Knowing One’s Place at the Ballot Box

by Adam K. Webb on July 2, 2010 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power,Region & Place

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I have never voted anywhere.  Such an admission has been known to elicit reproachful lectures from many a committed democrat, including everything from Facebook-message exhortations from a friend on election day to some creative wagers.  When I try to explain my civic abstention, some can grasp more readily than others my disenchantment with the political spectrum that offers itself up every few years.  Those on the Porch are probably more likely to do so than most.

Such longstanding reasons aside, my wanderings do rather complicate for me what it would mean to vote, and what ties I should be affirming were I to do so.  At present, I cannot vote at all either in the country where I was born or in the country where I live most of the year.  In a third country, I can vote in national but not local elections.  And in a fourth, due to some quirks on paper, I was told I can vote locally but not nationally.

Mine is perhaps a peculiar case that makes the head swim.  But it does bring up some vital questions about local citizenship.  Amid the range of spirited debate among us, some shared commitments stand out.  Among them are a desire to strengthen participation on a human scale, to cultivate a vibrant associational life with a healthy awareness of place, and to chasten soulless markets and top-heavy states by shoring up communities.  In practice, many of these themes come down to earth, as both means and end, in expanding the ability of people in a place to control their own fate.

Voluntary associations rise and fall based on how well they match up with people’s interests and experienced loyalties.  When we speak of the political side of local participation, however, we need hard-and-fast definitions of membership.  Put simply, it is impossible to give local people control over local affairs without first clearing up who those people are.  Where one draws the lines will have enduring consequences for the distribution of power, for the character of the community, and for the self-understanding of the people involved.

The easy answer is that the people of a place are those who live there.  But ours is an era of mobility in which easy answers get messy very quickly.  As many Porchers will hasten to point out, mobility may itself be the greatest threat to community.  When much mobility is driven by an assault on the economic viability of place-based living, I might well agree.  Yet we should not underestimate the ways in which movement was often built into healthy, more traditional patterns of life.  Journeymen went out on the road for years, and nomads circulated with the seasons.  It is also inescapably the case that some level of mobility is going to continue, and that we can handle the intersection between it and local democracy in better and worse ways.

The prevailing model of local voting has deep defects, which often work against strong communities.  The modern standard is one person, one vote, one place.  One can vote in a local election if one presently lives there as one’s main base, providing one is also a citizen of the nation-state in question.  While this standard is simple, it leads to outcomes that run against common sense.  Someone who moves from the other end of a country to a village and who has lived there a few months gets an equal vote as someone who has lived there thirty years; and if the longtime resident is a foreign national, he or she usually gets no local vote at all.  In a suburb with a large influx of newcomers, the voting base could shift enough in a few short years to redefine the whole character of the place.

To throw the problem into sharper relief, I am going to deal only with local democracy, not with democracy on a larger scale.  I am also going to imagine that we are talking only about a generic society, not any particular constitutional system.  Whether what I propose would pass muster under the United States Constitution, for example, with its web of rules about suffrage and equal protection, is for those with more expertise to weigh.

Some basic principles guide how and why we define local citizenship.  Common sense dictates that decisions about the fate of a place should be made by those who have a stake in that place and who are going to have to live with the results.  Good decisions also require knowledge and appreciation of a place and its way of life.  The more knowledge and appreciation, the better.  Finally, participating can promote a sense of responsibility: a desire to follow local happenings and problems, and to think about the wellbeing of a place in the long term.

When we start from scratch and try to apply these principles, the one person, one vote, one place model is likely to change in several ways.  The alternative would give more say in some instances, less in others, and crucially would move away from the deceptively simple logic of either one vote or no vote.  In ways that I shall explain, applying these principles intelligently will mean some form of weighted voting.

Start with the most obvious reform.  The longer someone has lived in a community, the more say he or she should have.  A full vote should not come as easily as opening an account for a water and sewer bill.  The time frame could vary depending on the type of community.  A suburb in the Bay Area is in a different situation than a hamlet in Pennsylvania populated largely by Mennonites.  Perhaps in the former case one could get a partial vote after one year and a full vote after five years, while in the latter the full suffrage cutoff point could go up to a decade or two.  Duration of residency could be set according to a local charter, perhaps with a cap so that no community would be allowed to disenfranchise all but lifelong inhabitants.

