"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Friday, February 13, 2009


Gay Congressman-elect calls for more, better, and national ballot initiatives

by Ross Levin
December 13, 2008 at 16:45:58


With Prop 8 passing in California and various other civil rights-restricting ballot initiatives passing elsewhere, direct democracy (or more accurately, a hybrid of direct democracy and representative government called "codetermination") has been receiving a strong rejection by the gay community nationwide this year. But someone who could potentially be one of their greatest allies in all of politics not only accepts ballot initiatives, but is pushing for their expansion to the rest of the nation (currently in the United States, initiative voting exists in 24 states and Washington, DC).

The man I am talking about is Jared Polis, the Democratic Congressman-elect from Boulder, Colorado. Voted into office this November 4th, he is the first openly homosexual non-incumbent elected to Congress. And yet he still believes that expanding ballot initiatives to the national level would make American government better. He will, therefore, be introducing a bill into Congress next year that would actually establish a process through which any qualified citizen--most likely that will simply mean a registered voter --will be able to propose a law and then (if it gains enough support beforehand) have the entire voting public vote on it.

Why would a gay man--a man whose community has been injured and insulted at the ballot box for a number of years--support an increased use of initiatives on a scale that is larger than they have ever been used? Listen to the man:

I've been involved with many ballot initiatives here in Colorado. Our system of ballot initiatives, not only in Colorado but in other states, doesn't work perfectly--and that's important to acknowledge . I believe it's far better that we have one than we don't have one.

There are some policies, which by their very nature, are unlikely to be implemented by an elected legislature. These are things like campaign finance reform, term limits, types of issues where it affects the members personally.

We passed, here in Colorado, a very strong ethics law that banned lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators,. We passed campaign finance reform. We passed sunshine laws, which, again, the legislature is not likely to pass. They require open meetings--the US Congress doesn't have that.

Polis brings up a few good points. First, governmental reform would be more likely to occur with a national initiative process supplementing our current legislative process than simply having Congress by itself. That is, the people who have power (Congress) are less likely to reform themselves and curb their power than the people who are being hurt by their corruption (the general populous). And Jared Polis is no novice when it comes to reform through initiatives--he was the main sponsor of Colorado's "Ethics in Government" amendment, a law passed by voters in 2006 which severely limited the power of lobbyists in Colorado state government.

Something which fewer people may have noticed his saying, but something that is equally important, is that "our system of ballot initiatives not only in Colorado, but in other states doesn't work perfectly." As seen from the infamous Proposition 8, there is much wrong with the current state and local initiative systems. Just think about this--approximately 30% of voters voted yes on Prop 8, because there was around 60% turnout and the vote was close to 50-50. That means much less than 30% of adults, let alone the entire population, of California voted yes on a constitutional amendment, and yet it still passed. Clearly, there is something wrong with California's initiative and referenda process, and this is just one example of that.

A national initiative process would be an amazing opportunity for reform of state initiative processes. It would bring a new form of direct democracy onto the world stage and offer solutions to the problems posed by our current direct democracies. Also, the most credible current proposal for a direct democratic process in the United States - the National Initiative for Democracy, which can be read at http://www.vote.org would give states a choice to either keep their current process or adopt a new one based on the National Initiative for Democracy. In fact, the National Initiative proposes that half of all registered voters would need to vote "yes" for a constitutional amendment on the ballot to pass. If that rule were in place in California, over 80% of the people who showed up at the polls would have had to cast a "yes" vote on Prop 8 for it to have passed. And this is just one of several safeguards that would be put in place by the National Initiative.

Jared Polis was actually involved in the creation of the National Initiative for Democracy, even though he currently objects to a few aspects, and therefore will not be introducing that exact bill into Congress next year. The bill he will be introducing will probably resemble the National Initiative, though, and if you would like to read up on it, I have a few suggestions.

1. There is the text of the "Democracy Act" and the "Democracy Amendment" (Which, together, make up the National Initiative for Democracy, along with an ongoing online election at http://www.vote.org )

2. An annotated version of the Democracy Act and Democracy Amendment, which include explanations and dialogue from the 2002 Democracy Symposium (a conference which was held to work out the kinks in the two documents)

3. Books on the topic of direct democracy, ranging from Mike Gravel's Citizen Power to the simply titled Direct Democracy (which is available online for free) to "For the Many or The Few" by John Matsusaka, a law expert who teaches at the University of Southern California.

As you can see, ballot initiatives are not something to be easily dismissed as a tool of special interests or the bigoted majority. They are more complex than that and, according to someone who is both a gay man and a direct democracy expert, much more useful.

Take action -- click here to contact your local newspaper or congress people:
Tell your representative in Congress to support Polis's national initiative bill
Click here to see the most recent messages sent to congressional reps and local newspapers

Ross Levin a young activist who also writes for keystonepolitics.com, operationitch.com, independentpoliticalreport.com. He first became active in politics in the 2008 presidential campaign through Mike Gravel's quixotic run for the Democratic nomination, but is still actively promoting the centerpiece of Gravel's campaign: the National Initiative for Democracy, which would allow citizens to make laws at all levels of government. You can check it out at www.ni4d.us and vote.org.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Union-Made Lattes

The Industrial Workers of the World ramps up its campaign to organize Starbucks

December 29, 2008 By Sam Stoker
Source: http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/20077

On Aug. 31, the light-rail train from Minneapolis to the Mall of America was boisterous. During the ride, several dozen Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members - known as Wobblies - belted out the radical workers' anthem 'Solidarity Forever' in unison. The reason for their elation was because Erik Forman, 23, was returning to work as a Starbucks barista.

Forman, an IWW organizer, had been fired on July 10, his boss told him, for discussing with co-workers the disciplinary action that was taken against him after showing up late to work. But Forman believes the real reason was because of his outspoken advocacy for the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) - which is part of the IWW - and says that his termination was an attempt by Starbucks, the world's largest coffee-shop chain, to bust a growing union movement among its employees.

Forman filed a complaint for illegal termination and anti-union malfeasance with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) a week later. In support, Starbucks' baristas throughout the Twin Cities signed a petition demanding Forman's reinstatement. After a series of work stoppages and protests, Starbucks settled the complaint on Aug. 31.

Under the terms of the settlement, the company did not admit guilt or that the IWW's actions influenced its decision to rehire Forman. But it did agree to reinstate him with back pay for missed time and to post signs in the shop for 60 days, informing workers that management would not interfere with attempts to organize.

More than half of Forman's shop is now in the IWW - and at the Mall of America the Wobblies were planning 'to drink some union-made lattes' in a sign of solidarity.

`We are the union' A handful of baristas started the SWU in a single Starbucks shop in New York City in May 2004.

'The union was sparked because workers had become fed up with low wages, unsecured scheduling, a prohibitive healthcare system and a lack of respect from managers,' says founding member Daniel Gross.

The SWU soon spread to Starbucks across the city, all while embracing the tenets of the IWW - particularly solidarity unionism. Unlike the prominent union model that uses a hierarchical power structure and focuses on bargaining with employers, solidarity unionism embraces direct democracy with members supporting one another directly.

'We are not part of a union,' says Gross. 'We are the union.'

Members of the SWU say Starbucks embarked on an anti- union campaign since its inception. They allege management threatened employees who expressed interest in the union, and spied on and interrogated employees about union activity. SWU says the most outspoken union advocates were fired.

Starbucks denies these charges. 'Such allegations are baseless,' says Starbucks spokesperson Tara Darrow. 'Starbucks strictly abides with laws and guidelines associated with labor law. We wouldn't do that because it is against the law.'

