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Forum talk: Voting reforms can save democracy

  • Josh Silver, speaking this week at the Charlemont Forum on voting reform. STAFF PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCO—



Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 01, 2018

CHARLEMONT — The rise of political outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election was not a fluke but an indication of the public loss of confidence in the establishment and in American democracy, Josh Silver told a crowd at the Charlemont Forum.

“A corrupt system is the number-one reason why people don’t go to the polls,” said Silver, founder and president of a bipartisan voter-reform group called “Represent.us.”

“They feel like their vote doesn’t really count.”

Silver, who grew up in Shelburne Center and in Ashfield, founded and leads “Represent.us,” which advocates for election reforms to end government corruption.

Since 2012, the group has developed at least 50 chapters and helped to pass political reforms in several states. So far this year, the group has seen election reforms enacted in Ohio, Maine and Alaska. “We still have six to go,” Silver said, citing anti-gerrymandering and election reform bills proposed for Utah, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and in the Dakotas.

Silver said the 2016 presidential election was between “two of the least popular candidates since such accounting began.”

“And Congress hasn’t fared much better,” he added. “In the past 1½ years, we’ve seen the sharpest drop in confidence in Congress. Only 4 percent of Americans have “a great deal of confidence” in Congress.

“We have a system failure in American politics — a two-party duopoly (between Republicans and Democrats), even though 46 percent of voters are registered as independent,” he said. Silver said about 25 percent of the nation’s voters are Republicans and 27 percent are Democrats — but 86 percent of U.S. home districts are noncompetitive because of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the drawing of political boundaries to give one political party a competitive edge over the other.

Silver said the current system discourages third-party or even fourth-party candidates, who become “spoilers.” For instance, if a third-party “progressive” candidate splits the vote with the Democratic candidate, it usually results in an election win for the conservative Republican contender. The same is true if a third-party conservative candidate shares the conservative voters with a Republican — the Democrat usually wins. Silver said just 15 to 20 percent of voters show up for primary elections and “they’re always the more extreme voters,” which eliminates moderate candidates.

Meanwhile, so much money from lobbyists and special interest groups has flooded the election process that, in 2016, to win a Senate seat in some states required some candidates to raise the equivalent of $46,000 per day for six years, he said. As a result, some incumbents spend between 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising for elections. Lobbyists who can make big campaign contributions or offer attractive jobs to congressmen or their staffs use money to influence bills that come through Congress.

Yet the “web of influence” lacks the ordinary average-income voters. According to a Princeton poll based on 20 years of data, “the average American voter has a near-zero impact on public policy,” said Silver. On the other hand, legislation backed by the top 10 percent of income-earners has a much higher chance of passing — no matter how popular or unpopular it polls with the public. And legislation opposed by the top 10 percent of income earners is more likely to fail.

“Fixing corruption can fix everything,” said Silver. “This is a political problem that involves a set of laws that are doable if there was the will today in Congress to pass them,” he said. Represent.us is advocating for what it calls the “American Anti-Corruption Act,” which it says would restore “We the People” as the rightful priority of American politics. It would do this by stopping political donations by lobbyists, end “secret money” donations by large interest groups, end gerrymandering, push for “ranked choice” voting and allow for automatic voter registration when people renew their driver’s licenses (with an opt-out clause, for those who don’t want to register).

Silver said political corruption is a major concern to both Republicans and Democrats, as are affordable health care, the economy and the environment. Silver said the goals of the proposed anti-corruption act enjoy at least 87 percent support by both Republicans and Democrats but “you need to go around Congress,” he said. “That’s how you win.”

Silver said the political strategies that resulted in giving women the right to vote and legalizing same-sex marriage can be used to bring people together to create agreed-upon election reforms. “A key event reaching maturity triggers a rush of activity leading to national change,” he said.

Bringing conservative and progressive voters together is a key factor. “We do not win unless we have a bonafide, united movement,” he said. He cited a 2014 ballot initiative in Florida that was supported by both the local Tea Party and Common Cause leaders who went on to work together on five other issues. “A critical mass of grassroots victories triggers federal reform,” he said.

Charlemont Forum audience members asked Silver what voting reforms are underway in Massachusetts. Silver said the state may soon have automatic voter registration with driver’s license renewals or MassHealth sign-ups. That bill is now on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature, according to Common Cause.

When asked if the bipartisan unity of Represent.us has been affected by the election of President Donald Trump, Silver replied: “Not much.” He said it takes discipline “to put aside some of your opinions and just focus on where you agree.”

Represent.us is planning to hold an Aug. 14 meeting at Greenfield Savings Bank in Northampton, at 6:30 p.m., to talk about getting “big money” out of government.

More information is online at: https://represent.us