Challenging the Political Status Quo

Guest Post by Terri Buckner

Periodically on OP the issue of voter-owned elections (also known as Clean Elections) has been raised as a solution to the rampant influence of money in politics. Legislation (SB 760) was before the state legislature last year to give local governments the authority to enact their own clean elections, but it never reached a vote so it will have to be reintroduced this year. Next year will bring us a new round of local elections. How might these elections be different if we had voter-owned elections? Would we see different kinds of candidates? Would there be more openness about controversial issues such as town/gown relationships?

According to Democracy NC, "the town councils of Cary and Chapel Hill have told their legislative representatives that passage of SB-760 is a priority for 2004. Dozens of other local officials have endorsed legislation to
authorize local governments to enact public financing programs." Given the controversy over the Orange County School Board elections and last year's Chapel Hill Town Council elections, should this be a priority for our local governmental bodies (Chapel Hill Town Council, Carrboro Board of Alderman, Hillsborough Town Board, Orange County Commissioners)?

Recently Fred Black raised the issue of costly run-off elections. Instant runoffs have been offered as way of eliminating expensive run-offs while improving the democratic process. This doesn't have any immediate local implications, but it does seem like part and parcel of overall election reform.

On a larger scale, I have been promoting the idea of e-democracy through the use of information technology. E-democracy challenges the absoluteness of representational government by giving citizens a more active voice in government - should they choose to use it. In e-democracy, communications between elected officials and citizens is two-way and ongoing. I've done my lobbying through the CH Technology Advisory Board. Is this idea interesting enough to propose to Carrboro and Orange County?

Here's a simple example of how e-democracy could help you stay current with areas of government that interests/impacts you: On each governing body's website, citizens could select areas of interest, such as Parks & Rec, Information Technology, Public Safety. Whenever a new program is offered/cancelled, a new policy is proposed, personnel is hired/departs, etc., you would automatically be notifed through email. Instead of you having to be proactive and seeking this info out, most of which you wouldn't have an idea to look for, your government(s) would tell you what's happening. This is just one simple way in which we could change the way government works through the use of simple information technology. Naturally there would be a cost, but we predict the cost would eventually turn into savings by reducing the amount of time staff have to devote to phone calls and/or visitors.

Is it time for some or all of these political reforms? What can OP participants do to further these reforms? What factors should we watch out for to minimize the possibility of backfires?

Terri Buckner is a member of the Chapel Hill Technology Advisory Board

Issues: 

Total votes: 227

Comments

Terri,

I'm not sure about Chapel Hill, but Carrboro has some "e-democracy" opportunities, though likely not as much as you'd like. If you go to the town of Carrboro's website, you can sign up for all sorts of listserves which will notify you about community social events or board/political meetings.

And as for public financing, it's puzzling to me how that law didn't pass... I'm assuming a lot of folks had a vested interest in NOT seeing public financing work.

And while we're on the subject, what do you think about our part time legislature? I think we're the most populous state to have a part-time legislature. I see the "pro" as being that we don't have professional politicians that are merely interested in retaining office to retain their paycheck. On the flip side, I think the opportunity to run is only truly given to those who are independently wealthy or have spouses that can help them out while they are taking time out to work in the legislature.

I know Californians are thinking of going back to a part-time legislature. Which type of governing body would foster greater democracy?

The issue with e-democracy is that it's not about technology--it's a way of thinking about government. I signed up for 3 or 4 Carrboro listservs a couple of months ago and haven't received any mail yet. If elected officials and town staff don't buy in to the concept strongly enough to post information or actively support the concept, then the technology just sits there useless. I'm not criticizing Carrboro--they've taken the first step by embracing the concept. They may just need to think a little further about implementation.

E-democracy could be a huge drain of staff time unless work processes are reconceptualized. We also get into issues of the digital divide. For example, if you publish electronic notices, do are print newsletters stil needed? If so, then it's double the staff work. If not, then some folks get left out. The first step to me is what Carrboro has done which is make electronic access available across town--even for those who don't have it at home. Not perfect....but a step forward?

