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.

October 8, 2012

My Ballot: Rename Florida State Amendments

So what makes my November ballot the longest in history? It's not the presidential race, even with twelve candidates in the running. It's those proposed Florida Constitutional amendments, which are quite wordy and, many times, deceptive. Many of the amendment titles are full of compassion, but are nonetheless misleading. Not one of these amendments was proposed by a citizen or a group advocating on behalf of citizens. They are all coming out of the Florida legislature. The advice coming from many thoughtful corners, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, is to VOTE NO on all of them.

In an effort to make these amendments more accessible to the average voter, I have re-titled them to reflect their actual content. My son added a few creative flourishes. He's probably responsible for the ones you like the most.

#1 Sore Losers Amendment. The legislature's attempt to thumb their nose at the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Additionally, if the Affordable Care Act were repealed, this amendment would limit potential health insurance reform options at the state level.

#3 Formulaic State Spending Limits (That Might Lead to a Fiscal Crisis) Amendment. This amendment would set a revenue spending cap each year based on population growth and inflation, rather than personal income. Colorado implemented a cap back in 1992 and it went awry. The state was hamstrung in its ability to provide basic services, when the economy faltered.

#5 Power Grab Amendment. The legislature wants to have more control over the judiciary. Are they still mad that the Florida Supreme Court ruled in support of a recount in the 2000 presidential election? This amendment would require Senate confirmation of Florida Supreme Court justices and make it easier for lawmakers to change the process rules in the court system.

#6 Increase Government Regulation of Women's Bodies Amendment. Currently, there is no public funding of abortion, but most of this amendment is dedicated to putting an exclamation on that point. The real meat of this amendment is in the change to privacy law. This amendment would provide an opening to outlaw all abortions in Florida, if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.

#8 Taxpayers Fund Religion Amendment. This amendment deceptively appears to be about religious freedom. It is, in fact, the polar opposite. As it stands now, the state funds many religious programs so long as they do not promote their religion. This amendment would open the door to funding religious activity. Rather than freeing taxpayers with regard to religion, it would force them to pay for religion.

#12 Placate FSU Amendment. The Florida Board of Governors (BOG) oversees the state's public universities. Did you know that students have a representative on the BOG? The chair of the Florida Student Association (FSA), which is comprised of university student body presidents, has a seat at the table. But one University, Florida State University (FSU), chooses not to pay for membership in the FSA. This amendment creates another student bureaucracy so that FSU would not have to participate in the FSA, according to a Miami Herald editorial. I couldn't find any analysis that claimed the current system has a problem. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" would seem to apply here.

Emotional Appeal to Increase Property Tax Loopholes, Amendments #2, #4, #9, #10, and #11. The problem with adding lots of exemptions to property taxes is that for every tax break one person gets, other taxpayers shoulder a heavier burden. These taxes pay for local government services such as police, schools, libraries, and parks. A reduction in these taxes would make it harder for local governments to provide these basic services. Dressing them up so that they help veterans and low-income seniors evokes a sympathetic, emotional response rather than solid analysis. I admit that I am attracted to some of these amendments, but I won't muddy the waters in this short overview.

For those that have waded through the deceptive wording, many have concluded that most of these amendments go against the public interest. For example, if you know someone who has had an insurance claim inappropriately denied, been denied health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, or had their premiums go through the roof, you know that health insurance needs regulation. Most folks want to make decisions about having children and not have it forced upon them through regulation. I think most U.S. citizens heartily support religious pluralism and would like to make sure that our government does not favor one religion over another. And yet our elected representatives in Tallahassee put forth ballot amendments that would do the opposite. So, if our representatives are not representing us, who are they representing? The beauty of ballot amendments is that voters can go to the voting booth and represent themselves.

October 10 Update: Progress Florida put together a chart of the ballot amendments showing how various groups recommend you vote. You can read a more detailed analysis of the ballot amendments from the Collins Center.

