Tag Archives: democracy

What We Pay Attention To Matters

What We Pay Attention To Matters     —by Jinny Batterson

Here in North Carolina, we have the option of voting early—this election cycle, nearly three weeks early.  On the very first day of the eighteen days set aside for early voting in the county where I live, I cast my ballot.  I’d earlier signed up to work as a non-partisan election official at one of the early voting sites in our county.  Mostly because of this temporary job (and because I need to spend at least some of my time sleeping), I’ve been sheltered from widespread exposure to news events and negative campaign advertising. This has proved to be a real blessing. 

Once I finish my early shift at about 2 in the afternoon, I come home, take a nap, take a walk, share an evening meal with my husband, then bed down early so I can repeat the cycle, starting at about 4:30 a.m. the following day.  I’ve been vaguely aware of hateful tweets and sporadic violence, but mostly I’ve spent my after-dark hours sleeping and my before-dark hours either working or enjoying the autumn weather outdoors. 

On the job, we’re forbidden to talk politics, a wise decision, I believe. Still, from some of the partial stories other workers have shared with me, I get the impression that we represent a pretty wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions. We have younger workers, some coping with student debt, others concerned about underemployment—mismatches between the skills they’ve trained for and the jobs they’ve found so far. We have middle aged workers who worry about aging parents and/or the fluctuations in their 401Ks in a volatile stock market.

The long and short of voting at a central NC early voting site

We come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, from a petite ballot handler to a former basketball center. Some older “temps” are retirees like me; others still work part-time, sandwiching in scant time for personal lives amid hectic work schedules. One of my 60ish coworkers has a vocabulary that suggests he may not have had the same chances for formal education that I did. His line of patter can sometimes border on bigotry, yet he spent some of his off-hours last week comforting a colleague whose wife had a terminal illness. 

Our range of voters also is wide—from the just-turned-18 to a frail elderly woman whose grandson wheeled her up the elevator and into the voting area to cast her ballot one more time. She was born in 1920, the year that women in the U.S. first obtained the right to vote in national elections.  We see office workers on their lunch hours, professors eager to encourage their students to vote, students puzzled about voting procedures, custodians, construction workers, and others whose dress and demeanor defy easy labeling. 

It would be unrealistic to believe that our democracy is in great shape. Being subjected to predictably inflammatory tweets, predictably bloody lead news stories, and predictably negative campaign advertising can be discouraging. Whatever the outcome of this current voting cycle, we will have lots of work to do to help heal some of the breaches in our social fabric, whether we are citizens or elected officials. Yet I’m encouraged by the civility of the voters and polling officials in the small corner of the electorate where I work. Many people DO show up to vote, over a million so far in North Carolina. They wait in line, sometimes chatting with each other. They’re glad to get their ballots and to make their opinions known.  Perhaps if we pay more attention to what’s going well, we may be in a better position to help alleviate what’s not. 

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits   —by Jinny Batterson

(I’ve expanded an earlier version of this post that was written in 2014. Many of the issues remain the same; my wordiness has increased. Please read and pass along to anyone you believe would benefit.  Thanks!)

As a citizen in a democracy, I am a member of multiple levels of government whether I like it or not. Democracy, it is often said, is imperfect, but still better than the other options. Recently many opinion leaders in the United States have questioned whether we Americans are losing “the habits of democracy.” Over the years, I’ve sometimes exhibited bad political habits. I’m trying to reform, to become a more effective member of a democratic society. Below I’ve listed seven of my bad habits, with possible correctives. Recognize any?  

1) Politics is serious business, so I need to engage in it with utmost seriousness. 

Many of us with reformist bents can allow our passion for improving the world to overtake our sense of humor and proportion. Whenever I’ve done this, often I’ve tripped over my own earnestness or outrage, alienating potential allies—sending nasty letters to elected officials, carrying protest placards, scowling. Successful politicians of many different persuasions, from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, have learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously. There are good reasons why campaign photographs show candidates smiling.

Even in these polarized times, it IS possible to be well-reasoned, polite, even humorous. When I’ve taken the time to cool down before approaching officials at any level, I’ve had better success at getting them at least to recognize my perspective, even if they may not entirely agree. As a wise mentor once told me, “A smile is the shortest distance between two points of view.”  

2)  Politics is dirty, and most politicians are crooks, so I don’t want to get involved.

The list of our national, state and local political scandals seems endless. I can find it tempting just to walk away from politics to avoid being tainted, too. I hear about “dark money” (large contributions that are difficult to trace) and its influence on elections. Not surprisingly, some politicians in all political parties have accepted large sums from PACs, superPACS, possibly even foreign sources. I could not compete with large donor groups, even if I won the lottery.

However, that does not exempt me from making my small contribution—money, in-kind donations, and/or labor—to support candidates and causes of my choice. I can research the sources of candidates’ campaign contributions through public records and watchdog groups. I can vary the sources of my “partial” news (neither impartial nor complete) to try to understand multiple perspectives. Most important of all, I CAN VOTE, even when my possibilities seem less than ideal.   

