"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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Wednesday, April 30, 2008


The following article from a Nevada paper probes the question of whether the use of paid companies to collect signatures for ballot initiatives is having an adverse effect on the process. - Editor

BALLOT INITIATIVES: Paying for Petitions

Critics Say Company has used Underhanded Tactics in Past



A smiling person with a clipboard approaches you as you enter the
DMV. Will you sign a petition to put a question on the November ballot?

Opponents of certain ballot initiatives being circulated say you should think twice. A company that's being paid big money to collect the more than 58,000 required signatures, they say, has a history of shady dealings in other states.

The three initiatives in question are backed by Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Two of the initiatives, the Education Enhancement Act and the Funding Nevada's Priorities Act, would shift money from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority into education and transportation. A third, the Taxpayers Protection Act, would require a two-thirds vote in favor of a ballot initiative that seeks to raise taxes.

Signatures for the three initiatives are being collected by National Voter Outreach, a Carson City based company that has worked in Nevada and all over the country for more than a decade.

The company's president last year was indicted in Oklahoma and charged, along with two others, with conspiracy to defraud voters.

The company defends its reputation, saying it has a long track record in the business of collecting signatures for petitions. The company says the legal proceedings in Oklahoma, which are still pending, are unfair, and that charges of misconduct elsewhere are baseless.

But a watchdog group calls the company one of the top "fraud merchants" in the country and "a leader in cultivating deceptive signature gathering practices."

The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center points to signature gathering campaigns conducted by the company in Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New York and Washington where tactics used to collect signatures have been questioned and sometimes have led to initiatives being thrown off ballots.

The watchdog's executive director, Kristina Wilfore, acknowledges that the center has a liberal agenda of its own and opposes the initiatives in question. But she says the allegations of fraud in the gathering of signatures for conservative ballot measures should give voters in Nevada pause.

"Nevadans should be aware that there's been wrongdoing that has led to them being kicked off the ballot in some cases," she said. "They're known to employ some of the worst circulators. Their primary objective is to make money and to get these on the ballot through whatever means possible."

National Voter Outreach's CEO, Rick Arnold, says the company has no political ax to grind and has ample checks and balances to safeguard against fraud.

"I've been doing this for 30 years," he said. "No one can stay in business for 30 years if they're acting illegally. We do not break the law. We're very careful. We do have people who are circulators for us who attempt to do things they shouldn't do, and part of our quality control is to catch that."

The company has collected signatures on petitions with both a liberal and a conservative bent, he said, including a 2004 Nevada initiative backed by the teachers union. That initiative made it onto the ballot but didn't pass.

Its successful initiatives in Nevada go back to now-Gov. Jim Gibbons' tax restraint initiative, added to the state constitution in 1994, which implemented the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature approve any tax increase. The company also worked for Gibbons' 2006 Education First initiative, which requires the Legislature to pass the education budget before any other budgets, and 2004's Keep Our Doctors In Nevada, a tort-reform measure.

Arnold said the company is a victim of attempts to politicize its mission, which is simply to make a profit by getting initiatives on the ballot. "We would like to be nonpartisan, and we pretty much are, but this group has blackballed us and is telling progressive groups not to use us," Arnold said.

National Voter Outreach purchases signatures from independent contractors who do the actual circulation of the petitions. Response to job ads has been high lately because of economic conditions, especially in Clark County, Arnold said.

The company pays by the signature and pays only for signatures that include all the required information, are in ink and are notarized correctly. The company then does its own checks of names and addresses against the voter rolls, to make sure each one is from a Nevada registered voter, he said.

Restrictions on the initiative process, such as a law passed by the 2007 Legislature requiring signatures from all 17 Nevada counties, make it difficult for a purely grass-roots effort to get on the ballot and give companies such as Arnold's a growing niche nationwide. Almost all the initiatives to reach the Nevada statewide ballot in recent years have employed paid signature gatherers.

Establishment politicians tend not to like initiatives because they put control back in the hands of the people, but initiatives keep coming because the people support them, Arnold said.

The signature gatherers are trained, he said, to "emphasize, 'Here's an issue we think is important. You're not making a final decision, just saying it's something the people should get to vote on.' Frankly, most people like that empowerment. The people like the process. The people support the process."

Arnold called the Oklahoma indictment frivolous. Before circulation began on a measure that would limit government spending and taxes in the state, the company, he said, sought clarification from Oklahoma elections officials about a requirement that circulators be residents of the state.

After the petitions were submitted, Arnold claims, the courts invented a new standard for state residency after the fact. The initiative was thrown off the ballot because of allegations that the signatures were ill-gotten.

The case is still pending. Wilfore said there is ample evidence of bad intentions on the part of the circulators.

"It's offensive that the people who were indicted are trying to say this is an attack on democracy," she said. "They got 15 fake state driver's licenses for people to prove residency. That's not just not knowing the rules."

In Nevada, signature gatherers are not required to be state residents, and Arnold said many of those working for the current initiatives are from out of state.

It's also legal to pay gatherers for signatures on a per-signature basis, which critics say creates an incentive for fraud. (It is not legal to pay people for their signatures.)

The 58,628 required signatures, which must be checked by county clerks and registrars before being accepted by the secretary of state, are due on May 20. The Sands-backed initiatives and others are being challenged in court.

Matt Griffin, elections deputy in the secretary of state's office, said enforcement of the signature requirements is vital to the integrity of the initiative process.

"There has to be strict oversight to ensure the initiative process is fair," he said.

Nevadans for Nevada, a group backed by the state AFL-CIO, which opposes the Sands Corp. initiatives, is still deciding what actions to take against them, said Danny Thompson, the union's secretary-treasurer.

National Voter Outreach's involvement is one troubling aspect of the campaigns, Thompson said.

"We know their history. We know what they've done in Oklahoma. Everyone they approach should be concerned about what their motives are."

Sands is committed to operating the campaigns in an aboveboard manner, said Robert Uithoven, a political consultant to the company.

"Our signature gathering is being done legally," he said. "We support these initiative campaigns in 100 percent full compliance with Nevada law. We believe the message of finding alternatives to massive tax increases is resonating statewide."

Uithoven said the signature-gathering efforts are ahead of schedule and that if the court battle doesn't derail them, the initiatives will meet the requirements for certification by the secretary of state.

Wilfore said she believes underhanded tactics have been common in signature gathering but have begun to come to light only in recent years.

"We're just starting to expose the underbelly of paid signature gathering. Whether an initiative is conservative or progressive, if you have fraudulent signature gathering going on, people being lied to, all these abuses, this pattern we're seeing -- it's a threat to anyone who cares about direct democracy."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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