Some thoughts on voting
In a democracy, “We the People” are sovereign—not “we the judges,” “we the corporations,” or even “we the elected officials.” In a monarchy, the monarch is sovereign. In a democratic republic, the primary way most of us can express ourselves as a free and sovereign people is in the voting booth. No wonder Americans have fought to expand the franchise since the early days of the republic, when only white male landowners could vote.
Of course, voting is not only a right, but a responsibility, and that entails much more than getting to the polls. As voters we are responsible for learning as much as possible about candidates and issues before marking our ballots. With a corporate media pandering for the apparently unlimited sums of money now routinely spent on political ads, that’s a real challenge.
Ohio Issue 2, the Drug Price Standards Initiative, is the latest dramatic example. The most expensive issue campaign in Ohio history, it is financially backed by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation at a cost of over $6 million, and opposed by PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which has spent more than $16 million to defeat it so far. It appears that, if passed, the initiative may or may not provide Ohioans relief from the high cost of prescription drugs, but will probably guarantee decades of employment for lawyers (paid for, one way or another, by Ohioans).
The Ohio Move to Amend Network summarized the Issue 2 circus in a press release: "This is not the people of Ohio working out what is best for ourselves and our health care; it is moneyed interests using their ability to spend unlimited amounts of cash to get their way. They do this with ads that target consumer fears and have no resemblance to facts. . . . Meanwhile, the corporate media, flush with all the cash from ads purchased by both sides, are ignoring the core issue: the strangling of our democracy via money in elections and corporate rule . . . "
At the local level, we have written about the difficulty of obtaining information about judicial candidates and incumbents. Those running for judge face particular constraints on the issues they may discuss, but it’s not that much easier to learn about other office-seekers.
‘Tis the season of the candidates’ forum, and we have attended a few. While we appreciate the efforts of those who organize these gatherings, the conventions that govern them often produce events that are stilted, constrained, uninformative, unsatisfying and, frankly, boring. The most serious problem, of course, is that citizens attend these events to glean information, and they don’t get much. While some sponsoring organizations allow no questions from the audience, others permit them only in writing and subject to vetting. Some even provide questions to candidates well in advance, allowing ample time for carefully prepared responses. Whatever happened to seeing how candidates think on their feet?
Why can’t we have a free and open exchange of ideas, with spontaneous dialogue between candidates and the community they seek to represent? Unfortunately, the guiding principle seems to be to maintain control, make sure the sponsors and the candidates look good, and avoid controversy at all costs. Is that what a vibrant democracy looks like?
As a friend of ours likes to say, it would be interesting to see elections in the United States run as though we really wanted people to vote. In addition to the changes we outlined last month to increase turnout in municipal contests, measures to increase turnout for every election could include:
- Designate Election Day a national holiday, extend it over more than one day, or vote on weekends.
- Stop the spread of restrictive voter identification laws, which disproportionately affect elderly, rural and African-American citizens.
- Above all, make it easier to become and stay registered. Ohio now purges those who have not voted in two years, a practice that is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.
The Brennan Center for Justice report, “The Case for Voter Registration Modernization” (2013), advocates making registration easy and convenient, whether online or in person at an array of government agencies and public places, such as libraries. The report also notes: “When you move, your registration should move with you. If you’re an eligible voter you should be a registered voter—period.” The Center’s recommended changes could, it estimates, add 50 million voters to the rolls.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.