Monday, December 31, 2007

The Electoral College: Democracy Denied

The Electoral College method of electing the President of the United States is a travesty. Three times in the nation's history the candidate who did not get the most votes has been declared the winner. This is a blatant denial of democracy itself. The Electoral College should be abolished. It could be replaced either by simple popular vote, a second round of voting or by an instant runoff voting (IRV) plan.

An Electoral College system was set up at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 for two main reasons. First, the delegates did not trust the common people to make so important a choice. Indeed, only members of the House of Representatives were to be elected directly by the citizens. Senators and Presidential Electors were chosen by majority vote of the most numerous house of the state legislature, usually called the State Assembly. Second, the Constitution was a bundle of compromises between the thirteen states, each pushing its own specific interest. In order to secure the support of the smaller states, the larger states had to agree to a system that exaggerated the power of the small states in the national election process and kept the decision in the hands of the politicians rather than the voters themselves. This antidemocratic element of our election process is not something to be hallowed; it was simply a crass political bargain in the service of an elitist view of the citizenry.

In 1824, 1876 and 2000 the will of the majority of the American people was thwarted by this unjust system. Andrew Jackson was denied in 1824 in an election that was ultimately decided in the House of Representatives, though he was able to avenge his defeat and unseat John Quincy Adams four years later. Rutherford Hayes won the Electoral Vote over Samuel Tilden in 1876 despite losing by 3% in the popular vote in a chain of events that saw the votes of three states challenged and awarded as part of a backroom deal. (Look up the "Compromise of 1877" for more details about this.) Finally, George W. Bush took the Electoral vote 271-267 over Al Gore amid the famous "hanging chad" controversy and recounts in Florida that were ultimately halted by the Supreme Court. Gore won the popular vote by some 550,000 that year.

Apologists for the Electoral College like to say it makes the candidates pay attention to rural areas or smaller states that would otherwise be ignored. But that's not what it does. It makes them pay attention to states that have close races, regardless of their other characteristics. Republicans ignore the vast rural areas of California and the million votes they could pick up there because the Electoral College vote is winner take all. The Golden State is overwhelmingly Democratic and they would lose the statewide vote anyway. Similarly, Democrats ignore the big urban areas of Texas and the million votes they could gain there because the Lone Star State is so decisively Republican they would still fail to carry it. Instead of trying to pick up millions of such votes in one-sided states they spare no effort and expense to get out 10,000 votes in hotly contested Wisconsin, change 5,000 minds in nip and tuck New Mexico or 3,000 in competitive Delaware. Neither side pays much attention to campaigning in or addressing the issues of any state of the Republican South and Great Plains or most states of the Democratic Northeast or Pacific Coast. What a perversion of democracy it is that 3,000 votes in one place are considered more important than one million in another.

The simplest way to correct the problem would be to declare the winner to be whoever gets the most nationwide votes. We decide our other elections in America that way; why not for the most important election of all? Some object on the grounds that leaders can be elected by only a plurality but without the majority of the votes this way. In multiple-candidate races this has happened several times. Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and Bill Clinton in 1992 are three prominent examples. If this is a problem a better way might be to ensure that the national leader begins with the support of at least a majority of the people.

One way to make certain a president has been chosen by the majority is to have a second round "runoff" election. We do this in some states in local and primary elections and France does this in its presidential election. Candidates who finish third or worse are eliminated from the ballot in the runoff. The top two vote-getters square off, usually shortly after the initial contest. This allows people to indicate their support for minor candidates in the general election and then vote between the two most nationally popular ones in the final round. In 2000, for instance, liberals could have voted for Nader and conservatives for Buchanan in the first round and then gravitated to Gore and Bush respectively in the runoff. This method can work but instant runoff voting (IRV) is a better option.

