Sometimes a conflict of values arises, and sacrificing either value is not an option. We are seeing such a conflict today, between public health and democracy.
By David Siffert
To be clear, please listen to epidemiologists and health policy experts when it comes to social distancing, hygiene, and more. We are facing what is likely the worst public health crisis in a century and we need to deal with it responsibly.
But while we deal with the pandemic—social distancing and all—we need to make sure our democratic institutions survive.
The Village Independent Democrats was created in 1957 in response to a crisis of democracy. New York City was controlled by Tammany Hall, a corrupt political organization (formed in 1789) that made policy by graft. VID and reformers across the city rose up and defeated Tammany Hall, helping to safeguard our local democracy.
Today, threats to our democracy take very different shapes, and those threats are exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Consider one of the most basic building blocks of local democracy, one that Democratic clubs have shouldered for years—petitioning. As COVID-19 unfolded and petitioning grew increasingly dangerous, two weeks went by in whirl of uncertainty. Eventually, Albany acted to end petitioning early and lower the petitioning requirements. This was precisely the right way to balance democracy and public health. But no immediate changes were made to petitioning filing dates. After days of rumors, a law was drafted that gave petitioners 48 hours to bind and file all collected petitions—down from over two weeks. VID was prepared, having heard rumors that such a bill might be passed, but what about less well-connected individuals trying to get themselves on the ballot? While a public health crisis requires quick action, we must not use it as an excuse to entrench the connected and powerful.
More recently, we have seen challenges to petitions resulting in Board of Elections officials working under potentially dangerous conditions. Our state and local government has taken few measures to ensure the safety of BOE workers, neither canceling challenges nor creating a safer way to verify petitions.
Petitioning may be a small blip in our democracy but it is instructive, and it is not alone. Just look at Ohio, where the Democratic Primary was called off, and then on, and then back off, all within 24 hours of its scheduled date. Meanwhile, three other states continued with their primaries despite the public health threat. Again, this is an evolving crisis, and dealing with it requires a nimble and flexible approach; however, certain safeguards of our society are sacrosanct, and all four states with primaries scheduled for March 17th failed to meet minimum democratic standards. The March 17th failure repeated itself more recently in Wisconsin on April 7th, where courts forced the primary to take place at the last minute, ignoring the governor’s objection, and struck down the ability of voters whose absentee ballots arrived late to be able to have their votes counted.
But we don’t need to look only at elections to find important parts of our democracy. VID and other Democratic clubs have been holding communities together in Manhattan in an era of increasing individualism. We have also been activating our communities to participate in local, state, and federal politics, giving them access to elected officials and a platform to make their political positions heard. A crucial tool that we have used involves physical space—we meet in person, discuss in person, and work in person on activities like canvasing, phone banking, or postcard writing. These community activities are essential to our democracy. But when public health makes these gatherings impossible, we need to put serious thought into how to maintain that community and democratic spirit.
I wish I could provide all the answers here. I don’t have the perfect technological solution, or One Easy Trick to maintain community in a time of isolation. This is a difficult problem, and we will have to cobble together a messy solution. Holding meetings and press conferences over Zoom and lots of sign-on letters are some tactics that groups are already employing. We will need to develop more—postcarding with an open conference call line to allow for socializing, text banking while chatting on Discord or Slack, and simply calling our neighbors to check in.
Even when we can’t meet face-to-face, or share a meal together, we are still a community. Democracy depends on that community. Let’s work together to keep our community and our democracy strong during this time of crisis.
David Siffert is president of Village Independent Democrats.