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Nov 09

Triumph of Bureaucracy—By the People for the People

Posted on November 9, 2020 at 1:25 PM by Melinda Mayo

Among many news worthy happenings over the past few weeks one particularly worth noting from my perspective, is just how well several of our bureaucracies or institutions performed.  Just by way of one example a record number of Americans cast votes in the midst of a global pandemic.  This was possible only due to the efforts of state legislatures and registrars all across the nation, but also required successful performance of the U.S. Postal Service, state and federal courts and judges, untold number of volunteer poll workers and observers, and many others.  We too often forget, disregard, or even denigrate the very institutions we the people have formed to serve us.  This post will focus a bit on celebrating these institutions.

The States

It is all too easy at times to forget that we are the United States of America where most of the laws, standards and practices that govern our daily lives are debated, formed, and refined are determined at the state not federal level.  This past year has illustrated this perhaps more so than in a generation.  The response to the pandemic has largely been directed by each state’s Governor, most often in concert with the state legislature and in some instances, in opposition of them.  In Virginia, it is the State, in partnership with localities, through the State Department of Health that is at the forefront of addressing the public health response to COVID-19.  

These same legislatures are the entities that, within basic guidelines set by federal authorities, determine when and how ballots for elections will be distributed, cast, collected and counted.  To ensure all voters had the opportunity to participate in the election in a safe manner and help avoid further spread of the virus, essentially every state broadened the scope and use of early voting and mail in voting, both long-used and reliable means, but never before at the scale necessary for this election.  Because of these efforts, a record-setting number of Americans participated in local, state, and the Presidential election, many for the first time.

U.S. Postal Service

Established at least as far back as 1792, few institutions have faced the scrutiny and ridicule the U.S. Postal Service has in recent years.  Despite this criticism, more than 600 million pieces of mail are successfully delivered from point to point every day—by comparison FedEx delivers 6 million packages per day and UPS 20 million.  It is estimated that as many as 65 million Americans, roughly 40% of all ballots cast, voted by mail.  This massive participation in democracy and exercising of a fundamental right, simply would not have been possible were in not for the extraordinary work of the Postal Service and its more than 630,000 employees.


Though, as noted, state legislators set the requirements associated with voting it is actually managed and conducted at the local level, in most instances via a Clerk or Registrar’s Office with great dependency upon local volunteers to work the polls and provide oversight or observation of practices.  These Registrars and the poll workers faced a daunting task this year.  How to accommodate a record number of voters safely in the midst of a global pandemic.  Even though around 40% of voters voted via mail-in ballots nearly another 100 million cast votes in-person and all of the ballots—mail-in, early and day-of, had to be counted within a specified period of time.  Almost without exception this was accomplished flawlessly by each of these offices.  These Clerks, Registrars, and their staff and volunteers take very seriously their charge to ensure every vote legally cast is counted and recorded.  Again, without the work of these individuals our ability to exercise this fundamental right simply would not be possible.

One for the Record Book

So, how did these institutions do?  What was the outcome of their efforts?  Through these institutions, the American people elected the first African American woman of Asian descent as Vice-President, re-elected many to continue to represent them in their Statehouse and the Congress, and elected a number of other firsts—New Mexico, the first time those elected to represent the state in Congress are all females of color, Missouri, the first female African-American to represent the State in Congress, the first transgender state senator in Delaware, and the first Republican women to represent South Carolina and Wyoming in Congress.  Here locally, for the first time in Roanoke’s more than 135 year history, the Council composition is majority African-American.  

As noted previously, at best we take many of these institutions for granted, at worst we attack and attempt to weaken them. Yet the current pandemic and recent election illustrate just how much we rely upon them and how integral they are to the success of a vibrant and safe democracy—that is, after all why we the people created them in the first place!

— Bob Cowell


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