Yet Starbucks' settlement with the NLRB complaint on Forman's behalf was the third such settlement in three years. During that time, Starbucks has reinstated four employees after they filed complaints with the NLRB, and two cases remain open.

In New York, Gross is still awaiting the decision of an August 2007 hearing in which the NLRB filed 30 complaints against Starbucks for anti-union malfeasance, in addition to a complaint that he, Gross, was fired illegally. More recently, in Grand Rapids, Mich., the NLRB filed a complaint against Starbucks, charging that the company illegally fired barista Cole Dorsey for union activity.

According to Dorsey, the SWU began organizing in Grand Rapids in 2006. But baristas who were interested in joining the union became concerned that repercussions might be taken against them for organizing publicly.

'We were attempting to organize a union election, a tactic we thought could be effective here in Michigan, but we believe management found out,' says Dorsey.

Those baristas collectively decided that Dorsey - at least initially - should be the union's public face while others remained underground.

Dorsey was fired on June 6 during the union election campaign. Starbucks' Darrow says Dorsey - who had worked at Starbucks for two years and had won employee awards - was fired for being tardy after receiving a final warning. As in other cases, Starbucks denies allegations of union-busting activity.

'The backbone of my case is that I was fired for less than what other employees have done,' Dorsey says.

In a response to Dorsey's NLRB complaint, Starbucks' attorneys reiterated the official reason he was fired, and added that he was a 'salt,' suggesting that Dorsey had no interest in working at Starbucks and was there only to organize.

'I guess it is true in a sense because I am organizing people, but what they fail to understand is that I also depend on the income from my job, and they took that away from me,' Dorsey says. 'We never wanted this to be a contentious issue. We want a union so that we can improve workplace conditions. Starbucks has made the situation contentious.'

Improving working conditions In the past year, the SWU has grown more than it had in its first three years combined. The group says it has around 250 members nationally, with most congregated in Chicago, Grand Rapids, New York City and the Twin Cities.

SWU members say that the Twin Cities have the fastest growth rate nationwide, attributing much of the growth to the controversy stirred up by Forman's firing.

Forman says the union's local growth is only a step in a larger campaign to challenge Starbucks to improve worker conditions. With stores in 60 countries, Starbucks employs 150,000 people worldwide.

'The union needs to become international and it eventually needs to spread into all of the service industry,' Forman says.

A global movement against the corporation appears to be underway. Dorsey's termination coincided with the firing of Monica (who wouldn't reveal her last name because she fears being blacklisted by other employers), a Starbucks barista in Seville, Spain. Monica is a member of the Confederaci - n Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the Spanish counterpart of the IWW.

Like Dorsey, Monica was also allegedly fired for union organizing. Their terminations sparked an international day of protest on July 5 at hundreds of Starbucks in cities across the world.

But, according to spokeswoman Darrow, Starbucks doesn't fear such organizing.

'As far as we are concerned, our [employees] have free choice [to unionize] at all times,' she says. 'We feel we have great communication back and forth with employees and we pride ourselves on providing a good workplace.'

Starbucks' pride in its 'good workplace' stems from the employee pay and benefit packages that the company often trumpets - benefits that include stock option programs and healthcare benefits that the company claims cover 65 percent of eligible employees. But the bottom line for the SWU is that a person simply cannot live a decent life as a Starbucks worker. The wages, which generally hover slightly above each state's minimum wage, are too low; the hours are unstable; and health insurance premiums and deductibles are prohibitive compared to earnings.

'There are many corporations like Starbucks that exploit workers, but few have succeeded like Starbucks in portraying itself as a socially conscious corporation,' Gross says.

While the most common response to such a situation is `Why don't you quit?' Forman says, 'The fact is there are not many industries a person can get into with no skills, and retail is one of them. The best thing people can do is organize.'

Back at the Mall of America The Wobblies' Aug. 31 party on the light-rail was cut short two train stops before the Mall of America, when police officers boarded the train and questioned the group. Police told them the Mall of America is private property and that no demonstrations or protests are allowed there.

The union members explained that they were simply joining their friend for his first day of work and assured the officers they were not there to demonstrate or disrupt shoppers. The officers let them pass.

But when the train arrived at the Mall of America, a line of police in riot gear blocked the doors to the platform. Among them were FBI agents. (Aug. 31 was also the day before the opening of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, which may have explained the police presence.) A co-worker text-messaged Forman that management had been speaking with police in their shop. No one was allowed off the train and police threatened to arrest anyone who tried to exit.

'It's ridiculous,' Forman later says. 'Management, the police and the FBI are working together. They say they didn't want us demonstrating, but we assured them that was not our intent. I think it is clear, what they really fear is us organizing.'

Sam Stoker is a freelance reporter based in Chicago.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Monday, December 29, 2008


Change.gov Content Now Under Creative Commons License

Commentary by Richard Esguerra
December 1st, 2008

Source: http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2008/12/change-gov-content-now-under-creative-commons-lice

In the last few days, President-elect Obama's transition team took a significant stride towards a more open government by licensing the content of Change.gov under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Using that license essentially means that the transition team is allowing others to freely share and remix what's posted there, provided that reposts are attributed to Change.gov. The move is a victory for the public and the many advocates for a more wired, participatory democracy.

It's also another reminder of the importance of Creative Commons, which affords creators an opportunity to opt for something less than Disney-style copyright restrictions. By embracing a CC license, the Obama team sets a valuable example for others in government, many of whom may have defaulted to "all rights reserved" without considering other options.

While Change.gov has experienced some growing pains, the transition team appears to be making a real effort to use the website as a legitimate location for its conversation with the American public. The preview post of the President-elect's planned weekly address (posted on Thanksgiving Day) includes links to multiple sources — an embedded YouTube video, a link to the same video posted to Yahoo! Video, and a high-resolution .mov file — with the Creative Commons license guaranteeing that the public can freely share, remix, comment, and report on the President-elect's statement.

The switch to Creative Commons licensing is encouraging and we hope that it is a herald of more pro-open government changes to come.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Commentary: Internet can strengthen democracy

August 26, 2008 -- Updated 0117 GMT (0917 HKT)
By Craig NewmarkSpecial to CNN

Editor's Note: Craig Newmark was working as a San Francisco-based computer programmer in the 1990s when he started e-mailing friends about local events. His simple Web site has grown into
Craigslist, which provides classified ads and forums for more than 500 cities in over 50 countries. This commentary by Newmark, a Barack Obama supporter, is one of a series from McCain and Obama supporters attending party conventions.

"How do we build what some call 'participatory democracy'?" asks Craig Newmark.

SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- Like most people, I really don't want to be bothered with politics. On a gut level, it seems to be the province of the popular kids, and I'm a nerd. (Plastic pocket protector, thick black glasses taped together, that was me in school.)

Now, my day job is customer service for a Web site I founded, helping tens of millions of people. I'm in touch with a lot of everyday human concerns, that's the gig. Every day, I connect with people across America who want to make things better, a new generation committed to civic engagement.

To that end, people are using the Internet as the platform for tools for elections and governance. Speaking as a nerd, I love the technology, but what really matters is the means by which we all can use the Net to strengthen democracy in the USA. We can address practical problems and also better realize the vision of the Founding Fathers.

Nationally, the Howard Dean presidential campaign pioneered the use of the Net for grassroots campaigning, involving ordinary people in the election process. The Net proved to be an effective tool for organization and fundraising. However, this campaign didn't quite reach critical mass, perhaps because there weren't enough Americans with high-speed
Internet connections at the time.

