Pushing Civic Tech Beyond Its Comfort Zone

Originally published in the Fall 2015 print issue of The American Prospect.
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You’re walking down the street in New Haven, Connecticut, texting on your smartphone. As you turn a corner, you notice a big pothole in the middle of the road. Skimming through your cell, you log into SeeClickFix, an app for citizens to report non-emergency issues to local government. Snapping a photo of the pothole and geo-coding the picture with your GPS coordinates, you submit the report and continue walking, confident the relevant agency will tend to the matter. Other SeeClickFix users can also see that a new pothole has been reported, and where.

Potholes have symbolized the everyday problems that citizens call upon local and even national politicians to address. Senator Al D’Amato of New York was nicknamed “Senator Pothole” because of his reputation for tending to his constituents’ needs. It was a compliment—it meant he was available, responsive, and got things done, at least the small, concrete things his constituents cared about. But when it comes to taking action on local civic problems, there are now options besides contacting a public official. Tools like SeeClickFix allow citizens to gather local information and organize collectively based on what they learn. “If you as an elected official have established your power on the sole exclusive rights to that information, then our app is not something you’re going to be in love with,” says Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix’s CEO and co-founder.

SeeClickFix offers some interesting opportunities for citizens, such as allowing them to monitor whether the government has dealt with their concerns and “reopening” the complaint if they dislike how the government responded. “There’s an element of shifting power that’s baked into the code of SeeClickFix that makes it more of a service for people and less of a service for bureaucrats,” says Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, which focuses on intersections between politics and technology. SeeClickFix also provides useful services for governments—Jennifer Pugh, who works in the chief administrator’s office in the New Haven local government, said that her office’s adoption of SeeClickFix technology has allowed it to organize work orders more systematically. She hopes that in a few years, when a greater number of departments start to use SeeClickFix, they will be able to conduct new kinds of citywide analysis.

Moreover, in theory, SeeClickFix technology should one day allow journalists, political opponents, and independent groups to publish data comparing the responsiveness and performance of local governments, allowing citizens to see how well theirs stacks up in relation to others.

Some, perhaps hoping to stir up excitement, inflate the case for new technology—heralding it as the savior of government accountability and promoter of a more just democracy. “With these digital tools, citizens and their officials can revolutionize local government, making it more responsive, transparent, and cost-effective than it ever has been,” write Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford in their book, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance. That exaggerated rhetoric about “revolutionizing” government shouldn’t be taken seriously; it only sets up people for later disappointment. But, in a more modest but still significant way, tools like SeeClickFix can help improve the accountability and performance of government—local government in particular. Accountability, however, is ultimately a political matter, and civic tech cannot simply steer clear of politics in the belief that technology will solve problems on its own.

The Obama Tech Letdown

Following his savvy 2008 campaign, Obama entered the White House with great expectations from the tech world. He was “the first Internet president,” as Omar Wasow, co-founder of BlackPlanet.com and now an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, called him. During George W. Bush’s second term, open-government advocates had begun to lay the groundwork for increasing transparency in the next administration, whichever party won the 2008 election. Their recommendations were just being finalized at the time of Obama’s victory. “We interacted quite a bit with the transition team and really conveyed to them that this was a bipartisan area the administration could take a lead on,” said Sean Moulton, the open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

In his inaugural address, Obama declared that “those of us who manage the public’s dollars” will “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” A day later, he issued two memoranda, one calling for greater government compliance with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and another that committed his administration to bring about “an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

These memos sent expectations soaring in the worlds of civic tech and open data. Silicon Valley perked up its ears. “When the president of the United States says something like that, it becomes a big deal and a big business,” says Tiago Peixoto, an applied political scientist who researches democracy’s relationship to technology. We’ve seen the rise of for-profit companies—like SeeClickFix—that focus on improving government service delivery. “Civic hackathons” began to crop up in cities across the country and even at the White House, encouraging coders, entrepreneurs, and others to figure out ways to use technology for civic ends.

“[Obama’s administration] was the first time we ever had a U.S. chief information officer, a U.S. chief technology officer, and a U.S. chief data officer,” says Gary Bass, founder of the Center for Effective Government (originally called OMB Watch), a nonprofit organization committed to public accountability, transparency, and citizen participation. Suddenly government leaders were discussing how they could recruit top tech talent. The culture of the federal government seemed to be shifting.

