal financing of local governments should be in the form of small indemnities and rental payments or in the form of disaster relief. State financing should be in the form of payments in lieu of taxes on state owned property and in the form of general revenue sharing distributed according to formula (say, with population and per capita income as arguments). Federal transfers to the states should likewise consist of unrestricted revenue sharing meant to provide a riser to stand on for the more impecunious states like West Virginia or Idaho. Affluent states like New York or New Jersey should get little or nothing.

    3. You’re also going to have to strip judges of all but a residuum of their franchise to push around elected officials.

    4. Amendments to the electoral system might help. That would include proper sorting of contests over annual and quadrennial cycles; innovations like ordinal balloting, the alternate vote, and single-transferrable vote; having fewer offices subject to competitive election, and selectively instituting ‘jungle primaries’ in lieu of party primaries followed by general elections.

    5. Your complaint about term limits reflects the usual confusions. The point is to inhibit the degree to which people build careers as elected officials and to reduce the share of those in conciliar bodies who are there faux de mieux simply because it was not worth anyone’s while (or worth the risk) to challenge them. Critics of term limits like Michael Kinsley (who you seem to be channeling here) never considered that people vote or fail to vote for a variety of reasons and that a distaste for long tenures was never more than one vector influencing their decisions; critics like David Broder forgot that the people who hold the gatekeeper positions in legislative bodes tend to be the lifers, not the majority who serve four terms and then go do something else with their life (George Will pointed that out to Broder, but it did not register with him). (Academic political scientists who study legislative bodies tend to be press agents for them, so dislike term limits). Mandatory retirement, like they have for judges in New York, should be instituted. Rotation in office (no more than 10 years in any bloc of 12 in a given non-judicial office) should be instituted. Lower age limits to run for supralocal offices (say, 39 years) should be instituted.

    6. Vote-by-mail should be limited to contests where there is no general franchise. For example, if you were to hold elections to state college boards limited to alumni who had registered to vote in the state, these might be vote by mail. Absentee ballots should be limited to soldiers and their families, college students, shut-ins, and a scatter of others. You’re just begging for vote fraud with vote by mail.

    7. Everything in hard copy. Tabulating machines are OK, and will be more-or-less necessary if ordinal balloting is the order of the day, but that should be the limit of your electronic technology. A hand-count must always be possible.

    8. Limit referenda to retention-in-office ballots, bond issues, charter amendments, and recalls. Also, ban commercial signature gathering. California is madcap.

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    • Who’s been sent to jail for vote-by-mail fraud? The only instances I’ve heard of (and I’ve listened to canvassers) are husbands voting for their wives, or vice versa.

      We have people in this millennium sent to jail for bollixing up the voting machines. (Because that’s a hell of a lot easier than bribing people to vote for who you want).

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        • Okay, let’s treat this like a game theory problem.
          Do you want systems that are easy to hack, AND let you control the entire election from one centralized point?
          Or do you want systems that are easy to monitor, and considerably harder to hack more than a few votes swing either way? (I’m assuming that if you steal more than an entire zipcode’s votes, people are gonna complain. There’s always someone who wants to vote, after all.)

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          • No clue why you fancy those are the choices. Mail-in ballots would be tabulated at the county board of elections in New York as opposed to the precincts. Whether or not any data processing system you made use of could be ‘hacked’ is a question quite irrelevant to whether or not you made use of postal ballots.

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        • Voters in the states that have adopted universal vote-by-mail (all registered voters receive a ballot) don’t seem to think it’s a problem — polling on the question of whether to retain the system runs 75-80% in favor. States that have opt-in mail balloting in the form of “permanent absentee” lists (eg, Arizona and California) don’t seem to think it’s a problem.

          Certainly there’s some chance for “retail” fraud — say, one spouse intimidating the other into signing a ballot the former has marked. “Wholesale” fraud is harder and involves multiple felonies — intercepting US mail, forging voter signatures, etc. Suppression gets much harder — eg, the cases where someone robo-calls ten thousand voters to tell them they need to vote on a different (wrong) day.

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          • Multiple states have spent millions looking for in-person voter fraud – much easier than vote-by-mail fraud – and the total number of verified cases found is in two digits, possibly even one digit.

            If there is any fraud in the system, and I’m in the middle on the possibility, it’s much more likely to come from machines that were designed with no accountability or traceability of their results than from the exact same mail system that distributes voter registration cards in the first place.

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          • The question, re fraud, would be the circumstances under which it would be useful.

