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Progressive Voice: Strengthening Democracy Close to Home

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column.  The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Maurine Shields Fanguy

The January attack on the United States Capitol reminds us of our duty to protect democracy and the importance of local civic engagement, especially as Arlington prepares for gubernatorial and local elections this year.

At the same time, a year in quarantine also has opened up new opportunities to support democracy–more important than ever to combat voter suppression efforts springing up across the country.

Virtual Citizen Comment.

In a historic first, Arlingtonians now may address the County and School Boards over voice and video conferencing. Commenting on this development, County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti remarked, “We are able to hear from more citizens online, but it is also important to consider the Digital Divide.”

This allows people to make their voices heard from home, instead of sitting through lengthy board meetings to share opinions. Board members also foster engagement through virtual office hours. De Ferranti noted that although, “we miss the sense of community from in-person meetings, there could be benefits to retaining remote engagement options alongside in-person. At the very least, we must modernize the Arlington Way and make it much more inclusive. Allowing for online options is worth exploring as a step in the right direction.”

Voting Early and Conveniently.

November 2020 saw the largest voter turnout in Arlington history, with 63% of active Arlington voters voting early. More than 45,000 voted by mail and nearly 60,000 through early in-person voting – nearly a three-fold increase over 2016 early voting.

Arlington’s Democratic Committee demonstrated impressive alacrity by shifting to a mail-in caucus just a week after the Governor’s stay-at-home order in March 2020. A historic first, the May 2020 caucus resulted in over 5,700 ballots cast, nearly eclipsing prior county caucus records. Future caucuses, primaries and general election must allow the same flexible options for early voting.

Welcome to the Next Generation of Election Officers.

2020 marked an incredible response to calls for Election Officers who facilitate free and fair elections. The Arlington County Board of Elections reported a wait list of more than 500 citizens who offered to serve in 2020. Election officers are unsung heroes in any election, arriving at 5 a.m. and staying until the last vote is tabulated. (Disclosure: I served as an election officer this year and in prior elections.)

This year was particularly challenging with the need to implement new safety measures during the pandemic. Anyone who has served as an election officer or as an observer in our county has seen first-hand the stringent measures to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. If more people served as election officers or observers across the country, perhaps we might hear less “stop the steal” rhetoric and citizens would appreciate the beauty of our electoral process. It is important to encourage the newly minted election officers of 2020 to serve again in 2021 and future elections.

Candidates Embrace Virtual.

School Board Vice-Chair, Barbara Kanninen observes, “People in Arlington have traditionally liked to kick the tires when it comes to local candidates. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, so much engagement is on social media — not an ideal format to get to know how a candidate thinks.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced candidates for elected office to change how they engaged with voters. Video conferencing allowed candidates to reach more people through virtual events. Advocacy groups promoted virtual candidate forums and debates, enabling participation by a wider audience. And voters could join all of these events conveniently from their homes.  Kanninen predicts that “…post-pandemic, I would expect to see a spectrum of campaign strategies, including those that rely heavily on social media and others that focus on old-fashioned, personal engagement at farmers markets and community meetings.”

Every Vote Counts.

Although Arlington did not experience close races in 2020, we saw across the country how even a hundred votes could swing an election. We must reach out to neighbors who have recently become U.S. citizens and those who recently moved to Arlington to keep their voter registration information updated. The acceptance of elections as free and fair depends upon broad participation in the process.

Maurine Shields Fanguy served as an election officer in 2020 and in prior Arlington elections. An Army brat who lived around the world, she is proud to adopt Arlington as her hometown where she works and raises two children.

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