Podcast: Democracy's worst enemy – The Fulcrum
In this episode of the Democracy Works podcast from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, Tom Nichols discusses what truly may be democracy’s worst enemy.
Voting rights expert Myrna Pérez was confirmed by the Senate on Monday to serve as a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Two more election specialists are headed for government jobs, continuing President Biden’s run of nominating civil and voting rights experts to his administration and the federal courts.
Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and election program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, was confirmed this week to serve on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. She will be the first Latina to serve on the court since Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2009.
The Biden administration is also expected to tap Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, to lead efforts to protect against election interference, both foreign and domestic, at the Department of Homeland Security, CNN first reported. During the 2020 election Wyman challenged former President Donald Trump’s election fraud claims.
Pérez, who joined the Brennan Center in 2006, has been director of the voting rights program since 2019, leading the organization’s research, advocacy and litigation work. On Monday, the Senate voted 48-43 to confirm Pérez to the New York-based appellate court. She is the seventh out of Biden’s 13 appellate nominees to win confirmation so far.
“We are extraordinarily proud of our colleague Myrna Pérez. She is brilliant, passionate, and committed to equal justice for all. She has been a leader in the great national movement to defend our democracy, and a cherished leader at the Brennan Center. Now she will have a solemn opportunity to serve and uphold the Constitution and equal justice under law,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center.
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While Wyman’s nomination is not yet official, she is expected to head election security efforts at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. As secretary of state, Wyman sharply refuted Trump’s claims that voting by mail was more susceptible to fraud and she raised concerns that such election misinformation was undermining American democracy. Washington is one of eight states that primarily conducts elections by mail.
At CISA, Wyman would act as a liaison to state and local officials, providing resources and support to protect elections from attacks and voters from misinformation.
Since taking office, Biden has nominated several other voting and civil rights experts to roles in his administration and judgeships in federal courts. In January, K. Sabeel Rahman, former president of the liberal think tank Demos, was named senior counselor at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which falls within the Office of Management and Budget. Kristen Clarke, former president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, was also tapped to serve as Biden’s assistant attorney general for civil rights earlier this year.
The Supreme Court’s reputation has been sullied by deeply contentious confirmation processes and the resulting polarizing rulings by its own justices. One would hope that the commission convened by President Biden would at least acknowledge that this is a problem significant enough to warrant consideration of some transformative reform. But if the commission’s first public deliberations Oct. 15 are any indication of the trajectory of this group, it has a ways to go before even agreeing on this fundamental premise.
The president perhaps hobbled the group from the beginning by not giving it a firm mandate to issue recommendations — the commission is instead tasked with “an appraisal of the merits and legality of particular reform proposals.”
But if the commission does not coalesce around at least some meaningful suggestions for reform, it could entrench a broken process for decades (or more). As Commissioner Nancy Gertner noted, “the purpose of this commission is to encourage discussion as opposed to stop it.” And it’s not too late — the commission should make clear in its final report which specific proposed reforms could better protect the court’s independence to ensure that it serves as a safeguard against abuse of power, rather than as an instrument to provide legal cover for such abuses.
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To be sure, the commission’s public proceedings and recent release of draft discussion documents have been a refreshingly thoughtful and civil exercise concerning some of the most difficult and polarizing issues of the day. And the group did shy away from sussing out the challenges with implementation of particular reforms.
Its materials spend considerable time on figuring out how term limits could be practically implemented. Term limits would address the problem of justices serving for decades—too long for any individual to hold power in a democracy — and bring the court closer to the practices in the vast majority of state supreme courts, which have some sort of limit on a justices’ tenure. And as the commission noted, there is bipartisan support for the reform.
But it cannot stop there.
Term limits alone will not resolve the issue at the core of the Supreme Court’s politicization: the hyper-partisan process for selecting nominees in the first place. On their own, term limits could simply make conflicts more common, not less likely.
Alexander Hamilton famously called the judiciary the “least dangerous” branch. But the judiciary has been brazenly exploited by the political branches to cement power and advance partisan agendas, particularly over the last several decades. Politicians and special-interest groups — and even the American public — have come to view capturing the court as essential for securing policy victories, and as a means to ensure that their particular policy agendas become entrenched for decades to come.
The commission must therefore focus on shifting the incentives that motivate politicians to engage in partisan warfare over judicial nominees, which has obviously affected the public’s perception of the fairness of the institution — and, to many, the actual fairness of its decision-making.
At present, the court’s considerable power is concentrated in a small group of people with nearly unlimited discretion, who often serve for decades. As a result, the stakes are high — too high — when a vacancy occurs. This has led to political parties strategizing to appoint a majority of justices who will consistently align with their preferred outcomes.
So we need to diffuse power on the Supreme Court so each individual justice is less influential while they serve. This could take the form of having the court hear cases in smaller, randomly assigned panels like the federal appeals courts do, or even rotating members on and off the Supreme Court, which could also make it harder for partisans to create blocs of justices who routinely vote together.
The use of screening committees to vet and recommend nominees for the Supreme Court could also reduce the likelihood that partisans could stack the court with justices who would be favorable to their views. Such committees are already employed successfully at lower levels in the federal court system and in some states.
These sorts of reforms, combined with term limits, could dramatically alter the stakes of confirmation. With predictable openings, a set term of service, and less power vested in each individual, Supreme Court confirmations would no longer carry the political significance they do now.