But several years later, public trust in government has declined to historic lows. Much of that decline reflects the general hostility of conservatives to the Obama administration, not to its information policies. But even for liberals, the promise of an “open government” seems elusive. A 2015 Pew survey found that just 5 percent of Americans say the federal government shares its data very effectively. The civic-tech community, which had hoped to facilitate a democratic revival, is also puzzling over its lack of success. “I think civic tech started getting trendy with Obama, and it’s still trendy, but we haven’t had as big of an impact as we expected,” said Dan O’Neil, the executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative and one of civic tech’s early pioneers.

Local Experiments, New Tools

Still, there are plenty of examples of local governments experimenting with technology over the past few years to help increase its responsiveness and reduce government costs. With improved data analysis, New York City was better able to anticipate which buildings were at risk of catching on fire. Boston was able to speed up the time it took to deliver new recycling bins on request. Many companies, organizations, and individuals have also started leveraging government data to develop their own civic tools, from Waze, a crowd-sourced traffic-data company that provides users with timely and accurate travel information, to Nextdoor, a tool that uses census data to create private social networks for local neighbors to interact.

Apps like SeeClickFix offer a greater degree of civic opportunity than apps that allow you to track your packages in the mail or those that notify you when the next bus is expected to arrive. SeeClickFix users can earn “civic points” for utilizing different features, such as commenting on other people’s reports. Through the app’s “thanks” feature, citizens can send messages of gratitude to the government agency that addressed their complaint. Ideally these types of features can help to increase trust between citizens and government, an important ingredient for democratic participation.

One of SeeClickFix’s most admired features allows users to “reopen” a report they’ve filed if they’re not satisfied with how the government responded to it. People have praised the technology for empowering citizens with the last word.

I asked Jennifer Pugh, of the New Haven government, if there have ever been times when citizens reopen requests that her colleagues have closed, and she told me that it happened all the time. In many cases, she explains, the government is not able to provide what citizens are expecting, or the government does not agree with what an individual complainant has asked for. “We don’t have a lot of resources; we’re limited on money,” says Pugh. So New Haven often closes out requests on SeeClickFix, and if people reopen them, officials usually just leave them there. “The downside is that it looks like there is a lot of open issues out there, but in fact they’ve been dealt with. We just can’t come to an agreement about how to address it,” she says.

When citizens file complaints through SeeClickFix, there’s no guarantee that the government will do what the citizen has requested. These tech tools do not eliminate some of the basic challenges facing governments, like determining how to spend a limited budget of resources. But what SeeClickFix does offer is an easier way to raise issues, and a means for the public to better understand which requests have been addressed. This in turn creates new opportunities for activists and journalists to press for details on the government’s decision-making process. Why didn’t residents in this part of town have their pothole fixed? Why did you decline to put in the speed bump I requested when I am upset by the fast traffic on my block? Why did so many people from all over the city report vandalism on the same day? Such questions have become easier for the public to ask in the age of SeeClickFix.

Peixoto, who has been studying the intersections of democracy and technology for the past 14 years, thinks that when newcomers flooded the civic-tech space at the start of Obama’s first term, “there was no way to ensure that the critical mass of people would absorb the lessons we had already learned by then.” This has led to what Peixoto sees as “some naïve assumptions” repeated inside new civic-tech circles. Specifically, he points out that many civic-tech leaders overestimate what technology can do on its own. Some have encouraged technologists to dismiss the government entirely, or just treat it as a platform from which to launch civic projects independently. But researchers have learned that civic technology generally carries a far greater impact when it works in conjunction with the government, like SeeClickFix, rather than on its own. SeeClickFix’s government partnership helps to explain its steady growth and impact.

Why Civic Tech Isn’t Easy

It’s understandable why some civic-tech leaders feel unenthusiastic about dealing with the government. In Silicon Valley, technologists are encouraged to “fail fast, fail often.” But within the public sector, taxpayers don’t necessarily want their leaders taking big costly risks, and politicians in turn fear the backlash if innovations fail. The cultures are different.

There is also a talent pipeline problem—government simply does not have enough people coming to work for it who possess advanced technological skills. “You see so many agencies with so little knowledge and capacity around the technology, they don’t even know what they want or how to communicate with the contractors they hire,” said Moulton. The government bidding process itself is also notoriously difficult, precluding many smaller, and perhaps more talented, companies from competing for contracts.

