Sunday, October 4, 2015

Government: By Us or Against Us?

U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons, 
Counsel on Foreign Relations
Is government “us” or “them”?

Is government with us, by us, part of us, or is it some alien force, out to get us, quietly working against us?

This week I was grieving – again – the loss of life on a college campus, and the casual “stuff happens” response of some of our national leaders.

Thinking again of the way Australia responded to concern about misuse of guns: just twelve days after a mass shooting in 1996, a new, conservative Prime Minister and moderate coalition government joined their people in deciding “we aren’t going to let this happen again.” New laws were quickly passed restricting ownership of automatic and rapid-fire weapons, and a buyback program collected over 700,000 guns, at a cost of over 230 million dollars. Guns are still permitted for farmers, hunters, and other approved uses, with strict regulations about storage, licensing, and purchase. There hasn’t been a mass killing in Australia since, and records show a speedy and lasting decline in gun deaths throughout the country.

Talk to Australians, and there’s no sense at all that “they” took our guns. There is great pride in the decision to value human life over the right to own assault guns, and pride in a government that worked so quickly to express the grief and concern of a strong national majority.

Here, every discussion on tighter regulation of guns prompts cries that  “they” want to take our guns, while others grieve that “they” won’t do anything to protect our kids from an overflow of weapons in the hands of angry men.

Are we “them”?

In recent travels in both Finland and Sweden, in brief conversations about politics and social policy, I was struck with how close the speakers seemed to the practice and policy of their countries. There is a sense of “we”, a pride in what “we” have decided and carry out.

In Sweden, for instance, “we” – by law – provide in-home care for anyone over 65. Activities, household help, hot meals, transportation, health care: all needed services are provided at a low fee for those who can pay, and are free for those who can’t.  Sweden leads the world in percent of GDP invested in elder care, and is considered a global leader in health care for the aged.

In Finland, “we” practice “jokamiehenoikeus:” “every person’s right” or “freedom to roam.” The right to private property is carefully balanced against the individual’s right to wander freely on open land, pick flowers, wild fruit and mushrooms, camp, swim, and enjoy the natural beauty of the Finnish countryside. There is no sense that a far-off “they” is depriving property owners of rights. Instead, there’s a shared pride in the way rights have been carefully balanced to ensure a common value.

Some of that sense of shared ownership of decisions could be traced to the size of those countries. And sure, some of it may be my idealized simplification of two beautiful countries I’d love to spend more time in.
U.S. Voter Turnout Trails Most Developed Countries, Pew Research

Yet it's also undeniably the case that citizens of Finland, Sweden and Australia are far more closely engaged in the political practice of their nations than the average American citizen. All three are consistently among top ten nations for percent of population voting in national elections. Meanwhile, the US has been consistently sinking toward the bottom of that ranking. Less than half of us voted in the 2014 elections. Many of of us aren’t even registered: 51 million people, almost one in four.

Which may go a long way toward explaining our sense of government as “them,” “other”, even, too often, the enemy: trying to take our guns, steal our money, tell us what to do.

Australian commentator Michael Pearse praised and critiqued President Obama’s speech this week calling for response to our epidemic of gun violence: 
In his very fine speech this morning, full of sorrow and frustration, President Obama made a mistake: Australia is not like the United States. We decided not to be.
We decided to grow up instead and become a more reasonable, rational society that explicitly values human life and prefers to think the best of people, rather than the worst. 
The US is too immature a society to be allowed to play with guns. It has never shed its Wild West mythology. Americans still use their courts to kill people, which sends a message in its own way. Read The New Yorker's account of the Rodricus Crawford case and see a state that thinks taking a life is a no big deal. It's a country that values property more than life.
Unlike the US, we collectively decided to have a decent social safety net, the concept of a living wage and make good education freely available. Most of us are wary of those with extreme views of any kind. . . .
Unlike Australia, the US is at war with itself, strongly divided on racial, religious, political and social lines. We have our problems, significantly worse in some places than others, but overall our gaps are bridgeable. The US seems to prefer to use its societal chasms as moats and defend their borders. 
I’m on the board of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, and this year I’ve become director of both Election Reform and Social Media. I’ve been happily helping to promote Pennylvania’s recent inauguration of Online Voter Registration, but also digging around in laws and regulations to try to understand the many impediments to informed voter involvement.

