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Time for change

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A Federal Judge Speaks up about the Tragedy and Shame of our Penal System

I was very glad to see this editorial by a federal judge, Mark Bennett. As he notes at the end of his article, “If we don’t speak up, who will?”:

Growing up… I dreamed only of becoming a civil rights lawyer. My passion for justice was hard-wired into my DNA. Never could I have imagined that… I would have sent 1,092 of my fellow citizens to federal prison for mandatory minimum sentences ranging from sixty months to life without the possibility of release. The majority of these women, men and young adults are nonviolent drug addicts… Drug kingpins? Oh yes, I’ve sentenced them, too… But I can count them on one hand… I am greatly conflicted about my role in the “war on drugs.”

Crack defendants are almost always poor African-Americans… Other than their crippling meth addiction, they are very much like the folks I grew up with. Virtually all are charged with federal drug trafficking conspiracies – which sounds ominous but is based on something as simple as two people agreeing to purchase pseudoephedrine and cook it into meth…

I recently sentenced a group of more than twenty defendants on meth trafficking conspiracy charges… Most were unemployed or underemployed. Several were single mothers. They did not sell or directly distribute meth… Yet all of them faced mandatory minimum sentences of sixty or 120 months… In the federal system, there is no parole…

On the consequences and lack of value of mandatory minimum sentences:

Several years ago, I started visiting inmates I had sentenced in prison…These men and women need intensive drug treatment, and most of the inmates I visit are working hard to turn their lives around… If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction…

On the unpopularity of mandatory minimum sentences:

For years I have debriefed jurors after their verdicts… and these are people who, for the most part, think judges are too soft on crime. Yet, for all the times I’ve asked jurors after a drug conviction what they think a fair sentence would be, never has one given a figure even close to the mandatory minimum. It is always far lower… These jurors think the criminal justice system coddles criminals in the abstract – but when confronted by a real live defendant… they never find a mandatory minimum sentence to be a just sentence.

Thank you very much, Judge Bennett.

With that said, I’ll add some of my own opinions about locking people up for years for victimless crimes.

Reasons why we should abolish the criminalization of victimless acts

The destruction of lives

The clearest and most obvious reason for taking victimless crimes off the books is the hundreds of thousands of lives they destroy directly. Glen Greenwald puts it succinctly:

For us to collectively decide that the consensual, adult use or sale of intoxicants will be criminalized, means we are agreeing that hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans will experience life-destroying calamity. These POWs will be ripped from their communities – and frequently from their children – for years, decades and for life, pursuant to mandatory sentencing schemes as Draconian as those in any dictatorship…

Instead of being with their families, these citizens will be confined among a population teeming with violent predators, under harsh and terrifying conditions. Conditions in which, especially for the disabled, their health often cannot be maintained…

Then there’s the rape and assault of these non-violent “criminals”. Tom Cahill, President of Stop Prisoner Rape, explains:

I credit the war on drugs with the tremendous increase in prisoner rape. Most prison rape victims are in for minor nonviolent offenses. The victim profile is a young adult… confined for the first time for a minor victimless crime such as possession of a little too much marijuana – and too poor to buy his freedom. . .

These men and boys who are raped in prison will usually return to the community far more violent and antisocial than before they were raped. Some of them will perpetuate the vicious cycle by becoming rapists themselves…

Adding to the damage done to individuals is the damage that these laws do to families. Perhaps the major reason for single parent households in our country today is the huge number of imprisoned men. This perpetuates a cycle of crime and incarceration over the generations.

Wrecking the lives of the people of other countries
The United States has pressured many countries to collaborate in its “War on drugs”, particularly with respect to preventing the production and export of drugs from those countries. This often involves aerial spraying of farmland (especially in Colombia) suspected of growing drugs, and the consequent destruction of the livelihood of farmers.

The promotion of real crime
We should have learned our lesson from our experiment with prohibition, which spurred the rise of organized crime. Whenever a widely desired something is criminalized, its value will rise exponentially, while the desire for it will remain high, thus creating a need for an organization to fulfill that desire. Peter McWilliams explains how this contributes to the rise of organized crime, including narco-trafficking:

If fulfilling that desire is a crime, that organization will be organized crime. Operating outside the law as organized criminals do, they don't differentiate much between crimes with victims and crimes without victims. Further, the enormous amount of money at their disposal allows them to obtain volume discounts when buying police, prosecutors, witnesses, judges, juries, journalists, and politicians…. Once consensual crimes are no longer crimes, organized crime is out of business.

Especially when the forbidden something is an addictive drug, its excessive cost will incite some people to commit crimes they would otherwise not have committed, such as robbery. Crimes committed for this reason can then become habit forming, leading to more crimes.

The time and money that goes into pursuing and punishing victimless crimes drains money away from crime prevention and rehabilitation programs which could otherwise contribute to reducing real crime. It drains money from the criminal justice system which could otherwise be used to pursue real crime. And it even sometimes leads to letting real criminals out of prison to make room for the victimless “criminals”. McWilliams describes the problem:

Real criminals walk free every day to rape, rob, and murder again because the courts are so busy finding consensual criminals guilty of hurting no one but themselves. And even if the courts could process them, the prisons are already full; most are operating at more than 100% capacity. To free cells for consensual criminals, real criminals are put on the street every day.

Contributions to racism and classism
The racial and class disparity in the United States for imprisonment for drug offenses is well known. Though the Federal Household Survey (See item # 6) indicated that 72% of illicit drug users are white, compared to 15% who are black, blacks constitute a highly disproportionate percent of the population arrested for (37%) or serving time for (42% of those in federal prisons and 58% of those in state prisons) drug violations.

Whenever and wherever victimless crimes are prosecuted and punished, the opportunity for arbitrary enforcement of the law based on racism or other nefarious factors is magnified tremendously.

Victimless crimes are unconstitutional
Victimless crimes are not specifically mentioned in our Constitution. Yet, they are intimately related to abuses of our Fourth Amendment. For one thing, warrantless searches and seizures have often been used to obtain evidence of victimless crimes. Secondly, warrantless searches and seizures and victimless crime laws are often pursued for the same reasons: as a means of wielding political power over selected portions of our population. Furthermore, a victimless crime law seems inconsistent with the idea of “The right of the people to be secure in their persons…” Privacilla elaborates on this:

Victimless crime laws do threaten the privacy of innocents because of the monitoring and investigation they require for enforcement… To enforce this kind of crime law, officials must engage in extensive monitoring, wiretapping, and surveillance of suspects and the public. The existence of victimless crimes tends to erode Fourth Amendment protections that are there to protect the privacy of innocents….

In fact, a US Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, was argued partially on this basis. The case involved a Texas law that made consensual sex between homosexuals, even within the privacy of their own homes, a crime. The Supreme Court ruled against the state, striking down that law. It is not clear to me whether the Fourth amendment was part of that decision, but the plaintiff did pursue the case based in part upon Fourth Amendment issues, introducing arguments against victimless crimes:

Liberty cannot survive if the legislature demands that people behave in certain ways in their private lives based on majority opinions about what is good or moral…And of course, the Founders believed wholeheartedly that majorities had no right to impose their beliefs on minorities. In Federalist 10, Madison articulated his concern…

It could also be argued that victimless crimes violate our First Amendment restriction against laws “respecting an establishment of religion”, since religious values often provide the foundation for these laws. And certainly the due process clause of our Fifth Amendment is routinely violated by victimless crime laws, especially given the fact that they are so unequally enforced against the poor and minorities.

Nobody can say that we are winning our “War on Drugs”, despite the 40 billion or so dollars that we spend on it annually. Drug use in the United States is little different today than it was when the “War on Drugs” began.

McWilliams elaborates further on the cost:

We're losing at least an additional $150 billion in potential tax revenues… moving the underground economy of consensual crimes aboveground would create 6,000,000 tax-paying jobs.

The withholding of medical treatment
Many illicit drugs have important medical uses, but because of the “War on Drugs” their use for medical purposes is either completely outlawed or severely curtailed. Marijuana provides exceptionally good symptomatic relief or treatment for a wide range of medical conditions, for which there is no better or even comparable alternative treatment. Yet the pharmaceutical industry and the prison industry (among others) have lobbied extensively against the legalization of medical marijuana, and the federal government has complied by over-ruling state enacted medical marijuana laws. This adds to the huge profits of the pharmaceutical industry while denying millions of Americans symptomatic relief from serious diseases such as cancer or AIDS.

Especially important is the fact that many illicit drugs are highly effective against pain. Because of taboos against potentially addicting drugs, many people are needlessly denied
the pain relief that they need to make their lives bearable, even as they are dying.

Highest incarceration rate in the world

The end result of all this is that the United States has for many years had the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. A 2008 article in The New York Times notes that with only 5% of the world’s population, one quarter of all the world’s prisoners are U.S. prisoners. The prevalence of incarceration in our country was 751 people per 100,000 population – which means that one percent of all our adults were incarcerated. Russia was a distant second, with 627 people incarcerated per 100,000 population:

Judge Bennett ended the editorial with which I started this post by calling for more judges to speak out about this issue:

Many people across the political spectrum have spoken out against the insanity of mandatory minimums… In a 2010 survey of federal district court judges, 62 percent said mandatory minimums were too harsh. Federal judges have a longstanding culture of not speaking out on issues of public concern. I am breaking with this tradition not because I am eager to but because the daily grist of what I do compels me to… I hope more of my colleagues will speak up… This is an issue of grave national consequence. Might there be a problem when the United States of America incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world.

Posted by Time for change | Sat Oct 27, 2012, 10:54 PM (13 replies)

Remembering George McGovern

George McGovern, who died this Saturday at the age of 90, was the first presidential candidate who I campaigned or voted for. He has ever since been one of my greatest sources of inspiration. In my opinion he was one of the most honest, courageous, and compassionate politicians our country has ever known. The 1972 Democratic nominee for President, I believe he would have been a great President had he been elected. But either our country wasn’t ready for him then, or probably more accurately, our “mainstream” corporate media did such a hatchet job on him that he never had a chance of getting elected against an incumbent president (Richard Nixon).

A brief background on George McGovern

McGovern, a long-time and consistent critic of unnecessary U.S. wars, was a bomber pilot and war hero during World War II. Following two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from South Dakota in 1962. By the late 1960s, he was one of three or four U.S. Senators to publicly speak out against our involvement in the Vietnam war, for reasons very similar to his later opposition to the Iraq War, including: the awful toll in American and Vietnamese lives; the belief that the Vietnamese people should have the right to determine their own fate; and, the fact that we could not ‘win’ that war. He later said that it took more courage for him to speak out against that war as a junior Senator than it did for him to fly combat missions during World War II.

In 1972 he was chosen as the Democratic nominee for President, with his number one campaign issue being the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. Unfortunately, he was excoriated not only by his opponents but by much of the U.S. national news media, which dubbed his candidacy as standing for the “Three A’s”: abortion, acid, and amnesty: Abortion, because he believed in a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion (one year before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land); acid, because he believed that people should not be imprisoned for the possession of marijuana (marijuana isn’t acid, but hey, what’s a little inaccuracy when the Presidency of the United States is at stake?); and amnesty, because he believed that following the termination of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, draft evaders and deserters from that illegal war should receive amnesty.

His campaign for president in 1972 was derailed by a barrage of lies and dirty tricks, reminiscent of the campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, and more recently President Obama. Most of all, his courageous opposition to the Vietnam War allowed his opponents to peg him as a pacifist.

McGovern lost the Presidential election of 1972 to Richard Nixon in a landslide, carrying only one state (Massachusetts). But not before Nixon, in an effort to neutralize McGovern’s most important campaign issue, reached an agreement with North Vietnam just a couple of weeks before the election, allowing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to claim “Peace is at hand” just a few days before the election. This led directly to the Paris Peace Accords, signed by Nixon just a few days after the start of his second Presidential administration, which officially ended direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. And that is a major reason why I say that George McGovern is more responsible than any other single person for ending our involvement in the Vietnam War.

