I believe in democracy - that is a government which exists by the consent of the governed and whose decisions are made by officials elected by the people. It may be messy and sometimes slow to progress and often reactionary but in the long run it is the system that best enables people to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - with equality and solidarity thrown in.
Democracy requires free and unfettered elections. That means a universal electorate of all citizens over a societal determined age - which in the western world has settled around eighteen. It also means honest voting systems and honest counting; and, most importantly the belief in the minds of the electorate that the count is honest.
It also requires a societal philosophy of majority rule with respect for the inalienable rights of the minority. When someone is on the losing side of an election or legislative battle they have to believe that it is their obligation to accept the will of the majority until they are able to join with others in changing it -- or that on some other issue and in some other election their side will prevail and today’s majority become a minority.
When societies are divided not by ideology but by race and/or religion we often find conflict that democracy is hard pressed to resolve. In those cases the majority religion or race does not see itself as likely to become the minority So, the success of democracy is dependent upon the majority respecting the rights of the minority.
There is, in addition to the facility with which we enable people to exercise their franchise and the accuracy with which we compile their votes, the complementary issue of how people are allowed to run for office -- ballot access. In the US the history of democracy has been the enlargement of the electorate and the expansion of the franchise-- allowing absentee ballots and military and overseas ballots. As a body politic we now proclaim support for the concept of “universal adult suffrage”.
But, what about Universal Ballot Access - that term is not even used in our political lexicon. Our nation has over fifty sets of laws regulating how someone, otherwise eligible for an office, may present their candidacy and get on the primary or the general election ballot. Some require filing fees, which in some states are frankly onerous and limit the ability of poor or middle class citizens to get on the ballot.
In other states petitions are used as a method of access to ballot position. The required number of signatures is often quite large - independent candidates are usually required to get many more signatures than a party primary candidate - and the technical details of when, how and who can sign and enter data on the petition are legendary in complexity. Candidates in petition access states will often find themselves in expensive and time consuming law suits to defend their right to be on the ballot -- legal expenses that far exceed filing fees.
Of course in Pennsylvania you have both filing fees (moderate in amount which do not cover the cost of operating the petition filing system) and petitions (relatively low in the number of signatures required). And, of course law suits (second only to New York where election litigation is a thriving specialty) that often keep the voters guessing as to who is on their ballot until just before the primary or election. Independents in Pennsylvania, like other states, are required to file many multiples of the party candidate required signatures and then face the same legal challenges because of even greater restrictions as to who can sign the independent petitions.
It was said by at least one controversial Democrat, Al Smith, that the only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. There is no question in my mind that we stand to lose our democracy to the 1% oligarchs who will rule America unless we overturn the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court, and control the use of non-reportable money in our elections. An equal playing field will never come about until we adopt public financing of elections (in practice today we have taxpayer financing of incumbents through their salaries, earmarks, and their staff and office assistance.)
Getting a handle on the money is not enough to restore true democracy in our country. We need to complement universal adult suffrage (with simplified same day voter registration) with universal ballot access so all can seek office as well as vote. The nay-sayers will argue that letting everyone on the ballot will produce “frivolous candidacies”. Well, if they are frivolous they’ll lose. And, if a frivolous candidate wins then as Harry Truman said - the people will get the government they deserve.
27 February 2012