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The Difference a Month Can Make


Think

back for a moment to last December and January. There was tremendous outrage

over the 5-4 Bush victory in the Supreme Court. Large numbers of people, the

largest since the Vietnam War, demonstrated in D.C. on January 20th,

inauguration day, against the selection of Bush as President. Major stories were

being carried in the mainstream press about Florida and the problems of our

beloved “democracy.” Due to massive grassroots pressure, 42 Democrats found the

political courage to vote against unrepentant right-winger John Ashcroft for

Attorney-General. There was a palpable feeling among many in the progressive

movement that we could make critical strides forward in the critical task of

fundamentally reforming the electoral system.

Fast

forward to April and May. Despite the on-going work of a number of progressive

and moderate groups, the issue of electoral reform seemed to be withering on the

two-party political vine. Although there was an unprecedented two-week debate in

the Senate on the McCain-Feingold bill, the bigger stories were about the Bush

tax cut, National Missile Defense, energy policy, withdrawal from the Kyoto

global warming accords, and other bad news. The bi-coastal Voter Marches in D.C.

and San Francisco in mid-May drew no more than a few thousand people and almost

no media coverage. And the media spin put on the initial reports of the press

recount of the Florida ballots made it seem as if Bush junior would have won

Florida even if there had been a recount.

The

month of June, however, was a very different story, for three reasons: the

release of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on their investigation of

massive voter disenfranchisement in Florida, the Democracy Summer Institute at

Florida A & M in Tallahassee, and the Pro-Democracy Convention in Philadelphia.

In combination with the persistent, under-the-radar, essential grassroots

organizing on electoral justice issues taking place around the country, these

developments, particularly the success of Democracy Summer and the Pro-Democracy

Convention, make it clear that, in this year 2001, an independent electoral

justice movement has emerged onto the political scene.

The

political significance of this development cannot be overstated, for a number of

reasons:

  • It

    would have been demoralizing and a very bad thing if the progressive movement

    had been not up to the task of responding to the Republican theft of the

    Presidency and the 35-day Florida circus. The fact that scores of

    organizations and many hundreds of activists representing tens of thousands of

    more came together in June in Tallahassee and Philadelphia, with a commitment

    to on-going work, is a hopeful sign.

  • This pro-democracy movement has emerged *from its beginnings* as a

    multi-racial movement with major leadership from people of color. This was not

    an accident. It happened because of a commitment to such a movement on the

    part of the main organizers, those of color and those not, of Democracy Summer

    and the Pro-Democracy Convention.

  • Those present at the June events included Nader voters, Gore voters and

    others, and there were, as far as I know, NO public attacks by one on the

    other. This included leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus,

    representatives of the National Action Network and Rainbow/PUSH, Green Party

    leaders, some representation of labor unions, mainly Black labor, prominent

    leaders of the women’s movement, and a diversity of groups on the Left, to

    name just a handful.

  • Over 100 young people from around the country attended the Democracy Summer

    Institute, and a number of them went on to Philadelphia to attend the

    Pro-Democracy Convention. The pro-democracy movement has gotten off the ground

    with young people as major players and a major force.

  • After 33 years of progressive activism, including 25 as a third party

    activist, I have become convinced that there is little hope that we can ever

    accomplish our overall pro-justice, programmatic objectives unless we can make

    significant inroads with the electoral reform agenda. A two-party,

    money-dominated, winner-take-all political system is an eventual graveyard for

    progressive movements *because we are denied any consistent

    political/electoral expression.* We are kept at the margins, unable to win

    enough third party victories to be seen as credible and “players” by most

    voters or, more often the reality, reduced to begging of or demanding that the

    Democratic Party, by no means a reliable ally, take up our causes. We will not

    get out of this situation until we alter enough of the unjust rules of the

    game that the electoral playing field is in the process of becoming level and

    fair.

This

is not an ordinary political time. There are openings to advance the electoral

reform agenda that we have not had in over 50 years. We should act accordingly

and seize the time.

 

State of

the Movement

The

pro-democracy movement is still at an early stage of development as a political

movement. Over the last six months, particularly because of Democracy Summer and

the Pro-Democracy Convention, the primary thing which has happened is more

frequent and regularized communication among most of the major players in this

movement, at least the progressive sector of it.

It is

important to recognize that many of the ten points of the Voters’ Bill of

Rights, a document endorsed by 120 organizations and which is widely accepted as

the unifying platform of the progressive pro-democracy movement, are also

supported by more moderate and good government groups. Some of its points are

supported by conservative groups, particularly conservative alternative parties

which are also shut out by the two-party duopoly. If this movement is to

accomplish its objectives, we will need to be both principled about our

commitment to a non-racist, genuine democracy and flexible tactically so that on

specific items in our Voters’ Bill of Rights (VBR) agenda, we can ally with

those with whom we share a common, if limited, approach. Examples of the latter

would be issues like easier access to the ballot, media and debates, instant

runoff voting, proportional representation, same-day voter registration, and

independent, professional administration of elections.

There

is unevenness at present as far as which issues of the VBR are being worked on

at the grassroots level.

Public financing/getting money out of politics is unquestionably the issue

around which there has been the most focused work over the last several years.

