News and Features
The biggest story of the biggest primary election night of 2002 echoed
the biggest story of the 2000 election: Florida Governor Jeb Bush,
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the gang that couldn't
design a ballot straight blew it again. Just as the fierce
indifference--and in some cases outright hostility--of Florida officials
to the practical demands of democracy warped the Sunshine State's 2000
presidential vote, so the "fixes" initiated by Bush, Harris and their
legislative allies have resulted in another election without a result.
As The Nation went to press, the contest between former Attorney
General Janet Reno and wealthy lawyer Bill McBride for the Democratic
nomination against Jeb Bush was too close to call and both campaigns
were readying legal teams.
When Floridians went to the polls September 10 to nominate a Democratic
challenger to Jeb Bush, they were supposed to encounter voter-friendly
ballots, machinery and procedures. Never again would Florida voters be
victimized as they were in 2000 by election systems that even the US
Supreme Court, which awarded the presidency to George W. Bush,
acknowledges violated the Constitution's equal protection clause. That
was the promise of Jeb Bush in May 2001, when he signed reform
legislation and declared, "[We] have resolved the problem. Other states
ought to look at this as a model...."
Bush boasted too soon. Instead of a fix, he and Harris--who quit her job
to run for Congress--cut corners, failed to recognize potential
technical problems and provided inadequate resources and information to
local election officials. The byproduct was such chaos in at least
fourteen counties on Primary Day 2002 that it sometimes made the 2000
presidential vote look like a smooth operation. Poll workers failed to
show up in Broward County and didn't know how to turn on vote-counting
machines in Duval County. An optical scan machine in Union County
registered votes only for Republican candidates. When new, ATM-style
voting machines couldn't be activated in Palm Beach County--home of the
butterfly ballot--frustrated voters walked away. A polling place in
Miami opened five hours late, after more than 500 voters were turned
away. Across the state, voting machinery in dozens--perhaps hundreds--of
precincts failed to operate properly. Problems were so widespread that
Bush finally ordered voting sites to remain open for an additional two
hours, but some precincts failed to get the message and shut their
As in 2000, problems were reported most frequently in heavily Democratic
districts and communities with large minority populations, like Miami's
Liberty City district. And, just as flawed voting systems and procedures
made it virtually impossible to get a precise read on the results of the
2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida,
so chaos in the 2002 primary voting muddled the result of the
Reno-McBride contest. Reno had to wait for more than an hour for the
computerized voting machine at her Miami-area precinct to function.
"What is it with Democrats having a hard time voting?" Jeb Bush mused,
displaying the same quickness to blame the victims of the state's
incompetence as did Republicans in 2000.
The better question is: What is it with Jeb Bush and the Republicans who
control the Florida legislature that they have such a hard time
reforming a flawed election system that Cuban officials have offered to
send democracy educators to the state? Florida isn't about to accept
that offer anytime soon, so it falls to Congress to intervene. Bush,
Harris and many Congressional Republicans have argued that states are
best prepared to set election standards. But Florida's primary chaos
makes it clear that it's time for Congress to pass uniform national
standards--as proposed by Congressman John Conyers, among others--to
guarantee that all states treat voters equally and that resources are
allocated fairly to low-income and minority precincts.
Congressional Democrats, who have been negotiating compromises on
election reform legislation in a House-Senate conference committee,
should recognize that soft standards will be abused by the likes of Jeb
Bush. And Florida Democrats, who have struggled to mount a coherent
gubernatorial challenge to Bush, ought finally to recognize that
repairing the state's damaged democracy can be a winning issue for their
candidate--if they ever figure out his or her identity.
In the 39 states that elect appellate judges, politicization of the
bench is growing.
Who says the good guys never win? California's new global warming law is
a bona fide big deal. Signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on July 22,
the global warming bill requires that the greenhouse gas emissions of
all passenger vehicles sold in the state be reduced to the "maximum"
economically feasible extent starting in model year 2009. It doesn't ban
sport utility vehicles, but it does the next best thing: It forces
automakers to design them as efficiently as possible. Hybrids and
hydrogen, here we come!
