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opednews.com Headlined to H2 11/3/08

In the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland's delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he recorded that a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, as he left Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention: "What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?"  Benjamin Franklin is reported to have replied: "A republic, if you can keep it."  Although our Constitution was written with many flaws, it was written so that it could be understood by the common people, and it provided a mechanism for correcting any errors of omission and commission.  But our Constitution is not just a blueprint for a system of government, our Constitution is also a continuing challenge to those who wish to maintain the more progressive ideals upon which it was founded.  It seems to me that the events of the past eight years have cast doubt on both the willingness and the ability of the public to accept that challenge.

For most of my adult life, my idealism has been tempered by the realization that most people do not agree with my political beliefs, and I usually resign myself to disappointment toward election results and toward the politicians who theoretically are elected to represent the voters.  Yet, in my weaker moments, I still cling to some hope that most people support public policies that are more progressive than those which currently govern our collective lives, and my hopes are occasionally buoyed by poll results concerning issues such as progressive taxation and unprovoked military adventures.

Frequent OpEdNews contributor Mark Harris has summarized many of the reasons why our current system of elections is anti-democratic, and he has advocated that people should refrain from voting because voting legitimizes our corrupt political system.  I do not quarrel with many of the opinions that Mark Harris has articulated about the deficiencies in our system of elections, and there is little to defend about the ways in which our political system is manipulated by politicians and by other powerful people who pull their strings.  Although I share the sense of frustration that is a part of exercising the the right to vote, it is my opinion that most politicians take voter apathy to the bank, and far too many politicians would be quite content if legions of potential voters did not participate in elections, irrespective of the fact that many of these inactive voters might express a noble purpose for withholding their vote.  The Republican Party has devised many methods of suppressing the vote, and many Democratic politicians would engage in the same behavior if it served their prospects for election success.

OpEdNews member Richard Backus recommends that people should vote against all incumbents in the upcoming elections as a method of making the members of Congress more subservient to their constituents.  Although this prescription has a certain populist appeal, a "successful" effort would result in control of Congress by the Republican Party, and I am sure that the Republicans would interpret this as a validation of their failed policies, regardless of the motivations of the voters.  We may want to throw the bums out, but we would also be throwing other bums into a position to eliminate any hopes for a Congress that is more receptive to progressive legislation.  The strategy advocated by Richard Backus might be more appropriate if it had been applied systematically to primary elections prior to initiating such a strategy in the upcoming elections.     

Many progressives have advocated the creation of (or the adoption of) another political party as the vehicle for progressive public policy amid the detritus of the Democrats and the Republicans, but the political landscape is littered with the impotent voices of alternative political parties that exist on the fringe of political debate.  The last example of a new political party that was able to establish itself with lasting national significance was the emergence of the Republican Party in the period just before and during the Civil War.  As the Republicans have demonstrated more recently, it is much easier to take control of an existing political party than to build a successful new political party.

There is significant disagreement among self-identified progressives about many political issues, and if these disagreements may prove to be too divisive, progressives will continue to be an ineffective voice for change.  I never hold my nose when I vote because I would never vote wittingly for anyone who is that objectionable to me, but I  often am willing to compromise my support for certain policies if, in my opinion, the net result will be more positive than the status quo.  I do not claim to speak for progressives generally, and I am sure that my thoughts are not original, but it is my opinion that the Democratic Party should be targeted as the imperfect vehicle that offers the best opportunity to advance a more progressive political agenda, and maybe progressives can make a more unified effort to influence the selection and election of Democratic Party candidates for Congress.  Although many of the incumbent Democrats in Congress do not deserve to be re-elected, it is indeed a rare Republican incumbent  who deserves to be re-elected to Congress (as is evident from the manner in which the Republicans have normally voted in lockstep with the Bush Administration).

If (as is expected) the Democrats should achieve a more solid majority in Congress in the upcoming election, they will have no more convenient excuses for their failure to implement taxation and spending policies which do not favor the most affluent ten percent of our country, they will have no more convenient excuses for their failure to implement a more rational foreign policy, they will have no more false excuses for their failure to make the executive branch accountable for various abuses of our Constitution, and they will have no more false excuses for their shameful failure to protect the integrity of our election system.  Because a more solid Democratic majority in Congress will not translate automatically into a more enlightened political agenda in Congress, progressives should actively campaign during the next two years against any incumbents in Congress who voted for the October 2008 economic bailout/sellout legislation.  The purpose of this strategy would be to pressure members of Congress to change our national priorities, and this strategy will also make it easier to defeat those incumbents who continue to support the existing political system of legalized bribery.  