Indeed, going back to the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, significant

numbers of organizers have been involved with this issue for roughly a dozen

years, with victories to show for their labor.

Because of what happened in Florida, the issues related to voter

disenfranchisement, particularly enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and voting

rights for ex-prisoners, are much more widely in the public consciousness.

Groups such as the NAACP, the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation

and the Congressional Black Caucus are among the major groups giving leadership

in this area.

Primarily because of the work of the Center for Voting and Democracy and the

Nader campaign, the issues of instant runoff voting (IRV) and, to a lesser

extent, proportional representation (PR), have seen a tremendous increase in

both interest and organizing over the past year. Alaska, Austin, Tx.,

Minneapolis, Mn., Vermont, New Mexico, Eugene, Or. and Berkeley and Oakland, Ca.

are among the places where concrete IRV victories are very possible soon. 12

state legislatures have had IRV bills introduced this year. This is definitely

an area on an upswing.

Various third parties throughout the country continue to hammer away

legislatively and legally to change discriminatory ballot access laws which make

it difficult for independent candidates or third parties to get on the ballot.

Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News continues to be the best source for what is

happening in this regard.

Again

because of Florida, there are possibilities for some progress relatively soon in

the area of making voting easier and more reliable, particularly as far as

improving voting machinery and the training of election workers. However, there

is a big question as to if enough resources will be allocated for these reforms.

There is also on-going discussion within pro-democracy circles about the

relative merits of improved electronic voting equipment versus the

old-fashioned, but less prone to vote-rigging, paper ballot.

There

are a number of other areas within the Voters’ Bill of Rights that, as of the

present time, do not seem to be major focuses for organizing:

  • same-day voter registration

  • making voting easier for students off at school and away from home

  • making election day a national holiday or on a weekend

  • easier access to the media and debates for candidates

  • statehood for the District of Columbia (with the exception of organizing

    taking place within the District itself)

  • abolishing the Electoral College (or proportional representation in the

    allocation of electors by states)

  • independent administration of elections

 

Future

Prospects

In

addition to the on-going work around various aspects of the Voters’ Bill of

Rights, there are several other definite or likely projects that will be

developing in the coming period.

A

major one is a bigger and better Democracy Summer 2002. The organizers of this

year’s Democracy Summer Institute have already begun discussing this and making

plans for outreach to involve additional organizations. There was much support

for this project expressed at the Pro-Democracy Convention. The thinking is

that, with enough lead time and resources, the summer of 2002 could be a time

when potentially thousands of young people would be involved throughout the

country in a massive voter registration, education, get-out-the-vote and

pro-electoral reform campaign. For reasons that are obvious, such a campaign, if

done well, could have a significant, short-term political impact, while also

strengthening and advancing the longer-term electoral justice movement.

As

part of the organizing towards Democracy Summer 2002 there is growing interest

in the idea of “freedom rides” prior to Democracy Summer. These traveling road

shows would make historical connections with the freedom rides of the 1960s

while outreaching to young people and students to become active in today’s

freedom movement.

The

Center for Constitutional Rights, the primary organizer of the Pro-Democracy

Convention, is committed to working with co-sponsors and endorsers of the

Convention to hold a series of workshops or mini-conferences in targeted areas

around the country. Some of these could happen this fall.

There

is one more possible campaign. At this point it is in the active consideration

stage by some of the groups which organized the two June actions. The idea for

this campaign comes from a proposal put forward by Congresswoman Maxine Waters,

speaking at the kick-off session in Tallahassee June 17 of the Democracy

Institute.

Ms.

Waters challenged the young people to go back to their communities and really

dig into their local electoral systems. She suggested that they arrange to go to

local election offices to find out how things work—what happens when someone

registers to vote, where does that registration go, how long does it take to be

processed, is the person sent a registration card, how does the office make

preparations for election day, how do they determine how to allocate voting

machines, who oversees the administration of the office, etc.

There’s a lot to recommend this idea.

Election offices are all over the country; there are thousands of them. They are

a public institution; even though they are controlled by representatives of the

two corporate-dominated parties, they are supposed to be exercising their

functions in a relatively transparent and neutral way.

Yet a

good number of them are inefficient, using outmoded technology, incompetent or

downright corrupt. Again, think back to Katherine Harris and Florida. Throughout

the country, particularly in areas where there are significant concentrations of

people of color, there are big problems with the way they function. This is why

one of the Voters’ Bill of Rights points calls for independent, non-partisan and

professional administration of elections. It’s really just common sense.

A

campaign led by students to, first, discover how local election offices are

functioning and, second, make demands for reform, can shine a needed spotlight

onto these institutions. In the short-term such a campaign should improve

efficiency and lessen the kinds of problems exposed in the 2000 elections.

Longer-term, it will build broad support for the independent administration

demand, an essential objective. We can’t trust the foxes of either party to

administer the chicken coop of a true democracy. Us chickens have suffered long

enough under fox mis-rule.

The

pro-democracy movement is a movement whose time has come.

(For more information, go to

www.votersbillofrights.org, or contact IPPN, P.O. Box 1041, Bloomfield,

N.J. 07003, 973-338-5398)

Ted

Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics

Network and author of Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society. He

can be reached at futurehopeTG@aol.com or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J.

07003.

 

 

 

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