In this electoral cycle, we see campaigns like the
Barack Obama campaign using the Net for organizing and fundraising very successfully. Additionally, we're seeing the Obama campaign use the Net to battle disinformation campaigns. For example, rumors that he's a Muslim or wants to raise taxes for ordinary Americans.

The key is that the campaigns manage to get ordinary people involved, including people like me who'd rather not be bothered with politics.

After the participatory campaign, how do we build what some call "participatory democracy" or "networked democracy?"

Here are several areas where people are starting to make that real:

311: Customer service for government -- In New York and San Francisco, California, people can call 311 for city services. For example, you can get a pothole fixed, or find out how to get a license. In the future, it will be possible to make direct use of 311 systems over the Net. I feel all levels and departments of
U.S. government should provide customer service this way.

New York and San Francisco have made a good start, and interestingly enough, the Transportation Security Administration is doing a good job with its
blog. Transparency and accountability -- Money plays a much larger role in government than a democracy can survive. Some companies find it's easier to lobby for privileges than to compete in a free market. A notorious example of that involves "no-bid contracts." Sunlight Foundation is the hub of a network that allows people to blog about how lobbyists and others use cash in ways that might not survive public scrutiny.
Take a look at MapLight.org
, Pass223.com, and Congresspedia.org, for examples. I feel all government action should be made visible to the public, probably including all contributions by lobbyists.

Supporting the troops -- There are small things we can do, like supporting the new
GI Bill and helping get adequate medical care for veterans and their families and the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America. The Net helps veterans in obvious ways, like awareness and fundraising. Even better, it connects citizens with the soldiers and military families who need a hand, like the Yellow Ribbon Fund, Adopt A Platoon and Any Solider. The theme is to get help directly to the people who need it, with the least middlemen possible. The focus of much of this is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who helped pass the new GI Bill.

The Permanent Town Hall -- Americans overall are pretty smart and we know how to run things, providing we can overcome the privileged trying for more privileges. The problem involves too many voices providing a wide range of ideas of varying quality. We need Internet-based platforms that people can use to voice needs and suggestions, with means by which the participants can rate the priority and usefulness of those statements.

Such systems exist in their infancy, like the ratings on Amazon.com and the filtering provided in Slashdot.org
. The first of these is already happening and we need to recognize their importance and accelerate their adoption.

The last requires more work, but is more important. American leaders are surrounded by people who filter input and who can isolate the leader in a bubble of disinformation. (Symptoms include low approval ratings or not knowing how many houses one owns.)

iReport.com: Watch Newmark's iReport endorsing Obama

However, if you know how Americans use the Net to talk, you can easily stay in touch with real people.

Speaking as a customer service rep, that's the real deal.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The U.S. Media Reform Movement
Going Forward

Robert W. McChesney


All social scholarship ultimately is about understanding the world to change it, even if the change we want is to preserve that which we most treasure in the status quo. This is especially and immediately true for political economy of media as a field of study, where research has a direct and important relationship with policies and structures that shape media and communication and influence the course of society. Because of this, too, the political economy of communication has had a direct relationship with policy makers and citizens outside the academy. The work, more than most other areas, cannot survive if it is “academic.” That is why the burgeoning media reform movement in the United States is so important for the field. This is a movement, astonishingly, based almost directly upon core political economic research.

The political economy of media is dedicated to understanding the role of media in societies—e.g., whether the media system on balance encourages or discourages social justice, open governance, and effective participatory democracy. The field also examines how market structures, policies and subsidies, and organizational structures shape and determine the nature of the media system and media content. The entire field is based on the explicit understanding that media systems are not natural or inevitable, but they result from crucial political decisions. These political decisions are not made on a blank slate or a level playing field; they are strongly shaped by the historical and political economic context of any given society at any point in time. We make our own media history, to paraphrase Marx, but not exactly as we please. We do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

For much of the past century there has been a decided split in the political economy of media between U.S. scholars and those based in almost every other nation in the world. In the United States it generally has been assumed, even by critical scholars devoted to social change, that a profit-driven, advertising-supported corporate media system was the only possible system. The media system reflected the nature of the U.S. political economy, and any serious effort to reform the media system would have to necessarily be part of a revolutionary program to overthrow the capitalist political economy. Since that was considered unrealistic, even preposterous, the structure of the media system was regarded as inviolable. The circumstances existing and transmitted from the past allowed for no alternative.

Elsewhere in the world, capitalism was seen as having a less solid grasp on any given society, and the political economy was seen as more susceptible to radical reform. Every bit as important, media systems were regarded as the results of policies, and subject to dramatic variation even within a capitalist political economy. In such a context it was more readily grasped that the nature of the media system would influence the broader political decisions about what sort of economy a society might have. In other words, the political economy not only shaped the nature of the media system, the nature of the media system shaped the broader political economy. Scholars and activists were more likely to understand that winning battles to reconstruct the media system were a necessary part of a broader process to create a more just society, even if the exact reforms being fought for were not especially revolutionary in their own right

Click here to continue reading.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Another article in a series that we have posted tracking the progress of the Neighborhood Councils experiment in participatory democracy in in Los Angeles. - Editor

Private Memoirs of an IEA

By Stephen Box
Source: http://www.citywatchla.com/content/view/1732/

(Note: Neighborhood Council elections are now managed and overseen by the City Clerk. Independent Election Administrators are no longer a part of the NC election process.)

This past Saturday marked the end of my tour of duty as an Independent Election Administrator charged with supervising Neighborhood Council elections throughout the City of Los Angeles. My final election was held in Chatsworth, where stakeholders have traditionally been identified as those who "Live, work, own property or board a horse." The week prior, I was in Coastal San Pedro where stakeholders have traditionally been identified as those who "Live, work, own property or dock a boat." Such is the diversity of Los Angeles. Of course all of that changed when our City Council imposed the new "Live, work, own property or whatever" stakeholder status on Neighborhood Councils and it was then that I knew the end was nigh.

Through it all, I learned a great deal from those I've worked with, encountering along the way a multitude of people with unique talents and perspectives who challenged me to be innovative in making the election process relevant to the needs of their local community.

I've also been humbled as I watched newly immigrated senior citizens listen patiently as a translator explained how to use a ballot, all as they prepared to vote for the first time in their lives. I listened to a candidate explain to a Forum audience that he came from a country that held no elections. Now that he was here, he felt that it was his duty to run. These experiences served to remind me that Neighborhood Council elections are a significant and important step into the world of participatory democracy.

As an IEA, I've been run ragged and overwhelmed with voters. I've sat in an empty room, bored and holding an empty ballot box, waiting for the day to end. I've been yelled at and cursed and I've been hugged and thanked and made to feel like family.

I've conducted elections in museums, churches, community centers, schools, a train station and even the Farmer's Market. I've even held meetings in parking garages and I’ve held two elections on the sidewalk after getting locked out by LAUSD. Along the way, I was perpetually reminded that it was never the comfort of the facility but it was always the spirit of the people that made for a successful election.

In spite of the fact that Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country, I now think of LA as a collection of small towns, NC sized, complete with unique character, personality, needs and desires. It's my experience that it was the ability of NC's to make unique the Neighborhood Council experience, tailoring the bylaws and election procedures to their needs and philosophy, that was key to creating ownership and responsibility.

While critics claim that the old system of elections allowed for too much variation, deviation and even failure, I counter with this: True democracy is a guarantee of process, not of result. Granted, it allows for failure but it also allows for success. Either way, the results belong to the participants and that is the essence of participatory democracy.

For all of the pontificating and posturing as the City Council weighed in on the Neighborhood Councils and revised the DNA of the system, I never encountered a City Councilmember at an NC election. Perhaps they think it inappropriate to meddle in NC politics and they might have a point, a good point.

