Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Democratic Party under the Microscope

U.S. Democratic Party symbol
In buildup to the U.S. Presidential Election on November 6, 2012, the FDA will be examining the policies of the main political parties.

Below the FDA takes a look at the Democratic Party and the issues it views as important with regard to democracy reform.

Overall and currently, the Democratic Party identifies twelve core issues facing Americans. Only two of the issues are indirectly about democracy reform: open government and voting rights. The Democratic Party does not list democracy reform as an issue.

The Obama Administration created The Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act (1966) which directs the Attorney General to release greater transparency of the processing of freedom of information requests. It is unclear whether or not this Memorandum will result in a U.S. government more open, transparent, and responsive to public needs. Regardless, transparency alone does not necessarily bring about change. Transparency sheds light on what is, and through knowing what is change may be encouraged. Therefore, the FDA thinks that the Democrats and Obama Administration are stretching the truth by claiming that they have changed politics in Washington by creating greater transparency. Real change occurs by changing actions and non-actions. Transparency is neutral.

The FDA questions the Democrats and Obama Administration emphasis on voting rights as an issue. The United States has substantial process in place for American voters, both abroad and in the homeland. For example,

U.S. Voter Assistance

FDA Research Findings:

The Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, recognizes that physically or otherwise impaired American citizens have been systematically disadvantaged in critical areas of life including voting and that legislative provisions ought to be made to prevent this (The United States Department of Justice, The Americans with Disabilities Act, 2012).

The Help America Vote Act provides legislation to improve access to polling places and voting systems for persons with disabilities. Federal funding was provided to states to replace or upgrade the outdated lever voter system, which was seen as an exclusionary piece of technology for those hindered by a disability. Additionally, states must provide other forms of assistance where necessary to allow disabled voters to cast their ballot properly. This may take the form of, such as the case in Texas state legislation, a polling station worker reading the ballot or providing a voting system with headphones that dictates the ballot to an illiterate or blind voter (The Help America Vote Act, 2002; Texas Secretary of State, Services to voters with Special Needs in Texas, 2012).

States are required to offer voters alternative means of voting for those unable to be physically present at a polling station. For example, voters are allowed to register to vote by mail as long as they meet the required criteria. Exact legislation concerning voting by mail varies from state-to-state, but the right to do so as a disabled person is secured by The Help America Vote Act (The Help America Vote Act, Section 303 (A) (ii)).

Polling stations have a checklist to ensure that all locations are accessible for those with limited mobility or other disabilities. The checklist includes ensuring that handicapped parking, as well as wheelchair ramps are provided at all locations, amongst other provisions (The U.S. Department of Justice, ADA Checklist for Polling Places, 2012).

The Electoral Assistance Commission has committed $7,000,000 to research and development initiatives to support the research of technological advances in voting technology. The Commission looks to continually improve upon voting practices, so that it can meet the challenge of increased accessibility for all voters (The Electoral Assistance Commission, 2010 and 2012).

U.S. Citizens Living Abroad

FDA Research Findings:

Active-service members of the Armed Forces, Merchant Marine, Public Health Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and their family members, as well as citizens living outside of the US for school, work or other reasons are allowed to absentee vote. These citizens are permitted to register and vote both online and by mail in a manner consistent with their home state’s legislation. Further, for members of the Armed Forces, the opportunity exists to vote at a satellite polling station located within a US state or territory. They must however, change their permanent address to that location (The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, 1986; Federal Voting Assistance Program).

Those American citizens living in US territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands or the American Samoa are not eligible to vote in a presidential election unless they have official residency (domicile) within the United States or District of Columbia (and vote by absentee ballot or travel to their State to vote). Political parties may authorize citizens within these territories to select a delegate to represent their area during the presidential primaries (The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, 1986; Federal Voting Assistance Program).

(Foundation for Democratic Advancement, FDA Audit of the American Federal Electoral System, 2012)

Americans should note that the Democrats claim to embrace the right to vote and voters have a say in who America's leaders are. Yet the Democrats ignore reform of the outdated Electoral College. Presently, Americans do not elect their President or Vice-President; a small group of electors selected by the state legislatures determine the President and Vice-President, and regardless of the popular vote. Why are the Democrats not supporting reform of this outdated, undemocratic institution?   

