By Adam Eichen and Equal Citizens Summer 2018 Interns
For those fighting to fix our broken democracy, there is often a tendency to drown in the specifics or technicalities. The reasons we strive for better representation in our government get subsumed by arcane language about public financing of elections and gerrymandering. And even more critically, the democracy reform community becomes insular, talking only to ourselves, preaching to the choir.
At Equal Citizens, we are mindful of this tendency, and always looking for ways to expand the way we think, talk, and write about democracy reform with activities that aim to engage people from all walks of life — such as our Creative Democracy Design Contest. But little of what we do is as heartwarming as welcoming a new class of interns. The enthusiasm and fresh outlook that our interns bring have really inspired us to think outside the box and pay more attention to how younger generations looks at the democracy reform movement.
This summer, Equal Citizens was fortunate enough to have six stellar interns, each bringing unique perspectives to our organization. After two months of intense and engaging work, I asked each, as their internship winded down, a few questions about their summer in an effort to capture the parts of democracy reform that resonated most deeply with them. As I expected, their answers are insightful and worth sharing. Here are their views:
Why did you decide to spend the summer focusing on democracy reform?
Danny Holt: “Two summers ago, I worked as an intern in the office of Massachusetts State Senator Will Brownsberger. I conducted a research project on prison gerrymandering — a subtle way in which politicians use incarcerated individuals to bolster their political influence — and it opened my eyes to how broken our democracy is. Since then, I’ve been very interested in working to make our government better serve the people.”
Alasdair MacKenzie: “I heard about Equal Citizens’ Equal Votes lawsuits (which seek to change the structure of the Electoral College) from a friend, and they prompted me to consider that many of our country’s problems run deeper than individual politicians or even political movements. I had considered spending the summer working for a Congressional campaign, but I believed — and still believe — that changing the system can help us more than changing elected officials. We have to break down the structural barriers that prevent our government from representing us.”
Sarah Boussy: “I am extremely determined to pursue a career path that combines my interests of activism and design. Throughout my years in college, I have actively searched for new ways to use design for social change. After the 2016 election, democracy reform moved to the forefront our my mind. It became clear that our democracy was not actually democratic. So this summer, I wanted to use my design talents to make this reality more well known.”
Tali Shalaby: “In college, I focus on work relating to my double major of Economics and Human Rights. I explore the intersection of two with a goal of creating economic solutions to address inequality in education and mass incarceration. This summer, I decided to tackle democracy reform because I realized that the only way to make real change in economic policy (towards the end of combatting the opportunity gap and the wealth gap) is by first fixing our democracy so that it actually reflects the people’s will, not just that of special interests and the rich.”
Giselle Valdez: “The foundation of our American democracy should be that every vote and voice counts; yet, due to an unjust political system, it is clear that this is not the case. Last semester as an intern for the Eric Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia University, I helped plan panel events on issues pertaining to American voting, which sparked my passion in democracy. When Professor Lawrence Lessig spoke on our panel about his work at Equal Citizens that involves ensuring that every vote and voice counts, I felt inspired to contribute to a movement of fixing democracy first. “
Emmett Werbel: “My interest in politics was born in the optimistic and momentous tone of the 2008 election, but over the following few years, I grew increasingly cynical as I saw anti-democracy forces stalling progressive legislation in Washington and redrawing congressional district maps across the country. In 2016, I was grateful to see Professor Lessig call out the systemic corruption of our democracy and assert that equal citizenship is the only route to progress in other policy arenas. When I saw him speak last year at a panel event for Eric Holder Initiative at Columbia University, I was once again inspired by his message that we must fix democracy first. I sent an email inquiring about the internship that very night!”
What was one thing about democracy you learned in the course of your internship with Equal Citizens that you wish everyone could know?
Danny: “One of my research projects this summer explored the concept of multi-member legislative districts, and it opened my eyes to the problems with how we currently elect our politicians. I’d want every American to learn more about The Fair Representation Act, which would create these new districts. Check out this great video explanation of what Scotland does in their elections for inspiration.”
Alasdair: “I wish everyone knew how inefficient and unrepresentative our single-member Congressional districts are. Multi-member-district system are inherently more democratic. Watch this video for a thorough explanation.”
