Even the world's most repressive regimes often have laws on the books that pretend to grant citizens certain political rights. What matters is the extent to which citizens are actually allowed to use those rights — you know, in real life.
In Michigan, taxpayers are now trying to recall ten state legislators, and in the process testing how "real life" their democratic rights are.
The ten targeted solons come from both parties. Prior to their fateful votes to raise taxes against their constituent wishes, taxpayer groups repeatedly warned them that a recall effort would be launched against them if they voted for the $1.6 billion dollar tax increase. And yet, a few months ago, vote for the tax boost they did. And it passed, adding yet more depressive burden to the state's lingering recession.
Michiganders, and all people for that matter, are free to agree or disagree on taxes, as well as with recall campaigns. But it remains an undisputed fact: the Michigan constitution does provide citizens with a process for recall.
But does the right to recall mean anything to politicians, practically?
State Representative Tim Allen says, "The fight is to keep them off the ballot." Notice: His goal isn't to win an election. It is to prevent the voters from ever getting the opportunity to decide.
State House Democrats plan to use "blockers" against the recall petitioners. One Democrat, unnamed in media reports, says the plan is to "shadow" or "follow" those who circulate the petition and "have a debate with each potential signer in an attempt to convince them not to sign the recalls."
In other words, a campaign of stalking and voter intimidation.
We've seen this before — in Michigan and elsewhere. It is a tactic of increasing popularity on the big-government left. Hire blockers to swarm around petitioners at the mall or grocery store or library, creating angry street theater to scare away normal folks wishing to sign a petition.
"In past petition drives where blockers were employed, these blockers have often screamed at citizens attempting to sign petitions, or argued with petitioners every time a citizen approaches to sign the petition," explains Leon Drolet, head of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. "Opponents of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative petition drive went as far as to approach tables set up by petition gatherers and pour water over the signed petitions."
But this is only the half of it — opponents of the recall aren't putting all their repressive methods in one basket. They have also put into play their bread-and-butter tactic of tying the recalls up in court.
First stop for the recall petitions is at the county elections commissions, which must approve the form of the petition. These commissioners, appointed by politicians, have demonstrated open hostility to the recall effort.
In fact, a Kent County judge recently felt the need to declare his disdain for the citizens' right to recall before approving the petition with the statement: "This language quite honestly is as clear as any that has come before us."
Which is almost funny, since elections commissions in Wayne, Macomb and Muskegon counties have all rejected the exact same wording. Why? It was too "unclear."
Each recall measure states that the legislator in question "voted yes on 2007 House Bill 5194 to increase the income tax to 4.35 percent, and voted yes on 2007 House Bill 5198 to impose new 6 percent taxes on certain services."
But as Drolet reminds us, "The rule of law doesn't matter at these hearings, it's about partisan politics and political party bosses."
Drolet's disdain is straightforward enough. The disdain the governing clique has for the average citizen is more muted.
For instance, Macomb County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh refused to elaborate on her "reasoning" in rejecting the recall petition, offering only that her vote "speaks for itself."
Maybe Sabaugh is wise to clam up. Other elected officials taking up space on these commissions seemed to justify their denial of the petition wording on the inability of average citizens to understand the English language.
Muskegon County Treasurer Tony Moulatsiotis, a Democrat, explained, "My problem is I looked at it from an everyday citizen point of view. If I look at those petitions, they say so and so voted yes on tax increases, but I don't know exactly what that means, there's no explanatory language. It's not fair to citizens if they don't have a clear understanding of what they're signing."
Muskegon County Clerk Karen Buie, a Republican, agreed, saying, "The average citizen would not understand."
Of course, these politicians fear the exact opposite of what they claim. They fear that the average Michigan voter will understand the recall petitions all too well. And vote accordingly.
Citizens in those counties that have scuttled the recall measures have been forced to hire lawyers to appeal the decisions. They'll win, almost certainly (clear is clear, after all). But meanwhile time and money have been expended on what should have been mere formality, but became anti-democratic roadblock.
This is how to repress democracy in a democracy.