Friday, October 30, 2015

Don't believe the hype with Citizens United v. F.E.C.

Smokescreens to my right and left.
(This piece was originally posted on Medium, October 23, 2015.)

I bet you’ve heard the slogan, “Let’s overturn Citizens United!” This is telling people we need a constitutional amendment, or appoint new justices, who will overrule 2010’s Citizens United v. F.E.C. decision.

Citizens United has become a symbol, to many, of an exclusive federal government that puts a premium on political contributions. I agree that this is the state of the current United States political situation. However, calling for repealing a 2010 ruling is more of a potent rhetorical tool than a realistic — or even honest — solution to fixing an American democracy out-of-whack.

I have discussed the ruling with people who are emotional about it. Before I tread too deep into a conversation, I always ask the question, “Have you read it?” Most have not. This is understandable. A person with the Open Source Party recently said this about how people get their political information,

“One of the jobs of a political party is to provide a high return on attention by being a curator of ideas, a distiller of information, a vetter of facts/sources, and by being a bit smarter and faster than the average member who doesn’t have the time, money, or attention to research issues in depth.”

They’re right, however, we don’t have parties as much as we have candidate-based political movements. There are groups within the two major parties in the United States; and one inside the Democratic Party is #FeelTheBern. A cornerstone of Sanders’ campaign is his position on overturning Citizens United. If his rallies are like rock concerts, this line is received like one of his greatest hits.

His website says, “In a 5–4 decision in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for corporations and the wealthy to spend unlimited and undisclosed money to buy our elected officials.”

The statement regarding “undisclosed money” is simply not true. The 2010 ruling was good for transparency in elections. To blame the appalling lack of disclosure in federal elections on SCOTUS denies how good the Court has been on transparency. It also obscures the root of the problem.
The GOP can pass comprehensive disclosure rules tomorrow, however, they jealously clutch current loopholes that create the smokescreens their patrons hide behind. We need to be hitting ruling Republicans on blocking transparency laws. To Sen. Sanders’ credit, he supports legislation such as the Disclose Act, which increases transparency in elections.

Second, while spending limits can sound good, the reality is that they tend to bump up against the right of freedom of speech. The group Citizens United wanted to show a documentary on Pay-Per-View television and federal election law prohibited them from doing so. The laws that Citizens United overturned were passed by Congress before popular media such as YouTube took off.
Citizens United stated the Constitution does not discriminate against certain speakers. I believe a group like a union ought to be able to make a documentary about a candidate’s labor relations — and this statement should be allowed to stream on the internet. The Court was explicit regarding the convergence of traditional television and rapidly unfolding media technology. The ruling also mentioned how blogs and other web-based tools are important for expression.

Within the right of free speech, how is Pay-Per-View television any different from online content delivery? The ruling overturned prohibitions on electioneering during defined periods preceding an election. Citizens United basically knocked down censorship of the internet.

Buying Elected Officials?

Sanders’ campaign is raising tens of millions of dollars. His message is resonating with a lot of people. His crowd-sourced funding is the expression of the needs and values of his supporters. In other words — money is speech! The technological revolution is rapidly changing the political playing field where groups of people can combine their finances as a way to counter the concentration of money by a few individuals. I think this is an exciting development!

In light of this potential, do we really want to limit political information by repealing a court ruling that was good for transparency and internet freedom? And do we want to do this based on incendiary political rhetoric?

Indeed, politicians fanning the flames of discontent might be loath to turn off the tap of a lucrative rhetorical tool. Nevertheless, there are months before any party nominations are conducted. There is time for voters to make informed choices.

Lawrence Lessig has a good plan to break down barriers US House members have built to protect themselves. His plan to end gerrymandering and widen the franchise of voting is an honest and rational way to fix our broken political system.

Lessig is also right to call Sen. Sanders out on his sensational rhetoric. But with the #FeelTheBern bandwagon rolling, are people willing to listen?

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Brief History of Ranked Choice Voting

Party Machines Hated Proportional Representation (PR)
Image from Kathleen Barber's Book
Lawrence Lessig is trying to raise $1 million through crowdsourcing to run for president on a democratic reform platform. As of today, his effort is halfway towards the goal. One leg of his proposal is proportional representation for the US House based on FairVote’s latest plan. I have written in the previous post about how this system would work. This article is about the history of Ranked Choice Voting.

Ranked Choice Voting is not a new idea. It is constitutionally protected and has a long history in our nation. It has been more of a forgotten idea. But this is changing. The reform is reemerging as an alternative to the two round voting used in non-partisan municipal elections. It can also work with partisan elections where the results can mirror the primary / general election dynamic. Here is a very brief account of the history of Ranked Choice Voting. Most of the historical information in the article was taken from Kathleen L. Barber’s books - Proportional Representation & Electoral Reform in Ohio. &, A Right To Representation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Real Election Reform Enters The 2016 Race

I sent Lawrence Lessig's latest effort five dollars today. I did it because he is supporting proportional representation as part of his Citizens Equality Act. (He also links to FairVote, a reform group that I Chair) Lessig is right, the system is rigged—and it is the result of voting rules that tend to tip the scales.

