YEAR 2000 and the AGENDA for REFORM

by Peter Bearse DSC2000@aol.com

 

 

 

Ø                  The 2000 Primary Season & Reform

Ø                  Presidential campaigns

Ø                  Campaign Finance Reform: Debates

Ø                  Campaign Finance Reform: Legislation

 

§         Other Reform Initiatives Stemming from Y2K

 

Ø      Florida, the Count and Election Reform

Ø      Other Propositions for Election Reforms

 

§         Goodbye to Bill Clinton

§         Prognosis, Postlude, New Beginnings and Reform Redux

 

Foreword

 

Several months ago, Ben Price and I had discussed the possibility of doing this article together but we had several disagreements over what to write on certain issues like the Supreme Court’s “election” of George Bush, and Ben accepted the challenge of running for Congress as the Green Party nominee. Hat’s off to Ben for a fine campaign to become a citizen legislator. This article is dedicated to him. It has benefited from our interactions, as has the book from which the article is drawn. Hopefully, this will generate some controversy among other readers, too, so that our shared purpose of generating a debate on political reform will be served.

 

Executive Summary

 

From the standpoint of real political reform – that which would help to bring people back into the picture -- election year  2000 (Y2K) started with a bang and ended with a whimper. Ironically, campaign finance reform (CFR), though supposed to reduce the role of money in politics, focused only on money. No value was assigned to the people’s time as political volunteers. Both CFR and election reform initiatives took steps to federalize campaign finance and elections that bordered on being unconstitutional. Bill Clinton’s exit served to remind us how he depreciated the coin of political life even while focusing attention on an imperial Presidency and national politics. Both our attention and the reform agenda need to be refocused on state and local initiatives and political parties if we want to take back our politics from the political class that has taken it over.

 

 

Introduction:

2000: What a Year! Threshold of Change? Reform as a Subtext of the Year 2000 (and 2004?) Presidential Campaigns

 

The first draft of this article was being written during one of the most remarkable political years in our country’s history. The Presidential campaign playbook came to a final episode far more remarkable than the political game preceding. As a result, all of a sudden, there was talk of “reform” once again at the end of a year that opened with talk of reform by challengers during the Presidential primary season.  The scope of the year-end talk, however, was limited largely to “electoral reform” – changes in voting arrangements to ensure that every vote would count. This was followed by another round of talk and, finally, of action on campaign finance reform that seemed like déjà vu, harkening back to the year’s beginning. Those who talked the talk, however, were not able to act in ways that would help the great American majority to walk the walk, politically. In other words, another great Presidential election year opportunity to grapple with the true challenge of political reform was lost. Perhaps the most hopeful sign was seen at the White House exit. The rhetorical entry of another occupant seemed sanguine as well as consanguine. We are still hanging on some nice-sounding words. Harbingers? Preludes? Real hope?

 

Who will turn out to be the “Reformer with Results” after all is said and done on the issue of reform? A common slice of political advice tendered to those running for office is that the candidate should always try to set the agenda so that the campaign debate is carried out on his terms, not those of the opponent. Bush’s political advertising slogan was a backhanded compliment to his opponent at the time, testimony to the fact that McCain had succeeded in setting the Presidential Campaign agenda for awhile, even taking it away from Bill Bradley so that reform became the subtext of the Y2K Presidential campaign. This is how things looked in naked (calculating, short-term) political terms during the Spring of the year 2000.

 

Given the passage of time since, we can now get a better, broader slant on the political workout on reform during the year and its immediate aftermath. Who actually set the agenda? How was the reform issue defined? What kind of “reform” did the issue definition represent? And what are actual or likely repercussions to deal with now and into the future?

 

Populism and Participation

in the Politics of a Presidential Election Year

 

The 2000 Primary Season & Reform

 

Hopes rise at the New Year and sap rises with the onset of Spring. So, too, with the

primary season of the Y2K Presidential race. For awhile, it seemed as if “reform” might be the prime driver of the year’s political season. Words resonant of the Progressive Era of 100 years ago brought out thousands of new, young and independent voters, putting new energy and life into a race in ways and to an extent that had not been seen during the previous Presidential election campaign of 1996. The challengers attracting media and primary voters’ attention, John McCain and Bill Bradley, were on message re: reform like Frik and Frak. Thus, primary questions at two levels came to the fore:

 

1.      Would a reform message move to the top of the public agenda, notwithstanding polls that repeatedly said “no;”

2.      Who would win out as the message bearer?   

 

Remember the joint press conference in New Hampshire at which Bill and John shook hands and pledged mutual devotion to a reform agenda? That reminded me of the handshake between another Bill and his buddy Newt that accompanied a similar declaration – like that emerging from a NATO meeting: No Action; Talk Only. Nothing happened as a result.[1] The encounter between “Dollar Bill” and “Straight Talk McCain,” however, was like a coin toss that Bill lost. Afterwards, it was downhill for the Bradley campaign. This Bill had some good things to say, but he never did overcome his (public) speech handicap and John had it all over him for charisma. It’s tough running against a real war hero who preempts your main message. We’ve already had our fling at that in the form of its legislative embodiment, McCain-Feingold (see the section to follow on campaign finance reform). Though Bill’s lackluster campaign may be blessedly forgotten, what should we recall from the reform part of his platform?

 

Looking back, who among the political pundits noticed a disconnect between early and late Y2K in terms other than number of months passed? The early Presidential primary season was marked by political participation in New Hampshire that could nearly darn well be called populist. People from all over and many walks of life converged on the Granite state to walk, talk, mail, call and otherwise work for various Presidential candidates, not only McCain but Bradley, Bauer, Forbes, Keyes and others. Old fashioned people politics seemed to be back with new faces and flavors. Now recall the late Y2K political channel. What did we see? – The people appeared to have left the scene. The reform issue was reduced to S.27, “McCain-Feingold,” a Senate Bill that mentioned only money. What happened to all the political volunteers that we saw in New Hampshire, those who thought the political process might still have some life left in it after all? Were some of them the same people we saw standing outside courthouses in Florida? Were they the ones attracted by Al Gore’s pretend populism? How many even bothered to vote once the McCain flame had died out? How many moved over to Nader or voted Green, Libertarian or other 3rd party?

 

Presidential campaigns

 

While he was running, President G.W. Bush never had a Republican reform proposition that had much more to offer than that of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the prime opponent of McCain-Feingold and other campaign finance reform (CFR) legislation. To his credit, however, Bush’s actions demonstrated the value of McConnell’s main proposition in ways that words could not. His campaign provided quick and “full disclosure” of

campaign contributions via the Internet. 

 

Meanwhile, his opponent was playing the populist card. Not only did Mr. Gore repeatedly say that he would “sign” McCain-Feingold once it reached his desk as President, he railed against “big money” and “special interests,” as if he were running his campaign according to a Progressive Era reformers’ playbook. Then, in its desperate last days, the Gore campaign appealed to "the will of the people" and "the voters' intent" to justify repeated efforts to find enough voters in Florida to validate Mr. Gore’s presumption of the Presidency based on a national popular majority, as if the U.S. was a foreign, unitary state with a different constitution. His appeals were those of a demagogue, not those of a man who would be President of an American federal republic.

 

For the tradition that Al upheld was otherwise. He was the latest in a long line of American demagogues -- pretend populists who play on people's passions without informing them as to what they can or should do other than vote for the “man of the people” if they really want to "count." The appeals of such pretenders also rest upon what they do not say. They rely too much on people's ignorance of what it takes to make a democratic system work. One was hard put to hear, even if one had a political hearing aid to turn up, how Mr. Gore’s election would bring people back into the political picture and enable a government of and by as well as for, the people. 

 

The Supreme Court properly focused on HOW votes need to be counted to ensure equal protection under the law. No totalitarian allusions to "will of the people" here. Voter is as voter does. Whether or not the vote can be counted is unambiguous according to a uniform standard, or the vote is rejected or not recounted. No impressionistic reliance upon various interpretations of “voter’s intent” here. We do not live in the Republic of Chad. Our ox was not Gored, Babe. 

