The Cost of Voting

This afternoon on nola.com, Jarvis DeBerry has a piece complaining about the length of yesterday’s ballot in New Orleans. Secretary of State, Tom Schedler has also complained about this. Well, I respectfully disagree.

First, it’s not like the ballot and its contents were published just this week. The races, amendments, and other ballot measures have been available to review for months. There are numerous sources online and offline that explain them, and in case you somehow managed to avoid all the campaign ads, the date for the election has been known for more than a year. So, that yesterday was an election should not have come as a surprise to anyone unless they suddenly awoke from a coma.

Second, elections are how we decide our overlords and choose whether or not to change our state constitution and local laws. As a result, voters should be expected to put some effort and thought into who or what they’re going to vote for. Thinking you can just show up on election day and figure it out is certainly one strategy, but it is certainly not a good strategy for making any kind of educated choice. I do not think it’s too much to ask for voters to be expected to make a decision before they get in the voting booth. That way, it’s pretty quick to make your selections once you actually get in front of a ballot.

I also find the complaints a bit ironic. We are bombarded by friendly and not-so-friendly reminders to vote, expensive get-out-the-vote drives, and ongoing arguments over voter id and access to the polls. Yet, God forbid some poor voter show up at the polls who hasn’t cared to get informed and discover a long and involved ballot that requires more than simply choosing their party of choice.

If the numbers show that significantly fewer people voted for the amendments and ballot measures than for Senator, what that tells me is that people were voting responsibly. I make a point to do my homework before every election, but even I sometimes choose not to vote on matters I truly don’t understand or have a preference. And you know what? That’s ok.

What is not ok is presuming that a long and involved ballot is something that voters can’t or shouldn’t have to deal with. Even if the odds are extremely small that any one vote will impact an election, exercising the right to vote means something. It means more than just showing up and picking your tribe over the other one. If we are to have a government that is governed by the people, then the least the people can do is educate themselves on how they’re choosing to be governed. I trust that the voters are more than capable of handling this task, and more than that, they must be trusted with it.

Finally, I do understand the frustration with a long list of proposed amendments. At a minimum, they do need to be worded in a clear way that people can understand. This year I thought they were worded fine and I didn’t have any trouble understanding the language during my research. However, that is certainly a fluid dynamic to be monitored. Nevertheless, Tom Schedler’s proposal to limit the number of amendments per ballot is something I oppose. Do we have too many proposed amendments to the Constitution? Maybe. But even if we do, how can anyone predict beforehand what the proper number should be in any given year?

Instead of griping about the length of the ballot, or proposing to shorten it, or assuming that people can’t or don’t want to deal with it, remember what voting is supposed to be about. It is supposed to be an integral part of our system of government, and as such, for those who choose to participate, it shouldn’t be too much to ask to do some homework before you show up.

November Grand Rapids Ballot

Since my fiancee will be voting in Grand Rapids, Michigan tomorrow, I figured I should take a look at the ballot with her. It’s even longer than New Orleans’! For those of you in GR who are unfamiliar with my writing, I speak with a decidedly libertarian point of view. However, I have tried to be more even-handed with this post since it was mostly written with the goal of informing rather than persuading.

To see your own ballot before heading to the polls between 7am -8pm, go here to enter your info and then select the option to “View My Sample Ballot.” You will also be able to see the information for your polling location.

U.S. Senate:

Gary Peters is in favor of removing 1st Amendment speech protections recognized in Citizens United. While this issue alone is obviously a major point of contention for people on both sides, I am resolutely in agreement with the Court’s decision in the case. I am in favor of more information being broadcast during election cycles, not less. Reversing Citizens United would remove one significant method of disseminating information to voters. Gary Peters also favored bailouts for the automotive industry, and generally believes we can manipulate and manage the economy to success. At least he’s in favor of marriage equality and allowing refinancing of federal student loans.

Unfortunately, Terri Lynn Land isn’t much better than Peters. “Sealing” the border, “no” to marriage equality, more economic micromanaging, increasing the minimum wage, etc. I fully agree with Ms. Land’s position on making colleges bear some responsibility for defaulted student loan debt, though. That is a policy that could actually work to lower college tuition costs.