Some lessons we could learn from George McGovern on war

George McGovern during the Vietnam War was the Dennis Kucinich of our day. Though his detractors never lost an opportunity to call him a pacifist, McGovern was never a pacifist. As a bomber pilot in WW II, he advocated the bombing of Nazi concentration camps in order to more directly combat the genocide taking place in those camps. As a U.S. Senator in 1978, he was one of the very few U.S. politicians who advocated intervention in Cambodia in order to stop the genocide taking place there. McGovern asked in response to that genocide, “Do we sit on the sidelines and watch a population slaughtered or do we marshal military force and put an end to it?” And he also supported our involvement to stop genocide in Kosovo in 1998 and in Darfur.

But when it came to immoral imperialist wars his opposition was fierce. He was one of three or four U.S. Senators who opposed U.S. involvement in the early years of the Vietnam War, as manifested by the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment (defeated by 55-39), which required the complete withdrawal of American forces over a period of several months. In pushing for his amendment to end the war, McGovern was not afraid to point fingers at his Senate colleagues (Democratic as well as Republican): Rick Perlstein, in his book “Nixonland”, describes following the scene:

Opposing senators had spoken of the necessity of resolve in the face of adversity, of national honor, of staying the course, of glory, of courage. McGovern responded:

“Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending fifty thousand young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood.” (Senators averted their eyes or stared at there desks or drew their faces taut with fury; this was not senatorial decorum.) “Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage… young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or face, or hopes… Do not talk about national honor, or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible…”

McGovern succinctly summed up the lesson that we should have learned from Vietnam (and Iraq) when he said "We seem bent on saving the Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh even if we have to kill them and demolish their country to do it". And he said about his opposition to the Vietnam War, while alluding to the Iraq War:

I frankly don't understand the interpretation that once you get into a war you can't ever pull out until you've won it. We need more politicians in this country who are willing to say, "I made a mistake. Let's correct it as soon as possible."

In April 2003 he wrote in response to knee jerk Republican claims that Democrats “don’t support our troops” every time Democrats criticize a war:

I believed then as I do now that the best way to support our troops is to avoid sending them on mistaken military campaigns that needlessly endanger their lives and limbs. That is what went on in Vietnam for nearly thirty years….During the long years of my opposition to that war, including a Presidential campaign dedicated to ending the American involvement, I said in a moment of disgust: “I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars in which young men do the dying.” That terrible American blunder, in which 58,000 of our bravest young men died, and many times that number were crippled physically or psychologically, also cost the lives of some 2 million Vietnamese as well as a similar number of Cambodians and Laotians…I had thought after that horrible tragedy – sold to the American people by our policy-makers as a mission of freedom and mercy – that we never again would carry out a needless, ill-conceived invasion of another country that has done us no harm and posed no threat to our security. I was wrong in that assumption.

Dedication to our most vulnerable fellow citizens

A recent editorial in The Nation summarized George McGovern’s life:

McGovern stood with the underdogs, the hungry and the poor. He led the effort for a school meals program that has provided food for millions of children globally since 2000. In 2002, he asked:

Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget, as the President has proposed, wouldn’t we make the world a more stable, secure place if we invested half that sum in reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world? …

McGovern understood that our great nation was born of revolution – dedicated to human rights and dignity for all. He understood that the United States should rightfully be a champion for the vulnerable and a leader in ending hunger, illiteracy and poverty. And he was delightfully scathing in his astute observations about how too many politicians invoke faith and moral values when they violate them on a daily basis.

As we near the end of an election season that has (almost entirely) failed to speak to the poor and the vulnerable among us and has too often presented our role in the world in militarized terms, may we honor McGovern’s commitments by ensuring that what is missing is raised, and what matters is pursued in the critical times ahead.

Posted by Time for change | Wed Oct 24, 2012, 02:27 PM (24 replies)

Red State Mortality Rates and Voters Who Vote against their own Economic Interests

I’ve been a public health official and epidemiologist for 32 years. As such, much of my work involves looking at and evaluating factors that influence human health, disease, and mortality. Recently I came across a map of age adjusted death rates by state (See page 4), and I was immediately struck by the fact that there appeared to be a very strong correlation between mortality rates and the political redness of the states. The correlation wasn’t by any means perfect, but it looked very strong. As a matter of fact, the 11 states with the highest mortality rates are all deep red states (AL, AR, GA, IN, KY, LA, MS, OK, SC, TN, WV). According to Nate Silver’s latest analysis, among those states, the most likely to vote for Obama this November is Indiana, and he rates the probability of that happening at exactly one half of one percent.

So I entered the numbers into my computer, using Nate Silver's October 17 probabilities of voting for Romney as an indication of the state’s redness, and used a standard statistical test (linear regression analysis) to evaluate the strength of the association between the state’s redness and age-adjusted mortality in 2009. The strength of the association was very strong indeed. The probability of seeing an association that strong by chance is less than one in ten thousand. The predictive value is so strong that of all the factors that could predict the mortality rate in a state, the state’s redness accounts for more than a quarter of the predictive power.

I thought that was phenomenal, so I assessed other potential variables in an attempt to find an explanation. The variable that I found that appeared to offer the best explanation was median family income of the state. Median family income was a substantially better predictor of state mortality rate than was the state’s redness. The association was strongly negative – the lower the median family income the higher the mortality rate (median family income held almost 40% of the power to predict a state’s mortality rate). This is a very well known relationship in the field of public health. A low median family income for a state means that a relatively large percent of families will be living in poverty. Poverty and near poverty is associated with poor nutrition, homelessness, relative lack of access to health care, and many other factors that predict high mortality. So it was no surprise to see a state’s median income strongly negatively associated with the state’s mortality rate.

But how would that explain the positive association between the state’s redness and its mortality rate? Well, it turns out that a state’s redness is also strongly and negatively associated with median family income. The more likely a state is to vote for Romney over Obama, the less is its median family income. And the state mortality rates vary a great deal. At one extreme is Hawaii, with an age-adjusted annual mortality rate of 620 deaths per 100,000 population. Hawaii is rated a 0.0% chance of voting for Romney. At the other extreme is West Virginia, with an age-adjusted mortality rate of 950 deaths per 100,000 population. West Virginia is rated a 99.8% chance of voting for Romney.

This all begs the question: Why are states with the lowest median family income, in general, the most likely to vote for Romney? Romney wants to reduce taxes on the rich even beyond the rates imposed by the George W. Bush administration. Romney wants to cut Social Security, which would have devastating effects on tens of millions of Americans. Romney was infamously quoted as showing contempt for 47% of the U.S. population, by implying that they are leeches who should not be entitled to the government benefits that they receive – which in many cases allow them to feed their families while they continue to look for a job. Shouldn’t all this cause low income voters to vote against Romney? Let’s take an in-depth look at the explanations behind the associations I’ve discussed in this post:

The association between a state’s redness and its mortality

I noted above that the causal explanation for the association between a state’s redness and its mortality rate is median family income. Low median family income is a very strong predictor of both a state’s mortality rate and its redness. It is primarily because of this that a state’s mortality rate and its redness are strongly correlated.

But there is also a more direct reason – that is, a direct relationship between a state’s redness and its mortality rate. A primary characteristic of a red state (or individual) is that these states and individuals have fallen for the Republican line that “big government” is intrinsically bad. Romney uses this simple-minded and fraudulent line all the time. He wants us to take it without question that anything government does can be better done by the private sector. They want us to forget that government is the elected representative of the people – i.e. government IS the people.

But the private sector in NOT intrinsically better than government. The private sector is here to make a profit. If in the course of making a profit, people benefit from their services, then fine. But benefiting the people is not their purpose. And without a representative government to exert some controls on the private sector, they will run all over the nation’s people in their quest for profit. This is exactly what has happened over the last several years. The American oligarchy (a term I use to describe the ultra-wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups who have gained control over much of our government) has used its massive amounts of money to buy the communications media by which so many Americans receive their political information. They’ve used their money to buy politicians to get elected to serve their own interests at our expense. When they can’t buy a politician they use their money to throw them out of government, as they did to Alan Grayson in 2010. They play us off against each other. More specifically, they have convinced millions of people to be against government programs that could greatly benefit them, on the premise that some undeserving people will benefit from those programs.

So it is that a preponderance of voters in red states regularly elect to local and state offices politicians who are dedicated to serving the desires of the American oligarchy at the expense of everyone else. They have fallen hook line and sinker for the idea that government is intrinsically bad. They believe that it is bad to elect government officials who want to regulate wealthy corporations in the public interest. They see “Obamacare” as bad simply because it represents government “interference” with the private sector – no other explanation needed. They believe that the private sector must take over Social Security in order to get it out of the hands of government. Corporations are let loose to pollute our air, water, and soil without government “interference”, and to manipulate our economy. These red state voters acquiesce too much to the idea that our social safety net programs are bad because they represent “big government”. They (along with their fellow citizens who aren’t fooled so easily but live amongst those who are) are now reaping the consequences for their naivety, in falling economic status, poor health and ultimately death.

The association between a state’s redness and its poor economic status

Now let’s come back to the question of why poor economic status of a state predicts a state’s redness. I think it’s very important to understand this – yet the explanation is far from obvious.

One important point is that we know from exit polls in 2000 and 2004 (and probably 2008 as well, but I haven’t looked at this issue for 2008) that lack of a college education is strongly associated with a tendency to vote red. That shouldn’t be surprising. The Republican Party often seems to hold education and educated people in contempt. Their contempt for education is reflected in their policies, which deny or scorn science-based findings such as climate change and evolution, and seek to make a college based education unattainable for ordinary people. Lack of a college education has to be one reason for the association between low family income and a state’s redness.

Most important, voters in these states have been convinced to vote against their own economic self-interests. The American oligarchy has led these people to believe that government has no right to interfere with their ability to do whatever they please. To do so would be “socialism”, they tell us, which everyone should know is bad. Worse yet, they’ve arranged for massive government subsidies and tax breaks that ordinary people don’t have access to. They even arranged for a multi-trillion dollar bailout of the fraudulent financial industry that got us into the economic mess that we’ve been in since 2008 – with very few strings attached. The bottom line is that voting red enables the wealthy to become even wealthier, at the expense of everyone else.

Thus voting red hurts people economically. An excellent example of the relationship between economic status and voting tendency is provided by events in Wisconsin in the past couple of years. Wisconsin is just a little to the blue side of purple. In the Republican tidal wave of 2010, Wisconsin tilted to the red side and voted in a far right wing governor and legislature. The newly elected right wing governor, Scott Walker, immediately set about the task of trying to destroy the presence of organized labor in the state – a move that gave Wisconsin the worst job loss in the nation compared to other states. At that point, the blue tendency in Wisconsin reasserted itself as voters put tremendous pressure on its governor and some of its most conservative legislators with recall movements. These efforts were successful enough to replace enough conservative Republican legislators with Democrats to block Governor Walker’s worst excesses – though the effort to recall Walker himself was prevented by the infusion of tons of money from Walker’s wealthy supporters.

Influencing people to vote in their own interest

If we are to be successful in reversing the constant drift to the right in our country, among other things (such as diminishing the influence of money in our political process, taking back our communications media from the wealthy corporations that now control it, and fixing our broken election system) we liberals/progressives need to be able to talk to people with conservative tendencies, to help them to better understand how political issues affect their own economic well being. A recent article by Josh Eidelson, a former labor organizer, addresses this point. In the article Eidelson discusses “Working America”, an organization that attempts to organize non-union working people to work and vote for their own economic self-interests. He describes the organization like this:

Working America staff say a few advantages set their {organization} apart: their work happens on your doorstep, not your TV screen; they’re independent of parties and candidates; and they establish a year-round presence in communities. Self-identified conservatives open the door because they’ve signed up as members. Working America steers clear of foreign policy and “social issues”.