Together, these issues create a government tech situation that is both expensive and dysfunctional. The best-known recent example was the disastrous rollout of the federal health insurance exchange website, Healthcare.gov. It not only went far over budget—originally estimated to cost $500 million, it hit $1.7 billion by its initial rollout in 2013, and exceeded $2 billion a year later—but the website also just didn’t work well at all. It continually crashed, stalled, and left customers unable to purchase health-care plans. Of course, once the website did start performing better later on, the news media had little interest in reporting on its successes.

In many ways, the embarrassing Healthcare.gov scandal served as a turning point for the Obama administration. “It was only after that that the alarm bell finally reached the Oval Office,” says Sifry. “This wasn’t working. You can’t just make good speeches. You also have to find good people who can deliver on those promises.” Since then, far more serious attention has been paid to federal information technology and government procurement.

In 2014, the administration created two new agencies in the executive branch—18F in the General Services Administration and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) in the White House—both designed to improve the government’s technological capacity. The government has been trying to improve procurement issues for decades, but the tools and methods available today are different.

“From open-source tools to the refinement of methodologies like human-centered design and agile development, these are all things you wouldn’t have heard of two decades ago,” says Aaron Snow, the executive director of 18F. “These are all things that make it actually possible for us to accelerate the rate [at which] government improves its technological capacity.” While USDS technologists consult with agencies to figure out how to improve their work, the staff at 18F helps federal agencies become savvier about procurement. Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June—an annual conference for the civic-tech community—Haley Van Dyck, USDS’s co-founder, said her office has been deploying “hyper-networked teams across government” to disrupt and transform tech practices and agency cultures. And though 18F and USDS work specifically with federal agencies, they share their code freely online so that local governments can reuse and repurpose it for their own needs. At times, federal officials will use code first developed within local city agencies, too.

From Open Data to Accountability

In 2012, David Robinson and Harlan Yu, two technology consultants and open-government data theorists, published a law review article noting that the term “open government”—which was first used in the 1950s during debates that led to the passage of the Freedom of Information Act—has now blurred considerably and confusingly with the “open data” movement. “Today, a regime can call itself ‘open’ if it builds the right kind of website—even if it does not become more accountable,” they point out. Consequently, Yu and Robinson urge the public to distinguish more clearly between efforts to hold governments accountable and technology that enhances government services.

Tiago Peixoto built off of this analysis in an essay published one year later. For there to be government accountability, he argues, four things need to happen. First, government information must be disclosed—this is where open data would come in. Second, this disclosed information must reach members of its intended public. Third, citizens—not necessarily everyone, but a constituency large enough to influence government—must be able to understand the disclosed information and react to it. Fourth and finally, public officials need to respond to the public’s reactions or be sanctioned by the public through institutional means.

So with this in mind, can tools like SeeClickFix be used to create a more accountable government? In some cases, increased public transparency now exists within areas that were previously more opaque. That’s important.SeeClickFix users can compare how long they’ve been waiting for a streetlamp bulb to be replaced or for a pothole to be fixed. They can compare which parts of town had their requests answered more quickly. “It’s helpful to have a record of needs that are systematic and easy to measure,” says Robinson. News organizations can also launch investigations when reporters or watchdog groups notice that citizen complaints are going ignored.

Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a watchdog organization that seeks to promote accountability for public programs subsidizing economic development, says he first understood how crucial transparency was for accountability back in the late 1970s, when he worked for National People’s Action (NPA), a grassroots social justice network. At the time, NPA pushed for the passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (1975) and the Community Reinvestment Act (1977). “There were allegations that banks were redlining communities of color, but there was no real evidence [before these laws were enacted] to prove it,” he said.

Technology on its own cannot get the government to disclose information, but it can prove extremely valuable for those who want to understand what is released. While LeRoy’s organization has been around since 1998, he says the rise of the Internet and data technology “has everything to do” with how his organization has changed over time. All states have their subsidy information in electronic form; they could share much or all of it online if they wanted to. The first state to do so, in small amounts, was Ohio in 1999. But governments have shown that without public pressure they will generally not disclose information or will release just small amounts of information to mollify critics. Good Jobs First has tried to overcome this resistance by conducting research, promoting public discussion, and encouraging activists to push for improved transparency laws. In 2007, they published their first national report card study—“The State of Disclosure.” By that time, 23 states had put some amount of subsidy information online. Three years later, when their next study was published, the number had increased to 37.