The 2008 Democratic Party's democracy reform platform (below) includes "make every vote count", mitigate the power of special interests and be less beholden to special interests, support campaign finance reform including public financing of campaigns, support voting rights, and make every vote count. However, Congressional elections are determined by first-past-the-post (so that not every vote counts), and the U.S. President and Vice-President as mentioned are determined by the Electoral College rather than the American people. Therefore, clearly not every American vote counts. The Obama Administration has done nothing to change these electoral processes.

In addition, as of August, 2012, House Speaker David Ralston, Republican-Blue Ridge, will propose next year a full ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. This would be a positive step forward to lessen the influence of lobbyists. Presently, lobbyists spend about $1.6 million a year in gifts on congressional politicians. (Lobbyist Gift Ban) The Office of Government Ethics now has restrictions on the gifts federal employees receive, and thereby reduces the influence lobbyists have on the federal government. However, there is no legislation which bans lobbyists from contributing to federal candidates' campaigns, nor is there legislation which bans lobbyists from contributing unlimited funds to Super PACs.

Further, there is no evidence that the Obama Administration has done anything to reform U.S. campaign finance. In fact, due to the Citizens United ruling, which the Democrats and Republicans benefit from, U.S. campaign finance has taken a significant step back. Independent political committees (Super PACs) can receive unlimited contributions. Presently, there are no expenditure limits on privately funded U.S. presidential candidates, and congressional candidates. There is no limit on the personal funds used by congressional candidates in their campaigns. The individual contribution limit of $46,200 to candidates/candidate committees is not reflective of America's per capita personal income of $41,663 (Bureau of Business and Economic Research, 2011).

The Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act (2012), which the Republicans and Democrats passed, creates greater transparency of expenditures by federal government agencies. But the Act does not prevent lobbyists from influencing significantly government policy and law.

From the Democratic Party's twelve issues:

Open Government

For Democrats, changing politics in Washington means ensuring that government is open, transparent, and responsive to the needs of the people. President Obama has implemented the most sweeping ethics and transparency requirements in history, building on steps taken by Democrats to limit the influence of special interests and ensure that government is accountable to the people.

Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing. We are committed to creating the most open, transparent, and accountable government in history. In the past few years, Democrats have taken steps to:

  • Bring unprecedented accountability to federal spending;
  • Rein in the influence of lobbyists in Washington;
  • Shut down the "revolving door" that allowed lobbyists to move freely from government to special interests and back;
  • Open more lines of communication with the American public; and
  • Increase cooperation across all levels of government, as well as with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

Voting Rights

Democrats have a long and proud history of fighting for voting rights that continues to this day. One of the most important rights of American citizens is the right to vote—the right to have a say in who our leaders are and how our government should work. But the path to full voting rights for all American citizens was long and often challenging, and for far too many people, obstacles to voting remain even today.

The expansion of voting rights did not happen overnight; it was the product of a continued struggle by many people over many years. To this day, many voters still face difficulties at the polls, from registering to casting a ballot to having their votes counted. Those particularly vulnerable are minority, young, elderly, poor, and disabled voters, as well as military members and veterans. And in many parts of the country, voters are underserved by a lack of polling places, outdated voting machines, and unnecessarily complicated laws.

We are making progress, but we won't stop working to promote a system of elections that is accessible, open, and fair—a system that ensures that every eligible person can cast a vote and that every lawfully cast vote is counted.

In 2008, the Obama and the Democratic Party had the following democracy reform platform:

IV. Renewing American Democracy

Americans of every political stripe are hungry for a new kind of government. We want a government that favors common sense over ideology, honesty over spin, that worries less about losing the next election and more about winning the battles we owe to the next generation.

The over 30,000 Americans who attended 1645 local platform hearings demonstrated their commitment to reasserting government of, by, and for the people. So too did the millions of Americans who turned out in primaries and caucuses, and the record-breaking number of Americans abroad who participated – including men and the women who serve in our military. Democrats want to continue the momentum of the election. Only by doing so can we bring the change necessary to restore the promise of America.