As with any proposal, the devil is in the details: The commission seems to think that the creation of term limits or a requirement that the court sit in panels, would raise constitutional concerns. But that should not be taken for a given. There is little dispute that the Congress could, by statute, continue to expand the size of the court. It makes little sense that Congress could not implement reasonable structural reforms — like having the court sit in panels — that could help make decision-making less predictably partisan, but that Congress could, on the other hand, expand the size of the court to 200 or 2,000 people.
And here too, the commission has the chance to advance the debate. The Constitution can be amended for a reason, but ruling out any reform that requires an amendment simply ensures the status quo.
With the Supreme Court’s 2021 term fully underway, we are once again reminded just how large the court looms in the political and social life of our nation. We hold our collective breath and wait for the highest court to weigh in on a slate of hot-button issues. This term alone it has decided to take on gun rights, abortion, and state secrets, with many more case selections to come. It may very well render decisions that will fundamentally shape the public and private lives of millions of Americans for worse or for better.
In short, the Supreme Court is supremely powerful. But in our democracy, it shouldn’t be. The commission’s next draft will come next month and we hope it will seize this opportunity to legitimize some long overdue reforms to an institution that hasn’t really changed since the founding of the Republic.
Voters in New York City cast their ballots early for the Nov. 2 general elections for mayor and city council.
While most of the national attention will be on Virginia’s gubernatorial election next week, many other states will also be holding key elections on Nov. 2.
The tight race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking a second, non-consecutive term in Virginia’s Executive Mansion, is seen by many political prognosticators as a sign of what’s to come in next year’s midterm congressional elections. And the Democratic-led General Assembly could be up for grabs as well.
But there’s also a governor’s race in New Jersey. Democrat Phil Murphy is running for a second term against Republican Jack Ciattarelli, while down-ballot races will fill out the Legislature.
Here are other local and statewide elections taking place across the country next week:
U.S. Border Patrol agents observer Haitian immigrant families crossing the Rio Grande to Del Rio, Texas, in September.
The weekslong headlines citing the number of migrant encounters by the U.S. Border Patrol routinely venture into the sensational. And certain activist segments, including extremist anti-immigration organizations, are all too eager to amplify the news and add their own false narratives into the public sphere.
The hyperbolic narrative was further complicated by the recent feverish rush out of Afghanistan and the spike of Haitian refugees that resulted in many stories about their makeshift camp in Del Rio, Texas, and the response from border authorities.
The common thread in the misleading claims is the desire by anti-immigrant voices to deceive average Americans, causing alarm by insinuating that millions of people are coming to our shores. Even worse, that migrants are making our country into a “cesspool of humanity,” as former President Donald Trump recently claimed.
What the data shows is that numbers for monthly encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border have fluctuated for years. Reasons vary, and are often cyclical, but also driven by factors in the home countries of those who come to America just as many generations of migrants have in the past.
The pandemic, of course, resulted in very few people travelling in 2020. An increase in 2021, with conditions improving and the economy moving toward recovery, was inevitable. The numbers for border encounters also skyrocketed twice under Trump — first in April 2019 and again during the summer of 2020.
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The principal factor driving the statistics for border encounters is something called Title 42, an obscure statute that allows the government to close the border if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that there is a serious public health danger.
The invocation of Title 42 started in March of 2020, under Trump’s administration, citing public health concerns despite objections from the CDC’s top doctors.
Other public health experts weighed in, agreeing with the CDC. Dr. Anthony So, of the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, wrote to then-CDC Director Robert Redfield: “The decision to halt asylum processes ‘to protect the public health’ is not based on evidence or science.”
The Title 42 rationale for turning away refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants has been kept in place by the Biden administration.
Prior to the implementation of Title 42, migrants encountered by authorities were supposed to be processed through established procedures, according to U.S. law, that may include removal or detention — or worse if someone has a criminal record, for example.
Under Title 42, everyone is blindly turned away, with no processing, and with no screening for Covid-19, despite the purported rationale. Border Patrol agents expel the vast majority of crossers immediately, sometimes within hours of being apprehended.
The immediate expulsions not only run counter to our own laws and established procedures, but they allow for migrants to repeatedly attempt crossings within a short period of time, creating backlogs of people waiting to be processed, applying for asylum, etc.
The reality is that while Title 42 drives the statistical number of encounters up, the actual number of people crossing and attempting to cross does not necessarily fluctuate wildly over time. For example, without the repeat crossers who can make multiple attempts thanks to Title 42, the numbers for the first few months of fiscal 2021 would look nearly identical to fiscal 2019, before the pandemic.
The rising number of “encounters” spurs the attention-grabbing and often sensationalistic headlines of record-setting border apprehensions that often serve as an excuse to tack on additional demonstrably false claims that we have “open borders” or that illegal immigrants are flooding the entire country.
But facts prove otherwise. The truth is, by far the most important factor that contributes to the problem of illegal immigration is the lack of suitable options for legal immigration, a point to which most Americans are oblivious since they, thankfully, never have to deal with an immigration regime so opaque and bureaucratic that it can take over 20 years to immigrate legally.
But even that only applies to a select few. Immigration policy expert David Bier sheds much needed light, explaining that “under U.S. immigration law, it is illegal for anyone in the world to travel or immigrate to the United States unless they fall into very narrow exceptions.” Bier continues: “Effectively, if they don’t qualify as a select few high skilled workers or family members of U.S. citizens, they can’t come legally.”