In Instant Runoff Voting the voter marks a first, second, third, and so on choice for an office. If there were four candidates running and no one got a majority, the candidate who finished fourth would be eliminated and his or her voters' second choices would count instead. If neither of the top two yet had a majority the number three finisher would be eliminated and his or her second (or third, if necessary) picks would count, along with those of the already eliminated number four finisher. In this way IRV will determine a majority based on ranked preferences. This system is in use for some elections in Britain, Canada, Australia and San Francisco. You might also see it referred to as rank order, preference voting, or other names. It allows people to vote for minor candidates and still register a preference between the major contenders if their choice finishes down the list. It also saves the time and expense or holding a second round of elections. I like the idea and would like to see it adopted, but any of the three plans mentioned is a huge improvement over the current unjust procedure.

Which ever way is chosen, the overriding priority is to get rid of the undemocratic Electoral College system. Because the practice is part of the Constitution it requires a constitutional amendment to change it. That would need to originate in the Congress and then move to the states for ratification. It's a long and difficult process, but worth it. Let's hope we have seen the last time that the American people's choice for president does not become president.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Presidential Primaries: Democracy at Random

We have a peculiar way of nominating presidential candidates in this country. We eliminate two-thirds of the hopefuls based on the say so of two of the most unrepresentative states in the nation, Iowa and New Hampshire. Those who survive these first tests must then run the gauntlet of one of the most extreme bastions of religious and political conservatism, South Carolina. Whoever is left after that has a chance to appeal to more typical populations of American voters. But by then the aura of "momentum" in the political horse race usually overshadows issues and substance, and a nominee is already all but anointed. This is a random and silly way to decide who gets to run for the highest office in the land. We ought to make some changes.

Some have suggested a national primary held on a single day. For 2008 many states have moved their primaries up in the calendar to have a voice before the winners become apparent. This looks like a tendency toward a national primary, but that's no better an answer than the present system. That's because the expense of running a national campaign from day one would make it impossible for all but the best-financed, party insider supported politicians to compete. There would never have been a chance for Democrats like Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 1992 or a Republican like Mike Huckabee in 2008 to compete against old-guard organization candidates or well-heeled opponents across the entire country without a huge war chest from the beginning.

What we need to do, then, is to keep the initial contest small but make it more representative. A good way to do this would be to start with four states: one from each of the Northeast, South, Midwest and West. We should avoid high-population states where it's very expensive to campaign (because of the cost of media air time) but still make sure we had enough diversity to include an industrial state, a farm state and significant representation from our two largest minority groups, blacks and Hispanics. This first round could be held around March 10. I have two reasons for the later start. First, there is no good reason to discourage participation and turnout by subjecting candidates and voters to arctic conditions in the frozen climes of New England and the Upper Midwest in January. And second, the process lasts far too long already!

I'd suggest Connecticut or Rhode Island as the Northeastern state. They're small industrial states where a candidate could practice some person to person "retail" politics with the voters. Massachusetts could serve instead. It's industrial, geographically small and more diverse, though it has a much greater population than either of its two neighbors to the south and would be more pricey to campaign in. Any of either South Carolina, Mississippi or Alabama could be the Southern state. They're small in population and have large African-American minorities. Iowa could continue to serve as the Midwestern state, but there's no reason it couldn't be Kansas, Nebraska or one of the Dakotas instead. Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico should probably be the Western state based on their small populations and sizable Hispanic components. The states in each region could even be rotated from one election to the next every four years.

The second round could be held three weeks later, about April 1. As long as we have our present funding structure this would give those who proved their viability in the initial round a chance to gather funds from their newly-discovered supporters and bandwagon jumpers and apply it to the second round. The four second-round states could be larger than the first-rounders but should still avoid the jumbo states. In the Northeast it could be Massachusetts or New Jersey, the South could be Georgia, North Carolina or Virginia, the Midwest might be Minnesota, Wisconsin or Indiana. The West is a bit of a problem, since there really aren't yet many moderate-population states there between the passel of small ones and mega-California. Washington comes closest to fitting the bill.

