By Eliza Newlin Carney
Election Day is here, and Americans are on edge. Storefronts and office buildings are boarded up in anticipation of street violence. Partisans on both sides are warning that the opposition will rig the outcome.
At this moment of national anxiety and even paranoia, it behooves us to pause and take note of the silver linings that peek out from behind these clouds of disruption and fear.
Spotlighting civic success stories may seem naïve given all that is going wrong these days. But it’s equally gullible to assume the absolute worst in the politicians, judges and fellow citizens in whose hands this election lies. That’s precisely what the enemies of democracy, foreign and domestic, want you to believe–that nothing and no one can be trusted. One way to inoculate yourself against disinformation is to see the whole picture, and retain the capacity for nuance. That includes taking note of the opportunities that arise when things start to fall apart. Here are a few to consider as you wait to learn this election’s outcome, whenever that may be.
HISTORIC DEMOCRACY REFORMS: If the stars align for Democrats, our nation’s most severe democracy stress test could also usher in its most sweeping reforms. As I write in The Fulcrum this week, if Democrats win both the White House and the Senate, broad overhauls of campaign financing, voting rights, gerrymandering, executive branch ethics, the courts, and even the inner workings of Congress would all be on the table. Those are big “ifs,” of course, and changes in the rules of the political game tend to be polarizing and contentious. But as Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes told me: “It’s when you reach these points of high frustration in the electorate, and a sense that things are fundamentally broken, that you have the opportunity to come in with significant reform.” Read the whole story here.
HISTORIC TURNOUT: Americans may disagree on a lot, but one thing they share this year is a determination to turn out and vote. Early voting now hovers around 100 million, a statistic made all the more extraordinary by the many variables threatening to disrupt the election: the pandemic, state budget shortfalls, the army of GOP lawyers challenging ballot access on multiple fronts. The uptick in voter registration and turnout is particularly noteworthy among young people ages 18–29. The youth vote surge has the potential to expand the electorate over the long term, since voting habits developed early in life tend to stick. Alternative voting methods that state and local election officials have adopted in response to the pandemic, from expanded mail-in balloting to drop boxes and drive-through voting, all have the potential to remain in place after the pandemic fades–potentially enlarging the electorate still further.
UNSUNG HEROES: The millions of voters clamoring to cast ballots this year have received a big assist from “the unseen labor of thousands of state and county election administrators,” notes The Washington Post, “some of them stumbling through messy primaries but then rallying to get ready for November, gearing up for massive demand for mail and in-person voting with rush orders of envelopes and high-speed scanners and backup rosters of election workers.” The New York Times, too, spotlighted the unsung heroes of this election, with a heartwarming profile of an election office in the small Pennsylvania county of Kittanning, and the ‘round-the-clock efforts of its overseer, one Marybeth Kuznik, to track every last vote. Read that whole story here.
CIVIC LEARNING: Americans’ abysmal grasp of civics knowledge has been well documented in the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual surveys, but recent political turbulence seems to have boosted public understanding of government. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “a fire hose of news — detailing the impeachment of the president, crackdowns on civil protests, attacks on journalists and a host of high-profile court cases — might have had the unexpected benefit of increasing Americans’ knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.” More Americans surveyed this year could name the three branches of government, for example, along with the rights protected by the First Amendment. This is civic learning the hard way, to be sure, but it is a step in the right direction. Read the whole story here.
AMERICANS COMING TOGETHER: We hear a lot about how Americans are at one others’ throats, but what some call the “bridging divides” movement, which represents hundreds of groups bringing people together in cross-partisan and civic conversation, draws less notice. Some Americans may, indeed, feel the compulsion to take to the streets if this election doesn’t go their way. But there are many others who are toiling quietly to advance civility across the partisan divide. In a “normal” year, many Americans would gather with friends and family around the TV to watch election results roll in. At this time of social distancing, a plethora of online gatherings will push back against the chaos to cultivate calm. These include “Moments of Peace: Coming Together on Election Night,” an event organized by Braver Angels, and “Moving Forward Together,” a series of events organized by Living Room Conversations. In its Election Night “Gathering Guide,” Citizen University recommends music, activities and discussion questions to inspire “reflection, connection, and inspiration.”
Whatever you do today and in the days to come, bear in mind that, as Alliance for Democracy Director Laura Rosenberger recently noted, one of the greatest threats facing this election “may be a loss of faith in our electoral system itself.”
Eliza Newlin Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle.
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