No One Can Afford To Sit It Out!

Published: Network (October 1, 2015)

Though the 2016 presidential field gets most attention, Pennsylvania voters should elect well-qualified Democratic nominees Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, and David Wecht to Pennsylvania’s highest court this November to block partisan attempts to neutralize our impact next year. Likewise, prospects for a responsibly managed Northampton County depend on electing Democrats: Sam Murray judge and Lori Vargo Heffner to county council, and re-electing Controller Steve Barron and County Councilmen Scott Parsons, Ken Kraft, and Bob Werner.

If anyone doubts that, Republican John Cusick told a local board he was running to get back on Northampton County Council to support County Executive John Brown. County residents should be worried.

In 18 months, Brown has distinguished himself as one of the most incompetent politicians in Pennsylvania today. His most notorious decision was hiring a public relations consultant to an $84,000 no-bid contract after his first month. He also attempted to charge taxpayers $715,200 for a no-bid financial consultant contract.

Brown’s solicitor during that tumultuous first year, Victor Scomillio, is running for county judge. Northampton County’s legal fees and damages topped $300,000 after federal judgments from Brown and Scomillio firing an employee two days before Christmas, before they even took office. Hayden Phillips, a self-proclaimed Tea Party Republican, wants to be county controller. Despite publicly questioning some of Brown’s controversial decisions, Phillips backed Brown’s 2015 budget and proposed double the 9.25% tax increase (1 mill) that was ultimately passed by council Republicans.

The county executive has also hinted at intentions to sell Gracedale, the county-owned nursing home. The referendum preventing such a sale expires next year. Although Cusick now says he opposes privatizing Gracedale, he previously voted to sell it. If Republicans like Cusick and Matthew Dietz are elected to council, we should expect their support for Brown turning Gracedale over to a company driven to maximize profits at the expense of affordable, quality care.

This isn’t to say that county residents should only focus on these local races. The unprecedented election of three Supreme Court justices, along with seats on the Superior and Commonwealth Courts, will impact decisions and set precedents for decades. Among other things, the Supreme Court election could determine whether Pennsylvania continues in its role as the keystone in presidential elections. State Republican attempts to manipulate rules to gain political power may ultimately rest with the courts. Their proposals include diluting Pennsylvania’s influence by distributing its electoral votes by congressional district, suppressing disadvantaged voters through restrictive photo ID requirements, and using incumbent-protection redistricting schemes that make very few legislative races competitive.

The bottom line is simple: The decisions made by Northampton County voters in the 2015 elections will be critically important, determining how much of their paychecks go to local taxes due to Republican fiscal irresponsibility; whether county seniors have continued access to affordable, quality care; and whether our state will continue to carry weight on the national political scene. This is an election of enormous consequence, and no one can afford to sit it out.

Here’s the real reason Scott Walker dropped out of the 2016 presidential race

Published: The Daily Dot (September 22, 2015)

On Tuesday morning, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) announced what many had widely speculated, following a nationwide drop in support: He is dropping out of the presidential race. Walker emphasized in a Facebook post that he hopes his withdrawal will encourage a more “positive” race. That’s a nice message, but optimism isn’t entirely the reason for his withdrawal: The presidential hopeful simply ran out of money.

According to the New York Times, “Walker was among the most successful fundraisers in his party, with a clutch of billionaires in his corner and tens of millions of dollars behind his presidential ambitions.” However, this didn’t allow his campaign to cover all of its expenses, as running for president is increasingly expensive. “Super PACs, Mr. Walker learned, cannot pay rent, phone bills, salaries, airfares or ballot access fees,” the Times’ Nicholas Confessore wrote.

As a result, despite being on pace to raise up to $40 million by the end of the year, Walker’s Super PAC was unable to keep his candidacy afloat.

This matters, especially in a presidential race that is estimated to amass record campaign donations—and spending—from candidates. Former Secretary of StateHillary Clinton and former Florida governor Jeb Bush are likely to shell out at least $2 billion on their bids for the White House, which is double the sum thatPresident Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns racked up in 2012. For those who aren’t billion dollar candidates, it’s hard to compete.

That’s a nice message, but optimism isn’t entirely the reason for his withdrawal: The presidential hopeful simply ran out of money.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry also learned this lesson—after becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to drop out of the race. Although Super PACs like Opportunity and Freedom PAC had accumulated $13 million in order to gradually roll out a detailed campaign plan for Perry, it quickly found itself redirecting funds to Perry’s field operations in Iowa, after the candidate fell below fundraising expectations. When even that wasn’t enough to improve Perry’s fortunes and he withdrew from the race, the Super PACs were forced to refund the money to their donors.

As Yoni Appelbaum of the Atlantic points out, many observers assumed that Super PACs would fundamentally transform the dynamic of presidential elections by allowing wealthy benefactors to prop up their favorite candidates—even if they’d run out of money.

Subsequent events have revealed a couple of problems with this assumption. As already discussed, there are limits to what Super PAC money can pay for in a campaign. Whereas “hard money”—that is, funds acquired directly from individual donors up to the $2,700 limit—can be used for any legitimate campaign expenses, Super PAC funds can only pay for things like television ads.

Although the Perry and Walker campaigns apparently hoped they could use positive advertising to offset their lack of funds for field expenses, political realities quickly demonstrated that this was not the case.