October 6, 2012

Occupy Sarasota, First Anniversary

Occupy Sarasota Targets Bank of America for "White Collar Crime" to Celebrate 1st Anniversary

October 4, 2012

My Ballot Has 12 Candidates For President

In honor of last night's presidential debate, I decided to have a look at the ballot on which I will cast my vote. I downloaded a shockingly long ballot. And the presidential race unmistakably contributes to its length. There are twelve parties contending! I had expected maybe five or six.

My eye immediately went to the PFP (Peace And Freedom) Party slate of Roseanne Barr and running mate, Cindy Sheehan. Roseanne Barr has a long list of accomplishments as an actress, comedian, TV producer, and more. And she is not afraid to speak her mind. The United States has a long history of electing former actors to high office, such as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more. So perhaps this is a good fit. Cindy Sheehan showed the perseverance of a bulldog in 2005, when she Occupied a piece of land outside then-President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. She garnered significant media attention protesting the continued U.S. war in Iraq. Based on her tireless activism for peace, Sheehan is a woman motivated by her strong principles.

The Barr/Sheehan ticket is a rich combination of personalities. Where do they stand on the issues? From the website, legalize marijuana; get Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other; forgive student loan debt; reign in the bankers; end the wars; fight for equal rights for all; preserve natural water sources; grow natural, organic food. I noticed that legalizing marijuana was at the top of the list. Medical marijuana laws have not yet reached Florida, so I am probably out of touch, but this seemed like a flakey #1 priority. So, while a good chunk of the electorate watched the end of the Obama and Romney debate on TV, I did some googling. Barr recently spoke at a town hall meeting at Oaksterdam University last week. Oaksterdam is our country's first cannabis college. It is dawning on me that I am more out of touch than I realized. Yes, we do have a trade school with classes in growing marijuana, running a dispensary, business practices, and the like. According to Barr, marijuana is a billion dollar industry in California, and legalization brings a tax windfall. So, when she talks about making marijuana legal and war illegal, she is also advancing economic responsibility and deficit reduction. She is advancing a reduction in regulation on small business. And an increase in personal freedom. Sounds almost mainstream.

But can the People and Freedom Party win? Or, could they influence the final outcome of the 2012 election? No and maybe. As far as I can tell, they are only on the ballot in Colorado, Florida, and California, so they can't win. But, Florida and Colorado are two of the largest swing states this year. So, any third-party candidate in those two states might affect the outcome. Last night's debate only included the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, unless you watched the Democracy Now! version. Amy Goodman expanded the debate to include Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Hats off to Amy Goodman for attempting to get us out of the self-perpetuating cycle of a paucity of candidates and limited debate options.

Since there are ten third-party presidential candidates on my Floridian ballot, I do have quite a choice. Florida's laws promote a strong and diverse ballot. Evidently this came about through a constitutional ballot initiative in 1998, which barred the State from passing any rule against a third-party candidate that didn’t also apply to the two major party candidates. As a voter, I find this invigorating. I don't have to choose between the lesser of two evils. There is a higher likelihood of finding a candidate on the ballot with whom I agree. This is only one step in relieving the two party stranglehold on our electoral system. C.G.P. Grey provides a brilliant explanation of first-past-the-post-voting and some of the other problems inherent in our current system. Although I see my state's laws as providing strong ballot access, my legislators deemed them weak and passed more stringent laws. Let's recap. The people of Florida voted for better ballot access and the Florida legislature passed new rules to thwart their wishes. Representative democracy is brought to its knees. These new rules would have gone into effect this year, but they were blocked until 2016. Until then, I revel in my ballot's horn of plenty.

My research into the Barr/Sheehan ticket brought to light a couple of choice items. First, concerning her decision to get into the race, Barr explains that it was much the same thing that motivated her to produce a sitcom. She was sitting around watching TV and thought, "Hell, I could do better than that!" Second, Sheehan has suspended campaigning due to irreconcilable political differences and health issues. @TheRealRoseanne tweeted, "I'm asking the american ppl to step in for Cindy Sheehan, who's on the ballot, but withdrawn. I'm authorizing all roseannearchists 2bVP." Can you translate that?

Going Forward: Four Candidates Confirmed For The 2012 Presidential Debate Hosted by Free And Equal on October 23.