Fresh Ideas: Diluting democracy
Voter fraud accusations always arise in election years, but I believe the real threat is voter suppression. I know it’s alive and well, right where I live, Silver City in Lyon County.
In 1974, I joined an influx of young people — hippies, wannabe cowboys, academics, musicians and artists — who discovered this tiny town, with a defunct fire department and no town government. The locals were old-timers, second and third generation descendants of boom-era families. They kept politics quiet by not having town meetings, preferring solitude to county services. New residents and the old guard did struggle, but when the dust settled, we had a vigorous volunteer fire department and a new Town Advisory Board meeting monthly in the 1865 Schoolhouse-turned-community center.
I frequently served as a Town Board member during the ’70s and ’80s. We operated under a set of bylaws modeled on the New England town meeting — a mini legislature comprised of citizens, where each citizen is a legislator. Attendance was high. In such a small venue, residents’ comments might sway opinions; your vote might be the deciding one.
The Board chairman opened the monthly meeting with preliminary business, introduced the first item of business, then opened the floor for discussion. Each resident in the audience could present a viewpoint on the issue, and discussions were lively, energetic, and impassioned.
When an issue was thoroughly thrashed out, the chairman would ask, “Is there a motion?” Any resident could offer one. If it was seconded, the chairman asked, “Any discussion?” Well, yes, usually. Any resident in the audience could decide to “call the question!” and the chairman would ask for a vote, vocal, show of hands, and rarely, a written ballot. It was an exhilarating experience, particularly since our opinions actually mattered to the County Commissioners. Each of us had a voice and they listened and acted on our behalf.
Today, residents can no longer make motions, neither may we “call the question,” nor vote. Discussion is limited to public comment, a concession to residents who are bitter and angry at losing their vote. The town board makes the motions, does allow discussion, then votes, to the ludicrous extent of nominating and electing themselves as town board candidates. The county commissioners then choose whomever they wished, even someone nobody nominated.
A representative government allows county officials to influence state politics, and on up the political ladder. But citizens’ direct access to policy is limited, which discourages participation. Now, residents’ concerns are usually ignored in the final vote. Citizens also may vote only in scheduled elections, and many, many people simply don’t bother. What’s one vote for someone you don’t even know?
In New England-style town meetings, residents learn about real government and how to be citizens. Knowledgeable, interested citizens, voting locally on important issues, are hugely threatening to the elected class, who usually keep real issues and real people at arm’s length. Moreover, those far-off arbiters of our future have created an atmosphere of fear, hatred, and intolerance. They tell lie after casual, deliberate lie, hoping to keep the public confused, disillusioned, and away from the polls.
Voter suppression continues all the way up to the general election — the caucus, the single-party primary and the Electoral College negating the popular vote.
Since legislators regulate themselves, I don’t expect positive change anytime soon.
One source: Frank M. Bryan, 2003, “Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works,” University of Chicago Press, http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/R/bo3641466.html.
Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.