Thursday, July 06, 2006

Composition of Gravel, Part 2B: The National Initiative

Click here and here to read the earlier parts of this post, and here to learn more about gravel.

As I mentioned in Part 2A, I had promised Senator Gravel I would send him my concerns on the National Initiative before I published them. I sent them Monday night. I know Gravel is in New Hampshire for the Fourth, but I want to finish my thoughts on Gravel before I leave for my meeting with Bayh tomorrow. Therefore, as I did with Part 1, I'm going to express my concerns now, and if I receive corrections from the Gravel campaign, I'll update the post, and add a new post to let you know I did so.

When I met with Gravel, the National Initiative blew my mind. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the National Initiative is a plan to allow more laws, amendments and other legislative actions to be done via direct democracy, with registered voters receiving the opportunity to sponsor, vote on and pass laws at all levels of government. To get a more detailed version of the proposal, read the National Institute for Democracy's Democracy Amendment, Democracy Act and The Parrish Report, which explains some of the finer points of both. Combined, they're about 30 pages of reading, but if you really want to get a feel for where Gravel is going with this, they're well worth the read. I put about 3 1/2 hours into them Monday night.

What I emerged with, though, were concerns. Lots of them. In the email I sent Gravel, I ended up breaking them into seven groups. Two of them are relatively small procedural details, but these five are huge:

Issue 1: Philadelphia II.

Gravel and NI4D estimate that they will need 50 million votes for the Amendment to pass. That's a huge number to gather, but it becomes even more difficult when you consider that the government isn't even going to be responsible for the vote. Instead, Gravel has created an organization, Philadelphia II, to handle the counting of votes. Philadelphia II is not composed of any current elected officials, was not chosen by the public and is not recognized by the government as an entity qualified to perform an election. Furthermore, on this issue Philadelphia II is not an impartial entity. According to the Parrish report it "has been fostering the principles embodied in the National Initiative since 1992."

NI4D says this is not a problem. In the Parrish report, they say that, "The election enacting the National Initiative is a self-enacting process whereby the People are able to vote for the Amendment and the Act because of the election itself." They compare it to the voting process by which the states ratified the Constitution. Very rarely in politics do you get away with something by saying "Well, we did it this way 225 years ago."

Finally, the process of allowing the election to be performed by a partial entity creates the potential for voter fraud on an unbelievable scale (see section on Internet Voting).

Issue 2: Interest Groups

From Section 3P of the Act:

"Only United States citizens may contribute funds, services or property in support of or in opposition to an initiative. Contributions from corporations including, but not limited to, such incorporated entities as industry groups, labor unions, political parties, political action committees, organized religions and associations, are specifically prohibited."

Here are the three red flags that went up when I read that:

* Since the regulations you've proposed on elections involving initiatives are significantly different from the regulations in place for existing elections, won't the differences create a system of confusion in regards to what is legal in which election?
* Aren't the existing regulations (or lack thereof) a function of decades of specific regulations being rejected by the Supreme Court? As such, isn't there precedent to suggest that the Supreme Court would find these restrictions similarly unconstitutional?
* By holding relatively frequent, likely low-voter-turnout elections to pass initiatives, wouldn't the Initiative actually create a system where more power rests in the hands of interest groups like labor unions, religious organizations and political parties, who have built-in grassroots capacity?

Right now interest groups give financial support to candidates who then go to their legislative body and vote the interest of their donors. If interest groups didn't feel they were benefitting by spending the money, they wouldn't do it, plain and simple.

But by allowing citizens to vote directly on laws, all you would do is remove the middleman. Since you'll never be able to keep special interest groups from exercising their right of free speech, instead of spending money on candidates, they'll spend it directly on voter persuasion. They'll probably be better off.

Issue 3: The Electoral Trust

The Democracy Act calls for the creation of the Electoral Trust, a body that will oversee elections where initiatives are in play. The Electoral Trust will be responsible for all initiatives, be they local, statewide or nationwide, and will read and review all proposals before they may even begin the work of qualifying to be put on the ballot. To put it simply, to achieve the proposed results it seems as if the Electoral Trust would have to be the largest governmental organization in history, which would be both tremendously unwieldy and expensive.

During his first year in the Legislature, Ed Fallon proposed over 100 bills, causing a legislative colleague to propose a bill limiting the number of bills one could propose. Allowing all citizens to propose laws will create an environment where some people considerably more unhinged than Fallon will get a chance to do a lot more damage. And every time the crackpot down the street decides to write a federal law banning the sale of pastrami on Tuesdays, the Electoral Trust will have to proofread and approve it. It'd be an organizational nightmare.

Issue 4: Deliberative Committees

Under the Democracy Act, every so often you'd get a letter. It'd look a lot like the one that comes when you've got jury duty. Only in this case, you'd be called to a deliberative committee.

Deliberative committees would be chosen at random to read over and create recommended results on pending initiatives. They would have access to experts and researchers on the subject, and would publish their decision.

In concept, it seems like a good idea. The problem would occur when legislation starts to hit complicated issues. A large percentage of initiatives will probably relate to issues that don't relate to a fair amount of the electorate or are complicated enough to be largely unknown. When John Doe, for example, a plumber with a high school education from small town Iowa, is called to a Deliberative Committee in Washington to discuss foreign economic policy, do you believe he'll have much to add to the conversation?

Then they'll publish their results. The concept of having Deliberative Committees write reports on their findings seems like asking everyday citizens to write Supreme Court decisions. I don't think they'll come back with results that are useful in the average American's decision making process very often.

Finally, I have no idea how we'd pay for it. The Parrish Report calls for deliberative committee members to "be compensated at their respective usual rates of remuneration, up to a reasonable limit determined by the Electoral Trust." These groups will often be convened for weeks or months. They won't cost as much as the Electoral Trust, but they won't be cheap.

Issue 5: Internet Voting

Philadelphia II will allow internet voting for the National Initiative, and once the Democracy Act is in place, they will allow internet voting on all resolutions going forward. Between a newfound epidemic of identity theft, entire generations that are computer illiterate, increasingly low voter turnout and groups that don't take online elections seriously, this is like holding up a sign saying "defraud me please." Nevermind the fact that the elderly and lower income people have less or lower internet access.

Finally, since online voting has never been done in a major election before, Philadelphia II's decision to allow online voting on the National Initiative would give any and all opponents a leg to stand on when challenging the Initiative in court, which they would inevitably do.

When Gravel explained the Fair Tax, I disagreed, but I could at least envision an environment where it could work and see the benefits of it. As it turns out, the Fair Tax would create a budget shortfall on the "National Disaster" level.

When Gravel proposed the National Initiative, I couldn't believe anyone would think this could possibly work. I took the advice of some people I met and took some time to think about it, do my homework, and discuss it with people. I did all that. I still can't believe anyone would think this could possibly work.

As I said before, I'm hoping I'll hear back from the Gravel campaign on this. If I do, I'll let you know.


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