While the root is easy to identify for anyone who looks beyond the headlines, the solution is complicated by politicians who lack the courage and will to work constructively toward a modern and streamlined process for legal immigration. Until then, the misleading headlines and nasty rhetoric are likely to continue.
In this episode of the Politics in Question podcast, the team discusses David Shor’s recent controversy-provoking advice for Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove mention of Democracy Live, a voting technology firm.
While voting with your phone may seem like a reasonable feat in an era of online banking and mobile stock trading — there’s even bipartisan congressional support for certain uses — many significant security and privacy issues remain unresolved.
Mobile voting has been studied and tested for two decades, and election security experts have repeatedly found vulnerabilities with such a system. Still, figuring out a way to safely and anonymously cast a ballot online remains a priority for some voting technology enthusiasts.
l Until such a system is achieved, though, election security experts are strongly advising Congress to pump the brakes on a proposed Defense Department policy bill that includes funding for online voting. A group of 31 election security experts and organizations sent a letter last week warning lawmakers about “serious and unsolved security vulnerabilities” with electronic ballot return.
But they may be facing strong headwinds, as online voting gains steam.
Acting under the authority of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, 31 states and Washington, D.C., allow military and civilian overseas voters — as well as disabled voters in some jurisdictions — to return absentee ballots electronically, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures. States vary on whether they permit returns via an online portal, mobile app, email or fax. Every state allows absentee ballots to be returned by mail and in person.
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In last year’s election, roughly one-third of overseas military and civilian voters returned their ballots through some kind of electronic method, according to a post-election report prepared by the Election Assistance Commission.
Online voting has gained popularity in recent years as more researchers have studied its feasibility. One prominent proponent of mobile voting is billionaire philanthropist Bradley Tusk. In 2017, his nonprofit, Tusk Philanthropies, launched a mobile voting campaign with pilot programs across seven states.
Most recently, Tusk Philanthropies announced a $10 million grant program at the end of September, to fund the development of a new, end-to-end verifiable internet voting system. The goal of this program is to provide more accessible voting options for military and overseas civilian voters, disabled individuals and other voters encountering barriers to traditional voting.
“Despite past efforts to remove barriers to voting for our military service members, it is clear that they still face tremendous obstacles to voting,” Tusk Philanthropies said in a statement.
Less than half (47 percent) of active duty military service members participated in the 2020 election, which is on par with the 2016 voter turnout rate, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
“Given where technology is today, we need to accept and acknowledge that mobile voting is gradually becoming more common across U.S. elections,” Tusk Philanthropies said. “Instead of offering the same solutions to these problems, we should be focused on doing everything we can to find additional ways for military voters to both access and return their ballots.”
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2022 , which approves DOD policies and funding, includes two provisions that would fund the electronic transmission of absentee ballots for overseas military and civilian voters. The legislation was passed by the House last month and is now being considered in the Senate.
One provision instructs the Defense Department to develop a plan for providing end-to-end electronic voting services, including registering to vote, requesting a ballot, completing a ballot and returning a ballot.
The second mobile voting provision funds a pilot program to bring ballot security in line with existing federal cybersecurity guidelines, using cloud and blockchain solutions.
While Tusk Philanthropies said the legislation is a “much-needed step forward to help ensure our military has full access to voting,” election security specialists strongly disagree. In their letter to Congress, the 31 experts argued against funding for internet voting because it is “not safe or secure, and will undermine confidence and trust in elections.”
Online voting in governmental elections has been “rejected as unacceptably insecure” by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institute for Science and Technology, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the letter states.
Even with security tools such as end-to-end verification, encryption, cloud-based services and blockchain, mobile voting faces high security risks, experts warn.
One of the basic problems with mobile voting is that it relies on the internet, which is fundamentally insecure, said Susan Greenhalgh, senior advisor on election security at Free Speech for People, one of the groups that signed the letter.
“That’s why even banks that have billions of dollars to spend on their security budgets still end up getting hacked,” she said. “[Banks] have much greater resources than our election administrators do, so that is evidence and speaks to the fact that when the internet was developed, it wasn’t developed for security, it was developed for accessibility.”
Another major concern with mobile voting is privacy violations. While personal identity is a core component of banking security, the opposite is true for voting. There is no mechanism to report and correct online voting errors without revealing the voter’s identity and breaching the secret ballot.
Authenticating a voter’s identity over the internet is also difficult. And because voters would use their own devices to cast a ballot online, it’s essentially impossible to guarantee no malware or other vulnerabilities exist, even if election officials have security measures built in on their end.
“We already know from the 2016 election and from the 2020 election that our elections are an international target. This is a national security issue. You have our soldiers, men and women fighting overseas to protect our national security, so that we can preserve our democracy and here’s this system that’s being touted that will specifically undermine it, said Susannah Goodman, director of the election security program at Common Cause, another group that signed the letter.
Election security experts expressed concern about anything that could lead to further distrust in American elections, especially after last year’s contentious presidential race.
“It’s not just that [military service members’] ballots could be compromised, it’s that the election will be compromised. The democracy that they are there to protect can be compromised, and it introduces doubt,” Goodman added.
Because the government has not yet found a way to develop standards to make online voting secure, there’s no federal certification for online voting vendors, leaving these companies “completely unregulated,” Greenhalgh said.