In addition, because Super PACs are legally prohibited from working too closely with the campaigns they’re meant to help fund, candidates are in a catch-22 when it comes to staffing them: If they ask their savviest and most trusted advisers to helm these operations, they forfeit the services of their best talent. But if they don’t assign such individuals to take charge of their Super PACs, they run the risk that the organization might develop an independent streak—instead of serving their own interests.

For those who aren’t billion dollar candidates, it’s hard to compete.

As Molly Ball observed in The Atlantic, this proved particularly problematic for Walker, whose Super PAC was run by Keith Gilkes (who ran Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor and his 2012 recall effort) and Stephan Thompson (who ran the governor’s reelection campaign in 2014). Because Gilkes and Thompson were no longer able to communicate with Walker himself, the governor had to rely on a new slate of top advisers. The result was an embarrassingly mismanaged campaign replete withwidely publicized gaffes that left his political brand in tatters.

There are two takeaways from this. The downfall of Perry and Walker demonstrates that—instead of Super PACs allowing the super-rich to even further game our political system–there are limits to how far a candidate can go without broader popular support. “There is something democratic about grass-roots, widespread money support,” explained former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “There is something anti-democratic about… propping up a candidate who can’t make it.”

At the same time, it says a great deal about our political system that Walker and Perry were so dependent on large sums of money in the first place. For one, it demonstrates that our election season is broken—increasingly long and bloated, with a high barrier both to entry and to remain in the race. Whereas underdog candidates used to regularly upset the race, it is now exceedingly rare for anyone who isn’t an early frontrunner to outlast the first few primary or caucus elections.

In the 2012 race, GOP candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn’t peak until months into the race, while Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) wasn’t able to mount a real challenge to Romney—the assumed frontrunner—until that January. If that were the 2016 contest, neither of them would have lasted long enough to ever pose a threat.

Our election season is broken—increasingly long and bloated, with a high barrier both to entry and to remain in the race.

While presumptive nominees and candidates with built-in name recognition inevitably benefit from this system, it discriminates against lesser-known alternatives by denying them the capital they’d need to become competitive. If you start out out in last place, it means you’re likely to stay there.

If the odds are stacked against true outsiders—those who don’t have Donald Trump’s massive net worth or campaign war chest—the public is taking notice. According to a New York Times poll taken last June, 84 percent of Americans believe money has too much influence in politics. While 77 percent Americans additionally want to limit the amount that individuals and private groups can give, politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) support the public funding of elections. “The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive issue. It is not a conservative issue,“ Sanders has said. “It is an American issue.”

He’s right: This isn’t about polling numbers or whether you support Rick Perry or Scott Walker; it’s about the state of politics in 2015. A true democracy cannot exist if presidential candidates are being defeated by their checkbooks instead of at the ballot box.

Voters are already sick of the election—and it’s not just because of Trump

Photo via Gage Skidmore (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman
Photo via Gage Skidmore (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Published: The Daily Dot (August 14, 2015)

Does anyone care that our election cycles are getting increasingly longer? If the Republican National Committee is to be believed, then the answer is no. Despitepledging at the beginning of the year to limit the number of presidential debates that it would allow during the 2016 election season, Nancy Reagan will be hosting yet another presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Sixteen candidates will be participating in the September 16 event, with CNN moderating the event. Consider the Internet warned.

“It’s no mystery why things have shifted forward as they have,” explained Alec MacGillis of Slate. He cited the “tendency in the political media to look ahead to the next presidency instead of having to bother with the dregs of this one,” as well as the logistics of financing a modern presidential campaign and the major parties’ desire to resolve the nomination contest as quickly as possible. What’s the problem with that? It’s simple: By extending the length of our presidential elections, we are making them more expensive for the candidates—and less engaging for the voters.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, historian Michael Barone also attributed this problem to “the presidential nominating process, the weakest part of our political system.” Until the mid-20th century, candidates had been chosen at national conventions by delegates sent there from the state party committees since the 1830s, meaning that no one knew for certain who the actual “frontrunners” were until the assemblies actually took place in the summer before Election Day.

As primaries began to replace national conventions as the method through which presidential nominees were chosen, however, the process naturally lengthened—first to incorporate the immediate weeks before the first primary contest, and then, over time, the months of anticipation over how those primary elections would turn out.

By extending the length of our presidential elections, we are making them more expensive for the candidates—and less engaging for the voters.

Of course, if the only downside of longer presidential election cycles was a proliferation in the quantity (though certainly not quality) of our debates, it wouldn’t necessary be worth writing about. That said, the debates are merely one symptom of this larger problem.

“Lengthy campaigns have at least three harmful results: the candidates are exhausted; campaign costs skyrocket; and the public becomes bored,”found an academic study led by Stephen E. Bennett of the University of Cincinnati. Political experts are already predicting that the 2016 presidential election could cost up to $5 billion, more than doubling the cost of the 2012 presidential election campaign. Even though not a single election has been held or ballot cast, we’ve already seen one candidate (former Texas governor Rick Perry) forced to stop paying his campaign staffbecause of the exorbitant cost of maintaining a viable operation.

And the river flows both ways: Just as the length of the election season makes campaigning more expensive, the amount of money being poured into political campaigns increases; the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling—which prohibits restrictions on independent political expenditures by SuperPACs—virtually guarantees that our elections will be longer. Because contributors want to maximize their influence, they have an incentive to donate as early and often as possible.