Take this simple issue of voter registration. Many democracies register citizens automatically. If every citizen has a number (like our Social Security number) and every number has a birth date, it’s a simple matter, in this age of computers, to generate lists of all eligible voters, and to maintain accurate records of where those voters live.

Both Finland  and Sweden, like most democracies in developed nations, have this type of universal, automatic registration.

In Australia, voter registration is mandatory, and voting is compulsory. Elections are overseen by non-partisan election commissions, and district boundaries are drawn by independent, non-partisan commissions.

The US model of voter registration depends on a fraying network of public and non-profit agencies, with many opportunities for error in reading illegible handwriting, possible fraud by partisan groups who have been known to collect registration forms then “lose” those indicating affiliation with the opposing party, simple clerical error.

Universal registration, according to any study ever done, is less costly, less prone to error or fraud, and more conducive to voter involvement.  

An analysis of registration practices by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance notes: 
The most often excluded or non-included populations, by law or de facto, are peasants, ethnic minorities, women, the illiterate and the poor. With the exception of a few countries, disenfranchisement around the world today tends to be more a matter of degree and of practice than of a legal phenomenon. . . .
A very sensitive question is why registration is sometimes difficult for eligible voters. International experience indicates that complicated and costly registration procedures are usually put in place for two main reasons: a) an intent by governments to prevent or discourage certain groups from voting (e.g., peasants, urban slum dwellers, ethnic groups, women); and b) the complexities of identifying eligible populations after civil conflicts (e.g., displaced persons, refugees, exiles), including situations where the mere spelling of names may be a problem (e.g., Cambodia, Western Sahara, Kosovo).  
It's sobering to think that the US would be on the list of nations making registration difficult , yet it's true that much legislative energy (and public expense) is spent on producing and debating laws that would exclude eligible citizens. Voter ID laws, “English only laws,” narrowing of election hours, obstacles to absentee ballots.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed in response to events in Selma, Alabama and the advocacy work of many civil rights leaders and groups, bans racial discrimination in voting practices by the federal government as well as by state and local governments. It opened the door to enfranchisement of millions of minority voters and helped diversify the electorate and legislative bodies at all levels of American government.

Congress reauthorized the VRA four times, most recently in 2006, when both the House and the Senate approved the measure overwhelmingly in a bipartisan manner after extensive hearings and collection of more than 15,000 pages of testimony documenting the continued need for vigilance regarding discriminatory election practices.

But in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the VRA which required jurisdictions with a past history of discriminatory practice to apply for preclearance on any new election legislation.

Groups around the country are asking for a Voting Rights Amendment to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the VRA, and to address continuing discriminatory practices.

But real government by the people, for the people would go far beyond VRA provisions.

Various democracy watchdogs and think tanks have identified many ways to engage citizens and make participation in government easier:

Universal registration would be an obvious first step.

Next: no excuse absentee ballots.

Extended voting hours.

Vote by mail.

Non-partisan redistricting efforts.

Primaries which allow participation by third-party or unaffiliated voters.

Help for voters with disabilities or trouble reading English.

Public funding of elections so less wealthy candidates have a chance.

There have been many strong, sensible bills introduced into Congress and state legislatures around the country that would make registration and voting easier, ensure every vote counts, motivate voters.

In some states those bills pass. In many, they’re blocked. Or, as here in Pennsylvania, sent to die in committees overseen by party leaders disinterested in real democracy.

It’s interesting to see who votes for and against those bills.

Who is working hard to provide government “of the people, for the people.”

Who is working hard to ensure a game of “us” and “them."

I’m not usually willing to be a single issue voter.

But this year? On the question of expanded or contracted franchise?

I'll be voting for those who believe in "we the people."