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Democracy 101

Updated: Jan 23

What a Democracy is and How it Works (or Doesn’t!)

The 2024 election cycle seems to begin to take shape almost as quickly as the last cycle ended. The choices we face in elections can feel like a “lesser of two evils” situation, and oftentimes the entire prospect of sifting through candidates and issues just feels completely overwhelming. With this in mind, SWOP Behind Bars has partnered with Rock The Vote for this coming year. We want to not only encourage you to vote, but to really break down the theory behind the democratic process of voting in the United States and help guide you through the labyrinth of things that are at stake in 2024.

Voting in the United States is intended to be a fundamental right and a key aspect of the democratic process. A Democracy is a form of government in which the power to govern is supposed to be invested in the hands of the people, either directly or through elected representatives. The key principles of a democracy include: political equality, majority rule, and protection of individual rights. There are two main types of Democracies:

Direct Democracy

In a direct Democracy, citizens participate directly in decision-making processes. They have the opportunity to vote on laws and policies directly without relying on elected representatives. These “Direct Democracy” initiatives in the United States are usually a part of local elections and are impacted by community action. Things like Referendums, Initiatives, Recall Elections, Town Hall Meetings and “Assemblies” - all places and activities that local citizens can have a direct impact on specific laws, policies, or constitutional changes, to petition to remove an elected official from office before the end of their term, to initiate legislation by collecting a certain number of signatures on a petition or to simply voice their opinions, express concerns, and engage in discussions about the issues at stake. Like the United States, Switzerland is an example of a country that incorporates elements of direct Democracy alongside its representative democracy. Swiss citizens, like American citizens, have the right to propose changes to the constitution, and they regularly participate in referendums on various issues. 

Each of the States - “mini Switzerlands” if you will, within our country - have different rules and processes for Direct Democratic processes for their local issues and every single one of them demands attention from local voters so people can be well informed and participate in the best way to address their city, county or states needs!  

Local elections, in particular, have a direct impact on communities. Voting in local elections allows citizens to influence decisions related to schools, public safety, infrastructure, and other matters that directly affect their daily lives.

Representative Democracy

In a representative Democracy, citizens elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. These representatives are accountable to the voters and are chosen through periodic elections. Representative Democracies are supposed to represent “the people” but they often only represent the people who speak up by directly engaging in the process. This is what democracy looks like on our national level. Each state elects a representative to show up for them on a federal level in Washington, DC and decide critical matters that can change laws, influence policies and make important budgetary decisions.

Ideally, the key characteristics of Democracy include “Political Equality”, where ALL citizens have equal political rights and opportunities to participate in the political process. No individual or group is supposed to be privileged in terms of political power or influence. Political equality is a foundational principle of democracy, emphasizing that all citizens have equal standing and influence in the political process. It means that each individual has an equal voice in shaping government decisions, policies, and laws, regardless of factors such as wealth, social status, race, gender, or any other characteristic. As Activists and Advocates, we know from experience that this doesn’t always work out. The voting process can be complicated and it has significant problems.

In a pure Democracy, majority tyranny can lead to the marginalization or oppression of minority groups. This complication is significant because the rights and interests of individuals or minority groups may be overlooked or sacrificed. Democracy does not necessarily guarantee economic equality. Wealthy individuals and interest groups may have disproportionate influence, leading to policies that favor the affluent over the less privileged. While Democracies aim for transparency and accountability, they are not immune to corruption. Corruption can undermine public trust in institutions and lead to unequal access to political power and resources. Elected officials in Democracies often prioritize short-term gains to secure re-election, potentially neglecting long-term and complex challenges. This focus on immediate electoral concerns may hinder the implementation of strategic, forward-looking policies.

Democracies are also susceptible to “Populism” and often experience political polarization, where political leaders appeal to popular sentiments rather than relying on reasoned discourse. Populist movements may exploit public fears, emotions, or prejudices, leading to policies that are not necessarily in the best long-term interest of the nation. The media plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion and it can be subject to biases, sensationalism, and manipulation, influencing the democratic process and public perception of issues and candidates. This can lead to gridlock, hinder effective governance, and contribute to a lack of compromise on important issues.

By far, Democracies face challenges of “voter apathy”, with citizens disengaging from the political process due to disillusionment or a sense that their vote does not make a significant difference. Low voter turnout can undermine any effort to have forward movement on important issues. For a democracy to function effectively, citizens need to be able to access accurate information and education about the issues that matter to them and make decisions that are fully informed and fairly represented. Lack of education and misinformation can lead to uninformed decision-making, undermining the quality of democratic governance.

Many times it feels as though we have nothing but bad choices when deciding to even participate in elections but the entirety of the voting process is incredibly important in order to minimize these complications. Some of these challenges of democracy have been exposed over the last several decades and have wrought havoc on the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, but this coming year, there is the opportunity for change if we mobilize each other to participate in the system of government we have, demand change and advocate for electing the people and holding them accountable for the promises they made to get our votes.

Voting matters in the United States and no vote is more important than YOURS! So take a moment RIGHT NOW and register to vote, check the status of your voter registration and be sure to make any changes if you have moved or experienced any other life changes in the past year! It takes less than 2 minutes to take this important first step so click on the link below and make sure you don't miss the opportunity to have your voice heard this election season!

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