September 25, 2016

Can a Different Voting System Improve our Democracy?

After watching the Presidential nominating process over the last year, I find it puzzling that this system ever worked. Going in, I had some vague notion that primaries and caucuses were a mechanism to make the nominating process more democratic. They were to give the party’s rank and file more control over who ends up on the ballot in November.

Given the outcome of the 2016 nomination process, this perspective is in tatters. More than anything, media attention seemed to drive the results. The Democratic Party leadership actively colluded with the media to disparage Sanders. Quite the opposite in the Republican Party. The Party had no mechanism to counter Trump and his showmanship, even though many of his positions ran counter to many positions held by most Republicans. And other Parties were rarely covered by the media at all.

So, if not media attention, what are the values that should drive the design of the nominating process? Off the top of my head I would say -
  • make the process more democratic and more inclusive
  • find out exactly where candidates stand on the issues (and ditch all the negative campaigning)
  • craft a ballot with candidates who each represent different points of view, and 
  • (based on my personal pet peeve) spend a month or less making the nomination decisions

It seems to me that the first item is achievable, but the rest are more pie in the sky. So how might we improve the current voting system so as to foster more inclusivity and democracy? In the not too distant past, I had naively thought that the way I vote was how all voting takes place. Each citizen gets one vote and the candidate with the most votes wins. It turns out that there are many ways to run an election. They all have their pitfalls and their strengths. Thankfully, I didn't have to wade through volumes of scholarly political science journals to get to the bottom of it. I found some entertaining YouTube videos that explain some of these systems.

Call me a spoon-fed learner, but it was fun to think about the first election in the Animal Kingdom, in which the race was between a turtle, a gorilla, a snake, a tiger, a monkey, an owl, and a leopard. 

Our current voting method in most elections in the United States is known as winner-take-all or first-past-the-post (FPTP). In the video, CGP Grey demonstrates why FPTP voting always trends toward a two-party system with gerrymandering. After watching this video, I understood how our winner-take-all voting method results in two major parties controlling our elections. There are a couple of troubling side effects with a two-party system. One is that voters must worry about how everybody else is voting, rather than voting for whomever they like the most. If they don't, they might end up with someone they feel is truly atrocious. Another downside of a two-party system is that there is rarely much of a choice on the ballot and new parties don't stand a chance of gaining a foothold. A last consequence of a FPTP voting is that it is quite susceptible to gerrymandering, where those in power draw the voting districts to advantage their party and incumbents in their party. Such gerrymandering tends to result in disproportionate representation and/or elected officials who aren't responsive to their constituents.

Taking the catchphrase  Think Globally; Act Locally  to heart, I decided to attend a local Election Reform Working Group. They started meeting just subsequent to the National Conventions, so I thought they might share my frustration with the current system. I also hoped they were working up some useful strategies for improvement. When the group asked for someone to study the "Top Two Open Primary" ballot amendment, I raised my hand. Perhaps structurally changing the primary election mechanisms might help solve the problem of making the process more democratic and more inclusive. 

The full name of this (potential) Florida ballot initiative is All Voters Vote in Top Two Primary Elections for Congress, State, Legislature, Governor, and Cabinet. Currently, the fastest growing segment of Florida voters are those who have chosen not to affiliate with any party. With Florida's closed primaries and its history of gerrymandering, many races are actually decided in one party's primary, which is then followed by an uncontested general election. This means that in those uncontested elections, ALL voters who are not registered with the majority party are effectively disenfranchised. All-voters-vote would allow voters of all persuasions to choose from a single list of candidates, no matter the party. The two who receive the most votes would move on to the general election in November - whether they are from the major party, the same party, or the minor party.