But “the data that states do put online,” LeRoy says, can amount to a “Tower of Babel.” States often hide information in obscure appendices, upload contracts in non-searchable PDFs, or publish audits that are impenetrable. As a result, Good Jobs First recognized that “transparency” could mean very little, in practice. But this is where new civic technology developed by third-party organizations has been invaluable. Good Jobs First was able to launch its comprehensive Subsidy Tracker tool in 2010 by compiling and organizing more than 100,000 records from across the country into one unified searchable database and getting additional subsidy program information through FOIA requests. “Technology has definitely been at the core of how we improve our data and make it more accessible for average citizens to understand,” LeRoy says.

The Center for Responsive Politics, another watchdog organization that focuses on money in politics, knows its ultimate objective is to move people into action—step three of Piexoto’s four-step process. “We use technology to provide information in lots of different ways,” explains Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director, because the group recognizes that presenting information in just one format won’t resonate with enough people. Krumholz thinks the organization has played a key role in educating citizens about the impact of money in politics, but says its challenge now is to figure out how to design the kind of “aha” moments that inspire people to act on what they learn, rather than simply tune out and disengage.

But inspiring people to act inevitably has political implications. Eric Liu, the CEO of Citizen University—a group that works with leaders, activists, and practitioners around issues of citizenship and organizing—says it’s not enough to make government more efficient. He encourages civic-tech leaders to reckon more with politics, power, and inequality. While it’s great to have an app that can help you find out when the next bus is coming, it would be even better, he argues, if you could activate the smarts and skills of people within civic tech to help push city leaders to develop a stronger public transportation system.

“Civic tech is excellent at transparency, civic tech is excellent at efficiency, civic tech is excellent at creating a sense of community,” said Liu in a speech at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June. “Civic tech is excellent at a lot of dimensions of what you might think of as customer service.”

The civic-tech community could help Americans create not only a more efficient government, but also a more politically accountable and fair one. Doing that would require the community to venture into political territory that it’s largely avoided up to this point. But if civic tech is going to make a big impact, there is no turning away from politics. It’s something investigative journalists have long understood: Making people with power uncomfortable is part of the job. It’s part of the job of civic tech, too.

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The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
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Rachel M. cohen

SEIU 1199 

Rachel M. Cohen

       

On August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protestors made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents—a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street.

The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of Thurgood Marshall, not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “We picked that spot because he’s one of the greatest symbols of justice and fairness,” explained Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon who now works as an organizer with Communities United, the social justice group that planned Thursday’s rally. Fifty-four-year-old Hopkins has never voted.

While Baltimore has made national headlines this year for its police brutality scandals and its spiking murder count, the gathered crowd recognized that these issues cannot be separated from the societal exclusion African-Americans experience every day.

One woman who came to the rally was Robinette Barmer, who has had two children and one grandchild locked up in jail. Barmer has been fighting for ex-felon voting rights all year, and traveled to Annapolis last spring to push for the bill’s passage. “I try to tell ex-cons that their voices do still matter,” she said.

Greg Carpenter, a 62-year-old black man who served 20 years in prison for an armed robbery, also has a 20-year parole sentence. Although Carpenter has been out of jail for 12 years now, he worries he won’t ever get to vote again in his lifetime.

Governor Hogan said that requiring ex-felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before voting “achieves the proper balance” between repaying one’s obligations to society and restoring citizens’ rights. Ex-felons point out that they are both working and paying taxes within their communities, and thus should also have the right to vote.

Social science research suggests that removing voting restrictions would provide positive benefits to both ex-offenders and society at large. The American Probation and Parole Association also says there is no credible evidence to suggest that disenfranchising people who have returned home from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, there are roughly 5.85 million disenfranchised American citizens with felony convictions, and 2.2 million of them are black. That’s one out of every 13 African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to end discriminatory voting barriers but the courts have disagreed on whether the VRA should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws. Maryland activists aren’t waiting around for the courts, though. At Thursday’s rally, organizers prepped the crowd for next year’s legislative season where they hope to push for an override. “We need you to show up and come out with us to Annapolis,” said Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who works with Out4Justice, a group that politically mobilizes ex-offenders. “There’s only 90 days of [the legislative] session, so we’ll need you to make some sacrifices.”

