Building Beloved Community out of the Political Mess, Part 1: Disenfranchisement and Technical Fixes

I wake up this morning to find that the nightmare of election results was no dream.  Conservatives won everywhere, even Massachusetts.  All the while Americans continue to say to the polls and the ballot box they disagree with the conservatives.  Voters around the country support an increase to the minimum wage, want to abandon the drug war, favor prison and sentencing reform, support reproductive health care (and other equal) rights for women, have no problem with gay marriage, favor legalization of marijuana, have a strong environmental awareness, and want consumer protections… all things Republicans, especially Tea Party Republicans, do not support ….So what gives?

A few things.   Most importantly, American voters don’t vote.  But wait, this not just about apathy, even though there’s plenty of this, especially among the young. See Hank Green on this here. The corporate interests (and old, rich, white, conservative men who control them) do not want women, people of color, and poor people to vote. As noted above, if the entire electorate turned out to vote, those Republicans would lose.  Don’t think they don’t know this.  Voter turnout is suppressed both directly and indirectly.

Voter turnout is suppressed directly by things like voter I.D. laws, such as the one here in Texas. When I voted I had to go through a two stage check in process. At first, I (a white male) was denied my ballot because my address on the voter registration was not the same as my address on license, even though I had sent in forms to change them both back in July when I moved. Good thing I had photocopied them.  A call was made, I was required to fill out a form again, and I voted.  As financially strapped as I am, I have the money for my driver’s license and work at one job that allows me to get to the polls.  The voter ID law works like a poll tax (which are a constitutional no-no) because not everyone has the money to get an I.D. or a license and not everyone has the luxury of working only one job on a schedule that easily allows them to get out and vote.  Another direct suppression tactic is gerrymandering election districts.  Districts are drawn up by those in power to give an themselves an advantage by redrawing lines so that more likely voters are group together to ensure those in power maximize the number of legislative seats both locally and nationally.  This is a tactic used by both Democrats and Republicans.

Indirect suppression happens through things such as legislative agendas.  One of the reasons the rich and powerful and their political representatives do not favor minimum wage increases is that a poor, tired, stressed electorate has less energy to organize and take action on their own behalf.   The more people work two and three jobs to make ends meet, with little or no help from the society for child care and elder care, the less (poor) people vote.

Other indirect voter suppression comes from election rules.  If we really wanted to encourage people to vote, which we really don’t, we could enact some technical voting reforms that make people feel their voice is being heard and thus increase participation. Here are a some of the technical fixes we could use.

TIME OFF TO VOTE – First of all we should ensure people have the time off from work to vote. Either make voting day a mandatory national holiday or require all employers to give everyone a paid  four hours or half a work day to vote.

USE TECHNOLOGY – Use technology to broaden access to the polls.  The technology already exists to allow us vote from our smart phones, or our tablets, or our laptops.  Many more people would vote if they could vote from home or work or even their phone.  Yes, electronic voting is susceptible to hacking and rigged elections, but so is the current system of computerized voting machines at polling places.  We could even pass a law that requires you to vote by fining people if they don’t.  You could leave your ballot blank if you really wanted to, but you have to show up and cast your ballot.

RANK CHOICE VOTING- also known as Instant Run-Off Voting or IRV. Instead of voting for the candidate of one’s choice, voters rank all candidates on the ballot in order of preference.  Winners must always have a majority of support and if no candidate has a majority, votes are redistributed to second or even third choices until one candidate is a majority winner. With rank choice/IRV, second place votes become important, the spoiler effect is eliminated, coalition building is encouraged, and mud-slinging discouraged, all things that strengthen voter participation.  See’s explanation of this method here.

NOTA/NOTO – is even more powerful when used with rank choice or instant run-off voting. NOTA stands for None of the Above (or NOTO, None of the Others).  A NOTA option is listed on the ballot for every race, even races with a single candidate running unopposed. If NOTA wins the election, the election for that office is void.  The election for that office is rescheduled and the candidate(s) who lost to NOTA may not enter.   When faced with the possibility that they need to get more positive support, candidates must respond better to actual voter concerns.

MORE POLITICAL PARTIES – The two party duopoly hurts all of us.  In an effort to win the support of the moderates, both Democrats and Republicans temper their sales pitch. This makes the base of each party angry because those who tend towards progressive are courted for Democratic primaries and those who tend towards the Tea Party are courted for Republican primaries.  When everyone is frustrated and angry you get apathy (liberals) or angry, anxious, hateful, reactionary behavior (conservatives).  More political parties would help.  We need a broader, more inclusive conversation. More parties would force our political conversation to examine differences of position, build coalitions on issues, and force politicians to pay more attention to constituents.   I can’t stand the Tea Party. Truth be told I’ve rarely met a Tea Partier who did not strike me as an old, angry, white, Christian, sexist-homophobe.  And yet, I hope they continue to participate. I hope they lead to a similar expression on the left of openness, inclusion, justice-seeking, anti-racist/anti-oppression, tree-hugging obstinance. I think the Green Party could play a huge part in offering that alternative.  My own experience of being fairly deeply involved in Green politics for a number of years hopes that one day the Greens will follow the Tea Party example and make joining the conversation and winning elections (even locally) at least as important, if not more important, than being extreme ideologues or single issue activists.

So, how might we finally see a breakthrough and create enough organizing energy to give some of these reforms a fighting chance?  Believe it or not, by being locallly grounded missionaries of the beloved community.  Next time: Part 2: Mission as a Way Out of the Mess.



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