Common Sense Is Overrated

By David Swanson

Michael Waldman, former Bill Clinton speech writer and current director of the Brennan Center, has a new book called “A Return to Common Sense: 7 Bold Ways to Revitalize Our Democracy.” He intends “Common Sense” as a reference to Tom Paine, but after reading the book it takes on another meaning, namely rehearsal of the ideas any slightly left of center Democratic partisan would have been expected to espouse.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of ideas held by slightly left of center Dem partisans, and I think we’d be better off if this sort of book gained the level of influence that Paine’s pamphlets did. On the other hand, I see a lot of major shortcomings in the proposals found here, and the writing lacks the fire that could spark a revolution.

Waldman’s is yet another book on election reform that insists such reform is both needed and not yet really missed. That is, Bush won in 2000. Bush won in 2004. But we need electoral reform because something COULD go wrong someday. Waldman recommends universal voter registration, or as a second choice, election-day registration. I agree. He also recommends re-enfranchising people who have been convicted of crimes and fulfilled their punishments, pointing out the Jim Crow origins of felon disenfranchisement, including in my home state of Virginia:

“Carter Glass, later a prominent Democratic U.S. senator, assured Virginia’s constitutional convention in 1901 that felony disenfranchisement would ‘eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years.’ Virginia’s law is still in effect. Today one in four black men there is barred from voting.”

I agree with Waldman. If someone has finished the punishment imposed by a court, no further punishment should be imposed by the rest of us.

Waldman opposes voter ID laws, and worries about the computerized purging of voters from the rolls, but does not propose eliminating computerized rolls. He proposes a national registration list. But he says nothing about keeping private companies out of the process. He would make election day into two days over a weekend.

A Brennan Center task force found that “Every single electronic voting system used in the United States is dangerously hackable.” So, why not repeal the Help America Vote Act and junk the machines? In an otherwise intelligent book, Waldman offers unbelievably weak arguments for keeping the machines around. His first argument is that elections have never been perfect. But, that there have always been problems does not seem to actually make any sort of case for proceeding with a system that cannot be made credible at all. Waldman’s second argument is that the machines cost money, and it would be a shame to just waste them. But he later points out that we’ve spent more killing people (or as he puts it, “spreading democracy”) in Iraq in a month than we have on elections in the past six years, and that it will require a significantly larger investment to “fix” the machines. In other words, we can find money for things we consider important, but sticking with machines is going to require throwing a lot of good money after bad. Waldman’s third argument is that electronic machines are easier for people with disabilities to use. But, again, that doesn’t seem to justify a completely unaccountable system. The needs of the disabled should be taken seriously and the best solutions found, but not at the expense of turning the process of voting into a charade in which ease of voting takes precedence over having votes counted.

Waldman wants to fix DRE voting machines by requiring that they spit out paper receipts for each voter, but the idea that voters will reliably check those receipts for accuracy is, as far as I know, completely speculative. The needs that Waldman recognizes for checks and controls on such a system are extensive, and the financial cost will be ongoing.

It’s helpful to recognize the problem of electronic voting (at least in theory if not practice), but Waldman appears to shy away from the obvious solution for very weak reasons, making exactly the “common sense” argument one would have expected. Compare Waldman’s proposals with the list of a dozen ideas drafted by Mark Crispin Miller:

1. Repeal the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). (Waldman faults it but won’t end it.)
2. Replace all electronic voting with hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB). (Waldman sees the problem but won’t back the solution.)
3. Get rid of computerized voter rolls. (Waldman has a different solution.)
4. Keep all private vendors out of the election process. (Waldman doesn’t touch this.)
5. Make it illegal for the TV networks to declare who won before the vote-count is complete. (Waldman doesn’t touch this.)
6. Set up an exit polling system, publicly supported, to keep the vote-counts honest. (Waldman doesn’t touch this.)
7. Get rid of voter registration rules, by having every citizen be duly registered on his/her 18th birthday. (Waldman agrees and has ideas on how to do it.)
8. Ban all state requirements for state-issued ID’s at the polls. (Waldman agrees.)
9. Put all polling places under video surveillance, to spot voter fraud, monitor election personnel, and track the turnout. (Waldman doesn’t touch this.)
10. Have Election Day declared a federal holiday, requiring all employers to allow their workers time to vote. (Waldman has strong arguments for why a weekend election is preferable.)
11. Make it illegal for Secretaries of State to co-chair political campaigns (or otherwise assist or favor them). (Waldman agrees.)
12. Make election fraud a major felony, with life imprisonment–and disenfranchisement–for all repeat offenders. (Waldman doesn’t touch this.)

Waldman’s best ideas are in the area of political reform, although – again – there’s nothing new here. He wants public financing of elections. He wants to end gerrymandering by incumbents, using nonpartisan redistricting commissions. I agree, though obviously Waldman’s notion that Eliot Spitzer will lead the charge is dated. Waldman supports efforts to create a national popular vote and eliminate the influence of the Electoral College. This all seems right to me.

Part 3 of Waldman’s book, on “repairing government,” is the least well developed. He’s concerned about the influence of parties but has no suggestions for what to do about it. He’s disturbed by the dramatic seizure of power by the executive branch, but of course completely avoids the topic of impeachment. He talks up “oversight” hearings, and avoids the unpleasant fact that with impeachment removed from the Constitution officials do not feel obliged to comply with subpoenas or even contempt citations. Waldman has a section titled “Putting Teeth in Oversight,” but the closest he comes to mentioning any teeth is this:

“…many committees have been slow to use oversight as a tool not just for exposing scandal but for building policy arguments.”

Building policy arguments? I’m sure Dick Cheney wakes up in a cold sweat fearing that John Conyers will build a policy argument. Oh, the horror!

After six years of Republicans in Congress holding nobody in the White House accountable while Democrats pretended they wanted to do so, and two years of Democrats refusing to hold anyone in the White House accountable, Waldman’s only proposal is to allow minority parties to hold hearings and issue subpoenas. It might have helped in 2005 if the Democrats had been able to hold legitimate hearings and issue subpoenas, but how would they have enforced subpoenas without impeachment power? And how would this proposal improve the sort of performance we’ve seen in 2007 and 2008?

Waldman claims the FISA court would have approved Bush’s spying if asked to legally do so, an assertion based on absolutely nothing since we don’t know what the illegal warrantless spying has involved.

Restoring habeas corpus is a proposal I agree with, but the Supreme Court has already done it.

Waldman’s book includes an obligatory short fourth section that ought to be titled “Wait Until 2009 in Hopes the Next Emperor will Save Us.”

Returning to common sense would be preferable to continuing with fascism, but even better would be proceeding to ideas not yet approved of by any party in Congress. In fact, we’re more likely to win the sort of compromises Waldman wants if we publish books advocating more complete reform. Books should be the place where we speak our mind. The compromising should come later.