Posts Tagged 'Roosevelt Institution'

Democratic Idols

Tarsi Dunlop of the Middlebury Roosevelt Institution

Democracy is not an easy concept; even a definition is hard for many people to agree on. However, the United States is one of the oldest surviving democracies in the world. It is therefore noteworthy that for all our desires to spread democracy, within the US is where voter participation is sorely lacking. Why, then, were we finding so much interest in the 2008 election before party nominees were even selected?

It could be said that democratic participation, for a rational voter, makes little sense. This is very often the reason for low turnout and just one aspect of “Making Democracy Work” that the Roosevelt Institution seeks to address as one of its national challenges during this election year. It is a challenging problem and one not easily solved. Voter apathy is a powerful notion. However, almost six months before we knew who would be running in the general election, the race was already dominating headlines.

Why was this? Perhaps it was because in our own uniquely American way, we have managed to turn democratic elections into our very own American Idol contest. It is now all about the contestants and their personalities. Barack Obama is charismatic and has already become a larger-than-life emblem of liberal “change,” but he is young, and somewhat inexperienced. Hillary Clinton has huge name recognition— and yes, perhaps she does polarize— but then again, she has spent time in the White House. When one wonders who will win between these two, it almost feels like we might as well ask who is the better singer, rather than politician.

John McCain, meanwhile, is a war hero who has been playing the role of “comeback kid” in this race. But will he be able to unite Republicans across the country? Can they find enough to like about him to overcome their doubts about his political stance, will it come down to how much the voters can identify with the man himself? Thus the discussion goes on. However, in the end, news coverage likes conflict and sound bites – as the viewers demand – and thrives on uncertainty. Well, there is certainly plenty of that going around.

Ultimately, perhaps democratic participation is not really about policy as much as the people who claim they will represent us. One might even go as far as to ask them all to sing a few bars, make a brief heartfelt speech to the American public, and then we’ll send people out to vote. Electoral College aside, would more people head out to the polls? This feels like the popularity contests of junior high elections all over again.

Paper or Plastic?

Tarsi Dunlop of the Middlebury Roosevelt Institution

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Checking out at the grocery store often puts me in a moral dilemma: paper bags may involve the destruction of numerous trees, but they also take up less space in a landfill compared to plastic. Plastic bags stick around for thousands of years. So, which is better? Ideally, it is actually choice number three: reusable cloth bags. What sort of encouragement might help people remember to bring a few bags with them when they shop? One answer, summarized by Olivia Katz, a Middlebury College graduate, is to instate a small tax on every paper bag used.

This idea is remarkably straightforward. Each bag would have a certain tax on it, small enough so that a trip to the store without one’s own bags would yield no more than a dollar or so in tax. The proceeds would go towards environmental non-profits for research or to other eco-friendly efforts. This idea, tested in places such as San Francisco and the Netherlands, actually has resulted in a notable drop in the number of people using plastic and paper bags.

While we may not solve the energy crisis over night, a small tax at our food stores could serve as a handy little reminder to each shopper— bring your own cloth bag.

Making Democracy Work

Hallie Fox of the Middlebury Roosevelt Institution

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So far, the 2008 presidential hopefuls have raised unprecedented campaign funds. With over a year to go before the election, candidates are already hitting the road to rally votes, raise money, and debate our nation’s most pressing issues: immigration, health care, the war in Iraq, global warming, and homeland security, to name a few.

Yet absent from the debate is one of the most pressing issues facing our nation: voting. The very nature of our political system rests on the democratic participation of our citizens. Although we have historically precluded minorities, women, and felons from voting, one would assume that today all are given an equal opportunity to cast their ballots. Wrong.

An estimated 5 million Americans are in jail and thus have lost the fundamental right to participate in the political process. African American men make up 1.5 million of this number. As a result, 13% of black men in America have lost the right to vote. Even after Florida’s disastrous “purge” scandals in 2000 and 2004, little has been done to reform our flawed and inconsistent voting system that deprives these felons of their constitutional right to vote. Many of these citizens have been wrongly accused or “lost in the filing process,” and as a result have unjustly lost one of their most important and fundamental rights as American citizens.

These numbers do not even take into account the number of American citizens who have not lost their right to vote but do not know how, have not been contacted to register, or believe they are not eligible to vote. As Americans, it is our civic responsibility to make democracy work.

Despite the Help America Vote Act of 2002, little has been done to insure accountability of election officials, purge lists, and notification of individuals on their voting status. For example, in a 15-state study conducted by the ACLU, Demos, and Right to Vote, not one state has codified any specific set of criteria for its officials to use in ensuring that an individual with a felony conviction is the same individual being purged from the voter rolls. Two thirds of the states surveyed do not even require that election officials notify voters when they are purged from voter rolls.

I ask you, Middlebury, how many of you accurately filled out your absentee ballot, sent in your votes, and tracked the results last election cycle? A friend of mine even reported submitting her information to Middlebury’s own ”Get Out the Vote” campaign with hopes of receiving an absentee ballot. She was met with an empty mailbox.

It is our duty to hold our government accountable. So before it is too late, I challenge you to make democracy work. Make our voting system fair, educate our fellow citizens on the importance of voting, and most importantly, don’t forget to exercise your own right to vote.