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California’s Damaged Democracy

            The world closely watched the U.S. election results last November, correctly concerned about shifts in economic, military, and foreign policy that could have been created by a swing in political power.  While the U.S. federal elections largely left the balance of political party power unchanged (President Obama winning re-election over a split Congress), several major changes in California were clearly evident.  The 2012 election in California should be closely studied because it was the first election run under the so-called “open primary” system.  The “open primary” was put in place when voters approved Proposition 14 in June 2010.  Voters believed that their voting freedoms were being enhanced, but the 2012 results clearly prove that Prop 14 has actually restricted voting rights and given the Democratic Party an unfair advantage, particularly over the Republican Party.  Proposition 14 has damaged democracy in California.

            California voters, like most in the United States, had only been allowed to vote for primary candidates in the parties they were registered with.  For example, a voter registered as a Republican could only vote for Republican primary candidates, just as a registered Democrat could only vote for Democratic primary candidates, and so on with all political parties.  Propositions approved by California voters in the 1990s took the first steps in opening primary elections so that voters from any party (including unaffiliated voters) could vote for candidates from any party (included unaffiliated candidates).  Therefore, a registered Republican could vote for candidates from any party in the primary election.  This policy was correctly seen as “opening” the primary to voters that may be disenchanted with their own party’s candidates.  This opening of the primary had become normal for California elections until Proposition 14 was approved in June 2010.  Prop 14 changed California elections again, this time keeping the “open primary” system while added the “Top Two Candidates” provision.  Prop 14’s giant change was to only let the two highest primary vote-getters into the General Election in November.  “The candidates who are the top two vote-getters at a voter-nominated primary election for a congressional or state elective office shall, regardless of party preference, compete in the ensuing general election.” (“Text of Proposed Laws, Proposition 14” Section 5 (a), pages 65-66.  The entire document can be read at http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2010/primary/pdf/english/text-proposed-laws.pdf#prop14)  Any registered party was capable of getting on the November ballot even with an open primary system up until 2012, the first General Elections held under Prop 14’s new rules.  The outcomes are clear and undeniable to anyone that has taken the time to study the 2012 General Election results.

            Proposition 14 specifically targeted the elections for California’s representatives in the U.S. Congress (both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives) and for the California state legislature (both the State Senate and State Assembly).  There was only one U.S. Senate race for California in 2012.  Republican and Democratic candidates won the two most votes in the Primary Election, so the General Election ballot showed a candidate from both major parties.  Most California voters probably did not notice that they only had two choices in the General Election in November because both major parties were on the ballot.  The General Election ballots for the U.S. House of Representatives were often a far different experience, as many California Districts ran two candidates from the same party.  These parties were able to dominate the General Election ballot in these Districts because two rival candidates from the same party gained the two highest vote totals in the Primary Election.  The final election results show that 12 California Districts eliminated one of the major parties, with 6 Districts only running Democrats, 2 Districts only running Republicans, and “unaffiliated” candidates (labeled as NPP for “No Party Preference”) being a finalist in 4 Districts.  The following table simplifies these numbers:

 

                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

 

“Third Party” candidates were eliminated completely from the General Election because their candidates were not two of the top vote-getters in any Primary.  “Third Party” voters should be outraged at such a result, but so should Republicans because Republican candidates were eliminated from 9 Districts (the 6 Districts dominated by Democrats and 3 Districts that featured a Democrat vs. an unaffiliated/NPP candidate).  Democrats were only eliminated from 3 Districts (the 2 dominated by Republicans and District 23 that featured a Republican vs. an unaffiliated/NPP).  Proposition 14 in effect disadvantaged Republicans by eliminating Republican candidates from 9 Districts while the Democrats were only evicted from 3.  In total, 12 Districts eliminated one of the “major” parties from their General Election ballot.  That accounts for 22.6% of California Districts that eliminated opinions held by large numbers of voters – nearly 1 in 4 California Districts harmed democracy in dramatic ways in the 2012 General Election.

            Similar problems are found in the General Election results for the California State Legislature.  Twenty seats were up for election in the California State Senate in 2012.  Democrats were the top Primary two vote-getters in two Districts, so were allowed to dominate the General Election ballot in those Districts.  The Peace and Freedom Party got their candidates onto the General Election ballot in two other Districts.  Table 2 accumulates the results below:

 

                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

California State Senate        20             2           0          2           0                 4    (20.0%)

 

Though a “Third Party” got two candidates into the final round of voting, both candidates were crushed in the General Election (getting only 14% of the vote in District 9 and 20% of the vote in District 20).  (“State Senate – Results of All Districts,” published by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen at http://vote.sos.ca.gov/returns/state-senate/district/all/)  Republicans were again the biggest losers of Prop 14’s results: Republicans were eliminated from the General Election in 4 Districts (the two dominated by Democrats and the two Districts that voted between a Democrat or a Peace and Freedom Party candidate) while Democrats were eliminated from none!  Four out of 20 Districts eliminated the Republican Party from its General Election, which accounts for 20% of all Districts that held elections in 2012.  The Republicans should be outraged at their exclusion and should start thinking about ways to alter or rescind Prop 14.

