Archive for "political engagement"
Imagine this: You’re at work one day long after law school has ended. One of your clients comes in for a meeting and asks you to assist him with his latest project: writing the basic rules for his new country. You’re a little skeptical about this because you work in family law, but it’s been a slow week and he’s paying in cash.
A week passes. You’ve dotted your “Is,” crossed your “Ts” and everything looks great. Your client asked for democratically elected leaders, so you gave everyone the right to vote. And that’s what he calls you about, the next day, in a panic, saying, “Well, you know, I’d like to make sure my friends and I stay in power. Can you do that for me?” You now find yourself with two choices: Refuse on ethical grounds and take the money that he owes you, or make the changes because you knew he wasn’t serious to begin with (despite reading that 1,500 law students got together somewhere and bought an island). History shows that our leaders have asked, “how do I stay in power” from the beginning. Current events show us they still do.
There are two, and only two steps to winning an election: (1) convince people to vote for you, and (2) prevent people from voting for your opponent. Step (1) is fairly straightforward. The candidate presents himself (or herself) to the people via TV commercials, in-person appearances, debates, and The View in an effort to convince voters that he (or she) will be a good elected official. When we think of step (2), most of us probably think about attack ads and unsavory former acquaintances that either push candidates out of the race or make voters think twice about the candidate. However, our politicians have been far more creative than that:
- During the Constitutional Convention, the Southern States gave the Northern States a choice: write protections for slavery into the Constitution, or have more than one country. The North took the first choice. Among these protections were the creation of the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Population determined representation in both. Free persons were counted as one person and slaves as 3/5 of a person. Therefore, any state with slaves received extra votes in the House and the Electoral College. The result: 10 of the first 15 U.S. Presidents were slaveholders. (Which may partially explain why the number of slaves tripled by 1845.)
- After the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the former Confederate States found themselves with zero slaves, and a lot of new citizens. These new citizens outnumbered their former masters in Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and made up a sizeable chunk of the citizens in the other Confederate States. The elected officials, legitimately concerned with the possibility that former slaves were likely to vote former slaveholders out of office, invented ways to prevent them from exercising their right to vote. Among these were poll taxes, threats, and intimidation. There were also tests. Voters would be asked questions such as, “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” Amazingly, none of the black voters could answer this question correctly, but all of the white voters could.
- Poll taxes were eliminated in 1964. The Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965, ending official race-based discrimination. President Nixon began the “War on Drugs” began in 1970. How does this correlate? The Fourteenth Amendment provides that the right to vote cannot be denied for a citizen over the age of 21, but that it may be denied if the person has participated in a rebellion or “other crime.” The U.S. prison population was near 500,000 in 1970. Today it is 2.2 million. Another 3 million people are on parole, probation, or otherwise subject to the jurisdiction of the penal system. In 2009, 12% (1.6 million) of all arrests were for drug abuse violations. Almost all of these people cannot vote. The prisoners? Disproportionately minority and disproportionately poor. Before 2008, only two states allowed all of their citizens the right to vote: Maine and Vermont. Kentucky and Virginia bar people with felony convictions from voting for life. The rest of the states fall somewhere in the middle.
Since 2008, the Republican Party has made no secret of its desire to see President Obama voted out of office in November. What has been less obvious until recently are some of the steps being taken to accomplish this goal:
- In June 2011, Maine’s Republican-led Legislature passed a measure ending Election Day voting registration. In November, the citizens of Maine voted to overturn the new law.
- Nine states introduced bills to reduce early voting periods. These bills [pdf] became law in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Florida’s law specifically ends early voting on the Sunday before the election – a day historically known for its high turnout of Black voters.
- An Arizona law requiring voters to show proof of citizenship was struck down. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is trying to make a similar measure effective before November. In all, 12 states have introduced proof of citizenship legislation [pdf]. Only two states previously had such laws.
- Florida and Iowa used to end felons voting rights for life. Within the last few years, both restored the voting rights of their former prisoners. Recently, these restorations were overturned, affecting 200,000 former prisoners.
- Before 2011, only two states required photo IDs to vote. However, 34 states introduced legislation requiring photo ID to vote. Seven of these bills are now law. 21 million citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID.
All of these measures are more likely to affect people voting for Democrats.
Our elected officials tell us that they introduced these bills to protect us against voter fraud. In the words of Stephen Colbert, “What fraud?” Voter fraud happens .00004% of the time. This means that if all 300 million U.S. citizens (including babies) voted, only 12,000 of these votes would be fraudulent.
Voting is not simply a way to choose leaders. Voting provides people a chance to directly impact how their government is run and express an opinion that might not otherwise be heard. Regardless of whether you consider voting a privilege or a right, one thing is clear: our elected officials want to win, and the voices of people who don’t vote, can’t vote, or are less likely to vote simply don’t matter.
My proposition: give all citizens over 18 the right to vote, without restriction. Allow your favorite politicians to take losses if they aren’t good enough at their jobs to get re-elected. Give them little incentive to win by displacing the competition or scaring us with false information. After all, I bet that most of us prefer our elected officials be honest with us rather than having us realize that their logic is insane.
I admit that you don’t have to go along with my proposition. But, you can petition your elected officials on the state and federal level, and ask them to consider ways to make sure the 2012 election is as fair as possible. For example:
- Don’t discriminate against equally valid forms of ID. The Texas ID law makes concealed carry permits acceptable, but student IDs unacceptable. Both are government issued IDs (at least in the case of public schools). However, the students are more likely to vote Democrat and the gun carriers are more likely to vote Republican, helping one party at the expense of the other.
