Since 2020, a number of columnists and pundits have been saying democracy is under siege in the US. Perhaps it is, or maybe this generation is learning for itself the reality of US self-governance. Our democracy is a wild, delightful, developing experiment, and it’s messy. It’s not just a democracy (one person, one vote by popular rule). It’s also a republic, where representatives mitigate the will of the “public,” aka the “vulgar” and “common” masses. Don’t shoot the messenger, that’s part of the etymology of the word.
To complicate matters, we have a constitutional democracy so the courts weigh in on the will of both the people and the representatives. Oh, yeah, also our nation makes common cause with indigenous peoples granting them certain sovereign rights. In a situation this complex, we might expect to remain vigilant, though become not vigilantes. The former being careful and engaged; the latter being self-appointed and without legal authority. What a glorious mess. But it’s only as strong as the people who are engaged t o keep it.
We want #democracystrong. It’s an act of vigilance that calls us to ensure broad access to the ballot, a core tenant of the League of Women Voters. It’s the only way to have a government by the people and for the people. It should represent everyone in what songwriter Tom Chapin called our “salad bowl.” We do best if we resist obstructionism and accept compromise. In 2014 when Rush Limbaugh said, “bipartisanship is them being forced to agree with us after we have politically cleaned their clocks and beaten them,” he meant that there are only two sides and only one can win. There may be two major parties, but there are differing voices, and some Americans would like more options. That means we can’t have one winner, particularly for now and the future.
Politically cleaning clocks and annihilating those who differ is antithetical to democracy. It’s autocracy by party. Because no one can eliminate other perspectives, autocracy squelches them. It devalues other perspectives which make the nation habitable for all.
Non-partisanship and bipartisanship fail to get the respect they deserve in times like these when Americans use spurious, rude language about one leader (or another). While some people draping curses on their trucks or flying them on poles for everyone, including children, to bear witness to their hostility and incivility, the League of Women Voters and other groups keep championing non-partisanship and bi-partisan solutions.
When we commit to working across the aisle, meeting our neighbors at the fence, and abiding differences instead of crushing the opposition, we demonstrate that democracy is nimble and can work for each generation. It doesn't mean we forego neighborly disagreements, only that the experiment will fail when we are intractable, segregated, hostile, and belligerent.
The foundation of democracy begins in the right and responsibility of every citizen to vote. Remember when the first images from the first democratic votes in Afghanistan made Americans proud? We saw the ink on the thumbs and congratulated ourselves on spreading that liberty to another nation. Of course, they have to keep it, as we must.
In October and November 2020, we Montgomery County citizens proudly watched the tally of voters climb to record levels. Before and on election day, our county clerk worked tirelessly to train volunteers, to ensure that all machines worked, that the redundant counting systems verified the votes cast. Our election officials ensured that folks who needed a provisional ballot got theirs, that the provisional ballots that could be verified were counted, that shut-ins and others who cannot get to the polls received requested absentee ballots, and that those were counted when they arrived on time.
In 2022, as our state legislative season closes, Indiana, unlike the rest of the nation, proposed few restrictive voting laws. Nationally, the narratives of distrust in election officials (regrettably even members of one’s own party) and in the counts and recounts are fueling restrictive voting rights. Unfortunately, we didn’t improve the conditions for voting in Indiana. Our legisture introduced but killed a bill that would allow for absentee voting for any reason. It also killed a bill allowing voters with disabilities to join a permanent absentee voter list. Only one bill remains open, and it regulates electronic vote-counting systems and requires those who request an absentee ballot to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number. Our biggest loss was in non-partisan maps for voting districts. Fair Maps Indiana reported on the significant lack of competitive districts in Indiana even after citizens showed up time and time over asking for this.
Nationally, the Brennan Center for Justice reported in February that twenty-seven states offered up some 250 bills that further restricted voting. Florida passed some this week which will not only establish a new Office of Election Crimes and Security -though the AP found that fewer than 500 potential claims of fraud out of 25.5 million ballots cast in key disputed states of 2020’s election: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconson. Florida will hire about fifteen people to handle the “handful of complaints,” said Republican Senator Jeff Brandes, who opposed it. It also bans ranked-choice voting, which would allow more parties to viably run in the state.
The good news is that almost four hundred bills to expand voting access were offered in thirty-two states. The takeaway? That the work to making voting a celebrated and accessible responsibility for all citizens is going to remain hard work. It’s the vigilant and worthy work of hammering out democracy.