Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Swapping Clean Elections For Voter Suppression

Members of the Legislature's budget writing committee voted yesterday to eliminate any public financing of state elections and use the funds instead for implementation of the new law requiring a photo ID to vote in Wisconsin.

In effect, they are handing the keys to elections entirely over to wealthy special interests and using the money from the public financing program to fund the scheme to make it more difficult to vote.

In defending the action, committee chairman Robin Vos said, "I want the money to go through the candidates. I want them to go to the people and ask for $5, $10 or even $100."

Or $500 . . . the maximum amount an Assembly member like Robin Vos can legally accept. The amount Vos got from KochPAC. And from the Tavern Industry PAC. And General Electric PAC. And Pfizer PAC and a bunch of others. Or $250 . . . the amount Vos took from Walmart's WAL-PAC and six other industry PACs.

Everyone – even Luther Olsen, one of the senators facing recall – knows what having money "go through the candidates" gets us.

A quick glance at the list of donors to Robin Vos brings into sharp focus what it really means when it is suggested that he and his colleagues "go to the people" and ask for money.

Opponents of public financing like Vos are fond of saying that taxpayer participation in the income tax check-off that funds the program is a referendum on the system, and that it has been rejected by the citizenry considering that only 4.2% of taxpayers opted to give money to the public campaign fund via their tax returns in 2009.

The likes of Robin Vos don't realize it, but in claiming that check-off participation is a valid measure of support for public financing, they are unwittingly calling attention to how much citizens must despise them. After all, the percentage of people giving money to candidates through the check-off is something on the order of five times greater than the proportion of the population that donates privately to office seekers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

'An Easier Way'

Quoting Senator Luther Olsen:

"Money flows freely all the time. So it does play a part in politics. I've seen it. I understand that folks who contribute have an easier way to get to the leadership."

Monday, May 16, 2011

The 5% Solution

I've written and spoken often about the fact that less than 1 percent of the population of Wisconsin pays for the election campaigning in state-level contests. It's the same story at the federal level.

If our state and nation would commit to policies aimed at significantly boosting that percentage it would be game changing. It could revolutionize politics. Elected officials could say no to wealthy special interests and still find a path to reelection by getting enough donations of modest size to replace the large contributions they would lose.

It wouldn't be necessary to get half of the population or a quarter or even a tenth to start donating to political candidates in order to have a landscape-altering impact. Five percent would do. Five percent of the population making contributions of no more than $100 could collectively match or exceed the total amount given by the tiny segment of society giving vastly larger sums. Five percent of the population making modest political donations could free elected representatives from the clutches of the wealthy special interests that now control everything.

The point can be illustrated using national campaign contribution figures for 2009 and 2010. In that two-year election cycle, one quarter of 1% of Americans made political donations large enough to itemize; that is, big enough for federal law to require that the donors be identified. Those donors – a hair shy of 819,000 people out of the nation's estimated population of nearly 311 million – doled out just under $1.6 billion. That's an average donation of almost $2,000. Roughly the same amount of money would be generated if 5 percent of the 311 million, or about 15.5 million people, made contributions averaging $100.

Creating incentives for small-dollar giving is central to the Democracy Campaign's Ending Wealthfare proposal. We could have just as well called it The 5% Solution. Or One Way Out of the Trap We're In.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Designing Division

If it looks to you like elected officials can't work across party lines to save their lives – or the country – that's because they aren't working across party lines. By design.

Partisanship is growing more intense and extreme in our government, that's an undeniable fact. The reasons for the increasing polarization of our politics are many and they are complex, but there is one very powerful reason that is usually overlooked. The way legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

Wisconsin is not a Republican red state, or a Democratic blue state. It is purple. Recent statewide elections decided by razor-thin margins show that clearly. Yet most of our congressional districts are either bright red or brilliant blue. They are so tilted in favor of one party or the other that we rarely see competitive elections for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Before the last round of redistricting after the 2000 census, most of the U.S. House districts already were politically lopsided. But when the new boundaries were drawn the powers-that-be took good care of the incumbent office holders, making two districts even safer for them than they were before. The 1st and 2nd congressional districts were manipulated to give both Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Republican congressman Paul Ryan an even easier path to reelection and and even tighter grip on power.

