Democracy in California just took a huge leap forward. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed our state’s new "Motor Voter Program," a law that could put millions of unregistered Californians onto the voter rolls. Co-authored by Democratic Assemblymembers Lorena Gonzalez, Luis Alejo and Kevin McCarty, and championed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the "California Motor Voter Program" requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to electronically enroll residents with a driver’s license or state identification card once they have been identified as eligible to vote. Eligible Californians have the choice to opt out of being registered during a specific period of time. California joins Oregon as the second state in the nation to adopt a "motor voter" program.
Unlike Oregon’s law, however, California’s "motor voter" program is not a true automatic voter registration system, since residents still must confirm to the DMV eligibility and they have the option to opt out. And neither state’s program is true universal automatic voter registration, where the government registers every citizen at birth and the right to vote is activated at 18 (no having to interact with a specific agency) - something other advanced democracies already do. Still, with ―motor voter‖ and our already-in-place online registration system, California is streamlining the way we vote by minimizing the need for filling out a paper form and saving money (and trees!) at the same time.
Gov. Brown also recently signed into law bills expanding same-day registration to the days leading up to Election Day, requiring most municipalities to align their local elections to coincide with state and federal elections in even-numbered years, and allowing legal permanent residents who are 16 and 17 years of age to serve as poll workers. All of these reforms aim to increase voter turnout, thereby strengthening democracy in California. And the more people participate in the political process, the more equitably resources are shared and all our rights are better protected.
Unfortunately, in other states dominated by Republican legislatures, voting rights are being quickly rolled back through restrictive voter identification laws, cut backs to early voting, and curtailing voter registration efforts. This is anti-democratic behavior. But then, that’s the point: to keep disfavored groups (the poor, people of color) from accessing the benefits of citizenship. Decades ago, California was a right-wing state — birthplace of the anti-tax movement, aggressive, ―tough on crime‖ measures, and anti- immigrant sentiment. But demographic changes have rendered those attitudes far less popular. We’re undoing the damage done by the reactionaries in the past. With millions more Californians soon to be added to the voter rolls, the changes could be even more dramatic.
Twenty fifteen has been a bloody year. As I write this, we’ve had nearly 300 mass shootings occur since January, according to a Washington Post graphic that went viral. The latest tragedy just took place at a college in Oregon, where the killer took the lives of nine people and injured nine before being killed himself in a shootout with police.
It’s now become a numbingly regular and morbid ritual. The armed perpetrator - usually young, white and male - massacres people in a public place. The media punditry wonders if mental illness is involved. The President makes a statement condemning the killings and demands Congress pass gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association makes a statement saying guns shouldn’t be blamed, and besides, we need more guns to protect us. People hand-wring over what to do — or insist that nothing can be done. And so, no new national laws are passed. The current tragedy recedes into memory, and people go on with their lives. Then the cycle repeats itself with the next massacre.
America is now the mass shooting capital of the world. A University of Alabama study released in August asserts that the combination of extremely high levels of gun ownership, Americans’ obsession with fame, and the gap between Americans’ expectations of themselves and actual achievement creates a uniquely toxic environment for mass shootings. Then add to that the tens of thousands of single instances of gun violence: domestic disputes, robberies, gang warfare, suicide, the killings of unarmed people by law enforcement.
So why do we keep coming back here again and again? States that have stricter gun laws have fewer firearms deaths than those with looser regulation, but guns still cross state lines, making this a national problem. National legislation is needed, but that hasn’t been possible. We need to confront some hard truths. Some on the left like to point to Australia as a model on how stricter gun regulation can be achieved at the national level after a mass shooting. They say that Australia has a similar frontier history and love of guns, but that did not stop the country from enacting stricter gun laws in a speedy 12 (!) days. Yet, they fail to acknowledge that in Australia, everyone is required to vote. Moreover, Australia, unlike the United States, has a parliamentary system, where the party in power (or a coalition of parties) has total control of the government and opposition parties cannot veto legislation. The makeup of the U.S. Congress is among the most mal- apportioned legislative bodies in the world, meaning sparsely populated states - the ones that tend to be rural, majority white and more supportive of looser gun regulation - have greater political power than more populated states with more urban constituencies, like California. How Congress is currently organized hasn’t changed much from 1776. It’s archaic and anti-democratic.
Second, folks need to learn the real history behind the Second Amendment — not the fake one we’re taught as propaganda. The amendment was not generally created to ―protect citizens from the tyranny of the federal government. It was added to guarantee that southern plantation owners could raise ―militias‖ to quell slave revolts without interference from the feds. In other words, the Second Amendment was created to preserve the Union by protecting slavery. That’s not something to be proud about, let alone express endless support for.
Third, Americans need to get real about the disconnect between the high expectations of themselves and actual low social mobility in the U.S. Our national drive to be better than everyone else at everything has created much innovation and wealth beyond belief. At the same time, endless optimism and competition, - but falling short of what is expected - is killing the psyche. Some humility is in order. The reality of economic inequality has made the ―American dream come crashing down to Earth. Many who thought they were immune to hardship by virtue of their privileges or a lifetime of working hard, are finding out how precarious life really is in a country with such a thin safety net.