A third round should then go nationwide about four weeks later, around May 1. This would give the remaining two or three serious candidates in each (or every) party more time to coordinate a national campaign and visit a greater number of states. There would still be at least two months before the national conventions, sufficient time for the preparations necessary to mount a national campaign. The third round of the primaries would have served as a dry run for that in practical terms anyway.

By keeping the initial round small we would give a decent chance to less well-known and well-financed candidates to make a mark. By balancing it regionally and ethnically we would avoid eliminating contenders who can appeal to more than just homogeneous rural states. By starting the primaries later we would reduce the negative effects of bad weather. By limiting the process to ten weeks we might reduce the expense, and would more likely reduce the voter burnout characteristic of the current interminable procedure. It is time to go ahead and make our presidential selection process more representative and sensible.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Campaign Finance: Democracy for Sale

Congress doles out eight billion dollars in tax breaks and incentives to oil companies even as the price of oil rises to record levels and industry profits reach all-time highs. A three hundred million dollar "bridge to nowhere" is appropriated to link an Alaskan island-population fifty persons, with regular ferry service-to the mainland. The capital gains tax is reduced to 15%, assuring multibillionaire brokers and hedge fund managers a lower tax rate than average working folks and causing Warren Buffett, the second wealthiest man in America, to famously observe that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. The Administration scoffs at report after report from the scientific community detailing the catastrophic warming of the global climate caused by the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Instead it shelves the Kyoto Treaty, orders government scientists to remain mum and sends political hacks to rewrite their findings. Piratical energy brokers manipulate the market to create phantom electrical shortages in California, costing its citizens fifteen billion dollars. The Administration protects the criminals rather than the citizens.

What is going on here? Almost everyone knows the answer. Politicians want big money for their election campaigns, and big-money donors expect something for their contributions. In a myriad of ways large and small the money of special interests stands opposed to the interests of the majority of Americans and the national interest as a whole. All too often in the present system money counts more than votes, both for its own sake and because with enough money politicians feel they can control public opinion and gain the people's votes anyway with a blizzard of campaign advertising. In a fundamental way then, American democracy is for sale.

The recent cases of congressmen Cunningham, Delay and Jefferson and lobbyist Abramoff demonstrate the criminal temptations inherent in the system. But they obscure the actuality that most of the damage is done fully within the law. The idea that a few people with a lot of money should get their interests served at the expense of the many without it makes a mockery of the very word "democracy." The practice spawns incredible waste, both in terms of the counterproductive uses to which government money is applied and to the opportunity cost of it not being applied to things that make sense, be they actually useful projects, the reduction of debt, or back into the pockets of the people themselves. It also wastes enormous amounts of time. Congressmen report spending up to half their time fundraising instead of doing the job they were elected to do: provide constituent service, study issues and prepare legislation. This corrupt system of legalized bribery is intolerable and must be stopped. The solution is public financing of campaigns.

The American people already support the concept. A 2006 poll of 1,000 voters with an error margin of 3.1% conducted by Lake Research Partners found that 74% favored a "voluntary system of publicly financed campaigns," 57% of them "strongly." 10% had no opinion and only 16% were opposed. This support was broad-based, including 80% of Democrats, 65% of Republicans and 78% of independents. The survey found that 82% of respondents felt it would make candidates more likely to win on their ideas rather than their money. 81% said it would make politicians more accountable to the voters. 79% believed it would allow citizens with good ideas to have a chance against the rich and powerful. 79% agreed special interests would not get as many favors.

Several states have already adopted "clean elections." Ten states have a system in place for governor and seven for their legislatures. Two major cities, Albuquerque and Portland, use it for their mayoral races, and Rhode Island requires broadcasters to provide free air time for candidates.

