Democracy Decoded: Season 3, Episode 1 Transcript

All Politics is Local

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Simone Leeper: In the US, presidential elections take the spotlight when it comes to voting. During recent elections, about 60% of voters participated in the presidential elections, compared to just around 40% of voters in the midterms. But local and state elections are important too, and that's because so much happens at the local level. In 2013, I had the opportunity to see local democracy in action when I interned at the Mayor's Office of Public Affairs in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. I worked with civil servants who had spent years doing this work and were really dedicated to their constituents. They showed me that sometimes the best way to fix a problem in your community is for the community itself to band together and address it head on. And that's why it can be so important for our local and state governments to be responsive to and held accountable to the people they serve.

I'm Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. I work with Campaign Legal Center's redistricting team, representing voters in court all over the country who want our democracy to be better and more representative. In this season, we're going to be taking a deep dive into democracy at the local and state level by highlighting different ways to ensure that every voter's voice is heard. From accessing the freedom to vote to how campaigns are financed. What does it take to run a local election? Who ensures that the system voters can trust? And how do citizens hold elected officials accountable so that our vote truly counts?

Local and state elections are at the center of our democracy. They decide the obvious things, like local budgets and ordinances, but they also determine nearly everything about how we run elections themselves. Limits on campaign contributions, where and when citizens can vote, and how citizens can protect their community's interests in the face of corruption. And so while voting on a national level is undoubtedly the main event in many of our civic lives, voting on issues in your local and state elections is one of the most impactful ways voters can participate in our democracy.

Jawharrah Bahar: I see a lot of things going on in my community that's not right, and I want to be able to have a voice to tell, "Hey, this is not right."

Leeper: That's Jawharrah Bahar. Jawharrah is a mother of three, a business owner and is the director of outreach at Free Hearts, a nonprofit in Tennessee. Free Hearts is an organization led by formerly incarcerated women. It provides support, education, and advocacy for families impacted by incarceration. Jawharrah's activism is rooted in her own struggles navigating the voting system.

Bahar: I'm unable to vote because I have a record and I went to prison, I spent three years and seven months, completed my parole, and after that I started the process of getting my voter rights back and found out that it was very difficult. So I was eligible to get them back, but I had to pay fees and fines and it was hard for me to pay. So that's how I got involved with Free Hearts, doing volunteer work with them and just advocating for other people in my situation.

Leeper: Jawharrah experiences firsthand the disconnect between the needs of her community and the people that are able to make these needs heard at the ballot box.

Bahar: I really want my voter rights back because people don't understand, since I've been working with this nonprofit, that local government counts. You need to get involved on a local level, so things won't happen at that state level or at that federal level. And see, that's what a lot of people don't realize. People think they vote don't count, and your vote, actually it does count.

Leeper: Advocating for the issues that matter to you and your community is a really good way to make your vote count and create impactful changes.

Paul Smith: Ideas often start at the local level and then spread to the state level and eventually maybe even to the national level.

Leeper: That's Paul Smith, senior vice president of Campaign Legal Center.

Smith: And so even though you may think you're starting small, you may end up causing a real change in the way politics operates in the country.

Leeper: For one thing, Paul says your vote might have more weight than it does in a national context.

Smith: Engaging with democracy in your local community can be really valuable because it's a place where you can make a real impact, where you're not just one in millions of people trying to participate, but maybe just one in a few hundred.

Leeper: And for another, you're voting on concrete things that you might see in your everyday life.

Smith: It also can affect basic quality of life for people, what roads are built, how the schools operate, the environments you live in. The nice thing about local government is it's accessible and it's responsive very often.

Leeper: Which is why, Paul says, we need to protect voters access to the ballot box.

Smith: The right to vote is a basic American freedom.

Leeper: We have a long history of expansion and contraction of voting rights in the US. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a provision of the Voting Rights Act known as pre-clearance in the Shelby County v. Holder case. The pre-clearance process, where cities and states with a history of voter discrimination had to get federal government approval for any changes to their election procedures, stopped many discriminatory voting laws from going into effect. But after Shelby County, states were allowed to change their voting processes with impunity. This has disproportionately impacted Black, Latino and Native American voters, denying them an equal voice in our democracy. 10 years later, the freedom to vote is still under threat.

Smith: Especially after the 2020 election, we did see a number of states start to try to tighten up on voting, trying to make it harder to vote, cutting back on things like drop boxes and the number of days of early voting, other sort of ways that make it more difficult to vote in one small way or another.

Leeper: State bills that have emerged since the 2021 legislative session have created significant barriers for voters. Some of these laws eliminate ballot drop-off boxes and vote by mail options. Others criminalize engaging with voters to help them register to vote or cast their ballot by mail. And in Georgia and Arkansas, legislation even banned people from handing out water to those waiting to vote at polling places. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that in 2023 alone, more than 150 restrictive voting bills have been introduced.

Alex Gulotta: Our elections are under attack and there's just no two ways to put it.

Leeper: That's voting rights advocate, Alex Gulotta, the Arizona State director for the organization, All Voting is Local. Voting rights advocates like Alex are fighting to make sure that voting stays as accessible as possible, for as many voters as possible. All Voting is Local is one of many grassroots organizations that works with local election officials and community partners to protect the freedom to vote.

