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United Way of Lancaster County


Young professionals weigh civic reforms in ‘deliberative forum’ on democracy

Ashley Glensor, right, Programs & Workforce Strategies manager at the Lancaster Chamber, makes a point during a deliberative forum at the Lancaster Chamber on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

“I have been stoked about this for months,” Katherine DeSantis said.

DeSantis, the public policy coordinator at the Lancaster Chamber, was welcoming members of the chamber’s Young Professionals Network to “YPN Engage: Deliberative Forum on Democracy.”

Held last month at the chamber’s East King Street offices, the forum brought together about a dozen participants for a guided discussion on ways to strengthen democratic institutions and civic health. It was moderated by Stephen Medvic, professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, and Jess King, executive director of the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement.

The “YPN Engage: Deliberative Forum on Democracy.” Professor Stephen Medvic is standing at center left in left photo; Jess King is at left in right photo. Click either image to enlarge. (Photos: Tim Stuhldreher)

As Medvic explained, deliberative forums or “mini-publics” are an emergent practice designed to encourage constructive dialogue on public issues. They bring together a group of demographically representative citizens who are given factual background on a particular issue or problem, then encouraged to hash out consensus on a set of recommendations or solutions.

Deliberative forums are being used around the world, Medvic said. They’re not common in the U.S., but Lancaster has been something of an early adopter. Medvic has partnered on deliberative forums with Lancaster city government in connection with its comprehensive plan; with WITF for one on climate change; and with Hourglass Foundation for one on housing.

Reforming Democracy: Deliberative forum topic areas

  1. Elections and Representation: The rules that affect who runs
    • Campaign finance
    • Redistricting
    • Term limits and ballot access rules
  2. Elections and Representation: How you get to choose
    • Primaries
    • Ranked-choice voting
    • Single-member and multi-member districts
  3. Opportunities for participation: Ways to help people engage
    • Voting access
    • Mechanisms for citizens’ voices
    • Direct democracy
  4. Information: How we learn about candidates & policy
    • Mis/dis/malinformation and propaganda
    • Media
    • Civic education

Source: “Reforming Democracy” deliberative forum briefing document

For YPN, the forum fits into its broader advocacy initiative, which was developed to familiarize members with local issues and give them the background and tools to engage with stakeholders in developing solutions, DeSantis said.

Unlike a full-fledged deliberative forum, the YPN group was self-selected. King told them they were serving as an informal “beta test group” for a two-part countywide deliberative forum that she and Medvic are now in the midst of conducting.

Part 1 of that initiative took place in mid-April. Participants evaluated a dozen topics in democracy and the mechanics of representative government and decided which they thought were most important.

The follow-up session is planned for July; it will take the topics selected in Part 1 and evaluate reform proposals for each one. The results will be written up and presented to local leaders, including the Lancaster County commissioners and local state legislators, Medvic said.

For the YPN group, Medvic and King presented an abridged “all-in-one” version of the larger multi-day project: Participants first went through the topic list and debated the items’ importance; then discussed the reforms proposed for the two topics prioritized in April: Civic learning and voting access.

Like their counterparts in April, the young professionals agreed that civic education and voting access are top concerns. Several cited other issues, including ranked-choice voting, term limits and campaign finance reform.

Katherine DeSantis, right, responds to Sam Kulp, left, on civic education. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Civic education in the schools doesn’t measure up, Sam Kulp said. He advocated learning by doing, saying he became familiar with parliamentary procedure through his school’s Model United Nations program; and that in college, negotiating house rules with his fraternity brothers gave him a grounding in negotiation, debate and self-government.

The group was broadly in favor of Voter ID, but also of measures that would broaden access, such as voting by mail and offering voter registration broadly at state offices and agencies. Draven Rodriguez is an enthusiastic outdoorsman; offering voter registration to people signing up for hunting and fishing licenses would be a great way to reach that segment of the population, he said.

Alexis Driendl talks about voter registration.

Views on same-day voter registration were mixed. People who move don’t always realize they need to update their voter information, Ashley Glensor and Alexis Driendl said. Conversely, Zach Wilson said he’s skeptical of allowing first-time voter registration on Election Day: If voting matters to people, they should care enough to take care of the preliminaries ahead of time.

Daniel Holt said the forum made him feel more energized, more eager to think about politics and public issues and stay engaged.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to discuss things that we’ve all been thinking about,” he said, “to hear different perspectives and try to come to an understanding.”

Driendl said she’s passionate about access to justice for all and facsinated by the intersection between law and politics. She said she had hoped the forum would expand her knowledge, and it did.

“I loved it,” she said.