How does a clean election system work? First, a candidate demonstrates viability by gathering a reasonable number of small contributions. The formula to be raised is based on the population of the district or state in question. Upon qualifying, candidates receive equal amounts for the primary. Those who win the primaries get equal amounts for the general election. General election amounts are larger than for primaries. As an example, Connecticut State Senate candidates have to raise $15,000 in contributions of $100 or less. They then get $35,000 for the primary and $85,000 if they win the primary and compete in the general. Keep in mind Connecticut is a small state and these are small districts. Strict accountability must be in place to make sure the funds are actually spent for election purposes. It's pretty much as simple as that.

Several questions usually come up and I'll do my best to answer them. One concerns the "voluntary" nature of such systems. Isn't that a huge loophole? Can't a wealthy person or a person serving wealthy backers spend much more and still get a big advantage? Indeed that can be. But the expenditures can't be limited because the Supreme Court ruled in the 1974 case Buckley v. Valero that mandatory limits on campaign spending were an abridgement of the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and the press. For example, the Presidential campaign funding system we now have was established after the Nixon scandals of 1972 that led to his resignation. Because of the escalating cost of campaigns and the ability of political organizations to raise ever larger amounts, the funds it provides are no longer considered competitive. In 2008 it is expected that both major party candidates will refuse public financing and raise as much as they can privately. This, of course, defeats the purpose of the system. The way to restore the integrity of the system, "matching," is rather ingenious. Suppose a congressional election will be funded at $500,000. One candidate signs on for the clean money process. The other does not, figuring he can raise more. But as soon as he does, the clean money candidate receives a matching supplement from the elections commission. Nobody's ability to buy extra commercials is limited, but nobody gets an advantage by doing so either. Over 80% of Arizona's serving legislators have been elected by clean money under the system, even though it's voluntary. It's become a campaign advantage there for candidates to say they take only "clean" money and aren't beholden to special interests.

Another big question is the cost. Won't the taxpayers be taken to the cleaners by such a plan? Isn't it better just to let the fat cats pony up at no cost to the citizens? Well, actually the price tag is quite modest. Experience in the states having these types of systems figures out to a cost of between $2 and $6 for each voting age resident. In addition, the price of letting the special interests "pay for us" is immense. To cite from two examples I mentioned in the first paragraph, the oil industry contributed a little over $3 million to President Bush's 2000 campaign. They got the aforementioned $8 billion in tax breaks. That's a handsome return on investment of $26,666.66 to one. Not bad, and it goes further. They've also been able to raise the price of oil from $26 a barrel to $98 today. Through their friend in the White House and their allies in Congress they've been able to fight off all attempts at regulation and defeat every effort to assess an excess profits tax on the windfall. Meanwhile the price of gasoline has gone from $1.38 to $3.20 per gallon. That's certainly costing the consumer a lot more than would have been paid in public financing. How much more? The cost of the 2004 presidential election was about $500 million. That's $1.67 for each American citizen. In the other example, Enron and other energy giants spread $4 million around the California legislature to achieve deregulation. With no one guarding the hen house the crooks then robbed Californians of $15 billion. Once criminality was evidenced the perpetrators wound up paying back about 3 cents on the dollar. For a political investment of $4 million they made off with $14.5 billion. Good work if you can get it.

A last question, will this put an end to lobbyists? No, there will still be lobbyists, as there should be. After all, the First Amendment protects the people's right to "petition" their government and there is nothing against their organizing to do so. But the nature of lobbying will change. Their political currency will no longer be money, but votes, as befits a democracy. An organization will have clout because it represents thousands or millions of voters concerned about an issue, not because it has a handful of voters with millions of dollars to dangle.

