Monday, February 27, 2012

Who Gets On The Ballot Decides Who Wins The Election

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

Monday, February 20, 2012


When I was a youngster we celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and George Washington’s on February 22nd.  The schools, the newspapers and the TV used these holidays as occasions to remind and educate Americans about how George Washington led the Continental soldiers in the American Revolution and went on to become not King but our first President and established the federal government.  And similarly, Abraham Lincoln was rightly praised as the man who saved the union and abolished slavery.

Then the interests of the economy, and the desire to have three day weekends, ran into the inconvenience of two major holidays in the same month.  You see neither Washington’s nor Lincoln’s parent had the foresight to consider national holidays when they conceived and gave birth to these great men.  So the political and business and labor leaders of the post WWII era decided in their wisdom that we should celebrate these holidays not on the 12th nor the 22nd but on a Monday in February (certainly not two Mondays in February).  Now it could have been called Washington-Lincoln day but no that was too simple.  The advocates of honoring other Presidents such as Jefferson and the two Roosevelt’s entered into the national discussion and the resultant idea was President’s Day -- one Monday in February. So folks would have a three day weekend between New Year’s and Easter, and people could honor and celebrate all the Presidents or at least those that regions and population groups and ideological organizations wanted to memorialize.

Initially there was some effort to expand the base of honorees.  Jefferson was lauded for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence (some quarter century before he was President) and his Louisiana Purchase.   Teddy Roosevelt was celebrated for his Rough Rider charge up San Juan Hill (a few years before he became President).  Wilson was remembered for trying to prevent another World War (he failed) and of course in the post WWII era Franklin Delano Roosevelt was memorialized for leading our nation through the Great Depression and the Crusade to defeat fascism and Nazism.

But celebrating a number of Presidents one, two or three dozen never caught on.  Just as the American people seem uncomfortable considering more than two candidates for the office of President they seem incapable of honoring a multiplicity of holders of the office.  By the time right wingers had a hero to celebrate in Ronald Reagan, their  victor of the war against communism, President’s Day had already become just another excuse for retail sales (using images of Washington and Lincoln) or bargaining chips with unions over which holidays would be paid.

No one every seemed to push the idea of honoring the office of President.  Just as Arbor Day and even now Earth Day have lessened in the public consciousness, Holidays seem to need a people connection or a tie-in to a major event.  Independence Day presumably will not disappear from the popular mind as Armistice Day has - although there is a real effort to make it Veteran’s Day a remembrance of those who fought for our country but it has to compete with another Holiday - Memorial Day.   The latter was first recognized after the Civil War and the Nov 11th holiday came after World War I.

And so now we have a day in February when we no longer focus on Abraham Lincoln or George Washington.   And, we don’t honor others, e.g. FDR and Reagan.  In the two hundred and twenty-three years that the United States of America has existed we have had some 43 men serve as President -- some great, some good, some mediocre and some downright incompetent.  But a nation that has been populated by hundreds of millions of people, and that prides itself on such a longevity of constitutional succession in its highest national office, surely could have found a way to honor those chief executives.

Winston Churchill said of America that we always do the right thing after we try everything else. Maybe it’s time to try a new approach to honoring our Presidents’ with a Holiday.  Maybe Washington/Lincoln day in Feb and Roosevelt/Reagan day in a month that has some meaning to both of them and needs a holiday.  If we continue this mythical Presidents’ Day to honor all  the Presidents we will continue to have what we have now -- a Holiday that honors no one.

20 February, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Joseph Stalin, the 20th century Russian dictator, is reported to have said that it didn’t matter who controlled the voters what mattered was who controlled the vote counters.  In this year’s Republican presidential primaries and caucuses that certainly is becoming the case.  The first caucuses in Iowa were won by Romney - Oops not exactly.  He won on caucus night according to the state Republican headquarters but when all the paper ballots were eventually rechecked it turned out that Rick Santorum had won.  This announced some week after Romney got the full media benefits off being proclaimed the first winner.

Now we have the results of the Maine caucuses.  The precincts in Maine are allowed to set their caucus dates and at least one county delayed to Feb. 18th when it was hit by a sever snowstorm this past Saturday.  The Republican state party has declared Romney the winner of the caucuses by 194 votes based on 84% of the caucuses.  The party leadership holds that if you didn’t get the results of the straw poll into them by Sat at 6pm the results don’t count.  As for the snowstorm county too bad you don’t count either.  Sure helps to control the vote counters.

Money today owns our politics and our politicians.  We always saw millions buying ads and paying for campaign expenses as a way to dominate the process.  Now large scale multiyear contributions to those who control the counting can also have its benefits.  Of course these caucuses use paper ballots and the aficionados of paper, the Luddites who fear machines, say that paper guarantees an honest count.  I beg to differ.  Paper ballots are more prone to chicanery - to loosing the paper, to smudging the ballot and now we just delay reporting returns.  It’s not easy to lose a machine or erase an electronic cartridge secretly.  I would rather trust the firmware inside the direct recording electronic voting machines used in my county of Delaware (Pennsylvania) than the paper coming out of a box being counted with some sheet of results being phoned into a state headquarters.

Is this any way to choose the President of the United States - the leader of the free world?  No
We need a national direct election with nominees being chosen in national (or five regional) primaries with standardized rules as to a ballot access and with minimum percentages need (40%) to win or we hold a run-off.  What would be so bad about a possible four votes: Primary, Run-off Primary, General Election and run-off election?  The likelihood of those four occurring in one year not strong but if so why is so bad for the American people to focus on who should be their President four times and focus as a nation voting for the one elected official who represents the entire nation.  Instead we use primaries that are based on states, counties and congressional districts to allocate delegates to conventions that haven’t really picked the candidates in sixty years.

Patrick Henry said back at the time of the Revolution - We are not Virginians, or New Yorkers nor Massachusetts men we are all now Americans.  He was right and we should vote like Americans in a national election to choose our leader.  And while we’re at it let’s change the term of office to six years with a single term limit so that the Congress (which should also be term limited) has no incentive to emasculate the President.

12 February 2012