Gulotta: All Voting is Local is a national project, we have people in eight states, Arizona is one of them, and we really fight for state and local voting policies that protect people's right to vote, particularly for Black, Brown, Native American, other historically disenfranchised communities, that they have access to polling places, that the policies and procedures and rules concerning how votes will cast and which votes will be counted are non-discriminatory and are fairly applied. So we really work to make sure that the certification process and the actual post-election processes are fair and just so that we get a result that reflects the will of the people.

Leeper: Although it may seem mundane, maintaining election security and administration at the state and local level is a hugely important undertaking, with ripple effects that reach the national level. Everything from minor decisions about where polling places are located in your community, to statewide regulations on when, where, and how voters can cast their ballots add up to form a cohesive system that determines the way we govern our country. Alex says inaccurate information about how elections are run in our cities and towns undermines the freedom to vote.

Gulotta: Part of what we need to recognize and what the community in general needs to recognize is that there are many, many checks and balances built into the system. No one party or no one candidate is able to try and influence the outcome of the election, that the process is fair and just, and in fact bipartisan, nonpartisan, and that it happens in that way. Making sure that polling places are equitably located. Making sure that there are drop boxes that people can drop their ballots into if they need to be able to drop off a ballot at off hours or when the polling places aren't open. Making sure that the polling places don't have long lines, and that the time it takes to cast your ballot is modest so that people can actually go and do their civic duty and have their voice heard in a way that doesn't threaten their jobs or their childcare or the other responsibilities they may have.

Leeper: Many state legislators and advocates like Alex are fighting back and pushing to improve the electoral system. As of July, 2023, according to the Voting Rights Lab, state legislatures have pre-filed or introduced 897 bills that improve voter access for election administration. In some instances, state and local governments are stepping in directly to protect the right to cast a ballot. Around the country, legislators are enacting state voting rights acts to protect the freedom to vote for their citizens. Here's Paul.

Smith: It's a response to the Supreme Court slowly gutting the Federal Voting Rights Act. States that care about voting rights have responded by saying, "Well, we can't completely fill the gaps created by the Supreme Court, but we can regulate primarily on a local level through a state law that says we are going to have fair voting systems at each county, at each city, the right to vote, districts that are drawn fairly, that allow people of color to get fair representation in each community and the like."

Leeper: As of July, 2023, State Voting Rights Acts have been enacted in six states, California, Connecticut, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington. Other states, including New Jersey, Maryland, and Michigan, have followed suit and introduced their own State Voting Rights Acts. Outside of passing protections in state legislatures, when voters see that they're not being represented, they also have some tools to engage with democracy more directly. One of those tools is ballot initiatives. If you heard about the BadAss Grandmas in season one, you'll remember just how powerful ballot initiatives are in directly impacting democracy. In 2018, a group of concerned citizens in North Dakota organized support for a ballot initiative that would ensure transparency in election finances. Now, North Dakota has its own ethics commission and reforms to the way that campaigns are financed, and it all started with a ballot initiative. By getting enough signatures, voters can get key issues directly in front of their fellow voters on the ballot. It can be an effective way to organize in the face of wealthy special interest groups who have greater resources to spend on lobbying legislators to forward their own agendas.

Smith: That way you can actually bypass the legislators whose personal interests you may be trying to fight against.

Leeper: Ballot initiatives are a direct way for voters to make change in their communities. As with voting, access to ballot initiatives varies from state to state.

Smith: In those states where it's possible, you can, just by gathering enough signatures, get something on the ballot. In other states, the only way to get a ballot initiative on the ballot is to have the legislature approve it first. So you can imagine it's much more difficult in those states to really change the basic political system in a way that voters may like, but politicians won't like. Precisely because ballot initiatives take power away from the people who are in office, and especially from the party that has control of the state, the legislature, the governorship, whatever it may be, those ballot initiatives are very unpopular with those people, and they would prefer not to have voters have the ability to come in and change the system in a way that might be harmful to them as partisans.

Leeper: But even in states that allow ballot initiatives, elected officials have been threatening access to this tool.

Smith: And so what we've started to see in some states is measures making it harder to get things on the ballot. We have to get more signatures in a shorter period of time, that sort of thing that restricts the ability of citizens in those states that have ballot initiatives to get things on the ballot and pass them over the opposition of the political establishment.

Leeper: We've seen a lot of upheaval in our political systems in recent years, and sometimes it can be challenging to see whether we're making any real progress towards being a more equitable and inclusive democracy, or if we're moving backwards. And it can be easy to get sidetracked by what's going on at the national level instead of looking at what's going on in our own backyards. So throughout this season, we'll be taking a look at our democracy on a smaller scale, the local level. We'll see how people and laws are making a big impact in cities and states across the country when it comes to the freedom to vote, how elections are run, initiatives with direct citizen participation, the ins and outs of campaign finance. And lastly, ethics commissions.

In his dissenting opinion in the 1932 case, New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis said that, quote, "A state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." And so by looking to our states and cities as these so-called laboratories of democracy, we can continue to move towards building a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. In the next episode, we look at voter registration and break down why it's one of the most significant barriers to voting today and what can be done to protect and improve voting access in individual communities.

Special thanks to Jawharrah Bahar, Paul Smith, and Alex Gulotta for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes, along with a full transcript of the show. 

Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at 

Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, legal counsel for redistricting at CLC. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia manager, and Mannal Haddad, senior communications manager for voting rights and redistricting. This podcast episode was produced by Michelle Baker, edited by Paulina Velasco, and mixed by Tren Lightburn. Democracy Decoded as a member of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at