Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett is continuing the old Southern tradition of dogged, faithful persistence in a cause that is just plain wrong. Like Stonewall Jackson before them, he, and the rest of the Tennessee Republican party are grimly holding off the future, using every trick they can muster. But, just as the South was ultimately overwhelmed in the war over secession, the green tide of history will ultimately roll over Hargett, Marcia Blackburn, Susan Lynn, Ron Ramsey, and all their tea-bag slinging cohorts.
Well, I don’t often start with “the deep green perspective” on things, do I? So…what am I blathering about now?
I’m talking about a couple of related campaigns. One is not on many people’s radar, while the other has a much higher profile, but they both reveal similar, peculiar, and disturbing patterns, not just in the way Repuglycans and Dimocrats jostle for power, but in the ways they work together to guard their joint monopoly on that power. This two-party monopoly (call it a duopoly for short) is in many ways responsible for the disconnection between what the people of this country want and what becomes the law of the land. There’s more than one way to run a democracy, and at the end of this talk I’m going to do my best to explain how we could tweak our governmental operating system to make it more responsive to popular ( as in, from the people) viewpoints.
First, the specifics. The Green Party of Tennessee has been putting up candidates for over ten years now, but the words “Green Party” have only once appeared on a Tennessee ballot–in 2000, for no apparent reason, the state decided to give the Green, Libertarian, and Constitution parties a ballot line. Then they changed their mind. Why? We’d like to know!
In Tennessee, our candidates are listed as “Independents,” down there in the miscellaneous list with the solitary visionaries and crackpots, even though we are affiliated with an international movement and the Green Party has more members in the US than in any other country in the world. This is partly because, here in Tennessee and in several other states, the duopoly has set up election laws, and an election law bureaucracy, that make it extremely difficult for any other parties to be listed by name on the ballot.
Here in Tennessee, a “third” party has to get petitions signed by tens of thousands of those who voted in the previous election, stating that they are members of the new party and want it to be named on the ballot. Or something like that. When we tried to petition for ballot access, our representative was told by officials that, while they couldn’t tell her exactly how the petitions needed to be worded, if they were not correctly worded, they would be rejected. Can you say Kafka, boys and girls?
Moreover, the petitioning process is time-consuming and expensive, with the cost of gathering signatures estimated at about a dollar each, which is prohibitive for a small party. It would cost us $40-50,000 to get on the ballot via the petition route, a fee the Democrats and Republicans do not have to pay. Hey, some animals are more equal than others, as George Orwell pointed out.
Ohio’s laws were similar, and the Green Party there went to court and had them struck down as unconstitutional. With this case for a precedent, we in the Green Party of Tennessee figured it would be no big deal to get our state to change its law. Well, we didn’t figure on ol’ Stonewall Hargett, or the stalling tactics of his Dimocratic predecessor, Riley Darnell. They do not want no stinkin’ Green Party line on the Tennessee ballot, no sah. Once was enough.
Joining with the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party of Tennessee, we filed our case in 2007….and waited….and waited…..until May of 2008, when the state presented us with a voluminous number of highly detailed questions to answer–and only a month to answer them in. The nature of the questions was such that the request seemed more like a stumbling block than anything truly relevant to the case. They wanted to know every instance of anybody in the Green Party talking about getting on the ballot, the history of the Green Party in Tennessee, the history of the Green Party in the US, the details of every Green Party ballot access struggle in every state, the details of Green Party elections in every state–all in just one month, no extensions.
Well, we did it. And then–nothing, again, for nearly a year and a half, when, in November of last year, we got notice that the State Attorney General would be taking depositions from all three parties involved…in just one week.
The Green Party’s designated litigant, Katey Culver, duly showed up at the Attorney General’s office–and did not get treated to any ol’fashioned southern hospitality. First and foremost, she would have to wait for five hours while the state cross-examined the litigants from the Constitutional and Libertarian parties. Oh, and by the way, there was no drinking water available. Gee, was that some not-so-subtle physiological pressure being applied? And of course there was the cross-examination….very cross, to hear Katey tell it–the state’s lawyer did her best imitation of a pit bull, badgering, insulting, splitting hairs, demanding irrelevant details, anything a lawyer can do to intimidate and browbeat a witness short of profanity and physical violence, and used up every minute of the two and a half hours allotted. Hey, that’s what lawyers do…ain’t the adversarial American justice system wonderful?
