No time to sit back and relax
By Ken Patterson, Guest Columnist
Our democracy is built upon fundamental principles of checks and balances, and citizen participation.
The NC General Assembly may have inadvertently improved our democracy with its recent passage of laws limiting the powers of the Governor. After all, why should one party appoint the entire Board of Elections? Where are the checks and balances in that? But the sad part about the recent changes is that they were not enacted out of a desire to improve our democracy. Had Governor McCrory not lost his race, it is extremely unlikely that Republicans in the Assembly would have enacted these laws. But what if members of the Assembly regularly asked themselves the question, “What could we do to improve our democracy?” Several issues they might work on are voter access, the redistricting process, and citizen engagement.
Without a doubt, it would improve our democracy if every eligible voter had easy access to voter information and the voting process—this is one of the highest values of our democracy. This would mean accommodating all eligible voters based on abilities, community habits, schedules, and access to personal documentation. If it meant expanding voting times and the budget allocated to making voting easier, it would be worth it, because it would improve our democracy. Some in the Assembly have raised concerns about voter fraud and corruption, and enacted laws that make it harder to vote. Though we should take serious measures to limit fraud, fraud-limiting efforts should never be done at the expense of limiting access to the polls of eligible voters.
On redistricting, the current system of having the majority party draw the district lines at the time of the census does not make democracy better. We’ve seen, without exception, that the party in power draws lines to benefit its party—choosing party over our democracy. It doesn’t have to be this way—in at least 12 states the redistricting process is handed to a non-partisan or bi-partisan panel, increasing checks and balances on the process. Some members of the NC General Assembly initiated efforts toward this more democratic process a couple of years ago, but the measures have not advanced. In the name of democracy, the Assembly should take up, and pass into law, a non-partisan redistricting process. It may not advantage the party in power come 2020 (the next census), but it will make democracy better for all of us.
Other steps the General Assembly could take to improve our democracy is to build institutions to educate citizens about how to engage in government processes. We should be educating young people in schools on how to be in direct contact with their democracy through writing to and meeting with elected officials of all levels. There is much more we can do here.
Though it’s clear that these measures would improve our democracy, it is unlikely our elected officials will act on their own. So, what can we do? We can use our voices. Most of us, if we do vote, sit back after that and let our politicians do what they want to between elections. But it’s not enough to vote them into office—we must guide them once in office through regular contact.
Ken Patterson is the director of Global Grassroots Advocacy for RESULTS Asheville. RESULTS trains people throughout the US to engage with their elected officials, the media, and their communities between elections.