How can an organization that has obvious political purposes be “independent of parties…”? The point is that we who seek to influence voters to support our political causes need to recognize that many people, liberals and conservatives alike, have legitimate grievances against both major political parties. When we try to exaggerate the virtues of our own party and whitewash its faults, many people pick up on what we are doing, and it turns them off. We thereby lose the opportunity for meaningful communication with them. Discussing the widespread voter disaffection with politicians and the whole political process in our country, Eidelson says:

I watched canvassers get even solidly Republican voters to engage with them because of the overwhelming appeal of their anti-outsourcing message and their eagerness to listen… Across the spectrum, people nodded in agreement. These canvassers were also modest in their defense of Obama. They often noted that they too had hoped to see more change…. A Working America field manager told voters that he saw Obama as the lesser of two evils. You won’t find that in any canvassing script. But it resonated.

I like the idea. Americans have been fooled into working and voting against their own interests for far too long. We the 99 percenters need to find more common ground for talking with each other about the issues of importance to us that unite us in our efforts to curb the power of those who have gained so much control over our country and our lives.
Posted by Time for change | Thu Oct 18, 2012, 06:01 PM (17 replies)

My Book about the Myriad Problems and Potential for Fraud with our Election System

My book on the myriad problems and potential for fraud with our election system was recently published by Biting Duck Press. It is titled “Democracy Undone – Unequal Representation, the Threat to our Election System, and the Impending Demise of American Democracy. It can be found at http://bitingduckpress.com/democracy_undone/ . Here is a brief description of each of the book’s chapters:

Chapter 1 – Consequences of a failing democracy

When elections of our public officials are for sale to the highest bidder… when our public officials are so addicted to the “campaign contributions” of their wealthiest constituents that they develop a symbiotic relationship with them… when our communications media are owned and controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy elites… when our citizenry lack the ability to differentiate propaganda from reality… when we allow machines provided by private corporations to count our votes using secret electronic software… then we should expect that the consequences will not be pretty or comfortable for the vast majority of our citizens. This chapter briefly discusses some of the major consequences of all that, including:

 Election to public office of people who have no desire to represent our interests
 Routine abrogation of international law
 Gross, record breaking income inequality
 Rampant militarism
 The highest rate of imprisonment of its citizens, by far, of any nation in the world
 The impending destruction of the human life-sustaining capabilities of our planet

Chapter 2 – How the 2000 Presidential election was stolen

The American people were widely aware that on Election Day 2000 the TV networks made two calls on the winner of the Presidential election in Florida that were reversed shortly afterwards. Within an hour of poll closing, Florida was called for Al Gore. A little more than two hours later, the networks reversed that call, calling the race in Florida “too close to call”. Four hours after that, at 2:16 a.m. Wednesday morning, they began calling Florida, and with that the U.S. Presidential election, for George W. Bush. About an hour later the networks put Florida back in the “too close to call” category, where it remained for the next 36 days, amidst Democratic Party efforts to have the votes recounted, Republican Party efforts to stop the vote counting, bitter publicly aired arguments and court battles.

Why would the national TV networks make two calls in the same state, within seven hours, which had to be reversed shortly afterwards? Our national news media attributed those two calls to “bad data”, but they never explained them in any adequate detail. An analysis of those two reversed calls sheds much light on the many problems with the 2000 Presidential election in Florida. That analysis provides no evidence that the early call for Gore was based on “bad data” at all. So why did it have to later be reversed? The Wednesday morning call for Bush was based mainly on a computer “glitch” that reduced Gore’s vote count by more than 16 thousand in a single precinct that contained only about 600 voters.

This chapter explores the reasons for the two “bad calls”, as well as the many illicit and shady maneuvers that provided the Bush/Cheney margin of victory in Florida and thereby gave us “President George W. Bush”.

Chapter 3 – Was the 2004 Presidential election stolen too?

It was well known in the days prior to the 2004 Presidential election that a Bush victory was highly unlikely without Bush carrying both Ohio and Florida. As Election Day unfolded, spirits in the Kerry camp were running high, as it became evident that Ohio’s 20 electoral votes would determine the victor, and Kerry had a comfortable lead in the Ohio exit poll. Even CNN’s right wing hack, Robert Novak, acknowledged that it would be an uphill climb for Bush.

But as the results came in from Ohio, optimism in the Kerry camp began to fade, and by late evening their remaining hope was narrowed down to strongly Democratic Cuyahoga County, and especially Cleveland, where reports of large pre-election increases in new voter registration and exceptionally high voter turnout had circulated. But this remaining hope soon faded, as it became clear that the (official) voter turnout from Cleveland was in fact miserably low, and by noon the next day John Kerry conceded the election, which he officially lost by about 119 thousand votes.

In this chapter I do not discuss all of the evidence for a stolen 2004 election, as I reserve most of that for later chapters that deal with election fraud by type of fraud. In this chapter I discuss: 1) the record breaking discrepancy between the many exit polls that were performed as voters left the polls and the official vote count; 2) the widespread silence regarding that discrepancy by our national news media, and; 3) the corrupted vote recounts that were performed when citizens concerned about the integrity of the election challenged the results.

Chapter 4 – Can you trust the corporations that make the computers that count your votes?

Both the running of our elections and the registering of voters have to a large extent been turned over to private for-profit corporations in recent years. These corporations have displayed great resistance to any laws or policies that would make their voting systems more transparent or less susceptible to fraud.

Many of these corporations have been shown to have political ties, especially to the Republican Party. It is widely acknowledged that the electronic machines that they produce, own, and use to count our votes, can be easily programmed to switch votes from one candidate to another. The final results produced by most of these machines cannot be verified by any means. Much evidence provides good reason to believe that these machines have been used to steal elections, especially the 2004 presidential election. Chapter 4 describes much of this evidence and explains why these machines are unfit for use in our elections.

Chapter 5 – Fixing elections by making 2 + 2 = 3

In addition to the electronic voting machines that count our votes at the thousands of individual precincts throughout the United States, other electronic machines compile the individual precinct vote counts to produce total county-wide vote totals. As with the individual voting machines, these “central county tabulators” can be programmed for fraud. Chapter 5 describes evidence of election fraud mediated by these central county tabulators and discusses how this type of election fraud can be prevented.

Chapter 6 – Illegal purging of legitimate voters

Of the many irregularities found in the 2000 Presidential election, it was the illegal purging of legitimate voters that was the biggest factor in the awarding of Florida and therefore the Presidency to George W. Bush. The irregularities identified in the 2004 Presidential election dwarfed those found in 2000 in scope and magnitude, and consequently Bush was awarded a second term as president. Once again, illegitimate purging of legitimate voters led the list of causes for Bush’s victory. This practice was prevalent all over the country, including again in Florida, but this time it was Ohio that led the way and made the biggest difference. And once again, the person responsible for conducting a fair election in the state that made the difference, this time Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, was the highly partisan Chairperson of the Bush/Cheney campaign in the state. This chapter describes the abundant evidence of illegal purging of legitimate voters in Florida 2000, Ohio 2004 and elsewhere.

Chapter 7 – More dirty tricks – Voter suppression and intimidation

This chapter discusses other means of voter suppression, including:

 Insufficient allocation of voting machines to poor and minority precincts
 Spoiled ballots – on which the voter intends to vote but is unable to do so
 Moving polling places without notifying voters
 Voter intimidation
 Frivolous lawsuits against voter registration organizations

Chapter 8 – The “voter fraud” myth and the barrage of new restrictive voting laws

Restrictive voting laws decrease voter turnout by making it more difficult for people to vote. They disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, the poor, and Democrats. To rationalize these anti-democratic laws, Republicans have been pushing for several years the myth of “voter fraud” – the idea that voters who impersonate other people and otherwise vote illegally represent a monumental threat to the integrity of our elections.

While the first restrictive state voter ID laws were passed in 2003, by September 2011, 30 U.S. states required either photo ID or some other form of ID in order to vote. American voters who are homeless, do not own cars, or otherwise lack access to photo IDs are usually ordinary people who have fallen on hard times and gotten caught up in a system that is making life more and more difficult for ordinary people. Preventing them from voting helps the cause of the American oligarchy at the expense of almost everyone else. Consequently, in 2012 alone, voter ID legislation with the purpose of disenfranchising millions of Americans was introduced in 34 states.

Chapter 8 debunks the “voter fraud” myth, discusses the anti-democratic effects of the restrictive voting laws that use the “voter fraud” myth as their rationale, and describes the current status of voter ID laws.

Chapter 9 – Shocking testimony on vote switching in the 2004 presidential election

There are several unsolved (not to mention uninvestigated) mysteries surrounding George Bush’s 2004 Ohio “victory”, many which suggest the possibility or likelihood of electronic vote switching. A computer programmer, Clint Curtis, provided sworn testimony to Congress that he wrote a computer program, at the request of a Republican operative, which was capable of rigging the 2004 election, and which he believes was in fact used to rig the 2004 election. The man charged with investigating Curtis’ allegations appeared to be on the verge of verifying his allegations and tracking them “all the way to the top” shortly before he died under highly suspicious circumstances. The investigation into his alleged suicide was quickly squelched by Governor Jeb Bush’s administration in Florida.

Four years later, following numerous investigations that cast further suspicion on the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, ‘Karl Rove’s IT guru’ was killed in a plane crash shortly before he was scheduled to testify in a court case involving allegations of vote manipulation in that election, and shortly after receiving threats regarding his impending testimony. The close association of this man with Karl Rove is probably significant.

Chapter 9 discusses those two deaths in detail, in the context in which they occurred.

Chapter 10 – Legalized bribery of government officials

There is no greater corrupting influence on a democratic (or any other) government than systematic bribery of the government officials who are supposed to serve the interests of the nation’s people. In the United States today the system that is used to finance election campaigns amounts to systematic bribery of our government officials. This system perpetuates a double whammy on the American people. Money from wealthy “campaign contributors” – individuals and corporations – has tremendous influence on the outcomes of our elections. Then the recipients of that money, once installed in office, use the powers of their office to pay back their contributors by passing and supporting legislation that favors them, at the expense of everyone else. That enables the wealthy contributors to accumulate even more wealth and power, and the cycle repeats itself over and over again.

The end result of legalized bribery in our country is that a great many of our politicians do everything they can to make their wealthiest constituents happy with them, at the expense of everyone else. They do that with the knowledge that the voters they lose in doing so will be more than compensated for by their disinformation campaigns that will be paid for by their wealthy donors. This is a recipe for turning democracy into corporatocracy, which is a major component of fascism.

This chapter describes the malignant effects of legalized bribery in the United States, and some of its history, along with the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions that enabled this system, by striking down campaign finance reform laws passed by the U.S. Congress, and by using the rationalization that corporations are “persons” and money is a form of “speech”. Thus our Supreme Court has conferred our First Amendment protection of free speech upon corporations, thereby enabling them to spend millions of dollars in behalf of the political candidates and causes that support their interests.

Chapter 11 – Corporate control of communications media

Because the good majority of information that most Americans receive today is through the telecommunications industry, and because access to the megaphones that the telecommunications industry uses to communicate to the American people is very expensive and under corporate control, the wealthy now have the ability to use those megaphones to a much greater extent than do ordinary American citizens. Consequently, wealthy persons, individually or through the corporations that they control, use their wealth to obtain air time on the previously “public airways” to get their message out – in the process precluding those with less money from doing the same.

The implications for national politics have been quite unfortunate, as our elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, feel the need to move further and further to the right, lest they risk being ignored, mocked, or attacked by our corporate news media.

