07/05/10: You want better government? Show up

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

HAMPTON Roads is home to some 1.7 million people. Many who call it home have moved here from other places.

This makes for a very diverse community. One would expect there would also be a diversity of opinion and lots of new ideas on how to accomplish things. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the case.

Non-natives and natives are responsible for that: non-natives because far too many don’t engage in the political process, and natives because far too many maintain a closed process.

Take, for example, our elections. The 2008 presidential election saw turnout in Norfolk of 71.38 percent. By November 2009, when statewide elections were held, that number was down to 34.42 percent — less than half! And by May, when six of the eight City Council seats were up for reelection, that number had   dropped to 23 percent.

Decisions are made by those who show up. It’s nice that 71 percent let their preference be known for president. It would be nicer still if they showed up to vote for the council.

Who do you think will be more responsive to you — the guy in the White House or the guy down the street who serves on the council?   Think about it: those council members make decisions that affect a large part of your daily life, not to mention a large part of your pocketbook. They set real estate tax rates and water and sewer rates; decide how much the cable tax should be, how much to invest in the schools, how to zone property; and make rules about how high your neighbor’s grass can be. The list goes on and on.

But more than three quarters of Norfolkians let somebody else choose who gets to make the decisions.

It’s not just voting. How many letters to the editor have I read in which someone declares themselves to be a “registered” Republican or Democrat? I immediately know that person isn’t a native, because we don’t register by party in the commonwealth. I see ideas offered up that can’t be done in Virginia — like a local income tax, or a local gas tax — because we are one of the last states to embrace the Dillon Rule. I talk to people who can name every member of the council “back home” but couldn’t name Norfolk’s mayor even if you spotted them the F, the r, the a and the i.

Here’s the secret: The closer government is to us, the more it affects us and the more we can affect it. The more people participate, the more responsive those elected to represent us have to be. Ours is a representative government. If those elected aren’t representing our interests, we have the power to fix it. It’s called an election.

We’re always in election season. It’s a question I see posed often: Why do we have such frequent elections?

The answer can be traced back to Sen. Harry Byrd and his political machine, which dominated state politics for well over 40 years. Byrd’s goal was to restrict the number of voters and to make sure that those who did vote supported his candidates. Byrd was responsible for Virginia having only three statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — while other states have more. Although he died in 1966, a Byrd machine tactic of keeping party affiliation off ballots stayed in place until 2000. (It still doesn’t appear for races below the legislature.)

Remnants of the Byrd machine include having municipal elections in May — a change allowing November elections just took effect in 2006 — and midafternoon council meetings. Minimizing participation is the goal.

Many of our elected representatives are natives to the area, so they are well aware of this history. They may have missed one lesson, though. Thomas Jefferson said, “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

We’re all in this together — natives and non-natives alike. If we want better government at the top, it’s got to start with better government at the bottom. That means we need to become as informed as possible about what our local representatives are doing.