I guess it should come as no surprise that the only candidate in this race I can get excited about is the Libertarian, Jim Fulner. He articulates consistent goals of decreasing government involvement in our lives, not more or just differently managed involvement. He understands the problems with our massive military spending specifically, and overspending in general. He is the only candidate who would meaningfully attempt to change government.

U.S. House, District 3:

I’m not even going to spend any more time other than saying yes, yes, and yes again to Justin Amash. He has consistently impressed me with his civil libertarian positions and his determination on fighting the establishment to make people more free.

Governor:

All the media coverage would lead one to believe that only Gov. Rick Snyder and challenger, Mark Schauer are in the race. Practically speaking they’re probably right. Unfortunately, this creates a self-fulfilling cycle that ignores other good candidates. For example, my personal worldview is obviously most in line with Libertarian candidate Mary Buzuma, but I was also impressed by Green Party candidate Paul Homeniuk’s platform items of reducing college administration costs and eliminating the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Regardless, when comparing Gov. Snyder and Mark Schauer one thing is clear: more tax-payer dollars will be spent in the next 4 years. See here and here. So, essentially, the choice before Michigan voters is between which government programs you favor increased budgets for and how high you prefer those increases to be. I’d rather vote for a candidate who would actually consider seriously decreasing the size of government, and not the candidate who would just increase government less than the other guy.

Secretary of State:

According to current Sec. Johnson’s website, she has accomplished a good deal in her first term. Of special interest to me is the improved service while decreasing the budget. The Democratic challenger, Godfrey Dillard, comes across as more of a voting rights activist than an executive level bureaucrat. And really, that is what the Secretary of State office is, bureaucracy. If the office must exist to administer functions created by law, then we should have a competent individual in place who understands that the office should run as efficiently as possible for the people of Michigan. I don’t see anything that suggests Ruth Johnson is not currently accomplishing that, and I am interested to see what further improvements she could implement in a second term. On a separate note, it was interesting to see that Mr. Dillard served as lead counsel in the 2003 U of M affirmative action case, Gratz v. Bollinger. I fundamentally disagree with affirmative action as a state-sponsored activity, and as such cannot support a candidate who actively works to continue such policies.

Attorney General:

John Anthony La Pietra is a solo-practitioner focusing on constitutional law and civil rights cases. He seems to be running a campaign based on being an A.G. “FOR THE PEOPLE.” By “PEOPLE,” he seems to mean everyone but the rich and powerful. He alludes that the incumbent is more concerned with the rich and powerful than the average citizens of Michigan. It is also possible that his candidacy is in reaction to the incumbent opposing his clients in a mayoral recall petition in Benton Harbor.

Bill Schuette is the incumbent A.G. He is focusing his campaign on lessening crime in Michigan by increasing the number of law enforcement officers and increasing funding for testing of rape kits. The Detroit Free Press was highly critical of A.G. Schuette’s unsuccessful defense of Michigan’s anti-gay marriage law.

Mark Totten is a current Michigan State Univ. professor and former federal prosecutor and attorney with the U.S. Dept. of Justice. He has compiled an impressive slate of endorsements. Mr. Totten has an impressive resume and hits the current A.G. hard for positions he has taken. Voters could expect an A.G. Totten to be a more progressive A.G. (for better or worse) and take consistent Democratic legal positions. I believe Mr. Totten misstates A.G. Schuette’s position on the contraception cases like Hobby Lobby.

Supreme Court Justice, Race 1 (choose 2):

Current Justice Brian Zahra has a strict view of the rule of law and enforcing the constitution as written. Justice Zahra favors removing Supreme Court openings from the ballot and instead allowing the Governor to appoint Justices, thereby ridding the current system of requiring candidates to go through the party nomination process. In effect, Justice Zahra favors implementing the federal system of Executive appointment and Senate confirmation of Justices.

James Robert Redford is a current Judge on the 17th Circuit Court. He has served in the 17th Circuit for 11 years. Prior to that, Judge Redford spent 28 years in the Navy JAG Corps and served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for 8 years. Judge Redford is also an Eagle Scout. He favors the current method of electing Supreme Court Justices, but is open to greater transparency in the process.

