Tomorrow, Angelenos go to the polls to select a new mayor. Well, some Angelenos – actually, not a hell of a lot. Indeed, turnout is projected to be so low that the winner may actually get fewer votes than Fletcher Bowron did in winning the election of 1938, when Los Angeles was less than half as populous as it is today.
Despite twin bombings at the Awami National Party offices in Karachi this Saturday—an inauspicious start to polling day—Bindiya Rana, one of Pakistan’s first transgender candidates, remained optimistic. Rana’s spent the last several weeks canvassing the alleys of district P.S. 114, handing out self-printed promotional material between concrete buildings under tangles of telephone wires. After several tense months—130 civilians have died in pre-election violence—she was deterred by neither the danger or her slim chances of winning. “The important thing is to face this world very boldly,” she said.
In Pakistan, gender issues have historically been prone to violence—Malala Yousafzai made international news when she was shot on a school bus by the Taliban last year—but overall women’s rights have been slowly improving. The country appointed its first female foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and data from the Election Commission show a 129 percent increase in the number of female candidates since 2008. At 22.5 percent of its electoral body, Pakistan now has more female officials than the United States does. But improvements haven’t trickled down to many of the country’s female citizens; in 2008, Pakistan had 564 polling districts where not a single woman voted.
It’s even worse for Pakistan’s transgender community, estimated to include 50,000 people.
Yesterday Massachusetts held a primary for the June special election to fill new Secretary of State John Kerry's senate seat. Roughly four people turned out to vote in my district, with a total of 153 voters statewide. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. There were four people in my polling place when I went in to vote, at 5:30 pm—a time when, were it a presidential election, the line would be down the block. As I write this, The Boston Globe is reporting an estimated 10 percent turnout. My guess is that that the number of people who were aware of the fact that the primary was yesterday, compared to the number of Massachusetts residents aware of the first names of both marathon bombers, was roughly 1:100.
Last week, 72 New York State Assemblymen sent a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver urging him to support a public financing program for primary, general, and special election campaigns for statewide offices. Such a program would match modest contributions with public funds, which allow small contributors to have a larger impact and brings more donors into the political process. As New York legislators consider adopting a public financing system, a new report from Demos shows the positive impact public financing has had in Connecticut.
Last fall, California voters were confronted with two major and hotly-contested ballot measures—Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal (Proposition 30) to raise taxes on the rich to end the state’s chronic budget shortfalls, and a conservative initiative (Proposition 32) which would have curtailed unions’ ability to spend their treasuries on political campaigns. Proposition 30 passed and Proposition 32 was soundly defeated, but they had to overcome a joint, well-funded campaign by rightwing interests to prevail.
As part of a broader anti-immigration initiative in 2004, Arizona passed Proposition 200, a law requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering to vote. One person affected by this law was Jesus Gonzalez, a custodian and naturalized American citizen who twice had his registration rejected by the state.
Election reformers were expecting big things from this year’s State of the Union address. They knew that President Barack Obama had invited 102-year-old Desiline Victor, a Floridian who’d waited three hours to cast her ballot. They had heard him acknowledge the many folks who stood in long lines when he ad-libbed in his election-night speech, “We have to fix that.” They were encouraged when he subsequently acknowledged the need for a broad range of fixes to the broken system. Hopes for an ambitious reform package were high. But Obama’s big reveal seemed less than inspiring: a bipartisan commission to study the problem.
Yes, pundits of all stripes are already starting to handicap the presidential fields for 2016. Yes, that’s a long time from now … although we are under three years to the Iowa Caucuses, and probably just about two years from the first debates, so it’s not all that long. More to the point: as long as the candidates are running—and they are—there’s no reason to pretend the contest hasn’t started yet.
Massachusetts could be the harbinger of a hopeful national trend in Democratic Party politics – the reformer as regular. For 16 years, this bluest of blue states oddly kept electing Republican governors. Between 1990 when Gov. Michael Dukakis stepped down and 2006 when Deval Patrick took the governorship back, no fewer than four Republicans sat in the governor’s chair.
Last November, Democrats seemed to be justified in believing that their party had won a victory of genuine significance. The ideological differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were clear-cut, and Obama was re-elected. Despite the advantage that Republicans initially enjoyed in Senate races, Democrats increased their majority to 55, and that new majority is more liberal than the old one. In races for the House, more voters cast ballots for Democratic than for Republican candidates, though Republicans kept their majority thanks in large part to gerrymandered districts.
In early May, shortly after the peak of the GOP's war-on-women problem, the Obama campaign released a simple online infographic that inspired outrage from conservative commentators. Titled "The Life of Julia," the slideshow followed a hypothetical woman named Julia throughout various stages of her life in order to compare Obama's policies to the ones proposed by Mitt Romney. At age three, toddler Julia plays with a bead maze and enjoys the benefits of Head Start under Obama's America, while the infographic warns that Romney would cut Head Start by 20 percent. By age 27 the adult Julia is a web designer—a knowing wink to the young urban hipsterati loathed by conservatives—whose birth control is covered by her health insurance thanks to Obamacare's reforms, but would have lost those if Romney had his way.
Last November 7, a syndicated cartoon made the rounds in progressive circles. Drawn by Signe Wilkinson, it showed a battered, bruised, patched-up Uncle Sam defiantly flexing his biceps and flashing the dazed grin of a fighter who’d survived a vicious knockdown and prevailed in 15 rounds. The caption, “Democracy Wins,” became a popular meme amid the liberal euphoria that broke out on election night. President Barack Obama had been re-elected, Karl Rove had been embarrassed on national television, and the Sheldon Adelsons and National Rifle Associations of the world had thrown hundreds of millions of dollars down the toilet. Voter suppression had not kept blacks and Latinos from the polls. Citizens United had not done its worst. Democracy had been tried and tested, and emerged banged up but miraculously intact.
Over the last twelve years (since the Florida debacle of 2000), I've argued repeatedly that politics in America is characterized by an Audacity Gap. It may not hold in every situation and every controversy, but most of the time, Republicans are willing take actions both small (shouting at the president that he's a liar during the State of the Union) and large (filibustering everything or holding the economy hostage over the debt ceiling) that Democrats are far too timid to even consider. Often it occurs when Republicans decide to violate a norm of how business had been done previously, safe in the knowledge that since what's at issue is a norm and not a rule, there's really nothing to stop them. As I put it some time ago, Republicans are the party of "Yes we can," while Democrats are the party of "Maybe we shouldn't." It doesn't always work to Republicans' advantage, but much of the time it does.
When it works, it's often because the public doesn't know, doesn't understand, or doesn't care. This is probably the case with the dramatic increase in filibusters over the last four years. Republicans surely understood that there was a risk that they'd look like obstructionists and be punished at the polls, but they saw that risk as minimal compared to the benefits to be gained by thwarting Barack Obama's agenda. And the 2010 election seemed to prove them right. And now, they're hoping they can rig the entire presidential election.