Knowing One’s Place at the Ballot Box


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.

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