Still, it would have been nice to see them drive by, drop off a box of Krispy Kremes and thank the volunteers. After all, this is where the business of the people takes place.

As this era fades, I'm optimistic for the Neighborhood Council system, not because of the recent changes in process but because of the people I've met, the friends I've made and the passion and enthusiasm I've encountered along the way.

To the neighborhood councils I've worked with, thanks for the ride!

(Stephen Box served as an Independent Election Administrator for a number of years. Box writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.netThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ) ◘

Vol 6 Issue 90
Pub: Nov 8, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Wealthy interests alter Calif's initiative process

By STEVE LAWRENCE – Oct 29, 2008

Source: http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5j2VeEkncwhV-7wabJ49pS5Zok41AD9441E600

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When Hiram Johnson championed an initiative system for California nearly a century ago, he sold it as a grassroots way to "arm the people to protect themselves."

California's 23rd governor foresaw citizen campaigns putting propositions on the ballot when the Legislature failed to address a pressing need.

But 97 years after Californians voted to allow themselves to put measures on the ballot, Johnson's experiment in direct democracy has changed dramatically.

He certainly could not have envisioned the multimillion-dollar campaigns for several measures on California's Nov. 4 ballot, some of which critics say will benefit their wealthy sponsors at the expense of California taxpayers.

Paid petition circulators, not armies of volunteers, typically gather initiative signatures these days. Corporations, wealthy individuals, labor unions, Indian tribes and other monied interests frequently spend millions to battle over the proposals.

The Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank, reported in May that there had not been a successful initiative signature-gathering drive conducted almost exclusively by volunteers in California since 1982.

This year, volunteers collected most of the signatures to put Proposition 2 on the ballot, said spokeswoman Robin Swanson. The measure, one of 12 statewide propositions on California's ballot, would set enclosure standards for farm animals.

Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who formed a commission in 2000 to consider ways to reform the initiative process, said the system has been undermined by big-money campaigns.

"The whole thinking behind the initiative was it comes from the people, not the few people that have a checkbook," he said.

To its critics, one proposition on the ballot this year could be the perfect example of the flawed initiative process.

Proposition 10 was placed on the ballot by oilman T. Boone Pickens, a Texas billionaire, whose natural gas company stands to gain financially if it's approved.

The proposal would set up a rebate program for alternative-fuel vehicles and authorize the state to borrow $5 billion to fund it — at a time when the state is struggling with multibillion dollar budget deficits.

Half the money would be used to provide rebates of up to $50,000 to consumers who buy vehicles that run on natural gas and other non-petroleum fuels. Critics say that would mostly benefit companies that have large vehicle fleets, not average consumers.

There also would be $340 million to fund rebates for buying fuel-saving vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and money for research and development of alternative energy technologies.

"This is going to do a lot to help consumers in California who want to buy cars that run on something other than gasoline," said Marty Wilson, a consultant to the Yes-on-10 campaign. He also said Proposition 10 would help clean the air and reduce the state's dependence on foreign oil.

But opponents suggest the measure is mainly about promoting natural gas-powered vehicles and enriching one firm: Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a Seal Beach company started by Pickens.

Clean Energy, which bills itself as the "largest provider of natural gas for transportation in North America," has given more than 80 percent of the $22.5 million raised so far to pass the proposal. Two other natural gas companies have contributed most of the rest.

"This is the most naked money grab that I have ever seen in terms of using the ballot, using the voters to advance a business proposition," said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California.

Proposition 10 isn't the only California ballot measure that's attracting million-dollar donations this year. Nearly half of the more than $175 million raised so far for November initiative campaigns has come from individuals, corporations or groups that gave at least $1 million.

Several studies over the years have recommended changes in the initiative system, but bills to alter it tend to die in committee or on the governor's desk.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation in 2006 that would have prohibited initiative campaigns from paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis, a step the bill's supporters said would remove an incentive for circulators to mislead potential signers.

Schwarzenegger also rejected a bill in 2005 that would have required initiative petitions to disclose if they were being circulated by volunteers or paid workers and to list the five biggest contributors to the initiative campaign.

Schwarzenegger said both measures would have made it harder to qualify initiatives, something he opposes.

The Center for Governmental Studies' report earlier this year recommended 17 changes, including giving initiative proponents up to a year to gather signatures, a step it said would aid volunteer campaigns. Currently, the limit is 150 days.

It also suggested trying to impose a $100,000 limit on donations to initiative campaigns, although that could run afoul of a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shot down a $250 donation limit adopted by the city of Berkeley.

Having a lot of money won't guarantee approval, but sometimes the public sees only one side of an initiative debate — "the side that has the money," said Robert Stern, the center's president.

"Bottom line, money talks," he said. "At some point, it really does corrupt the system."

Friday, November 28, 2008


Democracy withers if civics not taught

By Bob Graham, Special to the Times
In print: Wednesday, October 22, 2008


After a speech on education I gave as a state senator in 1974, I was approached by Sue Riley, a teacher skeptical of politicians who lacked classroom experience. How could we know what was best for students if it had been decades since we last stepped foot in a classroom?

Our conversation led me to spend a semester teaching civics at Miami Carol City Senior High School. The teaching experience was the beginning of what became the "workdays" program, through which I spent over 400 days working at jobs across Florida.

Thirty years later, the memory of teaching civics still motivates my work. Since my semester in the classroom, concern for political correctness plus a lack of institutional support, flexibility and funding have forced schools to de-emphasize civics. Most high schools today offer only one, often optional, civics course as opposed to the three courses that were the norm until the 1960s.

Not only has the quantity of civics education decreased, but there has been a steady decrease in quality. While older civics curricula emphasized civic participation and engagement in democracy, the current teaching is largely preparation for life as a spectator. In 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that 81 percent of eighth and 12th grade students reported learning most about civics from watching television or in class videos. Only 18 percent and 25 percent, respectively, gained their insight by writing a letter expressing an opinion or helping to solve a community problem.

The results of this decline have been staggering. In 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote, more than half of the 18-to 25-year-olds turned out at the polls. In 2000 only slightly more than a third voted.

The data are even more jarring in traditionally disenfranchised communities. African-American, Hispanic and low-income students were twice as likely as their white counterparts to score below proficient on the 2006 NAEP in civics. How can government respond to the authentic voice of "we the people" if only some of the people speak up?

This week we got a discouraging but not surprising report card. The National Conference on Citizenship is developing indicators of civic health nationally and in the states. Based on public data and interviews with 506 Floridians, Florida's civic health was diagnosed as:

• 32nd in average voter turnout;

• 47th in average rate of volunteering;

• 49th in the percentage of Floridians who had attended a public meeting; and

• 40th in the percentage of Floridians who have worked with others in their neighborhood to solve a community problem.

Summarizing this information, Florida's Civic Health index for 2007 puts us at 47th in the nation.

Civic education can convert our democracy deficit into an abundance of civic knowledge and energy. This idea is not new. In describing the purposes of public education, Thomas Jefferson stated, "The objects of primary education … are to instruct the mass of citizens in these: their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens … to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either."

While much has changed in the two centuries since Jefferson wrote, his words continue to resonate. If we want future generations of Americans to sustain our democracy, we must educate them to be informed, skilled and engaged citizens.

The Florida Legislature has taken a first step. Today every middle school student is required to take one semester of civics. This summer a coalition of the Florida Bar, the League of Women Voters, the Lou Frey Institute of Politics at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, with the generous support of the Helios Foundation, trained 133 middle school teachers to teach participatory democracy. More will be trained next summer.

