THE BLOG
11/06/2014 03:51 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Like Internet, Distributed Democracy Routes Around Gridlock

Shortly before midnight on Tuesday, as Republicans were shoring up their midterm victories, Ben Casselman, chief economics reporter for the statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight tweeted, "So voters want a higher minimum wage, legal pot, abortion access and GOP representation. Ok then." His tongue-in-cheek observation, which as of this writing received more than 16,000 retweets, makes an important point as Campaign 2014 fades from view and our focus turns to 2016: Elections are not just about political candidates - elections show that citizens will take direct action when political candidates fail to address issues that matter most to them.

To Casselman's point, voters supported a minimum wage hike in all four states where the question was on the ballot (Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota); marijuana legalization supporters scored wins in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, DC; and voters rejected proposals in Colorado and North Dakota that would have redefined life to extend legal protections to fertilized eggs, while Tennesseans approved a measure giving more power to state lawmakers to regulate abortion.

Elsewhere, voters in five states weighed proposals to expand legal gambling and approved in three; residents of Colorado and Oregon rejected mandated labels for genetically modified foods; and Washington State passed a measure expanding background checks on gun sales and transfers. In my company's own backyard of San Francisco, voters chose from a dozen local measures including dueling proposals to determine whether popular grass athletic fields would be replaced with artificial turf. This may be the most literal interpretation of "grassroots" our democracy has seen!

To accomplish these changes, people put up signs in their windows, rallied on social media and knocked on doors. These issues motivated people to take time, energy and effort to advance them on the ballot. In most cases, when the votes for or against those proposals were tallied, citizens could be confident that the results would be felt in the very near term.

Now contrast the fact that voters around the country are able to see the near-immediate impact of their collective choices with the state of Washington today. While the 114th Congress will be one where one party controls both chambers, policy and political experts agree that the next two years will likely be marked by continued gridlock. In an era of government shutdowns, partisan politics and record-breaking election spending, there are those who assert that our democracy is ailing and the more our system of government fails at its most fundamental duties, the more citizens will become frustrated and turn to other forms of change.

It's that contrast that makes me hopeful. Yes, an outcome of the 2014 election may be continued congressional consternation, but another outcome was that on a host of issues, citizens carpooled past that Beltway traffic jam via ballot measures, propositions and other actions at the state and local level. While legitimate conversations about how best to reform Congress should continue, it should not overshadow the fact that this election demonstrated that the promise of a vibrant democracy is still alive and well in our country.

This matters. While party dominance, names on a ballot, and political promises may come and go, so long as there is an engaged electorate willing to discuss and take action on a diverse fabric of issues, the wider tapestry of our democracy will remain strong. Indeed, it is from an informed and engaged citizenry that I am confident change will come to Washington.

And those people-powered networks won't be closing up their campaign headquarters this weekend, either. They're in it for the long haul because, like the Internet, a distributed democracy will route around gridlock.