Other states have implemented similar amendments, most notably California, Louisiana, and Washington State. The results are not encouraging. Certainly, independents have the opportunity to fully participate in primaries, but unfortunately it hasn't boosted overall voter turnout in any of these states. The 2000 presidential election recount crisis in Florida resulted in Florida legislation to change the mechanics of voting technology, including voting machines, automatic recounts, a voter registration database, poll worker training, and more attention to ballot design. But the Florida recount crisis spurred the state of California into high gear. Voters enacted a series of state and local election reforms. After the enactment of these reforms, Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that "Independents appear to be fickle primary voters, inclined to participate only when a ballot includes a close race. Recent efforts to increase turnout by making registration easier — such as online and same-day registration — also appear to have no meaningful impact on primary turnout." I came across a fair amount of election research, while trying to learn about voting systems. From my limited reading, the research shows that the consequences of changes to primary election rules are hard to predict and unlikely to have consistent and uniform effects. 

The All-Voters-Vote ballot amendment tinkers with the voting method a bit, but leaves the main elements in place. The results have been fairly unimpressive. So, if we want to do something to rein in two party dominance and its associated downsides, we might need to consider a more dramatic change to our voting methods. I turned back to CGP Grey. He outlines instant-runoff-voting or ranked-ballot voting a.k.a the alternative-vote in this video

The main advantage to this system is the elimination of the spoiler effect, where a "spoiler" candidate's presence causes vote splitting between similar candidates and causes an opponent of both to win. Voters don't have to worry about how everyone else is voting, and the winners tend to be those that a larger majority liked. This presentation of instant-runoff-voting did not delve into all possible complexities, so I will add that it can still be advantageous to be less than honest in your vote. However, such strategic voting, is neither as obvious nor as clear-cut as it is with a winner-take-all system. Instant-runoff-voting is also vulnerable to gerrymandering. But, all in all, it seems a far superior system to winner-take-all.

How easy would it be to make this more dramatic change to our voting system? As it turns out, voters where I live have already weighed in and 77% approved instant runoff voting (IRV) for the Sarasota City Commission races. In Sarasota's case, the ballot initiative was aimed at reducing the overall cost of elections by eliminating runoff elections. As a side note, these costly runoff races aren't particularly inclusive, because they happen at the onset of summer, when many residents have fled to cooler climes. So, IRV was an easy sell to voters.  But it's one thing for voters to decide something, but something entirely different for that decision to be implemented. The first hurdle stopped this change dead in its tracks. All voting machines must be certified by the State of Florida, and the State of Florida had not certified any IRV machines. Nine years later, I haven't heard another peep about this.

To be sure, there are some locations that have successfully approved AND implemented instant runoff elections. I am curious to know about their experience with instant runoff voting. How are the ballots laid out and how difficult is it for voters to understand such ballots? What kind of up-front and operating costs are associated with this form of voting? Has it affected voter turnout, ballot errors, the range of candidates on the ballot, or the tenor of elections? From my initial look, voters don't seem to have a problem understanding the ballot. There are greater costs associated with voter education. The answer to the overall cost question seems to depend on who is answering; those in support of IRV find it less expensive and those against IRV find it more expensive. It does appear that where runoffs were already mandated, most seem to think IRV is less expensive. Some research shows that IRV reduces negative campaigning. Several Leagues of Women Voters (LWVs) have studied IRV extensively.  Since an instant runoff voting initiative will appear on the Maine ballot in the upcoming 2016 general election, LWV of Maine put together this Q&A.

But then there is a relatively untried voting system called range voting (or sometimes score voting), which claims to solve many of the problems associated with winner-take-all and instant-runoff-voting. In range voting, voters give each candidate a score, the scores are added or averaged, and the candidate with the highest total is elected. I say it is relatively untried, but if you are an avid online shopper, you may have had a lot of experience with it. Do you check out all those 1 to 5 star reviews that others have given products, before making your final buy? Then you have utilized something akin to range voting results. Alas, CGP Grey has not made a video about range voting, so I was left to scour the arsenal of political science literature.

Here are the highlights of what I found in my somewhat random, cursory look at the voting system literature. In 1950, Kenneth Arrow won a Nobel Prize, when he showed that there was no perfect ranked-order voting system. That's because some important criteria for a fair voting system are mutually exclusive. Opponents of any particular system could always come up with a worst-case scenario that showed how unfair it was. Consequently, there's a lot of discussion about which criteria a given system does or doesn't fulfill, which are the most important, and which are the most likely to occur. Of note in the early discussions is that they generally dismissed non-ranked-order systems. And range voting does not ask voters to rank one candidate against another, so it is not a ranked-order system. More recently, computer scientists and game theorists jumped in with simulations. Range voting looks pretty good in many of these simulations. But there's not much real-world evidence as to how voters would actually behave in a range voting election. Nor could I find anybody working on range voting ballot initiatives.