This situation is intolerable. A free and independent press, which provides unbiased accurate information to the people, is crucial to a healthy functioning democracy. When most of the press is under the control of corporate interests, which strive to tilt elections in their favor, democracy becomes nothing but a fig leaf. The result is a playing field tilted heavily towards the right, in which the American people suffer because corporate interests are served at the expense of the vast majority of people.

Chapter 11 explores the history of corporate monopolization of our communications media, the resulting attacks on our First Amendment rights, and other consequences destructive of a democratic society.

Chapter 12 – Some actions we can take now

This chapter provides a framework for solutions to the myriad problems with the election system in the United States today. It ends with a quote from Milton Mayer, who studied the thinking of ordinary lower level Nazis during Hitler’s rise to power. Mayer explained in his book, “They Thought They Were Free – The Germans 1933-45”, the gradual process by which Germans gave up their freedom to Hitler:

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter…

You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time…

You speak privately to your colleagues… but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’ … And you can’t prove it…

In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next… You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago.

Final Note from the Publisher: Use This Book!

We were keen to get this book published prior to the upcoming presidential election for what readers should perceive as pretty obvious reasons. Even those of us not privy to all the facts suspected that two out the last three presidential elections were stolen. Now this book removes whatever doubts we may have had.

The silence on this subject from both sides of the political spectrum (after some initial rather feeble whining) has been nothing short of deafening. From progressive and far left all the way to conservative and far religious right the mantra has resounded: “all right, whatever may have happened it is in the past, it’s time to forget about it, it’s time to move on.” But moving on without making an effort to understand from past mistakes sets the stage for creating a nation of fools ruled by a coterie of knaves. For if there is one thing we can count on, it is that members of the ruling elite continue to learn from their past. Indeed, stealing the 2004 election was a slicker process than the terribly clumsy and obvious 2000 maneuvering.

Our recent US election history is a tale painful to recount and an agony for those of us who were actively involved to relive. But it is imperative that we do so, because, as the great writer says: “past is prologue.” Here are some ways to use the invaluable information contained in this book…

If you read the book or part of it and agree that the information contained in it has the potential to educate American voters about the problems with our election system and motivate them to be more vigilant about protecting it, please consider writing a short review of the book and posting it at Amazon.
Posted by Time for change | Sun Oct 14, 2012, 10:46 AM (27 replies)

Will Romney-Connected Voting Machines in Hamilton Co. Ohio Decide the 2004 Election?

The question that is the title of this post was recently posed by Bob Fritakis and Harvey Wasserman, who did so much to uncover and draw to public attention evidence of election fraud in the Ohio 2004 Presidential election, which provided the electoral margin of victory for George W. Bush in 2004. The article begins with this:

Electronic voting machines owned by Mitt Romney's business buddies and set to count the votes in Cincinnati could decide the 2012 election.

At issue is the potential role of Hart Intecivic voting machines, which will be used in two Ohio counties in 2004 – Hamilton County (which contains Cincinnati) and Williams County. Hamilton County is of far more concern because it is much more populous than Williams County.

Fritakis points out in another recent article that the majority of board directors at Hart Intercivic come from the private equity firm H.I.G. Capital. Employees at H.I.G. Capital have contributed $338,000 to the Romney 2012 Presidential campaign. That’s a lot of money for one company. Clearly it is very important to them that Romney be elected President. Furthermore, Ohio is shaping up as the U.S. state most likely to provide the electoral margin of victory in 2012 – as it did in 2004. And as in 2004, Ohio now has a Republican governor and a Republican Secretary of State, who are in charge of the election in Ohio this year. It is disturbing that a very heavy contributor to Romney’s campaign is so closely connected with a voting machine company whose machines are counting votes in Ohio this year.

The potential for Hart Intercivic machines in Hamilton County to influence the election

I don’t know what the potential is for the Hart Intercivic machines to decide the 2012 Presidential election this year. In some ways it might seem that their potential is not that great.

The machines that will be used to count the good majority of votes in the county are Hart Intercivic optical scan machines, according to the Ohio Secretary of State website. Optical scan machines count ballots filled out by voters that are preserved and can be recounted in case election fraud is suspected. But that by no means ensures an honest election. Election fraud was strongly suspected in 2004, and a statewide recount was ordered. However, the recount itself, under the direction of Republican Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (who was also the Bush-Cheney campaign chairman), was itself a fraud. The fact that ballots and election records from 56 Ohio counties were destroyed despite a federal order to preserve them substantially exacerbates the suspicions surrounding the Ohio election and the Ohio recount of 2004.

The remainder of the votes in Hamilton County will be counted with the eSlate voting machines. These are electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper trail and therefore produce results that cannot be verified by a recount or any other means. But these voting machines will be used only for handicapped voters whose handicap (such as blindness) prevents them from using the optical scan machines. Obviously the number of voters using those machines will be small. But since the results that they produce are totally unverifiable, they could be programmed to add lots of votes to Romney’s total.

What to do

As I said, I don’t know what the potential is for the Hart Intercivic machines to be involved in a degree of election fraud that will decide the 2012 election. Their strong financial connection with the Romney campaign is certainly disturbing. But it seems to me that the possibility for very high magnitude fraud is remote if appropriate precautions are taken:

As noted above, if the Hart Intercivic optical scan machine is involved in fraud, that fraud could be easily discovered and remedied through a recount of the optical scan ballots. If Obama (or Sherrod Brown) appears to lose a close election in Ohio, the vote count from Hamilton County should be immediately analyzed to see if it is discrepant with the expected vote based on other recent elections and the vote counts of other Ohio counties. If it is, and if the magnitude of the discrepancy appears great enough to decide the winner of the election, the Obama campaign should immediately focus on Hamilton County and secure orders for a recount of the vote, with a team of lawyers used to oversee the recount to make sure that it isn’t fraudulent. No such effort was made in Ohio in 2004 anywhere in Ohio, and the recount fraud generated little publicity.

With regard to the potential for fraud with the Hart Intercivic eSlate voting machines, the total vote count produced by those machines should be immediately identified. If the number of votes fraudulently added to those machines was enough to determine the election result in Ohio, the total number of votes produced by them would likely be far out of proportion to the number of handicapped voters likely to use them. In that case, the issue could be quickly identified and investigated – and no Obama concession should be considered until the investigation is completed.
Posted by Time for change | Fri Oct 12, 2012, 07:27 PM (7 replies)

“We shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the African-American voter-turnout machine”

The excerpt from the quote that is the title of this post was recently reported by the Columbus Dispatch, quoting Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin County, Ohio, Republican Party. The full quote was:

I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.

It was spoken for the purpose of rationalizing the limiting of early voting in Ohio, which in turn is part of a very large national effort to suppress the vote of minorities and the poor in order to get Mitt Romney into the White House and provide him with a Republican Congress.

The Republican Party explained the quote by saying that Preisse thought his comments were “off the record”.

Of course, this should be no big deal, except for the fact that the racism exhibited by the comment, as well as the many right wing actions that accompany such thinking, are promising to be rampant in the 2012 national election. And they very well could make the difference in who is elected President and which Party controls Congress.

Rampant racism promises to be in full force at voting precincts this Election Day

"True the Vote", a group with strong ties to Republican entities such as the Tea Party, the Koch brothers and Judicial Watch, plans to send out a million volunteers on Election Day to do "poll watching". While its purported purpose is to ensure the integrity of our elections, evidence abounds that its more direct purpose is to suppress Democratic voting. As Bill Ouren, True the Vote's national elections coordinator has repeatedly said with regard to his training program, the job of his poll watchers is chiefly to make voters feel like they’re "driving and seeing the police following you." And an article titled "How the Tea Party's Building a Poll Watcher's Network" provides clues to the true intent of True the Vote’s “election integrity” program, with a quote from Tom Fritton of Judicial Watch, a featured guest speaker at True the Vote training programs:

We are concerned that Obama’s people want to be able to steal the election in 2012 {with the} “illegal alien vote” {and a} “food stamp army.”

A guide produced by True the Vote provided recommendations for:

requiring photo ID to vote, increasing penalties for forged or otherwise fraudulent voter registration applications, prohibiting same-day voter registration, allowing recording devices inside polling precincts and designating English as the “official language of Texas and the only language used on ballots.”

A New York Times editorial provides an apt analogy to the Jim Crow era:

This is how voter intimidation worked in 1966: White teenagers in Georgia harassed black citizens in line to vote, and the police refused to intervene. Black plantation workers in Mississippi had to vote in plantation stores, overseen by their bosses…

This is how it works today: In an ostensible hunt for voter fraud, a Tea Party group, True the Vote, descends on a largely minority precinct and combs the registration records for the slightest misspelling or address error. It uses this information to challenge voters at the polls, and though almost every challenge is baseless, the arguments and delays frustrate those in line and reduce turnout.

The article goes into detail on how this voter suppression works:

In 2009 and 2010, for example, the group focused on the Houston Congressional district represented by Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat. After poring over the records for five months, True the Vote came up with a list of 500 names it considered suspicious and challenged them with election authorities. Officials put these voters on “suspense,” requiring additional proof of address, but in most cases voters had simply changed addresses. That didn’t stop the group from sending dozens of white “poll watchers” to precincts in the district during the 2010 elections, deliberately creating friction with black voters.

An article in Atlantic Magazine dealt with the vigilante flavor of these groups. It described a Tea Party rally in which a speaker

implored the crowd to prepare for a “ground war”: “In 2012, we need a patriot army to stand shoulder to shoulder on the wall of freedom and shout defiantly to those dark powers and principalities, ‘If you want to steal this election, you have to get past us. We will not yield another inch to your demonic deception … If you won’t enforce our laws, we’ll do it ourselves, so help us God.’ ” Shaking his fist in the air, he cried, “Patriots, let’s roll!” The crowd cheered wildly.

Why this is important

The voter intimidation is all part and parcel of a larger effort to suppress the minority, poor, and Democratic vote in general. It is on par with the massive efforts to limit early voting, require strict voter IDs that disenfranchise the poor and minorities, voter “caging” operations, and the purging of voter lists of suspected illegal aliens and felons.

Some might wonder whether this kind of voter intimidation is actually effective. It certainly was in recent previous national elections. Many minority voters are scared into believing that they will get into trouble with the law if they vote. Others feel physically intimidated. The incessant challenges slow down voting lines and force working voters with stringent time constraints to leave their polling places before voting. If that doesn't work, election officials with right wing sympathies may go along with the challenges and require that voters vote by provisional ballots, which may never be counted. An article on these right wing vigilante poll watching groups provides an explanation:

The law provides no standards or guidance for precinct election officials in determining whether the form of ID is valid. How does the judge decide whether it is a real ID? If you have any suspicion about its validity can you give the voter a provisional ballot? Do you have to have probable cause in order to reject the ID? Is it a reasonable doubt standard? Giving no guidance for standard of review leaves a loophole large enough to drive a Mack truck through. Here is where the law allows the zealously partisan poll worker to find any minuscule irregularity and make someone vote a provisional ballot.

A Democratic strategy group co-sponsored by Common Cause expounds on its implications:

It’s a coordinated attempt by a political party to fix the result of a presidential election by restricting the opportunities of members of the opposition party’s constituency – most notably blacks – to exercise a Constitutional right. This is the worst thing that has happened to our democratic election system since the late nineteenth century, when legislatures in southern states systematically negated the voting rights blacks had won in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Some may object that this is an exaggeration – that the use of electronic voting machines that produce unverified results and can be easily programmed for fraud poses a far worse threat to our election system. But there is little need to argue about that. The presence of a worse threat to our election system is no reason to not be concerned about the resurgence of this blatantly racist threat.