Another issue with the length of campaigns is that they distort the public’s perception of which candidates actually have a realistic chance of being nominated.

“Twelve years ago, in August 2003, Joe Lieberman led in most polls of the Democratic primary,” explained expert pollster Nate Silver on his blog FiveThirtyEight.com. “Eight years ago, in August 2007, Rudy Giuliani maintained a clear lead in polls of Republicans, while Hillary Clinton led in polls of the Democratic nomination contest.”

Even though Lieberman didn’t win the Democratic nomination in 2004, and the 2008 election wound up being a legendary contest between Barack Obama andJohn McCain rather than a Clinton-Giuliani match, the media has been ignoring this history and treating Donald Trump as the presumptive GOP frontrunner in 2016.

The problem here is that it’s easy for controversial candidates to do well in national polls within their parties so long as there is a diverse field opposing you. As Silver notes, “you can overwhelmingly lose the majority in the referendum—75 percent of Republicans are not voting for Trump—and yet still hold the plurality so long as the “no” vote is divided among a sufficient number of alternatives.”

Just as the length of the election season makes campaigning more expensive, the amount of money being poured into political campaigns increases.

Once actual elections are held and the field begins to shrink, however, those fringe candidates suddenly need to win over moderate voters, a challenge that has so far been insurmountable in the modern political era. This detail provides crucial context in explaining the Trump surge—but the Internet is viewing the surge as a legitimate political phenomenon, rather than an inevitable byproduct of basic arithmetic.

Finally, as the study by Bennett noted, it leads to voter fatigue—especially in an Internet era where political discourse is more omnipresent than ever. Anyone who makes a point of keeping up with American politics has noticed that their loved ones, colleagues, and even casual strangers will remark on Facebook about how they are “over” the election—long before the fateful Tuesday in November rolls around.

Indeed, as FairVote.org has noted, the sheer number of American elections—gubernatorial, county, and municipal, as well as presidential—likely contributes to voter fatigue in its own right. When combined with the fact that presidential contests (which receive far more attention than any other kind of election held in this country) are becoming increasingly drawn out, it stands to reason that voter exhaustion with the political bombardment will only deepen.

This was something that the Republican National Committee took into account in 2013, when it announced that the “number of debates should be reduced by roughly half”—because they didn’t want voters getting weary of their candidates. Chairman Rance Priebus further noted, “We just can’t have MSNBC, you know, hosting a debate at the Reagan Library, only to have their network comment—you know, make the commentary afterwards for three hours about the debate of the Republican Party. I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

That quote could be considered ironic in light of the Reagan Library’s forthcoming debate, but considering the sideshow that this year’s race is already becoming, it’s only appropriate. The 2016 campaign might be a circus, but nearly a year and a half from now, hardly anyone will be laughing at these clowns.

3 things Americans need to do if they’re sick of money in politics

Published: Daily Dot (June 12, 2015)

A new Iowa group wants to teach the Internet about the evils of money in politics. Called “Iowa Pays the Price,” the Washington Times reports that “the group plans to spend about $500,000 on an educational campaign that will include social media and online videos.”

However, the Internet seems to already share the sentiment. Last week, a comprehensive survey by the New York Times discovered that 85 percent of Americans support campaign finance reform. A whopping 84 percent of the respondents argued that “money has too much influence” in politics today, and 66 percent believe the wealthy have more influence on the political process than ordinary Americans.

That said, although Americans would support measures like limiting the amount of money individuals and groups can contribute to political campaigns (77 to 78 percent) or requiring third-party groups to disclose the identities of their donors (72 percent), 58 percent believed these kinds of reforms aren’t likely to happen.

The main takeaway from these polls is that, while Americans want to find a way of getting big money out of politics, they aren’t entirely sure how to make that happen. This can be gleaned not only by their overwhelming pessimism, but by the fact that national politicians have spent years promising to implement meaningful campaign finance reform, only to allow the issue to fade from public consciousness once they’re actually elected.

As campaign finance reform picks up steam on Twitter and bipartisan groups push solutions to the issue, the push to #GetMoneyOutofPolitics is becoming one of the defining issues of the 2016 campaign. Here are three things Americans need to do if they’re serious about getting money out of politics.
1) They need to encourage their politicians to pass the many common sense campaign finance bills that have been proposed in the past

When the Tea Party forced our government to shut down a couple years ago, they inadvertently demonstrated that grassroots campaigns can overpower the desires of moneyed interest groups. After all, Wall Street was fiercely opposed to the shutdown, as were most Americans who didn’t share the Tea Party’s extreme right-wing fiscal agenda. Yet even though politicians too often vote with their pocketbooks, the Tea Party had repeatedly demonstrated its electoral power to Republican legislators. As a result, these politicians were receptive to demands that they would have otherwise ignored at their wealthy backers’ say so.

Unfortunately, when it comes to issues that would actually curb the political power of the super-rich—as opposed to simply hurting the economy, which was all a government shutdown accomplished—Americans don’t exercise this same vigilance in monitoring their elected officials.

For example, last year Senate Republicans blocked the passage of a constitutional amendment (which had overwhelming support from that body’s Democrats) that would have allowed federal and state lawmakers to override recent Supreme Court decisions that overturned previous campaign finance reform laws (more on that in Point #2). Republicans justified this by arguing that the bill would have threatened First Amendment rights, a position that 54 percent of Americans’ reject.

