Are we still a functioning democracy? Are we heading towards a kleptocracy? A kakocracy?
We badly need to fix our voting systems. The past two years demonstrated how prone the nation’s voting systems can be to cyber hacking from anywhere in the globe and throughout our own country. In a close election, a little hacking here and there could make a huge difference in the electoral outcomes. The Russians certainly tried very hard in myriad ways. We can expect the North Koreans and others from our own country to try as well. Our gifted computer giants ought to be able to design tamper proof election systems for the nation.
Gerrymandering for partisan advantage is two centuries old and becoming ever more sophisticated and effective; it locks in partisan advantages for at least a decade at a time and has been widely used by both parties. It is producing state and federal legislative majorities, which are not reflective of the views of the state’s or the nation’s voters. We need to move to a system where politicians no longer pick their voters. The Supreme Court is going to need to act, as elected politicians are and always will be unable to give up this power so important to protecting and advancing their own careers. In California the voter initiative process was used to replace the incumbent protections and partisan advantages procured by gerrymandering with a fairer system in which lines are drawn by an independent commission. It can be done in other states through voter initiatives. It is best done for the entire nation by a sweeping Supreme Court decision although that is a very long shot.
Partisan and closed primaries have been producing extreme politicians on both the left and the right. Part of the problem is low voter turnout in primaries and that turnout often reflects the views of the most politically involved and partisan Republicans or Democrats. There is nothing wrong with extremist politicians if that is what a given electoral district wants. And we do need politicians with extreme positions, with determination and grit to make progress against the too comfortable stasis that can over time undermine the government’s and the nation’s effectiveness. However it becomes very difficult to govern when both parties are electing absolutists who cannot and do not compromise with each other, and it disenfranchises all the voters from the minority party in the given district. It gives us gridlock, and this will be the death knell for the nation’s progress. I like California and Louisiana’s open primaries and voting for the top two finishers, regardless of party. This gives all voters in the district a strong stake in electoral outcomes and aspiring politicians a stronger incentive to listen to the minority party’s voters.
Campaigns are getting ever longer and ever more costly, and the few big money donors to politicians are at a premium. If they turn off the spigot, your campaign is dead in the water, as many have learned (and Steve Bannon is about to learn). This produces the best legislature money can buy for these key donors. The latest GOP tax bill is clear evidence of a party’s need to reward its big campaign donors. Corporate tax reform, tax simplification and middle class tax relief are warranted; giving huge tax breaks to the very wealthy is not what the economy needed; and financing them by restricting deductions for state and local taxes (double taxation) was simply an absurd exercise in partisan revenge. The corrosive mix of big money donors to political campaigns and consequential political decision-making is rife at the federal, state and local levels, right down to school board races, to elected local law enforcement, and to elected judgeship's. The Supreme Court has not only blessed this, but has recently allowed widespread corporate political spending on the grounds of constitutionally protected free speech. The best permissible antidotes for the moment are lots of sunshine, lots of transparency and an adherence to “regular order” – i.e. bills and political decisions must be in print, adequately noticed, debated, discussed and voted on in public settings. Dark campaign money must be exposed to public scrutiny in the light of day so we know exactly who is supporting particular candidates, initiatives and referendums in a timely fashion before election voting starts. Political giving and its influence on political decision-making infect both sides of the aisle, and even the cleanest of today’s politicians are not exempt from its reach and influence.
We need to put an end to voter suppression. Campaigns do what they can to encourage their own supporters to turn out and depress or discourage turnout for the opposing candidate. These suppression efforts often target the poor, the minorities, young voters, seniors and immigrant citizens; some of whom urgently need the very services that governments offer. Courts and law enforcement need to start to come down very hard on these efforts to disenfranchise and suppress voting citizens of the opposite political persuasion; legislatures need to improve citizen’s abilities to vote and then make their electoral appeals to the full electorate, not the narrow slice that already approves their policies.
Civic education is critical in schools, in communities, in neighborhoods and in religious institutions. We need to drive home from the earliest age how important it is for citizens to vote and participate fully in the political process. Our nation’s low electoral turnouts make a mockery of the democratic ideals on which we were founded. Equally as important is informed voting. When voters are fed (and come to steadfastly believe) a steady stream of partisan lies whether propagated by the candidates themselves, by certain media outlets or by foreign governments, we are in serious trouble. Voters need civic education not just during election seasons, but throughout the calendar year, so that they know what their elected officials are doing either for or against their interests, and are able to and encouraged to communicate with their elected representatives. We need to teach the federal constitution, its evolution and the dynamic struggles to adopt and later amend it. At the state level, we need to do the same. If we do not teach our nation’s and our state’s history to the rising electorate, that’s an abject failure of our educators.
So let’s make 2018 a key electoral watershed in our nation’s history and let’s keep working on these issues at the state, federal and local levels ‘til we can make our country again a beacon of democratic ideals. Ultimately, we are likely to need a new federal voting rights act to protect the voting rights of every single American citizen from state and local partisan efforts to deprive them of this most fundamental of rights. Maybe we will need to authorize civil penalties enforced by a private right of action for each aggrieved citizen denied the right to vote.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin