Lessons from a Century of Voting Reforms

December 31, 2016

Let’s discuss voting issues today.  Well more than a century of experience has gone into the way we vote. That century should be a source of confidence and concern because none of us is old enough to remember why all the rules are in the statutes.

If you’ve seen the 19th century election day paintings, people came to the polls with pieces of paper and dropped them in the ballot box. That made voting very public. Some states required an open, public ballot. That can be a protection but it also made voters vulnerable. Employers and landowners could and did retaliate economically. As political machines took root, they bribed, threatened and attacked voters to get what they wanted. Parties produced colored ballots that voters carried to the polls. They held their ballots up on their way so everyone could see and then dropped their colored ballots into the box. That satisfied the local machines. And it meant that elections were widely corrupted. Can you imagine a local gang, party operative or factory boss telling you whom you had to vote for and backing that up with beatings and bribes? Unfortunately that’s well-documented, both in big cities and small towns.

The secret ballot was developed around the turn of the 20th century to help solve that problem. It put the names of all the candidates on a single piece of paper so it wasn’t obvious who the voters supported. The idea was imported and known as the Australian ballot. Coupled with it was the development of election machinery, hardware like the lever machines we used in New York for quite a long time. But the election statutes reflect lengthy experience with attempts to defeat the secrecy and the security of the machines. So rules required inspecting, securing and sealing the machines, and identifying the voters at the polls based on permanent books of signatures. We had moved quite far from the chaotic march to the polls with random pieces of paper.

Some lessons from that history: It is easier to control the polling place itself than what happens at home or at work, where people might confront orders backed with threats or bribes on how to vote. But that doesn’t work without a way to verify what you did, and enforcing the secret ballot makes it hard to tell how you voted. Thank heavens most of us now have secure polling places. The secrecy and security of the ballot are essential.

The problem of imposters at the polls has largely been solved. But absentee ballots remain a security concern because of the opportunity for others to see, bribe, trick or intimidate the voter. Obviously there are some people who need absentee ballots, but early voting is a safer procedure for those who can get to the polls.

Now in the age of computers we seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel because we have forgotten what the problems were. But programmers, computer engineers and indeed their professional association, the IEEE, has made clear that touch-screen and internet voting cannot be secured given what we know now. Therefore, given current technology, New York’s choice of scanners with paper ballots is the safest available choice IF we do sample post-election checks of the machines against the paper ballots. We should not shift to a new system given the existing state of knowledge and tools. But sample checks should be universally required to keep the system honest, and Jill Stein is right to demand recounts to check the integrity of the system.

Selfies, on the other hand, are a problem. They create the ability to verify who one voted for. That, of course, is why people take them. But it makes it possible for nefarious groups to bribe or intimidate voters. We developed the secret ballot to protect voters and keep elections clean and honest. We need to stick to it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 13, 2016.

Terrorism, the NRA “Solution,” and Safety at Home

December 8, 2015

For some people, the best solution to every problem is to shoot at it, and presidents aren’t leaders unless they’re yelling “charge” into battle. I want to bite off a domestic piece of that nonsense. In the wake of every terrorist tragedy, senators, sheriffs, NRA officers and supporters propose more guns, carry your guns, be ready to defend yourself, ourselves, wherever and whenever occasion arises.[1]

We have some 15,000 murders a year in the U.S., 40,000 suicides, mostly by firearms, and under 30 deaths a year from terrorism. CNN checked Obama’s comparison of deaths by firearms and by terrorism in the U.S. From 2001 to 2013, they found that people killed by terrorists in the U.S. were less than 1/1000th the number killed by firearms.[2] Firearms deaths dwarfed terrorism deaths even in 2001. Whether it’s a good tradeoff depends on what gets worse.

Note though, if we’re all armed, we’ll need to do things differently. Once we assume everyone is armed, when someone demands something, whatever it is – turn off the radio, get out of my way – are we toast if we don’t comply? Do guns become the tool of bullies? Isn’t that some of what police shootings of unarmed people reveal? Police say they were scared because someone with his back turned may have had something in his hands. Do we all get to be that scared, pulling the trigger at anyone whose safety we can’t determine? We’ll have to be suspicious. Who’s hot tempered? Who’s too scared to trust? Who’s a criminal, terrorist, gang member or bully?

America was built on trust and teamwork. Break that down and sap our strength. We might stop some terrorists but America’s strength will dissipate in squabbles and fear – like those that poison and stultify much of the Third World.

Arming ourselves will partially thwart some similarly-armed terrorists but guns can  be replaced by explosives which do their damage before anyone knows what’s happening.

A couple of decades ago a disappointed former student attacked our library – but thank heavens he attacked a glass door with an axe rather than attacking people with a gun. No school can avoid flunking some students out and no employer can avoid firing some employees. One such employee got a gun and murdered one of my clients some years ago. But the police are taught that it’s too late to react once someone starts to pull a gun. My client, armed or not, never had a chance. So now what?

There are alternatives. I’m a civil libertarian but I have no problem with cameras. Security staffs at many places have monitors showing them many parts of the building. I’m a lot happier with observe-and-respond than having a bunch of trigger-happy gun toters wandering around wondering if I or anyone else should be shot. Similarly, with the repeated police shootings of unarmed men, I’d be a lot more comfortable if they left their guns at the station for access only as needed. I’d also be much more comfortable with police departments and the FBI if they stopped bribing unreliable informants to trap people in stings, send innocent people to prison, and corrupt the Bureau in the process. Have a tool, use a tool. These are dangerous tools for routine use.

America would be much safer if we found ways to build on our principles, instead of abandoning them in the chimerical belief that we could protect ourselves better with guns.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 8, 2015.

[1] See http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/12/03/ulster-county-sheriff-carry-guns/; http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/marco-rubio-slams-bill-guns-terrorists-felons-article-1.2455280; http://www.darkcanyon.net/Terrorism%20A%20Good%20Defense%20Is%20A%20Good%20Carry.htm.

[2] See https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/violent-crime/murder; http://www.save.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=705D5DF4-055B-F1EC-3F66462866FCB4E6; http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-shooting-terrorism-gun-violence/ .

In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.

NYPD – What Now?

January 29, 2015

Two weeks ago I described my concerns about the New York City Police Department. It’s actually a much bigger problem – police all over the country have been using their power and their guns instead of their heads. Many people in our communities have been paying the price for years. Big problem, all over the place, persistent, rooted in the system, so are we stuck with it?

So let me offer some suggestions.

First, police brass can act. They can look at the records to see which policemen frequently charge people with the kind of minor crimes police use to cover up their own abusive behavior – charges like resisting arrest.[1] The brass could demand that police make good relations with people on the street a priority. Unfortunately, however, that won’t work without buy-in by a large portion of the department. Otherwise it will disappear – resisted, pushed out, forgotten.

By comparison, Vietnam taught the generals the importance of race relations – you can’t have a multi-racial military with an internal race war. Soldiers who’d be happier if the next guy in the foxhole took it for Old Glory are not “with the program.” That’s an internal problem rather than community relations but it’s instructive. The military didn’t get all ideological about how to do it and they didn’t run up the old race pride. They just asked what works.

So they made race relations a part of the responsibility of every officer. You want a promotion? You’re going to have to see to it that all the soldiers in your unit work together, that all the talent gets recognized, and promoted, regardless of color. And they got buy-in because people throughout the military understood the need.

Often when I run into people in the service I ask them about it. Blacks tell me life is much more civilized in military than in civilian life. They know that their accomplishments will be respected, that it’s worth their effort and cooperation.

For the police, responsibility would have to include relations with the communities served, and all the people in them. Imagine police having to think about community relations when they decide to stop and frisk someone because he’s Black or isn’t dressed nice, or before they pull a gun on or kill someone who is unarmed.

Unfortunately, I’m not confident we could get buy-in for such a good top to bottom renovation of the Force. Let me offer a wake-up call. New York City created community school boards, decentralizing the school system, a few years back. They put the communities in charge of the schools. That had problems but it had one big advantage – it broke up pre-existing power centers. It meant that people had to pay attention to the community. Imagine if the police had to make nice to the communities they serve. That’s an interesting suggestion, isn’t it? And the responses would highlight the problems. First the prejudices would show – “they,” meaning minority communities of course, can’t handle that. Some officers would have to bury those attitudes. That alone might do a lot of good. And police would respond that their perks are at stake. Well that is the problem – one of their perks has been the ability to abuse people without consequences.

Whatever you do in your community, apologies don’t solve the problem – get police attention with a significant proposal that puts the community in charge and let the police try to fight that with guns ablaze!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 27, 2015.

[1] See “NYPD Disciplinary Problems Linked To A ‘Failure Of Accountability’” with Robert Lewis and guests Darvel Elliot, Samuel Walker, Candace McCoy, Richard Emery and William Bratton, on Morning Edition, January 16, 2015, 10:00 AM EST (National Public Radio).

