How to own your government in one easy lesson

"I don't want everybody to vote. Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." – American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) co-founder Paul Weyrich, 1983

Spring & Summer, 2012
by Rob Lafferty

The presidential election circus of 2012, as usual, has little in common with the true practice of democracy. Nearly a billion dollars will flow into the campaigns of the incumbent and his challenger. More than a billion will be spent in local elections across the land. All of that money will be used to sell American citizens something we already own – our government.

The sales pitches all that cash will buy won’t have any effect on one-third of the voting age population, however, because the largest block of voters in America are people who don't vote at all.

A full one-third of all eligible voters stay out of every election. That's no way to maintain a democracy, and it's why our Republic was hijacked long ago.

Over the years I've heard a thousand different reasons given as excuses by non-voters. All sounded good, but none were valid. No law requires citizens to vote; yet every citizen is bound by duty to vote.

In the 1960 presidential election, only 63 percent of the eligible voters in America actually did. When it comes to citizens exercising their civic duty, that’s the best we’ve done over the past fifty years.

Our typical national voting rate is between 50-55 percent. It’s the primary reason government is not responsive to the people who are still its legal owners.

Sadly, even that 63 percent is an optimistic number. In every election throughout the history of this country, dead people and fictional characters have managed to vote – especially in Illinois, Ohio and Florida. In today's digital world stuffing or dumping a ballot box is easier than ever before. I’m thankful I vote in Oregon, where I can mail in a paper ballot and have some hope that the tally will be honest.

The Roper Center at the University of Connecticut counted all votes cast in the 2008 presidential election, including those for independents and write-ins. Their tally comes to 131 million. That's the highest total in American history, but it’s still only about 60 percent of potential voters.

The number of honest votes in 2008 was probably closer to 130 million. There's no way to know the exact number of voting-age citizens in that year, but a fair guess would be 210 million. That leaves us with about 80 million non-voters.

President Obama received just under 69 million votes and easily won the election. Because of the Non-Voting Party, however, he only needed the active support of about 30 percent of the citizenry to win.

We Oregon voters did a little better than the national average with a 67 percent turnout. Texas and Utah ranked near the bottom at 54 percent. Minnesotans can stand tall, as they led the nation at 77 percent.

In a true democracy, 77 percent is a barely acceptable minimum level of voter participation. In America it’s the best we can do, and then only in one state.

A ninety percent voter turnout is the best way we can return to the original idea of government by democracy, owned by the People.

In that ideal design, in every state and in the federal center of Washington D.C., the House of Representatives was the primary body of government. New laws could be proposed at that level; all budget decisions would be made there. The House was where the pulse of each state and the nation would be measured, using speeches and votes of representatives as a gauge.

The job was envisioned as being filled by citizens willing to do a thankless job for low pay on behalf of the common good. Representatives were expected to vote according to the will of the majority of citizens in their district. They would serve a term or two at most before returning to private life.

The Senate was designed to balance legislative power in Congress. Senators were generally seen as elder statesmen from their respective regions. Their purpose was to provide a long-term perspective on current events and use history, science and philosophy to keep democracy alive. They could propose laws and could amend or void decisions made by representatives when necessary.

Presidents and Governors had a far different role at the inception of America. As chief executives, they were expected to run government as a successful business, providing direction to public employees, hiring and firing as needed. They could propose new laws or encourage a repeal of existing law, but could not change the law themselves. Politics had little function within that position; a chief exec needs to work with people of every persuasion to get things done.

None of those elective positions were meant to become a career path, nor a means of acquiring wealth and power.

The Supreme Court was designed to be a reactive group. For the most part, justices were simply to settle questions of law brought before them, not to enact laws themselves. They were to be the best legal minds in the country, not elected for their beliefs but appointed due to their competence.

A simple system by design, it grew into a complicated mess once applied in the real world, as all political systems tend to do.

The solution is also simple, in theory. Four major changes are needed, but they need to occur within the minds of voters, not in the laws of the land. Those four things are: ignore campaign sales pitches; support independent candidates; get off the couch and vote; vote smart.