As I noted previously, progressives disagree about many political issues, and my political opinions are often at odds with the majority of my fellow citizens, but the one issue that should transcend all other issues is the integrity of our system of elections.  No political issues can be resolved adequately if large numbers of eligible voters think that the elections are rigged or may be rigged, and no political issues can be resolved adequately if the current campaign-finance system continues.  My plan to remedy this situation incorporates a previous proposal that I have offered on campaign-finance reform with some other suggestions I am promoting to ensure that all eligible voters are encouraged to vote under conditions in which they can have confidence that their votes are counted accurately.

Many Democrats are in awe of Barack Obama's ability to raise obscene amounts of money for his campaign to become our President, and this has weakened support among Democrats for campaign-finance reform, but Congress is held in very low esteem by most people because Congress does not address the real needs of most people, and Congress does not address the real needs of most people because the current method of campaign fund-raising creates a system of legalized bribery that stifles any meaningful reform.  When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about the conflict of interest inherent among members of Congress and lobbyists, he answered: "When life hands you a ginormous campaign contribution, put your right hand over your eyes, put your right shoulder over your right ear, put your left hand over your left ear, take off your shoes and ask the lobbyist to put the money between the piggy who went to market and the piggy who went home, and then find yourself an offshore account in the Cayman Islands."  Okay, I made up that quote, but it accurately portrays the mindset of many members of Congress regarding the campaign-finance issue.  

It is discouraging that so many politicians are engaged in perpetual fund-raising that seems to eclipse their official duties, but campaign-finance laws which attempt to impose limits on campaign donations and/or attempt to impose limits on campaign spending have significant limitations with respect to the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court decision in June 2007 which eviscerated restrictions on issue-oriented political advertisements is a good example of the difficulty in establishing spending limits that are both effective and not contrary to the Constitution.  

We may disagree with Supreme Court decisions relative to this issue, but we must abide by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution.  Campaign-finance reform has foundered for many years because politicians have not been able to craft effective legislation which comports with the U.S. Constitution, and legislators needlessly protract this problem by offering diluted versions of the same type of failed legislation, such as the 1997 Vermont campaign-finance law that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2006 (which then led the Democratic-controlled Vermont legislature to pass weaker and weaker versions of campaign-finance reform in each of the past two legislative sessions, followed by vetoes from the Republican Governor).  Campaign-finance schemes (such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold Act) that attempt to conform with Supreme Court decisions do not provide effective reform.

Members and former members of Congress (such as Tom Delay) legally can and do use political donations to pay legal fees associated with their professional misconduct.  Various proposals for public financing of political campaigns have the serious problem that many people (myself included) are disgusted by the thought of tax dollars being used for political campaigns (especially in the current corrupt political environment), and public financing of political campaigns would require significant public spending to provide any significant curb on the undue influence of wealthy donors.  Therefore, my plan for substantial public financing of election campaigns provides a source of revenue that should neutralize the public's revulsion at the thought of tax dollars being spent for election campaigns.

First, the gross amount of all donations (regardless of the source of such donations) to any political candidate or potential candidate for any office, and the gross amount of all donations to any person or organization (including political parties) supporting any political candidate or any political issue, should be treated as taxable income to the RECIPIENT of such political donations.  Donations received by religious organizations that engage in political activity should also be subject to taxation, with the exception that any funds strictly segregated for religious expenses (I am biting my tongue as I type this) or charitable expenses would be exempt from taxation.  Campaign-finance legislation should also stipulate that any loan received by a person or organization advocating any political issue would be treated as taxable income until actual repayment of such loan.  The income from all political donations should be subject to a Federal income tax of 50 percent of the GROSS amount of the donations received.  However, this Federal tax rate should be reduced by the amount of any income tax paid to any State which passes legislation to tax the receipt of political donations.

