Democracy Shouldn’t End at the Ballot Box

An Editorial by Keshawn Walker

Another election season has passed, and despite once again being told that this was “the most important election of our lives,” turnout in Cuyahoga County was abysmal with just shy of 26% of eligible voters turning out on Nov. 8. Despite the Voting Rights Act being dismantled piecemeal by the Supreme Court (paving the way for gerrymandering), new voter ID laws, and other attempts to prevent “fraud,” it seems like the biggest reason many people don’t turn out to vote still might just be that they don’t see the point.

What might surprise you is I don’t blame them. As far back as 2014, an academic study of election and policy surveys between 1981 and 2002 found that passed legislation primarily reflects the preferences of wealthy elites and business lobbies and that when the policy preferences of average citizens do not align with those interests, they are rarely, if ever, reflected by enacted legislation. In other words, there is a body of research supporting many people’s conclusion that “voting doesn’t matter,” but I would argue the issue is not nearly that clear cut!

Citizen apathy and disengagement feed the very beast that causes them. It is a self-perpetuating downward spiral: people vote, legislators are elected to represent the will of the people, and after election day most people disengage, so legislators only talk to the people being paid to sway their votes.  The people’s will is ignored, and then the next election cycle, fewer people feel that voting is worth their time, which in turn incentivizes legislators to pay less and less attention to disenfranchised segments of the population or risk losing their seats.

Clevelanders know this cycle all too well, and our turnout numbers are a consequence of our distinctly dysfunctional politics. The recent history of Cuyahoga County is rife with crooks and profiteers who used their elected positions to enrich themselves and their friends: Jimmy Dimora, Frank Russo, Ken Johnson, and the list goes on and on. Consequently, Cleveland remains one of the poorest major cities in the United States despite massive inflows of capital investment and federal assistance, because most of that money ends up right back in the pockets of developers who are far more concerned with profit than with building a safe and functional place for people to live. Trust in our government is understandably low and the burden of proof is on our local legislators to establish that they care about more than holding onto their seats or advancing up the party ladders.

People need to see results for their votes or our democracy will continue to decline. And that’s a challenge for the many honest legislators who do want to fight for their constituents, because when good legislation does pass, people fail to connect that process with their daily experiences. There’s so much money changing hands, so many nonprofits and development corporations serving as middlemen, that it’s nearly impossible for the average citizen to draw a line between the city council and improvements in their communities and quality of life. So how can we solve this? How can Cleveland reinvigorate citizen engagement and illustrate the massive influence of politics on people’s day-to-day lives? How can we restore faith in our democracy, and prevent it from sliding further towards being a democracy in name only?

The new mayor has expressed support for an experiment that might help pave the way forward: Participatory Budgeting. It has been tried in other cities across the country like New York and Grand Rapids, MI to great success. It’s based on the premise that citizens are more civically engaged when they can have a direct say in the use of their tax dollars. Citizens are granted a small portion of the budget with which to propose their own initiatives and then vote directly on which citizen-led projects get funded. Even teenagers below 18 have participated in other cities and gained valuable civic knowledge and experience that they will carry for life. Mayor Bibb has proposed a plan which will allocate $5 million in ARPA money for a participatory budgeting pilot in 2023, less than 1% of the overall ARPA funds given to Cleveland but still an enormous amount of money to potentially finance projects that might otherwise never see the light of day. Clevelanders know what they need and ought to have this opportunity to not only have their direct say without the interference of lobbyists, but engage directly in the process our representatives do every day! Perhaps this will also illuminate some of the pressures legislators deal with and help Clevelanders see the need for the constant communication and engagement that helps them to be truly representative.

Keshawn Walker at a recent Council meeting.

I am calling on all members of the Cleveland City Council to vote yes on allocating $5 million in ARPA money to the Civic Participation Fund when it comes to the floor in the coming months. If you are happy with a 26% turnout, with hostile constituents who don’t feel heard, and with feeling like it’s impossible with your limited power to change a corrupt status quo, then vote no.

But if you believe, as I do, that a truly engaged citizenry can only strengthen your position as legislators and that we ought to be bold and experimental to save our declining democracy, I implore you to get behind participatory budgeting.