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Friday, June 30, 2006

After Vermont and Texas

June 30th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Washington Post

Changes needed in the Political Culture of America
Martin G. Evans
Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

It is a sad day when the Supreme Court demonstrates such intellectual incoherence in the service of partisan advantage. The Court deferred to the Texas legislature in allowing most of its redistricting plan but second-guessed the Vermont lawmakers in striking down the spending limits devised by that State as appropriate to the Election costs in that State.

These two cases demonstrate conclusively that Elections, their financing, and the drawing of electoral district boundaries are too important to be left to the vagaries of Legislators and Judges.

It is time for some common sense to be injected into the debate.

First, voting suppression seems to be rampant in the United States. Most other jurisdictions in Democratic societies separate the administration of Elections from partisan influence. The Chief Elections Officer, who runs the elections, assigns staff and voting machines to precincts, and counts the vote is a Civil Servant subject to the discipline of Civil Service regulations and not beholden to any particular party. This is not the situation in most of the States in the US where the person responsible for running the election is usually a functionary of the political party in power. This has to be changed.

Second, we must move toward a system of campaign financing that depends on public funding rather than private donation. This last will be difficult to achieve because of the Supreme Court rulings that financial donations to politicians and Political Action Committees are protected by First Amendment free speech provisions. To undo this a long run strategy of a Constitutional amendment will be necessary. One step in the right direction can be achieved by a change in a totally different arena: licensing radio and television stations. Most money in election campaigns goes to a media blitz. If TV and Radio outlets were required, as they are in the UK and Canada, to provide access to political candidates then the necessity for candidates to advertise would diminish. Congress should take the necessary legislative action so that new rules can be in place for the next round of license renewals.

Third, as we have seen in Texas and elsewhere, Electoral Districts are often drawn by the legislature. Districts designed by legislators are meant to do two things: first and most important, to protect and enhance the opportunities for more seats for the majority party; and second to protect incumbents of any political stripe. Often the two major parties will horse-trade boundary lines to protect each other's incumbents. In most jurisdictions outside the USA and in some exemplary US States, redistricting is handed over to an Independent Redistricting Commission. These usually have bipartisan representation on the commission but are independent of the legislature.

Changes in these three areas will protect American democracy in the 21st Century.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Due Process

June 29th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

To the Editor:

As a supporter of same-sex marriage, I find it difficult to be on the same side on the question of due process as the opponents of same-sex marriage. They are however correct in asking for an up or down vote.

Opponents of same-sex marriage followed the Constitution (pending the outcome of the case against the Constitutionality of the Ballot Question). They are entitled to their day in the Constitutional Convention and to having the legislators vote on the issue. If they try to avoid the issue, then it is the right of the Governor to convene another Constitutional Convention and to continue doing so until a vote is taken.

I would, of course, urge the legislators to vote down the ban on same-sex marriage.
That said, it is appalling to see the Catholic hierarchy pontificating in support of their version of family values after the terrible damage it did to families by protecting the sexual predators in the clergy. It will take many years of faithful service before they regain the right to be listened to on these issues.

Masachusetts Constitutional COnvenetion

June 29th. 2006
Published in the Cambridge Chronicle

The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention
Martin G Evans
Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

Last May, the State Senate and House of Representatives was supposed to sit together as a Constitutional Convention.  Several contentious issues were to come before that session. In their wisdom the leadership of the Senate and House adjourned the Constitutional Convention until July 12th.
The most contentious issue (with several proposals) coming before the Constitutional Convention is the issue of how marriage should be defined. The members of the Constitutional Convention are deeply divided on the issue and there are strong lobby groups on either side of the question. Accordingly, the members of the General Court would like to avoid making the tough decision either for or against defining marriage in gender specific terms (one man and one woman). This they can do by adjourning the Constitutional Convention without taking a vote on the issue.
This however would be unconstitutional. The Constitution specifies that if an initiative petition gets sufficient signatures (and the petition in favor of the gender specific definition of marriage did meet the bar handily) then the Constitutional Convention must vote the issue up or down. If the members of the General Court refuse to agree on a time and place to vote on the issue then, under the Constitution, the Governor has to call the Constitutional Convention into being and ensure that a vote is taken. [The relevant section of the Constitution, as amended, states: "and if the two houses fail to agree upon a time for holding any joint session hereby required, or fail to continue the same from time to time until final action has been taken upon all amendments pending, the governor shall call such joint session or continuance thereof."]
There is one other issue on the Table that has been brought there through the petition initiative: the proposal for universal health insurance. Now that the legislature has actually passed a new health-care plan, it should be relatively easily to enshrine such a provision in the Constitution.
There are about ten other issues of importance that are also on the agenda. These include constitutional amendments for:
  • The establishment of a "rainy day" fund
  • Creating an Independent Redistricting Commission
  • Increasing the availability of Absentee Balloting
Many of these issues are non-contentious and need to be addressed in a timely fashion. The legislature, consisting as it does of the elected representatives of the people, has a responsibility to do the peoples' business. Undertaking amendments to the State Constitution is the very essence of the peoples' business. It is to be hoped that the rancor caused by the disputed issues does not mean that important but less controversial issues do not get considered.
A schedule, publicized by the Legislature is, in these days of open, responsible government, a contract between the legislators and the people that they represent. The Legislators of the Commonwealth have broken that contract by adjourning the Constitutional Convention without considering any of the important issues before it. If they try to do so again, the Governor should exercise his constitutional power and call the Constitutional Convention into session, and, if they adjourn again, he should continue to call it into session until the issues are dealt with - especially those coming before the Convention as a result of successful initiative petitions. It is unconscionable, as well as unconstitutional, that those are not being subjected to an up or down vote.
For the Record: I am in favor of gay marriage, universal health care, creation of the "rainy day" fund, redistricting reform, and increased availability of the absentee ballot.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Gun Legislation

