Event explores how to make democracy work

Improving the quality of local politics and increasing civic engagement were the topics of debate on Feb. 10 as Investigative Post hosted a panel discussion as part of its “At Issue” event series.

The panel agreed that Buffalo has abysmal voter engagement, but differed as to who or what is to blame.

Voter turnout in last year’s general election was only 26 percent in Erie County. Meanwhile, seven of the nine incumbents on the Common Council and five of 11 members of the county Legislature, ran unopposed last year.

Why the apathy?

Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner cited several reasons, including the refusal of the Republican Party to run candidates in most city elections and the difficulty of attracting candidates.

“I think running for office and putting yourself out there is very hard,” he said.

Some members of the audience argued that the Democratic Party is part of problem.

During a question and answer session involving the audience of about 55 at Allen Street Hardware, WGRZ reporter Steve Brown got into a pointed exchange with Zellner. Brown took issue with the Erie County Democratic Party’s endorsement of candidates during primary races; he said it stifles competition. To prove his point, he cited the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, where then-Senator Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton.

“It was a very divisive Democratic primary. It was arguably the most expensive and divisive Democratic primary in U.S. history. What was the result? They registered more Democrats than they’ve ever registered before. They won states they never won before. … It brought a lot of voices, a lot of registered voters, a lot of participation in a democracy, and they won,” Brown said.

Brown drew the biggest applause of the night when he suggested Erie County Democrats follow the same lead.

“I would say to you and your fellow chairs in Erie County: let primaries be uncontested. Don’t endorse. Allow people to select people,” Brown said. “You don’t get the endorsement, you don’t get any of it, and you have to fight an uphill battle. Let the primaries play out. Let democracy play out.”

Zellner countered that endorsing candidates is a primary function of the party.

Fellow panelists Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, and John Washington, a community organizer at PUSH Buffalo, said the real issue was the structure of the democratic system itself. They said voter turnout would improve if voters were able to vote more directly on issues, not just for candidates, whom they’re not sure they can trust to make the right decisions

“I think there’s an opportunity to change how we vote,” Newberry said. “I’m really interested in the idea of extending voting to more than just the one day, but underlying, again, it’s the only decision you are being asked to make, right? It’s the actual decision making that most people want.”

Washington also wants people to be more directly involved in decision making.

“Politics has not ever really fully reflected the values of the community, especially in the City of Buffalo,” Washington said.

“If there was a vote put up for, ‘should we spend $750 million investing in Solar City?’, or ‘should we spend $750 million investing in green infrastructure across the city?’, I bet you’d get a huge turn out.

“But if you say, ‘Are you gonna vote for this person who went through this bureaucratic process to get to the point where you were given the illusion that you had a choice about how your city is going to work?’ then I’m going to spend my time with my kids … or do something that makes me feel good.”

Newberry said people feel betrayed when they see resources that should be invested into communities being spent on political games.

“I think one of the reasons based on my experience that folks don’t turn out to vote is because they know that’s not the way to influence people,” Newberry said.

“People can promise anything, but I think that’s where actually the engagement takes place, it’s not on those off years, every three years, or every four years, it’s the in between piece where we actually engage in the process. And I don’t see a lot of resources going toward that. ”

Newberry said more resources from foundations and other funders would enable civic and advocacy groups to do more work in the community.

“I think there’s enough neighborhoods. I think there’s enough people. I think there’s enough problems, right? I think there’s enough talent in these neighborhoods, in my experience, that folks are strategically smart, they know what they want. But what it comes down to is the amount of resources,” Newberry said.

Washington agreed.

“We don’t need a large number of organizations, but quality, well-resourced, well-funded, well-trained organizations, and it just speaks to how our society is structured. But if you don’t make the money, you’re not going to be well resourced. And unfortunately, people in foundations who have a lot of money and who are managing money for people who have a lot of money, are not going to walk through our neighborhoods and say, ‘Hey, who should I give these resources to?’ ”

“We have a lot of service-based nonprofits that are really doing things I think the government should be doing and the community-based organizations should be organizing to actually improve, not just stop the bleeding.”

Zellner agreed that more resources need to be put toward community organizations like PUSH Buffalo and the Clean Air Coalition.

“Those two groups have done more for this community than a lot of elected officials have done in the last 20 years,” he said.

Washington said mail-in ballots could do a lot to get people who are disenfranchised with voting back into the democratic process.

“I don’t think it would be an immediate solution, where all of a sudden everybody votes because of that, but I think that over the course of the few election cycles that it would grow greatly,” Washington said.

Zellner agreed, adding the importance of early voting.

“We have to have early voting here at the very least. We have absentee voting here, but we should have elective early voting, everyone should be enrolled in it, you shouldn’t have to apply,” Zellner said. “Now you either have to be out of town or sick to get an absentee ballot. It shouldn’t be that way. Everyone should be able to vote early voting.”

Newberry was also in favor.

“Why do we only have one day to vote? Why is it not a week? Why is it not weekends? I think literally anything we want, we could find a way to make it more democratic,” she said.