Folks have been asking me for insight as local primaries approach. Having served on Charlotte City Council, and having run for office, I tell them what I’ve come to believe: People don’t vote because they are reluctant to support things that they didn’t help create. And because so few people feel as though they’re participating in our economy and take so little ownership in our current system, they’re voting by not showing up at all. And we’re all paying the price.
It’s a powerful and woefully simplistic premise, and it deserves to be fleshed out. So here’s what I’ve learned:
▪ Elections Really Are Fixed: I’m as sure of this as I can be. And it explains why so few actually participate, much less vote. The political process has become one gigantic shell game. Precision gerrymandering of districts, calculated voter disenfranchisement, mega-money influence, and lazy disaffected voters make it all happen. And yet we’re shocked such a broken process yields a broken result.
Why isn’t it addressed? I believe it’s because the people who broke it are largely the ones tasked with “fixing” it. Look at Democrats, who are howling about gerrymandering these days (and rightly so), even though they perfected the art for a century. It ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun, and the institutions who benefit from the status quo aren’t about to allow the new rabbit to get a fair shot.
▪ The best people, by and large, really aren’t willing to run anymore. I am asked this often: “Why would someone like you subject yourself to this?” The answer is because I can, which shouldn’t necessarily comfort you. Our government at every level is filled with people who are either retired, independently wealthy (often both), or on someone’s payroll who’s willing to support their political habit in exchange for influence.
They run because they can. Sadly many of them are as smart as a red brick. And who exactly do they represent? Where’s the middle class and the other folk? They certainly aren’t at the table, meaning they’re often on the menu.
Locally and statewide we pretend the terms “citizen legislator” and “part-time politician” bear some resemblance to reality. We believe two-year terms and small salaries make politicians more accountable. That’s a nice thought, but from where I sit, all it guarantees is our elected officials constantly running for office and raising money, leaving little time and energy for what truly matters. Add the fact politics has never been nastier and the ability to make a meaningful difference never less certain, and you have a recipe for more of the same.
▪ Tired, Comfortable Candidates Deliver Tired, Comfortable Results: At every level, government is ruled by incumbents. People who return to office year after year are the ones with the real power, ostensibly because they’re the ones with the experience. Except they are also the ones who are often comfortable, detached, cynical and just plain tired.
Consider the “Opportunity Taskforce” which recently released its comprehensive report detailing how to improve economic mobility and opportunity in Mecklenburg County. My concern then and now is who within our political class has the energy and willingness to spend valuable political capital on this huge lift? Especially to benefit people who largely don’t vote. What’s happened since has been like watching a reluctant striptease.
If you want to change policy, you have to change the policy makers. It’s as simple as that.
Had enough? Then get off your duff, ditch your comfortable routine and hit the streets. Work for people in whom you believe. Pay attention. Be moved to action. Never miss an opportunity to help create something better. And for goodness’ sake, vote.