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The Big Idea

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Parisa Vinzant
February 28, 2022

In this time of rabid hyperpolarization, it is vital that public servants act within their sphere of power to deliver on the promise of our democracy.

The Declaration of Independence asserted that it was “self-evident, that all men are created equal” endowed with “certain inalienable Rights,” and the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution states that “We the People” established that document. However, the idea of “all men” and “we” at that time meant White, land-owning males. Gradually, this idea, at least in the context of the Constitution, has expanded to include all persons regardless of race, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, ability or education.

Progress in extending the vote—the most fundamental right of democracy—to Black people, other people of color, and women was hard-won and encountered pushback at every step. Since Emancipation in 1863 and Black men achieving the right to vote with the 15th Amendment in 1870,systemic efforts have cruelly restrictedBlack people’s exercise of their rights. It is not surprising that voter suppression efforts are underway again in the wake of the loss of essential protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court 2013 decision of Shelby v. Holder. The strategies have varied widely, from Jim Crow laws that included poll taxes and literacy tests, to more recent efforts in state legislatures including: preventing people from voting who have not paid fines and fees (a reprise of the polling tax); racial gerrymandering, cuts or elimination of early voting; polling place closures and stricter voter ID laws; and illegal voting roll purges.

Clearly, the implementation of the basic American ideal of democracy must still overcome structural barriers and the resistance of groups acting in narrow self-interest. As Sean McCandless and Mary Guy state in their recent book, Achieving Social Equity: From Problems to Solutions, “It is both an honor and an obligation to be ethically responsible personally and collectively, for ensuring that ‘We the People’ truly means ‘We.’” Achieving that all-inclusive “We” requires using social equity lenses to identify and resolve any inequities or structural barriers in policies, programs and services. In other words, equity is central to the success of our great democratic experiment.

What makes this moment of voter suppression different is the financing, coordination and scale of these efforts by special interests attempting to remake our democracy to serve their exclusionary vision. Michael Waldman of the nonprofit, The Brennan Center for Justice, warned in a February 2022 article that the efforts of state legislatures “have laid the legal foundation for a genuine constitutional crisis in 2024.”

A broad historical understanding is crucial at this precarious moment. As Timothy Snyder states in On Tyranny, “The danger we now face is a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naive and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.” While America’s democracy can fail like others before it, this result is also not inevitable, and we—especially public service professionals who administer our democracy—must rally to meet this challenge.

Despite uncertainties and pressures, the fundamental job of public servants remains the same: to serve the entire public. They are guided in this by applicable codes of ethics, particularly from the American Society for Public Administrators (ASPA), to “Promote the interest of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.” It bears reminding that while public servants must uphold the Constitution and laws, ASPA’s ethical practices outline the responsibility of “improving or eliminating laws and policies that are unethical, counterproductive or obsolete” as well as promoting “constitutional principles of equality, fairness, representativeness, responsiveness and due process in protecting citizen’s rights and promoting the public good.”

Inherent within these ethical principles is the responsibility of public servants to not harm the public—in intent or effect. Vigilance is key since harm can accrue in increments, whether through policies with unintended consequences or policies that intentionally mask their true harm. Thus, for example, if it becomes evident that a new voter registration law is likely having unequal and/or discriminatory effects, public servants must assess the situation and act.

Being proactive and remaining informed are key. Public servants would be wise to protect themselves and the people they serve by keeping conscientious personal records that document how well (or not) new policies are working, noting any reported issues, identifying the inequities and describing individual and/or agency actions taken to resolve them. The documentation of facts allows a clear and honest picture of the problem to emerge from which potential solutions can be proposed. It may be useful to learn how to take contemporaneous notes—notes that are made at the time or shortly after an event occurs. In these ways, public servants are better prepared to externally report the identified issues if addressing them internally is not possible. In worst-case scenarios, consultation with civil rights lawyers at the ACLU or NAACP about potential legal options could be helpful.

Public servants must ready themselves in these uncertain times to use the power they have to not only safeguard our democracy, but to continue perfecting it, so that its rights and benefits are fully realized. Shirking this duty can only be considered a betrayal of us all and our increasingly fragile democracy.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is an equity/inclusion consultant, strategist, and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Any views expressed herein are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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