Sarah: “Throughout the course of this internship, I have been making graphics that display various statistics about various topics. The most shocking thing I learned was that, because of the Electoral College, a presidential candidate could be elected with only 23% of the popular vote. Every American should know what an undemocratic system the Electoral College is.”
Tali: “My eyes were opened this summer about the level of systemic corruption in our democracy and influence of special interests over politics. One thing in particular I wish everyone knew about is project REDMAP, which was a premeditated plan by the Republican party to take over the Congress and state legislatures in order to rig district lines to secure their reelection. I recommend reading David Daley’s book Ratf**ked for anyone who wants to learn more.”
Giselle: “A recent study by the University of Maryland found the highest level ever of dissatisfaction in our government, due to politicians not representing their constituents. Additionally, a New York Times study revealed 85% of us want fundamental change in how our elections are funded. Many Americans believe that every political issue divides us along party lines. However, while working at Equal Citizens, I have learned that when it comes to democracy reform, Americans tend to agree that change is now needed. As Professor Lessig states in many of his speeches, we are united by our dissatisfaction in government and our desire to fix the system.”
Emmett: “In researching the historical backgrounds of winner-take-all allocation of Electoral College votes and single-member district, winner-take-all congressional elections, I realized how malleable our election system is under the Constitution. I wish people understood that many of the gravest roadblocks to equal citizenship, such as the winner-take-all allocation of Electoral College votes, arose only by precedent, long after the Constitution was signed, and for reasons that seem absolutely irrelevant to 21st-century politics.”
How do you foresee yourself continuing the fight for democracy reform in the future?
Danny: “For the immediate future, I am going to bring my newfound knowledge of democracy reform into the classroom and into my discussions with friends and family. Hopefully spreading the word about democracy reforms will inspire them to get involved in the movement for democracy.”
Alasdair: “I plan to be more active in state and local politics; federal elections get much more press attention, but state and local officials make many important policy decisions, especially pertaining to election rules. Don’t count those races out just because the candidates aren’t famous. The most innovative democracy reforms I’ve learned about are happening on the state and/or local level.”
Sarah: “After my experience at Equal Citizens, I have been inspired to continue to make work that brings attention to social and political issues that I am passionate about. Artists and designers have a role to play in our democracy.”
Tali: “Next year I’ll be writing a senior thesis — likely about the economics of education and how private interests dictate educational policy. The time I spent examining voter suppression has forced me to think about how elections (or lack thereof) contribute to this system of inequality. After graduation I intend to work in a research institute that complements the work of Equal Citizens — researching corporations that influence our democracy and finding solutions to limit such influence.”
Giselle: “Next semester at Columbia, I definitely plan to incorporate all that I have learned this summer at Equal Citizens into our work at the Eric Holder Initiative, particularly regarding how digital media can be used to spread awareness on political issues. As I plan to attend law school, I hope to bring my passion for protecting democracy into the courtroom as a lawyer that fights for justice reform. As a member of the Latinx community, I also plan to ensure that the conversation about democracy reform is one that is actively discussed by marginalized groups.”
Emmett: “My experiences at Equal Citizens have given me hope for the future of American democracy, by showing me that there are common-sense solutions to the faults in our election system with bipartisan appeal. All that is missing is the political will to make them happen. This fall, when I canvass for the midterm elections, I will use my newfound understanding of the democracy movement and its momentum to empower disaffected voters who do not plan to vote because they do not think their voices matter in American politics.”
Adam Eichen is Equal Citizens’ Communications Strategist.
Danny Holt is an Equal Citizens research intern and rising sophomore at Wesleyan College. He is a prospective Anthropology major.
Alasdair Mackenzie is an Equal Citizens research intern and rising senior at Harvard University. He is a Government concentrator with a secondary concentration in Music.
Sarah Boussy is Equal Citizens’ graphic design intern and a rising senior at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is a Motion Media Design major with a minor in Art History. Her work is available at sarahboussy.com.
Tali Shalaby is an Equal Citizens research intern and rising senior at Barnard College. She is a double major in Economics and Human Rights.
Giselle Valdez is an Equal Citizens digital campaigns intern and rising junior at Columbia University. She is a double major in English Literature and Political Science.
Emmett Werbel is an Equal Citizens research intern and rising junior at Columbia University. He is an American Studies major.