Question 1 and the future of democracy

By John Buell

Why is Question 1 on the November ballot so timely now?

Several converging developments in local, national and international politics make this issue one of the most significant Maine voters have confronted since the Supreme Court’s unfortunate Citizens United decision. Standard textbooks portray our political history as the steady march toward a one-person, one-vote norm.

Yet at every point in our history, gains have been precarious and often subject to total or partial reversal. Even the meaning of one person, one vote has been contentious. To a range of American reform movements, including late 19th-century Populists, labor activists and ‘60s social movements, democracy meant more than a formal right to vote. It required an equal right to participate in and shape the course of political debate.

Participatory democracy in this broad sense – of political, not just voting, equality – might be seen as a fragile flower beset by a pincer movement from above and below. Post-Civil War enfranchisement of African American former slaves was soon undermined by a vicious post reconstruction campaign of law and outright violence. Eighteenth century exclusions of the poor were reversed during the Republic’s early history. The right to vote was extended to women early in the 20th century. Nonetheless, some of those advances are now being assaulted.

In a work published just after the 2000 election, Duke University historian Alexander Keyssar effectively challenged the conventional, triumphalist view of voting’s history. “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States” makes it hard to believe that the tortuous voting technology, convoluted registration procedures and long lines to vote faced by poor and minority communities in Florida, Ohio and elsewhere are entirely accidental.

Thus complex voter ID laws are enacted, ostensibly premised on purported voter fraud. Yet advocates of these laws struggle to find even single instances of its occurrence. Nor can one view these hurdles as based merely on a misguided concept of fairness. If the sanctity of voting laws were the real issue, equal attention to voters improperly denied the right to vote should merit concern.

From its inception, American democracy has been torn by competing conceptions of political rights. One school holds voting to be a privilege accorded only to those whose education and/or wealth renders them fit and sufficiently independent to make sound political judgments. The opposing view holds that voting is a universal human right and that any sentient person can understand his or her interests, and those of the broader community, well enough to vote.

The latter perspective is more salient in our celebratory histories and media self-portrayals. But part of the genius of Keyssar is to illuminate the many sub rosa incursions of the aristocratic concept of democracy.

Even in the 1930s, the U.S. saw a sizable movement to disenfranchise welfare recipients on the grounds they would be puppets of the purported dictator, Franklin Roosevelt. Throughout our history, concerns about the “quality” of voters – often coupled with efforts by various parties to gain temporary advantage – have led to subtle means of limiting the vote in various locales.

Some 1930s corporate and academic leaders, inspired by Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, regarded any attempt by reform movements to discipline corporate abuses or break up monopoly power as a step toward tyranny. They openly professed their disdain for democracy. Internationally today, some European leaders, including Germany’s finance minister, profess their contempt for democracy. The interests of finance must override all other concerns. International trade negotiations are conducted in secret, and their provisions can trump domestic agendas.

The aristocratic concept of democracy is alive here in the U.S. as well. Even if U.S. corporate conservatives are not so explicit, their objective is the same – assure that government serves the interests of entrenched corporate power and established wealth. And the best way to do this is to allow the wealthy an unlimited voice while making it disproportionately hard for poor and minority voters even to vote, let alone to have equal access to the a broad spectrum of political expression.

As the referendum on Question 1 approaches, Maine has much that it can be proud of, but more still to accomplish. Same day registration and other inclusive voting laws have helped make Maine among the leaders in voter participation and an example to other states.

Maine also has been a leader in advancing broader political equality with the Maine Clean Election Act.

A “yes” vote on 1 preserves and advances our leadership on money in politics, helps insure that elected officials are accountable to all of us, not just wealthy donors, and supports a concept of political equality that gives us a government of, by and for all the people.

John Buell is a columnist for the Progressive Populist and lives in Southwest Harbor.