For the past week, I have been fighting the City of Philadelphia. Angry emails, meetings with Drexel administrators, and idly threatening voicemails were the arms in this war, and I won. I was excused from jury duty. I have been called to serve as a juror three times in the last two years, and each time I have been excused. And that’s not good.
The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers is a hallmark of our democracy. It was a right that was fought and killed over during the American Revolution. It is one of the last vestiges of our Athenian political heritage, and it is under attack.
Our government has allowed jury duty to become a hated chore instead of a cherished civil service. Red-blooded Americans who love the Constitution dread jury duty because it is time-consuming and frustrating. And it’s at the tip of the iceberg of important civil functions that Americans would rather avoid. Foreigners accuse Americans of political apathy without realizing that our current government works to discourage us from trying to get involved.
What are some of the key features of our government in need of reform? Term limits on our legislators. Nonpartisan electoral districting. Stricter limits on lobbying. And working to encourage voting, not restrict it. With a re-election rate in excess of 90 percent, members of the U.S. Congress experience virtually no pressure to act in the interests of their voters. And with no limits on their stay in office, civil servants become career politicians, completely numbed to the realities of the districts they were elected to represent. After all, if they upset their constituents too severely, state officials can just redraw electoral lines to guarantee their party’s continued success. Such is the nature of gerrymandering, a perennial cancer on American democracy. While other democratically controlled governments across the globe (Canada and Rwanda, for example) use a nonpartisan electoral commission (that is, not controlled by the political party in power) to designate electoral districts, the U.S. continues to pretend that our Swiss cheese-style electoral maps are both normal and functional.
Beyond such common-sense modifications, a more ambitious undertaking would be to combat lobbying. While Washington legislators rake in a hefty $174,000 annually (regardless of any government shutdowns), they make a fair amount of pocket change from companies that their constituents hate. But it’s hard to argue with the gun lobby when they’re buying you presents. I’m not so communist that I would call for a ban on lobbying. But robust disclosure and gift taxation laws, to keep citizens aware and prevent politicians from profiting heavily from “donations,” are both good ways to put the power back in the constituents’ hands.
Finally, the largest and most intimidating barrier to a more civically engaged government is our current voting system. Where else in the modern world do you find lower-level (state and sometimes county) governments with the right to decide how people vote in nationwide elections? Why do New Jersey voters need only their names to vote, while Texas voters need their birth certificates? At what point are states trampling their citizens’ right to vote for the national good? Why does Pennsylvania need to “upgrade” its in-person voter-fraud laws when there is no current evidence of in-person fraud?
Change is slow, but it is coming. As more western states expand early voting, they maximize their voters’ chances to vote. The debate over corporate personhood actively rages in Washington. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is slowly eliminating the Electoral College. Despite these dialogues on enhanced freedom, our democracy is in crisis. We are running a system that is virtually programmed to fail and pouring our tax dollars into that failure. Without real changes, systematic failures (like the government shutdown) will push our government closer to a complete collapse.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].