 

Yet the Supreme Court was wrong to put itself in the position of effectively deciding the outcome of the Y2K presidential election. Yes, there was a Constitutional “equal protection” issue, so the Supremes were right to take the case on even though (or because?) it sang to the country with dissonant chords. There were also voting inequities, although reliable, convincing evidence of these did not arise until later. Yes, an election result needed to be certified within no more than a few weeks. The Court’s  decision would have been wiser, however, if it had enabled the federal nature of our election to work itself out, with clearer standards, to be sure, but at the state level first and foremost, then passing to the Congress as specified by our Constitution, if necessary. The process would have been a bit further prolonged and even more contentious, partisan and noisy. The outcome would have been no different but it would have been more satisfactorily consistent with the decentralized, federal nature of our Republic.

 

We can now look back at the 36-day episode as a much needed civics lesson on what we as citizens need to do if we really want to count in the future. We don't have to buy into continued, misleading, negative interpretations generated by the media "commentariat." The brunt of the lesson is positive, promising and constructive if the majority of the American people see that they need to be active participants in the political process if they want the political system to be authentically as well as legitimately theirs. The importance of voting is now obvious to all. But democratic political participation means more than just voting. People need to participate actively in the political process through which candidates are selected and elected. At the local level, this process includes ballot design, designation of poll workers, and selection of people to serve on election boards.

 

The example of Florida is hardly negative. We saw dozens of volunteers helping to count thousands of ballots over hundreds of hours. We observed the critical importance of many more people than the "usual suspects" -- the political "junkies," "hired guns" or "pro's" -- paying attention to basic features of how "our" political system works (or sometimes falls short) -- as in ballot design, voting machines and procedures, whether voters pay attention, protest demonstrations, influence of the media, poll closing times, and so on.

 

If these lessons are taken to heart and acted upon, then the experience we have been through as a nation will turn out to be a big plus. Our federal democratic republic will be the better for it. We will continue to light the way for other nations whose people were as fascinated with the counting controversy as ourselves. If the episode rings like a wake up call for American democracy, then our children will benefit most of all, in more ways than Sesame Street can "Count." They will benefit by example -- seeing more parent-citizen role models as actors, not just spectators, of the drama of American democracy. They may even get involved enough to "Take Back” their government, as the non-science fiction book by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein would help them to do if they were to read it and take it to heart along with one by this author from which this article is derived.[2]

 

As for “Presidential campaigns,” it remains to be seen whether a genuine populist will emerge during 2004, whether real reform will be more than a “subtext,” or whether “digital democracy” will emerge as a real force. The folks at website moveon.org – “Carrie, Eli, Joan, Peter, Wes, and Zack” -- seemed determined to realize all three. They called for a much earlier than even New Hampshire primary via Internet voting on June 24, 2003, while featuring e-mail statements from Howard Dean and two other Democrats -- would-be populists that hoped to be anointed via e-voting. Moveon.org’s Internet newsletter of 6/18/03 reminded me of dot.com political site ads suggesting that democratic political participation is “just a click away.”

 

Former Vermont Gov. Dean’s e-mail in that newsletter, if it had been designed for audio streaming, would have rung aloud with populist noises, such as: “Defeating George Bush will take nothing short of a grassroots movement. That’s why we’ve… provided tools on our website to help you build the movement in your community. Click below…I want everyone to know that there is a way to get involved…no matter how much time they have…” Dean’s campaign manager claimed (presumably without blushing) that: “This is the first great grassroots campaign of the modern era.”[3] Dean appeared to be already anointed by Moveon, as his letter appeared as the first of “three candidates who polled highest with our members.” Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Sen. John Kerry were the other two. One had to click on “Read letters from all the candidates here” to find the other six of nine Democratic candidates for Moveon’s presidential primary.[4] Thus, it was no surprise to see the results of “the first Internet primary in recorded history” – Dean, Kucinich and Kerry placed 1,2,3, with Dean far ahead at over 43%. Democracy in action?

 

What was surprising was the demonstration of how quickly a national primary could be

organized and executed via the ‘net, and the size of the “turnout.” Certified at 317,647 Moveone members, it was larger than the combined turnouts of voters in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and Iowa caucuses during the 2000 presidential election season. Thus, the power of the Internet as a political organizing tool to which my article in the previous issue of this journal pointed was demonstrated nationwide. It now remains to be seen whether this power will be translated into a revival of people’s direct political involvement – “We, the People” empowerment -- or into another demonstration of the power of Internet political fundraising to finance political business-as-usual.

 

Ironically for many Moveon members who see the need to revive the Democratic Party as a progressive force vs. a resurgent GOP, reliance upon such an Internet procedure would serve to weaken the Party. I was allowed to participate in the primary, and my vote was counted even though I am a registered Republican. Many who voted may not have been registered to vote in a regular election. The only requirement was that one be a Moveon “member.” Moveon did not use the occasion to urge members to go down to their city or town halls to register to vote. Neither was “instant voter registration” of the type urged by many liberal activists allowed for participation in their Internet primary. One had to be “registered” as a Moveon member by the evening of the day before voting began. According to the avowedly liberal magazine, THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, the main winner of the primary was Moveon: “the group has managed to induce some of the highest profile Democrats in the country…many of whom are part of the party establishment and had not felt a need to join up with Moveon…into conducting a massive, no cost membership drive for them...”[5]

 

Campaign Finance Reform: Congressional Debates

 

Unfortunately, as Y2K wore on and slopped over into 2001, the reform issue became only a matter of money with respect to either side of the Y2K reform coin – election reform or campaign finance reform (CFR). “Thank God for C-SPAN.” C-SPAN2 carried the U.S. Senate debates on CFR in their entirety. Political commentators fell all over themselves to compliment the Senate and many of its members for the quality of their deliberations – as if political speechmaking had been sadly missed and posturing for the cameras was something new. No one seemed to notice how even the most populist members among the Senators failed to define the issue so that people could come back into the picture. There were two exceptions that prove the rule – Barbara Mikulski and the late Paul Wellstone. Especially Barbara. Her nostalgia was eloquent. She recalled how, with the help of political volunteers in Baltimore at the outset of her political career, she knocked on 10,000 doors to “beat the machine” and win a seat on City Council. But did she move from this recollection to observe how there seemed to be no room for volunteers in the “reform”(ed) political future envisaged by McCain-Feingold? No. 

 

Sen. Wellstone’s performance during the debates was marked by two proposed

amendments:

 

1.      One to extend the ban on “issue advocacy” by corporations and unions to non-profit organizations, an amendment that many political commentators and opponents of Wellstone (like Sen. McConnell, who voted for it) think ultimately may sink the McCain-Feingold ship because of its likely unconstitutionality. This amendment passed in spite of McCain’s opposition.

 

2.      Another amendment to give states the option of extending public financing (a.k.a.“Clean Money”) to federal office candidacies. This amendment failed even though supporters pointed admiringly to the “Maine model” and tried to force federal reform into a “states rights” wrapper rhetorically embellished by some Senatorial rappers.

 

The only concern expressed for time as a resource in politics was a concern for Senators’ time – the time they need to spend (too much) raising money (too much) in order to finance multi-million dollar campaigns. The value of time contributed by political volunteers had disappeared from their radar screens as a result of “the money chase.” In the old days, candidates would spend more time calling for volunteers than dialing for dollars. The Senators felt free to blame TV for most of the time they had to spend fund raising to feed the maw of the media. None of them, however, felt strongly enough to  introduce an amendment calling for even minimal allocations of free TV time to enable them to “get their message out.”[6]

 

The fact that they had to raise money to pay big bucks to political consultants who also stood to make more big bucks from media “buys” – this fact earned (dis)honorable mention by some. But the connection with people’s absence from politics was lost. No one observed that political consultants are increasingly taking over grassroots political functions that used to be performed by volunteers – one of the basic reasons why the cost of political campaigns continues to rise at three times the rate of inflation! Also, no one in the Senate thought to suggest that the increasing costs of campaign finance regulation might itself be a factor aggravating this incredible rate of inflation. Even though there was some high flown rhetoric about a political system in danger of sinking, no one used the Titanic as a metaphor. Perhaps they didn’t want to be seen to be rearranging deck chairs.