Bill Murphy is the Chief Judge on the Court of Appeals. He has served on the Court of Appeals for 26 years and served as Chief Judge for 5 years. Further, Judge Murphy served for 8 years on the Judicial Tenure Commission monitoring state judges for ethics complaints.

Doug Dern appears to be a protest candidate who believes the current Justices have “forgotten about the people.” Aside from multiple typos in his Mlive Voter Guide responses, he doesn’t offer much by way of his judicial philosophy.

Richard Bernstein is a legally blind trial attorney who believes in “blind justice for all.” His practice has focused on providing pro bono representation for disabled individuals in discrimination claims.

Supreme Court Justice, Race 2 (choose 1):

Kerry Morgan is an attorney who believes the job of a Supreme Court Justice is to secure the rights of the people. He thinks the current system of electing judges is adequate in that it limits partisan primaries.

Deborah Thomas is a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge. Judge Thomas has an exhaustive resume of public service. Unfortunately, Judge Thomas’ Mlive Voter Guide responses were riddled with typos. That is not what I am looking for in a Supreme Court Justice candidate.

Justice David Viviano has served on the Supreme Court since March, 2013. Prior to joining the Supreme Court, Justice Viviano served as a state circuit court judge for 6 years. Justice Viviano believes in adhering to the rule of law, interpreting laws with their plain meaning, and looking to legislative intent, not the judge’s policy preferences. Further, Justice Viviano hopes to make technological improvements on the Court to improve electronic filing and access to Court documents. Justice Viviano is a member of the Federalist Society.

State Senate, District 29:

Dave Hildenbrand essentially sounds like a generic Republican. Helping to balance the budget? Yes, please. However, Helping decrease regulations? Yes, again. However, not supporting marriage equality and generally bragging about massive spending increase is not a good way to my heart.

I was hoping to be impressed by Lance Penny. Then, he lost me by the 5th line of his website. Who cares if Dave Hildenbrand receives donations from the Koch brothers? I participated in a Koch fellowship this summer. I think if Mr. Penny actually bothered to look into the causes the Koch’s give their money to he would re-think his knee-jerk disdain for them.

State House, District 75:

Challenger John Lohrstorfer doesn’t offer any specifics of his platform or plan should he be elected. All he really says is that he wants a government that is smaller, costs less, and gets out of the way. Those things sound good, but without any more specifics we have no way of knowing how serious or practical of a candidate he is.

Incumbent Brandon Dillon seems to be taking the same truth-challenged path as Mark Schauer in the race. Aside from not being truthful about education spending, Dillon is also in favor of raising taxes on businesses (a sure way to improve the job market in Michigan) and a friend of big labor. Searching for any positive attributes are difficult as well. Dillon offers little specifics aside from typical-sounding plans for helping families and bringing in jobs.

Kent County Commissioner:

Jim Talen has served as County Commissioner for 14 years. His platform is fairly generic, so essentially a vote for him is a vote for approval of the current state of Kent County. I do find it curious that he views the most pressing issue facing the county to be the state government. I was hoping to hear more than “just elect people who are better for us” (paraphrasing).

Unfortunately, opponent Theodore Nikodem has not offered any actual platform or ideas for needed changes that I have been able to find.

State Board of Education (choose 2):

I ran out of energy for this one.

U of Michigan Regent (choose 2):

John Jascob strongly supports an open learning environment by opposing speech codes and free-speech zones, and he also views cutting administrative costs as a key way to lower tuition costs for students. However, Mr. Jascob has some odd sounding ideas like stopping “university investments tied to the occupation of Palestine” and university-contracted military research.

Mike Behm has a lot of grand soundbites, but is quite lacking in actual subtance aside from his plan to decrease tuition costs by acquiring more funds from the state.

Joe Sanger is quite concerned with the rising cost of tuition and would be willing to implement a tuition freeze. Also, Mr. Sanger feels rather strongly the U of M should not be instilling in its students a collectivist mindset of political correctness.