This had led to vendors “pitching their systems to state and local officials with potentially false, misleading and/or deceptive marketing claims,” Greenhalgh wrote in a June report produced by Free Speech for People.
“This is a problem in that we have this unregulated market and the vendors can say what they want to say and there’s very little repercussion,” Greenhalgh said.
The experts argue that instead of expanding risky online voting technology, there are better solutions for improving accessibility for military and overseas civilian voters, experts wrote in the letter. They recommend:
“We believe that servicemembers deserve the highest standard of safe and verifiable voting,” the letter states. “For the foreseeable future, internet voting cannot meet that standard, and places military voters’ votes — and the trustworthiness of elections themselves — at risk.”
Today, The Fulcrum continues its biweekly feature “What is Your Take?” where we ask our readers a question and share various responses.
We look forward to engaging with our readers as we create a dialogue around different topics and issues that are important to all of us.
This week’s question is: What actions, if any, would you like to see Congress take on voting reform?
Please share your responses by emailing [email protected]
Below are responses to our previous question:
Last time, we posed the following question:
One of the most popular songs in the Broadway show “Hamilton” is “My Shot.” As we strive to help protect and improve democracy in America, what do you see as “Your Shot” to make a difference?
· I’m in my 70s and am convinced that my destiny is to fix the Electoral College before my death. I propose that each state implement ranked-choice voting and utilize instant runoff rounds to eliminate all but the top two winners. Then apply the method — proposed by Thomas Jefferson to fill Congress after the first U.S. census — to proportionally allocate Electoral College votes to the top two winners. Anonymous.
· As a longtime League of Women Voters member, I will continue the League’s goal of “Making Democracy Work” and actively battling disinformation by informing voters through more civic education (especially in schools) and badgering them to vote. As more voters become disillusioned with politics and government and distrustful of elections, we have our work cut out for us. Mary Ann Moxon.
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· At 46 years old, I’m taking “my shot” to save American democracy by leaving a successful career in real estate and starting Veterans for Political Innovation. Our mission is to mobilize veterans to advocate for the most powerful election innovations to make our system less toxic and more competitive.
We strongly believe that the reform community, and veterans across the country, need to unite around the most powerful, achievable political innovation — final-five voting. Once we implement top-four or final-five Instant runoff general elections, in all 50 states, then we can elect leaders who are truly accountable to the majority of their constituents. More choice, through final-five voting equals more power for voters and less outside influence.
Final-five voting incentivizes problem solving and good policy making. Once we start electing more consensus-based candidates and more broadly accountable leaders, we can start truly addressing the myriad policy concerns that are not receiving adequate attention (immigration reform, health care, infrastructure, education, etc.). A bad system will beat a good person every time. Our current political system is built on faux competition and faulty incentives that encourage partisan extremism and gridlock.
That’s “my shot”! Eric Bronner
We are more convinced than ever that by engaging our readers through music, theater, poetry, dance and all the arts, The Fulcrum can help us all find our shared humanity despite the sharp elbows of the day-to-day in American life and politics. And by doing so we hope to build upon The Fulcrum’s mission of being a place where insiders and outsiders to politics are informed, meet, talk and act to repair our democracy and make it live and work in our everyday lives.
David L. Nevins
Co-Publisher, The Fulcrum
On this episode of Toppling The Duopoly, host Shawn Griffiths is joined by Cathy Stewart and Amikka Smith, who are co-hosting IndependentVoting.org‘s 20th Annual Anti-Corruption Awards this Monday, October 25 at 6 PM EDT. This year, Independent Voting is taking the event national by hosting a virtual event available to anyone who wants to register to attend. The awards honor individuals that span the political spectrum who are working to advance the independent voter movement.
The Framers, including Alexander Hamilton, argued that the federal government must play a role in regulation elections, writes Richie.
Earlier this week, the Senate failed to bring the Freedom to Vote Act to the floor, the third time this year a major voting reform bill has been blocked.
As members of Congress continue their efforts to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in the coming weeks, some opponents aren’t just rejecting the bills on their merits. Instead, they’re making a historically inaccurate and dangerous “federalism argument” — that elections must be left entirely to the states.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month that elections are “not something the federal government has been historically involved in” and called the Freedom to Vote Act “an assault on the fundamental idea that states, not the federal government, should decide how to run their own elections.”
You don’t need to look far to disprove this hide-the-ball argument. Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution states: “Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such [election] Regulations.” In “Federalist 59,” Alexander Hamilton warned of the dangers of vesting voting and election laws entirely in the states, writing that “an exclusive power of regulating elections for the national government, in the hands of the State legislatures, would leave the existence of the Union entirely at their mercy.”
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Beyond the text of the Constitution and guidance of the Framers, the federalism argument is disproved by 200-plus years of federal election regulations. That history includes bipartisan bills that McConnell voted for, like the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (which would effectively be revived by the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) and the 2002 Help America Vote Act that McConnell took a lead role in crafting.
In particular, there is a long history of federal law on House elections and district lines, one of the areas covered in both the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Hamilton specifically writes about this in “Federalist 59,” stating that “the national government would run a much greater risk from a power in the State legislatures over the elections of its House of Representatives.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Congress has always regulated the number of members in the House of Representatives. It has set criteria for the way voters elect their U.S. representatives since at least 1842. A series of laws passed in the late 19th century and early 20th century established norms for congressional redistricting relating to contiguity, compactness, and relative population. A 1967 federal law is the reason every American is now represented by only a single member of the U.S. House. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (re-authorized in 1982 and 2006) also sets rules around congressional redistricting.
