October 26, 2016

"No Wall of Words"

I recently came across a quote attributed to George Washington, in one of the drafts for his first inaugural address in 1789. It elegantly captures the essence of my own recent internal grumblings. George Washington said

[N]o wall of words, [and] no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.
To put this in more concrete terms, whatever protections are afforded by the U.S. Constitution, it will never be enough. In order to safeguard people from sweeping torrents of boundless ambition, individuals must speak out, the media must investigate and report, Congress might need to amend the Constitution occasionally, and the Supreme Court must continually interpret and reinterpret the Constitution.

Constitutional interpretation has become such a messy business that it has burst onto the 2016 election scene as a hot-button issue. Republican Senators are vowing to reject all Supreme Court nominations from Democratic Presidents - sight unseen. More recently, Republican Party members are taking the stance that they will not even hold Senate hearings for these prospective nominees. Either strategy will effectively block the appointment of new members to the Supreme Court, even as aging justices retire. As it turns out, the Constitution is quiet on both of these fronts. It neither requires senators to take a vote on a nominee, nor does it stipulate that they must come to a hearing with an open mind. Historical expertise is unlikely to resolve this scenario should it come to pass. And if it does, both Democrats and Republicans will undoubtedly be bad actors in the ensuing drama.

Washington's quote resounds even more loudly when applied to our election processes. Until recently, I took it for granted that our republic had figured out how to formulate and run a fair election. As far as voting, I was still snug in the mindset that we could safely leave all this to the experts.

Let me put that statement in perspective. I grew up in a big city. If we had a problem, there was always somebody who specialized in fixing that problem. It wasn't really worth agonizing over do-it-yourself projects, because it was so easy to call someone with much more expertise. In general, it seemed prudent to spend time developing expertise in a few areas and let the experts handle the rest. Farmers grew cantaloupes better than I would. Piano movers hoisted pianos up to the 17th floor better than I would. Mechanics kept our station wagon running better than I would. But whatever I had left of my childhood faith in experts is quietly vanishing. Especially after voting in Florida for the last seventeen years.

In the year 2000, I was willing to write off the Florida butterfly ballots that probably cost Al Gore the presidency. It was a one-time error. The Supreme Court intervened and put a halt to the Florida recount. That did not sit well with me. The seemingly partisan split within the Supreme Court didn't bode well for the future, but Al Gore accepted the results anyway.

In the 2006 primary, I was quite surprised when the electronic voting machine I was using "skipped" a page of my ballot. The touch screen was practically catatonic, sometimes responding to my finger pressure and sometimes not. By coincidence or perhaps not, a local group, Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, put an amendment on the ballot for the general election to return to paper ballots and require mandatory audits. The amendment easily passed. In the future, we would have some real accountability for our elections in Sarasota County.

During that same election, there was an historic 18,000 undervote for our Congressional Representative that experts agreed probably changed the outcome of the election. Yes that's right; somebody else should have won. After considerable evaluation, the experts all pointed to poor ballot design as the culprit. I was willing to write this off as another one-time error.

Four years later in 2010, we had good news and bad news. The good news was that Sarasota had returned to paper ballots, but the bad news was that the Florida Legislature overrode the will of Sarasota voters and preempted all Florida counties from having more rigorous election standards than the state. This gutted the ballot amendment that had passed in 2006. My gut feeling that we could leave this to the experts was starting to wane.

At around this time, I realized that I couldn't remember having voted either for or against my County Commissioner, even though I voted in every single election. That's because every Sarasota County Commissioner for the last 40 years has been a Republican and generally no candidates from other parties tend to run. Florida's closed primary system was to blame. But voters tried to remedy the situation in 1998. A state constitutional amendment passed that allowed all voters (regardless of party preference) to participate in a primary election, should only one Party file to run for a specific seat. Sounded good. Unfortunately, both major parties found a loophole. Register a write-in candidate - someone who will never appear on the ballot - and they're back to a closed primary. In southeast Florida, Democrats take advantage of this to disenfranchise voters. In my neck of the woods, it's the Republicans.