Admittedly, our schools are being asked to educate students in everything from hygiene to driving a car. But there are creative ways to blend citizenship into other subjects. While an elementary student is learning the skills of reading, why not also start teaching him or her the content of American history? While high school chemistry students are focused on elements and compounds, wouldn't the course be more relevant if they also learned how science and civics have combined to make our air and water cleaner and safer?

In the age of high-stakes testing, a major advance will be the inclusion of civics in state assessments, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and the national No Child Left Behind student evaluation. The reality is if a subject is not tested, it tends to disappear from the curriculum. While not all policymakers agree with the current testing regimes, we should all be able to agree that if reading, math and science are tested, it does a disservice to our student citizens and our democracy if we fail to test civics.

Democracy does not automatically renew itself in each generation. Sustaining it requires a continued commitment to ensuring that all citizens have the knowledge, competence and motivation to make their mark on the American story.

Bob Graham is a former Florida U.S. senator, governor and state legislator.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


A couple of articles in response to Obama's http://www.change.gov/ transitional website and the prospects of internet technologies broadening participatory democracy under an Obama administration. - Editor

Under Obama, a newly interactive government?

The president-elect aims to use the Internet to make government more participatory.

By Alexandra Marks Staff writer / November 13, 2008 edition
New York

Want to give Barack Obama a piece of your mind about what’s wrong with the United States government? Just go to www.change.gov and click on “Share Your Ideas.”

A man named John from Seattle did: “I am so tired of special interests getting the best of us all.”

So did Lexington from San Diego: “I’d like to see an agenda that focuses on promoting transparency….”

The website is the official, online face of the Office of the President Elect. It gives a first glimpse of how Mr. Obama intends to harness technology to create a cutting-edge, participatory democracy in a similar way he used Internet connectivity to transform campaigning.

The idea is premised on the digital world’s potential to transform the US into one large cyber town-hall meeting: Every citizen will ideally have a window into the workings of government and an opportunity to tell elected leaders exactly what they think of it.

It’s an idealistic notion that will require some concrete changes – from a large investment in upgrading government computers to a change in the rules and regulations that guide government employees. Most important, it will require a radical transformation of the entrenched culture of secrecy and the dominance of special interests that define how Washington operates.

“This will be the first president who has an opportunity to use interactive technology in ways we’ve never seen – it really is remarkable,” says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit organization that promotes greater government accountability and transparency in Washington. “What was so unique about the Obama campaign [was] that interactivity was real. When people commented on something, they saw things happen. That’s what the people are expecting the president to do now.”

Obama will not be the first online president. That was Bill Clinton, who set up the White House’s first website in 1994 and in 1996 ordered all federal agencies to get online as well. The websites were pretty rudimentary sources of information. President Bush took that a step further, turning the White House website into a “repository of all the things the president was doing on that day,” according to David Almacy, who was the White House’s Internet director from 2005 to 2007.

But as Mr. Almacy discovered, much of what the White House could do was constrained by a lack of resources. He had a staff of six to run the White House’s Internet operations. The Obama campaign had 95 people. Then there are the federal rules and regulations.

For instance, when Mr. Bush went to New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, he urged Americans to log on to RedCross.org. Almacy decided to put up a link on the White House website. Within hours, the White House counsel’s office was directing him to take the link down because it might be perceived as endorsing one organization over another, says Almacy.

There are privacy questions, too. Many websites use “cookies,” electronic calling cards that websites leave on your computer to identify you if you return. Federal privacy policy discourages their use, saying there should be a “presumption” that they’re not used on federal websites.

But there is a loophole. Cookies can be used if an agency can demonstrate a compelling need and gets special permission. The Obama transition team is taking advantage of that. Change.gov uses cookies and states that in its privacy policy.

“Obama will probably run into some more rules that are going to need amending,” says Robert Bluey, director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “But I think it’s absolutely great that people will have more opportunity to have a say in government and it’s pretty evident from change.gov that’s the direction that Obama’s going to take.”

Obama has set out a clear road map as to how he hopes to accomplish that. It starts with the appointment of a chief technology officer with cabinet-level powers who will oversee technological operations across the government.

“Most people from the 20th century think of technology as a separate issue from others like healthcare or energy, but it’s not just one of many issues [like one of many slices of a pie], it’s the pan that supports innovation and change for all of the other issues,” says Andrew Rasiej, copresident of techpresident.com. “It’s essential that the Obama administration put someone in a position who understands that.”

Federal employees will also have to change how they operate, setting up pilots in citizen participation, which means “Wikis [websites where visitors can change the content], comment sections, collaborative projects, public review of pending policies, and online dialogues,” says Mr. Bass.

That may not sit well with some longtime federal employees. “It’s a radical change,” says Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “But it’s in line with the way our government is supposed to work.”

Then there’s the larger question of whether a citizenry that’s disillusioned with government is ready to get more involved. The optimists here abound.

“What’s been proven through this election process is that there’s a newly engaged and empowered citizenry that is ready, able, and willing to partner with the Obama administration on rebooting American democracy in a 21st-century model of participation,” says Mr.Rasiej.


The Obama Team's Online Transition

CBS Tech Analyst Larry Magid Looks At How A Web 2.0 Campaign Is Going Presidential

SILICON VALLEY, Calif. Nov. 14, 2008

(CBS) When it comes to the use of technology, President Obama will have a hard act to follow - candidate Obama.

As has been widely pointed out, the Obama campaign was masterful in the way it used the Web, social networking sites, text messaging and other technology to assure its victory on Nov. 4. In addition to raising consciousness and money online, the campaign even used text messaging to remind people to go to the polls.

The Obama Web site made it very easy for people to donate money, find local events and - as did John McCain’s site - give supporters online access to a phone bank of voters to help spread the word and get out the vote.

But now that we’re in a transitional period, the question is how the incoming administration will continue to use technology to further the president’s agenda. A sitting president isn’t in the same position as a presidential candidate. For example, it’s not at all clear to me whether he can legally use his campaign e-mail or text messaging lists to promote his presidential agenda.

But we do have a clue as to one way he might use technology. The “Office of the President-Elect” has a new Web site called simply change.gov, which appears to be almost an extension of Obama’s presidential campaign.

It shows news stories, including an embedded MSNBC video of transition team Co-chair Valerie Jarret’s appearance on “Meet the Press” last Sunday. There is also a link to Obama’s radio address from last Saturday and, of course, a video of Obama’s victory speech from election night.

There's also a bit of meat on this site, including information about the president’s Cabinet and - perhaps of great interest to some - information about how to apply for a job at the White House and other federal agencies, including an “online expression of interest form” for job seekers to put their toe in the water.

But, if you’re inclined to express an interest, the site warns that "if and when you are considered for a specific position, you will be asked to fill out additional forms, including financial disclosures, and be subject to other reviews which may include FBI background checks."

As the New York Times has reported, candidates for high ranking jobs and cabinet positions will also be asked to provide detailed information about their backgrounds, including their online personas; any emails or blog posts that might embarrass the President-elect, and any profiles on Facebook or other social networks and "aliases" or "handles" used to communicate over the Internet.

I wonder if they will scrutinize your list of MySpace or Facebook friends to see who you've been "palling around" with online.

Change.gov also includes a “blog,” but aside from the fact that it’s organized in reverse chronological order, it’s not all that bloggish. It’s mostly well polished short articles and a couple of videos but, unlike many blogs, there are no links for user comments.

There is a link where you can “share your story” about “what this campaign and this election means to you.” I’m not sure if they’re deliberately still calling it a campaign as if to say that there are still struggles ahead or if they just cloned this from the old campaign Web site and forgot to update the language.

