Democratic Governance

Tarek Masoud Reflects on the Arab Spring Ten Years Later

Tarek Masoud Reflects on the Arab Spring Ten Years Later

February 10, 2021

As the world looks back on the events that convulsed much of the Middle East a decade ago during what became known as the Arab Spring, the Ash Center sat down with Tarek Masoud, Professor of Public Policy and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman Professor of International Relations to discuss the prospects for democracy in the region today. In our conversation, Masoud, who recently published an article in the Journal of Democracy arguing that the Middle East retains considerable democratic potential, pushes back on the notion that authoritarian states in the region can successfully hold back the demand for freedom so vividly exhibited during the height of the Arab Spring.

Is Mandatory Voting the Answer to Our Voting Wars?

Is Mandatory Voting the Answer to Our Voting Wars?

October 19, 2020

Political and legal fights over voter registration deadlines and polling locations are only intensifying as the United States lurches towards one of the most consequential and unprecedented elections in generations, leading many observers to ask, “Does it have to be this way?” Chief among the critics of this unfolding drama of voter suppression, voter disinformation, and an election system nearly brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic is Miles Rapoport, Ash Center senior practice fellow in American democracy. As a former Connecticut secretary of the state, he should know—Rapoport was responsible for running the state’s elections. “What we’ve seen over the last few weeks, with uncertainty over voting rules, lawsuits filed by the dozens, and general confusion about what Election Day should look like, isn’t a flaw in the system. It’s just a further illustration of how our decentralized, often politically driven and in some cases poorly administered election system was designed to function,” he says.

Johnson poses in advance of graduation wearing an HKS and HLS graduation stole

A Win for Democracy

October 16, 2020

Demarquin Johnson HLS/HKS 2020 stepped up to a podium for the first time as a freshman in high school in Missouri City, Texas, as a member of his school’s debate team. After several weeks spent doing research, he was prepared to defend the right to vote for citizens convicted of a felony. Fueled by a deep belief that felony disenfranchisement is unjust and a legacy of Jim Crow-era attempts to strip voting rights from Black people, he hammered home how prohibiting people from voting because they were formerly incarcerated runs contrary to the American belief in democracy.

Black Lives, Protest, and Democracy

Black Lives, Protest, and Democracy

October 14, 2020

The following remarks were excepted from A Discussion on Black Lives, Protest, and Democracy, a virtual conversation hosted by the Ash Center with leading scholars and practitioners about the protests, their place in the long fight for social justice, and what they tell us about the state of democracy in America today.  

Uche Pedro smiling as she presents her work at the Ash Center

A New Story for Nigeria

October 13, 2020
In June 2006, a few days after Uche Pedro MC/MPA 2020 graduated from Western University, Ontario with a degree in business she started an anonymous blog about Nigerian pop culture. Going to a university in Canada had opened Pedro’s eyes to how little people knew of her native country’s burgeoning entertainment scene. Posting clips from magazines and stories about music and fashion in her free time, she hoped BellaNaija, her site, could help introduce the world to a new narrative about Nigeria.
Roll of 'I Voted' stickers

Valerie Jarrett on the value of a vote and reaching Gen-Z

September 23, 2020

Following the 2016 presidential election, senior advisor to then President Barack Obama Valerie Jarret and First Lady Michelle Obama poured over election return data. “Michelle Obama and I did a lot of soul searching trying to figure out what happened,” said Jarrett during a virtual discussion moderated by Harvard Law School Lester Kissel Professor of Law David Wilkins, hosted by Harvard Votes Challenge, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and Institute of Politics, this Tuesday to mark National Voter Registration Day. “I think the number that really jumped out at us was that nearly 100 million eligible Americans did not vote. That’s a big number in a country that depends on democracy, which requires civic engagement and participation at the most fundamental level.” 

Disrupting the Party: A Case Study of Ahora Madrid and Its Participatory Innovations

Quinton Mayne and Cecilia Nicolini, September 2020 

In this paper, Quinton Mayne and Cecilia Nicolini examine the rise of Ahora Madrid, a progressive electoral alliance that—to the surprise of onlookers—managed to gain political control, just a few months after being formed, of the Spanish capital following the 2015 municipal elections. Headed by the unassuming figure of Manuela Carmena, a former judge, Ahora Madrid won voters over with a bold agenda that reimagined the relationship between citizens and city hall. Mayne and Nicolini’s analysis is a case study of this innovation agenda. The paper begins by exploring how Ahora Madrid’s agenda emerged as a response to, and built off of, historic levels of political disaffection and mass mobilization spurred by the 2008–2014 Spanish financial crisis. The authors examine how the alliance’s agenda of democratic disruption was realized, first through an unusual bottom-up electoral campaign and then, after taking office, by challenging and rethinking established relations between public officials, civil society, and city residents.  

Mayne and Nicolini show that while Ahora Madrid’s time in power was not without its challenges, it still successfully implemented a set of far-reaching democratic reforms centered on institutional innovation. This included the creation of an internationally recognized online civic engagement platform, the establishment of neighborhood forums, and the implementation of a €100 million participatory budgeting process. Although Ahora Madrid lost the 2019 elections and the city swung back to the right, a number of its reforms, explored by Mayne and Nicolini in the case study’s conclusion, live on in an altered form, serving as a reminder of the alliance’s original bold vision for the city. 