Nevertheless, Republicans wound up handily triumphing in the 2014 midterm elections, which can be understandably interpreted as a sign that while Americans care about campaign finance reform, most can be sufficiently distracted from it on Election Day that they won’t punish politicians who block it.
2) They need to pay more attention to our Supreme Court judges

Although more than three out of four Americans want to limit the amount wealthy individuals and groups can spend on elections, they generally approve of how the Supreme Court is doing its job, even though the conservative majority on that bench has done everything in its power to allow the rich to continue controlling our political process.

The Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2010 made it legal for corporations and unions to spend as much money as they want on advertisements and other political tools to defeat specific candidates, provided only that they don’t donate that money directly to other candidates. In the McCutcheon vs Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2014, they declared the FEC’s biennial limit on campaign contributions was unconstitutional, effectively allowing single donors to spend as much as $3.5 million on candidates, PACs (Political Action Committees), and political parties.

While it would be bad enough if the problem was simply that five of our nine Supreme Court judges had an out-of-touch stance on this issue, the stench of corruption permeates their rulings on campaign finance reform.

A year after the Citizens United ruling, Common Cause (a liberal nonprofit group that focuses on creating more transparency in American politics) filed a petition with the Obama administration in 2011 that accused Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas of “participat[ing] in political strategy sessions, perhaps while the case was pending, with corporate leaders whose political aims were advanced by the decision.” They specifically pointed to a retreat hosted by Koch Industries, in which Scalia and Thomas were featured speakers, as well as the work of Thomas’ wife as founder and CEO of the conservative advocacy group, Liberty Central.
3) They need to find creative ways of using the Internet to empower less wealthy candidates

It is often forgotten that Americans have been using advances in technology to spread political ideals on the grassroots level since the days when our republic was in its infancy. Our national postal service, which was established in 1775 to facilitate communications during the Revolutionary War, became the most extensive in the world after President George Washington signed the Postal Service Act of 1792 into law. He did so in part to help ordinary citizens spread information and politically organize by sending political literature (usually newspapers and pamphlets) through the mail.

In this way, Washington joined many of his fellow founding fathers in believing that the government should help ordinary citizens avail themselves of the latest technological advances (in this case with the printing press, which had been used to great avail in spreading the ideals of the American Revolution) to become more active and empowered citizens.

Just as the postal service was the information superhighway of the late 18th and early 19th century, the Internet is the best vehicle for directly combatting the effects of money in politics today. It already has an equivalent of the Postal Service Act in the High-Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991, which created the National Information Infrastructure and is generally responsible for expanding public access to the Internet and launching the Internet boom of the 1990s. (Notably, its author was a young Senator from Tennessee named Al Gore.)

Numerous studies have found that the Internet has already radically transformed American politics, particularly by empowering ordinary individuals to express ideas and mobilize as never before, whether on the right (such as the Tea Party) or the left (such as the grassroots movement that elected and reelected Barack Obama).

Yet the medium is capable of doing so much more. At a time when the cost of campaigning has skyrocketed out of most Americans’ reach due to transportation and advertising needs, the Internet offers a fertile ground for potential candidates who don’t have the money to buy air time or personally stump from town-to-town. For that potential to be realized, however, Americans need to make a point of paying attention to Internet-only candidacies. Instead of clinging to old-fashioned notions of how politicking should occur (door-to-door canvassing, renting space to deliver speeches, etc.), they should recognize that making these practices a sine qua non for political success limits those without the financial means of doing them.

As such, they should be open to candidates who may only appear on their own websites or through YouTube videos. At a time when public financing of candidates and opening political debates to third parties are widely discussed as ways of curbing the power of big money in our bipartisan system—and not without good reason—it is disappointing that more creativity hasn’t been applied to tapping into the potential of a medium that could render traditionally-financed campaigns and televised debates obsolete altogether.

Thanks to The New York Times, we now know that most Americans support the ideals behind campaign finance reform. They want our democracy to be as open as possible and understand that the corrupting influence of big money is hindering that. To achieve these goals, however, they need to hold politicians and judges accountable for their decisions on issues related to campaign finance reform, as well as change their own way of viewing political campaigns.

Voting machine hack proves your ballot isn’t as safe as you think

Published: Daily Dot (April 18, 2015)

American democracy is quite literally under attack. Why aren’t we spending as much money as it takes to protect it?

According to a security review published by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency earlier this week, the electronic voting machines sold to that state (as well as Pennsylvania and Mississippi) by Advanced Voting Solutions “operate with a high level of risk.” Its administrator account, WiFi network, and voting results database were protected by easily guessable passwords; the AVS WINVote machines operated using Windows software that hadn’t received a security patch since 2004; and the WiFi network was encrypted with an algorithm so weak that most hackers can break it within minutes.

Make no mistake about it: Although news reports are required to mention that we don’t have proof election results were actually compromised in states with AVS WINVote machines, it would be naive to assume otherwise.

This isn’t even the first time that electronic voting machines were found to be insecure and woefully outdated. Back in 2008, private cybersecurity expert Ed Felten demonstrated that Sequoia Voting Machines could be hacked in seven minutes. Only four years before that, allegations arose that electronic voting machines made by Diebold in Ohio were fraudulently tilting that state to President George W. Bush.