If the bill survives a promised legal challenge from the auto industry,
it will rank as the most significant official action against global
warming yet taken in the United States. It also ranks as the biggest
environmental victory of any sort scored during George W. Bush's
presidency. What's more, the behind-the-scenes story of the bill offers
valuable lessons for how environmentalists and progressives in general
can win more such victories in the future.
§ Lesson 1: Pick a target that matters. "Once the election
was decided and Bush and [Chief of Staff] Andrew Card were in the White
House, it was clear Washington was a dead end for progress on auto fuel
efficiency or global warming," says Russell Long, executive director of
the Bluewater Network, which initiated the California bill. "But
California is the fifth-biggest economy in the world." California is
also the single most important automotive market. It not only accounts
for 10 percent of all US new-auto sales, it has historically led the
nation in auto regulation. Unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters,
hybrid cars--all appeared first in the Golden State.
How so? In 1967 California's air quality was so noxious it was granted
the right to set its own air standards; other states have had the option
to choose California's (tougher) standards or the federal government's.
In short, change the law in California and you can tip the entire
national market. "You can't make one car for California and another car
for Washington, DC," explains Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Since transportation accounts for
33 percent of America's greenhouse gas emissions, the ultimate impact of
California's example could be huge.
§ Lesson 2: Embrace radical ends but flexible means.
Corporate lobbyists love to portray all environmental regulations as a
"command and control" form of economic dictatorship, as in the old
Soviet Union. That's a canard, of course, but the authors of the
California bill defanged that argument by omitting any specific
directions for how automakers are to achieve these unprecedented
greenhouse gas reductions. The bill empowers the California Air
Resources Board to decide what is feasible (by 2005, subject to the
legislature's review), but it explicitly prohibits such political
nonstarters as banning SUVs or raising gas or vehicle taxes. How to get
there from here will be left to the auto industry's engineers.
§ Lesson 3: Unite grassroots pressure with insider muscle and
celebrity clout. This part was tricky. Early backers of the bill
included the Bluewater Network and the Coalition for Clean Air, but
support from the larger national environmental groups only came later.
"They saw this bill as too extreme for their agenda, and they had other
things on their plate," said one legislative aide in Sacramento who
insisted on anonymity. "But once they saw it had traction, they got on
board and helped a lot." That traction came from dogged lobbying by the
bill's sponsor, freshman Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. A Democrat and
longtime activist from the Los Angeles area, Pavley apparently didn't
care that the bill was a long shot. Her aide Anne Baker says, "I've
worked in Sacramento a long time. If we hadn't had an outside group and
a freshman member, this [bill] probably wouldn't have been tried in the
What the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council
eventually brought to the fight was lobbying experience, vast membership
rolls and contacts with luminaries like Robert Redford and John McCain,
who telephoned wavering legislators at crucial moments. "The Latino
caucus also was a strong supporter," recalls NRDC lobbyist Ann Notthoff.
"We have cooperated with them on toxics and air pollution issues before,
and that gave us credibility on this issue."
§ Lesson 4: Remember, the bad guys make mistakes too. In the
end, the bill passed the Assembly without a single vote to spare, and
only because the industry overplayed its hand with a wildly misleading
million-dollar-plus advertising blitz. "They didn't think they could
lose," explains V. John White, a consultant who lobbies for the Sierra
Club. "We ended up splitting the business caucus, largely because the
auto industry was so shrill and arrogant. They wouldn't negotiate,
wouldn't compromise--they were just against the bill. So that left
members with a simple choice between the industry and us." Since polls
showed that 81 percent of Californians favored the bill, even
traditionally probusiness members felt safe bucking the auto industry.
It also didn't hurt that the bill was backed by a wide range of groups,
from city governments and water agencies to church leaders and Silicon
What's next? The automakers will sue, claiming that federal
fuel-efficiency law pre-empts the California measure. But that's the
lawyers. In their design and marketing departments most companies are
already accelerating their pursuit of green technologies. Thanks to
California, the writing is on the wall.
The former Labor Secretary is a top gubernatorial contender in Massachusetts.