Based on my preliminary investigation, both range voting and instant-runoff-voting look far more promising than top-two-open-primaries. But note that all of these voting systems result in the selection of a single candidate.  In other parts of the world, voters don't directly elect candidates. Rather they elect parties, and the parties select those who will fill elected government positions, e.g. members of the legislature. Electing candidates directly sounds far more democratic than electing parties who select the winners on my behalf. But having never paid any attention to these popular voting systems, I thought it only fair to see if electing parties might result in more representative outcomes. Out of curiosity, I checked in with CGP Grey and viewed his video about one such system called mixed-member-proportional (MMP) representation.

On Kiwi Island, the Animal Kingdom is selecting between kea, tuatara, and kakapo - a ballot of unfamiliar animals. MMP is a mixed approach. The advantages to this system are that it reins in gerrymandering, prevents minority rule, and allows for political diversity. This sounds more inclusive and democratic to me, but so very different from our current candidate-focused elections.

Question: What will I do about this new trove of voting system related info? 
Answer: Not sure yet.  To be continued...

August 23, 2016

A Sign in My Yard

I might vote for Hillary Clinton, but I probably won't. At the moment, many progressives are up in arms about this. For those that feel that Donald Trump is the greatest threat to human life in modern history, a vote for anybody but Clinton is unconscionable. In contrast, many Sanders supporters continue to attribute Clinton's primary win to foul play and refuse to vote for her. Between superdelegates, closed primaries, and the DNC, there is plenty of reason to be suspicious. But neither of these things are weighing heavily on me. I am concerned with a very large threat to our democracy. It seems to me that corporate power and spending has the potential to overthrow our government. It won't look like a coup d'etat. It probably won't include blowing up any buildings or factories. But in reality, the coup has already begun - slowly overwhelming our electoral processes, subduing our regulatory foundations, seeping into our educational institutions, and extinguishing our ability to fend off avoidable crises.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has been an agent of corporate power. In recent years, she helped negotiate the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), which would be a tremendous gift to Big Business and a major setback for the working class and our environment. It was negotiated in secret between Pacific countries and hundreds of advisers from some of the world’s most powerful corporations, while the U.S. Congress and U.S. citizens were excluded. I'm sure the corporate war profiteers love her, since she rarely missed an opportunity to back more and bigger military interventions when she was Secretary of State. And now that their armaments have made it into the hands of the Islamic State, the resulting global instability will undoubtedly result in more military contracts. Hillary Clinton supported the deregulation of the telecommunication and financial industries, and now those folks are some of her largest campaign contributors. And they have been steadfast in their support. Need I go further? It is hard for me to champion someone who champions the very corporations, whose success threatens our democracy and the very livability of our planet.

On the other hand, I will certainly vote for someone other than Donald Trump. For those that think he has a chance of getting elected, I understand the temptation of voting for the lesser of two evils. He seems to have staunch support amongst white working class folks, especially men. But demographically speaking that's not going to put him over the top. And each new topic he tackles turns yet another voting bloc against him. Other than Fox News, he is now getting a fair amount of bad press. Of course he has only himself to blame. He says so many things that are provocative, untrue, and/or dishonest that it would be a challenge for an unbiased journalist to cover him in a positive light. For sure, I will keep a watch on the media and the polls as we get closer to the election. But at this point, I am not worried that Donald Trump will win. Consequently, I can vote for the candidate of my choice. I need not confine myself to the lesser of two evils.