This isn’t even the first time that electronic voting machines were found to be insecure and woefully outdated.

Needless to say, any hacker who was already inclined to tamper with election results in an electronic voting machine would have probably known in advance that they were very easy to crack. “If an election was held using the AVS WinVote, and it wasn’t hacked, it was only because no one tried,” observed Jeremy Epstein, a security expert who specialized in e-voting, in a post with Freedom to Tinker. “The vulnerabilities were so severe, and so trivial to exploit, that anyone with even a modicum of training could have succeeded.”

There is literally no way of knowing whether elections held in states with questionable voting machines were actually conducted honestly.

The revelations about Virginia’s voting machines is only the American government’s latest embarrassing cybersecurity incident. Last month, it was revealed that hackers (most likely Russian) managed to break into the White House and State Department networks, giving them access to sensitive information, such as the president’s schedule. This allowed them to “own” the State Department’s system for months.

Back in December, various cybersecurity experts called out the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ shoddy case for attributing the Sony hack to the North Korea, as that the evidence the FBI had released to the public was far from conclusive. Even earlier than that, the Syrian Electronic Army managed to hack into the systems of U.S. defense contractors (though not the American government itself), as well as those used by various European and Middle Eastern governments.

In response to developments such as these, Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan recently announced a major reorganization within his agency, from shifting departmental responsibilities to creating a Directorate of Digital Information to oversee the CIA’s expansive cybersecurity efforts. “Our ability to carry out our responsibilities for human intelligence and national security responsibilities has become more challenging in today’s digital world,” Brennan explained to Reuters. “And so what we need to do as an agency is make sure we’re able to understand all of the aspects of that digital environment.”

There is literally no way of knowing whether elections held in states with questionable voting machines were actually conducted honestly.

This brings us to one major policy change that could prevent this debacle from occurring: Because the hacking of voting machines poses a direct threat to America’s democratic institutions, agencies responsible for protecting national security should be charged with guaranteeing their integrity. The preservation of the ballot box should be considered as much of a national security priority as the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons at Los Alamos.

Indeed, it is an even higher priority—while currency and bombs can enrich or empower a democratic government, only sound voting practices can ensure that democracy itself is healthy.

Another option would be to return to paper ballots, punch cards, and mechanical lever machines. For all the grief caused during the 2000 presidential election over butterfly ballots and hanging chads, the fact that votes were tabulated on physical objects at least provided investigators with tangible materials to sift through.

As the revelations in Virginia have clearly illustrated, one of the biggest downsides of electronic voting is that it is impossible to ever know for sure after the fact whether the process in a given election was tainted. If there is anything that could undermine faith in American democracy more than certainty that an election was stolen, it would be the knowledge that elections are probably stolen all the time and we’d never be any the wiser. Although you can tamper with paper results, they are nothing if not immune to hacking.

Either way, it is absolutely essential that cybersecurity become a front-and-center issue in future elections. Ironically, this could benefit of one candidate in particular—Hillary Clinton, whose decision to create a personalized email as secretary of state suddenly seems a whole lot smarter than her critics might be willing to admit. While our future political leaders don’t need to be especially tech savvy, we should expect them to be ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying potential national security threats and protecting us from them.

When it comes to electronic voting, this will require them to think outside the box when it comes to preserving the integrity of our electoral process. What cannot continue is the overwhelming public indifference to this dilemma.

What John Oliver doesn’t understand about America’s justice system

Published: Daily Dot (February 24, 2015)

John Oliver’s eloquent rant about corruption from this weekend’s edition Last Week Tonight about the American judiciary has been going viral since the show aired Sunday night. “What he revealed was truly disturbing,” wrote Sarah Gray of Salon. Forrest Wickman of Slate echoed this sentiment, observing that “as a British immigrant, John Oliver has often demonstrated a knack for bringing fresh eyes to America’s absurdities. Kyle Whitmire of AL.com, an Alabama news website, captured the essence of this commentary with his proclamation that Oliver’s video “should be required viewing in pretty much any high school civics class.”

What revelation did Oliver present that could have such a powerful effect? Simply this: that although our judges “occupy an exalted position in American life,” to use Oliver’s own words, many of our jurists act no better than common politicians. This is all well and good on its own, but then Oliver goes on to say that America shouldn’t be electing its judges at all.

That is one step too far.

The first problem with this argument becomes apparent as soon as Oliver presents it: He never proves that judicial elections are responsible for the main problems he identifies. After explaining how Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is objectively wrong that the Supreme Court doesn’t have the authority to trump state courts (“that’s basically its job”), Oliver immediately blames Moore’s rise to the bench on the fact that “like 85 percent of state judges in America, he was elected.”

Because this is the last time he focuses on Moore in that segment, Oliver’s assertion that men like Moore—who has promised to block same-sex marriages in Alabama despite higher court mandate—rise to power because of elections is never substantiated. Indeed, upon further scrutiny, it becomes rather confusing: Is he implying that a judge appointed by politicians would be more likely to understand the Constitution than an elected one? Does he believe the electorate is more likely to anoint a judge with anti-gay prejudices than an executive and legislature? Is he implying that Moore’s election was somehow corrupt?

