18 Oct 2018: about the "promote the vote" referendum

November 6, in addition to all the pivotal elections of leaders in our nation, Michiganders will see three referenda on the ballot: 18-1 legalizing marijuana for recreational use; 18-2: requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commission rather than the party in power; and 18-3: relaxing voter registration and absentee ballot rules to make it easier for people to vote. This is third in the series, as we review those in this space, to help us think through what is at stake. You're welcome to submit your own thoughts, if you'd like. And find your ballot here.

Last week, I reviewed proposal 18-2, about gerrymandering, the way that elected officials rig the system to design districts in which they are assured reelection. It's pretty awful, and you can read that essay elsewhere. But gerrymandering isn't the only tool in the election-rigging toolbox. 

Georgia, for example, is a mess. We've been reading about how the Secretary of State there has been disqualifying registered voters, putting their registrations "on hold," or cancelling existing registrations due to inactivity. No surprise that this is mostly affecting people of color. 

Secretaries of State are elected officials, members of one or the other of our political parties. It is in their job description to oversee elections, but in worst cases, officials are using their office to keep away from the polls people who may vote against their party. This is mostly a war fought against black and other minority voters, as in Georgia this week. The Secretary of State there is also a candidate for Governor, and he is working mightily to disenfranchise folks not inclined to vote for him. (His opponent, who would be the first black female governor of Georgia, has been a community organizer for a while, and she has spent the past five years registering people to vote.) The Sec of State has frozen tens of thousands of voter registrations for reasons that mostly seem bogus or designed to intimidate, including a rule he made called "exact match." If your state i.d. isn't exactly the same as your voter registration — including spelling, typos and placement of hyphens -- you are considered to be voting fraudulently and can be turned away. 

Several years ago, I changed my middle name. You can do that for about $8 and a trip to the courthouse. Afterward, I changed all the right legal documents — social security card, passport, driver's license, living will. All that. And my voter registration. But for years afterward, really, years, my old name appeared on the docket when i went to the polls. If the Georgia Sec of State had been in charge, I would have been turned away. 

This Sec of State has been making voting rules stricter since he was first elected in 2010; he says he is trying to prevent fraud. This year he also tried closing multiple pollling places, mostly in poor black precincts (ostensibly to save money or because he said the toilets weren't wheelchair accessible). And yesterday, the first day of early voting, government officials ordered Black senior citizens off a bus that was taking them from a county Senior Center to a voting location, calling the shuttle "political activity" not allowed on county property. The intention is clear — keep away anyone who would vote for the other person. 

The record of the Right, overall, is one of trying to keep people away, enabled powerfully by the US Supreme Court, which decided in 2013 to gut the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 legislation that had kept badly-behaving racist states in check for decades. We don't need it anymore, said Chief Justice Roberts; and, before the ink was dry, the GOP-controlled states began living large. 

Georgia isn't the only one. In North Dakota, the state passed a law to require home addresses on state IDs; but Native American culture doesn't support street addresses; plus, we know that a lot of people simply don't have homes. Nevertheless, a federal court upheld the requirement. Kansas, led by Sec of State Kris Kobach (now also candidate for governor), made a rule requiring proof of citizenship beyond a state ID, which most folks don't have. Before the law was struck down, 31,000 potential voters had been turned away from registering. 

They say they are trying to reduce fraud. But we do not have a voter fraud problem in the U.S. According to my math, based on a variety of reports, about 1 ballot in every 30 million may be fraudulent. That is actually a remarkable show of integrity and trustworthiness. However, voter fraud and election fraud are not the same thing, and there is a great deal of evidence that the people who run the elections are working hard to sway those elections by voter suppression and intimidation.  

Only people afraid of democracy or hungry for power would want to keep you from voting. Some say voting is our most sacred American right. It seems to me that anything that we can do to make it easier is an immunization against tyranny. 

It is open season on voting rights. So, Michigan voters are trying to put some things beyond the reach of power-hungry political parties. The measures of Prop 18-3 will change our state Constitution to ensure easier access to voting: easier registration; more accessible absentee ballots; and the ability to vote a straight-party ticket, which is currently banned — and which will shorten lines at the polls (long lines penalize people who cannot wait) and allow voters to make clearer choices. Amending the state constitution to enshrine these will ensure that, whoever is in the seat of power, the vote still belongs to the people. 

So, I recommend yes. Let's keep electoral power where it belongs. 

With you on the way,  — pastor deb

11 oct 2018: about the gerrymandering referendum

November 6, in addition to all the pivotal elections of leaders in our nation, Michiganders will see three referenda on the ballot: 18-1 legalizing marijuana for recreational use; 18-2: requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commission rather than the party in power; and 18-3: relaxing voter registration and absentee ballot rules to make it easier for people to vote. For the next three weeks, we'll review those in this space, to help us think through what is at stake. You're welcome to submit your own thoughts, if you'd like. And find your ballot and read the full text here.

In 1812, Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed off on a bill that created a weirdly shaped congressional district, a district intended to change the party imbalance in his state's delegation. It worked, but he was widely ridiculed for the district's shape -- it looked like a salamander, said one leader. No, said another, a gerry-mander. 

Since then, the practice has grown more prevalent and more poisonous with each census, as the party in power seeks to solidify its hold on the US House of Representatives. (The number of House districts is always the same, 435, but divided among the states based on population, so it all gets reassessed after each 10-year census.) The party in power has the right to draw districts, and both parties have tried to do this to their own benefit, though the Republicans are more blatant and better at it. 

This has not been good for the US. With gerrymandering, plus the constitutional rule of two senators per state regardless of population, and then the electoral college, we have now realized a "minority majority," a Congress that does not reflect the general party alignment of the populace. 

