Leveling the playing field

I heard it said today on NPR that if the Democrats can’t take Congress back this year they’ll never do it. It’s not too soon to think about what comes after this election for Democrats and I have some suggestions. Republicans have been methodical in taking back the country and Democrats pushed programs notably Civil Rights and the Great Society that were guaranteed to lose them part of their old New Deal coalition. The first cost them southern white voters and the latter cost them votes across the nation from people who thought a welfare society would ruin America.

The steady abandonment of the Democratic Party for the GOP’s smaller government was masked by Watergate which gave the Democrats an artificial boost in popularity but Ronald Reagan’s nostrums and surprisingly successful presidency put the Republicans back on track. It’s evident that it will take a while for Democrats to figure out what their message is. Fortunately for them, George Bush’s retrillionization of the National Debt has badly muddled the Republican message which means that for the moment the public is open to change.

Here’s my first suggestion. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Tom DeLay broke precedent to have Texas reapportioned along Republican friendly lines mid-decade. If the Democrats succeed in taking over legislatures in key states these new legislatures should be encouraged to do the same with Democrats controlling the process. Texas’s reapportionment led to a six seat pick up for Republicans. Democrats might be able to do the same in a number of other states. I’ve heard people speculate that Pennsylvania could be a particularly good target for the Dems. While I was appalled at the DeLay/Texas shenanigans it’s apparent that the parties are in an all-out war. Democrats can not give any quarter on this while they have a chance turn the tables on the GOP. I would prefer that some new non-partisan mechanism for reapportionment be instituted after the next decennial census and that may require a constitutional amendment. If this ploy works, however, don’t expect the Democrats to give it up anytime soon.

My second suggestion involves the issue of voting eligibility. The background: Republicans have been sticklers for the rules on voting. For instance, in the last Presidential election they sent Texas lawyers to places like Duluth to make sure that in highly Democratic precincts only people who could unequivocally prove their eligibility would be allowed to vote. When voters (most of whom were probably qualified to vote even though they didn’t have documentation) were shepherded into the polls by people prepared to vouch for them those lawyers aggressively objected if the eligibility laws weren’t absolutely adhered to. It didn’t change the outcome in Minnesota but it might have in Ohio. Democrats have to insure that these voters will not be turned away. I’d start by pushing state legislatures to give ex-prisoners the right to vote. I’d argue that our society has always believed that law breakers serve their time and that once they are released they should not face continuing punishment. In the United States our voting franchise is a fundamental right. Being denied full citizenship is a continuation of one’s punishment. It deprives ex-cons of their full stake in the nation’s future and perhaps even some of the incentive to redeem themselves.

While we no long make much of a pretense of rehabilitating prisoners we still operate under the idea that jail time allows prisoners to “pay their debt to society.” To further persecute these citizens by prolonging their debt for political advantage after their release is bad faith. Since these millions of voters may look favorably on the political party which demands that their rights be restored we might expect a few marginally red states to switch to blue. My third suggestion involves a gross violation of the voting franchise. Residents of our nation’s capital are denied voting representation in the halls of Congress. Whatever the nation’s founders thought when they designated the swamp along the Potomac as our new capitol, worrying about its voters was purely theoretical. The first settlers were mostly residents of other states who cast their votes elsewhere.

By the time that the native population of the District of Columbia emerged powerful southern Democrats had no interest in giving them any representation in Congress because most were African American. The South denied blacks the vote back home and they had no incentive to do anything differently in the Nation’s Capitol. Times have changed. The only good argument to prevent giving D.C. residents Congressional representation is feeble: that D.C. is not a state. Yet D.C. residents are American citizens and pay taxes. They were born into a nation whose rallying cry was “no taxation without representation.” Their disenfranchisement is unconscionable.

The practical but unsaid argument for denying D.C. residents voting representation in Congress is that they vote for Democrats. Since the southern democrats have become Republicans they’ve clung to their old objections only now it’s because or party politics rather than race. If the Democrats forced a national debate on this issue the Republicans would be hard pressed to deny the legacy of racism that their ”no votes for D.C.” position rests upon. After these or similar measures are taken to level the playing field for Democrats the Dems can figure out just where they want to take the nation. I hope for my sake its somewhere in the center. The Republicans, after all, have abandoned much of this space and a vacuum demands to be filled. Let’s make sure the Republicans don’t repopulate it first after 2006.

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