Doug Lewis Reflects on Democracy, Calls for “Respect”


[Image courtesy of affirmyourlife]

Doug Lewis is retiring as executive director of the Election Center later this month. I’ve already said my piece about it, but my friend and colleague Mindy Moretti had the brilliant idea to give him a space to share some parting thoughts in this week’s electionlineWeekly:

Of all the things that I have seen and worked with in public policy work during the last 45 years, I am constantly amazed that we are able to have such a high caliber of election administration when the nation and state and local jurisdictions continuously undervalue the necessities for serving the public well in making democracy function.

The beauty and hope of American democracy is that it is still the most vibrant example in the world of how a free people can assure self-governance.

For all the foibles that have happened to elections during our lifetime, our system has proven amazingly resilient.

We go through periods of where an observer has to wonder if we are not intentionally trying to kill democracy and then we rediscover our roots, our balance, our system of fair play, and we right what is ugly or simply ill-advised.

I have been around the elections process long enough now to know and feel both the hopes for and the concerns about election administration in the United States of America.

I lived through and witnessed some of the horrible systemic abuses that perverted democracy. While many of those abuses were in states previously covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there were also some systemic abuses in major urban areas of America where the “political machines” of people in power were using election administration to assure that they stayed in power.

There are still pockets around the U.S. where partisans and politically powerful work hard at making sure that the election process results in the overwhelming numbers of only one party or one philosophy.

Democracy is too important to allow it to be manipulated.

Elections must be fair. Not just fair in the accurate counting of votes so they are a reflection of the voters’ will. Elections have to be fair to young and old, to rich people and not so rich, to all races and genders, to be equally as fair to gays as we are to straights, and to all viewpoints. If the election process is presumed to be rigged or unfair then the voters cannot believe in the government that results from the election.

Along with that concern, it is truly disturbing that both political parties engage in political tactics that foster doubts about the fairness of elections: Republicans allege consistently that fraud is possible in American elections and that it occurs with such regularity that voters can’t really trust outcomes. Democrats are no better: they consistently allege that there is systemic “voter suppression” or “voter intimidation” and that it occurs with such regularity that voters can’t really trust outcomes.

Each side is filled with true believers that their point of view is the correct one. No one seems willing to hold up a hand and say STOP!!!!

The allegations are most often unprovable, but that does not stop each side (and the media outlets that agree with each respective viewpoint) from howling it loudly during each election cycle. Haven’t sensible people yet figured out that if they keep alleging the process is unfair and broken and tainted, that the public will believe what is alleged? Doesn’t it do democracy a disservice?

My concern for the future is this: we must, as a nation, as a people, as individuals, do what is necessary to protect the process itself. Democracy is not just a form of government, and no matter how inadequate it appears at some times, it is not simply a methodology or a structure to be bent and manipulated when it suits the purpose. Democracy is more than that: it is a way to assure that freedom prevails for humans.

It is an ideal that many of the world’s non-free citizens want desperately to experience. Of all the ways that we on this planet have tried to discover a way to govern ourselves through, with, and by the affected people, it is consistently the only process that allows opportunities for freedom.

At the risk of making this sound like unrealistic idealism, it concerns me that otherwise intelligent people truly believe that a democracy restructured so that more of their party, or their philosophy gets elected is an improvement.

Democracy perverted to assure the election of “more of us and fewer of them” soon becomes no democracy at all.

As I leave the election administration world I would encourage stakeholders to step back from their own ideologies and look at this from a fresh perspective. Have respect for how fragile democracy can become. Have respect for the belief systems of others and be somewhat less certain that “more of us and fewer of them” is a good solution.

Democrats and Republicans at the most intense partisan level truly believe the other side is trying to pervert democracy. There is little or no respect for the viewpoints of the opposition party.

But if we can understand and listen to concerns, can’t we find a way to assure that the greatest fears of each side have protections built into election administration that recognizes some validity to each other’s concerns?

