Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Resolution- More Democracy

As we head into 2015, with a new state legislative session and Congress on the horizon, many of the same questions that we have been blogging about for the past few years remain. Namely, will our state and nation move in the direction of improving and increasing Democracy, or will they continue the slide evidenced by voter apathy and a government that fails to represent its citizenry?

The problems seem clear enough- the last election saw the lowest voter turnout since the Second World War (not the War to end all War- the one after that!). The other glaring problem with our democracy is the role of money in our elections. According to Politico, the 100 largest donors in 2014 gave almost as much as the 4.25 million people who gave $200 or less- a glaring disproportionality.

Fortunately, the solutions are equally clear.

Amend the Constitution to clarify that money is not speech and corporations are not people, as our friends at Move To Amend are working to accomplish. This would clear the way for states and governments to regulate campaign giving and spending and enact meaningful public campaign financing.

Eliminate gerrymandered districts by creating independent redistricting boards that consider demographics, competition, and fairness instead of partisan gain when drawing new district maps. FairVote has already predicted the results of the 2016 Congressional races without even knowing the candidates, based on the political makeup of each district, and if previous results are a fair indication, they will be correct in over 95% of these predictions.

Give voters more choices on Election Day by eliminating onerous ballot access restrictions for minor party and independent candidates. (In New Mexico, we have had a mere 34 non-major party candidates in the last seven election cycles).

Reshape the legislature into a unicameral body and extend the legislative sessions so that our government can actually address the major problems facing our state in a deliberative manner.

Adopt a system of universal voter registration, so no qualified voter is disenfranchised on Election Day.

Move towards a system of proportional representation for legislative bodies and Ranked Choice Voting for single seats, so our election outcomes accurately reflect the will of the voters, as most every other nation that calls itself a democracy already does.

There is plenty to do in 2015, so I recommend we all make a "Democracy Diet" part of our New Year's Resolution. Pledge to spend at least an hour a week contacting policymakers, writing letters to the media, and talking with neighbors and strangers about fixing our Democracy. If you need info, advice, or support, please contact us or one of the organizations mentioned above about what you can do to be engaged.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Multiparty Congress?

Happily, someone in the main stream is talking about the possibilities of a multiparty system. Blogger Philip Bump has a brief piece in the Washington Post (link below) imagining our Congress divided into four parties, based on how current members voted on the recent budget bill.

Complete with maps and heavy on speculation, the article focuses on how legislation would be passed, with the need for coalition building. It also discusses how campaigning might be different, specifically mentioning how a four way Presidential debate might appear- in his scenario featuring Hillary Clinton of the Democrats, Elizabeth Warren as a Liberal, Jeb Bush the Republican, and Ted Cruz as a Conservative. He ends his piece, “What's not to like?”

Well, we like the idea very much. While Bump's article almost seems to say how much more interesting his job as a political journalist would be, we see real benefits to the nation. Rather than envisioning a multiparty system as arriving from a split in the existing parties, we contemplate it arising with grassroots support of newer parties like the Populists or Greens on one hand and the Libertarians or Tea Party on the other.

And the benefit would not be in the entertainment value of the new system, but rather that voters and citizens would actually feel represented by some members of Congress, and Congress might actually do something of benefit to everyday Americans. Imagine a Congress that bailed out homeowners instead of mortgage companies, or opted for health care for all instead of health insurance for all.

These and many other policy options are not even being contemplated in our current system. We are glad the Post raised the idea of multiparty democracy, and we hope people will begin to demand reforms to make it happen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Land Commissioner Recount

Last Thursday, December 18, the state canvassing board certified the results from a statewide recount in the election of Commissioner of Public Lands. The recount had been ordered by the Board after Election Day results showed the two candidates were separated by 704 votes, a margin of less than 1/2%. State law requires what it terms an “automatic recount” in any election with such a small margin of victory.

The results of the election did not change- Aubrey Dunn will be sworn in as New Mexico's next Commissioner on January 1- but it did reveal some problems with the recount procedure. For example, even though the law has been in effect since 2008, there were no procedures in place for the method and conduct of the recount. So the Secretary of State had to come up with procedures on the fly.

In turn, this resulted in a lawsuit filed by Commissioner Powell questioning several aspects of her guidelines. Powell's petition to the Supreme Court addressed many questions, some resolved, some not. For example, what would happen with provisional ballots that had not been counted after Election Day? Powell points out here that the number of outstanding provisional ballots exceeds the margin of his loss.

A related problem is the much reported failure to process voter registrations turned in at the Motor Vehicle Division and other state agencies. There have been multiple complaints from would be voters who were turned away on Election Day even though they had made good faith efforts to register through a government agency. Is this simply a series of clerical errors or an intentional assault on voting rights, and what is being done to remedy the problem?

As for the recount itself, it seems to have gone off smoothly. In Grant County, where I served as an observer (one of about a dozen), the day proceeded professionally and transparently. The results did not change even one vote out of the nearly 9000 cast.

Statewide, however, the margin of victory changed from 704 to 656. Notably, the total votes cast went from 499,666 to 499,330, a loss of 336. Where did those votes go? Significantly, over half of those votes, 187, disappeared from Colfax County, and another 86 went missing in Sandoval County. Is an explanation of those missing votes forthcoming?

For now, the affected parties seem content with the recount process, in spite of the questions raised. Overall, we are glad that New Mexico switched to a paper ballot system, so that a recount could be conducted.

