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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table

 

Expand, don’t restrict, voters’ access to the polls

 

There are times when I’m convinced the progress of this country can be measured through our ballot laws. Think about it. Over the course of our history, we’ve expanded the franchise from the sole preserve of white male property owners to most all citizens 18 and older — regardless of race, gender, or wealth.

Yet despite this steady march, we remain embroiled in debate over who gets to vote. Mostly this is carried on in the states, with Republicans often favoring limits on access to the polls, and Democrats usually hoping to expand access.

The chief argument for moves to restrict access focuses on ballot integrity: protecting against fraud. We know that fraud happens: a voter showing up at the polls pretending to be someone else, or non-citizens trying to vote. But this is rare. After looking over 1800 files collected by President Trump’s now-defunct Voter Integrity Commission, Maine’s secretary of state wrote, “the Commission documents made available to me…do not contain evidence of widespread voter fraud. Indeed…the sections on evidence of voter fraud are glaringly empty.”

More pointedly, a few years ago Judge Richard Posner, a widely respected Republican appointee to a federal appeals court, raised eyebrows when he declared that he’d been wrong in 2007 when he’d voted to uphold an Indiana law strengthening voter ID requirements. That law, he wrote, is of a type “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.”

Of course, you don’t need voter ID laws to make it harder to vote. You can cut the hours when the polls are open. You can reduce the number of voting places. You can cut funding for efforts to encourage voting or help voters get to the polls. You can make voting itself difficult — by limiting the number of booths, for example, so that long lines form. You can excessively purge the voter rolls. Creative minds have come up with all kinds of devices to make it more difficult to vote.

I don’t mean to dismiss the idea that we need to protect the integrity of the ballot and ensure that people who vote are entitled to do so. We do. But I believe representative democracy is strengthened by expanded voting through public marketing campaigns, registration drives and even automatic registration when you get a driver’s license, through longer hours, early voting or voting by mail.

Voting is our most basic right as a citizen. It’s how we make ourselves heard and felt. Our elected representatives respond to what voters consider the most important issues and how to decide them. Our whole political system depends on it, and erodes if voting turnout falls.

So the impact of voting is huge. The results that flow from voting in a representative democracy can determine the availability of guns, which health-care proposals move forward, the quality of governance you have, the economic policies that shape your life.

Ask yourself why it is that the federal government spends a lot more money on programs for older people than for young people. Is it because older people are simply more deserving of public spending? Of course not. The reason is that politicians know older people vote at far higher rates than younger people do. The laws reflect members of Congress’ sensitivity to that simple fact.

As a politician, I kept track of the reasons people gave me for not voting. Often it was just plain apathy, inconvenience, or a sense of powerlessness. Transportation could be bad. Older people were intimidated by the hoopla that surrounds the voting place, what with politicians out there shaking hands and people carrying signs. As a result, I understood their reasons for not voting, and could work to correct their legitimate concerns and make our democracy stronger.

We need to do everything we can to lift voter turnout, not suppress it. The more people who vote, the more nearly our democracy will reflect the views of “the people,” not just the people who had the wherewithal to have the right ID or a ride to the polling place. And the more the polls reflect the communities we live in, the healthier and more legitimate our democracy will be.

About the Center on Representative Government

The Center on Representative Government is a non-partisan, educational institution that has developed an extensive array of free civics education resources and activities to improve the public’s understanding of the role of representative government, to strengthen civic engagement, and to teach the skills that are essential to sustaining our form of representative democracy.

The Center was established in January of 1999. The idea for the Center grew from former Congressman Lee Hamilton's recognition during his time in the U.S. House of Representatives of the need to improve the public’s understanding of Congress – its role in our large and remarkably diverse country, its strengths and its weaknesses, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day.

At the core of the Center’s work is the belief that our nation’s great experiment of representative democracy has served us well for more than 200 years, but it fundamentally rests on an informed electorate that understands our system of government and participates in our civic life.

Our vision is to have an informed and engaged citizenry that will preserve our democratic principles and resolve our conflicts with civility, deliberations, and consensus building.

Our mission is to help prepare the next generation of citizens by working with educators to create programs that inform, inspire, and motivate students and to encourage civic participation to seek solutions to the many challenges that confront our nation today.

Lee Hamilton is one of the nation’s foremost experts on Congress and representative democracy. Hamilton founded the Center on Congress at Indiana University in 1999 and served as its Director until 2015. Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he represented Indiana from 1965-1999. He also served as President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., from 1999-2010. He is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015).

Hamilton currently serves as Senior Advisor for the Center on Representative Government, Distinguished Scholar in the School of Global and International Studies, and as a Professor of Practice in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

Lee Hamilton, Center on Representative Government Senior Advisor

Can social media be "fixed"?

 

Recently, executives from Twitter, Facebook and Google testified before Congress. Again. This was the third congressional hearing this year where the internet giants were grilled on their content policies, their privacy and security practices and their role in democracy.

It's been a rough couple of years for social media platforms. They've come under fire for so many different things it can be hard to remember all of them. To recap: For enabling Russian propagandists to influence our presidential election and terrorist organizations to find new recruits. For allowing fake news stories to go viral. For exacerbating political polarization by trapping their users in "filter bubbles." For giving hate mongers and conspiracy theorists a platform to reach a wider audience. For filtering or down-ranking conservative viewpoints. For collecting private user data and selling it to the highest bidder. For siphoning profits away from struggling local news organizations.

The social media platforms are taking various actions to mitigate these problems. But every potential solution seems to bring forth another unanticipated consequence. YouTube is currently trying to debunk conspiracy videos on its site by displaying links to more accurate information right alongside of them — but there's concern that the presence of a link to an authoritative source will make a video seem more legitimate, even if the text and link directly contradict the video. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has expressed a desire to break up his users' filter bubbles by injecting alternative viewpoints in their feeds. But new research suggests that exposing people to opposing political views may actually cause them to double down on their own — ironically, actually increasing political polarization. Facebook instituted a system for users to flag questionable news stories for review by their fact-checkers — but soon ran into the problem that users would falsely report stories as "fake news" if they disagreed with the premise of the story, or just wanted to target the specific publisher.

Some doubt the sincerity behind these efforts. As former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao says, "[S]ocial media companies and the leaders who run them are rewarded for focusing on reach and engagement, not for positive impact or for protecting subsets of users from harm." In other words, what's good for a company's bottom line and what's good for society as a whole are often at odds with each other.

It's no wonder that the government is looking to step into the fray. If the numerous congressional hearings don't make that clear, a proposed plan to regulate social media platforms that leaked from Senator Mark Warner's office last month ought to. Just last week, President Trump announced that he wanted to take action against Google and Twitter for allegedly not displaying conservative media in his search results.

It's unlikely that the president would be able to do much about that, just as it's unlikely that Congress would be able to force Facebook to say, ban all fake news stories from its platform. Twitter, Facebook and Google are all private companies, and the First Amendment prohibits government officials from limiting or compelling speech by private actors.

So what can the government do? It can encourage (and, if necessary, regulate) these companies to be more transparent. It's shocking how little we know about the algorithms, content moderation practices and internal policies that control what information we receive and how we communicate with one another. It's reckless that we only become aware of these things when something catastrophic happens.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@freedomforum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

Lata Nott, First Amendment Center

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