- Make the proof of citizenship laws go into effect after November. Otherwise, the government is asking its citizens to (1) learn about the law, (2) locate birth certificates and naturalization papers, (3) in the case of married women, change their birth certificates and passports to match the married name, and/or (4) obtain a U.S. passport, which requires several proofs of its own all in nine months! Not only do these actions take time and money (harder to get for poorer people, who generally vote Democratic), only 30% of U.S. citizens have passportsbecause there is no reason to get a passport unless you leave the country.
- If voter fraud is the basis of the new law, request a stronger factual basis for the existence of rampant voter fraud, instead of telling us 31 people in Florida voted fraudulently. After all, the last time we agreed to something with scant evidence, the U.S. military ended up in Iraq for ten years.
Granted, your elected officials may not listen to requests that are against their own interests. Further, you may actually prefer that fewer members of the other party vote because it gives your guy a better chance of winning. (Of course, this means you can’t complain if the party you dislike does the same thing in the future.) But, if you choose to contact your representatives, they will know a potential vote is paying attention to their actions, and that check on their power is what democracy is supposed to be all about anyway.
Alternatively, I just heard of an island for sale…
Four years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece for my college newspaper – back then my column was called Reflections in Shades of Black and Blue – about the presidential election that was taking place. It’s a pretty decent read if you have a few minutes; I was much funnier in my youth. I think the point I was trying to make was that while the media was focusing almost exclusively on sensational and ultimately irrelevant details, there was something much bigger and more important going largely unnoticed. It seemed, at the time, as though more people cared and were well-informed about politics than at any other time in my memory. There was something new in the air. And, to me, that felt like it was worth spilling some ink over. A lot of time has passed since then and a whole lot has transpired. But, when I look back, I feel a certain degree of vindication.
In the past, I would often think about how you could frequently see on television, in cities and countries around the world, people marching and demonstrating in their public squares. On the other hand, in America no one every marched or protested anymore. Why was that? Was it because Americans didn’t care about anything? Perhaps it was because Americans were more civilized. Maybe we dealt with our frustration in other ways. Or, maybe it was because we were at such an advanced stage of development that our problems just weren’t as significant as those in other countries. The difference between a 36% and 39% top marginal tax-rate just doesn’t rise to the level of whether your family will eat this month. Maybe our cities just aren’t designed for protests. We don’t really have the kind of central squares that facilitate mass protests in other countries.
Whatever the cause, for two generations most Americans have been largely apathetic when it comes to politics. Long past are the cultural upheavals of the late sixties. Today, so many people don’t vote and so few have a firm grasp on the issues of the day. And yet, for the first time in decades, we know what a true populist movement would look like on our own soil, and just where it would take place. For that, we have the Tea Party and Occupy movements to thank, and regardless of whether you find yourself on the left, the right, or in the center politically, it’s nice to know that we still have that in us as a people. We certainly don’t agree on what to care about, but there seems to be a mutual agreement that it’s time to care.
Without doubt, this has been brought on largely by the recession. In times of struggle, people become more attuned to their surroundings. But I think there’s something else at work here, something that goes back a few years.
The public always pays attention to the ebbs and flows of a presidential election, and maybe that’s all I was seeing when I wrote that article four years ago. But then something else happened. This Obama fellow started tingling the little hairs on the back of our public imagination in a way that no one had for decades. Beloved as he was by the left for what he represented, despised as he was – and still is – by the right for what he represented to the left, in an historical blink of an eye, this man had transcended politics, becoming a symbol for the outpouring of our, until then, collectively repressed public emotions. And, once those emotions started flowing, they’ve done nothing but increase steadily ever since.
On the left, we began with a Messiah complex. That quickly turned to anxious confusion as when the object of our affections hasn’t texted us back in an hour (Did he not get our texts??? What could he be doing??? Does he not like us anymore???). Finally we settled on a resigned sense of disappointment. But then we found a new love…
I can’t speak personally about what it felt like from the right, but I imagine it being something like: At first we were horrified by Obama. Then we grew to utterly loathe him. Finally our feelings evolved into a slowly simmering rancorous hatred.
Anyway, the real key here was that not only were our emotions on our sleeves, but our actions were finally in line with our feelings. The conservative outcry over Obama’s health care reform spawned a political movement that would inspire millions and have massive repercussions at the polls in 2010. Next came the Occupy movement – partly a left-wing response to the Tea Party and partly a long-overdue call for social and economic justice – which would literally redefine our national discourse. All that liberal discontent over Obama could be channeled in a new and proactive direction.
In the last few years, both sides have found a reason to care and the strength to stand up for their beliefs. Looking back, I can’t say that I ever could have predicted what was coming, but I remember being excited and feeling that things might just be different. And different they certainly have been.
It’s pretty amazing to reflect upon how much things have changed in such a short time. As we pass through yet another compelling election cycle, I’m just as excited to see whether these new waves of popular engagement will last and where they will take us, both in November and in the years ahead.
More on November next time…
– Mike Berman is a graduating 3L, an aspiring political pundit, and a Co-Chair of Brooklyn Law Students for the Public Interest (BLSPI). Come say hello to him this Thursday, March 1, at the annual BLSPI Auction.