Here is an example of how lopsided things are. In November of 2012, in Washington’s 7th Congressional District, (Seattle) the Democrat received 298,368 votes to win the election. In the 3rd District, where I live, the GOP winner got 177,446 votes. The reason for this lopsided result is the single-member districts rule for US House seats. The bi-partisan commission in Olympia that drew the lines packed the 7th District with Democratic voters, and the result is a huge surplus of votes. In the 3rd CD, the Democrat won almost 40 percent but that accounted for nothing—as the winner takes all. In the end, all of these surpluses piled up to where it cost the Democrats—who won the most votes nationally—the US House.

Nowhere in the US Constitution does it express single-member districts with winner-take-all rules for House elections. The current rules are the result of political decisions by the elites who make them.

Winner-take-all rules also impact campaign financing issues. For example, Washington’s 7th and 3rd districts are so lopsided for one party or another, they tend to be ignored; while the handful of so-called “swing districts” get tons of money dumped into them. This is a great value for the special interests who tend to dominate campaigns because they only need to spend / amplify their voices in certain areas. All the while, voters in safe seat districts are spectators in elections that are seen as a foregone conclusion.

Friday, June 12, 2015

My Testimony in Olympia Supporting Options for Local Elections

I am testifying today in support of allowing local communities and jurisdictions the ability to move away from winner-take-all at large elections.

This committee is considering districting as a way for localities to remedy possible issues with minority vote dilution. Nowhere in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 does it mandate exclusive districts as a remedy. In fact, the jurisprudence established since this important federal law was passed gives local communities options for voting remedies. While most choose a districting plan, others opt for a modified at-large system.

There are over 100 jurisdiction in the United States that successfully use this kind of voting system. For example Texas, which has a large Latino population, has 40 school boards that use modified at-large to elect their board members.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fifty Years of the Voting Rights Act

By Krist Novoselic

In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision; which put an end to the doctrine of “separate but equal”. This unanimous ruling struck down the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson — an 1896 decision that propped up a regime of racial segregation lasting for generations. A decade after Brown, vestiges of segregation still existed in state and local election law. As a result, a broad-based, grassroots civil rights movement took action. To this day, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), a centerpiece achievement of the civil rights movement, looms large over elections in the United States. The goal of this landmark legislation is to break down statutory barriers to political representation such as literacy tests, poll taxes and other voting rules meant to exclude. As a result of the VRA, elections today are reflecting more racial diversity than ever before. This demonstrates the success of the VRA.

On the other hand, the status quo of civil rights advocacy is far from dynamic. Civil rights issues have been drawn into the political polarization that currently grips American politics. We find the Act repeatedly manipulated by political elites of both major parties to maximize their electoral strength. Instead of broad-based, grassroots efforts, the battles over civil/voting rights within legislative reapportionment are fought among attorneys. The resulting course of law is a patchwork of civil rights rulings, some at odds with the Act itself. These fights occur at all levels of government; for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; who controls the floors of various state chambers; on down to counties, cities and other local jurisdictions. Those who control and prevail with the drawing maps for this type of election effectively become Masters of the Political Universe. This article looks at how political elites tend to focus on geographical districting with single-seat, winner-take-all elections as a remedy to VRA cases.

While the VRA has been successful with electing minorities, measuring legislative responsiveness in the United States Congress shows poor results. This article examines legislation in the House of Representatives regarding immigration—an important concern to Latino voters—and how this issue is languishing as a result of distortions caused by partisan manipulation of district lines.

I conclude by suggesting some form of modified at-large voting as a way of keeping omnipotent political elites in check.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Great show with The Sonics last night

I go to play the tune "Cinderella" with The Sonics last night. Their set caught the band in top form. It was amazing to see them live. I imagined being in the audience at the Spanish Castle in 1965. (This is the venue immortalized in the Jimi Hendrix song.) My point is that their energy and straight-forward arrangements actually transcended time. They were the forbearers of Punk Rock who opened doors for many in the Pacific Northwest music scene.

Here are some images by Brian Kasnyk.

Group Photo

Chris Ballew & Myself
Rhythm Section: Myself with Dusty Watson

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Voting Rights Act In Yakima, Part IV: Let's Pass The WASHINGTON Voting Rights Act

Let's have our cake.........or taking your piece?
By Krist Novoselić

Micah Cawley is the Mayor of Yakima, Washington and he writes this great editorial in the Seattle Times today.

It is refreshing to see a forward-looking article about the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that encourages readers to go beyond the partisan stagnation that infects our politics these days.

Last week, Cawley submitted testimony in Olympia in support of the Washington Voting Rights Act. He advocated certain amendments to the bill that should make better prospects for its passage. This can be a game-changer with legislation that has been slogging its way through the process. Too bad proponents of the VRA squandered an opportunity to move an amended bill out of the Senate Government Operations and Security committee. They instead passed a version of the bill that already died in the Senate Rules committee. Unless proponents have a strategy -and I have not heard of one- it seems like EHSB 1745 [WA VRA bill] is limping its way to its death again in the Senate Rules committee. However, it's not too late and maybe Cawley’s positive attitude -and the amendments- can still give this bill some traction?