 

Opponents of McCain-Feingold pointed to another danger – federalization of elections. The danger was already apparent in a memo to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from the Commission’s General Counsel that was discussed at the FEC’s September, Y2K meeting. This memo also reveals that the urge to control the political process to move any possible perception of “corruption” knows no bounds. As Bradley Smith, FEC Commissioner, indicated: “McCain-Feingold threatens to limit the voter registration and GOTV activities of state and local committees.”[7] The reason why a lawyer can make a case for state and local controls under federal law (“federalization”) is that political party activities, traditionally, have involved “working for the ticket” at all levels, from local to federal. The mix is called “bundling.”

 

Thus, the FEC General Counsel proposed regulations in the form of financial allocation rules and federal oversight that amount to a crude, perverse form of un-bundling of political activities that belong together. Look at this from the standpoint of a party precinct worker (volunteer). Rather than going door-to-door at one time for non-federal candidates with one set of handouts and another time for federal candidates with another set of handouts, wouldn’t you want to go once around for all your party’s candidates? If you were the Chair of an local political party committee, would you want to keep time accounts for each volunteer, in order to report to the FEC how much time your Committee volunteers spend working for candidates to federal office? After McCain-Feingold was handed over to FEC staffers to set the rules for the law’s administration, the issue of federalization arose with a vengeance once party committees were faced with implementation and enforcement of the new regulations. It has also arisen in the context of pressure for other reforms as we shall see further on.

 

Yet the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR concluded, immediately after U.S. Senate passage of McCain-Feingold as amended:

 

“Perhaps the biggest benefit of this legislation: Citizens might feel they can return to civic participation in this new political space created by the lessening of money influence in Washington…the American people can…lose some cynicism, and more actively participate in national politics.” [8]

 

This statement is exceptional. It’s also a reach or stretch. There is little basis for it. One can only hope that it turns out to be more than an article of Christian Science faith. 

 

 

CFR: Legislation

 

Lest McCain-Feingold be seen as the be-all and end-all of reform in legislative terms, let

us note that the most energetic and extensive efforts at reform have been occurring at the state and local level. Sub-national units of government are “laboratories of innovation” in a federal system.[9]  As already noted, the “Maine model” earned a good deal of attention during debates on one of the Wellstone amendments to McCain-Feingold. The state efforts have come to focus primarily on the so-called “Clean Money” ballot initiatives which, somewhat ironically, try to take money out of politics by substituting public money for private. Such initiatives have been passed, not only in Maine, but in Arizona, Massachusetts and Vermont. In the past, similar initiatives have been passed in New York City, New Jersey, Minnesota and a few other places without relying on the apochryphal “Clean Money” billing.[10] The latter seems to suggest the political counterpart of the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval.

 

It helps to have an ironic sense of humor in this business, for ironies abound. Another is that the Clean Money ballot initiatives that have succeeded owe their success to political volunteers doing old-fashioned people-to-people, door-to-door, street-wise politics –  canvassing, getting signatures, writing letters to editors and getting out the vote. It’s interesting to observe that many of these volunteers arrive in buses from locations outside the state where the initiative would be voted on by in-state voters, but that’s another issue which we can table for now. What’s even more interesting is that the interest in political volunteerism seems to wane once initiatives are passed. Politics is still a money game but it’s played with someone else’s money.

 

Consider the highly touted “Maine model,” for example. How do its admirers measure its reputed success? Let us count the ways. Quoting statistics on people’s political participation – to see whether the “reform” may have led it to increase in terms of voluntary commitments of time – this is not among them. The primary indicators are otherwise – increases in numbers of candidates and seats contested. So let us sing hosannas for reform – the fact that we have increased political opportunities for the usual suspects – the already politically self-interested – to run for office and build their political careers at lower cost to themselves, their families and their friends because we, the taxpayers, are financing their campaigns with public money.

 

We probably should not sneer at the Maine performance benchmark in a state like

Massachusetts where are so few competitive races for state offices and the disease has been spreading to the local level. As one columnist noted:

 

“In both 1998 and 2000, Massachusetts was tied for last among the 50 states in the percentage of contested primary races. Last. Virtually the entire Legislature and congressional delegation returned to office on a pass.”[11]

 

This columnist also remarked on frequent references to “the will of the people” by proponents of the Clean Election Law – “a well-intentioned if deeply flawed effort to reduce the decisive role money plays in state politics.” Many would challenge use of the word “decisive” here but not the phrase “deeply flawed.” One flaw is that the “Law” recognizes candidates but not parties as actors in electoral politics. It would provide no public funding to or through political parties even though the ballot question as worded would not preclude a law enacted by the Legislature from doing so.[12] “Clean Money” would go only to candidates, thus further diminishing the role of parties in the political process. Reliance upon initiative and referendum (I&R) as the primary tool of reform undermines the role of parties in the first instance, even before an initiative would take effect if passed. In my home state of Massachusetts, ex-Governor Cellucci is recognized as someone who successfully promoted the use of I&R but who whose leadership of the state GOP served to further undermine his already weakened Party.

 

There has been some research, books and many articles that point to the undemocratic nature of “plebiscitary” democracy via I&R – another irony that should earn a frown rather than a smirk.[13] So, here is yet “another nail in the coffins of parties” brought about through the well-intentioned efforts of those characterized as reformers by media writers who understand no more of the political process than the so-called reformers do.

 

More generally, the debate over Clean Elections initiatives features those who favor “direct democracy” vs. those who respect the fact that our governments at all levels, constitutionally, are representative democracies. Another basic controversy implicit in the debate is that between “public” and run-of-the-mill journalism. Journalists like the one last quoted did nothing to probe the issue sufficiently to inform the public before they voted on it; thus, when the voting is over, they hide behind the “popular will” as sufficient justification for ex-post rationalization of an initiative that some recognize as “deeply flawed.”   

 

Yet another irony seems to have escaped observers of reformers’ efforts even though it is well known to public finance economists. This is that the introduction of significant amounts of public money into some segment of the political economy almost invariably has an inflationary effect. Goods and services purchased with public money tend to increase in price faster than the CPI. U.S. Senators participating in the CFR debate called attention to political inflationary factors in a situation where the only public money has been that committed to Presidential campaigns but where the prime driver has been heavy infusions of private “soft money.” Thus, Clean Money reformers, like others who have had to face the lessons of past reform history, can anticipate seeing their initiatives fulfill the “law of unintended consequences.” By centering their reforms on money, they will increase the cost of campaigns and make them more, not less, dependent upon money over time.

 

The latter irony does not begin to speak to yet another. Reformers, most of whom are

fundamentally apolitical because they view politics as “dirty,” are putting “Clean” campaign financing increasingly at the mercy of politicians. At some point, once all the reformers’ hype and media attention to it blows over, state legislatures will be increasingly reluctant to budget public money for private campaigns. This was the case in Massachusetts even at the beginning of Clean Money initiative implementation. The state legislature’s reluctance to appropriate money led the Supreme Judicial Court to intervene. They ordered the auction of public property to raise money to implement the Clean Elections Act. Enough was raised to enable Warren Tolman to undertake a multi-million dollar campaign for Governor whose reliance upon negative advertising helped to discredit the Act. Thus, when legislators hostile to the Act, headed by the Speaker of the House, put up a ballot question that asked whether voters wanted to use public money to finance political campaigns, the initiative was passed. So Clean Elections became a dead letter in Massachusetts. These initiatives haven’t fared much better in other states. As indicated earlier, only Maine reports some limited positive impacts, but a recent study may serve to further undermine the credibility of Clean Elections, even in Maine.