Taken together with my earlier proposals for redistricting, the adoption of public campaign financing will eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars in government waste at all levels and restore fairness and a strong measure of genuine accountability to the American political system. We deserve a political system we can be proud of instead of one that is unworthy of us, an embarrassment geared to serve the few over the many and the narrow over the national interest. A good first step is the Fair Elections Now Act, co-sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Check it out. Isn't it time to put an end to the nonsense?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Term Limits: Democracy Frustrated

In my last post I introduced a proposal for redistricting to make state legislative and congressional races more competitive and representative. Dissatisfaction with the electoral process has already spawned another movement to do so: term limits. Proponents envisioned term limits as a way to improve citizen input and participation and inject fresh blood into politics. Instead, term limits have failed to live up to the hopes of their backers and have made many problems worse. This experiment has not proved to be a hoped-for panacea as was originally advertised and should be discarded.

Enthusiasm for term limits ran high from 1990 to 1996. California, Colorado and Oklahoma got the ball rolling in 1990. Seventeen more states joined the party by 1996. Since then, only Nebraska in 2000 has been added to the list. No new states have adopted them since 2000, and indeed six states have since revoked legislative term limits, leaving 15 states with them still in place. There were calls for term limits to be imposed on the U. S. Congress too, and it was included as a plank in the successful Republican "Contract For America" congressional platform in 1994. After winning the majority in Congress in the election of that year, however, the newly elected representatives and senators seemed to lose interest. It would take an amendment to the United States Constitution to accomplish this, and that idea never got of the ground.

I visited the Cato Institute website on the issue. They are a strong advocate of term limits. It is interesting that their advocacy piece, still prominently displayed, was written by Doug Bandow in 1995 in an effort to get the new Republican congress to honor its campaign pledge. Bandow presented the case for term limits at the height of their popularity and mentioned seven main reasons. They were: 1) elect citizen legislatures, 2) elect members who were close to the private sector with "practical experience in the real world," 3) diversity, 4) reduce the power of incumbency, 5) counteract a "culture of ruling," 6) provide an "antidote to professionalization" and 7) improve competitiveness. These seven reasons really boil down to only two. Reasons 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 are different ways of stating the same purpose: to get rid of professional politicians and replace them with "regular folks." Reasons 4 and 7 are the other purpose, to reduce the power of incumbency.

How this has actually worked out is encapsulated in a survey conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures answered mainly by legislative staffers. Many staffers stay on as the composition of the legislature changes around them. You can find the summary and raw data at Their predominant view is that the change has done a lot more harm than good. Only 13% report greater public access to the legislature. 51% report there has been no change in diversity and only 22% say it has improved. 74% believe their legislature is less efficient than before. 68% feel that legislative committees are less effective. More than twice as many think their legislature is now more likely to support pork barrel projects than think such projects have been reduced. 63% say the executive branch has gained power, 66% feel legislative staff now exert more influence and 75% believe the influence of lobbyists has grown. This reads like a Pandora's box of negative results.

Telling comments include such contributions as these: "Originally, I believed that fresh blood would be good; however experience, understanding of the process and historical knowledge are lost. The same debates occur year after year." "Too many legislators feel hard-pressed to make an immediate impact without full knowledge of the implications of their decisions." Why is this happening? One respondent perhaps explains it best, observing that term limits give

"... more power to the information providers - the executive branch, legislative
staff, and lobbyists. In terms of government experience and institutional memory,
legislators will now be disadvantaged, forever. In terms of knowing how to
get things done, legislators will now be disadvantaged, forever. In a
world that becomes more complex every year, the majority of people who have
foisted this term limit scheme onto our democracy have now mandated that
their representatives will always be rookies or just a few years beyond being
rookies. They have proclaimed that they don't want the benefits that come
from wisdom through experience."

Another effect I have observed in California is what I call the revolving door. Telling politicians they cannot run for a particular office does not mean they won't run for some office. Legislators about to be termed out change from the Assembly to the Senate or vice verse. They run for county supervisor, the Board of Equalization, mayor, supervisor of a water district, statewide office, or what have you. Just about the time they learn a job and the people they are working with well enough to be competent and accomplish something they are termed out and begin anew as a rookie in a different post. The state legislature hasn't passed a budget on time since the limits were enacted. And that budget, which always used to balance whether Democrats or Republicans held sway, has been in deficit the majority of years since this "reform."

