Knowing One’s Place at the Ballot Box

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.

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