 

The field of public finance helps to provide some additional perspective on the issue of taxpayer subsidies for political campaigns. This is the so-called “dead weight” issue. Subsidies are a wasteful “dead weight” to the extent that they subsidize activity that would have been undertaken anyway. There’s a lot of this in Clean Elections. Nearly all of incumbents would be running for re-election. They’re subsidized, along with a significant portion of the politically interested who would run for office even if public funding weren’t provided. Especially from an economist’s standpoint, it’s pretty amazing that this issue was not raised in the Clean Elections debate in Massachusetts. Already, in a state where the Legislature was challenged to appropriate $10 million to implement the Act, there were complaints from proponents that Clean Elections would be under-funded at a level of $22 million. Given the “inflationary” issue already noted, the amount of subsidy is likely to be a bone of contention year after year in state Legislatures faced with the challenge of implementing such initiatives. The state fiscal crisis provided the final death knell, providing a ready-made excuse for the state legislature to kill the Clean Elections Act, in Massachusetts in 2003.

 

Given the high degree to which the overall elections’ subsidy is “dead weight,” an economist would have to conclude that Clean Elections is a pretty inefficient solution to the campaign financing problem. In a way, that’s not surprising, since the costs and benefits of people’s time hasn’t been figured into any overall cost/benefit analysis (there hasn’t been one). What’s ironic here (and again!) is that reformers tend to want “efficiency” in politics.[14] As if anyone with any political experience had any reason to believe that politics could be efficient. Or shall we count “inefficiency” as another example of “the law of unintended consequences” that has plagued CFR initiatives all along?

 

Overall, the most important legislative common denominator between the federal-level McCain-Feingold and state-level Clean Money reform initiatives is clear: They both certify the dominance of money in politics and further diminish the importance of people. The latter irony is not funny at all. It is rather threatening to the future of our democratic republic.

 

Recall the remarks of Ben Franklin to those waiting to hear the results of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. When asked what the Convention had accomplished, he responded: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” The danger of losing it is further aggravated by the fact that so-called reforms at both levels will weaken parties that, as a national survey reveals in Chapter 5 of my new book, are already weak at the grass roots with respect to their local party committee foundations. Traditionally, these committees have relied heavily upon volunteers. It is also ironic that McCain-Feingold would ban “soft money” that was intended for “party building” and could have been devoted to such activities by re-directing rather than banning it.

During the Senate debate on the Hagel amendment to S.27, Senators Hagel and

McConnell pointed to the negative consequences of the bill for political parties – another state/federal “common denominator.” Unfortunately, as indicated earlier, the negative consequences of state-level reforms for parties has not figured in debates over Clean Money initiatives even though they are potentially more adverse. Without strong parties, how is the great American majority of unorganized, unaffiliated, “independent” individuals to make a difference in the political process? The answer is: They won’t. They will be effectively dis-empowered -- “spectators” of the political game and consumers of pundits’ political pablum, their role simply that of voters for the “usual suspects,” not that of citizen producers or political players. Some years hence, when it becomes amply clear that the political class can’t do it all for us, there will be hell to pay as the class minority faces an angry majority. 

 

As this article was completed, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) awaited Supreme Court review. A federal district court had ruled some of the Act’s soft money and issue-advocacy advertising prohibitions unconstitutional. Then the Supreme Court, ruling on another case, found in a 7-2 decision that a North Carolina anti-abortion group should not be allowed to make direct contributions to candidates and campaigns from its general fund instead of its PAC. A decision in favor of the group would have resurrected soft money with a vengeance, since corporations and/or unions could make unlimited contributions to such general funds. Thus, one editor was led to comment that this “ruling is an encouraging indicator that the court may not be too hostile to the….Act. Whether a decision substantially upholding the Act, however, would serve to “resurrect” people’s political participation is another matter, one on which one is hard put to be optimistic.   

 

It’s easy to criticize and forecast dire consequences due to various reform initiatives. But can one come up with a better way? We can, one that recognizes the value of peoples’ time, all that most people have to contribute, and provides incentives for them to be involved as actors, not just observers, in a political system that should be THEIRS and that their participation can recover as theirs. Now that you’ve seen this bold claim, you’ll have to wait a few months until WE, THE PEOPLE is published to see how it can be fulfilled. Remember, short-term-itis, our hankering for instant gratification, is part of our problem!, so don’t be tooo impatient. Read on!

 

Other Reform Initiatives Stemming from Y2K

 

Florida & the Count

 

In addition to and advance of advance of final passage of McCain-Feingold, the last hurrah of the Y2K wavelet of reform was the reaction to the Florida count and recounts. The hue and cry over the extended “count” in Florida led to a flurry of “electoral” reform proposals, many of which are still floating around in the halls of Congress and various state legislatures. These focused on changes in voting machines and procedures, rosters of registrants, ballot designs and election board workers. It would be very easy to get tangled among the trees of various proposals and quite lose sight of the forest of reform. It is remarkable, in fact, how this “electoral” category of reforms was disconnected from any larger reform agenda, including even the money-only agenda of McCain-Feingold. Is this another example of the right hand of government not knowing what the left hand is doing, or of legislators being unable to balance or connect two thoughts in their minds at the same time?

 

“Ironically, the state of Florida, where the bomb went off, is one of the first states to rebuild,” remarked Kay Albowicz, Communications Director for the National Association of Secretaries of State.[15] Early in May, 2001, the Florida legislature approved and the Governor, Jeb Bush, signed, a bill to overhaul the state’s election system by:

 

¨      requiring manual recounts of ballots in close elections.

¨      banning punch-card ballot machines.

¨      streamlining absentee balloting.

¨      lengthening from 4 days to 11 the amount of time allowed to certify general election results.

¨      appropriating $24 million to help finance the acquisition of new voting equipment – by providing $3500-7500 per precinct to pay for optical scanners. Counties that want to use touch-screen technology can opt for this if they can afford it.

¨      providing $6 million for better education and training of poll workers and voters.

¨      setting uniform guidelines for manual ballot recounts.

 

The only link to CFR was a provision that would eliminate state matching funds for out-of-state campaign contributions. This is a feature that should be picked up by other states. It’s the state analogue to federal law designed to cut the influence of “foreign” money. Out-of-state money could talk with a louder “voice” than the views of down-home voters. This provision was “denounced by the Democrats,” who were looking to out-of-state contributors to help unseat Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. As for the “education and training” feature, this promises to circumvent the traditional role of political parties in this regard. To the extent that it does so, it would serve to further weaken parties. 

 

Florida put money on the table to fund its reforms. The failure of other states to do likewise truncated reform efforts or put their implementation on hold. Such was the case in Georgia even though Georgia’s effort was ahead of Florida’s both technologically and in time. Gov. Roy Barnes signed legislation in April, 2001, to place touch-screen voting systems in all precincts, but as of last reporting Georgia was still “waiting for the money.”[16] So are election officials in many other states, even though more than 130 bills related to election reform have been signed into law and more than 1,000 were pending in 35 states as of summer, 2001.

 

Another remarkable feature of these reform debates is how the political role of us ordinary people was, once again, excised or diminished in the reform picture. Most attention focused on “technology” as the source of solutions. So manufacturers of high tech voting machines had a chance to peddle their wares and advocates of “electronic voting” via the Internet could tout “digital democracy.” We’ve already encountered the latter in last month’s SPECTACLE. It’s so typically American to look at technology for a fix. Reform was very narrowly construed even though the claims of “dis-enfranchisement,” etc. could have been heard to raise broader issues.[17]

 

So what people were talked about? – election board workers, among the pillars of local democracy – those who work long hours at low pay on election day. They are among your neighbors. They check you in, check you out and help you out, if you need help, at the polls on election day. They include many grandmas, some disabled and some un-or underemployed locals who could use the beer and pretzel money ($60-75 per day) supplied by city or town clerks.[18]

 

And how were they talked about? – as among the sources of electoral malfeasance or incompetence thought to have denied some people their vote, rather than as essential sources of help in the elections’ process. Thus, among proposals for “reform” are those that would remove the role of political parties in nominating board workers by selecting election helpers on an “independent” (non-partisan) basis, with training and oversight to be provided by state agencies rather than political parties or local government. One of the last little “perks” that parties can provide to local activists would be gone. Rather than recognizing the role of local political party committees and building on their ability to mobilize volunteers, “reformers” are trying to put more nails in the coffins of parties and to take another step towards federalization of elections.

