By: Melanie Cervantes

We embrace American democracy as a system that depends on the ability of all of us to participate, debate, and have real ownership in the public dialogue. This means not only the right to vote and freedom from censorship, but also affirmative opportunities to communicate and to participate in the decisions that affect us.

These principles are reflected in our nation’s seminal documents, from the 1st Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and assembly, to the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments’ enfranchisement of American adults irrespective race, gender, or age. They have been concretized in laws like the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which promote meaningful participation in our electoral process, and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Public Broadcasting System to promote a diverse and inclusive public voice in the affairs of the nation. These same principles are embodied in a range of human rights documents as well.

Yet, our democracy faces a crisis of legitimacy—it is responsive to just a few powerful interests, and its members cannot be expected to shoulder the full share of their responsibilities without a respected role in the governance of their society. At the same time, many Americans' opportunity to vote, for example, is affected by factors like the ease or difficulty of registering, by the availability of well-functioning and well-staffed voting places in all communities, by whether Election Day is a work day or a holiday, by the extent to which monied interests are allowed to dominate politics, and by whether a youthful criminal conviction is a permanent bar to voting.

We can protect voice, though, by protecting workers’ ability to advocate for better working conditions, by protecting a child’s access to arts education, and by ensuring our society’s ability to debate the issues of the day and keep diverse perspectives and experiences reflected in the media.

We must build a true land of opportunity in which voice is a crucial element, but it requires understanding the changing demographics of our nation, the changing technologies that help and hamper communication, and the practical barriers to full electoral and civic participation. And it requires listening to the ideas, hopes and dreams of all Americans.