What can civil society do to sustain and strengthen American democracy in the next year before voters go to the polls to choose a president? This was the core question posed by the Deaconess Foundation in its most recent Just for Kids Community Conversation at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being on Monday, November 18.
Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund and Democracy Fund Voice in Washington, D.C., set the agenda in a keynote speech based on four claims: If you care about justice, you have to care about democracy. American democracy is in crisis, and all Americans need to feel some responsibility for it. The next 12 months will help to determine the future of the country, and no one can sit on the sidelines. And whatever the outcome of the election, the work to repair American democracy will continue.
Before the audience was asked to respond and strategize, Justin Hansford, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law, offered his response. Hansford, who was a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law in 2014 and active in Ferguson protests, added the perspective of Ferguson. He argued that the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown jolted many people in the St. Louis region into action in August 2014 much as the election of Donald Trump would do to the nation in November 2016.
“The people who lived through the Ferguson moment could be an asset for the nation,” Hansford said.
Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, then asked a sizable crowd of mostly non-profit leaders and community organizers to respond to any “tension” they felt in response to the remarks.
Becky James-Hatter, president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, said she was provoked to consider how the agency might do a better job of teaching voter engagement to the youth that it pairs with mentors.
She also said she would consider offering staff paid time off on elections days to vote and to volunteer as poll monitors – a notion that spread around the room, as Susan Katzman, president of the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis, and Halbert Sullivan, president and CEO of Fathers and Families Support Center, said they would do the same.
Several community leaders, including James-Hatter, addressed the tension between fostering voter engagement and remaining non-partisan to preserve their organizations’ tax exempt status. Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS.
Richard von Glahn, policy director of Missouri Jobs with Justice, addressed this tension. His organization is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, which “may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity,” according to the IRS, but may not intervene “in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” As such, he said, his organizers wage campaigns around issues, rather than candidates, but that does not solve the problem.
“The response to issue work is predictably partisan,” von Glahn said. “So, since they know the response will be partisan, many organizations stay on the sidelines” – on the sidelines, where Goldman (who leads both a 501(c)(3) organization in Democracy Fund and a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization in Democracy Fund Voice) said none us can afford to sit.
Hansford offered perspective: “We should distinguish between non-partisanship and neutrality.”
Though voter engagement was a dominant theme in the discussion, so were the problems that voter engagement pose for election systems in processing elections with high voter turnout, as is projected for November 2020. Goldman described work that the Democracy Fund is doing to prepare election officials for various scenarios – which are expected to include attempted acts of sabotage.
Several current and former election officials were in attendance, including Eric Fey, Democratic director of elections for St. Louis County; Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, who preceded Fey in that position; and Robin Carnahan, former Missouri secretary of state, the state’s highest election official.
Carnahan seconded Hanford’s insight that the Ferguson unrest has potential as a successful example of participatory democracy. “People do things when there is a connection between their actions and results,” Carnahan said. “Through Ferguson, things changed.” She challenged elected officials and civil society to design creative ways “to bring new voices in during governing – beyond the crisis – to stay connected to voters.”
Carnahan also said to expect a ballot measure for 2020 that would institute automatic voting registration in Missouri and expand the window to vote wider than just on election day. If enacted together, these policy changes would make it both easier to vote and easier to process elections.
Though that ballot initiative is not far enough along to discuss in specific terms, it appears to be one part of the Deaconess Foundation’s new policy partnerships for 2020, which Kiesha Davis, its director of partnership and capacity building, announced at the end of the conversation. Deaconess’ partners for 2020 – to work on “Medicaid expansion and democracy reform” – are Missouri Jobs with Justice and Action St. Louis, who were awarded a $100,000 grant. The signature-gathering campaign to put Medicaid expansion on the 2020 ballot in Missouri is already underway.
“The ballot amendment process allows the community to dictate: what do we need and how are we going to get it?” von Glahn of Missouri Jobs with Justice said.
Kayla Reed, leader of Action St. Louis, reminded the audience that grassroots organizations need more than money. She said, “We need people to show up.”