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Panel discusses political involvement

Liz O'Donnell | Friday, October 31, 2008

A panel of local community members discussed the rights of political involvement that are held by citizens living in modern society in the auditorium of the Hesburgh Center Thursday.

With the 2008 presidential election less than a week away, students and other members of the campus community have developed a heightened sense of interest in their ability to partake in political activities as Americans.

This event, entitled “Beyond Voting: A Right to Political Participation in the 21st Century,” is a part of the yearlong celebration of the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Jackie Smith, an associate professor of Sociology and Peace Studies, moderated the discussion, the focus of which was to educate and discuss the practice of democracy on a local, national, and international level.

“Political participation has to expand far beyond the ballot box if we want it to count,” Smith said.

Participants in the panel were four people from the local South Bend community. Two of the panelists, Fr. Robert Dowd and professor Robert Fishman are members of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. Dowd is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, while Fishman is a Professor of Sociology.

The panel also included Julia King, a Citizen Activist and member of the Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) and Lisa A. Plencer, President of the South Bend chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Fishman began the discussion by talking about the importance of voting.

“The right to vote is one of the most important rights that humans have,” Fishman said. “Basic human rights allow all people, rich or poor, to share in the public decision making and in the public policy outcomes.”

Fr. Dowd then addressed the differences in the democratic system in the United States and in Kenya.

“When I arrived in Kenya in 1990, there was only one political party in Kenya, so while there were elections, they were only single-party elections,” Dowd said. “Obviously the system hindered political participation in Kenya.”

He said progress has been made in African countries since that time; however, the hindrance that political executives still have the ability to control and manipulate elections in Kenya and other African countries.

“Since the process is very flawed, many people do not wish to support this and this is cause for a low voter turnout,” said Dowd.

Shifting gears from an academic focus to a civilian focus, Julia King spoke on some of the ways WAND participates in local and national politics.

“We often write letters to the editors, or when we aren’t, we are usually encouraging each other to do so,” said King. “We also try to make face to face contact with political leaders.”

Plencer was the final speaker of the evening, and she discussed how individuals can make a difference by participating politically. Specifically, she spoke on the lobbying efforts of the League of Women’s Voters.

“By lobbying on behalf of legislative issues, we are greatly expanding democracy for everyone, not just females,” said Plencer

The session was concluded with a 20-minute question and answer session.