Speaking of updating, CNET’s Delcan McCullagh wrote here on CBSNews.com that the site initially had detailed agendas for Homeland Security and technology that were deleted over the weekend, to be replaced by “a vague statement saying that Obama and running mate Joe Biden have a ‘comprehensive and detailed agenda’” that will “‘bring about the kind of change America needs.’”

The deletion of that agenda could very well be the beginning of recognition that Obama is no longer in the mode of making campaign promises but on the verge of having to deliver actual policy.

That’s a natural transition that all presidents-elect have had to deal with, but in the past they weren’t quite as exposed to online scrutiny as is this incoming administration.

Although it’s not exactly what I’m looking for, I am pleased to see that change.gov also has a place where visitors can share their "vision for what America can be, where President-elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?” It falls way short of what I’d like to see in terms of participatory democracy, but it is a start.

The incoming administration can start by using the Internet to fulfill its promise to make government more transparent, by using the Internet to share information on legislation and policy discussions. But to do so effectively, it must be in a way we can all understand and with a mechanism for people to have their voices heard.

To be understandable, information can't just be in government-speak. The Library of Congress's THOMAS Web site has long made it possible for citizens to see the text of proposed legislation but I take my hat off to any layperson who can actually understand the text of a congressional bill. What's needed is for non-partisan interpreters to objectively explain these bills in language that we can all understand.

We also need a transparent feedback mechanism where citizens have the option of sharing their opinions, not only with the administration, but with fellow citizens through blogs and forums. I would like to see the President (or at least his surrogates) actively participate in an open online discussion. Admittedly, that could get so lengthy as to be become unwieldy but if these discussions do blossom, I'm sure news media and bloggers who follow these discussions will bring interesting nuggets to light.

Change.gov is clearly a work in progress which is certainly understandable considering how little time has passed since the election. My hope is that the administration will extend this effort into something that truly does involve citizens in government. We can all use a little more sunshine.

By Larry Magid

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


iStrategyLabs Presents: Apps for Democracy - "An Innovation Challenge" to Visualize DC's Open Public Data

Last update: 6:00 a.m. EDT Oct. 20, 2008


WASHINGTON, Oct 20, 2008 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- The District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), in collaboration with iStrategyLabs, today announced the launch of the Apps for Democracy - "An Innovation Challenge" for visualizing DC's public data. The intention of this competition is to reward technology developers with cash prizes and public recognition for creating applications that are useful for the DC government and the citizens, visitors and businesses of Washington, DC.
The contest will serve as a catalyst to visualize OCTO's data so it will be useful to the citizens of DC, improving their quality of life; foster innovation in the DC technology community resulting in startup formation and growth; solve the technology challenges of OCTO through more cost effective open collaboration; and work towards a new model for government/private sector/citizen cross collaboration that can be utilized repeatedly to solve OCTO's challenges and serve as an example for other municipalities.
Apps for Democracy will feature 60 cash prizes from $2000 to $100 dollars for a total of $20,000 in prizes. Developers and designers will compete by creating web applications, widgets, Google Maps-mashups (and other maps mash-ups), iPhone apps, Facebook apps, and other digital utilities that visualize OCTO's Data Catalog, which provides real-time data from multiple agencies to citizens - a catalyst ensuring agencies operate as more responsive, better performing organizations.
"The Apps for Democracy contest is part of our drive toward digital democracy in the nation's capital," said District CTO Vivek Kundra. "Especially in these difficult economic times, it's crucial to the government's mission to find more efficient and impactful methods for delivering an even higher level of service for a fraction of the cost. We are ushering in a new age of participatory democracy, one in which technology is developed by the people for the people."
Who: This contest is open to everyone.
What: Submission guidelines, meet-up notifications and awards structure can be found at appsfordemocracy.org. Submission must be release as open source code.
When: The contest starts 10/13 and ends at 11:59pm on 11/12. The awards ceremony will take place on 11/13. A kick-off happy hour will be hosted on 10/16 and 4 open innovation labs will hosted each weekend leading up to the deadline enabling participants to find collaborators and to work onsite among their fellow technologists. The official social media tag is #APPS08.
About iStrategyLabs:
iStrategyLabs is a digital agency focused on providing clients with interactive strategy, experiential marketing and content creation services. We believe in empowering the creative and technology communities by programming events and providing value to communities online and off in fun and innovative ways.
Visit www.istrategylabs.com or grab creative assets for articles/posts here.
SOURCE: iStrategyLabs
Peter Corbett, 202-683-9980

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Doing away with the electoral college and electing a president based on the national popular vote would be a more directly democratic means of choosing the people's highest representative. It would mean that every citizen's vote would have equal weight regardless of the state that they reside in, and that is obviously more in line with basic democratic principles. There is already a movement that is gaining ground in bypassing the electoral college at the state level, thereby effectively eliminating it without the need for a constitutional amendment. For more on the NPV movement see our previous post on the subject (CLICK HERE) and visit the NPV website. - Editor

Should the U.S. do away with the electoral college to elect the president?

Yes: A direct popular vote would serve the will of the majority

By: Matthew Spearman , Duluth News Tribune
Published October 20 2008

I do not want to tear up the Constitution of the United States of America — just the part about the electoral college.

Yes, the time has come for the electoral college to go. The will of the majority should be served in a majority-rule system. I cast my vote for who I want to be president, and the candidate with the most votes should become president. That’s democracy. Technically, that’s direct democracy. And that is what we need.

I believe the electoral college should be scrapped and replaced by direct popular vote for picking the president. I believe this for three reasons: It would ensure we do not face another Constitutional crisis as in 2000. It would allow my vote to be counted toward the person I voted for. And it would increase national voter participation.

Although in most elections, the candidate with the most votes also wins the most electoral votes, this is not always the case. This was not the case in the 2000 election in which Al Gore won 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush. The majority did not rule. Not only did the majority of the people not decide who became president, the electoral college did not adequately provide this function, either. Rather, the Supreme Court, a body that should never be involved in electoral politics, essentially decided the election. In 2000, we in the U.S. witnessed the failure of the electoral college — a Constitutional crisis.

One may say that the result in 2000 was the exception rather than the rule set forth by the founders in 1787. After all, the process has been stable for more than 200 years. However, in a democracy as important as ours, we should never have to face such a Constitutional crisis.

The more clearly we understand what the electoral college is and how it works, the farther away our votes travel from the candidates for whom we voted. The U.S. electoral college is a group of people (electors) who are designated to cast a vote for a certain candidate, dictated by the winner of the popular vote of a certain state. For example, Minnesota has 10 electoral votes and 10 electors. So when I cast my vote for president, I am actually voting for a set of 10 representatives or electors. If my candidate wins the state, those electors will vote for my candidate. If not, the winner’s set of electors will vote. In short, electors get to vote for the candidate, not me. And not you.

Direct democracy demands that every vote cast for a candidate count — and not count only toward a state’s electors. It allows my vote to count directly for the person for whom I voted.

One main argument for needing the electoral college is the protection of small states which otherwise could be ignored in a national campaign. This argument carried more weight in years past. Now, the electoral college does not protect small states. It protects swing states. There are solid blue states and solid red states, and then there are a number of swing states that have been the deciding factor in the past several elections.

Ironically, the elimination of the electoral college may protect the smaller states because candidates from either party would not write off red or blue states and would spend more time in those states because there are voters there. In each state, regardless of how it generally leans — red or blue — there are undecided voters, independent voters and intermittent voters. There also are those who often do not vote, but would if they believed it would make a difference. Blue voters in solid red states, or the reverse, would be more likely to vote if their vote counted directly toward the candidate.