Campaign-finance reform legislation also should include the following specifications:
(1) All of money collected from taxes under this proposal should be held in a public campaign fund, and none of the tax money distributed from the public campaign fund created by this proposal would be subject to the tax on political donations;
(2) All of the tax money collected from political donations for State offices (or offices of a political subdivision of a State) should be distributed to any States which pass legislation to use such distributions to create public campaign funds which must be designated specifically to sponsor televised debates and/or televised public meetings for campaigns for all qualified candidates for congressional Districts and Statewide offices;
(3) All of the remaining tax money collected under this proposal should be available for distribution by the Federal Election Commission to any qualified organization (such as the League of Women Voters} to sponsor televised public debates and/or televised public meetings for all qualified candidates for Federal offices;
(4) A qualified organization would be any organization that adheres to the guidelines of this proposal, and a  qualified candidate would be any candidate who qualifies to be listed on the ballot for the primary or general election;
(5) Any person or organization, receiving money from these Federal and State public campaign funds and sponsoring a televised political debate or televised public meeting for any elected office, should be required to include all qualified candidates for that elected office, and should be required to provide equal time for all qualified candidates during these public forums, and only actual expenses of a such sponsors should be reimbursed.  A State could discourage frivolous candidates by a legislative examinination of the requirements which must be met by candidates to be listed on the ballot for primary and general elections;  and
(6) Any national television network (including PBS) could be used as the medium for televised debates and/or televised public meetings for candidates for President in the general election, and any television station(s) accessible by more than half of the potentially-eligible voters for the contested office (or Statewide Presidential Primary election) could be used for any other televised debates and/or televised public meetings.

Any campaign-finance reform legislation should retain record-keeping and reporting requirements contained in current Federal law (primarily due to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002), and this information, which can be accessed through the Federal Election Commission, should remain readily available as a topic for debate in the forums I have proposed for public financing of political campaigns.  Ideally, there should be a cap on the amount a candidate and/or his supporters could spend on any campaign for any elected office.  However, devising such a cap involves establishing artificial limits, which would be ineffective if the caps are set too high, and which would be considered unconstitutional if the caps are set too low.  My suggestion for campaign-finance reform is far from perfect, but reform of our corrupt campaign-finance system is necessary.  Implementation of my plan for campaign-finance reform would create a system which would limit campaign spending to reasonable levels naturally (this would avoid any need to establish arbitrary and potentially unconstitutional caps on campaign spending), would result in fewer candidates who are under obligation to narrow-interest groups, and also should increase voter participation by a more-informed electorate.

Maintaining the integrity of vote-counting is even more important than campaign-finance reform, and the failure of Congress to address this issue is the most prominent indicator that the culture of corruption permeates both parties in Congress.  The HELP AMERICA VOTE ACT of 2002 should have been called the HELP IMPLEMENT DESTRUCTION of ELECTIONS OCCURRING in the UNITED STATES (HIDEOUS) Act.  Legislation that has been submitted to help prevent questionable election results (such as H.R. 811 submitted by Rep. Rush Holt on February 5, 2007) has been hijacked and grotesquely modified by other members of Congress (Democrats and Republicans) to protect the commercial interests of the manufacturers of electronic-voting technology at the expense of the voting public.  In a country where large numbers of the eligible voters are too lazy or too ignorant to vote, the Republicans have actively pursued a strategy that disenfranchises large numbers of unsophisticated voters via an aggressive campaign to remove voters from registration lists.  Republicans have also encouraged practices to intimidate voters (including using direct challenges of voters at election sites) and to confuse voters (using telephone calls and flyers to state that the date and/or site of the election has been moved) in an effort to prevent large numbers of eligible voters from participating in elections.

Although apathy is a definite problem, many people are discouraged from voting because of disgust with the corruption caused by the undue influence of wealthy contributors in financing political campaigns, and many people are discouraged from voting due to their suspicions about whether their votes will be counted accurately, but many people also are discouraged from voting by unnecessary barriers.   Public officials in several States have purged voter registration lists aggressively and erroneously under circumstances which have resulted in suppression of the vote.  Some States have adopted excessively stringent voter identification standards which have resulted in suppression of the vote, and public officials in many States have failed to provide equal access to voting facilities to a large percentage of voters.  Under the guise of protecting against fraudulent voters, States are discouraging large numbers of people from voting.

