Class of 2015: Daniel Woldorff

Hey peoples of the Democratic Republic,

My name is Daniel, and this summer I’ll be serving as a research intern, right here in Durham. I applied to this internship because Democracy NC’s work is foundational to every other policy issue; all policy rests on a functioning democracy, and this organization’s mission is to protect that foundation. Bear with me for a moment: A story about a tree will help to illustrate where that motivation comes from.

On the side of my house is this awful, awful tree called a stinking sumac. It’s an invasive species that sprouts up where someone has cleared native trees, crowding out other plants and blocking their sunlight. The roots slither out from beneath the house, and if it keeps growing, it just might damage the building’s foundation.

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A few summers ago, I went at it with hatchet and saw. By this point, the tree was nearly two stories high. It wouldn’t be so bad to chop down, but the leaves emit this disgusting smell that gets into your clothes and skin. It took me a day to lop branches off and take the trunk down to a stump, but it took a week to remove the awful smell. Mission accomplished, right?

Not quite. Next summer it was back, and the problem was the root. New trunks were sprouting from the stump, simultaneously sending runners deep underground to other parts of the lawn, popping up everywhere to announce their return. So I got to work again and this time went straight for the root.

It’s summer again—Democracy Summer 2015 to be exact—and the stinking sumac is still at it, albeit with less vigor. It’s sending up new stems, and runners are popping up throughout my yard. Yet, because of the work I invested in previous summers, the task is now manageable. This is an unending process, but if you get at the root of the problem, the work becomes doable.

Such is the work of democracy: this constant gardening, relentlessly striking at the roots of any threat to Americans’ fundamental democratic rights.

Author Lawrence Lessig, in his advocacy for campaign-finance reform, adapts a great quote from Henry David Thoreau: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root…” For years, I swung at the branches. First, while participating in the sustainable food movement, I discovered that the political power of the few was obstructing the policies that would promote a sustainable, healthy and fair food system. Then I learned about housing and transportation policies that hurt our health, happiness and ecosystems. Most recently, I’ve been shocked to learn about criminal justice and social policies that disadvantage the elderly and disabled, the low-income, and people of color.

The problems in these and other branches of policy are rooted in fundamental questions: How well is our democratic republic working? Do all people have a relatively equal opportunity to influence policy? Does the political system privilege some over others? The answers lie in policies that shape the right to vote, the political influence of money, and the redistricting of elections. The problems I found in other policy areas led me to these questions, which, in turn, drew me to Democracy NC. As a research intern, I hope to learn from the community of organizations working as constant gardeners, those who are uncovering and striking at the root of threats to our democratic foundation.

So I’ll be here in Durham working with the team to uncover and document the stories of voters negatively affected by NC’s new voting laws, especially on college campuses. I’m most excited to learn about the tools Democracy NC and other organizations use to monitor elections, including volunteer poll monitors and the Election Protection Hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE). These efforts shine light on election problems, such as understaffed voting sites, biased election officials and voter disenfranchisement. We need this scrutiny because if you’re looking to strike at the root, you need sunlight to know where to swing.

P.S. I’m also really jazzed about being in Bull City (more commonly known as DURM)!

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