Last week’s buzz was that our local experiment with participatory budgeting successfully invigorated democracy in New York City, which, as we all know, could use a boost. But let’s be honest and start with the premise that anyone who has ever been educated in a formal school setting can define the minimum passing grade. In most New York City schools, the passing grade is set at 65 percent or more. The bar is often set higher in schools with selective admissions standards. When you are driving a car, our traffic laws set a far higher standard. I bet that anyone who has made it a practice to comply with less than 65 percent of the traffic control devices in our crowded metropolis, has either gotten into at least one accident, or received enough points on their license to provoke a serious behavioral change.
So where should we set the bar in our political process? How should we rate the adults age 18 or older who hold the success or failure of our democracy in their hands? What do we consider an adequate percentage of turnout in an election, capable of convincing us that our hard-won freedoms – things guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. We celebrate our democracy with heartfelt displays of pomp and circumstance in civic meetings, at sporting events, and on national holidays. This summer, we will witness the quadrennial spectacle of the political conventions, and be regaled with close camera shots of the emotional faces of convention delegates, as they listen with rapt attention to the candidates they believe in so passionately, vying to be nominated for office.
Until recently, nobody believed in all of this more than I did. For decades, I have voted regularly in elections, served on boards of community groups, kept informed about local, state and national issues, and tried to cajole others to participate in the process.
About a year ago, my trust in democracy was flagging, but at the end of August 2011, I saw a last hope, in the experimental participatory budgeting process proposed in the 32nd New York City Council District. I was willing to give it a chance, hoping it would restore my faith that our representative democratic system could function as designed by the architects of the republic.
How can I express the depths of disappointment I feel? Seeing and hearing all the positive public relations snippets and sound bites trumpeting the success of New York City’s experiment. I can’t speak to what happened in the other three council districts that participated elsewhere in the city. I do know very well what happened here on the west end of the peninsula. Those involved are patting themselves on the back about the great turnout. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where participatory budgeting originated, 50,000 voters have been turning out regularly to select projects. Interestingly, Brazil enforces compulsory voting laws. In other words, it’s not your right, it’s your duty.
A founding father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, who clearly didn’t have a Libertarian bone in his body, defined government as “an institution to make people do their duty,” and added that “A government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of government, or rather, no government at all.”
Perhaps we need to revisit Madison’s ideas. Some have raised free speech concerns. I think such interpretations of the Bill of Rights are flawed. How does requiring citizens to perform the essential act of voting in a secret election bear any resemblance to the type of restrictions on unpopular speech that the amendment was designed to outlaw, or the loyalty oaths made mandatory under other systems of government? I just don’t see it. A voter could always be given the option to leave their ballot blank, as a protest.
Credit is due to New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich for at least trying, and for putting a good amount of resources into this experiment. His staff hosted regular budget committee meetings in his Rockaway office for six months, fielding and coordinating inquiries to city agencies so that proposals could be backed up with facts and figures.
Credit is also due to the volunteer committee members. We attended neighborhood assemblies, weekly budget committee meetings, and researched potential projects for weeks on end. Call me a naïve optimist. When it was over, the total turnout was less than 5 percent of 40,000 eligible adults in the 32nd Council District. Just 1600 residents showed up to select the proposals that would receive funding, and fully half of these voters came out in Breezy Point and Broad Channel. Five of the winning projects were funded with a mere 350 to 450 votes.
Don’t tell me “that’s a good start,” or “it will build from there,” or “that’s how it should work — the people who vote get their projects funded, and the rest lose out.” I’m not buying any of that. I raised two children, was a classroom teacher, and worked in the business world for years. If a corporate employee had a completion rate of only 5 percent on their projects, that person would be fired immediately. If your child came home after a math exam with only 5 percent of the problems correct, they’d be grounded for months, or possibly taken immediately to the pediatrician, eye doctor, or hearing specialist for an evaluation. Let’s not kid ourselves.
So why do we push so hard to believe that the process worked as it should have? If you look at historical patterns in U.S. presidential elections, the turnout over the past four generations has never reached even 65 percent of the electorate. Maybe that’s how our public education system came up with a consensus on where to set the passing score. Hey, if no more than 65 percent of the populace cares enough to vote in elections, we certainly can’t hold public school students to a higher standard, now can we?