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William Rivers Pitt: Running on the Right to Vote

Running On The Right To Vote

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 22 September 2005

There are two kinds of people in American politics today: those who know our basic right to vote and have every vote counted is imperiled, and those who have no idea such a basic right is at risk.

Those who know our voting rights are at risk - from electronic touch-screen voting machines that use unverified software, offer no paper ballots, transfer data via modem to hackable mainframes, and are manufactured by companies whose officers are in the hip pocket of the GOP, and all this is just for starters - have gone to great lengths to inform the uninformed.

They have written books, started websites, done exhaustive research, and harassed elected officials from one side of the country to the other. There have been the occasional success stories, breakthroughs that give hope to those who see this as the single most important issue facing the country. More often than not, however, the back-and-fill of money politics sweeps away their legitimate concerns, and the problem continues to grow.

Enter John Bonifaz.

Those who have been following the slow demise of our right to vote will recognize that name. Bonifaz, a lawyer and constitutional scholar from Boston, is the founder of the National Voting Rights Institute (NVRI). Since 1994, NVRI and Bonifaz have been on the cutting edge of the defense of voting rights for all Americans. Bonifaz and NVRI were at the forefront of the fight to defend the Massachusetts Clean Elections law, which was overwhelmingly approved by the people but defunded by the threatened politicos in the state legislature. Bonifaz and NVRI won a landmark ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on this issue, forcing the state to provide the necessary funds to all qualified candidates running in the 2002 state elections.

Bonifaz and NVRI have also been fighting against the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that equated unlimited campaign money and spending as free speech. Their work on this has been aimed at defending mandatory campaign spending limits, public financing of elections, and other important campaign reforms.

More recently, Bonifaz threw himself completely into the fight for a recount of all votes cast in the overwhelmingly shady presidential vote in Ohio in 2004. An amazing number of complaints from voters, as well as reports of outright fraud by eyewitnesses, continues to stain the official outcome of that all-important vote. Bonifaz represented Libertarian and Green Party candidates Michael Badnarik and David Cobb in their ongoing legal challenge to this vote, and was able to bring John Kerry and John Edwards into the suit. We know today about what really happened in Ohio last November because of Badnarik, Cobb and John Bonifaz.

John Bonifaz is thinking about running for the office of Secretary of State for Massachusetts in the upcoming 2006 election.

He has formed an exploratory committee, and is seeking informed comment on whether or not he should do this. If he does choose to run, what is usually a quasi-invisible race in Massachusetts will become a race of national significance. The office of the Secretary of State is directly responsible for all elections within that state, right down to every detail. It is an incredibly important position. One of the main reasons our right to vote has been under such withering attack these last years is because of a successful nationwide campaign by conservatives to take over as many state and local offices as can be won.

If our right to vote is to be defended and preserved, the thinking goes, those who have helped this mess along must be pushed out of office. Massachusetts is but one state, and a liberal one at that, but Bonifaz's potential run could help set the stage for a nationwide push to take that office back. One may wonder what the Secretary of State's office in Massachusetts has to do with vote fraud in Ohio and elsewhere, how one small race in a relatively small state has anything to do with this national issue.

One answer to this, bluntly, is that the state of Massachusetts is in no way above the fray when it comes to the defense of voting rights. Several weeks ago, the federal government sued the city of Boston for breaching the codicils of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nearly ten percent of the Boston electorate was unable to vote or had great difficulty voting in the 2004 election.

These people were Hispanic, Chinese, Vietnamese, and the allegations state that no language assistance was provided to them as required by law. Worse, allegations of coercion and improper influence by poll workers were made by a number of people who found their ability to vote thwarted. The city last week submitted to federal oversight of the 2008 election, a humiliating and disgraceful moment in its history. "The right to vote," said Mr. Bonifaz regarding this, "does not speak any specific language." A portion of the responsibility for this debacle falls squarely on the shoulders of the current Secretary of State, one William Galvin.