Governer Davis may win re-election only because the GOP's Simon is such
After two decades of visiting political nightmares on the state--from
the infamous Prop 13 to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187--California's
notorious initiative and referendum system finally promises to deliver a
welcome gift this November. Enough signatures have been gathered to
qualify the Election Day Voter Registration initiative (EDR) for this
fall's ballot. The measure, which would allow citizens to both register
and vote on Election Day, is seen by many as the most significant
election reform possible at this time.
Since the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, reformers have mostly
concentrated on improving the logistics of balloting. "But that isn't
the problem," says Cal Tech Professor Mike Alvarez, co-author of a new
report analyzing EDR. "The problem in American elections isn't voting
machines. The biggest problem is voter registration."
Voter participation both across the United States and within California
has plummeted steadily over the past three decades, constantly setting
new records of anemic turnout. "Worse, the higher your income and the
older you are, the more likely you are one of those left voting," says
former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now the head of
the Demos organization, which commissioned Alvarez's study.
Supporters of EDR say it's the perfect prescription for reversing the
downward trend. In most states voters must register some weeks or even
months in advance of actual balloting, and the process is often
cumbersome and confusing. There are currently six states that have moved
to EDR, and the increase in turnout has been an immediate 3-6 percent.
Voting among young people and those who have moved in the previous six
months runs some 15 percent higher in states that have adopted EDR.
Similar reforms, like "motor voter," which allows registration at the
time of driver's-license renewal, have not been as effective.
Motor-voter does bring in a lot of registrations, but many of the new
potential voters don't show up on Election Day.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of EDR was in Minnesota's 1998
gubernatorial election. More than 330,000 last-minute, previously
unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around
independent candidate Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his
victory over the two traditional parties. EDR is also credited with
boosting liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into office during his first
run, in 1990.
Alvarez thinks that if EDR is adopted in California--where the
electorate has been disproportionately white, suburban and elderly--an
increase of up to 9 percent in turnout can be anticipated. "That's
something like 1.9 million additional voters in a presidential
election," he says. And that increase would contribute to greater
ethnic, class and age equity. Increases in voters aged 18-25 would
increase by a projected 12 percent, Latino voters by 11 percent and
African-American voters by 7 percent. A 10 percent increase could be
expected from those with a grade-school education or less, an equal
increase from those who have lived at their address for less than six
months and a 12 percent increase from new-citizen voters.
The measure is endorsed by a plethora of nonprofit activist groups and
has also gotten support from top moderate Republicans, including former
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former US Representative Tom
Campbell. No organized opposition to EDR has yet emerged, though
nativist groups are expected to charge that it opens the door to
fraudulent voting by undocumented aliens.
But backers of the measure are taking no chances. The gathering of about 700,000 signatures was financed with $1 million from California businessman and philanthropist Rob McKay,
whose McKay Foundation has an established track record in backing social
justice issues. And plans are to spend another $7 million to see the
initiative through to victory in November. During the 2001-02
legislative session, a dozen other states are expected to take up
"We have to lower the barriers to voting every way we can," says McKay.
"We are no longer dealing with just voter apathy. Now we are dealing
with outright voter alienation. With this measure we are trying to draw
the line in the sand."
John Dingell and Lynn Rivers are locked in a battle caused by
Packing the judiciary with right-wingers like Priscilla Owen.
Minnesota can be considered a veritable mecca for insurgent third parties. Its governor is maverick independent Jesse Ventura.
Greens running against Democrats, and maybe giving Republicans the edge?
Anyone who thinks we'll have to wait till the Bush-Gore rematch in 2004
to get into that can of worms had better look at Minnesota this year.
Here's Senator Paul Wellstone bidding for a third term, with the tiny
Democratic majority in the Senate as the stake. Writing in The
Nation, John Nichols sets the bar even higher. "His race," Nichols
wrote tremulously this spring, "is being read as a measure of the
potency of progressive politics in America."
Wellstone's opponent is Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul and
enjoying all the endorsements and swag the RNC can throw in his
direction. The odds are against Wellstone. Coleman is a lot tougher than
the senile Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone beat in 1996, and many
Minnesotans aren't enchanted about his breach of a pledge that year to
hold himself to two terms.