The brilliance of our system, as put forward by the founders of our nation, is in its adaptability — and in our ability as a people to change that which no longer works in government. It’s time for that change to occur regarding the electoral college. It’s time to tear up that section of the Constitution and replace it with the direct popular vote of our highest official.

Matthew Spearman of Duluth is a special education teacher at the North Shore Community School.

Friday, November 14, 2008


A ballot initiative in Arizona that would have severely limited and possibly eliminated the initiative & referendum in that state was soundly defeated at the voting booths on Nov. 4th. The twisted and anti-democratic logic of the inititiative was rejected by an enlightened electorate. A prime example of direct democracy at it's best. - Editor

The Voters of Arizona Defeat Prop 105

November 5, 2008

Arizona’s Voters Reject Prop 105; the So-called ‘Majority Rules’ Amendment
Coalition of more than 125 Organizations Credits Revealing the Truth
and Hard Work as Reason for Defeating Misleading Proposition

The latest ballot count shows that voters have rejected Prop 105 marking a significant victory for Arizonans, all of whom will retain their most precious right – the right to vote. The tally shows Prop 105, the so-called “Majority Rules” amendment, losing by a 66 to 34 percent margin.

“I am proud to have been a part of a coalition that stood up for the voting rights of all Arizonans,” said John Wright, chair The Voters of Arizona-No on prop 105 campaign committee. “It is just plain wrong to count people who don’t vote, and the voters of Arizona agreed that Prop 105 was a misleading initiative that should not be included in the constitution.”

If Prop 105 had passed, more than 80 percent of those voting on a ballot initiative would have had to vote yes for it to pass, effectively killing the initiative process in Arizona, which is the closest thing we have to a direct democracy. If Prop 105 were already in place, a number of initiatives that overwhelmingly passed—including the statewide smoking ban, First Things First, Smarter Growth, almost every initiative since 1974—would not have passed under Prop 105.

A coalition of nearly 125 organizations across the state provided the foundation for a strong grassroots effort. The entire campaign included website development; earned media efforts; statewide direct mail and signage; and creative development, production, and placement of the TV commercial. The campaign took nothing to chance in what was arguably the most deceptive ballot initiative in the state’s history.

“From a campaign strategy perspective, their initiative was a classic ‘bait and switch’ strategy, using a ‘majority rules’ message as a cover,” said Joe Yuhas, partner with RIESTER, the campaigns consultant. “We didn’t allow a misleading message to stand in the way of educating voters about what Prop 105 was really about, counting people who don’t actually vote as automatic no votes. This landslide of Arizonans voting No on prop 105 proves that they want to keep and protect their constitutional right to the initiative process.”

Support for the Voters of Arizona-No on Prop 105 was wide spread including prominent elected officials including Mayors Bob Walkup of Tucson, Karen Fann of Chino Valley, and Mark Nexsem of Lake Havasu City. The business community also joined via support from 10 Chambers of Commerce statewide as well as the Associated General Contractors Arizona Chapter. The Voters of Arizona received a variety of new endorsements weekly, including public safety organizations such as the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, United Phoenix Firefighters and Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs; education advocacy groups including Arizona Education Association and Arizona School Boards Association; senior groups including the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans; and the medical community including Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association and the American Lung Association. By the end of the campaign, all major news outlets that weighed in on the issue were against Prop 105 including The Arizona Republic, East Valley Tribune, Tucson Citizen, Tucson Weekly, and The Yuma Sun.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The U.S. elections prompted many observations internationally about the political system and the election process, including the drect democracy at play in the form of ballot initiatives at the state level. The following article presents a view from the U.K. on that subject. - editor

It'll get interesting when the Americans start voting

The undercard for the US elections may be dragging - but the main event will be unmissable, argues Chris Game.

Oct 31 2008 Agenda

My political boredom threshold is probably higher than most of yours, but I confess: I’m bored with the American election.

True, my boredom is purely temporary. Come the early hours of Wednesday November 5, and I’ll have exchanged my late night Stateside TV viewing from the baseball World Series to the state-by-state exit polls and Presidential predictions.

Can Obama really win big? Or will enough voters, privately in their polling booths, be sufficiently scared of the man’s programme, personality or pigmentation that, despite everything they’ve told opinion pollsters, they’ll go for the other guy?

Whatever the outcome, it will be absorbing, important and historic – but for now the main feature’s a bit of a drag. With US elections, though, there’s always a full supporting programme.

There are thousands of other elective offices at stake, but for me, better than all this representative stuff, is the raw direct democracy on offer. Voters in 36 states will give their views on 153 ballot propositions, initiatives and referrals. They themselves become policy makers on issues great and small, in a way that our governments rarely, if ever, trust us to be.

They will determine how taxes are raised, how major investment projects are funded, and whether their states should have lotteries, casinos, greyhound tracks, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, and liberal or restrictive abortion laws – while we struggle to have a say on the future of our central library.

Just as Sarah Palin’s candidacy has taught us at least where Alaska is and the kinds of things Alaskan rednecks like to do there, so a study of these propositions can inform us about aspects of America that would rarely otherwise attract our attention.

A majority of the 153 measures have been placed on the ballot paper by state legislators themselves. Most are not actually called referendums, but that’s what they are: issues or bills referred to electors for approval or veto before they become law.

There are, though, 61 propositions or initiatives that have forced their way on to the ballot paper following successful citizens’ petitions, in which campaigners seeking to change their state’s law or constitution have collected a specified number of validated signatures.

The biggest categories of propositions, as always, are those on taxes (24) and bond issues (16). But, contrary perhaps to expectation, not all the former are for tax reductions, nor do the tax cutters invariably win – especially if a worthy-sounding cause can be attached.

Thus a proposal to raise Minnesota’s sales tax rate is labelled ‘The Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage and Natural Areas Amendment’ in an unsubtle hint of the ecological depredation that could result from voters withholding their tax dollars. Likewise, Colorado has a citizens’ initiative, ‘Sales Tax for the Developmentally Disabled’.

More conventional are the state income tax propositions. The North Dakota chapter of Americans for Prosperity want theirs cut, while the Massachusetts Committee for Small Government want their 5.3 per cent rate abolished completely.

But not even tax cuts are necessarily self-seeking. An Oklahoma constitutional amendment, for example, seeks a property tax exemption for disabled veterans and their surviving spouses.

Municipal bonds are a fund-raising device many of our local government leaders ogle with undisguised envy, constrained as they are by our shackling Treasury Rules. If their US counterparts need capital for schools, highways, hospitals, airports or whatever, one option is to get voters to approve a bond issue – reminding them that, if they themselves invest, their interest income will be exempt from federal income tax.

Californian voters alone have three bond issues to consider: $10 billion towards a high-speed 800-mile rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and nearly $1 billion each for children’s hospitals and a fund assisting veterans to become homeowners.

Lotteries and casinos are other ballot regulars, and again proponents will emphasise the more morally uplifting causes that will gain from, say, extending casino hours to 24/7 and increasing maximum bets.

Thus the real beneficiaries of an Arkansas state lottery will apparently be the student recipients of college scholarships. And, if Colorado citizens agree to loosen gambling restrictions, the true winners will be everything from highway improvements and health care programmes to alternative fuels and the state minimum wage. Then there are the social issues, particularly interesting where they relate to UK practice. Perhaps most topical of all – given the recent cases of multiple sclerosis sufferer, Debby Purdy, and 23-year old rugby player, Dan James – is Washington state’s ‘Aid in Dying’ initiative.