A better reason why this race is nationally significant has to do with the state itself. Washington DC can call itself the capitol, but Boston lays rightful claim as the true seat of our democracy. Many of our most respected founders and statesmen came from Massachusetts, and the fundamental elements of America's governing principles flowed from that state to the rest of the nation. Many movements of national significance began in Massachusetts - a Boston newspaper called The Liberator helped inspire the abolitionist cause, and a bunch of guys from Boston tossed some tea into the drink to help start a revolution - so it is only fitting that a national movement to preserve our right to vote should blossom in that state.

Mr. Bonifaz has not yet decided to run, and a number of factors must come into focus before a decision is made. First and foremost, his exploratory committee must establish sound fundraising processes, and have to figure out early if the money will be there for a statewide campaign.

There is also the matter of the current Secretary of State, Mr. Galvin. Though Galvin's stewardship of this office has been significantly lacking, he has held the office for twelve years and has established a formidable statewide electoral machine. He has also managed to render the office itself invisible by hiding behind other state officials when the chips are down. Running against him for this office will be a huge challenge.

Rumor has it Galvin wants to run for governor. If he does, and the office becomes vacant, Bonifaz will reportedly only face a hard challenge from one Cam Kerry, brother of Senator John Kerry. This may prove to be a boon in the end - Galvin's locked-door leadership has made the run for this office a small affair in Massachusetts, but the appearance of the brother of the 2004 Democratic candidate will serve to raise the race's profile. Bonifaz may decide to run even if Galvin stays put, but the decision is far from made.

Should Mr. Bonifaz decide to run, his campaign will be centered around a Voter's Bill of Rights which he has compiled:

1. Count every vote

The right to vote is meaningless if we do not have our votes properly counted. We must ensure that every citizen's vote will be counted. This includes a guarantee of open and transparent elections with verified voting, paper trails, and access to the source codes for, and random audits of, electronic voting machines. It also includes a guarantee that we the people, through our government, will control our voting machines and not private companies.

2. Make voting easier

We should enact election day registration here in Massachusetts, removing the barrier of registration prior to Election Day. Six states have election day registration. They have a higher voter turnout in their elections and have no evidence of voter fraud. We should be encouraging greater participation in the political process, starting with election day registration. We should also ensure absentee voting for all, allow for early voting, and remove other barriers that make it difficult for people to vote.

3. End the big money dominance of our electoral process

In a democracy, public elections should be publicly financed. In Maine and Arizona, publicly financed elections have enabled people to run for office who would never have dreamed of running under a system dominated by big money interests. We, as voters, need to own our elections, rather than having the process controlled by the wealthy few. We also need to enact mandatory limits on campaign spending. In 1976, the Supreme Court wrongly struck down mandatory campaign spending limits for congressional elections. A federal appeals court in New York has recently revisited that decision and ruled that campaign spending limits in Vermont can be constitutional. Massachusetts should help lead the way with campaign spending limits for our elections.

4. Expand voter choice

Instant run-off voting, Cross Endorsement Voting (Fusion voting), Proportional Representation.

5. Ensure access for new citizens and language minorities

6. Level the playing field for challengers

Redistricting reform, end discriminatory at-large voting, elections must be about competition.

7. Ensure that the Secretary of the Commonwealth is a non-partisan elected official

A Secretary for all of us, regardless of party affiliation; ensuring the people's trust in the integrity of our elections.

8. Make government more accessible to all of us

Democracy is not just about our participation on Election Day. We need to participate every day and our government needs to be accessible to us every day.

9. Re-authorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Continue the fight to protect the right to vote and to end voting disenfranchisement schemes.

10. Amend the US Constitution to ensure an affirmative right to vote

His platform, like this potential race, is worthy of national attention. If Bonifaz decides to run, the race will almost certainly get that attention because of the millions who know of the threat to our basic right to vote. This one is worth watching. Look for a final decision to be made roundabout November.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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