The final nail in the coffin of this well-intentioned but boondoggle of an idea is that it is fundamentally undemocratic. By setting up a rule that prevents the voters from electing the person of their choice to a post, it guarantees that someone who enjoys their confidence less will fill it. If the person wishes to remain in public service and has the support of the people to do so s/he will have to start from scratch in a job with which he or she is less familiar. It is hard to see how the public interest is served by such regulation, and the legislative survey and experience indicates that it most certainly is not.

Though some still call for the spread of the term limit movement, it is hardly surprising given these results that no new states have joined since 2000 and that six have rescinded their former term limits. No, term limits provide no useful answer for us. They represent the frustration of an electorate that saw little chance to effect change when they wanted to. The redistricting plan described in my last post and the campaign finance reform I will discuss in my next will go much farther to effecting the necessary remedies.

Note: Due to the Christmas holidays I will be out town for the next few days. I'll resume my next post after that. Until then, I invite you in this most blessed season to pray with me for peace and goodwill on earth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Redistricting: Democracy Subverted

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, his integrity.

James Madison

These wise words from the "Father of the Constitution" go out the window when it comes to redistricting for legislative seats. Instead, the politicians themselves draw the boundaries for their districts. This practice multiplies the advantages of incumbency, ensures that left and right wing extremists enjoy a heavy electoral advantage over moderates and consequently contributes to partisan gridlock and voter apathy. Several solutions have been proposed to deal with this problem in a fair and nonpartisan way, but I feel the best is one that takes self-interest out of the equation altogether. I'll come back to this later.

The Constitution requires a national census every ten years. When the results are published state legislatures set about the business of redrawing district boundaries. Since representation in the House of Representatives is determined by population, a state may have to add or subtract congressional districts. They are also required to make their districts, be they state senate or assembly or U. S. congressional districts, as equal as possible in population.

In practice, the majority party wants to make sure it stays in the majority. And each legislator wants to make sure he or she gets re-elected. This is very easy to do nowadays, using voter registration data and the number crunching power of modern computers. Highly Republican areas are combined together into districts to create safe Republican seats and highly Democratic areas are combined to create safe Democratic seats. In a state, to keep the "out" party out, it is given fewer seats but with even larger majorities. The map is "gerrymandered" to do this, often creating districts of bizarrely elongated shapes to get enough similar partisans into the same district so as to set up an easy win. The political geographers are very good at their work. In my state, Democratic-dominated California, there are 80 assembly, 40 senate and 53 congressional districts. Of these 173 districts only 4 have changed parties in the three elections since the 2000 census. In Texas, Republicans gained a majority in the legislature in 2002 and to solidify their power, took the unusual step of redistricting in mid-decade. Based on the new map, they immediately won six new congressional seats in 2004.

This is great for incumbents, as it is intended to be. With most districts made up of 60 to 65% of their own party members, politicians can be assured that unless they do something really stupid they're in for life. It's nice for them not to have to be accountable. The minority party often doesn't bother to field a serious candidate, or in quite a few districts, any candidate at all. Why bother when the deck is so heavily stacked against you that the outcome is a foregone conclusion? More and more people see the system for the sham it is. They grow cynical or do not vote. In California the percentage of "decline to state" registrants has doubled between 1990 and 2006 to 18.6%.

The other negative effect of the system is to send more extreme partisans to state capitals and Washington, D.C. With only the voters of one side represented in a district the candidates who win in primaries (the only elections that truly matter in such districts) are increasingly the more extreme ideologues of left and right. These are people who refuse to make the kinds of moderate compromises necessary to bridge the gap and find the common ground between the two parties. Our politics have become dominated by all-or-nothing, ultimatim-based, invective-laced hysteria. Meanwhile important but controversial issues like immigration, health care, social security, global warming, energy self-sufficiency and the national debt fester, worsen and go unsolved.