Dr. Rob Steele seems to have some rather solidly thought out plans, such as using endowment funds for financial aid to decrease student reliance on federal loans, guarantee of a fixed price for tuition until graduation once a student enrolls, and tuition credit for S.T.E.M. graduates who stay and work in Michigan. Dr. Steele also taught at U of M Medical school for 20 years so he would be quite knowledgeable in understanding budgetary needs of the medical programs which make up about half of the budget. However, his experience could possibly make him too protective of the medical school budget in looking a potential cuts in costs.

Ron Weiser is the former Ambassador to Slovakia. He plans to look at decisions from a more business-like perspective of avoiding bureaucracy and cutting costs and regulations. He is also interested in making University decision-making more transparent.

Finally, current Board of Regents Chair, Kathy White, is a law professor, attorney, and Lt. Col. in the Army reserves. Ms. White certainly has an impressive resume. However, she doesn’t offer much in the way of what voters can expect her to focus on during another term.

Michigan State Trustee (choose 2):

I ran out of energy for this.

Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees (choose 2):

See above.

Grand Rapids School Board (choose 5):

Since only 7 candidates are running, I approached this by trying to eliminate 2 candidates. All appear to be serious candidates, but Milinda Ysasi looks to be the least qualified among the 7. Considering the remaining 6, Tony Baker, John Matias, Maureen Quinn Slade, and Wendy Verhage Falb are incumbents, while Jose Flores and Jamie Scripps are newcomers. John Matias articulated the most impressive goals for the Board, by far.

State Proposal 1:

A “yes” vote would allow the law legalizing wolf hunting in Michigan to remain in place. That’s the core of the proposal. Are you in favor of the state creating a wolf hunting season and licensing the process, or are you opposed to wolves being hunted?

Apparently, stories of problems with wolves in the U.P. have been over-exaggerated and people claim a hunting season is not needed to keep the wolf population under control. Also, some people worry that allowing hunting will cause the still-recovering wolf population to suffer. On the other hand, some argue that the wolf population of some 636 is large enough to sustain properly managed hunts. There’s also the argument that favors sport hunting generally.

Interestingly, this Proposal and Proposal 2 may be legally moot and the votes won’t end up mattering. So, if you’re truly undecided don’t feel like you necessarily have to make a choice.

State Proposal 2:

A “yes” vote would approve of the law allowing the Natural Resources Commission to regulate wolf hunts, among other things. However, the law also contains an appropriation to fight the invasive Asian Carp fish. That means that this proposal is legally moot and will really have no effect. So, like above, a vote on this proposal is more of an opinion poll than anything.

Grand Rapids Term Limits:

A “yes” vote would implement term limits on Grand Rapids City Commissioners and the Mayor. The term limits would only allow mayors and commissioners to serve for 2 terms.

Support for term limits recognizes the reality that it is very difficult to vote incumbents out of office due to the inherent advantages of holding office. The increased name recognition and familiarity to voters, combined with the ability to build relationships with influential people in the community create large hurdles for challengers to overcome. These advantages exist regardless of whether the incumbent is doing a good job in office. Many other municipalities have enacted term limits and they are generally popular with voters.

Opponents of term limits view the best way of getting rid of unpopular incumbents to be through the electoral process. Opponents do not want to risk losing good people in office due to an arbitrary limit.

Kent County Tax for Veterans Services:

A “yes” vote would create a millage for 7 years that would equate to a $5 annual tax on a $100,000 home. The tax is estimated to raise ~$1,000,000 in the first year. There are 36,000 veterans in Kent County.

Supporters of the tax point out that Kent County currently only has about $8 to spend per veteran to supplement services provided by the federal VA clinic. The tax would increase that amount to $36.

Services that could be provided by the increase in funding include increasing staff to assist veterans in accessing benefits available through the VA, increasing public outreach to inform veterans of available benefits, and supplementing VA transportation to clinics in Ann Arbor and Battle Creek.

Opponents counter that increasing administration is not the same as providing veterans with benefits. Also, the VA already provides transportation to Ann Arbor and Battle Creek clinics. Further, a campaign based on a message of “it won’t cost you much” is hardly a way to galvanize support in a manner that is very convincing of the importance of the tax being passed. Finally, the Kent County VA has noted that 2013 was the first time in 3 years that veterans did not have to be turned away for services, so the argument could be made that an increase in funds is not really needed.