It is a bad sign that Oliver raises so many unanswered questions before his argument has moved past its first case-in-point, and the pattern of incomplete reasoning continues for the rest of the broadcast. He rattles off wonky statistics (“Thirty-nine states hold elections for judges and America is virtually alone in doing this”), analyzes how campaign fundraising can cause serious conflicts of interest (e.g., judges being more likely to rule in favor of contributors), and showcases a number of egregiously pandering, gimmicky, and/or dishonest campaign commercials. After briefly noting that appointing judges has imperfections of its own, he concludes by telling his viewers that “if we’re going to keep electing judges, we may have to alter our idea of what justice is.”

Again, Oliver’s reasoning is flawed because he doesn’t prove that this type of corruption is inextricably connected to the practice of electing judges. As such, his thesis is weakened by the fact that many infamous judicial scandals throughout American history have involved appointed judges; examples from the last few years include G. Thomas Porteous Jr. of Louisiana, Samuel B. Kent of Texas, and Federal District Judge Jack Camp.

It also overlooks the frequency with which blatant conflicts of interest influence judges as high up as the Supreme Court. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were heavily criticized for participating in a lavish political retreat hosted by billionaire conservative activist Charles Koch despite his opposition to campaign finance reform, which was under consideration in the landmark Citizens United ruling (Scalia and Thomas voted as Koch would have wanted them to). One year later, Thomas refused to recuse himself when Obamacare reached the nation’s highest bench, even though his wife was a paid lobbyist for interest groups that actively opposed health care reform (Thomas voted to overturn the bill).

Even when Oliver does identify a problem that is clearly linked to judicial elections, his claim still buckles upon closer inspection. Although Oliver is rightly horrified that judges are statistically more likely to vote against a criminal defendants’ appeal during election season, this isn’t entirely dissimilar from how appointed judges will misuse their power by attempting to shape electoral politics. The Supreme Court’s decision to award the 2000 presidential election to the Republican candidate in Bush v. Gore was so transparently partisan that Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent that “although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

Later, when Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four court liberals in upholding Obamacare, multiple sources reported that he was motivated not only because he felt the individual mandate was constitutionally sound (a position on which 19 of 21 constitutional scholars across political affiliations agreed), but out of concern that the conservative judges opposing the law were acting out of partisan rather than jurisprudential considerations.

None of this is meant to imply that Oliver was wrong for being outraged at the corruption and incompetence that run rampant in the American judicial system today. That said, as the above examples demonstrate, there are a number of root causes behind this problem. Foremost among them is the inordinate influence of money in every phase of our political process, including not only the purchasing of influence through election contributions but also through lobbying groups and political action committees.

In addition to that, there is the simple fact that judges appointed by politicians are just as likely to allow political considerations to unduly influence their decisions as those who have reelection campaigns to worry about. While the immediate incentives differ somewhat between a judge merely aiming to get reelected and one who angling to satisfy his or her partisan supporters, both pervert the notion of a blind and fair justice with their rulings.

The most important policy prescription for addressing this is comprehensive campaign finance reform. To do so, we must make it illegal for lawyers to donate to a judge’s campaign, while also barring judges from ruling on cases in which election fundraising considerations might cause a conflict of interest. Over time, however, Americans should also transition to providing publicly financed political campaigns for judges, so that an even playing field will remove the disproportionate power of big money over the candidates. Although these steps won’t entirely eliminate partisanship and other unfair bias among judges, they would certainly go a long way toward helping out.

Of course, the law can only do so much to address this type of crisis. The other part of the solution must be cultural rather than legal or political, and to its enormous credit, Oliver’s segment had the right idea on that front by raising awareness about the need for a higher standard of integrity among our judges. By oversimplifying the cause of judicial corruption by blaming it on elections, however, Oliver misdiagnosed the illness even as he performed a public service by identifying many of its symptoms.

Can We Learn Anything From Losers

Published: Good Men Project (January 13, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa looks for lessons in the lives and legacies of the presidential ‘Also Rans.’

___

I have looked by the way at what happens to anybody in this country who loses as the nominee of their party. They become a loser for life, alright?
—Mitt Romney, from the documentary, Mitt

___

There is something oddly poignant about the plight of America’s “Also Rans,” the 38 men throughout our history who were officially nominated as the presidential candidate of a major party only to lose in the general election. Of those 38, only nine were ever given a second chance by being renominated; and of those nine only four actually won in one of their subsequent attempts—Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William H. Harrison, and Richard M. Nixon. As Irving Stone put it in his classic biographical collection, “They Also Ran”:

… the curiosity about the new personality is gone, the novelty has worn off, the issues have changed. The electorate is fickle; it wants a new political romance with each election. Too many charges have been hurled by the opposition; the strength of the case against the candidate is known. Americans will root for the underdog at a prize fight or football game but not in a presidential race.

The other 34 are left with nothing but the ignominy of being forever remembered as—to use Romney’s own brutally perceptive description—“a loser for life.” As signs abound that Romney may try to shed his Also Ran status through another presidential bid in 2016, this would be a great time to glean what we can about the broader lessons we can learn from our nation’s other Also Rans.

  1.   Our legacies define not only how others view us as men, but how we view ourselves.

Of all the Also Rans who never became president, perhaps none was as fortunate as Samuel J. Tilden. One of only four Also Rans who won the popular vote while losing in the general election, he is also among only two who was never elected in a follow-up effort (the other being Al Gore). While Gore reacted to his defeat by becoming an advocate for climate change prevention (more on that in a moment), Tilden accepted the fact that he would never be president with a telling observation:

I can retire to private life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.