Lynching and Local Justice: Legitimacy and Accountability in Weak States
Cohen, Dara Kay, and Danielle F. Jung. 2020. Lynching and Local Justice: Legitimacy and Accountability in Weak States. Cambridge University Press. Learn more on the publisher's site Abstract

Dara Kay Cohen, Danielle F. Jung; September 2020 

What are the social and political consequences of poor state governance and low state legitimacy? Under what conditions does lynching – lethal, extralegal group violence to punish offenses to the community – become an acceptable practice? We argue lynching emerges when neither the state nor its challengers have a monopoly over legitimate authority. When authority is contested or ambiguous, mass punishment for transgressions can emerge that is public, brutal, and requires broad participation. Using new cross-national data, we demonstrate lynching is a persistent problem in dozens of countries over the last four decades. Drawing on original survey and interview data from Haiti and South Africa, we show how lynching emerges and becomes accepted. Specifically, support for lynching most likely occurs in one of three conditions: when states fail to provide governance, when non-state actors provide social services, or when neighbors must rely on self-help.

Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting
Rapoport, Miles, E.J. Dionne, and et al. 2020. “Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting.” Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Brookings Governance Program . Read the full report Abstract

The Universal Voting Working Group, July 2020 

Imagine an American democracy remade by its citizens in the very image of its promise, a society where the election system is designed to allow citizens to perform their most basic civic duty with ease. Imagine that all could vote without obstruction or suppression. Imagine Americans who now solemnly accept their responsibilities to sit on juries and to defend our country in a time of war taking their obligations to the work of self-government just as seriously. Imagine elections in which 80 percent or more of our people cast their ballots—broad participation in our great democratic undertaking by citizens of every race, heritage and class, by those with strongly-held ideological beliefs, and those with more moderate or less settled views. And imagine how all of this could instill confidence in our capacity for common action.

This report is offered with these aspirations in mind and is rooted in the history of American movements to expand voting rights. Our purpose is to propose universal civic duty voting as an indispensable and transformative step toward full electoral participation. Our nation’s current crisis of governance has focused unprecedented public attention on intolerable inequities and demands that Americans think boldly and consider reforms that until now seemed beyond our reach.

Voting Booth

New report by Voting Rights Advocates, Practitioners, and Scholars Details Need for Universal Civic Duty Voting

July 20, 2020

Washington DC -- In a new report released today, a diverse group of 25 experts in U.S. politics, elections, and civil rights make the case for universal civic duty voting—that is, mandatory participation in elections—in the United States. “...

Read more about New report by Voting Rights Advocates, Practitioners, and Scholars Details Need for Universal Civic Duty Voting
Husock, Howard, Inessa Lurye, Gaylen Moore, Archon Fung, and Jorrit de Jong. 2020. “Leading Civic Engagement: Three Cases”. Read the full case study Abstract

Howard Husock, Inessa Lurye, Gaylen Moore, Archon Fung, and Jorrit de Jong; July 2020 

These three short cases are stories of city officials leading civic engagement and public participation in pursuit of public goals. From a variety of different positions in city government, the protagonists in each case departed from typical bureaucratic processes to reach out directly to the public, using unexpected methods to solicit input, raise awareness, and effect behavioral change in their communities. In the first case, the new director of the Seattle Solid Waste Utility, Diana Gale, implemented sweeping changes to the City’s solid waste collection practices. To secure compliance with new rules and regulations and tolerance for inevitable stumbles along the way, she developed a public relations capacity, became the public face of her agency, and embraced an ethos of humility and accountability. In the second case, Antanas Mockus, the eccentric mayor of Bogotá, sought to improve public safety—focusing particularly on the unregulated and lethal use of fireworks around the Christmas holiday. He tried at first to effect change through persuasion, offering citizens alternatives to fireworks and engaging vendors in the effort to reduce fireworks-related injuries and deaths. When a child suffered severe burns, however, Mockus followed through on a threat to ban firework sales and use in the City. In the third case, David Boesch, city manager of Menlo Park, California, decided to engage residents in setting priorities around cost reduction as a major budget shortfall loomed for the coming fiscal year. He hired a local firm to plan and execute a comprehensive participatory budgeting process. In a city with a sharp divide between haves and have-nots, Boesch and his partners had to take special care to ensure that everyone’s interests were heard and represented in budgetary decision-making.

Thanks to a gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies, no permission is required to teach with, download, or make copies of this case(s).

Union Impact on Voter Participation—And How to Expand It

Tova Wang, May 2020

Some politicians have enacted measures in recent years to make voting harder and to reduce participation among certain groups. Others have sought to counteract that voter suppression by implementing laws to make voting easier, such as same-day or automatic registration. There is another antidote to the effort to reduce participation: lifting up worker organizations. This is especially important to understand given the ways in which powerful individuals and groups have sought to weaken unions because of their political strength representing American workers.

In this report, the author first explains efforts to weaken unions and the voice of working people; then what the decline of unions and union membership has meant for participation; next, Wang looks at the data showing the positive effects unions have on voter participation; and finally, she suggests how going forward we can reform the laws and how labor is structured such that it not only continues to facilitate voter participation, but even enhances it.

Laura Miller smiles, holding a blue megaphone

Mobilizing Voters On and Off-Line

May 13, 2020
On January 1, 2017, Michelle Obama moved out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and became former first lady of the United States. "I think our democracy has it exactly right: two terms, eight years. It's enough," she told Vogue magazine.