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Opinion | How readers are working to renovate our democracy

This opinion was originally published in the Washington Post.

One of my recent columns offered a list of FAQs about democracy renovation — and a poll. I was eager to learn more about what democracy issues matter most to you and how you allocate time and energies in advancing the cause of democracy.

I was curious: Do people allocate equally across democracy protection, democracy renovation and partisan work? And I asked what skills do people bring to this work?

On that, I got an answer that surprised me. More on that in a moment.

Several hundred of you responded. Thank you! I’m so grateful for the engagement. And I’m glad to share the results of this very unscientific survey with you. Of course, those who answered were a self-selecting group — Post readers who clearly have a passion for democracy issues. That passion shone through.

One participant said he is “basically homeless” and believes that “our number one issue is a trifecta of stopping gerrymandering, getting rid of the Electoral College, and severely limiting lobbying” because right now “2% of the people” run the country.

Another has “33 years of successful military and government service serving at the top echelons,” and is motivated by “preserving the American way of Governance for our descendants.”

A third sees their contribution to democracy in “pastoral and mental health care and experience in running a community ministry with a multitude of services.”

The individual stories shared were striking, moving and inspiring. But there were some broader patterns, too.

First off, slightly under half of respondents are doing partisan work. That aligns with the national numbers: Only about half of Americans are enrolled in a political party these days.

How much time are you putting in? There were some respondents who have been able to make their democracy concerns a full-time occupation — social studies teachers and advocates in particular. One reader wrote: “I have become a certified teacher in my state for social studies and teach at a local public school.” Another described an impressive advocacy initiative. In laying claim to the skill of coalition building, they shared: “To close the gap of 130,000 election poll workers in 2022, we bootstrapped a public awareness and recruiting campaign called Vet the Vote. We built a coalition of 30+ veteran and civic orgs + the NFL and more than 63,500 veterans responded to volunteer.”

Coalition building, indeed!

But more commonly, respondents seem to be fitting their civic work in around other professional activities. Among those who offered time allocations, roughly 40 percent are putting in one to three hours of civic work a week; and 33 percent are making it up to three to 10. The numbers tail off above that.

Several of you provided good accounts of how your time investment fluctuates or how you sometimes trade off time and money investments. One of you shared: “It’s hard to assess on a weekly basis. When I worked with the League of Women and other organizations to end gerrymandering in [Michigan], I was involved 3-10 hours a week. Now I probably have less time, but contribute more money to organizations who are helping with democracy renovation.”

Often, we political scientists think that people get connected to civic life through membership in specific associations. Of course, as Robert Putnam taught us three decades ago, many traditional associational opportunities fell away throughout the late 20th century. But I can tell you that one organization shines through in these results: Seven respondents named the League of Women Voters as the forum for their civic participation. No other organization showed up more than once.

The democracy issues that preoccupy my respondents all go right to the heart of the matter. The comments I got largely focused on five core themes: voting rights and access; campaign finance reform; concern about polarization and hopes for bridge-building; electoral systems reform to improve representation; and civic education and information integrity. Yep! Those are pretty much all the pillars needed to get to a healthy democracy.

The worries were bleak: “Too much concentrated power — money and media control — undermines our democracy”; “neighbors and families are afraid to talk to each other about the issues facing this country.”

The aspirations are clear: “Free, fair, and accurate voting, without fear of reprisal or discrimination.” “Voting is the foundation. Whether you are rich or poor, all of our votes have the same value.”

A hunger for leadership we can respect is also palpable. For one respondent, the issue that matters most is “getting Congress to do its job.” “When norms fail at the top, they necessarily will fail at the bottom,” said another.

Now for the surprise — and an idea. When it came to the skills people thought they had to offer, I was amazed by how many people said writing. While there was good representation of organizing experience and skill at coalition-building — and trumpet-playing, photography and persistence were also on offer — it was really a way with words that stood out.

So here’s a suggestion. It might be a slightly crazy one, but it might not.

Is it time for a letter-writing campaign? Think Committees of Correspondence during the American Revolution. Perhaps it’s time for all those who are already passionate about democracy renovation, and have those writing skills to offer, to start letter-writing campaigns to friends and family to introduce people to some core democracy renovation ideas.

The other day, I was speaking in Washington state. In the middle of my remarks, I realized that Washington is one of five states that have dispensed with party primaries for state and federal elections, in favor of an all-comers preliminary with a first-round ballot for candidates from all parties, followed by a second-round ballot for the finalists. Washington, like Louisiana and California, takes two finalists forward.

My audience reported being pretty pleased with their election system. So I suggested that they start writing and calling friends and family around the country to teach them about their system. Most folks in other states don’t know. Similarly, folks in Michigan could write and call friends and family elsewhere to talk up the value of independent redistricting. Or states that have really successful same-day voter registration could do a favor to those of us in Massachusetts with a letter-writing campaign explaining why your system works.

In other words, democracy renovation is underway all over the country. And a lot of people are passionate about it. But it’s time to spread the word. And all those writers in my survey might just have a special role to play.

Danielle Allen, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is a political theorist at Harvard University.