If you live near me, you may have noticed that a Clinton sign recently appeared in my front yard. Don't worry. I do not live alone and my sweetie put that sign up. He feels that he must do something to help defeat Trump. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and incitement to violence are some of the hallmarks of Trump's campaign. And that sign is there to proclaim that he won't let Trump, Trump's bigotry, or Trump's bullying anywhere near the White House. And when I first saw that sign, I started remembering the impressive side of Hillary Clinton. She does have some fine attributes. She has been a solid supporter of women's rights around the world. She has not wavered on this. She did try to pass universal health insurance coverage - and she was outspoken against corporate interests at the time. She is tenaciously pro-choice. And, she has weathered decades of brutal attacks and accusations by just about everybody, most of which have stood up about as well as water without a pail. And so I appreciate that sign in my yard. I dearly want to support a woman who has been the focus of so much invented animosity from the right. And as demonstrated by the harsh stream of vilifying posts on my Facebook newsfeed from Sanders supporters, she was subjected to the sexist double-standards of the left as well. And yet, she came out swinging. And wouldn't it be great to have a woman as President - the ultimate role model for girls in this country. Okay, I can live with the sign.

But here's the thing. Although I am not a particularly educated student of history, I do have some opinions about the power of my vote, based on the history with which I am familiar. As I see it, populist issues force their way onto the U.S. political stage and then they power changes in U.S. law via mass political movements. Once a movement is big enough, they can throw around their electoral weight. And that's when change happens. By way of example, I just looked up the women's suffrage movement. It had been slowly pushing votes for women onto the political agenda but it was acceptance by the newly-formed Progressive Party in 1912 that pushed it into the national arena. The mainstream Republican and Democratic Parties ignored the issue. But that year, the Progressive Party pulled in a whopping 27% of the popular vote. Four years later in 1916, the conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed women's suffrage. Certainly it was a lot more complicated than that, but three years later the 19th amendment passed Congress. That's the bit of history that can be fact-checked.

But what do you bet that folks went around in 1912 telling voters not to vote for the Progressive Party, because it would split the Republican vote. Indeed it did, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency. I'll bet lots of Republicans said that the Progressive Party was a spoiler and berated those who voted Progressive. Yet in the long run, this vote helped turn the tide on women's suffrage. This brings me back to my vote in 2016. I'd like to vote against corporate power. If I follow through on my wish, I will have to vote a third party, since both major candidates are big supporters of corporate power.

I probably won't think about this again until November. When it's time to vote, I will check out the latest polls. Assuming Florida is not poised to sweep Trump into office, I will look at all the candidates on the Florida ballot, spend an hour researching the lesser-known candidates, and then go vote. Meanwhile there is a boatload of work to do to help broaden and deepen the movement to reign in corporate power and spending.

April 27, 2016

Democracy Awakening Solidarity Rally - Sarasota

In April 2016, hundreds of thousands of people from a diverse array of movements came together in Washington DC to demand a democracy that works for all – a nation where our votes are not denied and money doesn’t buy access and power.

In Sarasota we had a much smaller assemblage, but we focused on the same legislative activities:

  • The Democracy For All Amendment (H.J.Res. 22, S.J.Res. 5), a constitutional amendment that would overturn U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and allow elected representatives to set commonsense limits on money in elections.

  • The Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867, S. 1659), legislation that would restore the protections against voting discrimination.

  • The Government By the People Act/Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 20 and S. 1538), a small donor empowerment measure that would encourage and amplify small contributions from everyday Americans.

  • Fair consideration of the nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, including timely hearings and a vote by the full Senate.

April 24, 2016

Political Blaming and Bigotry

Demonizing groups of people seems to be part and parcel of our political process. In our two party dominated system, Republicans make Democrats out to be the villains, and Democrats make Republicans out to be the villains. This demonizing generally emerges in the form of one group blaming the other for the current, dreadful state of affairs. During most political races, this behavior devolves into mudslinging. Without being a student of political history, my guess is that it has always been so. I just read about the presidential campaign of 1828, during which Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams lashed out at each other mercilessly.