Modelled on the now well-established practice in neighbouring Oregon, the proposal would allow mentally competent, terminally ill adults to request and administer a lethal overdose of medication.

Oregonians over the years have voted on more ballot propositions (350) than any other Americans. Among this year’s 12 measures is a proposed ‘Kids First Act’, under which teachers’ pay rises and job security would be based not on seniority, but on their classroom performance. Controversial certainly, but not remotely on the scale of abortion. In the US a woman has since 1974 had the constitutional right to have an abortion, but her state’s provision, or lack of it, will effectively determine her access to a clinic. Nowadays, most ballot propositions aim at further restricting availability. In California an emotively entitled ‘Sarah’s Law’ – after a 15-year old who died following a mishandled abortion – would prohibit abortion for minors until 48 hours after the physician has notified a parent or legal guardian.

More inventive and potentially far-reaching is a Colorado initiative attempting in effect to criminalise all abortion, through an Equal Rights constitutional amendment re-defining a ‘person’ as any human being from the moment of fertilisation. The implications seem massive – including for emergency contraception, IUD forms of contraception, and stem cell research – and it will surely be the most carefully watched of all this year’s proposition votes.

Finally, no examination of US direct democracy would be complete without mention of animal welfare, of which Americans are in some respects significantly more protective than we are.

A Massachusetts initiative thus proposes closing down the state’s two greyhound tracks and banning all dog racing for money. And a California proposition calls for an end to battery chicken farming and the crate-rearing of calves and sows.

Alaskans, though, as we have learned, view things differently: ‘wildlife is for us, and blasting things indiscriminately is the Alaskan way of life’. In an early statewide ballot just three days before Governor Sarah Palin was unveiled as John McCain’s running mate, Alaskans voted decisively to reject the Wolf and Bear Protection Act and continue the aerial hunting and shooting of free-ranging wolves, wolverines and grizzly bears.

You can guess which way the Governor campaigned and voted. But then, as my mother used to say, it would be a dull world indeed if we were all alike.

* Chris Game is lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Council Votes, 29 to 22, to Extend Term Limits

By Sewell Chan AND Jonathan P. Hicks
October 23, 2008, 2:10 pm

Source: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/23/council-to-debate-term-limits-change/?apage=1

Updated, 7:30 p.m. After a spirited, emotional and at times raucous debate, the New York City Council voted, 29 to 22, on Thursday afternoon to extend term limits, allowing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to seek re-election next year and undoing the result of two voter referendums that had imposed a limit of two four-year terms.

The vote was a major victory for Mayor Bloomberg — a billionaire and lifelong Democrat who was elected mayor as a Republican in 2001, won re-election in 2005, became an independent last year, and decided just weeks ago that he wished to seek a third term for himself in 2009 — and for the Council’s speaker, Christine C. Quinn. But the intense acrimony surrounding the decision left a sharply divided Council and could ultimately damage the mayor’s popularity.

The new law, which earlier on Thursday sailed through a committee vote, limits elected officials to three consecutive terms and applies to all of the city’s elected officials. It has already begun to upend municipal politics, reshaping the dynamics of next year’s races.

Of the Council’s 51 members, 35 would have been barred by term limits from seeking re-election next year. On Thursday, 23 of those members voted in favor of extending term limits, and 12 voted against.

The Council has 48 Democrats and three Republicans. All three Republicans — James S. Oddo and Vincent M. Ignizio, of Staten Island, and Anthony Como of Queens — voted no.

Over two days of public hearings lasting 19.5 hours last week, and in the floor debate on Thursday, both sides argued that their position was in the best interests of the people.

Opponents of the bill accused the mayor and his supporters on the Council of flouting the will of the people — as expressed in a 1993 voter initiative that established a limit of two consecutive terms and a 1996 referendum in which voters rejected a Council-led effort to change the limit to three terms. They said that democratic procedure demanded a public vote on the issue, no matter what one thinks of Mr. Bloomberg or term limits.

Supporters of the bill said the dire economic situation confronting the city — and the possibility of multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls — demanded continuity of leadership. They said term limits deprived voters of the opportunity to return dedicated politicians to office. They argued that it would be too costly and difficult to put the matter back before the people by holding a special election early next year.

Most experts agreed that the Council had the legal authority to amend the City Charter and override a law created by a referendum, but opponents said lawmakers had no moral right to do so. Two council members had gone to court, arguing that it was a conflict of interest for lawmakers to extend their own terms, but a judge refused to block the vote.

After Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who presides over the Council, announced the final result at 4:35 p.m., the balcony erupted in shouts of “The city’s for sale!” and “Shame on you!”

Monday, November 10, 2008


Keeping Obama's Campaign "Army" Mobilized as a Force for Change in Peacetime

Gara LaMarche
Posted November 7, 2008 07:32 AM (EST)

Speaking to tens of thousands of his supporters in Chicago's Grant Park, President-elect Barack Obama said his smashing victory was not about him but about "you." In his effort to unify, he meant all of America, but he also was crediting a very special group of people -- his "peacetime army" of millions of volunteers and contributors who grew the electorate and upended the electoral map in the name of change.

The key question now for Obama and all who support the change he called for is, "What happens to this peacetime army?" This powerful force was galvanized by Obama and his campaign. His Web site allowed any supporter to act immediately, and it reached millions with a flood of targeted e-mails and text messages. The campaign organized tens of thousands of events through which Americans reached out to other Americans. Many thousands of paid and volunteer organizers worked for months to register voters, identify supporters and get them to the polls. They travelled to battleground states to knock on doors and make their case for change in person. In many states, Obama's on-the-ground presence dwarfed that not only of the McCain campaign, but of the Democratic Party and virtually every other contemporary political institution and social movement in American society.

Ordinarily when a presidential campaign ends, organizers disperse and some of them join the administration, if the campaign has been successful. The list of donors and volunteers is often treated as a precious, proprietary political resource to be sold or loaned to allies. Obama's was no ordinary campaign, and that business-as-usual approach would be a mistake in this extraordinary year when so many want change.

While Governor Sarah Palin taunted Obama for being a "community organizer, whatever that is," Obama understands better than anyone who has been elected to the presidency that true political power and progress depend not only on presidential leadership, but on an engaged citizenry, and that elections are a crucial but only passing moment in the life of our democracy. To govern effectively and promote his agenda on economic security, energy, expanded health coverage, education, the restoration of civil liberties and other matters, Obama will need to keep his army mobilized. Doing this is as important as drafting legislation and picking cabinet secretaries.

Obama and all those who want to seize the moment for progressive change need these talented and passionate organizers who helped deliver the presidency to stay in the field and work with state and local organizations to deliver the change that Obama promised and they labored for. They would offer a huge boost to local coalitions and organizations, many of which are far less powerful and sophisticated than the Obama campaign.

These organizers are essential to sustaining the passion and engagement of millions of donors and online activists, who can take action in support of the agenda they share with Obama.

Progressives understand that this army needs to be a force for keeping the new administration true to its promises - supporting Obama when it agrees with him, pushing him when he needs to be bolder, and opposing him when they disagree. They did that this summer when thousands of Obama supporters used the campaign Web site to convey their dismay with his support for a Congressional compromise on government surveillance of U.S. citizens under the Foreign Intelligence Services Act. In the tough challenges ahead, this peacetime army can press Obama to stay true to his promises and his supporters.

Obama understands better than any other politician that the success of his agenda depends on his supporters being mobilized and engaged. What we have seen in the last year is a rebirth of participatory democracy, infused by the energy of millions. Imagine what this energy can do if it channeled into ongoing action.