3) Government can solve all our problems.

  I can let my expectations of government get overblown, instead of trying to make a difference where I have the most expertise and potential impact. Much as I’d like for my elected officials to snap their fingers and instantly reduce any negative impacts of globalization and automation, reduce unemployment to zero, eliminate poverty, and mitigate climate change, I realize that expecting governments to do too much too quickly can be self-defeating.

My most visibly effective actions have been at the local level—lobbying for enhanced facilities at a nearby park, or speaking out to oppose the rezoning of a small stretch of undeveloped green space. I can get informed and make a small difference; many small differences DO add up. 

4) Government is the problem.

On several occasions, I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats” over regulations I thought were obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. I can find parts of government maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level. 

It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on winter-damaged roads through providing police, fire and military protection, to dispensing veterans’  benefits, to underwriting healthcare subsidies for the elderly and the poor. Sometimes I may need to give the “faceless bureaucrats” a pat on the back.

 

5) Local politics does not matter.

I can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts me most directly is local: zoning rules; property tax laws and rates; school pupil assignments; the placement of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures.

To be most effective, I need to focus much of my political time and effort on local issues. Besides, for citizens and officials alike, learning needed consensus building and compromise skills starts close to home. This was hammered home to me shortly after I moved to North Carolina, when a school board election that drew just over 10% of the county’s voters created a temporary majority opposed to diversity. They reversed a decades-long pattern of economically-based integration in the county’s schools. in the next election cycle, turnout doubled, though still low in an odd-year election. A more moderate school board took office.

6) If I just elect the right candidates, all will go well.

In several previous election contests, I’ve voted for a successful candidate I thought would be best for the town/county/state/country. When little immediately changed, I got disappointed. Partly because our national population has increased nearly a hundred fold since the U.S. became a nation, many officials at all levels represent increasingly large populations—in their districts, their state, or our nation as a whole. 

Therefore, if I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, I need to do more than use my vote to support candidates whose views most closely reflect my own. Voting is a necessary first step, but not the only one. I also need to remind successful candidates, once elected, of my views on issues that affect me—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.

7) “Watershed” elections are crucial; some losses are irreversible.

As I’ve lived through more and more election cycles, I’ve come to believe that hyperbole about potential shifts in policy as a result of a single election can be counterproductive. Of course presidential elections can matter. Of course it can matter which political party controls national appointments and committee assignments. Many substantive changes, though, take decades or even generations. It took 58 years from the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that established a “separate but equal” doctrine for public facilities to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending legal segregation of public schools. An initial national Women’s Rights Convention was held in 1848. A U.S. constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in national elections was not ratified until 1920. Conversations and disagreements in our broader society about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of minorities and women continue to this day.

I’m skeptical of overblown claims, both of single-election disaster potential, and of single-election long-term gains. At the same time, I’ve concluded that it is important to vote in EVERY election, not just the high profile ones. Also, I need to stay engaged, informed, and involved, regardless of who holds the presumed power at any given time—I need to remember that truth is always eventually more powerful than a lie.

After especially bruising mistakes or defeats, I pick myself up and start again. If each of us works to become less prone to our own bad habits, we CAN change our governments at multiple levels for the better. Rather than the polarized extremes of political culture we are too often exposed to, we can move toward the “more perfect union”  envisioned by our nation’s founders as they wrote the preamble to our U.S. Constitution. 

As you work to reform whatever your bad political habits happen to be, first and foremost, PLEASE make it a habit to keep your voter registration current, and PLEASE vote—in every election!      

Veterans of Domestic Elections

Veterans of Domestic Elections    —by Jinny Batterson

Last Tuesday, I got up before 5 a.m., put on multiple layers of clothes, grabbed a hurried breakfast, packed water and snacks, then headed for a nearby precinct where I was assigned to work during this year’s municipal elections. This year was the third year I’ve served as a non-partisan precinct officer during early voting and/or on election days, after receiving initial training and participating in annual refresher courses.

A touchstone of our training is to do everything in our power to allow a prospective voter to cast a ballot. As our political process has become more divisive and hyper-partisan, this can be complicated. Successive gerrymanders and court challenges have sometimes moved voters from one jurisdiction to another, even when they have not physically changed address. Economic downturns and regional disparities have caused other voters to relocate, often without the will or the resources to become aware of issues, candidates, or election dates and procedures in their new locales. Identification requirements have changed frequently and can be confusing, even to precinct workers. Some prospective voters are homeless, making address verification especially difficult.

Luckily for me, the precinct where I worked in this year’s election was relatively stable. Interest in the election was high, with contested races for town mayor and several town council seats. During the nearly thirteen hours from the time our doors opened for voting until the final voter revved his car into the parking lot and panted his way through the precinct entrance a minute before closing, we were rarely idle. Seven of us combined our efforts to perform needed precinct tasks: we verified names and addresses, authorized voting for those properly registered, handed out ballots, answered questions, redirected those who’d showed up at the wrong precinct, gently dissuaded those who’d showed up on the wrong date, provided advice and provisional ballots for those whose voting status was in question, thanked citizens for voting and gave them “I voted” stickers, checked and cross-checked voting tallies to make sure our manual and automated counts stayed reconciled.