And now….how long will it be until we can get a court to respond? This was all done in relation to what is called “a motion for summary judgement,” meaning that the State essentially has no case for defending a law that has already been judged unconstitutional, and so we are asking a Federal judge to make them stop stalling and do the right thing already. But a Federal Court order doesn’t necessarily get much traction here in Tennessee, where even state law is enforced at the discretion of those in power, as we shall shortly see, when we look at Stonewall Hargett’s strategy in failing to implement the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act. First, though, let’s wrap up the Green Party story.
We are currently being given the runaround by Tre Hargett, who, as Secretary of State, is charged with administering elections, but we were equally mistreated by Riley Darnell, his Democratic predecessor. Neither of the big boys wants to give the Green Party a seat at the table. We’re an almost embarrassingly small operation, but we see having “Green Party” listed next to our candidates’ names on the ballot as essential to growing ourselves, and we feel that an increased “Green” presence in local, as well as national, politics is essential for the rescue of this nation. What is the duop0ly afraid of?
music: Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Small Axe”
OK, now for the high profile stonewalling case–Tre Hargett, et al., vs. the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act.
The TVCA was passed with near-unanimity by the Tennessee legislature in 2007 after a concerted campaign by local activists under the name “Gathering to Save Our Democracy.” This act mandated that Tennessee voting shall be conducted on paper ballots and counted by the same kind of optical scanning machines that are used to grade standardized tests and validate powerball tickets. This technology is well established, inexpensive, fast, and fairly foolproof. Only one machine per precinct is needed, instead of the large number of what amounts to dedicated computers that touch-screen voting calls for. Voters need only a private space and a number two pencil to mark their ballots, rather than each voter occupying an expensive machine for however long it takes to indicate her choices, as is the case with touchscreen voting. It’s a much more efficient system.
This is especially significant when we look at what happened in Ohio in the 2004 election, which was conducted on touchscreen equipment. The highly partisan Ohio Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, assigned fewer machines to Democratic Party strongholds, which lead to long lines, which lead to some people not voting because of inclement weather, work obligations, and general frustration. Strangely enough, it was Blackwell who reversed Ohio’s decision to use optical scan voting machines, and instead use Diebold touch-screen machines…a company in which he just happened to own stock…I don’t know which of those two facts is more peculiar, especially in light of what’s going on down here.
Yeah, so what’s going on down here….in 2008, Tennesseans voted on touch-screen machines, and every open seat in the legislature was captured by a Repuglican. Some observers chalk this up to a racist reaction to Obama in rural, mostly white Tennessee, and to the namby-pamby nature of the Tennessee Democratic Party, which is even more of a Republican-lite Party than the average state Democratic organization. Others wonder if some chicanery was involved, but with electronic voting, “vapor ballots,” as some activists call them, there is simply no way to tell.
Touchscreen voting machines are computers, and as computers, they are highly suspect. We all know that computers can have bugs, and computers can be hacked. One example is a local, one-issue election in Georgia, where touch-screen machines recorded 200 blank votes–as if people would bother to show up for a one-question election, step into the voting booth, and then not vote. Yeah, right.
Another, more serious example occurred in Florida. In the words of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
Voters from Sarasota County announced today that they are filing suit in state court in Tallahassee asking for a re-vote in Florida’s 13th congressional district. The suit alleges that thousands of citizens were disenfranchised when massive undervotes plagued the tight congressional race between Democrat Christine Jennings and Republican Vern Buchanan. In a high-profile battle over former Rep. Katherine Harris’ seat, the result was decided by 363 votes, yet over 18,000 ballots cast on Sarasota County’s e-voting machines registered no vote in the race, an exceptional anomaly in the State.