June 19th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

Thank you for your warning (Editorial: The Call of the Gun Lobby, June 19, 2006, P: A 17) of the impending anarchy that we can expect if the gun lobby gets this legislation past.

You do us a disservice by not mentioning which legislators are sponsoring this appalling piece of legislation. We need to know so that we can have the opportunity to vote the anarchists out.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

No Witnesses at Gitmo

June 18th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

I almost wept when I read your story (Detainees not given access to witnesses, Boston Globe, June 8, P: A1) about the failure of the United States' Authorities to find witnesses who might have been able to exonerate some of the prisoners held at Guantanamo. How could those responsible not have tried with every fibre of their being to find those witnesses? Instead they took a lackadaisical approach that seems typical of the Bush administration.
As with Katrina, it is hard to know whether the neglect of the duty owed to the prisoners was deliberate and  malign or mere ineptitude. In either case, the American government, its agencies, and its contractors have to change their ways dramatically.
And thanks to your reporters for another magnificent, if depressing, scoop.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Marriage Amendment

June 5th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

Today the U.S. Senate is to consider the Marriage Amendment. I sent the following message to the President ( who instigated this move:

"Hands off Massachusetts marriage."

I hope your readers will do the same.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

June 4th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the New York Times

Thank you for your article (Invoking Secrets Privilege Becomes a More Popular Legal Tactic by U.S., New York Times, June 3rd. 2004.) on the State Secrets Privilege.

I looked in vain for some solution to the competing demands of secrecy and justice. Surely a Special Court, akin to that set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, could be created that would deal with cases needing the disclosure of sensitive information.

I was also disappointed that you did not mention the fact that the Third Circuit Court of Appeal refused to reconsider the original state secret case of 1953 that some believe was based on inaccurate information being provided to the Courts by the US Air Force. It is important that this case be carefully re-examined to ensure that the privilege rests on sound grounds.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

It is not clear that Colonel Hammes is on the right track when he calls for increased funding to build the infrastructure to bind the three segments of Iraq together (New York Times, June 1st., 2006, A 25).

An alternative case can be made that Iraq is an artificial state like Yugoslavia created out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and that its construction reflected the priorities of the so-called Great Powers rather than the preferences of the indigenous inhabitants. Accordingly, splitting Iraq into new Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni dominated countries might be in the best interests of the Iraqis and the region.

The main stumbling blocks to the tripartite partition of Iraq are multi-ethnic neighborhoods, oil, and money. As Sunni-Shiite conflict increases, people are fleeing their multi-ethnic neighborhoods. If they can afford it they are moving abroad, if not they are moving to an area of Iraq where their co-religionists are dominant. Instead of trying to fight the insurgents let each faction have its own country and then deploy the US troops and the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish militias to facilitate large scale movement of people from their multi-ethnic neighborhoods to the parts of the country where they wish to live. Troops (and a large computer database) could ensure that Sunni families could "swap" the houses they owned in the Shiite part of the country  with houses that Shiites owned in the Sunni section. Once all those people who want to move have been moved, the U.S. can withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Oil unfortunately is only found in the Kurdish and Shiite parts of the country, so that sharing the oil revenues is a source of friction between the three sectors of Iraq. I suggest that we do not try to engage in finding a correct formula for sharing those revenues between the three hostile faction. Rather, I suggest that the Shiite country keep all its oil revenues, that the Kurds keep all their oil revenues, and that the US step in to ensure that the Sunni state is financially viable by agreeing to pay a subsidy of $22 billion per year (roughly equivalent to five-twelfth of Iraq's oil revenues at current prices; and much less than the $95 billion annual economic cost of the war) for a twenty year period. By providing this subsidy at this level, each of the three pieces of current Iraq will do rather better out of the oil revenues than they would if Iraq were kept together in an uneasy federal system.

This separation of Iraq into homogeneous religious and ethnic states will undermine the raison d'ĂȘtre of the insurgency. It will give the inhabitants of the three states the opportunity to develop indigenous democratic systems. It will give them the option, if they so desire, to build a federal state in the future. Most importantly it will enable the U.S. to extricate itself from Iraq and leave behind three states with a high potential for stability

June 1st. 2006
Sent to but not published in the New York Times, Business Section

Re: Type, Fold Up Keyboard and Go, New York Times, June 1, 2006. C9.

I have never understood why someone hasn't developed a popular input device based on Morse code. The operator only needs a single key and skilled practitioners can easily communicate large amounts of information in a short time.

It seems to me that such a system would be ideal for those of us using miniature computers. It is not too difficult to learn, thousands did during World War II, but it does require intensive practice.

Maybe that is the one strike against it -- it doesn't provide instant gratification.