Taking civic participation from the voting booth to the streets

technology / Article

Photo by Flickr user Spyros Papaspyropoulos.

Seamus Kraft is executive director and co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation, which has received support from Knight Foundation. Below he writes about Knight News Challenge: Elections, which asks the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? Winners will share in more than $3 million. Apply at newschallenge.org.

Growing up an Irish Catholic kid in Massachusetts, my Papa perpetually preached his simple civic creed.


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“Come hell or high water, we do three things in this family: Pay our taxes, go to Mass and vote.”

You don’t need to be a Papa or a Ph.D. in political science to know elections matter.  Everyone knows the ultimate direction of our democracy is dictated by those who show up to vote. That’s why campaigns pour armies of people and spend billions of donor dollars to get you to pull that lever. All that money, all those hours, all those “voter education initiatives,” stump speeches, airport rallies, everything is aimed at you and your single opportunity to choose.

But what is that vote, really? It’s a choice between competing candidates’ visions for the future. That discrete choice is the everyday American’s only historic leverage point in our political system.  Direct democracy, we are not.  We elect candidates to form governments to deliver on the policies, the actions, the vision sold in exchange for our vote.   But once the die is cast, your accountability options evaporate.  For all but the wealthy and well-connected, citizens have to wait years to keep politicians to their promises.  Even then, it is all but impossible for a regular person leading a busy life to measure a politician’s accomplishments against the rosy future they painted on the campaign trail so long ago. 

Clearly, hazy campaign visions - and all that go into making and marketing them - are not the reality of government.  Promising a change in government is far different than actually delivering it.

Government happens between elections. It is the sum total of the decisions and actions made the other 364 days of the year - all the legislation and laws, the taxes and services, the rules and regulations that impact our lives and livelihoods.  Therein lies the problem.  For example, once each of the 131,406,895 federal voters in 2008 chose a vision, they lost any meaningful say in how the president carries out that vision for four full years. For legislative decisions in the U.S. House and Senate, the accountability gap is at least two years and as many as six; in judicial matters, citizen accountability options are virtually nonexistent due to the lifetime appointment of judges.  And that’s just at the national level.

The consequences of these chasms separating citizens from what government actually does range from the positive and purposeful, to the increasingly dire and corrosive. An independent judiciary has proved to be a good thing; in some places, so have ballot initiatives. But on the whole, the glaring absence of ongoing accountability mechanisms makes endemic challenges worse, while spawning new ones every day. 

Pick any issue you care about.  Now, think of the last candidate you voted for based on where he or she stood on that issue.  Once in office, what can you do to shape the government actions taken or avoided, the policies created or curbed, that bring life to the campaign vision you voted on?

Write a letter to your congressman?  Sign a petition?  Donate a few dollars to an group active on the issue?  Rarely, if ever, does that make a meaningful difference.  You might as well wait until the next election, and hope for a change. 

For example, if your job is eliminated as a result of new net neutrality regulations, where do you go?  Right now, you must sit around until Congress acts or the Federal Communications Commission changes its mind or composition.  Meanwhile, you’re unemployed based on government decisions you had zero say in.

What if you voted for someone based on their vision for immigration reform.  What if they never lift a finger to fulfil that promise?  Or what if they change their mind and decide the immigration system is fine as-is?  This is but one of the immense shared challenges we face, yet it seems our government - and those we elect to run it - either do nothing, or overreact, kicking the solutions we need even further down the road.

Well-intentioned people and well-intentioned governments are on both sides of particular issues, but they are standing on opposite rims of a widening canyon of disagreement without a democratic remedy. And with nearly 6 in 10 young voters believing government isn’t working on the right problems, this isn’t going away. 

The bad news: there is no silver bullet solution. Increasing both electoral participation and the quality of candidates is necessary, but it isn’t sufficient. We need broadly available ways for elected officials to listen to citizens, and for those officials to open themselves and to share their work in return. We need a way to connect the vision and commitments of the campaign trail to the ongoing work done once in office.  The good news: sitting right in front of us, we have raw material to start forging these connections and culture changes. 

Now more than ever, public information and civic software is free and open, benefiting people both inside and outside government. Millions of Americans have gotten a taste of what’s possible, whether organizing a local Tea Party group on Facebook, working on the Obama for America tech team, dedicating a year to service through Code for America, or tweeting with their city council member. This Knight News Challenge could not come at a better time.

In a healthy democracy, civic participation cannot stop after stepping out of the voting booth.  The American promise is that the more each of us engages in civic life, the more all of us can enjoy self-determination, self-expression and self-protection. This is precisely why our Founding Fathers obsessed over dynastic rule, faction and oligarchy. It is why the First Amendment is first.  And it is why my Papa, the working-class son of Irish immigrants, believed that in the United States of America, anything is possible for those who show up, speak out, and pitch in.

Knight Foundation is partnering with the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation on Knight News Challenge: Elections, which asks the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? The best ideas will share in more than $3 million. Apply at newschallenge.org by 5 p.m. ET March 19. Winners will be announced in June.  

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