Power to the people – er, parties

If Libertarians had a dollar for every time someone said “You guys should start small…maybe run for city council or school board or something…” they could finance one helluva Presidential campaign.

In present-day U.S., however, such a campaign would be almost pointless.

That’s because since the Civil War era, the Democratic and Republican parties have had a stranglehold on the electoral system in this country. From the office of the President to both houses of Congress and as far down as school boards – maybe even dog catcher in some places – your choices are effectively limited to partisan Democrats or Republicans.

Monopoly: It’s great for parties!

Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey - 3D Icons
Elephants & Asses
(Credit: DonkeyHotey)

Sick of the dominant parties’ good ol’ boy networks and want to run for office (or support a candidate) without a partisan affiliation? Or perhaps you line up with the Libertarian, Constitution or Green party and want to carry their banner? Be prepared to put your day job on hold, ask several friends and family members to join you, and bring plenty of pens and paper. A big bank account may help…but don’t count on it.

That’s all because decisions of which candidates may appear on state and local ballots are left to each state, and their legislatures – comprised almost exclusively of Democrats and Republicans – have over the last dozen or so decades done quite well creating and maintaining job security. Requirements in Georgia, my current state of residence, are among the most onerous:

“Anyone who wants to run for county or district elected office has to get signatures from 5 percent of their prospective voters — people registered during the previous election. Getting on a statewide ballot, for governor or a U.S. Senate seat for example, would take about 58,000 signatures, 1 percent of Georgia’s registered voters.

“It’s illegal to pass the petition hand to hand at any kind of office or gathering; the candidate or their designate must witness every single pen stroke. Petitions must be on sheets of paper ‘of uniform size.’ Signers must be willing to give their address and must be careful to sign just as their voter access card is signed. Initialing the petition is not allowed, and the petition must be notarized.

“State Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, said he was told he cannot canvass in front of a grocery store because alcohol is sold inside. And an independent can only run for city office if that city has its own local law allowing it.”

Macon Telegraph – Georgia set to keep harsh ballot access law

The Telegraph story linked above covers a 2012 attempt to make signature requirement laws slightly more realistic, defining “prospective voters” as the number of likely voters rather than the number of registered voters. Not surprisingly, it died without ever coming to a vote.

Oopsie. Unintended consequences

Once we asked government to come in and take care of things for us, it was downhill from there:

“The 1880s reform movement that led to officially designed secret ballots had some salutary effects, but it also gave the government control over who could be on the ballot. As historian Peter Argersinger has pointed out, the reform that conferred power on officials to regulate who may be on the ballot carried with it the danger that this power would be abused by officialdom and that legislatures controlled by established political parties (specifically, the Republican and Democratic Parties), would enact restrictive ballot access laws to influence election outcomes to ensure re-election of their own party’s candidates.”

Wikipedia – Ballot Access

Boy were we dumb.

Sure, individual candidates can still lose, but Team R and Team D never lose. They pass the championship trophy back and forth as a majority of citizens’ decide they dislike one slightly less than the other in a given election, but when it comes to policy and power the only question is whether they get first choice or second. And then they all go out for beers afterward – y’know, for the sake of bipartisanship and whatnot.

The end of slavery…and the beginning of slavery light

Emancipation Memorial / Freedom's Memorial in ...
The Man still holds us down.
(Credit: jcolman)

As I write, Republicans and Democrats have controlled the U.S. for over 140 years. Less than a generation after the last non-Democrat (strictly speaking), non-Republican occupied the office of President, the two dominant parties began making and changing rules so only they could compete.

Maybe you’re a Republican or Democrat who thinks excluding other parties from the ballot is a good idea because your party’s candidates will potentially win fewer votes if people like another party’s candidate better. You yourself might even be more on board with another party’s ideology than what you see reflected in the actions of the party you typically choose. But God forbid having more choices on the ballot should result in “their” guy getting the most votes, or a win by a politically untested or label-free candidate.

Thing is, if you’re a Democrat or Republican, 99.8% of “your” guys suck and I am not talking about ideology (although some of that stinks too, it’s a separate issue). There are a few really decent people on the current political scene, but they are like a gallon of fresh water poured into a stagnant, leech-infested pond: we’d need tens of thousands more to do much good. The further away from local politics you get, the more likely you are to be dealing with career politicians and their more complicated level of suck. But if you think you can sit back and relax when it comes to local issues and politicians, sorry – no. City and county offices and school boards are where aspiring career politicians get their starts and also the only place you have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of making any kind of difference.

From local officials on up to the White House, the status quo has given us rules about yard sales and Sunday alcohol sales, restrictions on growing vegetables, prohibitions on drinking unpasteurized milk, endless, expensive and destructive wars, expensive, ineffective and violence-inciting drug policy, NDAA, the Patriot Act, costly but inferior health care, bank bailouts, bailouts of failing car companies, special deals and exemptions for some but not others, the largest expansion of government ever – I could go on. You can talk about reforming either or both of these parties until you’re blue (or red, as the case may be) in the face, and though there have been glimmers of hope here and there, the overwhelming evidence is against them doing anything any differently.

Motivation = 0

How is it that these people stay in power given their lousy track records? Well, Team D and Team R are the only two players in the league. There’s effectively nowhere else to go, and they know it. When there’s no competition you can boast about platforms and policy and have fabulous slogans, but at the end of the day you have no motive to do long-term good. All you have to worry about is not making any really big mistakes and you’ll win the next election. Since most of us are political bystanders, it’s not that hard. In 2010, the year we supposedly “threw the bums out,” we sent 85% of House members back for another term. One congressman was caught worrying aloud about Guam tipping over, and we sent him back to D.C., too. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, so we behave the same way – repeatedly – yet expect different results.

Nonpartisan? Not on their watch

The two-party lock creates problems at all levels because politicians worry about pleasing their political buddies instead of just their constituents. We saw this very recently in my area – twice.

Douglas County delegation to the Georgia State legislature
“Our” voice?

The first time was when our school board requested a switch to non-partisan status, as is its right under Georgia law. Some of the area’s state legislative delegation supported the move and others felt threatened by it. When push came to shove, enough of the delegation had decided they were opposed to it that the matter was dead. Are our kids better served when the board members representing them have to claim a party affiliation and duke it out in a primary contest to pick a party’s official candidate? Party designation helps education in our county – which is not among the upper echelons even for Georgia – how, exactly?

The second incident was a quieter but perhaps more insidious plot. According to one state senator, some constituents came to her and asked her to do something about the makeup of the elections board, which was comprised of a Democrat, a Republican and three members appointed by various local officials or entities. Her plan, which was scuttled by a Republican in the majority-Democrat delegation, would have not only increased the partisanship of the board by allowing each dominant party to select two members, but would have also invited in state control of the board by allowing the legislative delegation to select an appointee.

Stop kidding yourselves

The contest has been rigged for a long time. Most people keep playing along, perhaps justifying their votes in their minds by saying this Democrat is different, or this Republican isn’t like those other Republicans. Unless you have witnessed him or her rebuke their party, they’ll be vying for an ‘in’ spot, turning into little more than another cog in the political machine, eating our earnings and our liberties and spitting out cheap trinkets in return.

Human nature being what it is, I suppose that any person or group allowed exclusive rights and privileges would be extremely resistant – even combative – to efforts toward more equitable arrangements. This is a large part of why I think the situation is hopeless. There’s another side to this political equation that could be worked instead: We the people could declare our independence. This, however, seems similarly unlikely.

Then again, I never thought we’d see the Berlin Wall come down.

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