The "voter fraud" myth as the excuse behind the voter suppression

No discussion of this issue would be complete without noting the so-called “voter fraud” myth that rationalizes the reason for all this voter suppression. Yet the issue of "voter fraud" as a threat to our elections has been shown over and over again to baseless. An editorial cartoon figure puts the issue in perspective:

An analysis of voter fraud in the United States by Lorraine Minnite found it to be "rare and isolated". Art Levine puts the "voter fraud" scam in perspective:

Voter fraud is actually less likely to occur than lightning striking a person, according to data compiled by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice… The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud.

On Election Day 2000, outrage over “voter fraud” in St. Louis inspired the GOP to make a big deal of it and press charges. Levine explains:

Missouri's then-Secretary of State Matt Blunt launched a trumped-up investigation that concluded that more than 1,000 fraudulent ballots had been cast in an organized scheme. A Justice Department Civil Rights Division investigation, started before Ashcroft shifted the department's priorities, found no fraudulent ballots, however. Instead, it discovered that the St. Louis election board had improperly purged 50,000 voters from the rolls.

Later, in October 2002, Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General initiated an effort to combat voter fraud – the “Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative”. Yet, though “voter fraud” was declared a high priority, Professor Minnite found that only 24 people were convicted of illegal voting between 2002 and 2005. Not a single person was even charged with impersonating another voter – the claimed rationale for the restrictive voting laws. Fourteen of the 24 convictions were of noncitizens who were apparently confused about election laws.

What can be done?

The above mentioned strategy memo co-sponsored by Common Cause provides some recommendations for averting the kind of voter intimidation described in this post. It notes that even if the Obama campaign is successful in thwarting the worst voter suppression abuses and wins the election, the Republican Party is sure to invoke “voter fraud” as the reason for their loss and use that as an excuse to delegitimize an Obama victory and/or a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress, in an attempt to force compromises on many policy issues. It recommends the following:

Neutral election officials should be prepared and encouraged to call for police assistance in maintaining order the moment problems begin to arise and not wait until frustrations have mounted. The militants in the voter vigilante groups will have no hesitation about dismissing virtually all electoral monitors – state, federal or neutral third party – as collaborators in the sinister Democratic conspiracy but they will emphatically not want to be seen as clashing with the local police. The organizers of the voter fraud groups will not want to see video of their militants confronting policemen or news headlines that read “Voter fraud groups clash with police at polling places.”

Democratic observers should be prepared to caution frustrated voters that angry confrontations or disruptive behavior will play directly into the hands of the voter vigilantes and conservative media. In contrast, calm but firm protest and dignified interviews with local TV and other media can dramatically illustrate who are the victims of injustice and who are the victimizers.

Citizens at polling places should be prepared to relentlessly track and digitally record all Fox news and other GOP-friendly media and cameramen with their cell phones and be prepared to quickly provide local and national TV stations with any video evidence they obtain of conservative photographers and reporters encouraging obstruction or disorder. “Fox news cameramen provoke clash at polling place” is headline Rupert Murdoch will most definitely not want to see the day after the elections.

Democratic election monitoring groups should be prepared and have a system in place to precisely document all legitimate voters who are denied the right to vote because of delay or disruption of the polling place by the voter vigilantes and be ready to use this documentation as the basis for both civil and criminal legal action against any voter fraud groups whose actions result in the disenfranchisement of American citizens.

My book on the myriad problems with our election system has been recently published in different electronic formats by Biting Duck Press and can be found at the link in my sig line.

Posted by Time for change | Tue Oct 9, 2012, 07:30 PM (3 replies)

Why Is there No Mainstream Talk about the Threat of Electronic Vote Switching in the 2012 Election?

There are five very simple reasons why anyone concerned about the state of our election system and our democracy should be concerned about the threat of electronic vote switching in the coming election. These reasons are so obvious to anyone who is familiar with the state of our election system that it is difficult to fathom why almost nothing has been done about this threat, though it has been well known for at least as long ago as the days following the 2004 Presidential election. It is equally difficult to fathom why there is so little talk about it in the “mainstream” media today – unless one postulates that our corporate-owned “mainstream” media is well aware of the threat and yet chooses to ignore it because they are more interested in preserving the status quo than they are in preserving our democracy. Let’s consider why we should be concerned about this threat to our democracy.

Electronic voting machines can be easily programmed for fraud

Myriad articles have been written on how easily electronic voting machines can be programmed for fraud. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever disputed this. Here are some excerpts from the summary of a typical article on the subject, titled "Analysis of an Electronic Voting System". It was written by four authors, one from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, two from the Information Security institute at Johns Hopkins University, and one from the Department of Computer Science at Rice University:

We show that voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal software… In the face of such attacks, the usual worries about insider threats are not the only concerns; outsiders can do the damage. That said, we demonstrate that the insider threat is also quite considerable, showing that not only can an insider, such as a poll worker, modify the votes, but that insiders can also violate voter privacy… We conclude that this voting system is unsuitable for use in a general election. Any paperless electronic voting system might suffer similar flaws, despite any “certification” it could have otherwise received. We suggest that the best solutions are voting systems having a “voter-verifiable audit trail,” where a computerized voting system might print a paper ballot that can be read and verified by the voter.

I would like to add just two comments to this. First, I am much more worried about fraud mediated by very powerful and wealthy people than I am about the “such as a poll worker” noted in the excerpt above. Second, while a voter-verifiable audit trail is a good start towards addressing this problem, it is currently far from sufficient. There have been many problems discovered with voter-verifiable audit trail systems currently in use. Furthermore, even if such as system was made to work perfectly it would not ensure an accurate vote count, since it cannot work unless the paper ballots are actually counted. In the 2004 Presidential election in Ohio, it required a great effort to get permission to do a recount, the Democratic nominee had conceded the election long before the recount began, and when it finally was performed it was found to be fraudulent, having occurred under the supervision of Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, who was also, simultaneously, the Bush/Cheney Campaign Chairman in Ohio in 2004.

Electronic voting machines produce unverifiable results

There is no way whatsoever to verify the results of a vote count produced by an electronic machine that is not associated with a voter-verifiable audit trail. All we have is vote counts produced by the machine, which we are left to accept on faith. In situations where recounts have been ordered, the “recount” of the vote count produced by the electronic machines is conducted simply by having the machine produce the number again. The “results” are already in the machine. Inevitably they produce the same numbers that they did the first time.

When election integrity activists ask that the machine be examined by an independent outsider expert, in an attempt to discovery evidence of fraud, their request is inevitably refused with the rationale that the machine is proprietary – meaning that it is owned by the corporation that made it. Courts have upheld the rights of the voting machine owners to refuse to allow independent examination of their machines – in large part because of written agreements to that effect between the voting machine owners and the election officials who contracted with them to count our votes.

Any idiot could tell you that that is a recipe for election fraud and tyranny. Why do our election officials make such deals with voting machine corporations?

There is much evidence that electronic voting machines have been used for fraud

The final exit polls, posted at 12:23 a.m. on Wednesday morning, November 3, 2004, predicted John Kerry with 50.8% of the national vote and George W. Bush with 48.2% of the national vote – a difference of 2.6%. In marked contrast, the machines that were responsible for the official vote count registered a national vote of 50.9% for Bush and 48.1% for Kerry, a 2.8% Bush victory. The difference between the exit poll results and the official vote count – the red shift – was thus 5.4%. The statistical odds against such a large discrepancy occurring by chance were astronomical, approximating one in a million. In Ohio, the state that determined George Bush’s Electoral College victory in 2004, the exit polls predicted a Kerry victory by 4.2%, while the official vote count gave Bush a 2.5% victory – a red shift of 6.7%. In that same year, a discrepancy between exit polls and the official vote count in the Ukrainian presidential election led to the reversal of the official results, thus elevating Viktor Yushchenko to the Ukrainian presidency – with the official support and encouragement of the U.S. government. Yet the exit poll discrepancy in the U.S. Presidential election was barely commented upon by our “mainstream” media.

An analysis of reports by U.S. voters to the Election Incidence Reporting System (EIRS) developed by the National Election Data Archive Project demonstrated numerous voter complaints of vote switching that they directly witnessed on the touch screen machines on which they voted. The good majority of these complaints, by a ratio of 12 to 1, favored Bush over Kerry. A report by Paul Lehto and Jeffrey Hoffman identified 19 voter reports of electronic vote switching in Snohomish County, Washington – all which favored Bush – from the Washington State auditor’s office, the Washington Secretary of State’s office, and a Snohomish County voter complaint hotline. An investigation undertaken by the Washington Post regarding electronic vote switching in Mahoning County, Ohio identified 25 electronic voting machines in Youngstown, Mahoning County, each which transferred an unknown number of votes from Kerry to Bush. The Post report went on to state “Due to lack of cooperation from Secretary of State Blackwell, we have not been able to ascertain the number of votes that were impacted or whether the machines malfunctioned due to intentional manipulation or error.”

Supporting the supposition of election fraud as an explanation for the vote switches described in the EIRS and other analyses, as well as the exit poll discrepancy nationally and in Ohio, sworn testimony of computer programmer Clint Curtis before the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic staff suggested an intention on the part of Republican functionaries to utilize electronic vote switching software in the 2004 election. The strange "suicide" death of the Florida investigator who was in the midst of investigating Curtis’ allegations (after telling Curtis that his investigation revealed corruption “all the way to the top”) provides additional reason to believe that the implications of Curtis’ revelations were very important.

All of this is just a sampling of the great conglomeration of evidence that electronic vote switching not only can be, but actually has been used to steal elections – and not just in the 2004 Presidential election. There is much more.

Electronic voting machines with no paper trails will be widely used to count our votes in 2012

In the 2012 general election, almost 25% of U.S. voters, from 17 different states, will vote on electronic machines that produce vote counts with no paper trail at all. Again, these results will be completely unverifiable. An additional 12% of U.S. voters will vote on electronic machines that produce voter verified paper trail audits, with all their attendant problems, which would require an honest hand recount (a seemingly unlikely possibility) of the paper ballots in order to verify their results.

With electronic control over 25% to 37% of votes cast in the 2012 Presidential election, do you think that that is enough to swing an election? Again, I have to ask: Why is this allowed in a country that is supposed to be a democracy?

The issue of motive

All of what I wrote above are simply facts – facts that cannot be disputed, though some may argue with the interpretation of those facts with regard to the question of how widespread electronic vote switching has actually been in previous U.S. elections.

Given the known capability of private corporations to program their machines to switch votes from one candidate to another, do you think that any of them would actually have a motive to do it if they could? I suppose that there are people who would answer “no” to that question, but personally I think the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t warrant discussion.

The book

My book on the myriad problems with our election system has been recently published in different electronic formats by Biting Duck Press. Electronic vote switching is one of many issues discussed in it. It is titled “Democracy Undone – Unequal Representation, the Threat to our Election System, and the Impending Demise of American Democracy. It can be purchased at this link: http://bitingduckpress.com/democracy_undone/ .

Here are some excerpts from an editorial review of the book by Jonathon Simon, Executive Director of the Election Defense Alliance and the man who first identified and reported the great exit poll discrepancy of 2004:

In writing Democracy Undone, Dale Tavris has forsaken easy refuge in the crowd of passive bystanders to a chilling and devastating crime…. The subject is computerized election theft, which Democracy Undone examines, for the most part unblinkingly, in the crucial context of the multi-faceted breakdown of American politics and American democracy itself. We are shown a government that is veering further and further from the interests and the will of the governed in a process that is accelerating catastrophically…

Yes, it is the stuff of “conspiracy theories,” and passive bystanders can comfort themselves with the “never happen here” mantra. That is, after all, how the Big Lie prospers and exactly what its perpetrators count on. But Tavris provides plenty of evidence not only that it can happen here… but that it has happened and is happening here…

It’s a chilling nexus but no less real for being so disturbing. We have, individually and collectively, too long been bystanders to a cheap trick with massive political and historical consequences… There could not be a more timely or important book to read this November or in this rapidly darkening time.