Police Accountability

January 6, 2015

I’ve been reading a case decided in the European Court of Human Rights. It involved opposing libel suits arising out of claims of police brutality in Bergen, Norway.[1] The opinion of four judges, whose names I will not try to pronounce, struck me. The judges pointed out that the purpose of the libel suits brought by the police officers “was to suppress the debate on this issue….” But they pointed out that the government has “a monopoly over force” and that monopoly “also entails the danger of force being abused to the detriment of the very values it is meant to uphold.” Therefore “abuse of force by officials is not just one of many issues of broad general interest.” Instead, “it is … a matter of primary concern in any society.” Keeping authorities in check is particularly important for a democracy. And the ability to hold the states’ use of force in check requires protecting those who raise the alarm.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law observed that “In numerous states … [there is a] general ban on the creation of para‑military formations.”[2] That’s because they are armed and dangerous.

So the judges in the Bergen case emphasized the “vital need for every society to exercise strict supervision over all use of force in the name of society.” Critics of official abuse need to be protected. The 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment specifically protects the right to complain.

But not about the New York City police.

It’s time we learn that there are wonderful police, and there are terrible police. But the culture of silence by which they protect each other against any and all criticism makes the wonderful police into allies of the terrible police. They’re unaccountable to each other and they’re unaccountable to the rest of us.

You and I can’t go walk down the street saying that guy down there could be armed, so if he puts his hands in his pocket I’m going to kill him. That’s not self-defense; that’s murder. But the police, who have sworn to defend us, insist they have that right to kill on the mere possibility that someone could be armed with evil intent. They insist they do not even have to account for it or defend themselves – it is disloyalty even to criticize or call for an investigation as Mayor de Blasio has done.

What the police are doing is showing that they are a special interest, not public servants. Everyone else is accountable, from the President down to the janitor, everyone is subject to investigation and criticism, everyone’s methods are open for revision. Heads of government departments and heads of corporations are accountability to us, to the public. But not the guys that claim the right to kill us. That has a clear meaning for me – I don’t trust them. They have a code of silence and self-protection and they just dare us even to question them. That means they should not be trusted. Just one more special interest trying to bilk the public. New York City’s Police have LOST my respect.

Soldiers in the military, regardless of politics, do not turn their backs on the Commander-in-Chief. That’s unacceptable. But it’s typical of the NYPD – they’re spoiled, dangerous and out of control.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 6, 2015.

[1] Opinion of Judges Kūris, Türmen, Strážnická and Greve, dissenting in Nilsen and Johnsen v. Norway, [1999] ECHR 23118/93[GC] (25 NOVEMBER 1999).

[2] Explanatory Report, incorporated as part III of Guidelines On Prohibition And Dissolution Of Political Parties, note 361 above, at ¶11, available at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2000/CDL-INF(2000)001-e.pdf.

ISL and US Foreign Policy

September 16, 2014

America decided to deal with the Native Americans by war and exile. It took three centuries, as succeeding generations of Indians realized that the White Man would honor no treaty and give them no peace.

Israel has tried since the 1960s to deal with what initially were relatively isolated attacks, by holding every country in the neighborhood responsible, and responding massively to each attack. Six decades later the problem has widened. Unlike the Native Americans, the Palestinians have major allies.

We have repeatedly responded with military force to foreign problems only to see them spin out of control and make things much worse. Read the rest of this entry »

Tears for Ukrainian Democracy

May 13, 2014

Let’s return to Ukraine once more.

Americans cheered at former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster. Here’s why that was a mistake.

When Yanukovych decided not to sign the pact with the EU, Ukrainians had several options. Two constitutional processes were available. They could have tried to impeach him. Or they could have defeated him at the polls. Yanukovych was elected for a five year term in 2010. Elections were scheduled for March 2015. They could have waited the extra year. Those were democratic ways to deal with disappointment with him.

Instead, Ukrainians who wanted to join the EU took to the streets. They had every right to demonstrate. Demonstrations are the democratic form of protest. But the crowds wanted more – not just to make their views known and felt, they wanted to settle the matter before and outside of elections. In an election they would have had to allow people they disagreed with to vote. That of course would have given legitimacy to the result. It might also have meant some compromise. Sharing the ballot and compromise are essential in democracy, though there are plenty who don’t get that point even here. Read the rest of this entry »

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