Presidents, as leading representatives of their party, are often the recipients of boatloads of blame. President Obama seems to have suffered a full-on attack of such blame-mongering, significantly more than any president in recent memory. Did you hear that the success of ISIS is totally President Obama's fault? How about the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. That was President Obama's fault as well. Never mind that he wasn't president then. And, apparently, Obamacare is destroying the U.S. health care system. If not, why has the House of Representatives tried to repeal it more than 60 times? And don't forget the ebola virus. Many critics attributed the 2014 ebola outbreak in West Africa to President Obama. A recent New York Times op-ed opined that the rising popularity of Donald Trump is part of President Obama's legacy. Thank you for a good guffaw. For some reason, politicians expect this kind of hogwash and seem to have such thick skin that all the blame slides off without causing damage. From where I sit, they look a bit super-human.

But the blaming and demonizing are all too human. As I watch the 2016 presidential election unfold, I am noticing that stereotyping, demonizing, and scapegoating are overlapping threads. These threads are woven into the very fabric of society. Until this election, I had thought that campaigns merely took advantage of the electorate's prejudices. For example, I remember in 2004, Republicans in several states used same-sex marriage ballot initiatives to draw anti-gay bigots to the polls, in order to re-elect President Bush. As long as I can remember, many mainstream politicians have attacked immigrants in order to attract voters. Getting the electorate riled up based on their baser prejudices is a good Plan B, if a candidate's stand on the issues doesn't do the trick.

Let's look at Donald Trump, the 2016 presidential candidate and demonizer-in-chief. In his rhetoric, he marginalizes women. If he disagrees with a woman, he simply insults her appearance. Or her sexual history. When it comes to African Americans, Trump refused to condemn white supremacist, David Duke, who he had previously called a bigot and a racist. Incidents of racial violence have been recorded at Trump rallies, including one with Trump security looking the other way. Trump's supporters are also unabashed Jew-haters. He publicly mocked the movements of Serge Kovaleski, a journalist with mobility challenges. Trump's charged rhetoric against Muslims includes falsely accusing New Jersey Muslims of celebrating the 9/11 attacks. In these cases, Trump is leaning on existing stereotypes and blame-games. The fact that his popularity seems to surge after each new outburst of bigotry reflects poorly on voters.

Had the mainstream media looked at this man and realized that the people of the United States would not support him, they could have brushed him off as an inflammatory bully. Instead they looked to their news ratings and ran with a juicy story. And the story just got juicier as the candidate became more impolite and more flippant. As he let his rallies get more violent, the press paid more attention. Money can't buy that kind of exposure. But showmanship can. Showmanship can easily dominate our presidential campaigns due to the intense reliance on media exposure. The media favors style over substance. So does Donald Trump. The mainstream media doesn't give a hoot about issues. A little bit maybe, but not much. Donald Trump seems to be in the same boat. The media likes sound bites and slogans. Donald Trump will "Make America Great Again". But more than that, a demagogue willing to scapegoat others makes for good copy.

Donald Trump has gone beyond mirroring societal prejudices. He has invented new ones. In this election, I now realize that political campaigns can breed new forms of bigotry. When Trump first stated that Mexico was sending rapists over the border, I was jolted into re-evaluating the role of political campaigns. Just to share my initial response, I couldn't even make out what he was trying to say. Since almost half of all immigrants are women, why would any reasonably intelligent person try to connect immigrants as rapists. Once I rejected the notion of a flood of women rapists streaming across the Mexican border, I still wanted to wrap my mind around the idea of this newly fabricated stereotype. I am aware of several stereotypes about Latinas and Latinos, but they are not generally of a violent nature. And of course, the statistics report a contrary finding. First-generation immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans. No matter. Trump's comments generated a flurry of media coverage. And his statements have been played and replayed, hashed and rehashed. I don't think the shock of his statement has worn off yet, even months later.

I had never considered that one strategy to help win a presidential campaign would be to invent a new prejudice. And yet it makes total sense. Isn't that what a good chunk of political campaigning is all about? Creating prejudices that support your own candidacy and leave your opponent smoldering among the embers after a forest fire?