Posted by Time for change | Fri Oct 5, 2012, 07:05 PM (7 replies)

On the So-Called Voter “Enthusiasm Gap”

For as long as I can remember, every election season there is talk of the so-called “enthusiasm gap”, which always favors Republicans. The concept (I would call it more of a theory) arises largely from the fact that polls of registered voters prior to elections overestimate the extent to which voters are likely to vote Democratic and underestimate the extent to which they are likely to vote Republican. Presumably this is due to a relative lack of enthusiasm on the part of Democratic voters – so the theory goes.

As a result of this evidence of polling inaccuracy, the concept of “likely voters” vs. all registered voters was developed. The polling of only “likely voters” (as measured by various voter information collected during the polling process) is supposed to be a better predictor of election results – and indeed it has been shown to correlate better with official election results than polling of all registered voters (in fact, correlation with election results is how the statistical modeling used to determine who is a “likely” voter was developed).

There are many different ways in which voter “enthusiasm gap” is purportedly demonstrated. One is simply to ask voters how enthusiastic they are about voting. Another is to compare pre-election polls with exit polls. If one political party shows a smaller percentage of voters showing up for an election as measured in exit polls, compared to what pre-election polls predicted, that is taken as evidence of a voter “enthusiasm gap” for that Party. The characteristics of voters who were exit-polled are analyzed in connection with voters who were pre-election polled, to determine what characteristics predict “likely voters”. Another method is to compare the pre-election polls to the official vote count. As with the comparison with exit polls, if a political Party fares worse in official vote count compared to what pre-election polls of all registered voters predicted, that is taken as evidence of an enthusiasm gap – presumably meaning that relatively many voters from that political Party did not show up to vote.

Nate Silver notes in a recent column of his that in each of the six U.S. Presidential elections since 1988, “likely voters” voted more heavily Republican than all registered voters. The difference was 0.7% in 1988, 1.1% in 1992, 2.5% in 1996, 1.6% in 2000, 1.2% in 2004, and 2.1% in 2008. Also of note is the fact that in 5 of 6 of those elections the “likely voter” polls ended up being closer to the official results than the total registered voter polls.

In another column about the “enthusiasm gap”, Silver points out that what the “enthusiasm gap” really measures is voter “turnout”. I put turnout in quotes for the same reason that I put “enthusiasm gap” in quotes. Official voter “turnout” really is not quite a measure of turnout – that is, who showed up to vote. Voter “turnout” is defined as the percent of registered voters who actually register an official vote. But the fact of the matter is that every Election Day in the United States hundreds of thousands or millions of voters who show up to vote do not actually register a vote.


It is very instructive to consider the many reasons why so many registered voters either don’t show up at the polls or do show up at the polls to vote but don’t register an official vote – because the answer to why this happens illustrates numerous problems with our election system. All of these barriers to voting work against the Democratic Party:

Old broken down voting machines

The problem with old voting machines failing to register a vote was perhaps most notoriously illustrated by the Presidential election in Florida in 2000. The initial vote count on Election Day in Florida gave George W. Bush a 1,784 vote lead over Al Gore. That immediately precipitated a machine recount, which reduced Bush’s lead to 327. Why? It was mostly because hanging pieces of cardboard remaining on the punch cards at the spot where the voter intended to vote had blocked the voting machine from registering a vote for President. When the ballots were run through the machine a second time, many of those hanging pieces of cardboard became dislodged and thereby allowed the vote to be registered. This process favored Al Gore because the old faulty voting machines tended to be concentrated in low income precincts which contained high concentrations of Democratic voters. Later, visual examination of every paper ballot in the state by staff of the Miami Herald several months following the election demonstrated thousands of additional undervotes – that is, ballots that the voting machine failed to recognize as a vote – that provided evidence of voter attempt to vote for a Presidential candidate (for example, tears or indentations in the cardboard). The counting of these ballots as votes would have given Al Gore an additional 1,314 net votes, which would have been enough to win Florida and the Presidential election. But for various reasons, including the stopping of the vote count by the U.S. Supreme Court, most of those votes were never officially counted, and Bush therefore “won” the election.

A large research study on this issue examined almost 2 million unrecorded votes for President in the 2000 Presidential election. Although the national rate of unrecorded votes was 1.8%, the rate was almost twice that, 3.4%, in counties with median annual incomes of less than $25,000. As with our educational system, our roads, and so many other things, less money is typically allocated to poor and minority areas for the purpose of voting than to affluent white areas. This means that poor and minority voters typically vote with older machines, which are more likely to malfunction, especially with regard to their ability to punch clean holes in the designated place on ballots.

Insufficient allocation of voting machines

The 2004 Presidential election in Ohio, whose electoral votes were awarded to George W. Bush, is full of examples of how voters go to the polls to vote and yet fail to register a vote for President.

Franklin County, Ohio, had disproportionate numbers of poor and minority voters. Largely because of insufficient numbers of voting machines allocated to many precincts in Franklin County, 74% of voters waited to vote for more than twenty minutes, and sometimes much longer than that. Furthermore, a study that looked at voting machine allocation per voter by precinct partisanship showed that machine allocation was far less adequate in precincts that voted for John Kerry than those that voted for George Bush. In fact, it appears that there were about 30 Kerry precincts where there was less than one machine per 440 registered voters, while there were no Bush precincts in that category. That same study showed that “voter turnout” (those who actually voted) was substantially less in Franklin County precincts that were allocated fewer machines per voter. This was caused by the fact that long voter waiting times resulted in many voters having to leave the polls before voting, because of work or family responsibilities.

An extensive statistical analysis of the situation by Elizabeth Liddle found that approximately 18,500 voters were disenfranchised in Franklin County because of overcrowding and consequent long waits at the polls. Because Franklin County voted mostly for Kerry, and because the Kerry precincts were affected disproportionately, she estimated that this problem cost the Kerry/Edwards ticket approximately 7,000 net votes.

Furthermore, as Bob Fitrakis revealed, all this happened while 68 voting machines were available in Franklin County but held back. The pattern of voting machine allocation appeared to be quite suspicious:

An analysis of the Franklin County Board of Elections’ allocation of machines reveals a consistent pattern of providing fewer machines to the Democratic city of Columbus… despite increased voter registration in the city. The result was an obvious disparity in machine allocations compared to the primarily Republican white affluent suburbs…There’s a direct correlation between affluence and votes for Bush and below medium income areas and votes for Kerry. In Franklin County, Ohio’s formula served to disenfranchise disproportionately poor, minority and Democratic voters….

Purging of voter registration rolls

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 2004, documentation by The New York Times and by the Greater Cleveland Voter Registration Coalition indicated large increases in voter registration, which were not reflected in the official voter rolls maintained by Ohio’s Secretary of State. The New York Times figures suggested a discrepancy of more than 110 thousand voters, suggesting massive voter purging. Confirmation of the probable reasons for the discrepancies came from research by Victoria Lovegren, who posted a report at Ohio Vigilance which indicated the purging, apparently illegal, of 165,224 voters from Cuyahoga County alone, for no other rationale than that they hadn't voted recently.

The likelihood of massive voter purging in Ohio in 2004 was further confirmed by research by Mark Crispin Miller in “Fooled Again – How the Right Stole the 2004 Election and Why they’ll Steal the Next One Too (Unless we Stop them)”. In that book, Miller recounts his conversations with Denise Shull, a poll checker in Summit County, Ohio. During the course of her work on Election Day, Shull noted that approximately 10% to 20% of registered Democratic voters on her list were not on the official list of registered voters. Furthermore, these voters were described as ardent Democrats, as long time voters in the area, AND most of them were not voting. A possible reason for their not voting is suggested by an encounter that Shull had with one of these voters as the voter (or more precisely, non-voter) was leaving the polls. This voter was simply told that she couldn’t vote and was given a phone number to call. And even more disturbing, Shull noted three of her fellow Democratic volunteers who described to her very much the same phenomenon occurring at the polling places where they worked that day.

Disappearing votes

One of the reasons for great Democratic optimism in Ohio on Election Day 2004 was many anecdotal reports of large voter turnout (manifested by very long voting lines) in heavily Democratic Cleveland. To verify those anecdotal reports, I looked at data from the national Electronic Incident Reporting System (EIRS), which received tens of thousands of Election Day reports of voting complaints. This database contained 1,509 complaint reports involving long voting lines. Of these, more than a third, 548, came from Ohio. Of those, more than a quarter – 150 cases – came from Cuyahoga County, and of those Cuyahoga County reports that mentioned the name of the city, 46 of 75 reports were from Cleveland. Therefore, Cleveland accounted for about 6% of complaint reports of long voting lines in the whole United States, whereas they accounted for only a little more than a tenth of a percent of votes in the 2004 election.

Yet despite the very long voting lines reported all over Cleveland, official voter turnout was not recorded as high. In fact, it was quite low compared to elsewhere in Ohio. According to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections website, the voter turnout in Cleveland was only 53.14%, compared to 73.41% elsewhere in Cuyahoga County, and about 70% in the rest of Ohio. This finding had been earlier reported by Richard Hayes Phillips, a statistical expert in identifying statistical anomalies, whose findings have been widely publicized.

Unlike the case of Franklin County, in Cleveland there was no evidence of insufficient voting machine allocation being responsible for the long voting lines. Every indication pointed to very high voter turnout in Cleveland. Thus it appeared that whereas official voter turnout in Cleveland was very low, actual voter turnout was very high.

No other explanation comes to mind to explain this very strange anomaly other than the possibility that tens of thousands of Cleveland voters who voted did not have their votes registered in the final count.

Work interfering with the ability to vote

The working poor, composed disproportionately of minorities, are much more likely to utilize early voting dates, when available, than more affluent voters. The reason for this is easy to understand: Voting often is an economic hardship for working people, especially those who need more than one job to keep economically afloat, since it is often difficult for them to get the necessary time off of work. Consequently, in the absence of opportunities for early voting, the working poor are more likely to be unable to vote than more affluent voters, due to work or family obligations. This has nothing to do with lack of enthusiasm for voting. It is simply a result of the fact that some people have rigid schedules that they must keep in order to maintain access to the necessities of life.

This year the elimination of early voting, targeted to Democratic areas, has been particularly troublesome in Ohio, which required a court ruling to somewhat restore early voting rights.

Voter ID requirements

The first state voter ID laws were passed in 2003. As of September, 2011, 30 U.S. states required either photo ID or some other form of ID in order to vote. The problem with restrictive voting laws is that they tend to disenfranchise voters, especially the poor and minorities (which is precisely the point of many of their architects and supporters). Many poor people do not have access to photo IDs. They may not drive a car, and they may have no other reason to have a photo ID.

The state of Pennsylvania passed an especially egregious voter ID law in 2012. According the Pennsylvania Transportation Department, 9.2 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania lack the required ID to vote in 2012. Unless this law is successfully challenged (it is currently being taken to court), these voters will be turned away from the polls when they attempt to vote on Election Day 2012. A large preponderance of these voters tend to vote Democratic.

Challenging voters at the polls

Current state laws in 39 states allow private citizens to challenge voters at the polls. Brentin Mock explains that:

Of the thirty-nine states that allow random people to challenge voters inside polling places, only fifteen of them require the challengers to prove that the person they’re challenging isn’t an eligible voter. Which means that in twenty-four states people can wage all kinds of frivolous accusations – that a person is an “illegal alien,” or that they are using a dead person’s identity to vote – to burden if not intimidate voters. In these states, the poll challenger statutes can be abused and used for racial profiling, when not sending a chill effect to others who might be vulnerable for no other reason than having a Latino surname.

