How Cities Are Reimagining Our Democracy

Op-ed: At the local level, progressives are building power and reimagining what’s possible.

(Photo by hjl / CC BY 2.0)

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2020 was a stark reminder that our democracy is far from perfect and that it isn’t currently designed to work for all of us.

At a federal level, this is clear in the unrepresentative ways in which the electoral college keeps us in constant struggle with an archaic numbers game instead of actualizing the clearest measure of the people’s will. At the state level, gerrymandering and voting laws enforced under the guise of preventing “voter fraud” continue to drive voter suppression and further institutionalize the marginalization of Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

At the local level, the path toward a more just and equitable democracy is clearer, as communities and progressive local elected officials in cities across the country are building public structures and processes that create opportunities for shared power in decision-making and that authentically center those most impacted by those decisions.

In Texas, Harris County recently restructured its voting infrastructure, centralizing all activities under a single office in order to better serve voters during registration and as they cast their ballots. This past November, voters set a new all-time turnout record during early voting alone, surpassing the previous record of 1,338,898 set in 2016 — the result of an energized electorate in a historic election and aided by the county’s critical moves to increase voting sites, hours, and staff.

In Maryland, the city of Mt. Rainer expanded the right to vote in municipal elections to undocumented residents, who are usually left out of other official democratic processes. Less than five miles away, the city of Takoma Park similarly expanded the local franchise to young people ages 16 and 17, in an effort to support life-long voting habits, civic engagement, and accountability to youth voices in local issues. And in Seattle, the city funded a democracy voucher program for ten years, where voters and some eligible non-registered voters can contribute vouchers to help fund their preferred candidates’ campaigns, allowing increased transparency and accountability for how local elections are financed.

Our collective view of democracy must also extend beyond the “who” and “how” of voting and elections. We need to reimagine it as ensuring that people are at the center of every process that directly impacts them.

For example, in Brookline, Massachusetts, a community-driven process aims to reconceptualize public safety, centering the experiences of those most impacted by police and state violence. In Durham, community organizers and elected officials have worked to ensure that people are decision-makers in how $2.4 million of public funds are spent via a participatory budget process. In Chicago, community-driven zoning and development is being used to ensure inclusive, transparent, and democratic decision-making as it pertains to land use and development. The process requires developers to provide detailed information and plan on developments, including renderings and costs, and seeks to minimize incidental costs to residents by bringing to light corresponding costs such as infrastructure stress, increased density and demand on city services. The model — which most recently led to the approval of a 100-unit, 100% affordable housing development in Logan Square — disrupts business as usual by ensuring residents are centered in the development decisions that impact their neighborhoods.

We cannot and will not build a more just and equitable democracy by doing more of the same. It is time to look at the work already happening at the local level to reimagine our democracy and emulate it, expand on it, and bring it into the forefront of our national conversation.

From making it easier for those without wealth and connections to represent constituents in government to engaging local residents in land-use decisions to enshrining resident rights in city charters and limiting monied interests’ influence in government, local communities are fighting to ensure that our democracy is truly representative.

This is part of a mini-series of op-eds about how local ideas can help solve national problems.

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Jillian Johnson is Mayor Pro Tem of Durham and a member of Local Progress, a national network of progressive local elected officials. 

Raquel Castañeda-López is a Detroit City Councilmember and a member of Local Progress, a national network of progressive local elected officials. 


Tags: chicagoseattlehoustonpublic safetyparticipatory budgetingvoting rights

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