A few days after the election came Veterans’ Day. Originally established as a holiday to commemorate the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars” on November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. and later expanded to include all U.S. veterans, we’ve sometimes degraded the day’s significance. Rather than a reflection on the tragedies and sacrifices of war, we’ve sometimes substituted a jingoistic, commercial-laden extravaganza of pious political sloganeering and holiday sales. The original meaning of Veterans’ Day came home to me more clearly the following day, a Sunday, when our religious congregation honored the living veterans in our community of worshipers and seekers. Some in this varied lot of men and women, ranging from oldsters to those barely out of their teens, had endured hardships and dangers much more severe than the uncomfortable chairs and brief days’ spells of disrupted eating I’d experienced. Yet their sacrifices were partly in service to the work I’d recently participated in. The values we hold dear—fairness, humility, compassion, inclusion—have been fought for at the ballot box as courageously as on any battlefield.

One of our oldest and largest veterans’ rights organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars, states its mission as honoring veterans’ service, plus making sure veterans get the full benefits they deserve. To ensure this, the group lobbies as an organization, but much of its strength comes from members’ capacity and willingness to vote.

Helping preserve our values and our democracy requires free and fair elections in which as many of us as possible participate. My election-assistance services are episodic and short-lived, but important nevertheless. I’m glad to be among the veterans of domestic elections.

Tribute to Leonard Cohen

Tribute to Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)    —by Jinny Batterson

(Leonard Cohen, peripatetic Canadian poet and singer-songwriter, died in Los Angeles on November 7, 2016, a bit too early to absorb the results of the latest U.S. election.  I’m convinced, though, that his spirit still prowls. This short tribute incorporates snippets of several of Cohen’s best-known lyrics: Anthem, You Want it Darker, Suzanne, The Story of Isaac, and Democracy)  For a picture of Cohen near the end of his long life, see:

http://www.billboard.com/files/styles/article_main_image/public/media/leonard-cohen-2013-billboard-650×430.jpg

The bells that still will ring
These post-election days are ringing darker.
Though some the victor’s fulsome praises sing,
For others, the rifts are getting starker.

I saw him only once, we both were young.
In an Expo coffeehouse near Suzanne’s river,
He curled his raspy voice, lips, teeth and tongue
Around the credo that we lean toward love forever.

Bombastic tweets of blunt and bloodied hammering
May make hate and fear here for a time hold sway.
Yet, through the crack in everything
Democracy’s still coming to the U.S.A.

Vignettes of 2016 Voting in Central NC, Part 3

Vignettes of 2016 Voting in Central North Carolina, Third Installment                                   —by Jinny Batterson

After an exhausting week, our early voting team processed our final voter at about 4:30 on Saturday afternoon. Polls officially closed at 1 p.m., but anyone in line then was entitled to cast a ballot. With each successive day of the week, lines got longer—on Monday and Tuesday, we were generally able to keep the wait time to an hour or less. On Saturday morning, before we even opened at 9, the line snaked around the edges of the parking lot and spilled over into a nearby field, requiring more crowd control chains to keep it at least partly organized. Many voters waited for two hours or more.

The site where I worked this past week is in a part of North Carolina’s Research Triangle that has a substantial Asian population. We processed more than a few Patels, along with some Wangs, Zhangs and Nguyens.  I was somewhat surprised at the number of voters with Hispanic surnames who came to our site to cast their ballots. Many voters of all backgrounds came in family groups. Our youngest “future voter” was only three days old.  Children were generally well-behaved, but most evenings produced at least one cranky toddler (not surprising given the wait times).  A few assistance dogs went through the lines with their voters; at least one wheelchair-bound voter cast his ballot, as did a few voters with vision or hearings impairments who used a special machine that provided magnification and voice-overs of ballot choices.      

According to our local TV news channel, by the end of today’s voting, nearly 44% of eligible voters in our county had cast ballots, either in person or by mail, a new record, surpassing the 2012 total by over 40,000 votes. I’m glad I had a chance to facilitate the process. Whatever the election’s outcome, I’m heartened to see so many people turn out to vote. During wait times, voters often chatted with their line-mates. As people approached the voting area, I saw some handshakes and exchanges of contact information. I tried not to prejudge which people would be likely to support which candidates. Except for a few enthusiasts of all persuasions who sported strident slogans on their clothing, it was impossible to tell. We poll workers were given very strict instructions about the sanctity of the secret ballot.

I’m about as tired as I’ve ever been. As a non-partisan worker, I get two days respite before Election Day on Tuesday. Maybe I’ll catch up on sleep and exercise just a bit.  However, I’m grateful to have had a chance to bear direct witness as nearly 20,000 of my fellow citizens exercised their right to choose their elected officials—officials who’ll help direct our schools, our courts, our county government, our state and our nation. Whatever our democracy’s flaws, and they are many, our actual voting process can be a beautiful thing.