Call for Open, Public Debate on HR 811
By Nancy Tobi
There is a raging and often destructive debate among voting activists. The source of the discord is "The Holt Bill," a piece of federal election reform legislation named for its primary author, Democratic Congressman Rush Holt from the great state of New Jersey. The destructive nature of the exchanges among activists has led some of us who oppose the bill to propose, in the best of our American democratic traditions, a public debate on the merits of the bill.
We who oppose believe anything that stands to so dramatically transform, and possibly violate, the nature of American democracy deserves robust public debate, based on facts and principle.
Congress has already held its so-called public hearings on the bill, but those hearings were stacked with many pro-811 witnesses, and the few opponents of the legislation were not debating what we oppositional citizens believe are the real issues that need a good, public airing:
* The bill violates state sovereignty and cements control over the nation's voting systems in the hands of four white house appointees.
* The bill codifies into federal law the use of secret vote counting technologies in the United States of America.
* The bill mandates impossible, ineffective and controversial audit and reporting requirements and timetables.
* The bill confuses technology with democracy, embracing the tenets of the one over the other.
* The bill furthers the misguided and undemocratic direction initiated with the Help America Vote Act that replaces observable voting with verifiable voting
Unfortunately, in what appears to be a desperate desire to keep the rhetoric flying and the facts suppressed from any public discourse, supporters of the bill have refused every offer for real public debate.
Some of the more vocal supporters of the bill state that if we opponents are questioning the confusing language of the bill, it must be that we are not as "intelligent" as they are. Sort of like the way a sales person for an exclusive item will look down his nose and tell you, "if you have to ask what it costs, you obviously can't afford it."
If we have to ask what this bill means to our democracy, we are obviously in the wrong shop.
I, for one, would like to see robust debate on the merits of this complex bill. For one thing, the principles of democracy are at stake.
The American people deserve to hear honest debate on if and how this proposed election reform supports the fundamental principles of American democracy without which our elections are nothing but a sham.
As well, the language of the 62 page bill is so dangerously ambiguous in so many critical areas, that we ought to expose the ambiguities to the light before HR811 becomes the law of the land and our elections are thrown to the courts to decide what means what.
And finally, public debate is called for because of the complex, often conflicting, and seemingly impossible and impractical requirements of the bill. These requirements are outrageously expensive, the costs of which will be borne in large part by American property taxpayers as the nation's towns, cities, and counties struggle to meet the bill's unfunded high tech mandates.
And a careful analysis of the bill's timelines, equations, and reporting requirements indicates they just don't seem to add up to anything that will actually work in the real world. This fundamental flaw in the bill puts every state in the nation at risk if it forces them to try to run legal elections when the law itself is unsupportable.
This is not the birthright of democracy the framers of the U.S. Constitution bequeathed us.
The Holt Bill, in its former incarnation as HR 550, languished in committee under the former Republican majority, and was never released to the full House for a vote. With the Democratic takeover, the bill resurfaced in its current incarnation, HR 811. Within days of the November 2006 victory, Dem leaders were predicting the swift passage of election reform. They were going to "own" the issue that had been stymied under the Republican rule.
Unfortunately, the new leadership was stuck holding the same moldy bag of election reform that had been decaying in the former Republican majority's pantry. And time was not kind to the Holt Bill. As it languished, its unpleasant odor wafted through the ranks of citizen activists, many of whom, one by one, began to experience an unmistakable squeamishness about the bill.
When HR 550 was whisked out of the pantry, washed down, spiced up, and placed on the table of the House Administration Committee in its new form as HR 811, many former supporters found they could no longer stomach the bill, even in its shiny new form. One might even say, especially in its shiny new form.
The ranks of ordinary citizens, who laboriously studied the bill and its implications, the nation's election officials, counties, legislators, and even the e-voting industry itself, uniformly rose in loud and raucous opposition to its passage.
HR 811 quickly became a disputed and controversial bill, left only with its primary supporters being well funded lobbying groups like Common Cause, MoveOn, TrueMajority, Verified Voting and VoteTrustUSA.
Nonetheless, rumors abounded that the bill was going to be "fast tracked" through the Committee, on to the House floor, where it would be swiftly passed by a leadership-sponsored "unity" Democratic vote and dropped into the laps of the American people.
But apparently the bill's controversial nature has slowed down the fast track. Now the bill sits on the table, waiting for someone to take a bite. But while it is tempting and delectable to some activists and their seemingly well funded lobbyists, others of us are as repelled by the odor emanating from the bill as ever before.
The arguments proposed by HR 811 proponents are as effective in addressing the problems of the bill as spitting on a house on fire:
* "This is the best bill we can get passed by Congress."
* "If we don't pass this bill now we won't have any election reform in place for 2008."
* "Even if the bill supports secret vote counting, at least we'll force the states to conduct election audits."
* "At least our elections will be, if not observable by the citizenry, verifiable by 'qualified' persons and 'experts'."
* "If you oppose the bill you are not as intelligent as we are."
The problem is that the defects of the bill are not small and can not be dismissed, as has been attempted with each new version of the bill, through copyediting, wordsmithing, and vagaries of text. In fact, the bill's flaws touch - at the deepest levels - our very notions, ideals, traditions, and fundamental constitutional rights with respect to American democracy.
In a recent email exchange inviting Holt proponents to a public debate, activist and attorney Paul Lehto was accused by a central Holt Bill proponent of "blowing hot air and quoting 18th century statesmen." Does this mean that this particular HR 811 proponent, whose organization has recently hired a high powered lobbyist just to get the bill passed, agrees with what George W. Bush is rumored to have stated, that our Constitution is "just a piece of paper"?
God bless Paul Lehto for quoting "18th century statesmen." They are the revolutionary spirits and first American patriots, who rose in opposition to a centralized power that used its authority to make bad and dangerous decisions for the people of this country. It is to them that we owe our freedoms and our dignities.
It is not enough for us to breeze past their messages and to sit content in our air conditioned homes, driving our Mercedes, eating our abundance of food.
Our country, the United States of America, was founded on ideals and principles, the principles of freedom and democracy, bolstered by robust public dissent, dialog, and debate. It is the strength of these principles that have enabled us to become the greatest superpower on earth. It is the words of those "18th century statesmen" that we must shine like a beacon to light for us the way forward, to remind us that our country is a country of the rule of law, and the basis and foundation for that rule of law is the U.S. Constitution.
This revolutionary document and declaration of democratic principles, written in the midst of much public debate and honest dissent and discourse, has stood the test of time. Our Constitution must be in the forefront of everything we do when tinkering with anything as crucial as the foundation of our democracy: our elections.
Lehto provides this quote from 18th century statesman, American patriot and founder James Madison:
. . . [T]he Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation's destiny. . . . The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost." --James Madison
Lehto also reminds us that the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence are clear: we the people are the masters, our elected officials are the servants. Our democracy guarantees us the right to "kick the bums out" when our servants are misbehaving. And this means that we can not allow our elected representatives to enact laws facilitating the rigging of our elections, debasing the tenets of our democracy, and enshrining secret vote counting, which is the foundation of fascism and not democracy.
Lehto, like Madison, reminds us that this right is worth defending, at whatever the cost.
We who oppose HR 811 believe that a public debate on the merits of this legislation is not too high a cost to pay in defense of our country.