This measure takes away something with one hand but gives something else back with the other.  If length of residence is a proxy for knowledge and commitment to a place, then it should make no difference what one’s relationship with the surrounding national polity is.  I would extend local voting to anyone who can meet the duration requirement, including foreigners.  Such an idea will seem more radical in some societies than in others.  New Zealand and some countries in Europe do allow noncitizens the right to vote in local elections, as do a handful of (mostly left-leaning) municipalities in the United States today.  A little known fact is that many American states also allowed noncitizens to vote in the nineteenth century.

A second reform is perhaps more controversial.  In many communities, an increasing impact comes from second home owners who are present only for one season a year or less.  This is a sore point for many lifelong locals who find property prices rising out of their own reach while many buildings sit vacant for months on end.  I would extend a partial vote, perhaps only a tenth, based on ownership, which could rise to a quarter or so if one spends enough of each year on site or owns the property for many years.  Now the first reaction of many localists would be that this reform would add to the insult of absentee ownership the injury of absentee political power.  But remember that seasonal residents would still have reduced voting weight.  More importantly, as Tocqueville, Mill, and others have noted, the right to participate often broadens one’s horizons and increases civic-mindedness.  Many second home owners today define their interests in a place too narrowly, as something like high property values and an idyllic environment suitable for leisure on their visits.  Even modest rights of political participation might pique their interest in a broader range of local issues, make them more aware of local debates, and enhance a sense of stewardship.

My third proposal is perhaps not controversial so much as, at first glance, eccentric.  I would give anyone who grew up in a community—say, spent at least fifteen of the first twenty years of his or her life there—a lifelong tenth or a fifth of a vote.  The primary effect of such limited suffrage would be to add some long term ballast and continuity.  Of course, it has tradeoffs.  Some people who move away from a community in their youth identify with it only as a focal point of nostalgia, and prefer that it remain frozen in time.  But I suspect that those who chose to exercise such lifelong suffrage would also be those who kept family ties there and went back for regular visits.  Allowing them a vote from a distance would reinforce their continuing identification with their place of origin.  They might be more likely to move back there at some point and to share some of the expertise they acquire outside.  And, not least, a continuing sense of place, even if attenuated, might tip the balance in how they think about broader political questions elsewhere.  It might reinforce localist sympathies even among those who lack a fully local experience later in life.

I see some shades of this localism from a distance in parts of the world that have had massive rural to urban migration.  Some of my Andean friends, even after moving to the city as teenagers or young adults, have a lifelong sense of home that shapes their political views.  Some urban Chinese, only a generation removed from the countryside, still point to a rural village as their hometown.  Add a dimension of real political participation and I suspect that their opinions on development and preservation would be healthier.

Added up, these proposals would mean a move away from one person, one vote, one place.  They would involve some kind of weighted voting in which the same person could have partial votes in two, three, or four different places.  Now here the principle of equality will come up.  A crucial merit of one person, one vote is that it counts everyone equally.  Weighted voting, as it has often been proposed for other ends, can easily give some people more voice than others.  This is not really an issue for suffrage based on residency, origin, and the like, because one person can be divided only so many ways.  It comes up more in the case of property held in several localities, which would advantage the wealthy.  In the spirit of civic equality, therefore, it would make sense to cap the total vote at the equivalent of one.  Within the maximum that one’s ties to each locality would allow, one would have to choose which entitlements to exercise and what to scale back, if necessary, to do so.  As a logistical matter, the rise of electronic voting technology and recordkeeping makes such weighted voting across constituencies easier than ever before.

How we make rules naturally reflects something of our own experience.  I admit that my own nomadism makes me somewhat more attuned to how a person’s interests and sense of self can be pulled in multiple directions.  But by following the rules I have proposed, I discover that I probably would be entitled to no local vote at all, or at most a tiny fraction of a vote in one or two places.  Frankly, that is as it should be.  Appreciating the value of strong communities and doing what I can on the level of public debate and in civil society to strengthen them is one thing.  Being entitled, in a place-based system of political participation, to take much of a rôle in deciding matters by which others, for the most part, will be more affected is quite another.

