Politics

THE CAMPAIGNING for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens – people who are eligible to vote but don’t.
Over the years, a fair number of people I’ve encountered have confessed that they do not vote – and I often surprise them by pressing them on why they don’t. They give a multitude of reasons. The most common is that they’re too busy or that voting takes too much time.
Plenty also say they’re turned off by politics, politicians and anything having to do with government. “What difference does it make?” they’ll ask. Or they’ll argue that money has so corrupted the political system that they want no part of it.
There are also legitimate reasons – some people were ill or disabled, they didn’t know where to vote, or their polling place was hard to reach. Sometimes they didn’t meet their state’s registration deadline – which might be a month ahead of the election – or they ran into ID requirements that stymied them. On the whole, it didn’t take much to keep them away from the polling place.
Which, for many policymakers, is of little concern. Some don’t worry about low voter turnout; they’re more focused on making sure voters are informed. Others are pushing to make it more difficult for eligible voters to vote, since their chief concern is to protect the integrity of the ballot and reduce fraud.
Still, plenty are deeply concerned about falling rates of voter participation – the 2014 elections saw the lowest turnout rate since 1942, according to United States Election Project, which found that a mere 35.9 per cent of the voting-eligible population cast ballots.
They’re concerned because voting doesn’t just put office-holders in place and push policy in one direction or another. It also confirms the value of the electoral system. When people don’t vote, they undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of our representative democracy. The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen.
So what do we do about it?
My first recommendation is actually a note of caution. Generally speaking, Democrats have emphasized making ballot access easier; Republicans have focused on ballot integrity. Both need to be addressed if we’re to build the legislative support necessary to achieve needed changes in our electoral system. We have to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.
We need to modernize the system. Democracies like Australia and Canada invest serious money in their election infrastructure and conduct widely acclaimed elections. Ours, by contrast, is fragile and uneven. We’ve already had one presidential election decided by courts on a question of failed infrastructure. More embarrassing cases will certainly occur.
We also need to recognize that the days are long past when it was OK to place election administration in the hands of partisan state or local politicians. They will contest for power and use the system to influence the process. It’s time for election management across the country to be in non-partisan hands.
The aim of reforming the system is to make voting convenient, efficient and pleasant, to make sure the mechanics work as they ought and to ensure that disputes are handled fairly. This means that state governments, not localities, should be responsible for the accuracy and quality of voter lists and for educating the public about voting. Often, local governments have neither the expertise nor the funds to do this effectively.
Finally, there’s the question of voter ID. It’s legitimate to ensure that a person presenting him- or herself at the voting site is the same one named on the voting list. But requiring an ID needs to be accompanied by aggressive efforts to find voters and provide free access to the voting booth.
Instead, a lot of states that have instituted ID requirements have dismissed the idea that this imposes a responsibility to reach out to voters and make IDs available to those who can’t afford them. Those states are subverting representative democracy.

Lee Hamilton is director of The Center On Congress At Indiana University and was a member of the US house of representatives for 34 years.

By Ian White

A PROPOSAL to raise a school district’s tax rate by 13 cents gained traction when the district’s trustees voted unanimously this week to put the mesasure on the ballot in November’s election.
Five members of the public spoke in favor of the idea during a public hearing held by the trustees of Texas City independent school district on Tuesday.
As The Post revealed last weekend, the district was forced to hold the meeting to consider how to deal with a $3.9m shortfall in its budget for the academic year just started.
The choice was whether to cut services and staff levels, including teacher numbers, or to raise the rate at which the district levies property taxes by 13 cents. A hybrid mix of the two, with a lesser hike in the tax rate, was also possible.
The trustees voted unanimously to put the tax-rate increase on the ballot after hearing the five members of the public who addressed the hearing all speak in its favor.
After the district’s chief financial officer, Margaret Lee, outlined its plight in view of state financial restrictions leading to falling revenues while ever-more-costly student enrollment is on the rise, mayor Matt Doyle said: “The state system is broke.”
Referring to the district’s development of new schools and facilities, he said that to stop funding the education system “would be a tragic mistake”.
And, with an eye on the longer-term future, he added: “If we don’t support our kids now, we’ll never be able to attract them back.”
Construction-business owner Randy Dietel said a rise in the tax rate “will affect me as a business but I’m willing to do that. I’m very much in favor.”
Popular community activist José Boix said: “We have trust and confidence in our district administrators. The onus is on state legislators to sort out the problem.”
Resident Jack Cross said: “We have a beautiful city but it’s all gone for naught if you don’t have a good school district. We have no choice.”
And Texas City lawyer Mark Ciavaglia said: “These circumstances are not of the district’s making. Raising the tax rate is the right thing to do. To cut staff and resources would be a travesty and a crime to our children.”

By Ian White

AN ATTORNEY who took county leaders to the wire in their legal dispute about jurisdiction over the justice administration department won his motion for more time to prepare his case this week – one day before his original deadline.
The state’s Houston-based first court of appeals granted counsel Terry Adams a further nine days to file his brief on behalf of the county commissioners, who are trying to overturn an injunction preventing them from rearranging the department.
Adams claimed the extra time less than a week before his August 26 deadline, telling the court he had only recently been appointed to the case and that a visit to a dentist had cut into his preparation period.
That drew the ire of opposing attorney Mark Stevens, who represents the commissioners’ adversary in the case, 56th-district-court judge Lonnie Cox, and who responded by telling the appeals court Adams’ request was a cynical delaying tactic.
Cox has declared null and void the commission’s summary firing of department director Bonnie Quiroga in July last year and last month won the injunction from visiting judge Sharolyn Wood.
Her order also ruled that the commissioners rehire Quiroga pending a trial in January, an order they are refusing to obey while their appeal is in progress.
Adams now has until Friday, September 4, to file his brief, with Stevens having to present his reply within the following 10 days.

