Keeping Democracy Healthy ... Locally

Other Voices / OPINION


Last updated 4/2/2020 at 11:50am

By I feel compelled to respond to Lee Hamilton’s piece entitled “How do We Keep Our Democracy Healthy?” (Print edition, Herald of Dec. 19, 2019) because this is an area in which I have taken great interest for over two decades.

This isn’t an academic discussion. It is a practical one in which ordinary citizens can make a meaningful contribution to election integrity and representative democracy.

I will address each of the sub-topics Hamilton discusses with practical applications: protecting our elections, “expanding” our democracy, restricting money’s role, and “participation.”

Protecting Our Elections

In Pennsylvania, voters elect every four years, two of your neighbors who are given the responsibility to make sure your polling place is run properly and legally. They are in charge of protecting the integrity of the process on Election Day. These are your Judge of Elections and one inspector from your political party (There is a “majority” party inspector and a “minority” party inspector, to make sure that one party doesn’t control the polls, for obvious reasons.)

Unfortunately, due to a failure of educating voters about these important positions, you will often find there is often no one on your ballot to vote for. It has gotten so desperate that elections clerks in the county office recruit people from outside of your voting precinct to perform these important functions.

This is not the way the system was set up to work. It was set up this way because the most local people would most likely be best and hopefully know the neighborhood voters, and be able to properly ensure that people who came to vote were who they say they were (i.e., an unofficial “voter ID”). Once you have people from outside the neighborhood, this function breaks down and doesn’t work as well.

Ordinary citizens can step up and help solve this problem by running for these important polling official position in your precinct next year.

Another important function that anyone can perform on Election Day is to become a poll watcher. Poll watchers are an additional “check” to make sure your polling operation is being run according to the law. There is a legal process to challenge your polling officials if there is wrongdoing at the polling location on Election Day, or if you think someone is trying to vote who is ineligible, for example. Having trained poll watchers is an added check on the integrity of poll operations.

Another important individual on Election Day is your elected constable. Constables serve the law-enforcement function at your poll on Election Day. They can resolve disputes between voters, poll workers, election officials, and poll watchers.

Unfortunately, most municipalities do not have elected trained constables at the polls on election day. This allows violations of election law and other issues to go on without the ability to quickly resolve them.

For example, I was told to move from where I was standing at a poll the last election, even though I knew I was in my legal right to do so. Unfortunately, there was no constable or deputy present to defend my First Amendment right to stay there.

This situation could have escalated, and sometimes they do at polling places. Unfortunately, without a constable present, bullies often prevail and people’s rights are not upheld.

Expanding Democracy

This is an odd phrase. Hamilton uses this phrase for increasing voter turnout.

Candidates and political parties have an interest in voter turnout. They work every election, to the degree of their competency and resources, to increase turnout to maximize their chances of success.

There is nothing wrong with people not voting who have chosen to be uninformed. Informed votes will allow for better election outcomes, not encouraging people willy-nilly just for the sake of voting to come out and vote. Being an informed voter is an ongoing process we all most work at, not just a few days before election time.

The challenge then, is not to increase turnout, but to increase voter education.

Restricting Money’s Role

Politicians have already restricted money’s role in politics. Unfortunately, there are always ways around these rules. The powerful and self-interested will and do find ways to influence elected officials. This will never change.

What we can do is increase the ways in which ordinary people can have influence. Donating money to political campaigns is one way of doing so. Restricting hard-working Americans’ ability to communicate in politics is counter-productive and only helps the political class.

In other words, when you put arbitrary limits on how people can participate in the process, it always benefits the powerful. Remember that when a politician talks about “getting money out of politics.”

Participation Matters

Participation absolutely matters, as I have been teaching people for 20 years. Your participation in your local precinct and in your local political party is an extremely important part of your participation. We are not teaching this in our public schools.

Participation also involves keeping your elected officials accountable after they are elected. Your local political committees can help do this in an organized fashion, rather than individual citizens trying to do this on their own. There is power in numbers.

We should be teaching the mechanics of political participation so citizens know how to get involved in a meaningful way at the local level, where it matters most.

Where Do We Start?

Your local political parties should be educating on these issues, training people, and educating them on why these functions matter, and doing more to educate their voters about their candidates. No one is better suited to perform these functions than the local elected political committees. This takes some leadership and investment of time to make it work.

Our democracy is worth it.

Lois Kaneshiki lives in Duncansville.

Editor’s Note: The Herald believes strongly in letting community members speak up. The Herald welcomes responsible responses to this essay and on other topics of the day. Send to 113 N. Market St., Martinsburg 16662 or to [email protected]

All submissions are subject to editing for space available, clarity, grammar, spelling and conformance to community standards. However, we strive to let writers speak with their own voices.


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