Eighteen states considered loosening ex-felon voting restrictions this year, up from 13 states in 2014. But passing legislation, as Maryland activists witnessed first hand, is difficult. Only one state—Wyoming—ended up successfully loosening its restrictions.

Still, there has been demonstrable progress. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 800,000 citizens have regained the right to vote through voting reforms enacted between 1997 and 2010. Last month, President Obama even said that, “If folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

“This is a very peaceful rally, but this issue is personal,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We’re going to flip power, and we’re going to empower. We’re going to show the governor who’s the boss. We’re the boss! We’re the people.”

Rachel M. Cohen

Perry Hopkins at the podium                   

Why Civic Tech Can’t Be Neutral

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 10th, 2015.
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Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Technology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power.

PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said.

“When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like making it easier to know when the next bus is coming or helping you file your benefits more quickly,” Sifry and Rasiej wrote in a packet given to each conference attendee. While these innovations are helpful and represent the present focus of civic tech, PDF’s co-founders insist that those innocuous steps cannot define its future—not when the barriers to political participation are so divided by class, race, and geography.

Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University also argued that impartiality is unacceptable and called for the civic tech community to focus its efforts on giving real meaning to the concept of equal citizenship. Liu urged the participants to ask themselves, “Am I developing work, tools, power, and ideas that actually help those who do not have access get access, those who do not have voice, get voice?”

Other speakers offered a vision of social change through collaboration. “Imagine how we can reshape the future of work together in humane and kind ways,” said Palak Shah, the Social Innovations Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), who aims to improve labor conditions through market-based solutions. Shah tries to bring about “creative collisions” between “nannies and coders, activists and hackers” to build a mutually beneficial future for businesses and social movements.

One afternoon I attended a PDF breakout session called “Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Participation”—a panel of researchers and experts exploring how to engage more people in civic life. Jon Sotsky, the director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, discussed some of his organization’s new research findings on millennials and voting. According to this research, while young people overwhelmingly believe they can have a greater impact locally, they are far more likely to vote in national elections. Sotsky attributed the lower rate of voting to a lack of good voting information at the local level—a problem, he said, the Knight Foundation will be addressing through new projects aimed at creating more comprehensive repositories of civic information.

No doubt we should conduct more research and improve local civic information. Whether that will actually make a difference in voter turnout is another matter.

“Technology cannot solve the big stuff, even if sometimes we’d like to believe it can,” Sotsky said, in one of the conference’s more humble moments. Technology’s role in these situations, he suggested, could be to help foster attachment between residents and communities, deepen social networks, and support the value of voting.

But we’ve already seen what can happen when the tech world turns to politics, as it did in the conflicts over SOPA, PIPA, and net neutrality. What if the same energy was directed towards removing voting restrictions?

There’s a lot about civic inequality that we already know. Some barriers to participation may be reduced through better-targeted education programs and redesigned civic forums. But political inequality is not something that will be solved by an app. There’s no Uber for voting. For the marginalized to have more power, others will have to relinquish some control, and we can’t escape or obfuscate that discussion.

Western Maryland, The 51st State? Don’t Laugh Yet

Originally published in the JHU Politik on September 29th, 2013.
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49-year-old Carroll County resident, Scott Strzelczyk, is leading a grassroots movement to secede from the state of Maryland. Dubbed “The Western Maryland Initiative,” individuals in the five western counties of Garret, Allegany, Washington, Frederick and Carroll, are working to rally political support for what is certain to be an unattainable goal.

Demographically, the five counties are populated with more than 653,000 people, greater than both the populations of Vermont and Wyoming. And geographically, the western Maryland region is larger than both Rhode Island and Delaware. Consequently, Strzelczyk insists that his plan is not wholly unrealistic and that secession would not be from the Union itself, but from the “oppressive and abusive treatment from Annapolis.”

Unsurprisingly, Western Maryland’s push for secession has been met largely with ridicule. One writer in The Baltimore Sun suggested that “a simpler solution for everyone involved” would be for the aggrieved to just move across the state line to West Virginia. Another Sun writer pointed out that western Maryland counties contain about 11 percent of the state’s population, yet account for only 10 percent of Maryland’s tax base and receive more than 13 percent of Maryland’s total unemployment benefits. It’s clear that secession would entail major, likely untenable, economic consequences.