While this can be interpreted as a dry attempt at comedy, there is a certain sagacity to Tilden’s insight. After all, contemporary observers and future historians generally agree that Tilden was the victim of electoral fraud at the hands of his Republican opponents (who put Rutherford Hayes in the White House over him). As Tilden saw it, one of the emotional advantages of being president was knowing that you had been given the greatest “gift” that the American people could bestow upon one of its citizens. When he noted that he had been lucky to receive this gift while being spared any of its concurrent headaches, Tilden had a point.

Unfortunately for every other Also Ran (sans Gore), the American people’s gift was ultimately given to their sworn opponent, thus depriving them of the comfort that Tilden derived from his own outcome. This brings us to George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. One day he serendipitously encountered Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984. Both McGovern and Mondale had been defeated under very similar circumstances, losing by 49 out of 50 states and a 3-to-2 popular vote margin to Republican incumbents (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively). Naturally, Mondale asked McGovern how long it took to get over the pain of his loss. McGovern’s reply?

I’ll let you know when I get there.

This brings us to the next point…

  1.   Accept the pain of failure when it happens.

Not every Also Ran has ultimately overcome the pain of loss. The most conspicuous example of this is Horace Greeley, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1872, who actually went insane from the viciousness of the attacks made against him (which he felt caused his wife’s death during the campaign) and the devastation of his landslide loss to President Ulysses S. Grant. Before the Electoral College could even convene for the casting of ballots, Greeley had emotionally tortured himself into an early grave.

Of course, even Also Rans who don’t suffer as dramatically as Greeley can still be destroyed by the experience. Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1928, was so embittered by his misfortune at having been nominated in a year when the Republicans were bound to win (i.e., during the prosperity of the 1920s) that he nursed a lifelong grudge against the Democrat who was lucky enough to run against Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite laying the foundations for many of the programs that Roosevelt eventually implemented as president, Smith could never accept that fate had been so unkind to him, and consequently spent the rest of his career denouncing everything he had once supported out of envy for the man who was receiving primary credit for them.

The main difference between Greeley and Smith is that the former was unable to physically move beyond the intense emotions he felt during his own battle, while the latter moved past them in body but not in spirit. On both occasions, however, each man’s downfall occurred because he allowed his sense of failure to define how he viewed himself. Whether by dying or abandoning his own values, both proved unable to preserve the men they were when plunged into the abyss of defeat.

And what of the vast majority of people, who were neither as blessed in their failures as Tilden or as cursed as Greeley? Fortunately, there are hopeful examples for them to follow …

  1.   Be proactive in making sure that your failure doesn’t become the end of your story.

One strong thread ties all of the happiest Also Rans together: Despite knowing that they would never rank among America’s rarefied litany of presidents, each one found some way of continuing their personal journey after the votes had been counted.

Sometimes this happened through a single defining moment. Henry Clay, who along with William Jennings Bryan has the dubious distinction of losing in three general elections (1824, 1832, and 1844), mustered all of his considerable political skill toward staving off a civil war by throwing his weight behind the Compromise of 1850; Stephen Douglas, despite having been personal rivals with Abraham Lincoln (his Republican opponent in 1860) since they were youths, set aside his feelings and toured the South on his erstwhile nemesis’s behalf in a vain attempt to convince them not to secede; and Wendell Willkie, despite losing to Franklin Roosevelt in a very bitter campaign as the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, urged the large isolationist wing in his own party to back the president as he led America through World War II.

On other occasions, this has entailed returning to their roots. Charles Evans Hughes had resigned from the Supreme Court to accept the Republican presidential nomination in 1916, coming very close to actually defeating President Woodrow Wilson in the process. Despite his disappointment, Hughes wasted no time in returning to politics and the law; as such, when Chief Justice William H. Taft (the only former president to serve on the Supreme Court) passed away in 1930, Hughes was in an excellent position to be appointed as his successor. Similarly, John McCain has not only continued with his work in the Senate since losing to Obama, but has consistently supported hawkish foreign policy positions not only against a Democratic president, but even against members of his own party (including libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky). Having entered politics because of his passion for a muscular foreign policy, it is fitting that McCain should spend the end of his career fighting for those same values.

Then there are the Also Rans who managed to reinvent themselves … although even then, it was usually by tapping into their deeper passions. James G. Blaine, the Republican nominee in 1884, was appointed Secretary of State by President Benjamin Harrison and proceeded to launch a bold new direction in America’s foreign policy with Latin America. Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956, served under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, particularly distinguishing himself during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finally there is Al Gore, who had been ahead of the political curve in focusing on the perils of man-made global warming before running for president (or serving as vice president) and resumed that role after the success of his 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

♦◊♦

As these examples demonstrate, it is possible to overcome the agony of defeat. It isn’t even necessary to slough off the strong emphasis that American culture places on professional success. That said, one must avoid the pitfalls of bitterness and self-torture that can easily rise up after an ineffable and defining loss. Should Mitt Romney decide against running in 2016, or should he do so only to lose either the nomination or general election a second time, he would be well-advised to turn to his Also Ran counterparts for wisdom.