 

The role of local government in elections is being scrutinized with a very critical eye by national observers who appear to have little or no political experience, for they have finally woken up to the fact that the conduct of elections is a localized responsibility. The NEW YORK TIMES editorialized: “For too long, local governments have been left to conduct elections with insufficient resources and guidance” (Feb.5, 2001). The TIMES was shocked, “shocked to learn that the margin of error could vary so widely across jurisdictions” (December 17, 2000). So some are now calling for national election standards, at least for Presidential balloting at the federal level, or at least to ensure uniformity within states. The ECONOMIST pronounced, for example:

 

“America needs a root-and-branch reform of its voting system…It needs a

national system of voting…and it needs to embrace the wonders of modern technology.”  [December 9, 2000]

 

In keeping with the above thinking, Democrats on the U.S. Senate Rules Committee

deliberating on what the Congress should do in the wake of Florida 2000 were pushing for federal mandates “that the states take certain actions.”[19] 

 

If some people are losing their votes at local polling places, is the state or national elections “system” to blame? Hardly. Where were the voters of Palm Beach County when the fabled “butterfly ballot” design was up for review? Who among them was present at a County or City Council meeting or election forum to ask questions when a candidate for City or Country Clerk was up for the job? Here, as in other areas of concern, local voters’ lack of attention is the root problem. What’s the most appropriate solution in a decentralized system? – not federalization of elections or even greater state control, but local initiative. As Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball” put it on C-SPAN: “People must put the pressure on locally” [Washington Journal, with Brian Lamb, on Friday, the 13th of April, 2001]. Of what value is a “Voters Bill of Rights” if there is no voters’ responsibility?[20]

 

The latter issue was nicely highlighted in a letter to the editor of USA TODAY in response to the Florida reform package described earlier:

 

“…in all of this, no mention is made of the voter’s responsibility to vote correctly… there are several safeguards to be sure that the process is carried out correctly.

 

·         First, be familiar with the ballot. It’s usually sent out 1 to 2 weeks prior to voting and is published in the local newspaper. If you don’t understand your ballot, consult a friend, relative, attorney or your (local) supervisor of elections.(or town or city clerk, et.al.)

·         Second, be sure you have the required proper identification with you at your voting precinct…

·         Third, know your precinct and polling place to avoid going to the wrong place…

·         Last, and by far not least, do your homework with regard to the candidates…”[21]

 

To the latter, one might add “with regard to” ballot questions. I am especially sensitive with regard to these, not only because such “questions” reflect the closest thing that we have to “direct democracy,” but because my own failure to vote on several of them during the 2001 Town of Merrimac election provides a good example of how easy it is to fail to exercise a “voter’s responsibility.” What did I fail to do? – to simply turn the ballot over after voting for candidates. Boy, was I pissed when I realized that I had not voted on the questions after casting my ballot! There were four. They were all important. Most were controversial, including funding for the school budget, a new library and the Town’s share to enable participation in the state’s new “Community Preservation Act.” All had been discussed in a prior Town Meeting which I had attended. I prayed that the vote tallies on these wouldn’t be as close as the election in Florida, so that my failure would spell results one way or the other. Luckily, this was not the case.[22]

 

Who did I blame for my “undervote” – the Secretary of State? The Town Clerk? The Election Board workers? The Supervisor of Elections? None of the above. Like those who railed against the “butterfly ballot” in Florida, I suppose I could have complained that the ballot was poorly designed. After all, the “Instructions to Voter” box at the top of the ballot did not advise the voter to look for “Ballot Questions” on the other side. But there was a reminder to ‘turn ballot over and continue voting’ at the bottom of the ballot. Should I blame the Town Clerk for the fact that this was tucked without super highlighting just below “Sewer Commissioner,” an office for which there was no contest? I blame only myself. I wanted to vote on the questions, and there had been a sample ballot posted inside the polling place with both sides showing, just before the table where voters check in with the election board workers and registrars.

 

This personal aside reinforces the point made by the letter writer to USA TODAY. It’s rather curious, in fact, that politicians running about and speaking out to show that they were doing something about the problems in Florida were loathe to ask what proportion of “the problems” might be due to individuals’ mistakes or shortfalls in “voter’s responsibility”; i.e., those things that we are capable of doing ourselves if we simply pay attention and follow the basic steps noted in the letter to the editor.[23] These days, with people and media being the way they are, one sometimes has to sound outrageous to make a point. So, here it is from George Carlin:

 

“I think that if you are too stupid to know how a ballot works, I don’t want you deciding who should be running the most powerful nation in the world for the next four years.” [24]

 

Thanks for the slap, George; I needed that! (and did you, too?) Isn’t it ironic that we’re trying to export American electoral democracy to Iraq while voting turnouts continue to be embarrassingly low at home? How many voters would react to more aggressive GOTV efforts as in the following cartoon?

 

 

 

It’s important to note that the problems uncovered in Florida were not new; they were simply thrown suddenly into high relief, given the lack of attention previously paid to them and the closeness of the Presidential vote. Various improvements that might have avoided the Florida debacle had been on the table for over many years. According to Sharon Priest, Arkansas Secretary of State and Chairwoman of the National Association of Secretary of State’s Task Force on Election Standards:

 

“we’ve got resolutions from meetings going back twenty years…There is nothing, at least to people in the elections business, new or earthshaking…Part of it is the simple task of following the laws that are already on the books…and part of it is looking at what the best practices are…There is no need to reinvent the wheel.”[25]

 

A former prosecutor in northern Florida, David McGee, said “voting fraud was also a

“great tradition” in the state, although malfeasance is most likely in races for local offices…”[26]

 

There are best practices as well as bad examples to be seen at the local level as well as across states. They range all the way from Princeton, NJ (among the best) to St.Louis, MO (among the worse). Local variations are due primarily to local factors, including citizens’ political participation. Those of us who vote get to know their local election board workers. They are often sweet little old men and ladies who have lived in the area since Hector was a pup, who may have been recommended by local party leaders and who need a few extra bucks in their pockets. The City, Town or County Clerk need not be a stranger, either, and if you don’t like him or her, you can show up and speak out at the annual public hearing where the Clerk’s performance is up for review. You can also show up at the Clerk’s office when there is a drawing for ballot positions, to check whether there are any “sticky fingers” at work. You yourself can volunteer to be a Board Worker or poll checker. You can check on the local ballot design. You can gather at City or Town Hall to observe the counting of ballots, cheer the winners and console the losers, some of whom are likely to be friends or neighbors. Etc.

 

Thus, even though the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report on Y2K voting in Florida disagrees, the roots of election reform also lie in local action.[27] If state or federal authorities can provide incentives or matching grants to local authorities to help the less-than-best finance local improvements, including improved equipment and higher pay for election board workers, so much the better.

 

After all the hue and cry generated by “Florida” had died down, the elections reform issue, like McCain-Feingold, also came down to a matter of money. Good intentions and high rhetoric ran into low budgets as state finances hit the wall of a recession, growing deficits and Republican federalism. Hundreds of bills were introduced into state legislatures all over the country. Then they waited upon federal assistance to buy new voting technologies, etc., and they waited, and waited…. As of this writing, only two states had passed major election reform initiatives – Florida and Georgia. To avoid a repeat of the Florida 2000 controversy, the Florida legislature enacted clear standards for ballot recounts and provided funds for new voting machines. There were some good results to be seen during the 2002 elections.

 

Other Propositions for Election Reforms

 

Even while all this was going on, some election reform nostrums left over from past waves of concern were getting some attention, too. Term limits, for example. These had been passed in many states and cities during the ‘90’s. Now politicians and some voters were facing the consequences of their past I&R success. The New York City Council, for example, woke up to the fact that a few dozen of them would be required to give up their well-paid, perk-laden positions. A motion to overturn voters’ intent was narrowly defeated. Term limits there and in many other locations caused the music to start earlier in the political game of musical chairs. Many incumbents hustled to find other positions to run for so that they could continue in “public” service.

 

One noteworthy exception, who views himself as a “living example” of term limits, is Gov. Mark Johnson of New Mexico. He views his public service stint as a great opportunity, something he has “always wanted to do,” but not as a career. He had a successful career as an entrepreneur before entering politics and perhaps looks forward to a successful second (or 3rd) career outside of politics.