Each presidential campaign generally creates a brand out of the-other-team-tanked-the-economy and I can fix it. This brand revolves around a set of biases and slogans. Bernie Sanders carries on about the billionaires and how they are cutting the floor from under the middle class. Donald Trump is one of those billionaires, but he claims that makes him incorruptible. Both Trump and Sanders call the rest of the candidates corrupt, due to the large corporate donations they have accepted. Ted Cruz only sees the corruption of those that offend God. And of course, Cruz feels that God is on his side, and that his chief rivals at this point - Clinton, Trump, and Sanders - all embody New York values. I think that's code for big-city Northeasterners. But then again, New York City is a city of immigrants and minorities, so maybe Cruz is trotting out the same old bias against immigrants and people of color.

All of these generalizations gloss over the specific circumstances. Or the generalizations are downright wrong. There's really no way you can correctly blame immigrants for tanking our economy. And yet, such claims win elections.

Now that I have re-cast a good chunk of political campaigning as a form of prejudice baiting, it is not much of a stretch to include prejudice creation. Trump is feeding off the resentment of many in the U.S. who have lost their jobs to the global production of goods and services and who also feel their politicians do not speak for them. If the pollsters have it right, these folks are largely rural, white, non-college-educated, Christian men. In these times of increasing heterogeneity and economic insecurity, there is an increasing desire to blame someone. When Trump announced his candidacy, he characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists. The response from his supporters must have been positive enough that he broadened his insults to include immigrants from the rest of Latin America. Evidently, any new prejudice that bears a faint relationship to the injustice of the new economic landscape is welcome. By demonizing other folks, even for a fabricated trait, Trump and his supporters can then classify themselves as winners.

As the 2016 presidential campaign continues, we see a growing embrace of Trump's message of demonization and blame. History is strewn with examples of demonization gone bad - of crowds erupting in mob violence. It may well be that haters gonna hate, but that does not mean that the rest of us should just sit around and watch.

I was filled with optimism, when I read about the actions of the Cumberland County Sheriff Earl Butler following a Trump rally last month. The Sheriff's Office has disciplined five deputies following an investigation arising from the assault of a protester at a March 9 rally. A Trump supporter had punched an anti-Trump protester, while he was being escorted out of the arena by deputies. What did the deputies do? They detained the victim and let the assailant walk back to his seat. They didn't even question the assailant. Three deputies have been demoted in rank and suspended for five days without pay for unsatisfactory performance and for failing to discharge the duties and policies of the Office of Sheriff. Two other deputies were suspended for three days for the same failures. Trump is an outspoken supporter of law enforcement, but that is no excuse for law enforcement to slack off its responsibilities at a Trump rally. Under Sheriff Butler's direction, law enforcement is getting in gear.

Just as important, the Sheriff reviewed evidence to determine whether to file charges against Trump himself, for inciting a riot. At a prior rally in Las Vegas, Trump had responded to a protester's interruption by saying he wanted to punch the man in the face. At another rally in Iowa, Trump promised to pay the legal fees of supporters who "knock the crap out" of protesters. A clear pattern has emerged. Although Sheriff Butler decided not to file charges, kudos to him for considering it. It's time for other law enforcement officers to step up to the plate.

Trump is tapping into the anger and resentment of many citizens. At his rallies, Trump fosters a hostile environment. He has called for violence against his critics. The media kicks it up a notch, catapulting his hate speech to the front page. Unfortunately, the Republican Party has not condemned Trump's insulting rhetoric. And law enforcement has not brought its full weight to bear. Many candidates feel they benefit from appealing to the prejudices of their voters. Trump has jumped on this dangerous, rotten train and revved up the engines, creating new prejudices and fostering hate as he barrels along.

March 23, 2016

Media Bias Against Sanders; Possible Voter Suppression Arizona

I wasn't paying too much attention to the presidential primaries in Arizona or the caucuses in Utah and Idaho, yesterday. But this morning, a petition crossed my Facebook newsfeed asking that the Obama administration look into possible voter fraud and voter suppression in Arizona. There didn't seem to be any actual news about it online.