As our Framers anticipated and as our leaders have acted upon since our nation’s founding, there are times when federal election rules are needed for all Americans, typically drawing from election laws in our state “laboratories of democracy.”
Now is certainly one of those times when federal action is necessary. State legislatures are incentivized to gerrymander their congressional districts in increasingly outlandish ways. Politicians choose their voters, representation is distorted, and nearly all districts are lopsided for one party. Without a national solution, individual state reforms can equate to disarming unilaterally, and too often state reforms are falling short.
Claiming that Congress should sit on its hands is wrong. If our elected leaders have good-faith reasons to vote against the Freedom to Vote Act and even the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, they should make those objections heard.
Indeed, not only do this year’s bills deserve an up-or-down vote, Congress should also look to the future, with the Fair Representation Act as the most comprehensive path to make House elections fairer. This bill would replace our current tiny congressional districts with larger multimember congressional districts elected through proportional ranked-choice voting. In addition to giving voice to those in the minority and the full spectrum of voters, this approach would make it much harder to gerrymander congressional districts.
Regardless, it’s time for McConnell and others to give up the false “states’ rights” argument designed to avoid accountability. There is no question as to whether Congress has a role to play in regulating district lines and elections. Given the breakdown of state voting norms, it’s time for Congress to do the job our Framers intended.
The author has enjoyed searching Zillow for houses Fargo, N.D., far from her current home in the Pacific Northwest.
I know I’m not alone when I say that one of my great guilty pleasures is late-night (and sometimes early-morning) Zillow scrolling. Early in the pandemic, I was mostly looking at houses in Tulsa, Okla. After all, that is where my husband was born, and the city is famously offering $10,000 to those who show up with a job and are willing to put down some roots. Plus we had heard that my husband’s home synagogue was offering a little more money for new congregants who could use some help with moving expenses. Never mind that I am a Catholic and David is a mostly retired Jew. It felt like a chance to start something new and totally different than life in our liberal and largely churchless corner of the Pacific Northwest.
As these things go, though, I got a little bored with my pretend version of Tulsa, and David seemed entirely disinterested in my plan, so I started looking at rural Maine and Fargo, N.D., and sometimes — to my family’s great relief — here in Oregon, though most of the fixer-uppers that caught my attention were hugging the border of a contiguous state. The houses that I developed crushes on were not the fanciest ones, but they were houses that felt like the right place to me, though at the time that I started this habit I had never been to Tulsa or Fargo or even Omaha. But photos of the flower gardens and guest bathrooms and laundry rooms of other people in other parts of the country allowed me to project myself into another life, into another consciousness.
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My restlessness was partially tamped down when my daughters and I decided to drive from Washington, D.C. to Portland in May. My younger daughter finished her freshman year at George Washington University, so my older daughter and I flew to collect her and drive her home. We took turns at the wheel, awash in an ever-expanding and very eclectic playlist, we lingered a few extra nights in two national parks, we saw spring spread across the country, and everyone re-established their place in the sororal pecking order.
Then, two months later, my husband and I found ourselves needing to drive a U-Haul truck from Tulsa to St. Louis to Portland. It involved his mother’s funeral and the tender transport of a family chandelier.
If you are the type to count these things, that’s 19 days, 22 states, 6,000 miles, and two rental vehicles. Now, a week off the road after the second trip, I am grumpy and restless, pacing around my upstairs office. I scroll listlessly through Zillow. I check the weather in D.C. and Kansas City, Mo., and Medora, N.D.. I imagine myself back in Tulsa, in the house my husband’s grandparents lived in. I see myself cooking all day Friday, lighting candles, and putting cousins’ babies down to sleep in our bed while the adults finish a bit of Shabbat cognac before heading home for the night.
I imagine myself opening up a pie shop on the ground floor of a brick warehouse in the Crossroads neighborhood in Kansas City. I’ll flip the open sign sometime in the mid-afternoon and close late; we’ll serve strong coffee and a couple of seasonal pies alongside apple and cherry. There’ll be some savory pies too — with all shortening crust — for the vegans who are still hungry after nibbling a salad while their boyfriends wolfed down a full plate of barbecue.
I’ll sit out on the back porch in St. Louis and watch the lightning flash so bright and frequent that it dims the fireflies. I’ll weed my flower beds in Northeast Minneapolis, my teacup balanced in the damp dirt as I watch baby rabbits slide beneath a gap at the bottom of the garage door.
I imagine myself a rancher’s wife outside of Medora, searching through the pantry for a make-do supper because I don’t want to drive the 45 minutes to the grocery store. I imagine myself in churches and dress shops and diners that are far away — physically and culturally—from those in my Southeast Portland neighborhood. I imagine my new friends who will invite me over for coffee and a slice of cake before I head home from my new job to my new house in a new town. And because it is summer and the sun is high, I imagine winter and what it will be like to live in Fargo when it is 40 degrees below zero and the wind is howling across the Great Plains.