In West Virginia, for example, a third of voters voted Democratic in the last election, but all the 3 Congressional seats are held by Republicans. In Kentucky, more than 1/3 voters are Dems, but 5 of 6 districts are GOP. North Carolina has 12 districts, only 3 of which are reliably Dem, and one of which looks like a river snaking through 4 other districts. Folks have said we are letting elected officials choose their voters, rather than have voters choose their elected officials. The result has been that the House of Representatives, designed to represent people more directly than the Senate, and elected anew every two years, has become entrenched, with a "incumbent success rate" in 2016 of 97 percent. This means a lot of people are left with no representation of their values or ideas in the halls of Congress, and newcomers are at a tremendous disadvantage in even gaining entry into political processes. (The math on how all senators or votes aren't equal is another mind-boggling reality, but we'll save that for another newsletter.) 

Maddeningly, for example, while districts in North Carolina were described recently by the Supreme Court of the US as targeting African Americans with "surgical precision," SCOTUS has consistently refused to make this better. So it is up to the states. Specifically, it is up to voters. 

This year, Michigan organizers have worked really hard to try to change this. This ballot proposal is probably not perfect, but it is really good. It would change the way voting districts are drawn, by taking away money and political power from the process. It would assign the task not to political parties, but to an independent commission, which would intentionally exclude elected officials, family members or lobbyists. It would comprise equal numbers of folks affiliated with the two major parties, but then more people who aren't part of either party. And it would be randomly selected, so, if you're registered to vote, you could be chosen! 

Getting it on the ballot wasn't easy. It took 400,000 signatures (Leslie collected about half of those, we think. -ed.), and then a lawsuit, backed principally by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The Court decision wasn't unanimous, which means even the progress we make is fragile. And that the Chamber of Commerce is against it reminds us how much the moneyed people want to control the way we vote -- not by persuading us but by manipulating us. But we can't change any of the rest unless we can freely choose who represents us. 

I recommend we vote yes, and let's find our voices again. 

With you on the way,  - pastor deb

4 Oct 2018 about the marijuana referendum

November 6, in addition to all the pivotal elections of leaders in our nation, Michiganders will see three referenda on the ballot: 18-1 legalizing marijuana for recreational use; 18-2: requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commission rather than the party in power; and 18-3: relaxing voter registration and absentee ballot rules to make it easier for people to vote. For the next three weeks, we'll review those in this space, to help us think through what is at stake. You're welcome to submit your own thoughts, if you'd like. And find your ballot and read the full text of the referendum here.

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black (sic), but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

This was the stunning revelation of John Ehrlichman, former Nixon aide, in an interview with Harper's Magazine and published in April, 2016.

The "war on drugs," then, has been, not the colossal failure we tend to say, but a monumental success. It has disrupted communities and vilified people, whole segments of people, and mostly, as intended, people of color. It is stunning, really, only in that Ehrlichman said it out loud. 

As the years passed, heroin became a white drug, marijuana crossed races, and crack cocaine was introduced into urban black communities, perhaps as the war's "next campaign" to ensure no one would get out alive. But the reality remains that the "war on drugs" continues to devastate communities, disproportionately communities of color; and our prisons, by some accounts once on the verge of closure due to lack of need, are now filled beyond capacity, and we keep building more. The prison industry has become a lucrative campaign issue and a high-profit investment opportunity, and America has become the most incarceration-happy nation in the world.

According to the ACLU, more than half of all drug busts are for marijuana, and 88 percent are for simple possession. White people and black people use marijuana about equally, but black people are nearly 4 times as likely to be arrested for it. Prison exploitation, forfeiture laws, cash bail, treating juveniles as adults, and other legal abuses are all related to the system that turns so many into criminals. For a fuller discussion, re-read Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. 

For now, consider all the things we are not doing when we are prosecuting marijuana use: funding great schools, training adults for necessary work, maintaining infrastructure, prosecuting white collar crime (way more hurtful to communities, frankly), treating drug addicts, building affordable housing and community centers, designing adequate public transportation, providing healthcare and mental healthcare. Plus keeping lives, families and communities intact, which is not nothing. You could surely add your own ideas. 

If doesn't have to be this way. Legalizing marijuana, fully legalizing it, is, I think, a sensible thing to do. "Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs," wrote Dan Baum in that Harper's Article. Another writer noted that if marijuana is a "gateway drug," though that hasn't really been established, maybe it really is more about the people users must associate with when they buy it illegally. If we take away the underground marijuana market, maybe we actually help keep people from the harder stuff. 

At our meeting last week, the Woodside Board of Directors affirmed this resolution, as a key piece of our advocacy for mass incarceration reform. It came to us because Jay and I had been asked to participate in a campaign to promote passage of the initiative. (The board approved that, but Jay and I eventually declined for other reasons.) 

But, while the board agreed that legalization is the desired goal, we also agreed that the language of the referendum isn't perfect. We were especially concerned that the stipulations of the legislation would still provide loopholes for targeting people of color. It is restrictive, far more than I think necessary, given what we know about the relative dangers of alcohol and tobacco, and I'm not convinced it wouldn't still become a mitigating factor in the "piling on" that prosecutors like to do — heaping lesser charges onto a defendent to increase penalties for a primary offense. The proposed law isn't perfect, but it is a start. 

Of course, you are welcome to your own thoughts. One of Woodside's hallmarks is that we don't always agree on everything. But we have been working hard to quit imprisoning so many people — especially black and brown people — and this could move us along that path. 

So I recommend we vote yes, and then continue the work of learning to see racism, advocating for better laws that benefit us all. 

With you on the way,  - pastor deb