As often happens when perusing the internet, something else caught my eye. From the headlines, I gathered that Hillary Clinton had won the day. A typical headline read, "Clinton, Trump add to delegate leads with Arizona victories." I proceeded to look into the actual numbers. How many delegates had each candidate won in Idaho, Utah, and Arizona? The numbers were a bit hard to come by. You'd think those numbers would be front page news. Instead, all I saw was a cumulative tally of delegates, which hid what actually happened yesterday.

As I delved deeper, I saw that Reuters claimed that Clinton routed Sanders in Arizona, but that Sanders won the races in Utah and Idaho. More accurate would be to reverse those verbs. Sanders routed Clinton in both Utah and Idaho with just under 80% of the vote, while Clinton won the Arizona race. The Atlantic seemed less biased, headlining that three Western States split their support.

However, my research revealed that Sanders carried the day -
  • Sanders won more delegates  (73 to 55, 2 missing?)
  • Sanders won more states (2 to 1)

October 14, 2014

Arlene Sweeting on Retaining Our Democracy

At the ripe age of 81, Rhana Bazzini has decided to walk over 400 miles to talk about getting money out of politics. She is walking across the Sunshine State from Sarasota to Tallahassee, and people are energized to support her. Arlene Sweeting organized a kickoff event for Rhana. Arlene speaks eloquently on the subject of losing our democracy.

Jim Hightower Speaks Out in Sarasota

After losing her spouse of fifty-six years in June 2013, 81-year-old Rhana Bazzini decided it was time to take to the streets. Inspired by Granny D’s walk across the country for campaign finance reform, Rhana began planning a walk from Sarasota to Tallahassee. Her goal is to spread the word that Corporations are NOT People and Money is NOT Speech. Yesterday, Jim Hightower spoke at her kickoff event in Sarasota. He kept us all laughing about a very serious endeavor.

Rhana will be walking 10 miles a day for a total of over 400 miles. She left today from Sarasota, Florida. You can keep up with her progress on her Facebook page.

February 24, 2013

Florida LegiCamp 2013

I attended Legicamp a couple of weeks ago. It's an un-conference designed to help progressives from around Florida get ready for the upcoming Florida legislative session. Many weird news headlines come out of Florida. Florida Man Arrested For Stealing 166 Manhole Covers. Woman busted for riding a manatee in Florida. But none are quite as wacky as many of the bills that come out of the Florida Legislature. So what are Florida progressives concerned about in 2013? Watch the following video and find out.

I can already report progress on one of the issues. Governor Rick Scott is endorsing Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid. He campaigned against Obamacare, but he has proven so unpopular in Florida that he has done an about-face on this issue. It seems that bringing billions of federal dollars to Florida would be popular with the voters, and Governor Scott wants to be re-elected.

October 20, 2012

My Ballot: An Idealistic Write-In Moment

Soon after moving back to Florida, I noticed that for many races on my ballot, there is a line for a write-in candidate. In my naivety, I thought that meant I could meaningfully write in anyone I chose. I recall one Republican Party primary for Congress in which the infamous Katherine Harris ran against a write-in candidate, who was in fact a dog. His campaign motto was "Never made a mess in the House! Never will!" As it turns out, in Florida, write-in candidates are qualified ahead of time with the appropriate elections office.

Recently, both of Florida's major parties started using write-in candidates to close their party's primary, and effectively disenfranchise a whole swath of the electorate. If only one party is running candidates, Florida allows all voters to vote in a primary race, since the final outcome will be decided during the primary. By way of example, in Sarasota's 2012 race for Supervisor of Elections, there were only two Republican candidates. In order to close the election from Democrats and Independent voters, the Republicans found Victoria Brill, to register as a write-in candidate. In this manner, only registered Republicans were allowed to decide the winner of the race.