            The ugliest example of California’s retreat from democracy was in the vote for California State Assembly.  California held 80 elections for State Assembly in 2012.  Democrats were the top two vote-getters in 13 District Primaries, so were allowed to dominate those ballots in November.  Republicans dominated only 7 Districts, while there was one Peace and Freedom candidate in District 15 and one unaffiliated/NPP candidate in District 28.  Table 3 reveals the final statistics:

 

                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

California State Senate        20             2           0          2           0                 4    (20.0%)

California State Assembly  80          13           7           1           1               22    (27.5%)

 

Again, Republicans should be outraged at these results: Republicans were eliminated from the general ballot election in 15 Districts (the 13 dominated by Democrats, District 15 that featured a Democrat vs. the Peace and Freedom nominee, and District 28 that ended with a Democrat and NPP on the ballot).  Democrats were eliminated from only 7 Districts.  This means that Democrats gained a 2 to 1 advantage over Republicans in the 2012 election!  Overall, 27.5% of California State Assembly ballots eliminated one of the two major parties.  Only one District gave its voters a “third party” choice.

            The results are clear: about 1 in 4 Californians looked at their ballot in November 2012 and found little meaningful choice.  The “Top Two Primary” winners were exclusively Democrats or Republicans in many areas; Republicans were eliminated from 28 elections, Democrats were cut out of 10 elections, while “third party” and “unaffiliated” candidates were excluded from a whopping 145 elections.  Californians were not told that such results were likely when they were asked to vote on Prop 14.  Now that we know its results, all Californians that love democracy should mobilize to overturn Proposition 14.  The “Top Two Primary” system obviously benefited Democrats because other parties were excluded at a far higher rate, so Republicans, Third Parties, and Independent voters should start a grand coalition to bring real choice back to California.  The Democratic Party could easily dominate California, and the American population could mistakenly come to believe that there is no viable alternative in California politics, if Prop 14 is kept in place. 

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It’s the Corruption, Stupid!

            The Republican and Democratic National Party Conventions are today little more than political infomercials designed to sell their party’s presidential candidate to the American voter.  Many speeches are given and many videos are played, focused entirely on presenting their candidate as an example of deified human perfection..  When the candidates’ turn to speak finally arrives, they largely discuss the problems that cripple government and have caused recent economic catastrophes.  Unfortunately, the candidates only rarely mention the disease that causes nearly all political problems: corruption.  The fact that politicians have to beg rich people and companies for campaign donations in order to have enough money to buy the advertising resources that mostly win today’s elections, and that the rich only give money when they get promises for special favors when their candidate takes office, is never mentioned.  The Party Conventions could be described as the most effective infomercials on television: they give a list of problems and advertise their product (their candidate) as the miraculous solution to those problems without ever discussing what causes such problems.  Any simple reading of the convention speeches reveals this; we can look particularly to speeches given by President Obama, Paul Ryan, and Elizabeth Warren as examples of such trickery.  The political parties and the candidates clearly believe that the American voting public is stupid enough to believe the infomercial, so the public should analyze these key speeches for content to understand what the politicians promise … and what they want to avoid discussing.

           President Obama’s speech has been hailed as powerful and inspiring, but Obama made only two small references to corruption.  “If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void, the lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote. . . .” (Barak Obama, Transcript: President Obama’s Convention Speech, published by National Public Radio September 6, 2012 at http://www.npr.org/2012/09/06/160713941/transcript-president-obamas-convention-speech)  Obama argued that the people can stop corruption by voting, but he refuses to lay out a program for ensuring that the rich cannot use their wealth to threaten democracy in the first place.  Obama’s indignation is righteous, but his solutions are non-existent.  Obama later advised the American people that “[i]f you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election.” (Obama, Convention Speech)  Again, Obama refuses to give any ideas on what laws could be passed to eliminate a rich person’s ability to buy political favors through campaign donations.

           Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not even imply that corruption is the main reason for most American political problems.  Instead, his vice-presidential running-mate Paul Ryan was given the task of diagnosing corruption as the central disease that must be cured.  Unfortunately, Ryan merely described the problems of corruption.  “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare, and cronyism at their worst.”  (Paul Ryan, Transcript: Rep. Paul Ryan’s Convention Speech, published by National Public Radio August 29, 2012 at http://www.npr.org/2012/08/29/160282031/transcript-rep-paul-ryans-convention-speech)  Ryan never described how the corruption created by campaign contributions leads to patronage, corporate welfare, and cronyism.  He described the symptoms of corruption’s disease without actually diagnosing the disease!  Ryan merely says that Mitt Romney can end corruption: “Mitt has not only succeeded, but succeeded where others could not.  He turned around the Olympics at a time when a great institution was collapsing under the eight of band management, overspending, and corruption – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” (Ryan, Convention Speech)  Ryan alludes to a comparison between Olympic corruption and U.S. government problems, and his lack of ideas on how to solve those problems sound very similar to other basic Republican statements.  He simply wants to elect Romney and then trust Romney to solve problems that Ryan himself does not appear to understand.

           Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Party’s nominee for Massachusetts senator, went only slightly further than Obama and Ryan in diagnosing corruption as the central political disease that must be cured.  Warren alluded to corruption in government: “People feel like the system is rigged against them.  And here’s the painful part: they’re right.  The system is rigged.  Look around.  Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies.  Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries.  Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.” (Elizabeth Warren, Transcript: Elizabeth Warren’s Democratic Convention Speech, published by ABCNews September 5, 2012 at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/transcript-elizabeth-warrens-democratic-convention-speech/story?id=17164726#.UFq_W65kG-Y)  Warren failed to indentify the campaign finance system as the source of political corruption, wasteful spending, and lopsided tax rates.  Later in the speech, she talked about how such problems had been solved in the past.  “About a century ago, when corrosive greed threatened our economy and our way of life, the American people came together under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt and other progressives, to bring our nation back from the brink.” (Warren, Convention Speech)  However, Warren still avoided describing what the politicians did in the early 1900s, what laws were passed, how corruption was reduced, or why corruption has re-emerged so powerfully in our own time.

           Elizabeth Warren’s clearest statements on solutions to corruption are hidden within attacks against Mitt Romney and the Republican Party.  “Republicans say they don’t believe in government.  Sure they do.  They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends.  After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said corporations are people.”  This ignores the fact that the Supreme Court has enforced corporate personhood and avoids any clear statements on what she would do to end corporate personhood.  Instead, she moves on to discuss banking fraud, her specialty issue.  “I had an idea for a consumer financial protection agency to stop the rip-offs.  The big banks sure didn’t like it, and they marshaled one of the biggest lobbying forces on earth to destroy the agency before it ever saw the light of day.” (Warren, Convention Speech)  Warren correctly identified bank fraud as a giant problem that could be solved by government oversight and punishment, and even correctly revealed corporate lobbying power as the greatest threat to such protection.  However, she refused to say how we can eliminate corporate lobbying power, instead simply saying that having a good person in the White House is the key to winning such battle for government oversight.

           Are candidates such as Obama, Ryan, and Warren too stupid to understand the central role that corruption has played, and continues to play, in castrating the United States government?  No, these politicians are clearly intelligent and strategic people.  They know the American voter is angry at the government, and that politicians must give voice to that anger to win elections.  The problem is that politicians also need to avoid offending the rich in order to keep getting big donations so they have enough advertising money to get votes.  American politicians therefore play a complex tightrope-walking game of talking about American problems without discussing the role that corruption plays in causing those problems.  They are great tricksters, and their conventions resemble strange political informercials.

           Instead, American voters act stupidly when they are angered by corruption but keep voting for Republicans and Democrats that never clearly say why these problems occur and never take steps to solve these problems when in power.  Other parties exist, many of which have given stronger statements on how to end corruption.  One idea for eliminating corruption is to cut the link between rich campaign donors and political campaigns.  It can be read for free at www.machineryofpolitics.com

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Lessig’s Shortcomings

The recent rise of “Tea Party” and “Occupy” Movements clearly reveal an unhappiness with the American electoral system.  Much of this unhappiness has boiled into anger and aggression.  Both sides openly talk about revolting against a political system so inherently corrupt that it is incapable of solving the massive economic and social problems the United States faces today.  Most Americans view both Congress and the presidency as inept, childish, and unreliable.  Americans keep voting for “change” – only one president since 1976 has won office without advertising himself as an outsider sent to Washington on the promise to clean up the mess – but keep getting the same results.  Most Americans understand that “change” is difficult to achieve when elections are won by money 90% of the time.