There are a number of right wing groups in this country that are organizing efforts to use these voter challenge laws to suppress voting activity. Mock describes one of them called “Code Red USA”, which

rallies Tea Partiers from around the country to join a “conservative army” that will infiltrate battleground states in November for voter registration and “election integrity” efforts. Code Red says it has “partnered with True The Vote to maintain election integrity by training volunteers to be poll watchers and combat voter fraud.” Get ready to tumble.


Thus it is that there are numerous factors that have nothing to do with voter enthusiasm that pose a barrier to voting. All of these factors pose stiffer barriers to Democratic than Republican voters. Some of them prevent voters from coming to the polls; some prevent voters from voting once they arrive at the polls; some prevent a voter’s vote from being counted in the official vote count; and others cause a combination of these things.

Depending upon how a particular pollster measures voter “enthusiasm”, any of these factors has the capability of depressing “enthusiasm” by virtue of the fact that they all depress voter “turnout” as officially measured. When combined together, as they always are, the depression in voter “turnout” can be quite substantial, especially when right wing organizations organize campaigns with that goal in mind.

To the extent that these factors depress voter turnout, attributing it all to a lack of enthusiasm can be very misleading. Worse, it can and probably does have anti-democratic consequences. By attributing low “turnout” of Democratic voters to lack of enthusiasm, the blame is put on the voters rather than the systematic flaws in our election process. Even most Democratic voters believe that the traditionally low “turnout” of Democratic voters is due to lack of enthusiasm. I have never seen a study that attempted to account for systematic barriers to voting in the evaluation of the lack of voter enthusiasm on turnout. If such a study was ever done, I suspect that the enthusiasm of Democratic voters would compare quite favorably with that of Republican voters. But by attributing it all lack of voter enthusiasm the focus is removed from the systematic problems that are in dire need of reform.
Posted by Time for change | Wed Sep 19, 2012, 08:41 PM (4 replies)

Confessions of a Former Republican

I found reading "Confessions of a Former Republican", by Jeremiah Goulka, to be a heart-warming experience because I love to see examples of people who have the courage and honesty to re-think their most adamant beliefs. Reading this brought tears to my eyes. Goulka worked as an official in the Bush II administration. He begins his article by explaining where he came from:

This is the story of how… I discovered that what I believed to be the full spectrum of reality was just a small slice of it and how that discovery knocked down my Republican worldview… Like so many Republicans, I had assumed that society’s “losers” had somehow earned their desserts. As I came to recognize that poverty is not chosen or deserved, and that our use of force is far less precise than I had believed, I realized with a shock that I had effectively viewed whole swaths of the country and the world as second-class people. No longer oblivious, I couldn’t remain in today’s Republican Party… The more I learned about reality, the more I started to care about people as people, and my values shifted.

We believed in competition and the free market, in bootstraps and personal responsibility, in equality of opportunity, not outcomes… We were tough on crime, tough on national enemies… I intended to run for office on just such a platform someday… I did my best to tune out liberal views…

As I was reading Goulka’s confession I thought it would be worthwhile to consider what he had to say in the light of my own values and those of other liberals (The DU mission statement includes the sentence “We are always looking for friendly, liberal people who appreciate good discussions and who understand the importance of electing more Democrats to office”). I found something on that issue that I wrote and posted on DU almost two years ago:

Moral values that almost all liberals can agree on

The right to an opportunity for a decent life (or economic justice)
We believe that everyone should have an opportunity to obtain the necessities of life. And when they don’t, for example when so few jobs are available that millions of Americans descend into poverty, homelessness, and hunger, then it should be the responsibility of our government to step in and vigorously attempt to rectify the situation. We also believe that our government has an important role in protecting the civil rights of minorities and our most vulnerable citizens against discrimination.

Holding corporations responsible for their actions
In our country today, corporations and those who control them receive numerous privileges from our government that aren’t afforded to ordinary citizens. The result today has been a multitude of corporate actions that increase their wealth at great cost to the rest of us, ballooning wealth inequality, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Corporations have these advantages over the rest of us because their enormous wealth enables them to buy… I mean influence our elected representatives. We would like to see these outrages addressed in an equitable manner.

Military intervention
Recognizing the enormous human and financial costs of war, and believing as we do that our country has frequently been driven into war and other military adventures mainly on behalf of corporate power seeking ever more profits, we would very much like to see our nation adopt a much more skeptical attitude towards war. We believe that a military budget approximately the size of the military budget of all the other nations on earth combined is a great waste of resources, and we would like to see our money put to better use.

Rights of accused persons
We believe that a person should not be held or punished for a crime without being charged, should have the right to be informed of the nature of the charges against him and to face and answer one’s accusers, should have the right to a fair trial by a jury, and should not have to endure “cruel and unusual” punishment – as granted by Amendments V, VI, VII, and VIII to our Constitution.

Election integrity
We believe that all American citizens should have the right to vote, that it should be illegal to attempt to obstruct that right – as so often happens to our poor and minority fellow citizens – and that our votes should be counted in a transparent and verifiable manner, rather than on unverifiable electronic machines.

Our First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech and of the press
We believe that the First Amendment to our Constitution is absolutely necessary for the functioning of democracy. If people cannot criticize their government, and if a country lacks a free and independent press there can be no democracy. We believe that no corporation or other institution has the moral right to monopolize the right of speech by amassing control of communications media, including television, radio, the print media, or the Internet.

Goulka’s description of how his eyes opened to the moral failures of the Republican Party

I was happy to see that Goulka addressed in some detail three of the six issues I noted above. I don’t know his positions on the other three, but I believe that he has rethought them as well. Here are excerpts from his confession on how he changed his mind on some issues that greatly affect the well-being of our country and its people:

On the right of the opportunity for a decent life – and economic justice

The Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina made a deep impact on Goulka:

Then came Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, I learned that it wasn’t just the Bush administration that was flawed but my worldview itself… The Bush administration’s callous non-response to the storm broke my heart… Soon, I was involved with a task force trying to rebuild the city’s criminal justice system… I was appalled… to find overt racism and the obvious use of racist code words by officials in the Deep South…

Discovery of an unlevel economic playing field:

Then something tiny happened that pried open my eyes to the less obvious forms of racism and the hurdles the poor face when they try to climb the economic ladder... My tour guide mentioned that parents were required to participate in… a field trip to a sit-down restaurant… It turned out that none of the families had ever been to a sit-down restaurant before. The teachers had to instruct parents and students alike how to order off a menu, how to calculate the tip. I was stunned… Who knew? … From then on, I started to notice a lot more reality. One of my roommates wasn’t surprised. He worked at a local bank branch that required two forms of ID to open an account. Lots of people came in who had only one or none at all. I was flooded with questions: There are adults who have no ID? And no bank accounts? Who are these people? How do they vote? How do they live? Is there an entire off-the-grid alternate universe out there?

On the illegitimate use of American military power

I joined a social science research institute. There I was slowly disabused of layer after layer of myth and received wisdom, and it hurt. Perhaps nothing hurt more than to see just how far my patriotic, Republican conception of U.S. martial power – what it’s for, how it’s used -- diverged from the reality of our wars. Lots of Republicans grow up hawks. I certainly did… My sense of what it meant to be an American was linked to my belief that… the American military had been dedicated to birthing freedom and democracy in the world, while dispensing a tough and precise global justice… Whatever those misinformed peaceniks said – we made the world a better place.

But then I went to a war zone. I was deployed to Baghdad as part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers… I was only in Iraq for three and a half weeks, and never close to actual combat; and yet the experience gave me many of the symptoms of PTSD… That made me wonder how the Iraqis took it. From overhead I saw that the once teeming city of Baghdad was now a desert of desolate neighborhoods and empty shopping streets, bomb craters in the middle of soccer fields and in the roofs of schools. Millions displaced. Our nation-building efforts reeked of organizational incompetence… Precious few contracts went to Iraqis… This incompetence had profound human costs. Of the 26,000 people we were detaining in Iraq, as many as two-thirds were innocent… So much for surgical precision and winning hearts and minds. I had grown up believing that we were more careful in our use of force, that we only punished those who deserved punishment. But in just a few weeks in Iraq, it became apparent that what we were doing to the Iraqis, as well as to our own people, was inexcusable.

On the abrogation of the rights of accused persons
Goulka first noticed our country’s lack of concern with the rights of accused persons in connection with his military duties, dealing with indefinitely detained persons:

My office was tasked with opposing petitions for habeas corpus brought by Guantánamo detainees who claimed that they were being held indefinitely without charge. The government’s position struck me as an abdication of a core Republican value: protecting the “procedural” rights found in the Bill of Rights… It seemed to me that waiving {habeas corpus} here reduced us to the terrorists’ level. Besides, since acts of terrorism were crimes, why not prosecute them? I refused to work on those cases. With the Abu Ghraib pictures, my disappointment turned to rage. The America I believed in didn’t torture people…

Not too long after that he noticed the racist component of our justice system:

I noticed that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently in subtle as well as not-so-subtle ways, and that many of the people who were getting swept up by the system came from this underclass that I knew so little about. Lingering for months in lock-up for misdemeanors, getting pressed against the hood and frisked during routine traffic stops, being pulled over in white neighborhoods for “driving while black”: These are things that never happen to people in my world. Not having experienced it, I had always assumed that government force was only used against guilty people.

On his failure to notice what was “hiding in plain site”

I dove into the research literature to try to figure out what was going on. It turned out that everything I was “discovering” had been hiding in plain sight… institutional racism, disparate impact and disparate treatment, structural poverty… and on and on… I wondered why I had never heard of any of these concepts. Was it to protect our Republican version of “individual responsibility”? That notion is fundamental to the liberal Republican worldview. “Bootstrapping” and “equality of opportunity, not outcomes” make perfect sense if you assume, as I did, that people who hadn’t risen into my world simply hadn’t worked hard enough, or wanted it badly enough, or had simply failed… The enormity of the advantages I had always enjoyed started to truly sink in… Up until then, I hadn’t really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people. My values shifted – from an individualistic celebration of success (that involved dividing the world into the morally deserving and the undeserving) to an interest in people as people…

On the psychology of being a Republican

It’s important to consider the mind-set that is associated with the beliefs of today’s Republican Party, not only because we need to communicate with them, but because all of us to one degree or another have faults in our thinking processes that should cause us to reflect on and improve upon them: This is what Goulka had to say on the subject:

Today, I wonder if Mitt Romney drones on about not apologizing for America because he, like the former version of me, simply isn’t aware of the U.S. ever doing anything that might demand an apology. Then again, no one wants to feel like a bad person, and there's no need to apologize if you are oblivious to the harms done in your name – calling the occasional ones you notice collateral damage…

My old Republican worldview was flawed because it was based upon a small and particularly rosy sliver of reality. To preserve that worldview, I had to believe that people had morally earned their "just" desserts, and I had to ignore those whining liberals who tried to point out that the world didn’t actually work that way. I think this shows why Republicans put so much effort into “creating our own reality,” into fostering distrust of liberals, experts, scientists, and academics… It explains why study after study shows that avid consumers of Republican-oriented media are more poorly informed than people who use other news sources or don’t bother to follow the news at all. Waking up to a fuller spectrum of reality has proved long and painful. I had to question all my assumptions, unlearn so much of what I had learned… I came to understand why we Republicans thought people on the Left always seemed to be screeching angrily (because we refused to open our eyes to the damage we caused or blamed the victims) and why they never seemed to have any solutions to offer… I was so mis-educated when so much reality is out there in plain sight…

My own confession

Four years or so ago I probably would have been content to end this post with Goulka’s confession. But – largely because of the expanding influence of money in politics, both parties have been drifting rightward for many years now, with a sudden acceleration of the rightward drift as a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Furthermore, my own political education has caused me to rethink many aspects of my former comparatively ideal view of the Democratic Party. For example, President Clinton, whom I never found much fault with during his presidency, did much damage to our country through the adoption of some Republican ideas, including his deregulation of the financial industry and the telecommunications industry. President Obama too has adopted some Republican ideas that I very much disagree with. The differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties are not simply a matter of good vs. evil. Though the Republican Party is much worse, much fault can also be found with today’s Democratic Party. Therefore, it is not enough just to support the Democratic Party against the Republican Party. Katrina vanden Heuvel said it about as well as it can be said in "A Politics for the 99 Percent":

Committing to electoral politics need not mean – cannot mean – simply folding into an existing campaign and trumpeting a politician’s exaggerated promises. Progressives should see elections as an opportunity to identify champions, drive issues into the debate and hold politicians in both parties accountable. This requires building an infrastructure independent of the Democratic Party, and a movement willing to challenge compromised incumbents… Even without primary challenges, movements can raise the public’s awareness of progressive issues and force politicians to adopt positions they might otherwise avoid… Progressives should use the election to hone our narrative on how we got into this mess and how we can get out of it…

Progressives must therefore be willing to expose the corruption and compromises of both (emphasis mine) parties. This requires not only detailing the threat posed by the right but honesty about the limits of the current choice… Sustained efforts to mobilize and drive issues into the debate, while using nonviolence and direct action to defend people in peril, are vital. At the same time, progressives can champion candidates who will fight to transform the Democratic Party into an instrument of the 99 percent… It will require new ideas, new ways of organizing, new strategies… Now we must reach out, teach, engage and mobilize millions of Americans. We must provide them with a sense of hope, a story of possibility, and enlist them to create change. It won’t be easy. But it never is.