 

Long-standing but relatively dormant recommendations for other election reforms resurfaced in light of alleged civil rights violations in the Florida voting and of Reform and/or Green Party candidates not being allowed to participate in Presidential or Congressional debates during the Y2K election season. These other reforms include: 

 

à                    Proportional representation

à                    Instant runoff voting

à                    Changes in redistricting and/or the sizes of legislative bodies

à                    Abolition or reformation of the Electoral College

à                    Voting “outside the box” – via mail, on-demand absentee voting, or in-person early voting.

à                    Cumulative voting

 

The first five have been getting some serious attention. Let’s focus on them. Remember Lani Guinier, Clinton’s erstwhile appointment to the Justice Department, withdrawn because of her supposedly extreme-liberal views on affirmative action and voting rights? Well, she has been one of the leading proponents of “proportional representation”(PR). This is an election system much used in Europe and many other countries worldwide whereby the number of seats in a legislative body are allocated in proportion to the votes gotten by various parties who qualify to participate in an election. It is very different from our “winner take all” system. As things now stand, the Reform Party would have to win a majority of voters in each of 44 Congressional Districts in order to hold at least 10% of seats in our House of Representatives.(10% of 435, rounded off, is 44). Under a PR system, the Reform Party would get 10% of seats if it earned 10% of votes nationwide.

 

Advocates of PR claim, with some credibility, that such an elections arrangement would overcome obvious shortcomings of “winner-take-all;” specifically:

 

§         Low voter turnouts: Turnouts in countries with PR are much higher than in the U.S.

§         Inadequate representation of minority groups, interests or parties: As indicated above, these can be represented and have some influence even without winning majorities. 

§         Gerrymandering = the manipulation of legislative district lines by state legislatures to create districts with boundaries tortured to suit powerful incumbents or minority groups: PR makes this “far more difficult.”[28]

 

Two of the primary objections to PR focus upon:

 

1.      Loss of representation based on geography: “With PR, voters find an ideological “home” rather than a geographic one.”[29]

 

2.      Possibly insufficient transparency, accountability and/or governability: Due to shifting inter-party coalitions and a weaker connection between public opinion and public policy, among other factors. 

 

PR is not a new idea. It’s left over from the Progressive Era of about a century ago. Several cities adopted and later repealed it. The approach is still used by only one, Cambridge, Massachusetts to this day.[30] As a result of both domestic and foreign experience, a great deal has been learned of how to adapt PR to various goals and circumstances. It is adaptable. It could be mixed and merged with our current system, for example. The advantages of PR relative to its disadvantages are sufficiently strong to justify its adoption by some states, which could then be viewed as “laboratories” for testing the approach on a broader scale. It’s a big country, with lots of room for creative variations in election systems to better align them with regional, state and/or ideological preferences. There’s not a Constitutional issue here. Changes in state and federal law would suffice.

 

A bill was introduced in the House to enable states to adopt PR. During the 108th Congress, this was referred to as HR 1189, the Voters’ Choice Act.[31] It would have repealed a 1967 statute mandating single-member districts. The billing given this initiative by the Center for Constitutional Rights, however, seems quite exaggerated:

 

“The goal of the Voters’ Bill of Rights is to correct the flaws in the administration and machinery of elections and to press for far-reaching reforms aimed at creating a more participatory democracy in our country.”[32]

 

Adoption of PR by some states would help to loosen up “the system” as it currently stands, reduce the sense of disenfranchisement felt by many voters and encourage the formation and growth of new parties. 

 

Another reason for giving serious consideration to PR is that it would or could dovetail nicely with two of the other election reforms mentioned earlier – “instant runoff voting” (IRV) and changes in the sizes of legislative districts. Look at the latter first. The number of Congressional Districts has remained unchanged as the country’s population has grown, so that the ratio of Representatives to population (now about 1:500,000) is much, much larger than the founders ever envisaged. Thus, a strong case can be made for increasing the number of Districts and/or increasing the number of representatives per existing District. The latter would jibe with PR, which requires multiple rather than single-member district representation.

 

PR also goes hand-in-glove with IRV, via which voters rank their choices. If one fails to get a clear majority, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are transferred to the second choices on voters’ ballots. This process of transferring votes “simulates a series of runoff elections… until one of the candidates has a majority.”[33] Thus, IRV can serve two purposes:

 

1.      “save money for taxpayers and campaign cash for candidates by combining two elections into one”;[34] i.e., by eliminating another leftover from the Progressive Era – primary elections, which have become increasingly wasteful and dysfunctional, as primaries attract very low turnouts that are dominated by highly motivated political factions rather than by voters representative of the public at-large.[35]

 

2.      Elect the top two or three candidates from a longer list.

 

Surprisingly, IRV appeared to receive no mention in media coverage of election reforms that were reactive or responsive to the Florida controversy. This is surprising because, otherwise, IRV seems to have been the topic of increasing coverage in the news. This is evident from “Electoral System Reform in the News,” a tracking service of the Center for Voting and Democracy accessible through the Center’s website. Over the period Nov., 2000 to June, 2001, two-thirds of 118 “in the News” citations provided some focus on IRV.

 

The journalistic interest in IRV has been reflected in a number of legislative initiatives. Of four bills dealing with various aspects of electoral reform introduced into the 107th Congress, one would study IRV as well as PR and other pro-democracy reforms.[36] At the state level, 9 of 12 states where electoral reform legislation has been introduced report initiatives that would provide for IRV use for various elections. A bill introduced in Massachusetts would have that state study the feasibility of introducing IRV.[37] A former Member of Congress, Mickey Edwards, now at the Kennedy School, has been advocating IRV adoption as a way to make elections “more democratic” (as in the “op-ed piece cited below in footnote 35).  

 

As for the Electoral College, it’s interesting to note that some of those advocating its reform rather than its abolition are, in effect, advocating a form of PR for the College whereby the number of electors designated to vote for each Presidential candidate would be proportional to the popular vote received by each candidate by state and, thereby, overall, so that the vote in the College would more closely reflect the popular vote. As suggested earlier, the danger here is that some advocates, contrary to the very nature of our Constitution, would rather see the U.S.A. be a unitary state than a federal Republic. Thus, they would federalize elections, preferring to perfect our elections system from the top rather than have to deal with a messy, error-prone patchwork of arrangements from the bottom. Rather than this unconstitutional approach, several states have introduced, and some have passed, legislation that aligns the number of the states’ electors more closely with their popular votes for President.

 

As for “voting outside the booth,” the jury is still out as to whether changes in election laws to enable this are a step forwards or in the wrong direction. Opinions differ. Many view changes that in any way make voting easier or more convenient to be desirable changes.[38] The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, however, endorsed the proposition that:

 

 “voting at the polls serves basic and historically rooted objectives,” adding that “The gathering of citizens to vote is a fundamental act of community and citizenship…Though this (voting outside the booth) trend is justified as promoting voter turnout, the evidence for this effect is thin…voter turnout may even decline, as the civic significance of Election Day loses its meaning.”[39] 

 

In a letter to the editor commenting on the article in which the above quote appeared, Mr. Jim Triggs of Edina, Minnesota wrote: “voting is not meant to be convenient. It’s a responsibility that we should all cherish.” Another letter writer, William C. Brown, of Urbana, Illinois, chimed in to admonish: ““The Dangers of Voting Outside the Booth”…does not go far enough. Not only should citizens vote in person, but those votes should be counted by people.” [40]

 

Postscript to the Y2K Election

 

So, what about voting? After all the counting was done, was there any sign of people’s participation in the 2000 elections after the presidential primaries? Yes, there were some, followed by some more in 2002. While not enough to mark a remarkable change in American politics, they suggest that political parties and campaign managers can win by bringing people back into the political game.