Tea Party activists and Occupiers both say that corrupt “special interests” spending money to win elections is the source of most American political crises.  Lawyers, Representatives, Senators, and even former leaders of presidential Administrations have proposed many different changes to our campaign finance laws aimed at eliminating the ability of the rich to win elections by merely outspending everyone else.  Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig proposed some of the clearest, simplest, and possibly most effective of these ideas in his book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (New York, Twelve: 2011).  Lessig’s ideas deserve far more attention than they have garnered in the mainstream press.  However, his plans fall short in the crucial area of “independent expenditures” – the ability of wealthy groups to build private media campaigns that often sway today’s American elections.

Republic, Lost gives a wonderful analysis of money’s role in American elections, how its dominant role in elections has hurt American economic and education systems, and how money “defeats” liberal and conservative attempts at changing the system.  The book is highly useful for any reader just beginning to learn about American political problems.  Lessig moves into a detailed presentation of his plan for changing the system later in the book.  His plan has four major steps:

            First, we convert the first fifty dollars that each of us contributes to the federal Treasury into a voucher.  Call it a “democracy voucher.”  Each voter is free to allocate his or her democracy voucher as he or she wishes.  Maybe fifty dollars to a single candidate.  Maybe twenty-five dollars to two candidates. . . .  The only requirement is that the candidate receiving the voucher must opt into the system.

Second, if the democracy voucher is not allocated, then it goes to the political party to which the voter is registered.  If the voter is not registered to party, then it goes to supplement funding for the infrastructure of democracy: voting systems, voter education, and the Grant and Franklin Project.

Third, voters are free under this system to supplement the voucher contribution with their own contribution—up to $100 per candidate.  One hundred dollars is nothing . . . to about 2 percent of the American public.  It is a great deal of money to everyone else.

Fourth, and finally, any viable candidate for Congress could receive these contributions if he or she agreed to one important condition: that the only money that candidate accepted to fund his or her campaign would be democracy vouchers and contributions from individuals up to $100 per citizen.  That means no PAC money and no direct contributions form political parties.  (Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It,New York, Twelve: 2011, page 267)

This seems to be a detailed plan for change, yet it is still short and simple enough for the average American to understand and easily use.  However, its major flaw is also obvious: the role of choice.  Remember: “The only requirement is that the candidate receiving the voucher must opt into the system” and “any viable candidate for Congress could receive these contributions if he or she agreed to one important condition” – that they only spend the voucher money plus the $100 contributions.  We simply cannot rely on politicians to choose to take small amounts of money rather than millions of dollars from single contributors.  Why would someone like Barak Obama choose to take such tiny contributions and reject the $700 billion he raised, and won with, in 2008?  The answer is simple: most politicians will reject public financing, as Obama did in 2008.  A better solution would force all candidates in any federal election to accept public financing as the only source of their campaign cash.

Another flaw in Lessig’s plan is equally important, though less obvious: the candidates’ campaigns are not the only groups spending money on media advertising.  Other groups, sometimes totally outside of any candidate’s campaign and not in contact with that campaign’s leadership, also spend huge amounts of money on political ads.  Some of these “independent expenditures” raise and spend tens of millions of dollars on attack ads aimed at jack-hammering worry and hatred into voters’ minds.  Such groups were limited to spending only $57,500 – until the Supreme Court killed those limits with the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.  With the limits erased, “independent expenditure” groups now spend unlimited amounts of money on any political message they want.  Lessig understands this to be a gigantic problem – and he even admits that his “democracy voucher” plan is helpless to stop such powerful and motivated groups.

The candidates would smile and tell us all that their campaigns were funded by clean contributions only.  And that would be true.  But all the dirty work in the campaigns would be done by “Americans for a United Future” or “Veterans Against Feline Abuse” or “United We Stand Forever” or whatever.  On the margin, these independent campaigns would determine who won and who lost.  And as the margin is the game, this world enabled by Citizens Untied could well defeat all of the independence that [the democracy voucher plan] was meant to buy.  (Lessig, Republic, Lost, pages 271-272)

Even if Lessig’s “democracy voucher” plan became law, candidates could accept public financing for their campaign with full knowledge that their friends would rush to build “independent expenditure” groups to wage the advertising war with unlimited money.  That is where the so-called SuperPACs would be even more powerful and unstoppable than they are today.  Candidates could claim innocence even while conspiring to bury American democracy under increasing amounts of dirty money.

Again, the best solution would force all candidates in any federal election to accept public financing as the only source of their campaign cash.  Any realistic solution must also make “independent expenditures” illegal to fully kill their power to determine election winners.  We would probably need a Constitutional Amendment to make it happen, but that is the only way to be reasonably certain that money can no longer dominate our politics.  My recent book, The Machinery of Politics, proposes such an Amendment.  The entire book can be read and downloaded FOR FRE at www.machineryofpolitics.com.  Campaigns that are only publicly funded would allow We The People to truly determine election-day winners – and make this country into the democracy it advertises itself to be!

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