Official investigation of this contest failed to confirm that this was a problem with voting machines, but consider what official investigations found (or failed to find) about the Kennedy/King assassinations, CIA cocaine smuggling, 9-11, last year’s economic collapse, the Christmas bomber in Detroit, or what-have-you, and you realize that doesn’t mean much (except that a lot of us have lost faith in the government, quite possibly for good reason)…and this is, after all, only one example of the many problems with electronic voting. Plus, let’s not forget that the president of the Diebold Corporation, one of the primary manufacturers of touch-screen voting machines, is famous for saying he wants to help elect Republicans, and that all the companies that manufacture touch-screen voting machines are controlled by known Republicans.
So, back to Tennessee. Now in the majority for the first time since Reconstruction, the Republicans had a change of heart: they listed repealing or further delaying implementation of the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act as one of their primary goals, part of a broad offensive aimed at limiting voter participation and election accountability by requiring photo IDs to register and vote,and a host of other proposals generally designed to make it more likely that they would remain the party in power. Most of these bills died in committee, but the GOP did succeed in stacking the state election commission and replacing many experienced county election administrators with Repuglycan operatives, who now form an ersatz authoritative “echo chamber” for the Repuglican campaign against the TVCA.
The campaign against paper ballots whas been a classic propaganda play. Secretary of State Hargett and State Election Co-ordinator Mark Goins cried crocodile tears, insisting that they wanted to carry out the law and switch to optical scan machines, but there wasn’t enough time, there were no machines that met the legal standard, and it would cost too much.
Every single one of these statements is a lie; but, as Nazi propaganda master Josef Goebbels said, if you repeat a lie long enough, loud enough, and often enough, people start to believe it, and that’s what Hargett and Goins did. Their lies have been unquestioningly echoed in newspapers across the state, creating the illusion that there are good reasons not to switch to a verifiable voting system by the next general election.
Their claims were ludicrous on even cursory examination–other states have changed over to optical scan systems in less time than Tennessee has to make the switch, and those states have demonstrably saved money by doing so; the money to buy the machines is available from the federal government at no cost to Tennessee, and the cost estimates provided by the GOP’s hand-picked election commissioners were way out of line–claiming that it would cost $50 per ballot to do a hand recount (when states like Missouri and Nevada spend a nickel per ballot for hand recounts), or that it would cost $70,000 to store a filing cabinet full of ballots for two years.
Like Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Stonewall Hargett’s campaign almost worked. Last year, the Tennessee legislature came within one very principled Republican vote of putting off the TVCA “until 2012”–which you can bet would turn into forever.
So, they are going to try again this year. Gathering to Save Our Democracy, Common Cause, and that radical hotbed, the League of Women Voters, are doing what they can to persuade some of the non-ethically challenged Republicans in the Tennessee Senate to keep the TVCA on track for implementation in 2010. (Full disclosure: I know there are Republicans who are not ethically challenged because my father was one–but that’s another story.)
This month will reveal the outcome of the struggle in the Tennessee Senate, but, unsure whether there will be a “Rock of Chickamauga” in this battle, some election activists are looking ahead and establishing communication with the US Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission.
Just what is at stake here? By holding on to power in the state through the 2010 election, the Repugs will be able to redraw district lines after the 2010 census in ways that will guarantee them solid majorities in the state legislature and the state’s US congressional delegation–though it’s easy for me, as a Green, to argue that most of our so-called Democrats, being of the blue dog stripe, are hardly better than Republicans, anyway. Well, there is a difference. Democrats, however conservative they may be, generally feel obligated to at least make a nod to the real world in terms of environmental/ethical/social justice legislation, while the great majority of Repugs pledge allegiance to corporate profits only and throw no crumbs to the common people.
But, as I said when I started talking, the green tide of history, or perhaps the end of history if we are not careful, will roll over the Republicans, and most Democrats as well, like Sherman marching through Georgia. The power they are grasping for will turn to sand and slip through their fingers. While they are busy passing laws to let people pack concealed heat and keeping gay couples from adopting children, or even laws to make everybody buy private health insurance, the growth economy that is closer to the core of their belief system than Jesus Christ Himself is imploding, the gasoline that powers their SUVs is drying up, the global industrial economy that produces the Prius is coming apart at the seams, and the climate is bucking like a wild, unbreakable horse with an unwanted rider on her back. Nature bats last, and don’t you ever forget it. Those who are not “reality-based” enough to deal with all this are setting themselves up for a very painful collision with..reality.
music: Zappa, “A Lie So Big”
OK, I’ve been giving you an earful about the travails of the Green Party as we try to get our name on the ballot, and the shenanigans of the Republican Party as they maneuver to maintain dominance over the Dims and keep us out of the picture. Is there a better way?