So Jeb Bush thinks Americans just aren’t working hard enough. In a recent newspaper interview, the GOP presidential candidate, former Florida governor, and silver-spoon holder, criticized President Obama’s proposal to expand overtime protection to 5 million American workers, saying that “People are going to have to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families.” Seriously, Jeb?
To the contrary, Americans work plenty. According to the Organization (OECD), Americans worked an average of 1,789 hours last year, higher than the OECD average of all countries surveyed. And still, our wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years even though our productivity has actually increased. Speaking of wages, Donald Trump, noted trust fund recipient and current (for the time-being) GOP front-runner, believes that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is just fine at that level and “not a bad thing for this country.” So says a guy who has never had to, and likely never will have to, survive on $7.25.
And then, there’s Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who gets handsomely rewarded with campaign cash as chief lackey to the billionaire Koch Brothers, all the while bashing unions as “special interests” and comparing them to ISIS. I could probably go on - there are more than a dozen Republicans vying for the White House at this point - but it would take more room than I have in our newsletter to outline all the ways these candidates disrespect the value of most people who have to work for a living (and downright disparage people who can’t find jobs).
The sad thing is that these people even have an audience for their retrograde attitudes toward the working class. A lot of that audience includes members of the working class. Some are even in unions. America’s confused relationship with laborers and the idea of whose work is valued goes a long way toward explaining why our nation’s workers are so ill-treated compared with the rest of the developed world. America was built on the exploited labor of African people. Then, came the exploited labor of the poor - black and white - and of immigrants. Post- New Deal and post-World War II, the value of workers rose and they gained new rights that resulted in the middle class boom that lasted until the 1980s.
Today, we are in a new era of exploitation: of unpaid internships that look a lot like full-time jobs; of uncompensated overtime; of contract workers and temps; of outright wage theft. We’re a society where workers are expected to be on- call during what little vacation time they get, and a society where many don’t get vacation at all. We stand out as the only country in the industrialized world that doesn’t mandate paid vacation or maternity leave. At the same time, Americans identify themselves through their work; the first question one is always asked at a social gathering is not “What are your favorite hobbies,” but “What do you do?” And the idea of “working hard” as much as one can to achieve success, is seen as a badge of honor - no matter the consequences to one’s health and family life. The idea of working in our country is valued, but the act of laboring - outside that of the corporate executive - isn’t so much valued. So every September, we mark Labor Day with barbecues and shopping and beach-going, while the original reason for the holiday - a celebration of the achievements of the labor movement - lies mostly forgotten.
August 11, 2015
A few months ago, I got into an argument on Twitter with a right winger over voting and taxes. I was watching MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry’s show and one segment was about felon disfranchisement. I posed this question to my Twitter followers: "Should people who have paid their debt to society still be taxed if they aren’t allowed to vote?" This question immediately attracted said right winger, who answered, "Yes." We got into a short back-and-forth, which I won’t elaborate here, but the crux of his belief was that if a person didn’t want their rights taken away, they shouldn’t commit a crime. Never mind that many people, black Americans especially, have been railroaded by our criminal justice system. Whatever happened to "no taxation without representation?"
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, but the celebrations are tempered by the United States Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the landmark legislation. Despite what the majority of the justices in that case would have us believe, racism in the electoral process is still alive and well in America. Felon disfranchisement, which disproportionately impacts Americans of color, is one problem that is at the forefront of the current movement for voting rights. States have different laws regarding incarcerated people and voting, with the most draconian disfranchising for life people convicted of felonies, to the most lenient that allow people in prison to vote in all elections. California is in the middle, restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated after they have completed their sentence and parole.
Voting rights advocates tend to frame disfranchisement in moral terms: that it’s undemocratic to exclude people from participating in our democracy. But, getting back to my Twitter argument with the right winger, I wanted to frame the issue in terms I thought conservatives would understand: would they sympathize with an apparent anti-tax argument when it came to the formerly incarcerated? At least that right winger didn’t, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Because I posed the question to expose what, I think, was a big reason behind felon disfranchisement laws: to ensure that black Americans have little to no say in how our country’s resources - through taxes - are distributed. The right winger didn’t say anything about race, but he didn’t have to.
Ultimately, voting is about deciding if, when and how much to tax ourselves, where and on whom those dollars are spent. Racism is about animosity toward other groups, but it's also about economics — keeping disfavored groups at an economic disadvantage relative to one’s own group. What better way to take resources away from blacks and the poor, and redistribute them to whites and the affluent, by making certain behaviors criminal felonies, disproportionately targeting and arresting members of marginalized groups for those behaviors, and passing laws taking away those groups’ voting rights after conviction? Now, this may sound to some like tin-foil hat conspiracy theory, but it's no coincidence that the era of the Drug War, mass incarceration, and the right-wing anti-tax revolt began not long after President Lyndon Johnson signed the set of civil rights laws guaranteeing black Americans’ equal participation in U.S. democracy.