In the long term, though, deeper issues need to be resolved. Clearly, rules for important election decisions should not be made in the heat of an election, when the rulemakers have a stake in the outcome. But we should also look at whether it is right that partisan elected officials (The Secretary of State and County Clerks) should be overseeing elections at all- what if this recount was required for the Secretary of State's race, for example, and Madame Secretary had to oversee her own recount?

Perhaps even more importantly- the question of who is a registered voter needs to be addressed. All eligible voters should be automatically enrolled on the voter roster. The government has plenty of opportunities to do so. All high school graduates should be immediately enrolled on the voter roster when receiving their diplomas. Every taxpayer (payroll, income, or property tax) should be enrolled on the voter roster. Anyone receiving government assistance (other than corporate welfare!) should be enrolled on the voter roster. It isn't rocket science- if we are a democracy, voting should be a given.

We look forward to the legislative session to see if any of the concerns raised by the recount will be addressed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

You call that an election?

Question: Why does a group of 1000 voters get to set policy in a town with 16,000 registered voters and a population over 30,000? Answer: Because majority rules.

If that doesn't make sense to you- good!

Yet that is exactly what happened on December 9 in Hobbs. A special election was called on the issue of whether to require Voter ID for future municipal elections, and only 1310 patriots, 8% of registered voters, came out to exercise their hard won right to vote.

Not incidentally, the measure passed, and now Hobbs joins Albuquerque and Rio Rancho in requiring voters to show a photo ID in order to cast their ballots.

One has to wonder at the process behind this new law. Why would the town of Hobbs schedule a special election just one month after the general election, which almost always has a higher turnout. Granted, the turnout in Lea County was still a dismal 29%, but that is better than 8%. Lea's turnout was the lowest of any county in New Mexico, where, statewide, there was a depressing 40% participation rate.

Democracy is not always easy. But let's do something to make sure it remains democracy. Maybe elections need to have a quorum attached, so that if at least 50% of registered voters don't show up, the election is moot.

How about making it easier to register to vote, or better yet, universal registration of citizens. And what about making sure everyone gets a ballot in the mail that they can return either by mail or in-person? Or making Election Days holidays?

In a recent election, Scotland had over 90% voter participation, and most European and Latin American countries see similar participation rates. Our country has a Democracy problem, and it is time to remedy that. Instead of draconian ID laws that are proven to lower already low participation, our policymakers should be working to encourage civic engagement.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Building the Case for Voter ID

Just days before the 2014 general election, Secretary of State Dianna Duran issued two press releases with a dual purpose: to influence voters in her favor and to build a case for legislation mandating voter ID. “Voter fraud confirmed in Rio Arriba County” details the story of a man from Hernandez who went to vote only to find someone had supposedly voted in his name, while “Bernalillo County Clerk issues three absentee ballots to deceased voters” points an accusatory finger at Duran's opponent Maggie Toulouse-Oliver.

In what was clearly a last minute attack on Toulouse-Oliver, Duran's November 3 press release raises more questions than it answers. For example, how did the unnamed “Albuquerque man” come into possession of three ballots mailed to three different deceased voters? Similarly, one wonders whether the persons were recently deceased and there hadn't been time to remove them from the roster, or if the Secretary of State had notified Bernalillo County to remove said deceased from the rolls in accordance with election law (1.4.25)?

The case of the Hernandez man is equally ambiguous. Did a person come into the early voting site and intentionally steal someone else's vote, as stated unequivocally by Madame Secretary? Or was it a clerical error, in which the voter signed the wrong line of the voter roster? Or a mixup among residents with the same or similar names? Again, the lack of detail leads one to believe the point of the press release was more than an election official performing due diligence.

Certainly the FBI and DA's office will look into the facts of these two incidents and clarify some of the murky details for us. But what is equally problematic is the Secretary's role. Are we persuaded that she is merely doing her job as the state's chief election officer to bring to light two troubling occurrences? Or was she in fact using her office for partisan purposes?

The latter, unfortunately, seems more likely, especially in light of the following quotation from both press releases. “...elections officials have no legal means of actually verifying signatures or confirming the identification of any voter.”

The fact that Secretary Duran supports Voter ID is not in question. Her strong ally Representative Diane Hamilton (R- Silver City) will surely be introducing that legislation again. In fact, Representative Hamilton considers Voter ID her hallmark legislation, stating last year that she was considering retiring but would not do so until that bill became law. And now, Secretary Duran has heaped two more pieces of spurious evidence on to the pile along with voting dogs and their ilk.

Leaders like Governor Martinez, Secretary Duran, and Representative Hamilton are part of the Republican war on voting. Voter suppression tactics are being employed across the nation to keep people away from the polls. Republican legislatures around the country are implementing ID laws, limiting early voting times and sites, and doing whatever they can to make it harder to vote. And it is working.

Working for the Republicans, that is, but not for the republic. The right to vote is what defines a democracy, and has been fought for repeatedly over our history as a nation, from outlawing poll taxes to women's suffrage. Unfortunately, those hard won gains are being taken back through fearmongering.

Republicans must know that restrictions on voting are unAmerican, but they pursue them anyway. Madame Secretary, do you truly believe in free and fair elections? If so, please show it by working to remove barriers to register and to vote, not by putting up even more obstacles.