Many of the details of such an approach to local voting are technical matters of design, which even with electronic voting could run into logistical challenges.  But the larger philosophical point stands.  If we are committed to building the conditions for local self-determination, we need a fundamental rethink of the definitions of citizenship and the channels through which it can be exercised to healthy effect.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bruce Smith July 2, 2010 at 3:20 am

Interesting article. It is easy to think that the failure to maximize choice is the cause of many of the world’s problems but here we have a call to redefine the boundaries of choice in the interests of the local common good. It needs a great deal of pondering to decide how you feel about Adam’s ideas.

avatar Russell Arben Fox July 2, 2010 at 9:59 am

I’m on vacation now, and am not reading the blogs much–but I never like missing Adam’s posts. And once again, I am not disappointed. Adam, my thanks: this is an original, insightful, practical and thoughtful take on an issue which any of us concerned about locality, community, and democracy should take seriously.

The element of your analysis that I am most dubious about is the second one. I recognize your reason for bringing property considerations into the picture, but it could be such a can of worms to develop, entangling voting even further with stick concerns about class divisions (what if home and property ownership in certain communities tracks all-too-perfectly with already well-ingrained racial divides?) that “one man, one vote” was ideally supposed to avoid. Still, I agree that, if you are genuine in our concern about revival local democracy in a world of mobile labor, mobile capital, and mobile families, then the investment in place which ownership at least theoretically involves is something worth attempting to build upon.

Again, a great little essay. I’d love to see this developed further, either in the comments or in a follow-up post.

avatar Art Deco July 2, 2010 at 6:04 pm

1. You would like suffrage but are unwilling to seek naturalization. There are costs attached to the decisions we make. Live with it.

2. The attempt to implement your suggestion would, I think, lead to interminable disputes over how to apportion fractional votes, technical challenges in tabulating them, and Dickensian legal controversies over election results concerning who was entitled to vote where and in what proportions.

3. The problems posed to the fabric of community by seasonal residents are much overstated. Only a small minority can afford multiple residences and they can only cast a lawful ballot in one of them.

4. Our society is less mobile than is commonly realized. I had to do a statistical study of some census data a number of years ago and discovered that in 1990, fully 65% of the population lived in the state in which they were born; about 21% had changed their state of residence during the previous five years. The typical state has about nine metropolitan areas each with a tributary assemblage of rural districts and small towns. Peripatetic people are a minority. Most settle around the time their children are born.

5. You posit that people should, as a matter of routine, pay taxes to a local government they have no hand in electing. (To be more precise, they will have a hand, but you propose to amputate eight fingers and then glue them back on later).

6. All of this is irrelevant to some of the real problems which bedevil community control. These are:

a. The tangled web of intergovernmental transfers, which distort local preferences and render opaque the question of just which public policy is the fault of which corps of politicians;

b. Our ever officious appellate judiciary;

c. The collection of barnacles that is our architecture of local government, with accretions of special-purpose authorities, public corporations.

d. The wretched excess in the number of officials elected and the haphazard electoral calendar, both of which over tax the capacities of even the most conscientious citizen to make sense of local politics.

e. The suboptimality and arbitrary boundaries of units of local government, which are seldom derived from actual settlement and commuting patterns.

avatar Adam K. Webb July 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm

” 1. You would like suffrage but are unwilling to seek naturalization. There are costs attached to the decisions we make. Live with it.”

I don’t know quite how that criticism squares with my observation that people who are more mobile than average should probably have LESS say than they often get under the present system as new residents of a locality. The point about the disconnect between national citizenship and local voting still stands, I think. If I suddenly decide next year to leave Nanjing and move to a small town in the middle of Nebraska or Nottinghamshire, it does not intuitively make sense that I should have, on arrival, more say than a Chinese who has been living there for twenty years.

” 2. The attempt to implement your suggestion would, I think, lead to interminable disputes over how to apportion fractional votes, technical challenges in tabulating them, and Dickensian legal controversies over election results concerning who was entitled to vote where and in what proportions.”

A fair point, and one that I noted. I think such technical difficulties may be somewhat overstated if there were a consistent set of rules to apply. There are already all kinds of situations in which competing claims have to be reconciled smoothly across jurisdictions.

” 3. The problems posed to the fabric of community by seasonal residents are much overstated. Only a small minority can afford multiple residences and they can only cast a lawful ballot in one of them.”

I acknowledge that there in most areas this may not be a particularly visible issue. But there are many places (Vermont and Cornwall, to name just two of “crunchy-con” or “Red Tory” interest) in which the concentration of this problem is very much part of local political debate.