The government we create will open up democracy to the people and protect our civil liberties. We'll invite the service and participation of American citizens, and use the tools of government and technology to lead us into a new era of connectedness, teamwork, and progress. A Barack Obama Administration will make it clear to the special interests that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over, because the American people are not the problem in the 21st Ccentury—they are the solution. We'll make every vote count, because in America, everyone's voice matters in the political process.

Open, Accountable, and Ethical Government

In Barack Obama's Administration, we will open up the doors of democracy. We will use technology to make government more transparent, accountable, and inclusive. Rather than obstruct people's use of the Freedom of Information Act, we will require that agencies conduct significant business in public and release all relevant information unless an agency reasonably foresees harm to a protected interest.

We will lift the veil of secret deals in Washington by publishing searchable, online information about federal grants, contracts, earmarks, loans, and lobbyist contacts with government officials. We will make government data available online and will have an online video archive of significant agency meetings. We will put all non-emergency bills that Congress has passed online for five days, to allow the American public to review and comment on them before they are signed into law. We will require Cabinet officials to have periodic national online town hall meetings to discuss issues before their agencies.

Implementing our Party's agenda will require running competent, innovative, and efficient public agencies at all levels of government with the resources necessary to get results. We will develop a comprehensive management agenda to prevent operational breakdowns in government and ensure that government provides the level of service that the American people deserve. Because we understand that good government depends on good people, we will work to rebuild and reengage our federal workforce and encourage state and local governments to do the same. We will make government a more attractive place to work. Our hiring will be based only on qualification and experience, and not on ideology or party affiliation. We will pay for our new spending, eliminate waste in government programs, demand, and measure results, and stop funding programs that don't work. We will not privatize public services for the sake of privatizing. We will use carefully crafted guidelines when determining whether to contract out any government service and whether a function is "inherently governmental." We will provide improved accountability, oversight, and management in the contracting process to protect the public.

We are committed to a participatory government. We will use the most current technology available to improve the quality of government decision-making and make government less beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists. We will enhance the flow of information between citizens and government—in both directions—by involving the public in the work of government agencies. We will not simply solicit opinions, but will also use new technology to tap into the vast expertise of the American citizenry, for the benefit of government and our democracy.

Americans want real reform that will help them pay their medical bills and put the country on the path to energy independence. They are tired of lobbyists standing in their way. So we'll end the abuse of no-bid contracts by requiring nearly all contract orders over $25,000 to be competitively awarded and tell the drug companies and the oil companies and the insurance industry that, while they may get a seat at the table in Washington, they don't get to buy every chair. We will institute a gift ban so that no lobbyist can curry favor with the Administration. We will close the revolving door that has allowed people to use their position in the Administration as a stepping-stone to further their lobbying careers. We support campaign finance reform to reduce the influence of moneyed special interests, including public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time. We will have the wisdom to put the public interest above special interests. As a national party, we will not take any contributions from Political Action Committees during this election.

Voting Rights

Voting rights are fundamental rights because they are protective of all other rights. We will work to fully protect and enforce the fundamental Constitutional right of every American vote—to ensure that the Constitution's promise is fully realized. We will fully fund the Help America Vote Act and work to fulfill the promise of election reform, including fighting to end long lines at voting booths and ensuring that all registration materials, voting materials, polling places, and voting machines are truly accessible to seniors, Americans with disabilities, and citizens with limited English proficiency. We will call for a national standard for voting that includes voter-verified paper ballots. We will ensure that absentee ballots are accessible and accurately counted. We will vigorously enforce our voting rights laws instead of making them tools of partisan political agendas; we oppose laws that require identification in order to vote or register to vote, which create discriminatory barriers to the right to vote and disenfranchise many eligible voters; and we oppose tactics which purge eligible voters from voter rolls. We are committed to passing the Count Every Vote Act. Finally, we will enact legislation that establishes harsh penalties for those who engage in voter intimidation and creates a process for providing accurate information to misinformed voters so they can cast their votes in time. 

(Source: The American Presidency Project, Political Party Platforms, 2008 Democratic Party Platform, August 25, 2008)

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