If you’re a member of the Non-Voting Party, you’re half of the problem. You can’t have democracy in a land where 40 percent of eligible voters can’t be bothered. We’ve just seen a typical turnout in the Florida primary, where 4 million registered Republicans live. Just under 2 million of them voted this year, while more than 2 million decided to pass.

Those numbers don’t include the millions of unregistered eligible voters who live in Florida. And Democrats don’t generally participate any better, so we are, at least, bipartisan in our indifference to our duty as citizens.

If you mark every ballot strictly based on membership in the Republican or Democratic parties, you’re the other half of the reason why the American experiment in self-government is failing.

The act of voting shouldn’t be limited to a choice between two competing political philosophies that aren’t that much different. Elections are held in order to hire the best available person to do a specific job, not to choose leaders who believe they know best how to lead us somewhere, anywhere.

A basic premise of every totalitarian system is complete Party loyalty in every election. We like to mock voters in foreign lands who fall for that dogma, yet far too many of us right here at home remain loyal Party followers – even against our own interests.

We can’t stop the influence of money and still claim to be a free society. The Supreme Court has ruled that political advertising is a protected form of free speech and that corporations are people, so cash now flows into campaigns in amounts never seen before. When one individual can donate $10 million directly to one candidate, that certainly goes against the ‘one person, one vote’ spirit of democracy.

When special interest groups fund a campaign, a politician will be receptive to members of those groups. That’s simply human nature and there is no remedy for it. The only way to counter the influence of a bucketload of money is to reject the sales pitch it offers, for the truth does not live there.

Instead, vote for the candidate with the least amount of campaign cash. That may seem an unreasonable approach, but since we aren’t getting much representation right now, well…why not? It comes closer to Constitutional ideals than our usual practice of selling votes to the biggest spender.

In order to vote smart, we also need to change our concept of leadership and the blind faith it inspires. George Washington became our first President despite his deep reluctance to accept the job because others convinced him that a new nation required a popular leader to establish some standards.

Faith in leadership is how Abraham Lincoln was able to gather so much power into the office of the President; his success at preserving the Union came at the expense of the Constitution. Every president since Lincoln has been able to expand those powers. It’s why we now have a massive Homeland Security Department that routinely violates the Constitution under the guise of public safety and a Defense Department budget that goes way beyond any rational need for national defense.

Leaders have led us towards a place that only they could truly see, just over the horizon. A clear look around the country today shows the reality beyond that horizon turned out to be not as promising as we were led to believe.

More importantly, as envisioned more than two centuries ago, the job of state or federal representative is not a leadership position. The priorities of any representative are simple – inform the public regarding the issues of the day, listen to as many residents of a district as possible, try to determine the will of the majority, then vote accordingly.

Representatives can, of course, propose new laws. They can try to change public attitudes towards a specific piece of legislation. They’re free to promote their own solution to a social problem. But they are duty-bound to vote according to the will of the majority.

That duty doesn’t prevent them from taking an unpopular position and voting their conscience. They can try to explain that vote to their constituents afterwards, and be held accountable at the next election. But it should take extraordinary circumstances for a representative to defy the wishes of the general public.

Trying to assess the will of the majority was not an easy task when messages took days to reach their destination and travel between the towns and villages of a district meant several weeks on the road. It’s not much easier in today’s world, even with the technological tools we have available. Sadly, few of our current crop of legislators bother to try.

Instead, we elect officials who vote according to a political philosophy, and usually a vague one at that. Those officials then try to lead the public in a general direction; they listen to people who can afford to buy access instead of reaching out to those who can’t.

It’s no surprise that politicians generally perform poorly, but it’s our own fault – we keep hiring the same kind of people.

Our votes have been sold to the highest bidder for too long. After all, we own our government. It can only be bought when we choose to sell it.

Rob Lafferty, a former editor and news reporter in California, Hawaii and Oregon, now lives in the deep woods of Oregon's Coast Range. He can be reached via email at