Footnote: This list obviously doesn’t include incumbent presidents who lost bids for another term in office or the four Also Rans who were elected on another try (Jefferson, Jackson, Harrison, and Nixon). The list starts with the election of 1804, after the passage of the Twelfth Amendment required presidential tickets to specifically designate which candidates were respectively running for president and vice president (confusion over this matter prompted an electoral college crisis during the 1800 election). It includes Charles Pickney (Federalist – 1804, 1808), DeWitt Clinton (Federalist – 1812), Rufus King (Federalist – 1816), Henry Clay (Democratic-Republican – 1824, National Republican – 1832, Whig – 1844), Lewis Cass (Democrat – 1848), Winfield Scott (Whig – 1852), John C. Fremont (Republican – 1856), Stephen A. Douglas (Democrat – 1860), George B. McClellan (Democrat – 1864), Horatio Seymour (Democrat – 1868), Horace Greeley (Democrat/Liberal Republican – 1872), Samuel J. Tilden (Democrat – 1876), Winfield S. Hancock (Democrat – 1880), James G. Blaine (Republican – 1884), William J. Bryan (Democrat – 1896, 1900, 1908), Alton B. Parker (Democrat – 1904), Charles E. Hughes (Republican – 1916), James M. Cox (Democrat – 1920), John W. Davis (Democrat – 1924), Alfred E. Smith (Democrat – 1928), Alfred M. Landon (Republican – 1936), Wendell L. Willkie (Republican – 1940), Thomas E. Dewey (Republican – 1944, 1948), Adlai E. Stevenson (Democrat – 1952, 1956), Barry M. Goldwater (Republican – 1964), Hubert H. Humphrey (Democrat – 1968), George S. McGovern (Democrat – 1972), Walter F. Mondale (Democrat – 1984), Michael S. Dukakis (Democrat – 1988), Robert J. Dole (Republican – 1996), Albert A. Gore (Democrat – 2000), John F. Kerry (Democrat – 2004), John S. McCain (Republican – 2008), and Willard “Mitt” Romney (Republican – 2012).

Observations from the primary campaign trail

Published: The Morning Call (June 16, 2014)

After more than two years as a political columnist for PolicyMic and other publications, I made the decision last month to undertake a career hiatus and work as the Northampton County field organizer for Tom Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign.

Although I knew this would probably be a temporary position, I embraced it not only to help the Democrats nominate the strongest possible candidate for governor but also to learn more about what it’s like to work at politics at the ground level — locally, where our elected leaders have the most immediate and direct impact on our lives.

Now that the Democratic primary is over and my position with Wolf has ended, I figured it would be fun to share three observations that apply to anyone — regardless of party or ideology — for whom professional politics is his line of work.

•1. You’re surrounded by idealists.

It is a quintessentially American impulse to dismiss those who work in politics as untrustworthy scum; one could expect little else from a nation that traces its genesis to a literal Declaration of Independence from a despotic monarch. There is some truth to this assumption, of course, as any glance at our daily headlines will quickly reinforce.

At the same time, one side of our political life that doesn’t receive much attention — mainly because it doesn’t sell papers — is the fundamental decency that is prevalent among its professionals. Sure, politics has more than its fair share of scoundrels and idiots, but a surprising number of your colleagues are intelligent, well-informed, and … well, kind of noble.

What else would you call the decision to work seven days a week, often for 10-12 hour days, making a quarter of what you could conceivably make in the legal or corporate world? Yes, many of them are also ambitious (a trait hardly limited to the political arena), but just as many aren’t, and both the ambitious and the humble have chosen a low-paying workaholic lifestyle because they want to devote their careers to a cause they believe is important. Left wing, right wing, centrist or radical, these men and women are reminders that in its own quiet way, civic duty is still alive and thriving.

•2. Voter nonparticipation is your main job complaint.

While I can’t speak for all political professionals on this one, I can say without hesitation that I grew to resent nonvoters far more than the ones who simply didn’t agree with me. Although interactions with people of opposing partisan and/or candidate loyalties could be unpleasant, they were still passionately participating in the same process to which I was devoting so much of my time, energy and money.

Nonvoters, on the other hand, were the worst. They were not only more likely to be disrespectful when I contacted them or to flake after committing to volunteer (both the biggest pains insofar as the requirements of my job were concerned) but also more likely to display a self-destructive attitude.

You see, for people who work in politics, their job is at its core a numbers game –— figuring out how to make sure their candidate and party get more votes than the opponents. If a citizen told me that he or she didn’t vote, I was professionally obligated to stop concerning myself with that person’s needs and opinions since they could literally do nothing to help or hurt my candidate.

This was especially upsetting when it would be someone who was poor or suffering from some form of injustice who would directly benefit if they and others like them were more involved but who, by their own choice, were invisible to the powers that be.

•3. You develop a sense of your (infinitesimally small) place in history.

Elections do matter. In this one, for instance, Democrats are trying to oust Republican Tom Corbett, one of the most unpopular governors in the nation, despite the fact that no Pennsylvania governor has ever lost a bid for re-election.

Throughout the nation, Republicans are trying to ride a tidal wave of optimistic expectations to success in the 2014 midterm elections, while Democrats are hoping to stave off, if not reverse, Republican gains. When you get involved, you play a part in making this history, no matter how small your role might seem to be.

As Robert Kennedy famously put it: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”