Privatization of public goods and services isn’t an important issue just because it often diminishes those goods and services, cuts corners, evades oversight, and pays workers less. It’s important because of the way it pushes governance further and further away from the people being governed.
At the root of the work of In the Public Interest is a notion we consider self-evident: that democracy is not only good, it’s necessary. The more we abdicate authority over our lives to corporate interests, the less the common interests will be met—or even considered. That’s also true in the political realm, where conservative strategists are constantly finding ways to dilute the power of voters and subvert the will of the people in order to serve their own narrow interests.
Threats to democracy have been many, lately, and far-reaching. The January 6 insurrection is the most obvious and dramatic example, but there are a hundred ways, large and small, that conservative organizations and individuals have tried to chip away at our long-established democratic institutions. When the right wing finds these institutions (like, say, elections) don’t work in their favor, they change the rules with maneuvers in (often heavily gerrymandered) state legislatures designed to undermine the very principles of democracy. And, unfortunately, they’re usually very good at it.
Last month, in one of the few failures of this approach, Ohio voters beat back an effort led by conservatives in the state that would have introduced significant hurdles to putting constitutional amendments on the ballot. In addition to requiring a 60 percent voter threshold to pass, the measure would have forced petition circulators to gather signatures equaling five percent of the electorate of each of Ohio’s 88 counties, instead of the 44 currently required. The tactic was intended to sink a reproductive rights constitutional amendment that will be on the fall ballot.
In May, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a measure that will create a commission that can punish and remove prosecutors, saying it will curb “far-left prosecutors.” That includes a certain prosecutor pursuing the case against former President Donald Trump.
In April, Iowa’s Republican-led legislature introduced a bill that restricted information the state auditor—the only Democratic Statewide office holder—could access. “Let’s be clear about this, this is the destruction of democratic norms,” State Auditor Rob Sand said.
Immediately after last year’s nonpartisan Ohio State Board of Education election created a majority of members aligned with the Democratic party, conservative legislators moved to transfer the body’s power to a new department under the governor’s authority. While the bill failed during that year’s session, a similar bill passed in the Senate in January of this year and was introduced into the House in March (it’s currently in committee).
In 2021, Republicans in Arizona, using the state budget, stripped the Arizona Secretary of State—a Democrat–of the right to defend the state’s election laws in court—handing it over to the attorney general who happens to have been—you guessed it—a Republican. Any pretense that it was done as a move to strengthen some legal principle was undermined by the fact they intended the move to expire simultaneously with the end of the term of the secretary of state. Taking aim at secretaries of state is no accident, as these officers have authority over how elections are conducted. Legislators similarly trimmed the power of secretaries of state in Georgia and Kansas. In fact, Republicans have moved to take control over the election process in at least eight states.
This doesn’t even begin to address the gerrymandering and the changing of rules over the last decade or so to make voting harder, more complicated, and less likely, especially among people of color, including restrictive voter ID laws and aggressive voter purges.
Like privatization, these attempts to limit and thwart democracy can at first seem minor, and, as in privatization, they are often presented as benign or necessary reforms.
But make no mistake: In both cases, the ultimate goal is consolidation of power, democracy be damned.
Image: Photo taken of Dropbox on October 26, 2020 outside of the Dekalb County (Georgia) Voter Registration & Elections Office. as part of the series Documenting Democracy by Sue Dorfman. ©Sue Dorfman
Since this photo was taken, Georgia has moved all of its voting dropboxes to inside locations.