Posted by Time for change | Sun Sep 16, 2012, 06:45 PM (6 replies)

Occupy Wall Street and the Personal Debt Crisis

Many have wondered what happened to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in the United States, since its arrival on the national scene in 2011. To some it seems to have disappeared. But it’s much more complicated than that, as discussed in a series of articles in the September 24 issue of The Nation.

Though nobody fully understands what happened to the movement, it seems to have morphed into something somewhat different rather than disappeared. A wide variety of repressive measures, local and otherwise, made the movement very difficult to sustain in its then current form. So, many of its most prominent players have gradually changed their tactics and strategies. In some sense it could be said that the movement, of necessity, has gone underground.

Many have said that the greatest legacy of OWS has been the infusion into national consciousness of the fact that many of the wealthiest among us have been carrying on an undeclared class war against the rest of us. The American oligarchy doesn’t want anyone to talk about this because the greater our awareness of this class war the greater the likelihood that we will do something about it. If we do talk about it they accuse us of class war.

Highly related to this class war is the massive amount of debt that has plagued the American people in recent years. Accordingly, the scattered remnants of the OWS movement have to a large extent begun emphasizing this problem as the underlying and uniting purpose of the movement.

State repression of the Occupy Wall Street movement

Several measures have been used by the state to suppress the OWS movement. It is instructive to consider them. Nathan Schneider discusses this in "Occupy, after Occupy" – One year after Occupy Wall Street shook the world, what lies ahead for the movement?

The most obvious tactic has been violent police repression, such as that which was used to evict the movement from Zuccotti Park in New York in November 2012. Since then, police have been extraordinarily vigilant in striving to prevent resurrection of the movement in New York:

Whenever Occupiers have gathered in public spaces in New York, police have seemed especially willing to use force to ensure that no new occupation can establish itself. “Across the United States, abusive and unlawful protest regulation and policing practices have been and continue to be alarmingly evident,” concluded a report produced by the Protest and Assembly Rights Project…

Less well known is the infiltration of the movement, for the purpose of imprisoning the movement’s most important actors over the long-term:

The wave of evictions that ended most of the country’s 24/7 occupations in late fall was only the beginning of the crackdown. Meetings and actions over the winter seemed especially rife with infiltrators, and such suspicions were confirmed in May, when undercover officers lured activists in Cleveland and Chicago into terrorism charges that could put them in prison for decades….

Terrorism! Wow! The ace up the sleeve of all police states to gain and maintain their power.

Propaganda to publicly discredit the movement is another major tactic. The New York Police Department publicly claimed to have found DNA evidence, later discredited, that OWS was linked to an 8-year old unsolved murder. The propaganda has even entered the public culture with a Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. In that movie a major participant in the OWS movement:

takes all of Gotham City hostage, resulting in an anarchic spree as the city is handed over to “the people.” A climactic sequence, partly filmed on Wall Street while OWS was still in Zuccotti Park a few blocks away, depicts a battle for the Financial District in which a column of gallant police officers – backed by the crime-fighting vigilante Batman charges against a vicious mob of 99 percenters armed with AK–47s to save the day.

OWS as indoctrination and training for future actions

Schneider notes that, even if the occupation strategy of the OWS movement is not resurrected, it still will have served important purposes behind increasing public awareness of the problems that the American oligarchy poses to us:

The movement’s real accomplishment has been even more significant than just “changing the conversation.” Because news reporters don’t make a habit of paying attention to grassroots activists the way they follow presidential exercise habits or wobbly stock tickers, they’re not attuned to the sea change brought about by Occupy. But people organizing for economic justice – especially young people – now know one another. They’ve practiced direct democracy in general assemblies and risked their bodies in direct action. They’re talking with each other over networks that they created themselves, as well as traveling together and building their capacity for future action.

Thousands have occupied public spaces and been arrested for their convictions who might otherwise have thought the police were there to protect them. Young people who were once merely interested in social change are now committed to it.

The importance of debt as a unifying principle

Perhaps the most significant change in the movement is the emphasis on debt as a motivating and unifying factor. It is intimately connected with the undeclared class war against the 99 percenters, and it is something that affects almost all of us, even those who are well off enough to avoid personal debt. Astra Taylor explains the importance of debt to the movement in "Occupy 2.0: Strike Debt".

Occupy organizers have been searching for a next step: a way to marshal the political energy that still exists without starting from scratch or denying all that their movement has achieved. This process has recently given rise to an initiative called Strike Debt.

Debt is the tie that binds the 99 percent… from the underwater and foreclosed upon homeowners who were first pummeled by the economic crisis, to the millions of debt-strapped students who are in default or on the brink, to all those driven into bankruptcy by medical bills, to workers everywhere who have been forced to compensate for more than thirty years of stagnating wages with credit card debt, to the firefighters and teachers who have had to accept pay cuts because their cities are broke, to the citizens of countries where schools and hospitals are being closed to pay back foreign bondholders. Given the way debt operates at the municipal and national levels, the issue affects us all – even those who are fortunate enough to be debt-free, as well as those so poor they don’t have access to credit. Debt is one of the ways we all feel Wall Street’s influence most intimately, whether it’s because of a ballooning mortgage payment or a subway fare hike or a shuttered clinic.

Young people are supposedly investing in their future when they go into debt to get an education, but once they sign on the dotted line, the banks have enormous power over their lives…Debt has become the means of subjecting everyone – from sovereign nations to homeowners and victims of payday loan sharks – to a mixture of ersatz morality and threats…

Individuals are kept in line through the prospect of foreclosure, higher interest rates and damaged credit scores, while entire populations from countries teetering toward collapse have been punished with cuts to wages and social welfare programs…

And much of the debt business is a big scam. Recent evidence, for example has shown that the process is “riddled with fraud on a scale akin to the foreclosure scandal, including the robo-signing of documents”. I suspected as much when I noted my own son paying monthly unexplained charges on his credit card debt that almost equaled his huge monthly payments.

Yet instead of our government helping us with this monumental problem, it has used it as an excuse to cut much needed social problems. Taylor explains:

As individuals, many of us are in debt because we have to borrow to secure basic social goods – education, healthcare, housing and retirement – that should be publicly provided. Meanwhile, around the world, debt is used to justify cutting these very services, even as the game is further rigged so that the 1 percent continues to profit, raking in money from tax cuts, privatization schemes and interest on municipal and treasury bonds…

And now the loan sharks have enlisted the help of the state to make it even worse:

Creditors have found ways to gouge those who are struggling by adding fees, increasing interest rates, and even – depending on the type of debt – garnishing wages, tax refunds and Social Security payments…

The banks and big corporations have been bailed out with a sum that will approach a mind-boggling $16 trillion in the end; regular people and their communities have been left holding the bag and will be paying for a long time to come…

$16 trillion dollars! For those of you not accustomed to thinking in terms of such large numbers, let me put it in personal terms. That averages out to about $50 thousand dollars for every man, woman and child in the United States – which is going from us to them.

Taylor finishes her article with a recommendation:

The first thing Occupy Wall Street and Strike Debt must do, then, is transform our understanding of the morality of debt. Is it moral for the 1 percent to extract money from the 99 percent for things like college and cancer treatments? Why should the 99 percent honor their debts when the 1 percent have walked away from theirs without remorse? Framed this way, Strike Debt is not advocating debt “forgiveness” – which implies a benevolent creditor taking pity on a blameworthy debtor – but rather the abolition of the current profit-centered debt system…

Debt and the cancer of American capitalism

Noting that the OWS movement has revived the idea of social class as a political issue in our country, David Graeber, a veteran of the OWS movement explains that what made this possible is the changing nature of American capitalism as it came to use debt as a means of controlling our lives. Graeber explains, in "Can Debt Spark a Revolution?":

It’s now clear that the 1 percent are the creditors: those who are able to turn their wealth into political influence and their political influence back into wealth again. The overriding imperative of government policy is to do whatever it takes, using all available tools – fiscal, monetary, political, even military – to keep stock prices from falling. The most powerful empire on earth seems to exist first and foremost to guarantee the stream of wealth flowing into the hands of that tiny proportion of its population who hold financial assets. This allows an ever-increasing amount of wealth to flow back into the system of legalized bribery that American politics has effectively become. …

What made this possible is a change in the fundamental nature of American capitalism. Instead of accumulating wealth by actually producing things, Wall Street has figured out how to accumulate wealth for themselves through the manipulation of money, speculation, trickery, and outright fraud – all with the help of the state. Of course, they try hard to prevent us from understanding this:

The financial industry actively discourages us from scrutinizing the actual social relations on which its wealth is based. What happens on Wall Street is supposed to be too complicated and advanced for regular people to comprehend.

But OWH shined a light on the process:

The rise of OWS allowed us to start seeing the system for what it is: an enormous engine of debt extraction. Debt is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us, at home and abroad. Internally, it has become a matter of manipulating the country’s legal structure to ensure that more and more people fall deeper and deeper into debt. As I write, roughly three out of four Americans are in some form of debt, and a whopping one in seven is being pursued by debt collectors.

There’s no way to know just what percentage of the average household’s income is now directly expropriated by the financial services industry in the form of interest payments,
fees and penalties. What statistical information is available suggests it is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent… “Financialization,” then, is not just the manipulation of money. Ultimately, it’s the ability to manipulate state power to extract a portion of other people’s incomes. Wall Street and Washington, in other words, have become one. Financialization, securitization and militarization are all different aspects of the same process….


Graeber explains that the solution lies in bringing an understanding of the illegitimacy of the process to enough Americans that they will no longer stand for it:

The first step is to state the problem clearly: our current economic arrangements can barely even be called “capitalism,” unless it’s some form of Mafia capitalism based on loan-sharking, extortion and fixed casino games.

The second is to hammer home just how much the system’s illegitimacy undermines the moral force that debt still holds over so many Americans, thus fostering a gradual withdrawal of consent from the system. Increasing numbers of us are already doing this by refusing to pay our debts, whether out of necessity or by choice….

Posted by Time for change | Fri Sep 14, 2012, 09:34 PM (58 replies)
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