When you look at potential reforms to democracy and government as a whole, are there any that you think need to be prioritized ahead of others to make sure that our governmental systems react better to the will of the people?
Something I tend to talk to elected officials about … is thinking about creating a space where constituents can be a meaningful part of some of the larger decisions that elected officials make. A lot of us tend to elect legislators to make certain decisions independently: “You know what’s best. As long as it’s in the interest of the people, you make that decision.” But I think there has to be a space for those who are interested in those decisions to be able to be a part of the conversation.
When you think about welfare reform, no one who was actually on welfare, or who had made the transition out of welfare, or who had fallen into poverty and had to go to welfare – was really a part of those conversations in the 90s related to welfare reform. So, what you come out with is a law that doesn’t reflect any type of empathy or any type of knowledge of what it means to live in poverty on a day-to-day basis. And so it ends up with these very poor and harsh welfare reform laws that don’t really make sense to the people who are living in poverty.
Reforms have to do with the willingness of elected officials to interact more closely and do a little bit more research as it relates to laws and those who are impacted by those laws.
It sounds like public input is really the crux of that, right?
One hundred percent. When I think about leadership, I think about those who act not because it is part of law, but those who understand the moral responsibility of being a leader and being in an elected position.
The law does not cover or govern every single action that any of us makes, so we have to depend upon a developed sense of morality to act when appropriate, right? But people will say, “Oh, well I’m not bound to that by law.” But is it morally correct? Does it make sense morally? Is it an unethical or ethical decision that you’re making? We just don’t talk like that anymore and that concerns me.
I want to shift gears a bit to redistricting efforts … Lawmakers have pledged to make the process more transparent. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has also voted to count prisoners in their home districts. Do you like what you’ve seen so far in this space?
It’s different. It’s much more improved from what we saw 10 years ago. That’s easy to say – easily done. What I’m saying is that what we’re seeing now is the basis for a good process, but there’s more that needs to be done. There has to be, along with transparency, a vehicle for not only taking public input, but weighing it and integrating it into the decisions of drawing the map. We’re off to a good start, but a lot more work to be done before the maps come out.
Since you joined Common Cause, there’s been a lot of debate around the state’s elections, from conducting an audit of results to implementing things like voter ID. As someone who’s focused on democracy and good government issues, what changes do you think need to be made to make elections both accessible and secure?
First of all, we need to have a very firm concept of democracy in our minds. Democracy isn’t a system that is broken if we don’t get what we want. If you don’t get what you want, that doesn’t mean the system is broken and needs to be totally torn down and rebuilt. It means that we need to take a look at where people feel less confident and determine whether or not there needs to be some type of reform and respond appropriately. That’s public policy. Public policy is literally the government’s response to issues that are posed by the public or that they themselves see as an issue. It’s a response.
I don’t believe that we’ve seen a perfect election yet. But there’s a far cry from perfection and fraud. We look at them as some inconsistencies that could easily be remedied. We think that there should be some additional training, mandatory training, that should come about for poll workers. There’s a lot of changes that have been made through Act 77, and we believe that there has to be regular training to keep poll workers up to date to prepare to answer questions and respond to issues that we see during elections … I honestly thought that was something that was in place, but it’s not. And that’s something that we need to get to. I think that would make more people comfortable.
There has to be an audit in place – a post-election audit that’s in place. We’re under a consent decree and there has to be one by the spring of 2022, in relation to the Jill Stein lawsuit. I think that lawsuit calls for, very abstractly, a robust auditing infrastructure in place post-election. We believe in the risk-limiting audits, and that’s something that has been piloted by the Department of State here in Pennsylvania.
Given all of the partisan rancor and frustration about elections and democracy and everything in between, do you think it’s possible to restore trust in government when people are so quick to disagree?
Absolutely. The faith in our democratic process is not because of the process itself, because the values are there and we all believe in those values – it’s based on poor decision making. It’s based on decision-making that is inconsistent with those values, and it’s based on misinformation that is not being corrected by elected officials. Now, if we can deal with all three of those, I think we’re in a very good position to re-instill, and even reinforce our belief in democracy as our political system.
Justin Sweitzer is a reporter for City & State Pa., where this story first appeared.