Democracy and Local Innovation

One of our founders, Chief Justice Louis Brandeis, called states “laboratories of democracy.” While much is happening at the state level to either advance or restrain democracy, cities in many parts of the country are innovating to facilitate voting and community participation, and some are using tools offered by the League.

With the 2024 elections approaching, many cities and states are enhancing local democracy by making sure that all eligible residents can register and vote and that elections are conducted with the highest integrity. As “laboratories of democracy,” both cities and states are implementing innovations to encourage voting and enhance community engagement through measures like ranked-choice voting, lowering the age to vote and allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections.

I spoke about these matters as part of a workshop last month at the annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration, joining League staff Nick Vlahos and University of Minnesota Assistant Professor Kathy Quick to discuss innovations to create resilience for local democracy.

At the conference, Vlahos presented information on some of the programs of the League’s Center for Democracy Innovation, which is now just over one year old. With leadership from director Matt Leighninger and the contributions of Benita Duran and Nick Vlahos, the Center has developed several tools for advancing democracy, including our Better Public Meetings Program, Civic Infrastructure Scan, and Civic Engagement Scorecard. Together with the League’s Civic Index, All-America Conversation toolkit, and Model City Charter, these tools provide communities with important avenues for channeling inclusive civic engagement to create stronger and more equitable local democracies.

In the workshop we also stressed the importance of a strong civic infrastructure in helping communities both to thrive and be resilient to outside forces, including threats to democracy, citing examples of work by the finalists for this year’s All-America City award. A few of those examples include Seattle’s leadership program for new Americans, Boulder’s use of “community connecters” to reach out to marginalized populations and Lexington’s CivicLex program to expand civic education and awareness.

Professor Quick, who helped lead police reform conversations in Falcon Heights, MN, following the police shooting of Philando Castile, talked about the importance of inclusive work to engage residents in conversations about public safety. Quick also outlined three components of resilience: equilibrium, adaptation and learning, and systems change, suggesting that resilience also needs to be paired with positive change.

The ASPA panel also discussed local democracy innovations. Ranked-choice voting is now being used by 2 states, 3 counties, and 45 cities according to FairVote. The All-America City finalist of Boulder, Colorado, is one of the more recent adopters, with 78% of the city’s voters approving the practice and a 77% satisfaction rate following its use. Key to this success was a broad public awareness campaign by the city.

Another local innovation is lowering the age of election involvement by either allowing 16-year-olds to vote in local elections or allowing 17-year-olds to register. Rock the Vote is working with cities and states to get young people more involved at an earlier age, including with these electoral reforms.

Along with “climate change anxiety,” election year anxiety is troubling many Americans. Rest assured, however, that there are thousands of organizations (over 10,000, by our count) and communities that are working hard every day to help our democracy be more resilient. In the words of a former U.S. President, “there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America,” and these efforts are advancing what’s right.

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