” 4. Our society is less mobile than is commonly realized. I had to do a statistical study of some census data a number of years ago and discovered that in 1990, fully 65% of the population lived in the state in which they were born; about 21% had changed their state of residence during the previous five years. The typical state has about nine metropolitan areas each with a tributary assemblage of rural districts and small towns. Peripatetic people are a minority. Most settle around the time their children are born.”

I wonder how these figures have changed, if at all, in the last twenty years. Even if they have not, a state is a big place. If 35% are from another state, how many are from another part of the same state? We get to majorities very quickly. The continuity of local identities and the average duration of residence are obviously very different from what they were a generation or two ago.

” 5. You posit that people should, as a matter of routine, pay taxes to a local government they have no hand in electing. (To be more precise, they will have a hand, but you propose to amputate eight fingers and then glue them back on later).

They would have a say in proportion to their stake in the community and their depth of familiarity with it. If you think that paying taxes to a jurisdiction demands a fully equal say in electing its authorities, then I refer back to your own point #1 above….

avatar Art Deco July 2, 2010 at 8:22 pm

I don’t know quite how that criticism squares with my observation

I have no interest in squaring it with your observations. Your insistence on the privileges of citizenship while electing not to seek citizenship is puerile. A Chinese citizen who has lived in Dubuque for 20 years as a resident alien has made his choices. The laws of the country allow resident aliens to pursue any object they care to bar one: civic participation, which comprehends certain public trusts as well in some areas. Insistence on extending all privileges to resident aliens is a statement that the person so insisting places no value on allegiance. That is wrong.

With regard to your remarks to my point 5, it is part of the ordinary rhythms of work, leisure, marriage, birth, and death that people move from one locality to another. Emigrating is a far more unusual act. Going through the elongated procedure of obtaining a permanent residents’ visa and then refusing to seek naturalization is a considered statement about the value you place on allegiance. It is a contrivance. It is not an artifact of losing your job or having to live near senile in-laws.

avatar Art Deco July 2, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Even if they have not, a state is a big place.

The typical state has about nine metropolitan centers (each with an associated catchment of small towns and rural areas). Some of those 65% have made inter-metropolitan migrations. Recall that you have fifty sub-units and yet 65% of the population are natives of the one in which they reside. That proportion should be higher when you have only nine sub-units.

avatar Bruce Smith July 3, 2010 at 1:31 am

Perhaps one way of attempting to understand the question Adam has posed about local choice is just how ubiquitous or universal is the underlying nature of the actual choices presented. If it degenerates into ethnic cleansing based on ancient wars lost and manipulation of religious mindsets to achieve secular power as the example of the Balkanization of the former Yugoslavia reminds us why would we want choice to be subject to such narrow and negative filtering? We should be wary that our descent from apes that commit genocide is a hard-wired attribute that we struggle to resist through reason and empathy.

avatar Art Deco July 3, 2010 at 8:53 am

Rubbish.

avatar Marchmaine July 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

Adam, I like the thoughts.

I wonder if a simple addition of another legislative body might accomplish the same thing without the odd fractional math?

If, for example, certain local issues were subject to review, oversight, and/or outright control by this new body (perhaps a Senate in the proper sense of the word), then voting for this body could be regulated by residency requirements… perhaps 1, 3, 5 and 10 year depending upon the location.

The issue, then would be over what bucket to place local issues rather than a counter-intuitive ladder system ranking residents.

This would give existing residents a way to absorb new residents, without the new residents completely destroying the character of the location to which they have moved.

A few points that would need deliberation:
1. What goes into the Resident bucket
2. Votes for Primary residence only; I guess I just don’t see the virtue of allowing anyone a local vote in more than one place. That is what your state or federal vote is for: general principles that affect lots of places.
3. Length of term for eligibility reqs.
4. When does one start to earn eligibility (at birth? Upon Maturity? After having invested (i.e. rent/own property)?

Of course, any tinkering with the idea of one man one vote is simply impossible in america today; there is just no framework imaginable in most folks minds – hence the buzz by RAF (Racism!) and AD (Taxation without representation!) – in fact, neither of these are really issues (or they are issues so settled as not to be issues) that local governments really take up.