Across the country, several other secession movements have cropped up in upstate New York, the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, Northern California and various northern Colorado counties. These radical movements consist of primarily white, conservative voters, living in predominantly rural regions. Their outrage stems largely from legislation around gun control, energy use and increased taxes.

The Western Maryland Initiative shares some characteristics with these other secession movements, but it is distinct in its primary grievance: gerrymandering, the process of deliberate redistricting in order to influence an election’s outcome.

Gerrymandering is one of those terms we are taught in high school government class. Perhaps we shrug when we hear it today and say, “well yeah it’s bad, but everyone does it.”

It’s certainly true both parties are guilty of redistricting. However, Maryland’s record is particularly disappointing. An independent geospatial analysis firm ranked Maryland as the most gerrymandered state in the entire country. Take a look at a map of the 2012 congressional voting districts for yourself. There are reasons whyThe Washington Post described District 3 as resembling “blood spatter from a crime scene.”

Federal law dictates that legislators use new Census data to redraw congressional districts every ten years. However, when the Maryland legislators proposed their newly drawn districts, Common Cause of Maryland, the League of Women Voters, civil rights groups, and a supermajority of the Montgomery County Council met them with outrage. In response, Republicans managed to place “Question 5,” a redistricting repeal referendum, on the 2012 ballot. But redistricting never stood a chance of eliciting the type of political attention that some of the other Maryland referendum items could, like marriage equality and the Dream Act. Ultimately redistricting passed with a pretty high margin, even though many on both sides agreed that it went too far.

I sympathize with these alienated conservative voters. Particularly as liberals and Democrats rally against the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and as they band together to fight duplicitous voter identification laws, I find their silence on this matter suspicious at best.

Some will say Maryland’s redistricting is just “tit for tat.” Republicans are gerrymandering Texas! Look at North Carolina! Democrats have no choice but to play dirty.

But this is false. Gerrymandering is just another form of disenfranchisement. It’s a political maneuver to make some votes count more than others, and some to not count at all. If liberals are going to be up in arms about voter suppression legislation, (which we should be) then we should also be concerned and sympathetic to the deep frustrations voters feel in Western Maryland due to gerrymandering. Mocking these feelings is cruel and antidemocratic.

Maryland redistricting should model states like Arizona that have created an Independent Redistricting Commission, responsible for drawing new district boundaries independently of their state legislature.

Who knows how long Scott Strzelczyk’s campaign will last, though don’t expect to see a 51st state anytime soon. But in the meantime, at the very least, hold off with the snark.

Is gay marriage a gateway issue for political activism?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 29, 2013.

This week, as the Supreme Court took up two historic cases pertaining to same-sex marriage, it’s been an exciting time to be a college student. Huge numbers of young people on Facebook and Twitter continue to post pictures and status updates in support of marriage equality. Kids proudly walk around campus sporting red clothing in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that seeks to promote equal rights for gays, lesbians, transgender people and bisexuals. The enthusiasm, from the quad to the blogosphere, is infectious and inspiring.

“As an LGBT student at Hopkins, I have been truly humbled by the way that my fellow students have rallied around this issue,” said Danielle Stern, who, like me, is a junior at Johns Hopkins University. “Hopkins isn’t a campus where students get excited easily.”

For so many of us, this feels like our civil rights moment. We grew up studying the struggles of our great-grandparents, our grandparents and our parents who fought for racial equality and social justice. But for me and for my peers, who grew up in an era marked by questionable wars in the Middle East, which in turn seemed to promote Islamophobia at home, politics seemed to represent a smarmy, dark, and at best, unengaging enterprise.

But suddenly there is an issue that people can get excited about. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 81 percent of 18-29 year olds support marriage equality. And that figure, though staggering to some, is not all that surprising. We’re the generation that grew up with Ellen Degeneres, Will and Grace, Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean. Gay role models today exist in almost every arena. Not supporting gay rights seems so at odds with everything we’ve grown up with. In the eyes of the youth, it’s bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

As I watch my friends from the left and right get their first taste of political activism in support of marriage equality, I wonder, could this type of involvement be here to stay?

In some respects, it is hard to imagine another type of issue that could garner such massive, broad-based support, yet political science tells us that political participation begets more political participation. Could gay marriage be the “gateway issue” for more kids to engage in the politics?

