Empowering Voters

It is sad to watch so many politicians try to disenfranchise voters. Until today, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was doing his best to avoid calling special elections to fill two legislative seats which became vacant when he appointed those legislators to state jobs. Despite a clear obligation to call special elections for both seats months ago, he only did so after 3 judges, including one on the Court of Appeals ordered him to call the special election by Noon today. Indeed, yesterday Court of Appeals Judge Paul F. Reilly issued a harsh decision in which he stated:

Representative government and the election of our representatives are never ‘unnecessary,’ never a ‘waste of taxpayer resources,’ and the calling of the special elections are as the Governor acknowledges, his ‘obligation’ to follow.

While this should have been obvious to Governor Walker, his initial refusal to call a special election fits with his strategy to disempower voters by making voting more difficult, including reducing the time for early voting, and requiring voter ID at the polls. Curiously, however, Wisconsin still continues to make voting easier by allowing for same day voter registration at the polls. Less well known is a statutory requirement which requires City Clerks to send Special Voting Deputies to assisted living facilities to help residents cast absentee ballots before each election so they do not have to go to the polls.

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In 2012, I decided to become an election official and work at the polls, upon learning that the best way to empower voters is to make sure that qualified people work at the polls to ensure that all eligible voters who come to vote, are able to vote. This year, I agreed to become a Special Voting Deputy, and I am glad to report that in doing so, along with all the other people who join me in doing this work, we are empowering many people who would not be able to get to the polls, or even fill out an absentee ballot on their own, to cast their vote.

I have now helped voters in a variety of assisted living facilities. Some residents were quite mobile and came to the room where we set up an impromptu voting station and needed very little assistance. However, many residents were unable to read the ballot, so we read it to them. Others were too frail to fill in the ballot themselves, so we did so for them.

Some readers may wonder about the possibility of voter fraud when some of these voters need this extra assistance. However, we have a variety of protective procedures in place to make sure that cannot happen. We always have two Special Voting Deputies with the ballots and with each voter. If we read the ballot to the voter or fill it ballot in, we must sign the ballot stating that we did so. We also count all ballot multiple times to make sure that no ballots are missing. In addition, all Special Voting Deputies are trained by the City Clerk’s office before each election.

Perhaps the most challenging question is whether some of these voters are competent to vote. However, unless a voter has had his or her right to vote removed by a judge who found them incompetent to vote, these assisted living facility resident voters have the same right to vote as anyone else. Since we do not give competency tests to any other voters, why should we give them to those who happen to need extra care in an assisted living facility?

Sometimes, however, these voters will decline to vote because they do not feel they know enough to cast their ballot in a way that makes them feel comfortable. For this reason, we go to each facility twice, as some voters just need a little extra time to study the candidates and questions on the ballot. Yet, even on the second visit, some people choose not to vote. But if they do so, it will be their choice, not because some politicians disempowered them.

Many of these voters are elderly and have proudly voted in every single election since they became eligible to vote. For some of them, the possibility that they might not vote in an election is truly daunting, which is why we provide this extra assistance. We also remind them that they can choose not to vote in some races that they may not know enough about, just like any other voter.

My work as a Special Voting Deputy reminds me that when a democracy wants to empower voters, it knows how to do so. My hope is that we will elect more legislators who understand that democracy is best served when we empower everyone who is eligible to cast a vote, to do so.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in 2000. In his book, he discusses how “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses.” He defines the tipping point as  “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” From a systems change perspective, the concept of a tipping point is important when analyzing both how to create sufficient momentum behind a policy change to bring the change into fruition.

One of the most frustrating failures in American public policy has been the complete ineptitude of our nation’s leaders to enact reasonable reform to combat gun violence. Many gun reform advocates believed that our nation would finally overcome the opposition by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to all efforts at reasonable gun reform, after 20 children and 6 adults were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. However, as we all know, the NRA and too many politicians simply offered their thoughts and prayers, and no meaningful gun reform was enacted.

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But then came the high school students who lost 14 fellow students and 3 staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While the NRA and Congressional leaders continued to send thoughts and prayers, and the President and many legislators would rather arm teachers than enact meaningful gun reform, on behalf of her fellow Parkland students, Emma Gonzalez called BS on these unhelpful ideas. As one of the students, Cameron Kaspy, stated quite simply, My generation won’t stand for this.”

But why might this event be different than Sandy Hook or the many other gun massacres and become a tipping point to lead to meaningful gun reform, when the other horrific incidents did not? While it is too soon to know whether the results will be different, and we truly cannot expect meaningful change until after the November mid-term elections, there are indications that a number of different dynamics are in play that did not exist before, such that we may be approaching a tipping point which could impact the November mid-term elections culminating in meaningful gun reform in the next Congress.

Of course, the first new dynamic is the bold, energized leadership of the Parkland High School students. But since they cannot vote, high school students alone will not have sufficient impact to reach the tipping point. Ironically, the callousness of our President who appears to be devoid of empathy, combined with the energy of these high school students may be what energizes voters to impact the November mid-term elections in a meaningful way on this issue.