My heart is casting about for something, for someone, for somewhere. Some of it, of course, is that I am easily bored. And there is nothing more boring than a relentless global pandemic. But, I am also trying to sort something out. Trying to apprehend something that is niggling at the back of my mind. Trying to understand the people I share the country with.
In his Memorial Day address, President Biden characteristically claimed that “empathy is the fuel of democracy.” I sense a bit of eyerolling among my friends at the president’s earnest embrace of empathy. Because of Biden’s history of personal tragedy, he is often characterized as the “mourner in chief,” the person who any American can turn to after a crisis. He is a friend to those who suffer, which is to say, all of us.
He has been cast so thoroughly in the role of griever that when he invokes empathy directly, that is how we hear his exhortation. We hear it as an admonition to show more care toward one another, to act as a salve for one another’s suffering. Maybe that is how President Biden meant it, and certainly there is nothing wrong with that — every one of us could use another shoulder to cry on.
But there is another way to think about the president’s call to empathy. Maybe he’s not really talking about suffering at all. Or maybe he’s not talking only about suffering. Maybe he’s talking about a kind of empathy that requires the imagination, the kind that requires us to actively seek to understand one another. The kind where we imagine what others are going through — the worries about elderly parents, the trouble with having kids, the trouble with not having kids, the crisis of faith, the comfort of faith, the aloneness, the crowdedness, the neighborliness, the conflicts with neighbors, the balm of a tight community, the liberating anonymity of a huge city, the circumstances and the inner lives of people who are not us or proximate to us.
Perhaps what Biden is exhorting us to — or maybe what I hope he is exhorting us to — is a sense of imagination along the lines of what Wendell Berry describes in his essay “Imagination in Place.”
It seems to me that our imaginative muscles have gotten a little flabby. Though we might mutter some bromides about dialogue across difference, how often do we really imagine ourselves into the lives of those with whom we disagree or even those who are simply not us? To the contrary, in the crucible of a polarized political climate, sometimes it feels immoral or at least counter to our values to imagine ourselves into the lives of those “on the other side,” as if our imaginations might lead us astray from our core beliefs and we might become — or at least validate — something or someone we find abhorrent.
But as Berry suggests, the story we tell ourselves about our country and our neighbors is not whole unless we direct our imagination toward those places and people with whom we have no personal contact. If we cannot persuade ourselves to even entertain such an exercise, we doom ourselves to muck about in the mire of generalizations and stereotypes.
This is not simple, of course. It is easier to conjure stereotypes, particularly ones that suit our political aims. It serves us to valorize those we agree with and villainize those we do not. And yet, the empathetic imagination is as essential as the scientific method. Again, Wendell , this time from his essay “God, Science, and Imagination”:
The particularizing power of imagination. That’s what makes our stories whole — or at least more whole — isn’t it? I realize now that I have spent the past few months imagining myself into different settings, near and far. And that is a happy distraction. But maybe I am restless and cranky now because there is a kind of unsatisfying escapism and self-centeredness at the core of it. I know that in order to be a full citizen of a pluralistic democracy, it is not about me converting to Judaism and packing my bags for Tulsa. It is not really about me at all.
Instead I need to send the feelers of my imagination further, deeper. Rather than imagine myself as the picturesque North Dakota rancher’s wife with a dwindling pantry, I need to extend my imagination toward the whole of that rancher himself. What are his joys? His worries? What does he want from his life? What does he want from me as his neighbor, though a not-very-proximate one? What is it like to live through 140 weeks of drought—the worry about grazing land and fire and whether the whole enterprise might come crashing down? What is it like to wake up in a fitful dark, pull on socks and parka and cap and heavy gloves to head outside, eyes barely open, to break the ice on the water trough for sluggish cattle for the 35th day in a row? What is it like to suspect that everyone you see on television and in movies and on Twitter is mocking you, or worse, has forgotten about you entirely? What is it like to know — deep in your bones — that your children will settle far away, probably in some ironically hipster coastal city?
This is not to suggest that my imagined version of a North Dakota rancher should be imposed on any real rancher or on any flesh and bones person with her own idiosyncrasies and her own inner life. But I am suggesting that the exercise of casting my imagination into the particularities of another American’s life is an act of citizenship. It is an antidote to the cycle of characterizing, generalizing, and dismissing that I and many others have gotten so good at. It is an effort to lure myself out of the morass of fragmentation and toward at least some semblance of wholeness.
Perhaps that is what President Biden means when he says that “empathy is the fuel of democracy.” For sure, there is a call for us to see and feel the connective tissue of shared grief, but perhaps there is a call to all the rest of it, too —baseball games and dim sum and report cards and evening ESL classes and overdue electricity bills and contaminated water and ice in the pit of the stomach at the sight of a police cruiser. It is the imperative of the whole story. And perhaps we’d get a little better at telling that story if we took the time to imagine one dark February morning on the plains of North Dakota.
Women make up more than half of the American population, but they are just 31 percent of the country’s state lawmakers.
Originally published by The 19th.
A Seattle-based fund is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into recruiting women to run for state legislative seats in three states, part of its effort to close the gender gap in American politics.
The group, called the Ascend Fund, announced Tuesday that it has awarded $600,000 to 13 nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that will work to recruit and train candidates from across the political spectrum in Michigan, Mississippi and Washington. The groups will receive grant funding of $15,000 to $100,000, with an average award of $50,000.
Women make up more than half of the American population, but they are just 31 percent of the country’s state lawmakers. Only the Nevada legislature has reached gender parity in both of its chambers.