Madison's quote at the beginning of this piece illustrates the Founders' insight into human nature, that when unrestrained power can be used for selfish purposes it will be. That's why they built so many checks and balances into the Constitution. Unfortunately, they did not anticipate the development of political parties and computers. So what can be done? Solutions to the problem have generally focused on trying to find respected and nonpartisan arbitrators to make the decision. California's popular Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently sponsored a ballot measure to turn redistricting over to a panel of three retired judges. The voters defeated it, no doubt suspecting that the judges could turn out to be as partisan as the politicians themselves, or at least as partisan as people in general. The human factor is always the problem. So why not eliminate it? There is a way.

The solution is elegantly simple. It is possible to write a computer program to divide a state into districts based on two criteria: first, equal population, and second, that the total length of the boundary lines separating the districts is as short as possible. This will yield one solution. There will still be some predominantly Republican and some predominantly Democratic districts, but there will be a great many more evenly matched districts than there are now. These districts will be competitve at election time, giving voters a real opportunity to change parties or rid themselves of an incumbent who fails to please them. There will be more moderates and fewer of the partisan ideologues who keep politics divided and cannot make the compromises necessary with the other side to get problems solved. Elected officials will have to keep the views and interests of both sides in mind rather than just one. To stay in office they will need to do a better job of serving all their constituents. In short, there will be democracy.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Democracy and Elections

The American people hold in their hands the greatest power any people in history have ever possessed. Every four years it is up to them to decide who will govern the mightiest nation that ever existed. Every two years they alone decide who gets to write the laws and set the worldwide policies for that nation. Their choices affect not only themselves but reach into every corner of the globe.

Given these stakes it may seem beyond amazing that barely half of these citizens bother to exercise their power, even in the most hotly contested presidential elections. Ask people why they don't vote and you hear a familiar set of answers: "The same guys always win." "Things don't change regardless of who wins." "It's all about money." "They sound good but they don't do what they promise." "They don't care about people like me." "They're just in it for themselves." Are the people who don't vote simply foolish and lazy? Not necessarily, for there is more than a little truth to what they say. And there is much about the way our elections are set up that keeps it that way. That needs to change.

Elections lie at the heart of democracy itself. We call the United states a democracy (meaning rule by the people) because the whole people are entitled to a say in the conduct of their local, state and national business. But, except in the cases of ballot initiatives and referenda, the people do not directly pass laws, determine the budget and make all the other policy decisions a government makes. These are done by the people's representatives. That's why we are also referred to as a republic (meaning government by representatives) and thus the names of our two major political parties.

The people most effectively express their will at election time when they vote to elect the leaders who will make these decisions in their behalf. To the extent that elections are conducted according to rules that promote democracy the people's will is accurately reflected and democracy is well served. To the extent they are conducted undemocratically the people's will is ignored or thwarted, democracy is poorly served, and people become disillusioned and apathetic. The rules of the game matter. There are a number of ways in which American elections are badly designed that promote narrow, selfish interests and lead to undemocratic results. By correcting the rules we can go a long way toward restoring some real democracy and revitalizing people's faith and participation in it. We'll get better government as a result, too.

Tomorrow night I'll begin a series on American elections. The five topics I plan to cover in this series are Redistricting, Term Limits, Campaign finance, the Presidential Primary System and the Electoral College. I'll devote one post to each in turn.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

About This Blog

The purpose of this blog is to express my views about current events and trends in society and to invite thoughtful readers to participate, react, and offer theirs. Perhaps in this way we can refine and begin to spread some consensus for rational yet humane solutions to some of the many serious problems confronting the contemporary world. I am an American living in California, so American concerns will often predominate in my observations. That being said, I am well aware of global interconnectedness and vitally interested in issues that cross borders in their impacts. After all, we do all live on the same planet. The political, economic, social and environmental challenges at issue today rarely confine themselves to a single country.