There are many signs that a shift in the gun reform dynamic is in play, such as:

  • Republicans who recognize that their day of reckoning on guns is here.
  • A well organized campaign targeted at politicians beholden to the gun lobby to throw them out.
  • A recognition that women could be the undoing of the President.
  • The March 24th March for Our Lives to demand that lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings.
  • Poll results showing American voters support stricter gun laws 66 – 31 percent, the highest level of support ever, including 50 – 44 percent support among gun owners.
    Support for universal background checks is almost universal, 97 – 2 percent, including 97 – 3 percent among gun owners. Support is also at its highest level with:

    • 67 percent favoring a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons;
    • 83 percent favoring a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases and
    • 75 percent believe Congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence.

Of course, tipping points are reached by many actions, and as Gladwell pointed out, many of those actions are small actions taken by individuals. So, if you want to be part of the change that leads to a tipping point to achieve meaningful gun reform, here are some things you can do.

  • Investigate how your members of Congress vote on gun reform bills. You can check their votes here.
  • Check to see whether your members of Congress receive contributions from the NRA, and if so, how much they receive, here.
  • Tell your state legislators to support a law that exists in five states that allows guns to be seized from those whom a judge deems a threat to themselves or others.
  • Tell your members of Congress to support laws that evidence demonstrates will save lives including:
    • Requiring permits to purchase all guns by eliminating the exemption for private sales;
    • Banning individuals convicted of any violent crime from gun purchase;
    • Making all serious domestic violence offenders surrender firearms;
    • Banning active alcohol abusers from firearms; and
    • Banning assault weapons.
  • Join and/or contribute to an organization that is working on these issues such as Everytown for Gun Safety or Moms Demand Action  for Gun Sense in America.

Finally, the tipping point will not be reached if politicians believe that NRA support will preserve their power in office. Since the vast majority of Americans support meaningful gun reform, they must translate this into votes that change the calculation of politicians and make them realize that NRA support will become a liability instead of an asset. The only way to make that happen is for gun reform advocates to support gun reform candidates and to vote for them. As Justin Dart, considered as the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), said so eloquently in a way that gun reform advocates must take to heart:

Vote as if your life depended on it, because it does.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Building Community: Now more than ever

Like many people around the world, the election of an American President who has actively engaged in and encouraged racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, frightens me. It reminds me of why I never bank on electoral politics to provide the solutions to our nation’s and our world’s problems. Of course, I vote, but in the end of the day, I only have one vote, and in this particular instance, even when the candidate I favored won a majority of the popular vote, our political system nevertheless gave the Presidency to her opponent.

I have spent my entire professional career working for progressive systems change. This election does not alter that. In fact, it will only cause me to work harder on behalf of the disenfranchised people I represent. A former colleague once called me a “good loser.” At first I did not understand that she was giving me a compliment. Then, she explained, that I never give up even after losing a hard fought battle. I simply examine the new situation for the best way forward and get back to working on making our world a better place. That is what we all must do right now.

Starting last night, many people have asked me what they can do in response to America electing perhaps the scariest President in its history. My sister-in-law just called me in tears. The vast majority of our nation was targeted by our President-elect, including women, people of color, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, and people with disabilities, as somehow less worthy. But we know better. We also know that, now more than ever, we need each other, and together we can still accomplish great things.

So, here are a few suggestions (with underlined links to prior posts for more detail):

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So, today, give hugs to friends and family. Tomorrow, start looking for local projects that you can dive into to make your local community a better place. Together we can build community and create a better world for everyone.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

21st Century Wild, Wild West

As the U.S. continues to struggle over gun violence, it appears that America’s love affair with the wild, wild west, where vigilantism and gun violence were rampant and romanticized has simply modernized and nationalized. We have regressed from using rifles and six-shooters in barely settled western towns to living in a nation where anyone can be killed or maimed at any time by assault weapons legally obtained by people on terror watch lists or toddlers pulling mommy’s handgun out of her purse and shooting her to death.

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Hickok-Tutt duel February 1867-Harper’s Monthly

The real question, of course, is why 21st century American gun policy appears stuck in the 19th century. The latest polling data shows that a majority of Americans want more gun control:

  • 55% favor stricter gun controls;
  • 92% favor universal background checks that will forbid gun sales to those convicted of felonies;
  • 54% favor a ban on the manufacture, sale and possessions of semi-automatic assault weapons;
  • 54% favor a ban on the sale and possession of equipment known as high-capacity or extended ammunition clips;
  • 87% favor banning convicted felons from possessing guns; and
  • 85% favor preventing people on the U.S. terrorism or no-fly list from owning guns.

Yet, despite mass shooting after mass shooting from Sandy Hook to Orlando and countless tragic places in between, our dysfunctional Congress refuses to pass any meaningful gun control legislation. Worse yet, there are legislators who continue to propose legislation that would make gun possession more likely.

