Today's blog is the conclusion of the piece published last week, entitled "The Tools We Need To Be Amazing Citizens, Part I", aka "Don't Be A Star-Belly Sneetch." I won't attempt to re-hash part I because it's short enough for you to read yourself. Instead, I return directly to the questions we began to consider there: What kinds of tools do we need to be amazing citizens? How can we make each registered voter believe their contribution is valued and important to the processes of our republic? The second part of my answer--the part I will discuss today--is access. We have to increase access to our political processes for our registered voters if we hope to inspire the levels of participation we need for a healthy republic.
You may be thinking, well, this is America, and we have all the access we need. The problem, you say, is that not enough people are taking advantage of the access we have. Okay, I agree that the problem is not enough people taking advantage of the access we have. By default, I submit that means we need more access for registered voters. We can judge people who don't vote today, but that is just a star-belly sneetch trap, and it doesn't solve the problem. Solving the problem requires some more understanding of what is causing the problem.
What factors discourage participation? Well, for one thing I think many people are just busy with higher priority tasks like family and work. The process of making an informed political choice is a time commitment, and many people simply do not make that commitment. To the extent we could reduce the time required to make an informed choice, or give people more time to make that choice, we would encourage participation. This is the low-hanging fruit of improving our republic.
Another discouraging factor is that an overwhelming number of congressional districts today are solidly one-party districts. In other words, the districts have been re-drawn by one party or the other so that there is little chance of the minority party winning an election. The most recent estimate I have seen in the Wall Street Journal is that 400 of the 435 congressional districts are now solidly one-party districts. Faced with what is essentially an inevitable outcome, some minority party voters in these districts simply consider it a waste of time to vote. If you are a Republican in a gerrymandered Democratic district, or a Democrat in a gerrymandered Republican district, you are effectively disenfranchised. Restoring districts where each party has a real chance at winning an election would encourage participation.
What makes one-party districts even more toxic for our republic is the fact that the candidates appearing on the final ballot are determined in primaries that exclude independent voters. In other words, the 40+ percent of registered voters who refuse to align with either the Democratic or Republican party are not allowed to participate in the primary elections paid for with their tax dollars. Those voters are then confronted with a general election where the majority candidate--a candidate they could not help select--is assured victory. The 40+ percent of registered voters who refuse to align with either the Democratic or Republican party are effectively disenfranchised.
Access enables participation. Although it is certainly our individual responsibility to vote and to participate appropriately in the political processes of our republic, our elected officials can do a number of things to encourage--or discourage--participation. Participation goes up the more we make our political processes accessible: accessible to busy Americans who correctly prioritize taking care of their families and jobs over babysitting the people they elect and pay to caretake our government.
Many politicians are more interested in preserving the status quo than increasing the accessibility of our political processes. Elected officials should take it as part of their jobs, in my opinion, to encourage good citizenship and promote accessibility so more Americans exercise their right to vote. The reason I emphasize electing career citizens over career politicians is that career citizens won't be afraid to make increasing access a priority. We should measure elected officials by their willingness to increase access for registered voters and by the percentage of registered voters in their districts who actually vote.
Not all elected officials see it as part of their job to encourage political participation. A few years ago, I had lunch with my representative, Jason Chaffetz. I pitched the idea of real-time polling on his web site as a way of increasing voter participation. In support of the idea, I lamented the fact that, because they were so busy with work and family, many people just didn't make time for politics and wound up acting like sheep. His response: "If people want to be sheep, we should let them be sheep." My concern is that many people unintentionally let themselves become sheep because they are busy. We can and should do things to make participation more accessible for these people. For Jason, increasing political participation is simply not a priority.
About 38 percent of the registered voters in Jason's district voted in the last election. Even though an overwhelming majority--72 percent--of that 38 percent voted for Jason, it is hard for me to accept that we let 27 percent of the registered voters in my district (72 percent of 38 percent) choose our congressman. We let 27 percent of registered voters--that's less than one-third--choose our congressman because 62 percent of registered voters didn't exercise their right to vote. I was one of the independent candidates running against Jason in that election, and he got a whole lot more votes than I did. That probably would have been the case even if more people had voted. Statisticians would tell you it certainly would have been the case. But the fact is we just don't know, because 62 percent of the people who could have voted did not.
I listened to a conference call recently about the Open Our Democracy Act. This bill has been re-introduced in the current Congress. The bill would go a long way toward increasing voter participation by addressing the three causes of non-participation discussed above. For one thing, the bill would make election day a national holiday. Imagine the power of that simple change! People would have a chance to finish their research and go to the polls without missing work. Frankly, I can think of few things more worth celebrating with a day off work than our ability to vote.
The Open Our Democracy Act would also require Top Two non-partisan primaries. Top-Two primaries are primary elections in which everyone can vote, even if they are not registered with the Democratic or Republican parties. The two candidates receiving the highest number of votes would then be the only candidates appearing on the general election ballot, again without regard to their political affiliation.
Finally, the Open Our Democracy Act would have the General Accounting Office study the idea of national standards for drawing the lines around congressional districts in order to make them less susceptible to manipulation by political parties. In my opinion, it would be best if each state fixed the problem of gerrymandering on their own, but a GAO study would help arm citizens in each state with the information they need to start state reform movements. The results of a GAO study are not law--it is just information to support the process of law-making. Gerrymandering has been part of our political landscape from the earliest days of our country, but that does not mean we should continue to tolerate this increasingly toxic activity. Many reasons suggest that the effects of gerrymandering--effectively disenfranchising large numbers of registered voters--is more harmful today than at any time in our history. It is time to begin the process of addressing gerrymandered districts.
All three elements of the Open Our Democracy Act would, in my view, increase accessibility and participation in the democratic processes of our republic. We cannot carry out our individual duty to vote if we do not have appropriate access to the political processes that make our individual vote meaningful. We have allowed our access to be degraded to the point where access to the democratic processes of our republic is largely an illusion for most registered voters. Our elected officials should be doing everything in their power to increase accessibility and participation. The best litmus test to distinguish career citizens from career politicians is full and unconditional support for the Open Our Democracy Act. Career citizens will support it. Career politicians will try to stop it.