The percentage of eligible voters who actually vote is appalling, and tough Federal legislation is needed to reverse this trend.  State laws usualy control elections, but Section 4 of Article I of the Constitution states: "The times, places and manner of holding elections, for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; But the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing senators."  (The last clause in this quote from Section 4 of Article I was a reference to the election of Senators by the State legislatures, which was the procedure that existed prior to ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution.)  Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution states: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law."  Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment states: "The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."  To increase voter participation, and to ensure that all eligible voters are guaranteed equal access to vote, Congress should enact legislation which would establish more uniform Federal standards for elections.  These uniform Federal standards should:

(1) Forbid any State or political subdivision from purging names from voter registration records unless such jurisdiction has established effective procedures for notification of affected voters, and such notification procedures must allow at least 90 days, before the date of any pending election. for a response; also, any procedures for purging names from voter registration records must include a system of record-keeping which is open to public inspection;

(2) Forbid any State or political subdivision from implementing any system of uniform mandatory voter identification if the implementation of such system of voter identification does not include a fully-funded effort to reach all registered voters to enable all registered voters to comply with the implementation, at no cost to individual voters, prior to the implementation of such system of voter identification;

(3) Make Veterans Day the official election day for national elections, and require all employers (regardless of the number of employees) to inform all employees that they are entitled to two hours of leave from work (with pay) to vote; the official slogan for Veterans Day could be: "HONOR THE VETERANS WHO FOUGHT AND DIED FOR YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE";

(4) Require an automatic new election within any State (in a State-wide election) or Congressional District in which the election officials do not provide equal accommodations for voters with reference to the number of ballots available and/or the number of functioning voting machines available and with reference to the number of election workers available.  This would provide a powerful incentive for States to furnish equal accommodations for voters in all jurisdictions;

(5)  Provide for significant penalties for any any person or organization challenging voters (a tactic which Republicans have often used to limit voter participation in elections by intimidating voters) without specific evidence to support such challenge;

(6) Forbid any State or political subdivision from banning passive obervers from polling places;

(7) Require that, in any situation in which a voter otherwise would be denied the right to vote, the voter will be informed that he/she should submit a provisional ballot, and require that NO election result can be considered official until official public determinations are made with respect to the legitimacy of all provisional ballots, and require that NO election result can be considered official until such result includes all provisional ballots which are determined to be legitimate.  This would provide a strong incentive for States to establish procedures to ensure equal access for voters in all jurisdictions, and it would also help reduce frivolous challenges to voters.

(8) Mandate that, in any jurisdiction using any form of electronic voting machine, the electronic voting machine must generate a paper record that can be viewed by the voter, and this paper record would be retained at the polling place for the purpose of auditing the accuracy of the electronic count and for the purpose of any necessary recounts.  All electronic voting systems must include a thorough public audit of any such system.  Additionally, for any voting machines for which the tabulations have not been verified by an independent audit, no employee of the manufacturer of the voting machine should be allowed access to the voting machine unless such employee is observed by an independent computer technician and by representatives of any candidate involved in the election.

There is little that is more subversive to democracy than electronic voting machines which do not count large numbers of votes or incorrectly count large nmbers of votes, and this has occurred already in several jurisdictions during the past few years.  The last  election for U.S. Congress in Sarasota County, Florida is a good example of the absurd situation where the only recount available was an electronic recreation of a computer program that appeared to have generated an erroneous result due either to improper manipulation of electronic technology or a malfunction.  If an electronic tabulation which is erroneous is replicated,  repeating the error does not correct that error.  Even if a particular electronic voting system might be reliable otherwise, the significant flaws in computer technology  and the documented incidents of errors in actual elections are such that the public will NEVER have confidence an any electronic voting method that does not include a reliable and transparent method of verifying the result.

I again emphasize that the paramount issue for progressives during the next two years should be to secure legislation to restore the integrity to our system of elections, and implementation of my proposed legislation would produce a system of elections that should considerably increase the quality of our elected representatives.  When House Minority Leader John Boehner was queried about the direct link between the lack of regulation and the current financial mess, he took a long swig from a bottle of whiskey and then he broke into tears as he praised the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces.  Yes, I made that up, but I was not far from the truth, and I expect that people such as John Boehner would find it much more difficult to survive in the proposed political environment which I have outlined.

I am sure that I have overlooked some issues, and other people may think of ways to improve my suggested reforms, but I think my plan would create a more positive environment for eligible voters to participate in elections.  At the very least, transforming my proposals into legislation would restore public confidence in election results, and that alone would be a goal worth achieving.



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I am retired after working 33 years as a Claims Representative for the Social Security Administration, and I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

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