At best, this would be a tiny little experiment in subsidiarity and the beginning of a re-imagining of self governance with limits; a blow so small and inconsequential to the Central behemoth, that it might just survive. Which is why sticking to recognizable structures (2 houses) with “value neutral” voting laws might see some support – certainly more than fractional voting where your vote is worth more than mine.

It is easier to sell: hey, you need to pay your dues before you have a voice in certain agreed upon matters… but everyone gets a vote for most of the everyday items. The intent/result is the same, but the packaging is better.

avatar Art Deco July 3, 2010 at 12:21 pm

ere is just no framework imaginable in most folks minds – hence the buzz by RAF (Racism!) and AD (Taxation without representation!)

There is an imaginable framework, but what of it? The utility of equal suffrage is that it is transparent, simple, and justifiable in the minds people generally. The difficulty you have with unequal suffrage is that of contriving weights and standards which retain a general legitimacy. In the absence of that, your suffrage regulations will be in an unstable equilibrium or no equilibrium at all. T An exception to these observation would be suffrage that be unequal because exercised through fixed and conventional geographic units (e.g. the U.S. Senate).

The standard of universal suffrage for adult citizens also has the virtues of simplicity, transparency, and legitimacy, even though it excludes people who might be better electors and includes people it might be better to leave out. There comes a time when regulations are rococo to a degree that the implementation of them may do more damage than the social ills they were meant to address.

Again, my principal complaint against this idea is that it simply does not address the authentic problems which inhibit community control in this country. We should have local governments which have the discretion to act, the funds to act, and are the optimal locus for the particular class of decisions in question. We should also have an electoral process which does a passable job of aggregating community preferences. We do not have any of this. The distortion in the expression of community preferences by the demographic phenomena to which he refers is small beer.

avatar Bruce Smith July 4, 2010 at 1:21 am

Perhaps trying to exercise your imagination how being a Bosnian Muslim in a genocidal war felt like might help you to understand my point Art Deco.

avatar Art Deco July 4, 2010 at 5:48 am

I understand your point. I just think it is stupid. We might conceivably be ‘hard wired’ to undertake the sort of mundane things common to the life-cycles of people across cultures. That some atrocity is imaginable or has been done at some time is merely an indication that it is in the range of possible human behaviors. Point’s not too difficult to grasp, unless your an absolutely purblind genetic determinist.

avatar Alethea July 6, 2010 at 9:11 pm

There is another element in the mix as well–all the gruntwork done by various volunteers. I know that at least one group gathers teens to make calls (whether by phone or at houses) in the weeks before an election. I went on a 72-hour-task-force expedition with members of Patrick Henry College during my freshman year there. We did not work local elections, but were shuttled instead to a big city farther south. The next year I worked a local election and met a Democrat who told me he wanted to be elected so that he could work himself out of a job and reduce local bureaucracy. I spent the rest of that day handing out Republican voter guides and feeling like the biggest hypocrite ever. I did not work any more elections after that–I knew nothing about the politics of the area, so my effort was being directed in ways I might not have agreed with had I known more.

Anyhow–that seems to be another element of dislocating local elections.

avatar Matt Weber July 7, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Duration of residency could be set according to a local charter, perhaps with a cap so that no community would be allowed to disenfranchise all but lifelong inhabitants.

Allowed? Are we talking about local control or not? Who’s going to tell them they can’t disenfranchise all but lifelong inhabitants?

The difficulty you have with unequal suffrage is that of contriving weights and standards which retain a general legitimacy.

This is true; it would require people with an actual culture and sense of who they are, rather than the flaccid, deracinated husk that makes up America today.

avatar Adam K. Webb July 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

“Allowed? Are we talking about local control or not? Who’s going to tell them they can’t disenfranchise all but lifelong inhabitants?”

It seems the stronger and more distinctive the local community, the better the case can be made for more restrictions. In any case, any society imposes some limits on what localities can do. The reason to prevent the kind of blanket disenfranchisement you would permit is, in part, that it plays right into fears of what would happen if localities never face any questions about what they do with regard to outsiders in their midst.

avatar Art Deco July 10, 2010 at 8:46 pm

This is true; it would require people with an actual culture and sense of who they are, rather than the flaccid, deracinated husk that makes up America today.

People have a culture and know perfectly well who they are. You just do not happen to care for either.

It seems the stronger and more distinctive the local community, the better the case can be made for more restrictions.

Again, your principles have to be operational.

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