 

By Ian White

IT’S NOT just the county’s judges and commissioners who are throwing mud at each other in the long-running legal battle over control of the county’s justice administration service.
Now the attorneys are at it as well – and it’s all because of a trip to the dentist.
Smarting from claims by Galveston lawyer Mark Stevens in an appeals-court document last week, Houston counsel Terry Adams has hit back, writing to the court to accuse his adversary of a “scurrilous attack” on his “character and integrity”.
The new war of words began last week when Adams, representing county judge Mark Henry and the commissioners in the so-called Quiroga case, filed a motion seeking more time to prepare a brief for his clients’ appeal against an injunction awarded against them early in July.
Part of the reason Adams cited for last Wednesday’s request to the state’s first-district court of appeals was a dentist’s visit he claimed to have made on July 10.
Having joined the appellants’ defense team only recently, he wrote that he needed more time – an extra nine days – to prepare the brief “only so that justice may be done”.
Stevens, who represents appellee Lonnie Cox, fired off an immediate objection to the request, making it clear he regarded the claim as the sort of ruse a schoolboy would employ as an excuse for not doing his homework.
Calling the extended-time motion “a transparent attempt at tactical delay”, he said it “does not even try to satisfy the requirements” of the Texas rules of appellate procedure and argued that the reasons behind the request “are revealing
and disturbing”.
He also took direct aim at the commissioners’ attorneys, writing: “An even less inspiring reason is the bonanza which this case has become for appellant’s numerous counsel.”
He said the county has spent circa $177,00 on the case to date, including $73,000 for one attorney – presumably trial counsel Ed Friedman – “for his work over a two-week period”.
Within hours of Stevens’ objection being filed, Adams hit back, saying his opponent’s accusations were false and had been written as “a smoke screen”.
“The personal attack cannot go unrebutted,” he wrote.
“There is no gamesmanship or other nefarious motive underlying appellant’s request as counsel for appellee has stated.”
As The Post went to press on Monday, the appeals court had not ruled on the contested request. At that time, its stated deadline for Adams’ brief was today, Wednesday.

Hamilton, Lee             Lee Hamilton

The Post’s look at national politics now has more than one contributor – this week, it’s the turn of our original columnist.

THE MOST important function the US congress serves is to debate and pass the federal budget. I know – it also levies taxes, imposes or relaxes regulations and, once in a while, nudges our social, economic or political order in a meaningful way. But the budget tells the government what to do and makes it possible to do it. Everything else follows from that.
Even at the best of times, passing a budget is a test of congress’ abilities. And these aren’t the best of times. Congress’ two houses are controlled by Republicans who don’t see eye to eye. The White House is in the hands of a Democratic president who really doesn’t agree with them.
So, to get a budget enacted into law, everyone involved has to negotiate seriously. They have to make realistic political judgments about what’s possible. They have to compromise.
Given our divided government, you’d think that everyone would step up to these challenges. Early this year, following the GOP’s takeover of the senate in November’s election, it seemed as though they might. Gone, at least in rhetoric, were the days of shutdowns, sequestration and the fiscal cliff. The “regular order” of committee hearings and duly-marked-up appropriations bills would be restored.
In the house of representatives, appropriations-committee chairman Hal Rogers accomplished something that hasn’t been managed for years – all 12 appropriations bills made it out of the committee.
But that’s where the good news ended. For the bills themselves were largely political statements that had no chance of being enacted, as they contained provisions that were anathema to Democrats – including president Barack Obama, who made it clear he had no intention of signing them.
What provisions? The appropriators voted to reverse the affordable care act. They zeroed out family planning. They imposed strict rules on for-profit universities. They pulled back regulations on the environment. They resorted to long-practiced budget gimmicks – planning for faster economic growth than is defensible so they could increase projected revenues; boosting military spending then moving it off-budget, which allowed them to claim to support defense spending without actually counting it as spending.
So now congress is headed for partisan gridlock and the result is predictable, because we’ve seen all this play out before. Instead of the regular order, we’re once again pointed toward fiscal showdowns.
This month, congress gave up on securing a new round of transportation funding for the states – at the height of the summer construction season – instead announcing a three-month extension that saves the hard negotiating for the fall.
A vote to raise the debt ceiling also looms in the fall and, given the state of play, it seems inevitable that, once again, congress will resort to the travesty known as a continuing resolution, which relinquishes its power of the purse by basically extending the previous budget’s fiscal policy.
There are no members who defend this way of budgeting, but they end up doing it year after year anyway, as if held hostage by their own worst inclinations. There are no serious negotiations at this point.
Which is a problem. Because to prepare a budget thoughtfully – especially when it requires negotiation with the other party – demands working through literally thousands of details. Yet we approached adjournment with no serious talks to make mutually acceptable headway on the budget – although somehow congress found the time to take a recess, shutting down for the remainder of the summer.
So with congress having left Washington and only a dozen or so working days once it returns to put a budget together, the delay means that our budget-setting body won’t actually be able to resolve the issues it faces.
Congressional leaders seem fine with this. They rejected early negotiations, preferring a last-minute confrontation, which will lead to another fiscal impasse.
In other words, they’re punting. I can’t predict how long they’ll make their continuing resolution last but, with presidential elections looming, the period could be longer rather than shorter. Instead of turning over a new leaf, as congress promised it would do just seven months ago, it’s once again consigning us to fiscal chaos.
You should be angry. It’s a lousy way to do business.
Lee Hamilton is director of The Center On Congress At Indiana University and was a member of the US house of representatives for 34 years.