            My last engagement with the political process was in 2001. I happened to be running down the list and found the name of a women who had lived in that village from 1995 to 1997 and not since. She likely had voted once in that town, five years earlier. They do not purge much anymore.

            Now, that town has a fairly stable population of single families and the people who run both parties are on the level, more or less (at least if it does not involve zoning variances). In Rochester, you have selected neighborhoods which have quite high turnover – a great deal of rental housing and people stay one year and move on. So, you have a great many relict registrations. You have some ACORN types who canvass these precincts and they know who they can safely impersonate for in-person voting or absentee voting.

            What was over Kim’s head is that centralized voting tabulation (which you have when you have mail-in ballots) is more vulnerable than distributed tabulation. The absolute vulnerability is dependent upon your poll inspection regime. Having participated in absentee ballot tabulation in my younger years, I can say you were with that technology better off in the field. The one qualification in this regard would be slum precincts without Republican poll inspectors.

            Kim appears to be auditioning to be Marc Crispin Miller’s research assistant while offering remarks which act to discredit his arguments. Go figure.

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            • Single points of failure are both easier to fail, and easier to monitor.

              Kindly make your points, in full, and I’ll address them.

              Your lack of understanding of game theory is quite frankly horrific. How much do you think it costs to bribe someone to impersonate someone else at the voting booth? Now… how much do you think it costs to bribe them to STAY QUIET about it? Newsmen know how to bribe people just as much as businessmen do, after all.

              Let one person out of a hundred speak about “impersonating” the non-existent. The whole scheme’s blown to hell, and you go directly to jail.

              it costs FAR LESS to intimidate people into not voting. It costs far less to convince people to vote. It costs far far less to convince people to vote for your candidate.

              Dude, seriously. I know it’s the internet, but you don’t know jack about ACORN. You also know jack about rigging elections.

              I know people in the political business — pro, con, polls — the whole shebang, and half the time playing all sides against the middle. Trust me, “ACORN types” ain’t impersonating people.

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              • Finding a significant instance of voter fraud and tying it to the instigator would be literally Woodward/Bernstein level of career-making for a journalist. It seems unreasonable to expect that no journalist realizes this.

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                • Truth. But the forensics needed to figure out that someone hacked the polling stations aren’t exactly what journalists dream of.

                  The people who have been sent to jail for hacking the polls weren’t exactly strung up on those particular charges (as with many other things, its often easier to just find something easier to charge them with.)

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            • I suspect our rolls are cleaner now than they were before vote-by-mail. If any of the “pings” — a ballot or one of the documents the county recorder sends out from time to time — bounces back because someone moved and left a forwarding address (ballots and those other things are not forwarded, something the PO handles well), or moved and the new resident has filed the “no such person here” paperwork with the PO, the name comes off the rolls. Our rolls are kept statewide now, so if someone registers in a new county, they are automatically “removed” from the previous county’s rolls. If they move to a different state and use their Colorado drivers license to get a new license in that state, Colorado gets notified and their name is removed from the voting rolls as well. If a death certificate is filed with the state, the name is removed.

              What can I say? My prediction is that within a decade the US west of the Great Plains, red states and blue, will be essentially universal vote-by-mail, whether the rest of the country likes it or not.

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      • None of what? No, none of that will come about absent actions of state legislatures. You’ve got to get the legislatures interested. Even so, that only removes confusions and impediments you can address with institutional adjustments.

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        • We elect the legislatures. In theory, we should be tossing the ones who don’t do things we want, and being very deliberate in encouraging and empowering those who do. The burden is on us to choose the people who will make those reforms. We do the choosing of who the people are. That’s our job. We are bad at it. So, I wrote this whole thing, above, about how bad we are at it.

          You seem to think legislatures act independently of the citizenry. I think they are exactly what we, collectively, pick.

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          • I think legislatures are composed of professionals who have followed the functional equivalent of the recruitment paths you have in any profession. They work within matrices. One important matrix would be voters. What Garry Wills said 40-odd years ago applies: elections do not tell you what people want. They tell you, in a vague way, what people will put up with.

            My suggestions here would be applicable in odd circumstances, e.g. when a state calls a constitutional convention. Alternatively, you have lobbying by Common Cause types who persuade legislators that this would not threaten them and would be worth their time. The point, of course, is to get public questions into certain pigeon holes so people can think more clearly about them, to put more effective authority into local government, and to restructure choices so the electorate sends fewer muddy signals. I do not think you can do much better.