Abbie Hodgson, director of the Ascend Fund, said lack of equal representation has had a ripple effect on issues including reproductive health, child care and voting rights.
“Recent events have proven that the underrepresentation of women in policy making spaces has led to not only poor public policy outcomes, but ramifications on women’s everyday lives,” she said.
The Ascend Fund is an initiative of Panorama Global, an organization founded in 2017 by philanthropist Gabrielle Fitzgerald. The fund has a goal of achieving 50 percent representation in statehouses in all 50 states by 2050.
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The Ascend Fund has emphasized state legislative representation in previous award rounds, but the focus on Michigan, Mississippi and Washington is part of a new pilot initiative aimed at rethinking ways to close the gender gap in vastly different areas. The fund has deemed the three states “geographically, demographically and politically diverse.” Democrats control the legislature in Washington; Republicans control the Mississippi legislature; and it’s split control in the Michigan Legislature with the governor’s office.
In Michigan, women make up 35.8 percent of the 148 state seats; in Mississippi, it’s about 15 percent of 174 seats in the legislature; in Washington, 41.5 percent of 147 lawmakers are women. These states also have different rules for running elections, including a top-two primary system in Washington, no campaign finance limits in Mississippi and term limits in Michigan.
“With this pilot program, we are laying the groundwork for testing strategies under different circumstances and environments, and hope to apply what we learn in these three states to other states as we expand,” said Hodgson, who added that additional award money is possible in the future.
In Michigan, Rebecca Thompson hopes that Mothering Justice, an organization that advocates for women of color and one of the grantees, will use its $100,000 in funding to make a difference for Black women candidates. Mothering Justice will partner with Michigan United, Detroit Action, and MOSES to form Black Womxn Win – Michigan, a three-month leadership development program that will train 30 Black women to run for state seats in 2022.
Thompson, a consultant for Mothering Justice, ran unsuccessfully for a seat in 2014. She said that she has participated in several candidate recruitment programs over the years and that the new coalition’s focus on Black women could have made a difference in her race.
“This program will be grounded in self care. There’s this notion that campaigns have to be brutal and grueling and you can’t take care of yourself, and we really want to reject that and build up a new generation of political leaders who tend to their wellness, particularly their mental and emotional health,” she said. “Those are all components that, again, when I sort of think about what I needed when I was running, like we don’t need Black women candidates running like White men. We need them running as the Black women that they are — they are nuanced. Their life stories look and sound and feel different. And we can be unapologetic about that, as opposed to sort of creating what exists in the status quo.”
Chanley E. Rainey helps oversee NEW Leadership Mississippi, a civic engagement program at the Mississippi University for Women that works to teach college women about politics. Rainey hopes the $50,000 award will expand the scope of its program to include more trainees.
In a state with such low women’s representation in the state legislature, Rainey said, recruiting conservative women will be crucial. Several candidate recruitment groups have focused on Democrats, who have a minority in both of the state’s legislative chambers.
“We are trying to create a program that encourages both conservative Republican women and Democratic women to run,” Rainey said. “In a state like Mississippi, the goal of gender parity will not be reached unless conservative women are part of the equation.”
Bre Jefferson is the acting director of Sage Leaders, a training program under Puget Sound Sage, one of the award recipients. Jefferson hopes to use the $50,000 grant to expand its support, mentorship and training of BIPOC women candidates in Washington state.
Jefferson, a Black woman, said she’s worked within the state’s political circles for years and has seen the isolation that talented women of color face as they seek office.
“Bringing in voices into the rooms that have been traditionally left out of politics, left out of the conversation, is really crucial if we want to create the political atmosphere that is representative of everyone, not just the folks who have been traditionally given a seat at the table,” she said.
Hodgson said diverse candidate recruitment was a priority in funding. Women of color make up 26.5 percent of current women state legislators who have shared their race and ethnicity.
“Obviously the stated goal of our programming is to elect women, but we think women are just one aspect of building a reflective democracy,” she said.
Molineaux is president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, and Nevins is its co-founder and board chairman. They are co-publishers of The Fulcrum.
As Americans we are on a path to discard and diminish the concerns of our fellow citizens. This is a destruction of our democratic values as most people sit on the sidelines, picking whom we hate more.
As publishers of The Fulcrum we are dedicated to supporting the democracy ecosystem and the individuals and organizations striving to repair and reform our democracy so that it works more effectively in our everyday lives. A healthy democracy ecosystem allows all citizens and community members the opportunity to participate fully in society.
Unfortunately, today’s toxic polarization has reached the highest levels of animosity since pre-Civil War. No longer are citizens just partisan for the candidate or the party that they support. Instead, a growing “negative partisanship” is driving our political process and poisoning our commitment to democratic values.
Not only do liberals and conservatives disagree, they actually hate each other and thus rather than supporting the positions of the party they like, they oppose positions of the other party no matter how reasonable their policies might be, merely because it comes from the party they dislike. We seem to hate each other more than we love our nation.
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As a result, according to Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz and student Steven Webster, “the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.” When negative partisanship dominates, a political coalition is united far more by animosity than policy. The policy priorities are malleable and flexible, so long as the politician rhetorically punches the right people.
Social scientist Lee Drutman and others postulate that “negative partisanship” has reached levels that are not just bad for democracy, but are potentially destructive. And extreme partisan animosity is a prelude to democratic collapse.
