Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Creating Community, One Vote at a Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. My involvement in the elections today in Jacksonville has led to hundreds of conversations with people about our community – what the problems are, how to improve them, how the city should be run. But more important than the way we vote or even whom we vote for is the role the whole community plays in our local affairs.

Every once in a while, we all get to vote. Voting is one of the most important foundations of our democracy. Our ability to select our political managers, at the local, state, and national levels, and to vote them out of office the next time, puts ultimate power in the hands of the people.

Just having a vote, though, does not ensure democracy. The Soviet constitution of 1936 guaranteed its citizens the right to vote, but those votes were meaningless. Candidates were chosen by the Communist Party, one per district. Democracy only happens when the voting system is open and free, when everybody has an equal vote, when the balloting is secret, when the counting of votes is honest.

Voting is indispensable to real democratic control of our communities, but it is not enough. For whom should we cast our ballot? We also need unbiased information about the candidates. Providing that information is one of the roles of our media. Candidates can produce media advertisements for themselves, which can communicate useful information, but which are inherently biased and often misleading. The more money a candidate has, the more ads can be purchased, but that has no relation to the qualities of the candidate except their own wealth and their connections to wealth.

Better information can be generated by the media, by investigative reporters digging into candidates’ claims and past behavior. National elections are usually much better covered than local elections, and that is true here in Jacksonville. Our local media do very little independent reporting about candidates, beyond asking a few questions and reporting what the candidates say in response.

Even better information comes from directly interacting with candidates. At every election the League of Women Voters hosts a forum at which local candidates present themselves, and voters can listen and question. Only a tiny minority of voters attend these events. In my opinion, the best way to judge candidates is to meet them in person, one-on-one. When a candidate comes to my door and is ready to answer my questions, to tell me face-to-face who they are and what they stand for, I am impressed.

That’s still not enough. We voters and community members must do more than listen and occasionally vote. If we want to use our democratic system to actually exercise popular control of our communities, we must get more involved.

That involvement could be as simple as reading to elementary school students or cleaning up trash along the roadside. It could include going to public meetings and speaking up about what we think is important. We can write letters to the newspaper or call elected officials on the phone to voice our concerns. We can get involved in political campaigns for causes or people we support. We can run for office.

Voluntary work in and for our towns and cities, beyond voting, beyond making monetary donations, is what creates community. There are lots of reasons not to do it. Such work takes time and is most often unpaid. It is often thankless. It involves us in conflicts and controversies, which means that people will get annoyed at what you do, occasionally yell at you, perhaps even threaten to make your life in a small town more difficult. Many times your candidate or cause comes up short at the ballot box, and all your effort seems wasted.

But it wasn’t wasted. Every time community members speak with each other about local issues, connections are forged, ideas are discussed, opinions are shifted. Public officials take note when we get involved: they are reminded that they represent all of us, not just their like-minded friends. Difficult issues are not solved in a day or at one election.

As I have knocked on unfamiliar doors these past few weeks, some people have told me that they agree with my position. Others have said they are not interested in the issue, or they take the opposite side. What has surprised me the most, though, is the number of people who have thanked me for taking the time to try to inform and persuade them.

I don’t know how they will vote, or whether they’ll vote. But their thanks have made these efforts worthwhile. I’ve done my best to become informed and think the issues through, but I’m not absolutely certain that my proposals will make Jacksonville a better place. I am sure that talking with my neighbors about our common concerns is good for me and for us.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 9, 2013

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