But ignoring Wellstone's dubious future, liberals are now screaming
about "the spoiler," who takes the form of Ed McGaa, a Sioux born on the
Pine Ridge Reservation, a Marine Corps vet of the wars in both Korea and
Vietnam, an attorney and author of numerous books on Native American
religion. The Minnesota Green Party picked him as its candidate on May
18 at a convention of some 600, a lively affair in which real politics
actually took place in the form of debates, resolutions, nomination
fights and the kindred impedimenta of democracy.
Aghast progressives are claiming that even a handful of votes for McGaa
could cost Wellstone the race. Remember, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 127,000
in Minnesota, more than 5 percent. Some national Greens, like Winona
LaDuke, Nader's vice-presidential running mate, didn't want a Green to
run. Some timid Greens in Minnesota are already having second thoughts,
For his part, McGaa confronts the "you're just helping the Republicans"
charge forthrightly: "Let's just let the cards fall where they're at,"
he recently told Ruth Conniff of The Progressive. "It will be a
shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I'm
not enamored by George Bush's policies." But McGaa says he'll probably
get a slice of Jesse Ventura's Independent Party vote too: "So you
Wellstone people can just calm down."
McGaa's own amiable stance contrasts markedly with liberal Democratic
hysteria. Wellstone is now being pitched as the last bulwark against
fascism, whose defeat would lead swiftly to back-alley abortions, with
the entire government in the permanent grip of the Bush Republicans.
A sense of perspective, please. Start with Wellstone. This was the guy,
remember, who promised back in 1991 that he'd go to Washington with his
chief role as Senator being to work "with a lot of people around the
country--progressive grassroots people, social-action activists--to
extend the limits of what's considered politically realistic."
So what happened? Steve Perry, a journalist with a truly Minnesotan
regard for gentility and good manners, wrote in Mother Jones last
year the following bleak assessment: "10 years after he took his Senate
seat, Wellstone has disappeared from the national consciousness. He
never emerged as the left's national spokesman for reforms in health
care, campaign finance, or anything else."
Early on, Wellstone took a dive on the biggest organizing issue for
reformers in 1993. He abandoned his support for single-payer health
insurance in the face of blandishments from Hillary Clinton.
No need to go overboard here. As with all liberal senators, Wellstone
has had some lousy votes (yes to an early crime bill, no on recognition
of Vietnam) and some honorable ones. He denounced the Gulf War in 1991
but in 2001 endorsed Ashcroft's war on terror, when Russell Feingold was
the only senator to vote no. Wellstone has been good on Colombia but, in
common with ninety-eight other senators, craven on Israel. (McGaa has
spoken up for justice for Palestinians and is now being denounced as an
anti-Semite for his pains. Imagine, a Sioux having the nerve to find
something in common with Palestinians!)
So one can dig and delve in Wellstone's senatorial career across twelve
years and find grounds for reproach and applause, but one thing is plain
enough; he's not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left,
even within his own party, let alone on the overall national stage. In
the Clinton years, when he could have tried to build a national
coalition against the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, he
mostly opted for a compliant insider role.
You don't have to be in the Senate as long as Bobby Byrd to put together
an impressive résumé. There are examples of heroic
one-term stints. Look at what Jim Abourezk of South Dakota achieved in
his one term, between 1972 and 1978. Within a year of getting into the
Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding
efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies
to within three votes of passage in the Senate.
Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after
another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final
sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats
as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed.
He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National
Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a
lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues.
The suggestion that progressive politics will now stand or fall in sync
with Wellstone's future is offensive. Suppose he were to lose of his own
accord, without a Green Party third candidate? Would it then be
appropriate to sound the death knell of progressive politics in America?
Of course not. Even the most ardent Wellstone supporters acknowledge
that Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is moribund. Hence
Ventura's triumph. The Greens have every right to hold Wellstone
accountable, and if they have the capacity to send him into retirement,
then it will be a verdict on Wellstone's failures rather than some
supposed Green irresponsibility.