            Certainly, you will have more disaffection if the Bar and various professional cadres can seize control of policy-making and shut out ordinary people. The thing is, liberals are perfectly happy with that.

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          • We elect the legislatures.

            Modulo the candidates are selected by two dominant parties.

            I have one big issue that I care about a lot. I vote almost exclusively for one party these days because I think that it’s more likely to eventually see things my way than the other party. But I have to accept a lot of other stuff that I’m not so fond of as part of that.

            Of course, I have the advantage of living in a citizen initiative state, and the first important step was taken by means of initiative because neither party was willing to make the choice. Or alternatively, both parties were afraid to make the choice it turned out the voters wanted.

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            • Modulo the candidates are selected by two dominant parties.

              Actually, it’s a pure petition process in New York, bar for a few statewide races. Party committees may endorse some candidate, but that does not get them on the ballot. The body of registrants in each party is a conduit, of course; understanding the petition process is specialized knowledge that few other than party hacks have; and along with the parties would be access to fundraising networks (where that is salient).

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          • Agreed, and I thought this was an excellent post. But I think it’s also worth adding: part of why our legislators are ineffective is because they are called upon (by the public at large) to legislate on so many topics. The complexity of topics lends itself well to capture by experts, who are always available to provide exactly the right bill language, or funding proposal…

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              • I think it sometimes is bad.

                What Dan seems to be talking about is the regulated dictating the terms of how they’re regulated and likely in a way that gives the established members of the group being regulated a leg up over those less established members. Of course, you can take it the other direction and say that if someone is being regulated, they deserve at least a voice in how the regulations are shaped and enforced. And they probably know a lot about how the regulated industry functions and therefore bring something to the discussion.

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  15. 9. End the practice of having multi-candidate constituencies for conciliar bodies where-in the victors are selected via first-past-the-post. First past the post is bad in any case, but worse here. In any multi-candidate constituency, some species of PR should be practiced – e.g single-transferrable-vote.

    10. In multi candidate constituencies, the ballot order of the slate nominated should reflect the results of primaries, caucuses, and conventions. In single-candidate constituencies, there should be one stereotype, with the candidates listed according to how their party performed in the most recent elections to the state legislature, with non-participating parties next in an order to be determined by lot and non-party candidates last in an order determined by lot. In non-partisan elections or ‘jungle primaries’, the ballot order should vary from one precinct to another, so the knuckleheads cancel each other out. Generally, there should be as many stereotypes as candidates who qualify for the ballot. If you’ve five candidates qualifying, select the names out of a box and place them on a daisy-wheel. You pick a candidate as the top of the ballot and then run around the daisy-wheel counter-clockwise to make one stereotype; do the same for all the other candidates. You print up equal numbers of each stereotype and then send the batches out at random to each polling place.

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  16. I want to be civically engaged on the issue of new drug research.

    Oops, nobody in the FDA is elected.

    sic transit my civic engagement.

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  17. The republic wasn’t kept, rule of law wasn’t kept, not even a mere observation of what a ‘free state’ should be.

    We have a whistle blower in Russia, for voicing what the state is doing with our information behind closed doors. In Russia for crying out loud! What does that say about the quality of our freedom.

    Let. It. Burn.

    Who ever is left can salt the ground inside the beltway.

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  18. Okay, so we’re going to say that citizens have a particular set of responsibilities.
    Will non-citizens have these same responsibilities? I’m going to assume that the answer is “no” for the purpose of my next questions. But, of course, maybe the answer is “yes”.
    Will citizens get a particular set of benefits that just won’t be available to people who aren’t citizens?
    If the answer to that is “no”, then what’s the main selling point of what you’re asking of everyone?
    If the answer to that is “yes”, then why do you hate the children of people who just wanted better lives for themselves and their children who made the mistake of being born on the wrong side of some arbitrary line?

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    • If the answer to that is “yes”, then why do you hate the children of people who just wanted better lives for themselves and their children who made the mistake of being born on the wrong side of some arbitrary line?

      I dunno. Why do you hate the idea of offering a non-tendentious rendering of someone else’s argument and the idea of not impugning their motives in the process?

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      • The downside of the argument of making distinctions between citizens and non-citizens is the whole thing where we treat people who are non-citizens differently than (and, presumably, not as well as) citizens.

        And if people want to make distinctions between citizens and people who love their children and only want to make a better life for them and who only happened to be born on the wrong side of some arbitrary line, isn’t it fair to ask whether their racism is the irredeemable kind?