Penn State political scientist Eric Plutzer found that often the most motivating factor for voters to turn out to the polls is simply that they have developed the habit to vote before. “Interest does not lead to participation,” Mr. Plutzer said. “Rather, participation promotes interest.” In other words, perhaps the most successful way to get Americans to vote throughout their lifetimes is to get them to vote for their first time.

To be sure, young people today aren’t citing gay marriage as their top issue at the voting booth. According to research conducted by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), only 3.8 percent of young voters named gay rights as their top issue in the 2012 presidential election. The vast majority of voters, both young and old, cited the economy and jobs as being most important to them.

But could simply participating in this historic moment along with the rest of the 81 percent in my generation be enough to ignite further participation down the road? We are given the opportunity to see political engagement at its best, and maybe the consequences will be lasting.

CIRCLE Director Peter Levine thinks there is indeed a chance gay rights could be that gateway issue. “While there isn’t clear research that political organizing leads to more political organizing, the evidence from the voting world is pretty suggestive,” he said. “We know once you get people voting, it often leads to more voting.”

Will my generation move from gay rights to the environment or some other big issue? Time will tell. For now, I will enjoy this warm moment in history, as youth across the United States take part in the political process that will inevitably, and assuredly, give the gay community the rights they so very much deserve. And hopefully, this unique issue, which touched so many of us personally, will keep many more of us involved in the future.

The Importance of the Youth Vote

Originally published in the JHU Politik on 11/5/12

In 1971, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This guaranteed that all American citizens ages 18 and older could vote in U.S. federal elections. Today there are 46 million people who fall into the so-called “youth voting bloc”—consisting of those between the ages of 18 and 29—and make up 21% of the eligible U.S. voting population. Take those numbers and compare them to the mere 39 million seniors who are eligible to vote.

In spite of our numerical advantage, youth are often disparaged for being apathetic and ill informed by politicians who do not believe in young peoples’ willingness to vote. However, the fact is that we represent a major subset of the electorate and should represent ourselves as such.

There is hope. Youth voting turnout has gone up in the past several election cycles. According to the Center For Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth turnout in 2008 rose to 52%, an increase of 4 percentage points from the 2004 presidential election. We also know, thanks to research conducted by Richard Niemi and Michael J. Hanmer, that voting turnout among college students is traditionally higher than that of non-college educated youth. Despite these positive trends, youth turnout, college educated or not, still lags behind all other age demographics.

The question remains: Why? Why do so many young people choose not to not engage in our democratic process?

Some people argue that youth are engaging, albeit in different ways. For example, our generation volunteers in record numbers. According to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, young people volunteer at nearly twice the rate of adults, 55% to 29%. Additionally, this study found that altruism is the driving motivator of youth volunteerism. Young people strongly agreed with statements such as, “I would like to help make the world a better place,” and “It’s important to do things for others.” We do want to improve our communities, but it seems that some want to bypass “politics” along the way.

For many young people who are volunteering but not voting, politics has come to be seen as something distasteful, smarmy, petty, and synthetic. Even readers of the JHU Politik, students that have an interest in politics, may still sympathize with the way many of our peers have come to view politics. Our political process is often characterized by financial corruption, thirst for power, and dishonesty.

Even if this position is understandable, it is not an excuse to disengage. For the sake of social change and for the sake of the survival of our democratic system, citizens have to take ownership of their responsibility to vote. The onus is partially on the politically active youth to do a better job of explaining to them why they should vote. However, ultimately as citizens it is our responsibility to participate.

As President Garfield said in 1877, “Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.”

The youth of this country need to demonstrate that if they want to change the world through altruistic aspirations, which we know they do, then it is impossible to do so without also engaging in the political process. Community service and volunteering is important, but, as the old truism goes, you cannot end world hunger by serving soup in a soup kitchen. We’ll never get stronger environmental conservation laws by cleaning up a park one day on the weekend. We’ll never shed the need for inner-city tutors unless we legislate serious educational reform. Those things have intrinsic value, but to make lasting changes we need to work within our existing, although imperfect, political system.

It is not only our responsibility to vote, but also to help make that message clear to all U.S. citizens. So tomorrow, please vote and help everyone you know to vote as well.

The New PA Voter Law

I’ve been hearing a lot of things lately about the new Pennsylvania Voter ID Law (or “Voter Suppression Law” as some call it.) This new law while championed by some as a civic necessity for ensuring safer and more valid democratic elections, is opposed by major organizations like the ACLU, NAACP and the AARP. They argue that this law adds more hurdles to voting and will thus ultimately infringe certain voters, particularly minorities and the elderly.