There are partisans from each side who use the issues and concerns strictly as political fodder to arouse their own troops of volunteers, supporters and campaigned hardened operatives. So some of this is likely purely callous in alleging manipulation of the system that is based on fears and pandering. But listen to rank and file party supporters, be they liberal or conservative, and there is simply a core belief that the “other side” is trying to rig the system for themselves.

We read, we hear the two sides’ points of view and yet there is not enough respect among the participants to truly listen to the concerns of each. This belief system is so strong that no amount of factual information seems to sway the conversation.

Both sides are ultimately right: there is fraud and there is voter intimidation. Is it rampant? No. There are just enough legitimate examples to remind us that there are still people willing to manipulate the process. The value system is so rigorous for each side (fraud or intimidation) that the viewpoint held is akin to a deep seated religious belief which makes it difficult to proceed in a manner that allows us to make changes to election administration that catch or better still, prevent, the bad actions of fraud or intimidation.

If we don’t find some common ground on these issues then there is no respect for the process itself. We end up with constant attempts to make sure that only “our view” prevails even if it means bending the process by whatever means necessary to assure that “our people” get elected. And there is righteous indignation whenever anyone challenges the belief system of either side.

Both Democrats AND Republicans believe they hold the moral high ground and therefore any legislation or any court proceeding that gives an advantage to the “correct” side is hailed as justified or railed against whenever the opposite happens. I would hope we can have enough respect for each other’s worst fears on these matters to actually shape good but neutral election administration policy.

To the lawyers and legal activists who insist on filing lawsuits late into an election cycle, I encourage you to really think about the impact on democracy (not the immediate impact on the current election). Late changes in an election cycle, whether from a legislature, or from a court, have the potential to lead to confusion and chaos in the election that then can have a fundamental impact on voters’ views about the process. It can also lead to serious malfunctions in election administration because they come so late into the cycle that training, education, policies and procedures become all but impossible to complete.

Have respect for democracy even if you have no respect for the other candidate or the other party. If there is truly an egregious law or procedure that needs to be remedied, then can’t the lawsuits be filed and completed more than nine months before the election?

I know that judges consider themselves the best arbiters of fair or unfair practices and legal action is a primary principal of our form of government (as are legislatures and administrative bodies), but even they need to be more willing to have respect for democracy. This simply means judges may still hear cases on elections but delay implementation of any rulings so they only affect elections that are greater than nine months away. If judges can show more restraint and more respect for the process itself, then some of the lawsuits will diminish over time. Clearly some of the court cases are not truly about righting inequities but about assuring a set of court ordered rules that affect the most immediate election to influence the potential outcome.

If it a court case is truly about inequity, then the cases can be filed and adjudicated far enough in advance of an election cycle that election administration can adjust to the court decision to assure voters of a smoother process that maximizes voters’ rights. We want the process to have the highest chance for success and to serve voters well.

So with my apologies to both Rodney Dangerfield (“I don’t get no respect”) and the wonderful Aretha Franklin (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T”), it is my hope that the future of election administration includes a wider sense of responsibility and respect from all stakeholders.

Democracy can be lost. Its survival is not assured and justifying the manipulation of laws and processes because it means “more of our kind gets to govern” diminishes democracy. Prolonged manipulation for partisan gain is likely to cost us the very thing all claim to want – a fair process.

When the Greeks lost democracy it took humankind almost 2,000 years to form another democracy. If we lose it this time, our children and grandchildren and untold future generations may never get to know the freedom we have grown up with and lived under. On Election Day we are all equal and that is as it should be.

So, is it too much to ask for Respect? Respect for each other, respect for other viewpoints and enough respect that we can find ways together to overcome fears about the process, respect for the need to allow the process time to adjust to changes, and enough respect for democracy to challenge anyone who advocates changes to assure victory of one segment of society over another.

I’ll never say it better.

Godspeed, Doug – and thanks for inspiring so many of us to carry on your legacy.

1 Comment on "Doug Lewis Reflects on Democracy, Calls for “Respect”"

  1. Thank you for sharing

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