As Drutman points out, it hasn’t always been this bad. “Forty years ago, when asked to rate how ‘favorable and warm’ their opinion of each party was, the average Democrat and Republican said they felt OK-ish about the opposite party. But for four decades now, partisans have increasingly turned against each other in an escalating cycle of dislike and distrust — views of the other party are currently at an all-time low.”
The solution to this destructive mindset amongst politicians and citizens alike will not be easy. We must re-frame our thinking as a people. We must create a new narrative of cooperation, collaboration that is solutions focused. We must embrace the diversity that is America and find the best from the left, the right and the middle. We must decide to like each other and respect our common humanity. Maybe even acknowledge some reasonableness in each other’s perspective. We must start loving our country and democratic values enough to stop hating our political opponents. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke poignantly to the problem facing America in the 1960s that still resonates today:
And his decision about his response to hate:
To do so we must support and engage a new cohort of diverse community leaders (across ideological, racial/ethnicity, generational and gender lines) who embrace a crosspartisan problem-solving approach to governance.
We must come together as a constituency of millions demanding a new approach to governance from our leaders. How might we, the citizens of the United States, demand our elected officials do the work of governance instead of endless campaigning?
A “Crosspartisan Creed” that embodies principles based on finding commonalities that transcend the divides that separate us is already engaging hundreds of thousands of Americans. A democracy ecosystem of Democrats, Republicans and independents is growing and elevating the voice and capacity of diverse community leaders via strategic investments with community/regional foundations.
Within a democracy ecosystem, we can work together to clean up the toxicity and remove invasive species like foreign influence, disinformation and propaganda. We must examine our own thinking to root out the toxicity we have. We need to create a habitat in which our democratic values will thrive, so we humans can thrive, too.
Our failure to do so is to remain on the path to authoritarian rule.
Latino voters continue to have a growing impact on elections. The Bully Pulpit podcast from the University of Southern California’s Center for the Political Future discusses how political parties are engaging with Latino voters.
Students at the University of Vermont fill out voter registration forms to participate in March 2020.
Michelson is the dean of arts and sciences and a political science professor at Menlo College. Liñero-Lopez is the Ask Every Student program manager at the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition.
In the average lifetime there are a handful of major transitions during which an individual can reinvent themselves and their place in society. These are moments that stay with us forever, like moving to a new city, starting a new job, or joining the military. Or voting for the first time.
Reams of social science have demonstrated humans’ powerful commitments to our identities. In any given situation, we ask ourselves, “What does someone like me do?” and then decide accordingly how we act, dress and, increasingly, how we engage with our democracy.
That’s why the long-term health of our country depends on our ability to foster democratic participation as a core tenet of our population’s identity. To do that, we need to create successful “civic transitions” for every American. Once someone has voted for the first time, they tend to adopt an identity as a voter, and then vote again in subsequent elections. Getting young people to adopt voter identities by inviting them to participate in our democratic processes can create a lifetime of civic engagement.
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In 2020, multiple student-serving organizations came together to help young people incorporate civic participation into their lives during a time of profound identity transition: enrolling in college. Through an initiative called Ask Every Student, they set out to increase college student voter registration by attempting to reach each individual student on nearly 200 participating campuses. An open-source framework enabled leaders to incorporate voter education and outreach into universal programs like student orientations and core curriculum courses. Campuses included private and public institutions, community colleges and minority-serving institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities.
An extensive study into the initiative’s efficacy points to one clear conclusion: Just a few minutes of direct interaction has the power to profoundly impact a person’s civic identity — especially when that person is new to the democratic process.
A survey of 2,267 students from 14 campuses that participated in the AES initiative (and approximately the demographics of the AES initiative as a whole) found that students who recalled hearing about an AES program on their campus said they were 8.3 percent more likely to register to vote, and 5.6 percent more likely to vote, than those who hadn’t. Among first-year students — the group most likely to be experiencing profound life transitions at the time — those who recalled being encouraged to vote by an AES program on their campus were 14.2 percent more likely to register to vote.
In all, approximately 76.1 percent of students surveyed reported hearing about an AES program on their campus. Assuming a similar percentage holds true for the nearly 3 million total students enrolled in colleges that participated in AES, we estimate that millions of students were reached through this initiative and that tens of thousands of them registered to vote in part because of it.
Of course, registering to vote and voting are not the only acts of democratic engagement that matter. Community service, activism, dialogue across differences, and many other facets make up the full spectrum of a vibrant civic life. But by introducing college students to the bedrock functions of the democratic process we open the door for them to positively impact their communities in multiple ways.
One of the study’s most exciting takeaways was the degree to which students shared information they learned from an AES program on their campus with their families. In our conversations with students at these campuses — we held 24 focus groups across the 14 study campuses — students noted how they shared AES program information with their families, spreading the initiative’s impact.
Most Americans will experience some kind of major life transition in the next decade. These times of transition, especially for young people, are an opportunity to shape their civic identity for the better — but only if we commit to reaching them where they are.
American democracy is experiencing its own transition moment, challenged by increasing partisan polarization, decreased confidence in public institutions, and increased incidents of anti-democratic attitudes and behaviors. Against this backdrop, applying the lessons of Ask Every Student at scale will foster participation and positive identities as voters, as well as strengthen our democracy.