Baldwin’s district was made more urban, taking from Ryan's the Democratic stronghold of Beloit and shedding rural, Republican-leaning counties. Ryan got rid of the part of Rock County containing Beloit but kept his hometown of Janesville while his district expanded into Waukesha County, one of the most Republican parts of the state.

At the state legislative level, the lack of competitive districts is equally conspicuous. Of the 132 legislative districts, no more than about two dozen can regularly be expected to produce elections that are remotely close. This in a state that is as purple as any in the country, where the electorate is as evenly divided as they come.

The result is that those who are elected to represent bright red Republican districts only have to be good at preaching the GOP gospel. And those chosen in vivid blue Democratic districts only have to be skilled at spewing liberal dogma. We get exactly what Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel documented. More extreme partisanship. Lots of hot air . . . ideologically pure hot air. Lockstep, party-line voting. Political paralysis. Huge problems left unsolved. A nation spinning its wheels when there is no time to waste.

One step Wisconsin and all of America need to take is removing politics from redistricting. With politicians in charge of designing their own districts, we have the foxes guarding the chicken coop, the inmates in charge of the asylum, pick your metaphor. We need to take this task out of the hands of the politicians and give it to a nonpartisan agency or commission. Then we'll get more districts that aren't so red or blue. And we'll get more elected representatives who can work across party lines.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Enemies Of The State

Restricted access to the State Capitol is in its third month now. All the doors at six of the eight ground-floor entrances to the building remain locked during normal business hours. The two that are open change periodically. Visitors wandering outside searching for an unlocked door have become a common sight.

Once you find one of the unlocked entrances, yellow crime scene tape herds you through a security checkpoint complete with a walkthrough scanner. This morning there were five uniformed officers at one of the checkpoints, standing there with nothing to do as traffic coming into the building was exceptionally light. A dubious use, to say the least, of state patrol personnel at a time when we are told the state is broke.

The waste of taxpayer money aside, exactly what threat is this tight security guarding against? The scene at the Capitol this morning was positively tranquil. Even at the height of mass demonstrations in February and early March, there were no legitimate security concerns. Protesters were remarkably civil and peaceful. They also were respectful – bordering on reverential – of the Capitol grounds. There was nary a scratch to be seen on the building's innards or on its exterior walls. The administration lied about the cost of repairing damage.

In the 30 years I have worked in or around the Capitol, I have seen tightened security only once before and that was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even then, both the manpower and technology employed paled in comparison to what we are seeing now. And the duration of the heightened state of alert after 9/11 was much more brief than today's.

What state of emergency exists to justify continued restriction of public access to the people's house? Why are ordinary taxpaying citizens still being made to feel like enemies of the state when visiting their own State Capitol?

If nothing else, a locked-down Capitol building is a fitting metaphor. After all, those elected to represent us there are moving at breakneck speed this week to ram through a new law that, in the name of security, will make it a little more difficult for all of us to vote and a lot more difficult for some.

Those most burdened by a new requirement to produce photo identification in order to exercise the right to vote include the elderly, the young, the poor and racial minorities. According to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of U.S. citizens – more than 21 million people – do not have government-issued photo identification. Both senior citizens and young people are significantly less likely to possess photo ID. Eighteen percent of citizens over the age of 65 and between the ages of 18 and 24 do not.

According to the Brennan Center's findings, 15 percent of people earning less than $35,000 a year lack a valid government-issued photo ID. And African Americans are three times less likely than whites to have such identification. Twenty-five percent of African American voting-age citizens do not have a photo ID compared to only 8 percent of white voting-age citizens.

As with the Capitol lockdown, the push for voter ID begs the question: Exactly what threat is this security measure guarding against? By any measure, voter fraud is exceedingly rare in Wisconsin, nearly to the point of being nonexistent. There have been only a handful of documented cases in Wisconsin, and not one has involved the kind of identity fraud that a photo ID requirement could presumably prevent.

What state of emergency exists to justify this discriminatory restriction of public access to the ballot box? Why should ordinary taxpaying citizens be made to feel like enemies of the state when visiting their polling place?