Many times, a write-in candidate is a sham candidate or a protest candidate such as the dog mentioned above. Once in a while, a write-in is a bona fide candidate without party backing. My 2012 Sarasota ballot includes at least one such entrant - Robert Sublett - who is running for Clerk of the Circuit Court. He is running in response to the ongoing mortgage and foreclosure crisis of the last five years. A Sarasota organization, the Mortgage Justice Group, is supporting his candidacy. Over the last year, organized resistance to foreclosure and eviction has sprouted in localities from coast to coast. Many of the participants have migrated from the Occupy Movement. Forms of resistance vary due to differences in local laws and enforcement. In some jurisdictions, protesters disrupt foreclosure auctions. Many groups have "adopted" especially egregious cases and devoted themselves to camping out in front yards and galvanizing neighbors in support. Direct confrontations with lending institutions are not uncommon. In Sarasota, the Mortgage Justice Group holds workshops where residents help other residents facing foreclosure. And in a handful of jurisdictions, motivated citizens are running for office hoping to get some form of retribution for the victims of this crisis. Most of Florida's candidates, running on such a platform, lost in their respective primaries. But as a write-in candidate, Robert Sublett is still on the ballot.

Friends and family frequently ask me, "Why should borrowers who have stopped making their mortgage payments get special treatment?" They made bad choices and got in over their heads and that is behavior we don't want to encourage. I don't disagree. And if we were talking about a few borrowers, the discussion would go no further. But when millions of people have lost homes and millions more are likely to suffer through foreclosure, this is not the time to ignore the plight of others. When the financial corporations responsible for bringing our economy to its knees are bailed out, but do next to nothing to extend a helping hand to their borrowers, I am glad there are those willing to keep sounding an alarm. When a secret bailout by the Federal Reserve dwarfs the enormous bailout approved by Congress, it is no wonder there is an outcry for more financial regulation. When mortgage companies intentionally set up shop in neighborhoods where people do not understand the contracts they are signing and encourage poor people to get in over their heads and no one lands in jail, the system needs adjustment. When securitization of home mortgages leaves those responsible for deciding the appropriateness of a loan and the valuation of the associated properties unaccountable for their decisions, it is no surprise that many borrowers default on their loans. When state legislatures attempt to destroy the judicial safeguards afforded homeowners prior to foreclosure, homeowners will call foul. When we entrust mortgage documentation to a private system with no oversight and add irregular robo-signing, it is only to be expected many will call it fraud. These examples of bad behavior leave many folks feeling angry, as well as justified in expecting their lending institution to work with them to modify their mortgage agreement.

My Sarasota ballot is a reminder that each of us can do something to help someone struggling with foreclosure. A reminder that we need to elect politicians who are willing to flex government muscle and regulate our financial institutions. My ballot presents a write-in moment of idealism. Maybe your ballot affords you the same opportunity.

October 13, 2012

Pillow Fight (for Peace)

How could I resist participating in a Pillow Fight for Peace. Billed as fluffy, fighting fun, the rules were simple

  1. swing lightly
  2. no down pillows
  3. don't hit anyone with a camera unless they specifically ask you to
Instead of an anti-war demonstration or a march for peace, we were going to play. This appealed to me as a natural political evolution of a flash mob. A flash mob typically results in public performance art. Here it would result in a public political statement.

In countries where there is significant political repression, this type of action is a way to avoid a harsh response from authorities. Just over a year ago in Belarus, following a currency devaluation and its concurrent skyrocketing prices, there was great discontent. Those opposed to the government engaged in clapping protests. Due to the government's strong response to protest, people would gather in main squares around the country at an appointed time and start clapping. It was a non-protest form of protest. As ridiculous as it sounds, police responded by arresting clappers.

In the United States, a public pillow fight has broader goals in mind. We can make social connections, involve folks of all ages, enjoy our diminishing public space, and get out from behind our television sets. A large pillow fight would be just as easy to organize and enjoy as a small one. Just prior to a presidential election, conservatives, liberals, radicals, and centrists could all engage in a fun activity without hurling insults at each other. There would be no clear victor, but I can live with such ambiguity.

On my drive over to Straub Park, I envisioned round pillows with peace signs, literature with statistics outlining how much this country is spending on war, and Where Have All The Flowers Gone playing in the background. Not to be. The planning for the Pillow Fight for Peace had stopped just short of Peace. Elizabeth Dunn, the main organizer, plans to follow up on that aspect next time round. But great fun was had by all, and I recommend it for anyone with the ability to run around without glasses on.