Contrary to any reasonable pro-business, local control ideology, a Wisconsin Republican state representative Bob Gannon is responding to the Orlando massacre by proposing legislation that would hold business owners liable for triple damages if they ban weapons in their business, but someone is shot there. Hopefully, this piece of retrograde legislation will be soundly rejected. However, the sad reality is that the United States will never change its gun laws until voters make gun control a deciding factor when they cast their votes.

The late, great disability advocate Justin Dart was well known for his saying, “Vote as if your life depends upon it, because it does.” In the case of reasonable gun control legislation, he was exactly right. In November, and in every election in the future, American voters can and should choose to vote as if their lives depended on it, and vote for candidates that support the majority view that we can and should have reasonable gun control across our nation. Every such vote has the potential of saving lives, including your own.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Voting Builds Community

Yesterday, just as I have done for the past 2 1/2 years, I served as an election official at my local ward. The first time I did this was during the Presidential election in 2012, and I was assigned to a polling station on the University of Wisconsin campus. It was truly inspiring to see so many first time voters who were truly excited to cast their first ballots. Some were literally bouncing up and down with joy as they waited in line.

Last year, at my request, the City Clerk reassigned me to my local voting ward, at the Tenney Park shelter, and yesterday, as I registered voters (including my 18 year old son who cast a ballot for the first time), I realized how voting amongst one’s neighbors builds community.

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This happens in many ways. Of course, at its most basic level, the very act of voting is an act of building community. Yesterday’s vote including an overwhelming act of building community as the vast majority of Madison voters approved a $41 million referendum to make many of Madison’s schools more accessible to all, and to improve their decaying infrastructure. Included in this referendum will be a long sought and desperately needed renovation of the decrepit theater at Madison East High School, where my son will graduate soon.

Sadly, local elections like yesterday’s, tend to have low voter turnout, which is a shame since the opportunity for community building at the local level includes electing members of the city council, county board, the mayor, and school board members, all of whom are critical to shaping our community in the days to come.

But there are also more subtle ways in which my experience as an election official helps build community.

  • I registered a woman who rents the house across the street from me, which led to a conversation about her hope to buy the house and remain in our wonderful neighborhood.
  • The woman who helped me register voters lives in condominium complex and was warmly greeted my many of her neighbors who came to vote.
  • The Chair of the Madison Parks commission came to vote which led to an interesting conversation about upcoming improvements to Tenney Park, where our ward votes, and my discovery that Madison has over 200 parks!
  • Many friends and neighbors took the time to greet me, each other & other election officials who are their neighbors and friends, building community with each conversation.

While many focus on the outcome of elections, and of course, it does matter who wins and loses, we should not lose sight of the uncounted benefit of voting as a critical factor in building community, and in my case, it is a community of which I am proud to help build.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

“Vote as if your Life Depended on it…Because it Does” (Justin Dart, 1930-2002)

govt_ADASigningJustin Dart, considered the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is seen here wearing his trademark hat as he watches the first President Bush sign the bill he worked tirelessly to pass.  But Justin Dart understood that those of us who need our government to serve us well must first exercise the responsibility of voting.  Yet, US voters continue to vote at appallingly low rates, especially in mid-term elections.

ResizedImage600351-turnout-chartAs shown in  this chart put together by FairVote.org, mid-term election voting rates are typically mired in the low 40%, never exceeding 50% since WW II.  Even Presidential elections only increase voter participation to the high 50% to low 60% rates.

There are probably many reasons for this, including a feeling of helplessness, cynicism wrought by incessant negative ads, voter suppression laws, and perhaps worst of all–too many Americans simply take their right to vote for granted despite the very real implications of how those who govern us, by receiving our votes, impact our day to day lives and long term futures.

In most other democracies, people take their right to vote far more seriously than Americans.  A recent article lists 58 countries with a better voter turnout rate than the United States, led by Uruguay at 96%.

A few years ago, I was hiking in the remote Copper Canyon in Mexico, home to the indigenous Taramuhara people, who fled to these remote mountains to escape Cortez & his murdering and enslaving Spanish troops.  Due to their remoteness, many Taramuhara walk the mountains barefoot and live a simple, subsistence life.  Many do not speak Spanish. They are famed for their long-distance running ability.

tarahumaraDuring my hike, one Sunday, I noted far more Taramuhara than usual walking out of the  mountains towards the local village.  I asked a local if he knew why so many were walking barefoot out of the mountain.  He informed me that there were municipal elections being held and they were going to vote. I was stunned as I am sadly confident that there probably isn’t a single American who would walk barefoot out of the mountains to vote in a local election.

But we can and must change that.  As election day approaches, let’s remember Justin Dart’s words.

Vote as if your life depended on it…because it does.

As I have done for the past 2 years, I will serve as a local election official.  I look forward to seeing very long lines of neighbors exercising their right to vote.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.