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        • My question went unanswered.

          Your questions did not merit an answer because they were aggressive rhetorical thrusts, and nothing more. You’re not arguing in \good faith, or you wouldn’t talk like that.

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            • It’s nothing of the kind. Quite a number of you have a neuralgic reaction to ordinary disputation. That’s not my fault, it’s yours.

              It’s not that difficult to figure out why people might want citizens treated differently than aliens, and recent immigrants treated differently than well-established immigrants. Common provision occurs within established societies and those societies have boundary conditions. Membership is something acquired through probationary periods where certain performance is expected.

              It may be difficult to figure out if your fundamental loyalties are to subfractions of the society as a whole and outsiders are perceived as sympathetic exotics and potential allies.

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              • Art Deco:
                It’s nothing of the kind. Quite a number of you have a neuralgic reaction to ordinary disputation. That’s not my fault, it’s yours.

                Well, since we’re all a bunch of addled morons who cannot withstand the searing light of your intellect, why are you even here?

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          • The problem, of course, is that the argument is one that we’re going to have over and over and over again now that Trump has stumbled across this rich vein of populist discontent.

            To what extent should we privilege United States citizens over non-citizens?

            To what extent should we privilege United States citizens over… what’s the term we use now? Undocumented Dreamers?

            Of course, now that Trump has done so much freakin’ damage to the Republican “brand” over the issue of Undocumented Dreamers, the Democrats have room to be to the left of him on the issue while still being downright nativist… but I suppose that that’s neither here nor there.

            What is here or there is the issue of immigration, legal or otherwise, and the fact that immigration, legal or otherwise, has been quite effective as a cudgel against those who argue for such things as “treating citizens better than non-citizens”.

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  19. Maybe I’m just in a dark mood, but this article strikes me as an argument for the cleansing power of global thermonuclear war.

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  20. This is a fantastic post, . However, I confess I find it daunting to think of how, exactly, you get from Citizenship Point A to Citizenship Point B at this point. The rather dreadful truth is that laziness is sadly just one of the issues at hand that must be dealt with.

    The people I have covered over the past several years who are the most categorically misinformed, top to bottom, are the people who spend — by far — the most time and effort educating themselves on history, politics, current events, etc. One of the stats in your essay is the depressing one about the number of people who think Christianity is in the Constitution. Sure, some of those are likely just lazy, but quite a few of them spend a tremendous amount of free time and money to learn from people like David Barton that this is actually the case. We could expand that number, and get all of them to vote in all elections, even local ones — but does that get us a healthier democracy, or a better overall citizenship?

    Before we can get to a place of good citizenship, we need to get to some kind of foundation of agreed upon data — and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Data that conforms to what people want to believe is simply to cheap and ubiquitous to allow it.

    I hate to say this, but it may be a barn that can’t be built again.

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  21. If so few of us are even bothering to vote, what percentage of us are doing more than that bare minimum, like say, educating ourselves about government and politics?

    What’s funny is that the more that I’ve educated myself about government and politics, the less desire I have to vote. And that’s because the more you know about government, the more you realize that it’s the vast system of unelected and largely unaccountable bureaucracies where the action is happening. And the more you know about politics, the more you realize that it is a big game being played by people who love to play games.

    Why would I want to give this increasingly absurd system anymore legitimacy?

    Also, the idea that we need more communitarianism ignores the fact that much of what you have diagnosed as being wrong with our political system grows directly from communitatianism. That is, you have a bunch of people with conflicting ideas about how we all should be living. And politics has become the arena in which they fight.

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  22. I was thinking about running for student government today.
    But only because I dislike many of the people currently in the student government, and I would like to make their lives a living hell.

    Other than that, I would like to be a senator, so I could have one of those cool togas.

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      • Sure. And assuming it was a fair question and all — that is, that the number is accurate — I’d much rather see it be lower.

        But what are we really “testing” for with a question like that?

        What is preferable: someone who can point to the Pacific Ocean on a map but can’t name any countries that border it OR someone who understands why the Pacific Ocean is important politically and economically but pointed at the Indian Ocean when asked?

        What percentage of the Founding Fathers knew how to power cycle a router? How many could have found Beijing on a map? Rome? London?

        I don’t mean to nitpick. And I think Tessa raised important and thoughtful questions in an excellently written piece. I just think she failed to pick the best examples to substantiate her point.

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  23. Hmm. I apparently do not have the ability to go back into the article to fix the erroneous Jefferson quote. Help !!

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