Friday, May 7, 2010

Terri Lynn Opinion Prevents Transparency

Last week, Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn issued a tentative consent allowing political advertising to conceal the supporting donors. This just a few months after the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and other big money interest can spend as much money as they deem necessary on political advertising.

Come election time it is important to know where everyone stands on the issues so that the voter can make an informed decision. Lynn’s decision will prevent transparency in the voting process.

Knowing where public officials stand on the issues is important. But, that extends beyond government and politics. It also extends to every individual and group in the community that takes a public stand. Sometimes the motivation for advocating for or against an issue is not just the belief that it will help the community, it could also be a monetary or personal benefit.

With the recent Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and other groups to spend as much as they want to support political issues, the political arena has changed. Justice Antonin Scalia, who stood with the majority in that decision, supports transparency with an opinion in another case by saying, "You can't run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known." Much more money will now be spent on issues and candidates than ever before. With the secretary of state ruling that donors in support of issues can be kept secret, it will violate the concept of transparency in politics. The voter needs to know all the facts about an issue including who supports it.

The Secretary of State Terri Lynn was wrong to issue a tentative opinion supporting the privacy requests of the Chamber of Commerce. In the final decision, she needs to reverse that opinion. If not, the legislature of the state needs to take immediate action to keep our elections transparent.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aaron Burr and the Car Bomber in New York

“They are equivalent to a proclamation of impunity to every traitorous combination which may be formed to destroy the Union."

Those are the words of Thomas Jefferson, speaking about the turn of events at the Aaron Burr trial that later acquitted him of high treason. In short, Burr was accused of conspiring with political allies, army officers and the British government to form a separate nation in America’s heartland. Britain at the time was an enemy of the young country. Those that accused him of treason said he raised money, troops and resources in his attempt. The most high profile person to accuse him was the President of the United States at the time, Thomas Jefferson, who had taken personal interest in the case.

Just about everyone involved in the case; prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and a host of other people on both sides were associated with the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution against Britain, the writing of the Articles of Confederation and the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. Whatever interpretation we may apply to the meaning of the rights that are part of the constitution, these men would have known them intuitively because they imbedded them in the constitution both expressly and implicitly.

Aaron Burr was a citizen of the United States. He was accused of conspiring with an enemy state. Never was he taken to a military prison and held without bail. Never was he denied a defense by competent attorneys. (In fact, his attorneys were high profile lawyers that were well aware of the Burr’s constitutional rights). Never once was it suggested that his citizenship should be taken away.

Today, Faisal Shahzad stands accused of plotting with enemies of the United States and other subversive activities just like Aaron Burr. He is the primary suspect in the attempted car bomb attack in New York’s Times Square recently. There are those that want him taken off to a military prison and tried in a military court. Other high profile government officials have also demanded that he not be read his Miranda rights before he is interrogated. Senator Joe Lieberman, if he was in charge, would take away his citizenship.

How is it that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and signer of the Constitution, didn’t ask for Burr’s citizenship, did not deny him a civil trial nor imprison Burr without counsel, yet Lieberman thinks that is just what should be done with Shahzad?

Fighting terrorism is serious business. As a community we need to take every action we can to provide for a safe and secure environment. But we can’t forsake the very thing that has made this country strong, the rights Jefferson did not take away from the most celebrated person accused of plotting against the United States.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Petition Drives have No Expectation of Privacy

You are in a hurry with kids in tow. As you get out of your car and walk over to the post office a woman approaches. She asks you to sign a petition for a citizen’s initiative that supports marriage. Without reading the statement as focused as you should on the official looking form, you sign your name in a rush so that your kids won’t run out in traffic.

Two weeks later, you get a call from a stranger. She asks if you signed a petition that requested the state to place a measure on the ballot demanding a roll back on domestic partner benefits. You are surprised that someone called you.

Did you think that you would have some privacy when you signed the petition?

It is hard to believe anyone’s privacy could be maintained in this situation. When you signed the petition you could see all the other names on the list. Someone could have been casually watching while you signed. The workers that earn money from every name they get on the list could have made photocopies of the petitions. This would insure that they have proof of their income. When the lists are collected for formal presentation to the state, there will be copies made. Finally, the petitions are presented to the state in an open forum.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this question April 28 in a case from Washington. Gay rights groups are asking for the names to be released on a petition for Referendum 71. It is a ballot measure aimed at rolling back domestic partnership rights for same sex couples. State law in Washington requires the release of names on petition drives. Some people in the state fear reprisals from the gay rights groups.

The names should not be kept secret because people must be able to trust a citizen’s initiative. They are started by people that would like to ask the voters of a state if they think something should be changed. If enough people think the same way, the issue gets on the ballot. The people that sign the petition must be real and registered voters along with various other requirements depending on the state. If those names on the petition can’t be challenged how does anyone know they are real people?

A similar issue to this came up in the last national election. An organization was registering people to vote. If was found, by people making challenges to the names on the list that some were not eligible. Now the organization that did that, as well as other things, no longer exists. ACORN has closed its doors, partly because of the challenge.

Responsible communities must operate in the open so that everyone can trust the process. Keeping names on a petition drive private only builds mistrust.