Thursday, September 27, 2012

Endeavouring to Excite the Electorate

My latest piece on the Huffington Post is here.

Last week, members of our nation took part in a momentous event. We studied, we discussed, we stood in line, we cheered and we watched news coverage. We waved American flags and chanted "USA! USA!" We introduced our children and grandchildren to camera crews, telling reporters that we wanted to make sure that our children and grandchildren took part in this historic event. "We want them to be able to say they were here, at this moment," we said to the men and women with microphones.

We talked about the event afterwards, shared our thoughts, and posted and tweeted photographs. We spoke of national pride in what we've accomplished. We spoke wistfully and hopefully about what the future holds for our country. We talked of the budget, the economy and changing public-policy priorities. 

What was this event that excited so many members of the American public? This is not a rhetorical question.

If you said the 2012 elections, or the presidential election, you're wrong, but I was so hoping that would be your answer.

Elections, even a high-stakes presidential election -- and when is a presidential election ever not high-stakes? -- do not capture the imagination of the American public. By and large we do not engage in a great debate, study the issues and the candidates, take off work to stand in long lines, wave flags, cheer and overtly discuss national pride.

No, when it comes to elections, many of us do not engage at all. Far too few of us exercise our hard-fought, fundamental right to vote. (More on that pesky right to vote in a moment). Instead, we throw up our hands and leave the "nasty business" of politics to others.

Those of us who do vote often do so somewhat begrudgingly. We sigh and complain about having a choice only between "the lesser of two evils." We bemoan the pervasive and pernicious influence of money in politics. We feel, not incorrectly, that politics is largely a game played only by those who can pay the price of admission. 

Few of us speak about elections with the same enthusiasm of the actual event I was referring to -- the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour. Last week, the Endeavour soared through the sky on the back of a 747 airliner. It captured our collective imagination. It was exactly what I read and heard it would be -- a space shuttle on an airplane -- but I still, for a moment, thought it was something wondrous. It represented the best of us, the most impressive strides taken by the best and brightest among us.

Few of us use words like "wondrous" or phrases like "captured our collective imagination" to refer to elections in our country. But in many ways we should. The American experiment in democracy is amazing. Every two, four or six years, we go to a polling place (or mail in a ballot) and anonymously pick our government representatives. We send those elected officials to city halls, state capitals and the District of Columbia to make laws that we hope embody sound public policy.

So why do we feel, at best, lackluster about this grand experiment? Why do those of us who exercise the right to vote feel less than enthused about the experience?

One reason is an issue I've mentioned above. The ubiquitous influence of money in campaigns means that moneyed interests play an outsized role in our electoral process. More than 30 years ago, in a case called Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court found that political money is the equivalent of political speech. That opinion made it difficult -- and in many cases impossible -- to limit the amount of money spent by, in support of, or against political candidates. While the Supreme Court purported to uphold First Amendment rights, it actually harmed those rights by giving moneyed interests a megaphone through which they could drown out the voices of others. The Supreme Court only exacerbated the harm imposed by its flawed framework in Citizens United, when it ruled that corporations must be treated as identical to people for purposes of analyzing restrictions on campaign spending. When people and organizations can spend unlimited sums in the political marketplace, it actually harms, rather than bolsters, the breadth and depth of the political debate.

Another reason for our lack of excitement in the electoral process may be that our fundamental right to vote is under attack all throughout the country this election cycle. Under the guise of protecting voter fraud, conservative legislatures throughout the country have passed voter identification laws. Put most charitably, voter identification laws are a solution in search of a problem, as the fraud that would be prevented by these laws is nearly infinitesimal. We should be honest about what these laws are meant to accomplish. Voter identification laws overwhelmingly harm poor and minority members of the electorate who tend to vote democratic. Let's just say it: These laws are about eliminating the number of democratic ballots cast.

When our elected representatives play partisan games with our fundamental right to vote, the right that preserves so many other rights, it is not difficult to see why the elections that put those politicians in power are seen as less-than-wondrous events.

We can hope that the Supreme Court reverses course and state lawmakers stop enacting laws that burden the ability to vote. In the meantime, our main recourse, perhaps ironically, is at the ballot box. Although it may not be as awe-inspiring as watching a space shuttle glide across the clouds, let's treat the 2012 election as the vitally important event that it is.

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