 

The last several days of campaign 2000 were characterized by “Ringing Phones, Chiming Doorbells, Stuffed E-mailboxes: The Great Voter Roundup.”[41] But “last minute exhortations were…just the warm-up for Tuesday’s main event: a military-style mobilization of hundreds of thousands of campaign workers…to drive people to the polls, hand out literature outside polling stations…knocking on doors and making phone calls…” This is a latter day sidelight of politics as it used to be -- now showing a renascence?[42]

 

The pre-election day report from which the above quotes are taken noted that the Republican Party expected to field 100,000 volunteers; the Democratic Party, surprisingly, only 50,000. The AFL-CIO, however, expected to put “100,000 campaign workers on the streets,” while the UAW hoped to swell these ranks with 800,000 “members who, for the first time, have been given Election Day off as a paid vacation day.” Meanwhile, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League was pulling to call another 800,000 and the Sierra Club, 75,000. Can these impressive numbers be registered as representing a resurgence of grassroots political participation, when most seem to be involved because they already had a political ax to grind?

 

Also: “For all that effort, political analysts still predict(ed) that Tuesday’s (November __, 2000) election will continue the historic slide in voter turnout, which dipped below 50 percent in 1996.”[43] Yet, here, and later in 2002, the pundits were wrong. “There was a modest turnout increase in both…caused by something that had almost been seen as extinct – grassroots mobilizing and get-out-the-vote activity in key states.”[44] Similar activity had made a difference in key congressional districts in the ’98 mid-term elections. In 2002, “The largest turnout increases were largely concentrated in states with high-profile close contests and where the candidates, parties and interest groups put…greater resources than in recent elections into grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts. If there is any doubt that such efforts “made a difference,” look at the close races where the swing votes served to change the power equation in the Congress; again, contrary to the prognostications of most so-called political “analysts.” Also contrary to the usual political expectations (or stereotypes): “The Republicans clearly outorganized the Democrats.”[45] So, are we seeing signs of a “conservative populism?”[46] Whatever. If “ordinary” people can have such an impact as little tails wagging on the big money dogs of national election campaigns, imagine what they can do as citizens taking responsibility for their politics? Put the recent experience in context and then extrapolate. As the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CfSAE) observed in its release cited earlier:

 

“while the budgets for such (grassroots) activity in both (2000 and 2002) elections did not

come close to rivaling the moneys poured into political advertising, any commitment to personal (political) contact activity is a welcome change.”

 

Indeed, and recent election results provide hope and point the way, that such activity may increase.

 

Goodbye to Bill Clinton

 

Clinton’s departure from the White House: Was it a climax to the “Politics of Narcissism”?, or a prelude of more to come? What legacy has been left to us by a man who often seemed preoccupied with the question of what his “legacy” would be?

 

Clinton served to bring democratic politics to a new low; now to a point from which, hopefully, it has nowhere to go but up. Let us hope that he was the last great star of a political star system promoted by Hollywood, the media and the high proportion of people who look to charismatic leaders and political careerists for solutions to our political problems. “Bubba” advanced the politics of spectator sports, of personality, of political careerism, of “pseudo events” and of money and media – all the features of politics that have turned it into a pol’s game rather than a citizens’ exercise. Notwithstanding his talent as an eloquent public speaker, he lowered the tone and depreciated the coin of our public life.

 

Unfortunately for a man of great ability who modeled himself after JFK, the main postcript centers on his sex life, “or, as he would have it, “nonsex”” activity.

 

“To the insecure male, power without access to and dominance over women is not worth having…A significant portion of a generation of aspiring Democratic politicians patterned themselves after John F. Kennedy. This emulation…sometimes included the pattern of “scoring” with as many women as possible…It may be that he (Clinton) was willing to risk his power for this because being in such a position relative to women has

been the subconscious objective of his quest for power all along.”[47]

 

When the quest for power comes to focus on empowerment of self over (an) other, then the ideal of democracy as expressed by Lincoln has been lost, by definition as well as in actuality. This is why Clinton’s legacy represents an abridgement of the American dream found in Rockwell’s painting(s) as well as in Lincoln’s language. It’s ironic that such a big-D Democrat turned out to be such a small-d politician and that a man who was so inspiring a leader in words should be so lacking true political leadership in terms of action. The upside, as others have remarked, is that Clinton’s final term may have marked the end of the “imperial Presidency.”[48]

 

Prognosis, Postlude, New Beginnings and Reform Redux

 

Where will the so-called reforms of the Year 2000 take us? – Towards “1984” as pictured by Orson Welles, or towards “2001” as envisaged by Stanley Kubrick? – our lives directed by a controlling authority, whether computerized like the movie’s “Hal” or not, everything OK as long as we stay asleep and don’t question the system? Or, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, towards a “new birth of freedom…so that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

 

We have seen that the year which, in terms of “reform,” began with a bang, ended in a whimper. Oh yes, some modest steps in the direction of political reform were taken, such as commitments to invest in better voting equipment, procedures and standards for re-counting ballots in closely contested federal elections, some chastening of the media’s aggressive election day “exit” polling and coverage techniques, and passage of some CFR initiatives. But the real wind behind the sails of reform – the wind of enthusiastic volunteers doing more than blowing hot air – this wind died down when competition ended for the major parties’ Presidential nominations. It seems as if BoY enthusiasm has been replaced by EoY pessimism.[49] As Bette Midler lamented near the end of “The Rose:” “Where’s everybody going? Where’s everybody gone to?”[50] Yet, it sometimes helps to remember the inspiring words of Margaret Mead, the late, great anthropologist:

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”[51]

 

Strong people and great ideas go together. Unfortunately, it’s not just strong people (“thoughtful, committed citizens”) that are missing from the political reform picture as a result of Y2K and its prior political history. Great ideas are missing, too. The prevailing reform agenda is little more than a rehash of the Progressive’s program of over 100 years ago.[52] We have seen, and other’s have documented in detail how, in ‘60’s parlance, this old agenda has long since been a major part of the problem, not part of the reform solution.[53] So, where’s a reform agenda that can excite peoples’ participation like that we

saw in New Hampshire during the late winter and early spring of Y2K? Let’s see whether we can imagine a new agenda. Let’s try to gather some sheaves and lumber to at least begin to build it out.[54] As the National Civic League observed: “Now, one hundred years after the last Progressive Movement began, the cynicism and disillusionment with the modern political process calls for a new spirit of activism and a new wave of political reform.[55]

 

 



[1] Reference here is to the handshake of President Clinton with then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich , when they reportedly agreed to cooperate in pursuit of CFR.

[2] Heinlein (1992), op.cit., and Bearse, P.J., WE, THE PEOPLE (forthcoming later this year).

[3] Quoted by Marlantes, Liz (2003), “Outsider Dean fires up left,” THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (June 23), adding that “If Dean’s online network grows (via another Internet service, meetup.com), it could form a grass-roots army of volunteers to knock on doors and hand out leaflets” (p.4).

[4] Thus, Dick Gephardt complained of “vote-rigging on behalf of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean” in the Moveon primary, as reported by another Internet political news letter, “The Weekly Politiker” of 6/20/2003, produced by politicsonline.com. Some other candidates also complained, although they had some opportunity to try to mobilize their supporters for the Internet primary via e-mail(s),   

[5] Franke-Ruta, Garance (2003), “Zero Sum: Why Moveon will be the real winner of its own presidential primary,” THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, Internet edition (June 25, p.3).

[6] One amendment that was adopted called for TV networks to provide time for political advertising at their lowest rates to federal candidates who abide by the rules of McCain-Feingold. Senators felt that their advertising should not have to compete with commercial advertisers for time and space.

[7] Private e-mail communication to the author during August, 2000.

[8] Editorial, “The Senate Shows the Way” (Monday, April 2, 2001).

[9] The quoted phrase is borrowed from David Osborne (1990), LABORATORIES OF DEMOCRACY, whose book revealed how states, led by “a new breed of governor,” were leading the way towards solutions of many public problems.

[10] As for the local level, see the report on “Local Campaign Finance Reform” from the National Civic League, Washington, D.C.

[11] Walker, Adrian (2001), “The Will of the People?,” BOSTON GLOBE (March 1, 2001).