November 2014 NOLA Ballot Propositions

The November 4, 2014 ballots in New Orleans will include 3 parish-wide propositions. The text of the propositions can be found here. The Times-Picayune has an editorial on them here. This post will cover my brief thoughts on them.

Law Enforcement District Proposition:

I oppose the creation of this millage. While it appears that the millage isn’t technically a tax increase, but rather an extension of the existing tax, that is mere window dressing. Regardless of what happens, the people of New Orleans will be forced to pay for federally mandated improvements to the jail either by an extra 10 years of the current millage or by the city cutting costs by eliminating or reducing other city services. Since I find it laughable that the city just can’t seem to find enough waste, bloat, unnecessary programs or services, or other expenses to cut, I will not support paying for this millage.

Charter Amendment for City Contracts:

I like the measures that Mayor Landrieu has put in place to create a more transparent and competitive process in reviewing and granting city contracts. Yet, the Mayor does not need a charter amendment to continue these practices. I oppose this amendment solely because of the requirement that a disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) program be established. DBE programs are nothing more than affirmative action for businesses and arbitrarily manipulate what is supposed to be a competitive process. Partly basing business decisions on race and gender used to be called racism and sexism. What changed?

Charter Amendment for Inauguration Dates:

Yeah, sure. Why not?

November 4, 2014 LA Constitutional Amendments (Part 2 of 2)

The November 4, 2014 ballot in Louisiana will include 14 constitutional amendments. Last week I wrote about the first 7 proposed amendments. This post will cover proposed amendments 8-14. The text of the amendments can be found here. The Public Affairs Research Council provides a helpful, non-partisan guide to the amendments. I, however, will provide my own thoughts on the amendments below.

8.) Sure, programs to create artificial reefs, certify wild-caught fish, and develop inshore fish habitats are interesting and probably useful. However, I oppose making these projects so vitally important that the funding for them becomes protected by our Constitution. This is exactly the kind of thing that belongs in statutes where the funding can be adjusted for other needs.

9.) The number of individuals in Louisiana who qualify for the freeze on their property tax assessments is relatively small (5,660 as of 2012). However, eliminating the requirement that these 5,660 people certify each year that their income is not too high to qualify for the freeze would be a bad idea. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with ways this honor system could be taken advantage of. Chiefly, imagine a person becomes eligible for the freeze due to a sudden disability from an accident. At the time of their qualification for the assessment freeze their income is under the $67,670 (adjusted for inflation) threshold. Yet, suppose that 2 years later they receive a large cash settlement or insurance payout that causes them to no longer qualify for the freeze. This amendment would rely on the individual to voluntarily report that they will now lose the tax cut. I oppose the amendment because it is not too much to ask for simple income verification in exchange for a tax break that is partly based on income.

10.) While I do not find this amendment to be an unreasonable compromise from a policy standpoint, on a matter of principle I must oppose it. I am supportive of this amendment only impacting vacant, abandoned, and “blighted” properties, rather than also including occupied properties. However, removing 18 months of redemption opportunity for a property owner that is behind on their taxes for any number of reasons is not something I will support. Protecting property rights is supposed to be one of the key functions of government. This amendment takes away the protection of property for the sake of expediency and convenience.

11.) When I first read this proposed amendment I literally laughed out loud. It had might as well simply asked if we approved of increasing the size of the state government. I’m sure that those who desire to create the Department of Elderly Affairs have noble goals, but creating an entirely new department for those goals is unnecessary. If supporters want the existing services for the elderly to run more efficiently, then work with those existing programs. Placing them all under one department does not mean they will magically become more efficient and save money. If anything, I imagine the department would quickly begin coming up with new services and programs that the elderly in Louisiana “need.” I oppose.

