Tag Archives: voting

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!      

Vignettes of 2016 Voting in Central NC, Part 4

Vignettes of 2016 Voting in Central NC, Part 4   —by Jinny Batterson

Election Day is now over. After a couple of days in which many of us got little sleep, regardless of our political preferences, it’s time to pick up the pieces and begin the transition to the administrations that will come next for our county, state, and nation. From my limited vantage point, local election officials where I live did their best to insure a free and fair election. 

However, I have some reservations about whether our current processes accurately reflect our evolving society. First are the sometimes intermingled issues of immigrant rights and voter education. Some of the citizens who voted at polling places where I worked had limited English. Others had minimal knowledge of local electoral practices. One slightly humorous example was the dignified older lady in a sari who inquired whether her half filled oval on the ballot choice for a half cent tax increase for mass transit was correct—after all, it said “half.”    

Next is the issue of those who move frequently—more often the young, the economically stressed, and the elderly.  One evening during early voting, officials tried in vain to establish a “votable address” for a man who’d been living in his car for several months.  On election day, our poll books were peppered with “address verification” notifications, mostly for younger, minority voters.

There’s also a problem with getting the workforce at the polls to reflect a valid cross-section of likely voters.  One of the preconditions of my temporary employment this election season was “reliable transportation.”  In the spread-out suburbs where I live, this requirement nearly always translates to a private car and/or comfortable financial means—public transportation is spotty at best, with multi-hour commutes required to reach outer communities of the county. 

Limiting access to the ballot via variations of “photo ID” requirements for in-person voting are making voting more difficult for some already struggling with exclusion. Those favoring photo ID often argue that such additional identification will stave off voter fraud, that other forms of transactions—cashing a check, boarding an airplane, overseas travel—already require such ID, and that legal safeguards have been built in to enable everyone to obtain the needed ID at no cost. These arguments have several flaws: 1) no photo ID is required for mail-in ballots, where fraud is most likely to occur; 2) for some folks outside the comfortable middle class, existing photo IDs are rare, along with bank accounts, air travel, or overseas jaunts; 3) the same transportation issues mentioned above for working the polls apply to reaching the government offices where photo IDs are available. Younger voters, especially, suggest that the same arguments advanced for photo IDs should also support online voter registration and balloting—“If I can bank online, why can’t I register and vote online?” 

Finally, there’s a deepening disconnect between our technological capacities and our ability to maintain civil human contact.  Early on election day, someone told me that a campaign scam was targeting young voters, saying they could cast their ballots via text message—no need to show up at the polls. It seemed plausible. Younger, more “wired” generations are accustomed to conducting most of their affairs online—standing shoulder to shoulder with others in a voting line may represent their most extensive direct interpersonal contact in a good while. 

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.    

Vignettes of 2016 Voting in Central NC, Part 1

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

For this fall’s election, I signed up to train and work at an area polling station during early voting, which started in our area this past Thursday. As our second calendar week starts, I’m recording my impressions of “early” early voting, both as a worker and as an interested citizen. 

By the time polls opened on Thursday at 9, a small line had formed at our polling station’s entrance door. One older woman had come on public transportation very early: she had the mistaken impression that hours during early voting were the same as the 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. schedule on Election Day, November 8.  The line got longer as the day wore on. At its most extensive, wait time was over two hours. We worked hard to reduce the backlog. One bottleneck was the number of computers available to verify registered voters’ names and addresses—only four as opposed to eight during some previous election cycles.  Another difficulty was the number of disabled voters who required curbside assistance—in this case, curbside was several hundred yards from the indoor polling area.  Finally, it took our mixed crew of new workers and more seasoned “temps” a while to learn each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences and to begin to coalesce as a team. 

We processed our final voter the first day at about 8:30 p.m.—voting hours had officially ended at 7, but anyone in line then was entitled to vote. Most folks chose to stay rather than risk long lines again some other day.  Once managers finished reconciling our tallies, they let us know that we’d processed 1,935 votes, about 140 votes more than the second-highest early voting site in our county for the first day.  Our senior manager indicated that this was the heaviest first day turnout she’d seen in the election cycles when she worked early voting. We gave a somewhat tired cheer, went back home, and tried to get a little sleep before the succeeding day’s marathon.   

On the second day, although there were still lines, we managed to reduce the wait time for the able-bodied to not much more than an hour at its longest. We recorded slightly over 2,000 votes on Friday. When a brief, hard mid-afternoon shower rained on the outdoor part of the line, former strangers shared umbrellas and stayed calm. We processed our final voter by 7:45. On Saturday, I had a scheduled day off, but went past the polling station a couple of times while out running errands in the neighborhood. The end-of-day tally on the county website showed just over 1,200 votes cast on this weekend day with shorter voting hours.   

Despite the sometimes awful campaign rhetoric by many candidates and their surrogates, voters in the small corner of the universe I inhabit were civil to each other. Our lines filled with all ages and ethnicities, from infants in snuggies to nonagenarians; from the palest blondes to the darkest dreadlocks; suits, slacks, and hijabs. Many people came as families. We had special “future voter” stickers for the children, along with an activity table with coloring books and comfortable chairs.

Election workers, whatever our political opinions, checked our partisanship at the door and concentrated on making the voting experience as positive as possible for our “customers,” our fellow citizens.