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(Received this in my inbox today)

I looked into it and this is what I’ve discovered:

So just generally:
With this new law, a voter must present a valid photo ID at the voting booth every time he or she votes. Prior to this law, photo ID was only required the first time a voter appeared to vote in their district. After that, they were allowed other forms of ID, including utility bills and government checks.

Types of acceptable identification from:
….the US Government (such as a passport)
….the Commonwealth of PA (such as a driver’s license)
… a PA care facility (such as a nursing home)
….a municipality to an employee, or
….a PA higher education institution (such as a college or university)

The ID must have an expiration date and it can’t be expired unless it’s a military ID, or if it’s a PA driver’s license, it can be expired up to one year.
(Jonah Mann sent me this article, that as of now under the current law, college IDs from Drexel, Penn State, Lasalle and Point Park universities cannot be used as identification for voting because they lack expiration dates.)

If you don’t have a photo ID at the time of voting, but you do possess one, (left it at home or something) you can still vote on a provisional ballot, and if you show up at the county board of elections office within 6 days of the election to show them your ID, they will count your vote.

Under this new law:
The PA government is required to issue free photo IDs to those that apply for them. The condition is that they must additionally have some alternate proof of identification (Passport, birth certificate, etc)
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People argue that this law is a good thing because it can prevent voter fraud. However, the amount of voter fraud is unclear.

For instance, there is voter fraud not related to voter impersonation, which photo IDs would not help to prevent. According to the Brennan Center, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” They argue that most cases of voter fraud “can be traced to causes far more logical than fraud by voters,” including clerical or typographical errors, mismatched entries, and simple mistakes on both ends.

However, others argue there are indeed instances of voter impersonation. But the situation is ambiguous because the amount of voter impersonation convictions could very well be much less than what actually exists.

An example is the 1960 Presidential election between Richard Nixon and JFK where there was alleged to be a lot of voter fraud.  Here’s the full summary. Essentially convictions are hard to come by in our judicial system, and despite the lack of a single conviction, (over 650 were brought to trial) it doesn’t mean voting impersonation fraud didn’t exist or is unimportant. In fact, just the opposite. If Nixon had won two of the states that were being disputed, Illinois and Texas, he would have been President instead of Kennedy. So whether or not there was voter fraud, there was heated voter fraud controversy, and these new laws could help with situations like that.

Challenges with the Law:
So then why do groups like the the NAACP, ACLU and AARP oppose this law so much? The Obama campaign criticized the measure as “a costly bill to address a non-existent problem” and Democratic lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union vowed to challenge this law in court.

People argue the law will disenfranchise minorities who often can’t afford to make the trips to obtain necessary documents required to gain proper identification. This could also hurt the elderly, who often physically cannot make the trip to renew and update their exisiting photo identification. According to Karen Buck of the Senior Law Project, 18% of the elderly do not have photo i.d., but that number is surely higher if you also count those with expired photo IDs.

Stephanie Singer, chair of the Philadelphia City Commission (which runs elections in the city) argues with others that the law creates more problems than it fixes. She said, “If this legislature were serious about [voter fraud], they would be funding poll worker training, data forensics, aggressive investigation of the voter registration lists.”

Governor Corbett who signed the bill into law, described the new law as a preventive measure. The new law and photo requirement will be in full effect for the November 6th election.

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It should be noted that a similar case for the state of Indiana was brought to the Supreme Court in 2008. The Supreme Court ruled that the voter ID law did not violate constitutional rights. The law “is amply justified by the valid interest in protecting ‘the integrity and reliability of the electoral process,'” Justice John Paul Stevens said in an opinion that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy. But in dissent, Justice David Souter said Indiana’s voter ID law “threatens to impose nontrivial burdens on the voting rights of tens of thousands of the state’s citizens.”

In my opinion, if the government is requiring all of its citizens to have proper identification, then they should take on the responsibility of helping those who have difficulty getting them, get them. Democratic organizations are already gearing up on photo-ID education campaigns. But for something as important as this, I don’t think it should come down to partisan efforts, and should instead be a concerted national campaign, rather than a Democratic one. I also have serious doubts about how easily elderly folks will be able to get out to renew their expired identification.

photo credit: turnstilemusic.net