[12] As suggested by the example of another  state, Minnesota, whose enactment of state campaign finance reforms including public financing precedes the recent wave of  “Clean Elections” initiatives. Tony Sutton, Executive Director of the Minnesota Republican Party, reported: “not only candidates but parties take public money in Minnesota. A press release from the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board said: For the 1999 tax year…$72,630 was distributed to the state parties…” E-mail to the “Politalk” e-forum on campaign finance reform (3/2/2001). Yet, even here, the parties’ role is quite minimal. $72,630 is only 6.6% of the total public finance disbursements under the Minnesota elections statute in 1999.

[13] For example, see Broder, David (2001), DEMOCRACY DERAILED: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money. New York: Harcourt, Inc., and Lipow, Arthur (1996), POLITICAL PARTIES & DEMOCRACY. London: Pluto Press. Also note the anti-Davis referendum in California.

[14] This is a sharp insight of Wilhelm (1985) arising from his discussion of CFR and time.

[15] As quoted by Dana Canedy in “Florida Leaders Sign Agreement for Overhaul of Election System,” THE NEW YORK TIMES (May 5, 2001).

[16] Seelye, Katharine Q. (2001), “Little Change Forecast for Election Process,” THE NEW YORK TIMES (April 26).

[17] U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report (2001)

[18] This does not deny the need for careful selection and some training of election board workers, which political parties and/or local election authorities should be providing. Abigail Thernstrom, member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigating the Y2K Florida voting disputes, stated on C-SPAN that “we heard a lot of bad poll worker stories.” (“Washington Journal,” June 28, 2001).

[19] As reported by Katherine Seelye in “Senators Hear Bitter Words on Florida Vote,” NEW YORK TIMES (June 28, 2001).

[20] Reference is to a 10-point set of proposals put forth by “ coalition called the Pro-Democracy Campaign” over the Internet and discussed at a “Pro-Democracy Conference” in Philadelphia on July 6-8, 2001. See Seelye, Katherine (2001), “Liberals Discuss Electoral Overhaul,” NEW YORK TIMES (January 21).

[21] Letter from Jim Wright, Clearwater, Fla., in the USA TODAY issue of Friday, June 15, 2001.

[22] “Luckily,” indeed. The closeness of many of the tallies underlines how every vote counts. One local office was decided by only four votes! Two of the four questions were decided by 25-30 votes.

[23] Voter “spoilage” rates in the disputed Florida counties, computed by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, summed counts of “under”- and “over-votes” in their numerators. “Undervotes” were those where there was no vote for President, not unusual in a race where significant numbers of people didn’t care for either candidate. “Overvotes” were ones where more than one candidate was punched, which could well be the result of voter error in significant numbers of cases. 

[24] “According to George Carlin,” June 18, 2001, as received via second-hand e-mail.

[25] Quoted in Seelye, Katharine Q. (2001), “Panel Suggests Election Changes That Let States Keep Control,” NEW YORK TIMES (February 5). “Let”? Aren’t we a federal Republic under the Constitution?

[26] Silverman, Gary (2000), “How vote ended up in a very odd state,” FINANCIAL TIMES (November 9).

[27] During a debate on the Report on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” of June 28, 2001, Christopher Edley, Member of the Commission, stated: “I hope that the Report will galvanize action in the Congress and at the state level as well,” with no mention of action at the local level even though the Commission’s analysis of elections’ data relied upon county and precinct-level data. And even though Abigail Thernstrom, a dissenting member of the Commission stated flatly that “there is no evidence of racial disenfranchisement in the data,” we should remember that local discrimination against blacks’ voting in the South was a prime impetus behind the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1974.

[28] On this and other points, see “The Case for Proportional Representation,” by Robert Richie and Steven Hill. BOSTON REVIEW (February/March, 1998). Online at WWW.polisci.MIT.edu/BostonReview. Richie and Hill are Executive Director and West Coast Director, respectively, of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a good resource on election reforms, online at WWW.igc.org/cvd/.

[29] Richie and Hill, op.cit., p.14.

[30] Cambridge still fancies itself as “progressive.” The City Council recently voted to lower the voting age to 17, “the first city to do so.” Associated Press (March 26, 2002).

[31] Unfortunately for the bill’s credibility, it was introduced by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D,GA,4th CD), who was discredited as a Congresswoman and defeated in her quest for reelection in 2002.

[32] Statement included in the Center’s announcement of a “Pro-Democracy Convention” in Philadelphia, June 29-July 1, 2001, found online at WWW.pro-democracy.com.

[33] Richie and Hill, op.cit., p.6.

[34] Richie and Hill, op.cit.,p.9.

[35] There are very many examples of this; e.g., the NJ gubernatorial primary of June 26, 2001, won by conservative Jersey City Mayor Bret Shundler on the basis of a light turnout. Another: Congressman Stephen Lynch’s “election to Congress was essentially determined in the Democratic Party primary, a contest in which 61% of 9th District (MA) voters indicated they wanted someone else to represent them” (Mickey Edwards, “Making Mass. elections more democratic,” BOSTON GLOBE, March 30, 2002). See also “Few vote in Primaries…” CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (March 21, 2002).  

[36] This is the DeFazio-Leach Study Bill, HR 57, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR) and Rep. Jim Leach (R, IA), first introduced on Nov. 15, 2000, and re-introduced on Jan. 3, 2001.

[37] As reported in “Pending Legislative and Ballot Measures” by the Center for Voting and Democracy as of April 5, 2001. The National Conference of State Legislators also keeps track of state legislation on electoral reform. Electoral reform commissions have been active in several states, so those interested in this area of reform will need to follow up to find the aftermath of a wide variety of efforts. See WWW.ncsl.org.

[38] See Leslie Wayne’s article, “Popularity is Increasing for Balloting Outside the Box.” NEW YORK TIMES (November 4, 2000).

[39] Quoted by Norman Ornstein in “The Dangers of Voting Outside the Booth.” NEW YORK TIMES (August 3, 2001).

[40] NEW YORK TIMES (August 4, 2001).

[41] NEW YORK TIMES (November 7, 2000).

[42] Most people don’t know that there was a 12th century “renascence” – a brief revival from the “dark ages” – that preceded the Renaissance that began in the 14th century. Will it take 200 years for us to recover from our political dark ages?

[43] Dao, James (2000), “Ringing Phones, Chiming Doorbells, Stuffed E-mailboxes: The Great Voter Roundup,” op.cit.

[44] Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (2002), “Turnout Modestly Higher; Democrats in Deep Doo-Doo; Many Questions Emerge.” News Release. Washington, D.C. (November 8).

[45] Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (2002), op.cit.

[46] If so, the signs may amount to a weak signal or a stillborn revival. According to Ken Weinstein, Director of the conservative Hudson Institute’s Washington office, the Institute’s “Project for Conservative Reform” has folded. The CfSAE goes on to say that “the underlying fact remains that the electorate is…largely disengaged from politics and that…(the) percentage (disengaged) is growing.”

[47] McElvaine, Robert S. (2001), EVE’S SEED: Biology, the Sexes and the Course of History.

[48] This remains to be seen, as the centralization of power in Washington – under a Republican administration! – in response to 9/11, as well as our focus upon the President, seems to suggest otherwise. Many commentators have observed that “big government” is back.

[49] “BoY” and “EoY” are common abbreviations for “Beginning of Year” and “End of Year,” respectively.

[50] Midler, Bette and Alan Bates (1979), THE ROSE: Original Soundtrack Recording, A Mark Rydell Film. New York, N.Y.: Atlantic Recording Corporation.

[51] I had the privilege of working with Margaret Mead along with a select set of others on a special project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science during the summer of our bicentennial year.

[52] There is even some talk of “a new progressive era.” For example, see Peter Levine’s article of the latter title in the KETTERING REVIEW (Spring, 2001).

[53] For more on this point, see Syder, Claire (1999), “Shutting the Public Out of Politics: Civic Republicanism, Professional Politics and the Eclipse of Civil Society,” An occasional paper of the Kettering Foundation. Dayton, OH: The Kettering Foundation.

[54] As I try to do in the last two chapters of the forthcoming book WE, THE PEOPLE.

[55] Report on “Local Campaign Finance Reform,” p.1.