The title of the blog, drawn of course from Aldous Huxley's classic 1932 novel, Brave New World, is intentional. If you haven't read it yet, you ought to. It describes a future utopia in which order, stability and material sufficiency have been achieved at the price of individuality, creativity and humanity itself, where triviality has replaced meaningfulness and mindless narcissism has supplanted both reason and spirituality. People have been engineered and conditioned into drones-contented drones to be sure, but drones nonetheless. It is an ironic, nightmare utopia, particularly for those few who have retained a spark of the human spirit. Huxley wrote it at a critical time in history, the Great Depression. In that year of 1932 millions sought deliverance from the emergency of their day by giving themselves over to the totalitarian ideologies of fascism and communism. We have our share of emergency in the contemporary world as well, and no shortage of voices crying for unquestioning uniformity and scapegoating independent thought as a primary cause. History begs us to recall that we have been down that road before.

The thrust of the blog will not be to dwell on Huxley's novel or otherwise engage in speculative science fiction, but to discuss the gravity of today's issues and means for resolving them. Huxley asks us to think about how we can ensure order and provide for our material needs without stifling creativity and freedom itself. That will be our quest. I invite you to come along for what ought to be a stimulating journey. Maybe what we start here can do a little to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Oh, and one more thing. I value those who engage in civil conversation without recourse to personal attacks and a lot of profanity, and who aren't allergic to facts and a little reason. Let's agree or disagree and do so with some basic consideration for each other.

Welcome, and thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you again soon.

Steve Natoli

Huckabee In 08!

It's nice to see the current upswing for Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Christian Leader. That's the kind of guy we need. It was gratifying to see him on the TV news at Liberty University where he said the same power that allowed a boy to feed the multitude with five loaves and two fishes is also what is responsible for his moving up in the political polls. He said it was amusing to him that all the smart pundits couldn't grasp the reason behind his improving fortunes. As the Good Book says, if the Lord is for him, who can be against him?

This got me so excited I went to his website and read up on how he stands on all the issues. It is good to see that like any true Christian he is very pro-military. He will increase the defense budget by 70%. He will also protect us from terrorists by staying in Iraq until we win. Another way he is like Jesus is in standing strong against poor immigrants. No amnesty for them! They will have to register within 120 days and be deported, but if they stay and get caught they will be deported then. That's the kind of incentive that will make them come forward for sure. He will also protect us from homosexuals by not letting them marry each other. He must figure that will keep them from multiplying.

He also has great plans to fix the health care and energy crises by relying on market solutions. We can be certain that, inspired by his example of Christian charity, insurers and HMOs will provide coverage to the sickly and indigent and oil and auto companies will suck it up and do what is best for the environment and energy independence. He will accomplish these by using "the bully pulpit" and "the bully conference table," certainly tactics that no industry will be able to resist. You can see he has a gift for lasering in on the heart of a matter and coming up with novel and incisive solutions.

But I've saved the best for last. Like any good Christian, Mike hates taxes and the IRS. He will abolish the IRS! A sales tax will be the only federal tax. Naysayers will charge it with being regressive, but Mike anticipated that and has named it the "Fair Tax." Is he brilliant, or what? It will only be assessed on new goods, so if you buy used stuff you won't have to pay any taxes at all! We can count on doubting Thomases to question how he will be able to pay for a $300 billion defense increase and a $200 billion war while relying only on a high sales tax that will give people a powerful disincentive to buy anything. Ha! Not to worry. His website explains that it will "act like a magic wand." If there is anything we could use right now in these trying times it is a magic wand.

It is easy to see why Huckabee is taking off among Republican voters. His Christian morality, magical economics and the fact that the Lord has now taken charge of the opinion polls makes his candidacy irresistable. Huckabee in '08!