I wrote about VOE in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 14 of this year. Excerpt:

One issue under the microscope with last year's spending results is the Voter-Owned Elections (VOE) proposal, a public financing system recommended last year by the public interest group Democracy-North Carolina. VOE is similar to measures instituted state-wide in Maine and Arizona.
VOE would require participating candidates to gather 100 qualifying contributions ranging from $5 to $10. This would then qualify them for $5000 in public funding. If some candidates opted out of the VOE program so as to spend excessively, participating candidates would be eligible for an additional $2500
This year, however, the margin of victory was too large to use the election results to evaluate the potential impact of VOE. Better to look back at 1995 and 1997 when closer races were marked by wide disparities in spending.
In 1995, incumbent Pat Evans outspent challenger Richard Franck by a 4.5 to 1 margin to win a 39 vote victory for the fourth-place Council seat. Two years later, Franck lost again, this time by 400 votes to incumbent Lee Pavao who spent over $11000, more than three times Franck's total.
It is hard to dispute the conclusion that, especially in 1995, a VOE program that could have boosted Franck's available funds by thousands of dollars would likely have changed the election day results. Evans' subsequent role in a series of close council votes demonstrates that the developers who funded her campaign got more than their money's worth.
Despite the election landslides in 2003 and 2001, it is a virtual certainty that we will have close elections again. Issues may get murkier, candidates more difficult to distinguish. In such a case, the ability to raise and spend thousands of dollars more than one's opponents will make a difference.
By adopting a VOE system, Chapel Hill would be telling candidates to think twice before planning to spend two to three times what is realistically considered as necessary for victory.
If we value the goal of keeping money out of politics then election campaigns are the place to start. The VOE system requires qualifying candidates to demonstrate a base of support. VOE ensures that participants' campaigns will be free of unseemly financial influences. And it stigmatizes those who would attempt to buy an election.
The Voter-Owned Election proposal should have some traction with the current Council. Back in 2000, the Town Council unanimously endorsed a campaign to promote a similar system at the state level. Current Council members Foy, Strom, Ward, and Wiggins all voted in favor. They were correct to do so then and they should support VOE for Chapel Hill in 2004 as well.

Here's some other ways in which information technology is being used to change elections. The following states help citizens figure out what will be on their ballots prior to an election. The Minnesota site is being developed with the expectation that other states (or in our case a county/municipality) can adopt/modify:

California: http://www.smartvoter.org/
Michigan: http://www.sospublius.org/
Minnesota: http://www.e-democracy.org/myballot/

San Francisco will be using instant runoff ballots this fall:
http://www.fairvote.org/sf/

Voters in Washington State and California will be deciding this year on the continuation of the primary system or to adopt open ballots:

Washington State:
http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/guide/arguments.aspx?n=872&c=1

California:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/03/27/MNGOF5SE2...

NY Times Op-Ed:
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/20/opinion/20keisling.html?th (requires subscription)

Looks like voters in Northern Orange are actively seeking changes to the status quo by asking for county commissioners to be elected by district rather than county-wide representation. Does anyone know anything more about this than was reported in the Herald?

Wikipedia's article on voting systems has a lot of good information and starting points. I personally do not like instant run-off voting because it has some (what I feel are) pretty serious flaws. I would rather have approval voting or a condorcet method. It is good to see that there is more discussion about voting systems now. Most people I have spoken with are not even aware that there are alternatives to first-past-the-post, much less its failings. There have also been claims that voting systems are related to women's representation in government.

Since I am new to the area, has there ever been discussion of these topics locally? Do you think that people would be interested? Are even people familiar with these concepts?

Terri,

This issue has been around for some time now. Back in 1993 the County Commissioners appointed a group of 8 citizens to study and recommend any changes needed in how we elect our commissioners. I was appointed as one of the two at large members. The other 6 were to represent the democrats, republicans, south and north black organizations, NOW, and the County Commisssion on Women. These may not be the right names for these groups but you get the idea. We were given 30 days to come up with a report by the end of June.

There were 2 public hearing one in the southern end and one in Hillsborough. It was my belief then and still is that the current at-large system is unfair. To my surprise and several others on the committee a number of folks from all over the political scale said the current system needed to be changed. The Committee voted 5-3 that the current system was unfair. I will say it split down racial lines partly because in my opinion Moses Carey was telling the black members what to do and this included the Chair Keith Cook. What was interesting was the black members said very little in our discussion and when they did it was in support of the current at large system.

After the newspaper reported that the committee felt the current system was unfair I receive two phone calls from commissioners. I was leading the charge for change that is why I was contacted. I was told to back off that our work was done and I replied that is was not and that the committee would recomend solutions to fix it.

The committee did recomend that we enlarge the county commission from 5 to 7 or even 9 and that we have district election or a combination of district and at-large or cumulative voting.

The report was received by the Commissioners in early Aug. and placed on a shelf where it collects dust today.

One footnote to add Chairman Cook wrote both the majority and minority reports. Letting him write the majority report was my mistake.

Patrick--What do you think the general public can do to support to petition filed Monday night? I haven't found the BOCC to be particularly responsive to individual communications.

Folks, we now have a new thread on this topic, I hope you will continue the excellent conversation there: http://orangepolitics.org/2005/01/district-representation-for-bocc/

 

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