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Political journalists: Vote to protect democracy

Journalists E. J. Dionne, Michelle Cottle, Mara Liasson and Franklin Foer at the Partners 4 Democracy event. (screenshots)

Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. – Citizens concerned about democracy as America looks to its 2024 presidential election can take action now, a panel of political journalists advised.

Four prominent American political journalists spoke on a public panel discussion hosted last week, urging viewers to vote and get involved.

The panel provided considerations of structural forces that have led the U.S. to where it is today and what people should be paying attention to ahead of Election Day next November. 

The virtual panel event, “Trials, Triumphs, and Traps,” was sponsored by Partners 4 Democracy, an advocacy group. Nearly 300 audience members watched the live discussion on Zoom. A recording is posted on the group’s website.

Michelle Cottle, national political writer and editorial board member at The New York Times, emphasized changing voter access laws making voter-driven ballot initiatives more difficult, gerrymandering, and supermajorities trying to change how election officials operate. 

Michelle Cottle

“The structural moves that are being made make me very nervous,” Cottle said. 

As panelists discussed the challenges surrounding the next election, viewers continued to ask what they could do to support American democracy.

Vote, the panels said, in every election and whether the candidate is appealing or not. 

“Enthusiasm is for children’s birthday parties, not voting,” Cottle remarked. “I don’t care if you’re not super thrilled about the candidate. Get out there and vote.”

That, Cottle said, is the baseline message people should send themselves and those around them. 

“Even if you don’t love a particular candidate, get out there and vote for everybody else on the ballot.”

Beyond the baseline, Cottle told the audience that they should want to see when disinformation occurs. And, she said, “whenever you have opportunities, counter it.”

Cottle emphasized how initiatives undermining democracy continue to move “down the food chain to levels where people don’t pay a lot of attention” such as people who are being elected to county commissions and election boards.

Mara Liasson

Acknowledging how few people know what the role of those institutions are, she expressed that there is a “grinding need to pay attention for the long run.”

Panel moderator Mara Liasson of National Public Radio agreed.

In a “highly functioning democracy, people have the luxury of tuning out and only paying attention every two years.” Liasson said.

But now, she says, citizens must “pay attention to down-ballot, county boards” where “people don’t know what they do.” 

Franklin Foer, national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of The Last Politician added, “We need to act as if this is the last election that’s going to be contested in a free and fair sort of way.”

Foer said America is facing a “genuine democratic emergency.”

Franklin Foer

Throughout the event, panelists expressed concern over minority institutions that allow a party to “get 46% of the votes but get 70 seats in [the] state legislature,” an example given by Liasson.

Liasson noted, “But, when you let everyone vote and everyone’s vote is counted, the majority rules. You find out what the majority of people actually want.”

“How do we overcome the lack of education, the misleading information?” asked Ed Cohen, a facilitator with Partners 4 Democracy. “Where do we go from here as citizens?” 

Cottle said a lot of the ways to “tend democracy” are through formal processes such as volunteering, running for office, and donating.

But she advised viewers not to underemphasize what they do in everyday life. That is, to recognize the importance of democracy. 

E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post and commentator on NPR and MSNBC said volunteering to work on elections really matters.

E. J. Dionne

Liasson drew on her experience as a national correspondent for NPR when she offered some advice.

“We can vote in every election for every single ballot line, up and down,” Liasson said. “We can run for things. We cannot take democracy for granted.”

Liasson said there are a lot of “long-term things” we can do. 

Cottle offered a perspective directed at the “regular people” in the room. She said that voters need to take the process seriously. 

“You should be out there,” Cottle said. 

Dionne added that a lot of people have quit election-related jobs out of fear of threats against poll workers. His own sister, Dionne said, is the chair of her town’s board of elections. 

While he said he’s proud of her civic work, “It’s the first time I worry.”

But his sister lives in Rhode Island, a less polarized state, which “protects her,” he said. 

Cottle also gave some suggestions: volunteering to be poll watchers, talking to people about these issues.

Referring to voters’ feelings about discussing democracy and getting involved in politics in 2024, Dionne suggested a need to revive the sense that the people of the United States have to wade back into the political realm. 

Because, he said, “We do gotta do it again.”

Annamika Konkola is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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