12.) I am skeptical as to why this provision is in the Constitution in the first place. We should not have to ask the people of Louisiana how the make-up of the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission should be allocated. I have no idea what the best allocation should be or what the factors that go into such a consideration even are. This is exactly the kind of thing that belongs in the hands of the legislature. Aside from all of that, there is nothing that prevents the Governor from appointing members from northern Louisiana as it is, so I oppose.

13.) Even if I were not worried about the concerns that this proposed amendment may have problems complying with federal law, I would still oppose it. If people are not willing to pay fair market value for property, then perhaps that is a market signal that the properties don’t need to be bought or sold. Arbitrarily setting the price at $100 is a pure manipulation of the property market and unwise. We should not force New Orleans to sell property on the cheap merely because there are some people who would like to buy the property, but not for the fair market value. Would it be nice if the Lower 9th Ward were a bustling community rather than essentially vacant? Maybe so. If that’s the case, let the market prove it rather than allowing the government to create an incentive to buy property that on its own terms is not attractive enough to warrant buyer interest.

14.) Would you like to be able to have your tax bill cut every year or only every other year? I absolutely oppose preventing the legislature from considering cutting taxes whenever the chance may arise. Sure it sounds nice that general bills are considered during general sessions and fiscal bills during fiscal sessions, but I am not willing to limit the opportunities for tax decreases. On the other side of the same coin, I of course support limiting the ability of the legislature to raise taxes to every other year.

November 4, 2014 LA Constitutional Amendments (Part 1 of 2)

The November 4, 2014 ballot in Louisiana will include 14 constitutional amendments. The text of the amendments can be found here. The Public Affairs Research Council provides a helpful, non-partisan guide to the amendments. I, however, will provide my own thoughts on the amendments below. This post will cover the first 7 proposed amendments.

1.) Using the Constitution to create inflexible budgeting could be a good thing. However, an inflexible budget presumes that the constitutionally set rate is the correct one. I oppose this amendment because it would require the approval of 2/3 of the legislature (or of the budget committee if the legislature is not in session) to lower the rate. What if the rate deserves to be lowered, but 2/3 of the legislature does not want to be labelled during their next campaign as having taken money away from the poor, elderly, or disabled? In that case, the state Treasurer will be required to pay inflated rates to medical providers.

2.) The proposed amendment is unhelpfully lacking in relevant details. Creating a new system of fees, but not detailing how exactly the fees will be structured or assessed is not something I am prepared to support. A complex system of fees, lacking in specificity, combined with added budget inflexibility (see #1 above), is not an appropriate provision to enshrine in the state Constitution. I oppose.

3.) Government-employed tax collectors are bad enough. I oppose allowing local governments to contract with additional, private tax collectors who are not accountable to the voters.

4.) The legislature was unable to pass legislation that would create the Louisiana Transportation Infrastructure Bank. Even if it had, I would oppose the very existence of the bank because I believe there are better ways to fund transportation projects. As a result, I certainly oppose amending the Constitution to allow for transferring funds to this bank in the event that legislature succeeds in creating it in the future.

5.) I support removing the arbitrary retirement age for state judges. Who knows whether 70 is the right age for every judge to retire? No one could possibly know that. In fact, 4 United States Supreme Court Justices are well over the age of 70, and the only one speculated to be considering retirement, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is 81 (nevermind the fact that most who call for her retirement are doing it for political concerns). There are existing mechanisms in place to remove judges who become unable to do their jobs, yet refuse to voluntarily step down. That mechanism is the appropriate means of accomplishing what an arbitrary age limit attempts to accomplish: having judges without diminished capacity.

6.) Precisely what New Orleans residents need right now is to not require the city to eliminate unnecessary and wasteful spending. Instead, to increase funding for police and fire protection, the city should be allowed to DOUBLE taxes that pay for police and fire protection. That is what this amendment would allow, and obviously I oppose it.

7.) This one is kind of a toss-up for me. Normally, I oppose special tax exemptions for small, specific groups. But, I also normally support tax cuts. In the case of this amendment, since the increased homestead exemption for disabled military veterans would apply to veterans who are determined to be 100% unemployable, the group singled out is certainly sympathetic. For me, the kicker is that the localities losing the revenue are not allowed to makeup the difference by charging everyone else more. As a result, I support it.