In 2011, Florida went whole-hog with its partisan voter suppression laws. The laws made it harder for groups to register new voters, cut short early voting periods, and barred ex-felons from the polls. This was quickly followed by Florida's Secretary of State requiring local Supervisors of Elections to purge their voter rolls using lists of 182,000 non-citizens and 50,000 dead voters. These lists were created by the State, and turned out to be quite partisan. And, as it turns out, they were riddled with inaccuracies. Thankfully, local Supervisors of Elections for the most part rejected these purge lists, and a judge ruled against Florida on several of these actions. Nonetheless, my belief in our ability to hold a fair election had greatly diminished by this time.

Did I mention gerrymandering? Currently, 26 of 40 Florida State Senators are Republican, even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state. This might be due to some terrific Republican candidates, but it is more likely due to rampant gerrymandering. After the 2010 Census and the voter-approved Fair Districting Amendment, I had high hopes that Florida might curb its penchant for gerrymandering. It took six years of court wrangling, but we now have district maps that comply with the law. However, legal challenges are still pending.

This year as I watched the 2016 presidential nominating process unfold, I was confronted with a dizzying litany of flaws. Going in, we all knew that Iowa and New Hampshire played oversized roles in the nominating process. This is troubling, because neither of them are particularly representative of the whole country, being more rural and containing so few people of color. And it turns out, I was never voting for a candidate. I may have thought I was voting for a candidate, but I wasn't. Rather, convention delegates were awarded based loosely on vote counts. By the time delegates arrived at the national convention after various computations, regional conventions, and a state convention, the original vote counts most assuredly would no longer correspond directly to delegate counts. And what about those poor chumps who had to caucus. After a long day at work, many folks might think twice about spending several hours at a caucus listening to political speeches and what not. I, for one, would probably bring soundproof ear muffs. And what if you had to work during caucus time?  Out of luck, Chuck. All the flaws just listed applied to Iowa. I will leave it to the curious reader to look into each state's catalog of unsound practices. After Iowa, the media bias was stunning. And who knew just how undemocratic the national conventions could be. As I understand it, had the Democratic National Convention been contested after the first round of voting, delegates would have been under no obligation to represent voters. And had the Republican Rules Committee so desired, they could have changed the rules for their National Convention so that the people's choice wouldn't stand a chance. And just think; it used to be a lot worse. Did the third parties even hold primaries? Shame on me for not knowing right off the bat, but shame on the media for not covering it.

And now Trump is claiming that there will be large-scale voter fraud amongst Democrats with dead people and non-citizens casting votes and some people going from precinct to precinct, voting many times. This notion has been bandied about quite a bit over the last decade by Republican officials. As it turns out, anyone who has looked into these claims has found no large-scale voter fraud. Whatsoever. Unfortunately, these claims have been used as the pretext for large-scale partisan voter disenfranchisement programs.

Trailer for Greg Palast movie
About a month ago, I went to see Greg Palast's film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. I was in for a shocker. Although Florida had earned my scorn with its sketchy voter disenfranchisement activities, disenfranchisement may have gone multi-state-viral and it's even sketchier. The program Palast uncovered is called Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. If you are one of 7.2 million voters on the Crosscheck list, you have been accused of voting twice. These voters hail from 29 states, but thankfully for my own voter registration prospects, not from Florida. The names on the list have been matched for first and last names only, but not middle name, not date of birth, and not social security number. So, basically Crosscheck is a list of common first and last names.  And it's a mess, since most of the alleged double voters have middle names that don't match. More importantly, since minorities are overrepresented in 85 of 100 of the most common last names, the result is that there are many more minorities on the Crosscheck list than are found in the general population. Beware if your name is Jose Garcia. I'm not sure we know which states are using the Crosscheck list to purge their voter rolls. But, if you are one of the unfortunates on this list, that means you might be legally denied a ballot even if you are properly registered!

I am no longer willing to cede authority to election experts. Even though we have a lot of history to draw from, there is still so much that goes wrong. Having observed many elections over the years, I have noticed the tendency for some of our election officials and legislators to concoct rules that help a particular party keep power. Historical expertise hasn't really helped us too much. A plurality voting system such as ours always leads to a two party system with all the power plays elaborated above - and then some (see previous article). No wonder so many are ready to give up on the whole enterprise. Elections seem simple. People go to the polls. They make choices about issues and candidates. The votes are counted. But so much can go wrong. George Washington nailed it. That leaves it to an informed citizenry to watch over our democracy. Given the current climate, that's a mighty tall order.

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. 

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.

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,

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.