One poll after another confirms a majority of Americans have lost faith in government.
Their message: It’s a mess and public officials aren’t doing their jobs very well.
That may be true, but guess what?
Citizens also have a job: Elect good people who will serve the public, not themselves.
We’re not doing that very well.
Too many of us aren’t registering, voting, running for office or even paying attention.
Political insiders like it that way because it protects their jobs, but it undermines democracy.
So this week, at the Better Government Association’s annual luncheon, I’m asking our guests, and every Illinois resident, to perform their civic duty in some way:
We need to get some of Illinois’ 1.7 million unregistered voters signed up, and then voting, like they and too many others didn’t do last year, when statewide turnout in the March primary was under 20 percent, and fewer than half the registered voters showed up in November to elect a governor.
We have to do better.
Civic responsibility also means attending government meetings, asking questions and requesting public documents.
Too many government offices put up roadblocks that discourage participation and transparency, but we can’t give up because corruption flourishes in the absence of sufficient oversight and outcry.
So we have to keep demanding compliance with the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts.
Facilitating civic engagement also requires election reform.
Illinois should consider automatic voter registration, like Oregon and California have done. It would add a lot of new voters and keep others from falling off the rolls when they move or fail to return verification mailings.
We could also register teenagers when they get their drivers’ licenses, expand online registration, permit online voting, translate ballots into foreign languages, move primary elections to warmer months, help challengers stay on the ballot by preventing local election boards from knocking them off for political reasons, and try new ways to reduce the influence of money on campaigns, like small donor matching programs that empower citizens who don’t have deep pockets.
The last two reforms would encourage more people to run for office, which means more competition and fewer uncontested races. That’s healthy.
These reforms could obviously be derailed by partisan politics, but Illinois voting patterns are bi-partisan enough for both parties to welcome more civic engagement, at least theoretically.
Folks who’ve attended BGA events have heard me compare individual watchdogs to Don Quixote tilting at windmills: The errant knight’s efforts were laudable but ineffectual because, unlike generals, he had no troops to lead to victory.
The point is, we won’t get fair, accountable, ethical and efficient government until we stand up as an army and demand it.
The “Tonight Show” hip-hop band, “The Roots,” rapped about addressing today’s ills by voting: “Now should I pull the hammer, clap it out, and laugh about it or stand up, be counted while I cast my ballot?”
They get it, but do we? Haven’t we learned from hundreds of public corruption convictions, thousands of duplicative units of government, and billions of wasted tax dollars?
The BGA will keep shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable, as we have since 1923, but we can’t do it alone.
So look in the mirror to assess your involvement, then stand up and answer the call to civic engagement.