There are several improvements that could be made to the US voting system, although, considering the hash we just made of health care reform, my hopes are not high for their implementation. Look, we set out to drive stakes through the hearts of the health care, insurance, and pharmaceutical vampires and it looks like we’re ending up with a law that fines us if we don’t give them our blood . So, do I really think the Repugs and Dims are going to open up their monopoly on electoral power? Do the good cop and the bad cop ever hang it up and bring in a mediator instead? The Green Party is part of the ruling coalition in some countries, but we can barely get a ballot line in this one.
When I look at political reality in this country, I do actually find some grounds for hope, specifically when I look at the issue of the so-called “Drug War.” While the federal government has done everything it can to maintain worldwide marijuana prohibition, local campaigns have opened one state after another to legally, readily available medical marijuana, and the federal government has had to get on board and stop prosecuting medical marijuana users and suppliers in states where it is legal.
In a similar way, it may be possible to make changes in the way we vote for candidates that gradually percolate up to the national level.
The way that many Green Parties have gotten into parliaments in Europe is through the practice of “proportional representation,” in which, as I understand it, voters cast their ballots for the party of their choice, and then the seats in the legislature are divvied up according to the percentage of votes each party receives, whether the party got a majority in any one location or not.
Much as I like this idea, I think this would be a hard sell in America, where people are used to the idea that their local representative in government is literally representative of the views of a majority of those in her district. Another practice, however, is more compatible with what we are used to in this country and, I think, would be an easy sell for a referendum, although I’m sure both major parties would fight it as fiercely as private insurance battled the public option and expanded Medicare.
That practice is called “instant runoff voting.” It’s pretty simple. You get to vote for your first choice AND your second choice, in races where there are more than two candidates. A candidate has to have a clear majority to win. If no candidate has a clear majority, the second choices of those who voted for the candidate in last place are counted, and so on up the line, until somebody has a clear majority. This eliminates the “spoiler effect” that happens when liberal votes get split between two competing candidates (say, Ralph and Al, just f’rinstance), allowing the conservative candidate (let’s call him “George”) to win without a majority. If everybody who voted for Ralph could have indicated that Al was their second choice, then, since Ralph is running behind Al and George, and nobody has a majority, all those second-choice votes for Al turn into real votes for Al, and Ralph is Al’s savior instead of his spoiler, and maybe Ralph gets a place in Al’s cabinet instead of his picture getting a place on Al’s dart board.
Medical marijuana had to struggle for a while before it started catching on, but this idea is much less divisive than legalizing the noble herb. At least, I haven’t heard about anybody saying that Jesus spoke out against instant runoff voting, or that instant runoff advocates are sinners who will roast in hell for our immorality.
So…it’s not immoral, it’s certainly not fattening, and it’s not really illegal, just not yet the law of the land, and I like it….hmm, I must be getting old…but I digress.
Instant runoff voting is not a guarantee of success for the Green Party. We would still have to contend with mainstream media that has a blatantly corporatist, duopoly party bias and enormous disparities in fund-raising ability, due to the fact that we, on principle, will not take money from the usual political sources. (Who, considering their principles, are unlikely to offer it to us anyway.)
Here in Tennessee, there is no provision for popular referendum, but it might be possible to persuade a city to make the move. To do that, we will need progressive, persuasive candidates at all levels, and we will need to pump up our state organization and create some political muscle. Would you like to be part of a political organization that works for people instead of big business? We are having our annual meeting and nominating convention in Knoxville on February 20, and would love to be overwhelmed by fresh faces. Check out our website, gpoftn.org, where details will be posted soon. Hope to see you there!
music: Leonard Cohen, “Democracy“