How Can We Help Democracy?
Democracies don’t form overnight. They occur when the masses join together and demand to be heard. In fact, a democracy is the result of a belief that all individuals in a society deserve a fair say. In theory, living in a democracy means that your thoughts and opinions can impact your neighborhood, city, state, and nation. When our country adopted the Constitution, we set a permanent precedent for our country to be ruled by the will of the people through voting.
In reality, participation in the democratic process has never truly been extended to all members in our society. Black men were not eligible to vote until 1870 and faced overwhelming restrictions, and women had to wait until 1920 to be granted the right to vote. Today, many who are technically eligible to vote are prevented from doing so through state-level restrictions (such as voter ID laws), general misinformation (such as confusion over when or where to vote), or practical inconvenience (such as having to work or not having childcare).
These problems are not lacking in solutions. In fact, several states (but not New York) have already implemented progressive reforms such as early voting, mail-in ballots, and same-day voter registration. Yet even if we were able to solve all of those problems, there’s still the issue of getting people out to the polls. At the end of the day, it’s up to each individual to want to vote, and U.S. voter turnout is notoriously abysmal. This is especially true in smaller, local elections. In the last mayoral race in New York City, only 24% of registered voters cast a ballot to elect the leader of one of the world’s most important cities. Apathy and ignorance work in tandem with practical and legal difficulties, creating a cycle where millions of American votes are suppressed or forfeited - and at a time when so much is at stake, those seeking to remain in power are literally counting on it. Low voter turnout is undoubtedly one of the greatest threats facing democracy today.
Besides low voter turnout, democracy is also threatened by lack of options in the voting booth. Dubbed the “Incumbent Effect” by political scientists, the phenomenon refers to the trend in the United States where the same people are being elected over and over. In the 34 years between 1976 and 2010, more than 90% of representatives in office were re-elected. In 2012, more than one third of candidates for state senate and house elections across the country ran unopposed or without major party opposition. Between lack of candidates, lack of voters, and our tendency to elect incumbents, the democratic process is losing influence across the nation.
This is what we see happening in Rockaway. When our candidates run unopposed, we effectively lose the opportunity for choice. While single candidate races don’t mean the complete destruction of our political system or that the sole candidate is a poor one, it does signal the loss of the greater society’s right to choose. This fall, the peninsula will vote to elect city council members in Districts 31 and 32. Both races have incumbents, Councilmember Donovan Richards in District 31 and Councilmember Eric Ulrich in District 32. While some contenders stepped up to challenge the incumbents, like Mike Scala in District 32, there were few others and we are facing an unopposed election in the 31st District.
Voting for a candidate that reflects your values isn’t the problem. Re-electing good candidates isn’t the problem. But in both instances, the common citizen needs to have choice. Without choice (and term limits) we risk entering a cycle of perpetuating the status quo and promoting political laziness. And when that happens, the people suffer. Too often, the people forget that they are the boss of their elected officials. The people are the ones who vote them in and judge their performance. When elected officials run unopposed, it instills a false sense of security in the candidate while simultaneously removing the agency from the voter. Our vote is taken for granted.
I believe that if all individuals in our society actually voted, the world would be a better place. I also believe that there are oppressive systems currently in place that make this vision impossible, that ensure year after year that millions of ballots will remain uncast. These systems are not untouchable or eternal - they are laws written by people we elect, and our vote is a chance to help rewrite them. That’s why I work to ensure that my neighbors and community members are registered to vote and that’s why I encourage others, along with myself, to consider running in elections. Even if the election doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, the fact that you engaged in the system is a win for democracy.