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.

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