Gypsies, tramps and thieves

Posted: Apr 06, 2008 12:02 AM
Gypsies, tramps and thieves

Voltaire is credited with the statement: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Freedom and democracy necessarily rest upon this sentiment, an attitude that today we find in dangerously short supply. Instead, politics has become a blood sport.

That’s what WDIV-TV, Detroit’s channel 4 said in a news report concerning folks called “blockers,” whose job is to stop voters from signing a petition.

In this case, the petition is to recall Michigan’s Speaker of the House Andy Dillon over a massive tax increase. People are hurting in Michigan. But legislators — led by Dillon — decided taxpayers should hurt some more. They raised taxes so that government spending could grow more than three-quarters of a billion dollars.

During the legislative debate, taxpayers threatened legislators with recall over the tax hike. Now they’re doing the politically unthinkable: keeping their word.

Of course, Michigan’s political elite has derided the recall with hysteria and hyperbole: How dare the people use a legal process to hold their representatives accountable?!

I, on the other hand, find the recall effort eminently reasonable.

But whether Dillon is to be recalled should not be up to the elite — or to me. It should be up to whether enough citizens in the district freely sign the petition and, if enough voters sign, how residents then decide to cast their votes.

But the blockers seek to remove “freely sign” from my previous sentence. At The New Media Journal, Warner Todd Huston writes that “blockers scream at petition signers, calling them names, and hover menacingly over them making them feel threatened and intimidated.” Rose Bogaert of the Wayne County Taxpayers Association told reporters, “They’re literally behaving like thugs out there. They’ve torn up our petitions, followed us home. . . .”

Who are these brutes? It turns out many of them are on the state payroll. In fact, several work for none other than Speaker Dillon.

Speaker Dillon’s office claims the blockers on his staff are doing all of this of their own volition, even taking vacation time to do so. Yeah, right. Maybe that’s the plan now that they’ve been caught.

Leon Drolet, the head of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, isn’t buying it. And he’s not amused. He’s offering $250 a pop “to anyone who can positively identify the name and address of any of the thug blockers. The information will be used for the purpose of filing individual federal civil rights violation lawsuits against these thugs.”

Note that Michigan law only allows people living in the legislator’s district to petition for the recall, while Speaker Dillon’s staffers and other blockers can and are coming from all over the state (and reportedly even from out of state). Similar activity has been seen in other states, where those collecting petition signatures are restricted in all sorts of ways, while those seeking to deny these people their First Amendment rights are under no restrictions whatsoever.

Dillon’s tax increase was a travesty. Using state workers to violate citizens’ most basic constitutional rights is, well, worse.

But brace yourself. What the politician and special-interest-funded blockers in Michigan are doing by intimidation and harassment, politicians and special interests in Florida are trying to do through legislation.

Republican Senator Bill Posey’s bill, SB 2340, is pretty simple: ban non-residents from helping to circulate a petition, require anyone who is paid to circulate a petition to register with the government, charge people a fee for petitioning, force those petitioning to give personal information like home address, even home phone number, and tell the state — and, because it is a public record, also tell the blockers — the measures with which one is associated.

This last requirement is in the bill so that groups like the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center can better target their blocking campaigns and won’t be harassing the wrong petitioners. They don’t want to mistakenly harass a person petitioning for a “progressive” cause. No doubt, the Florida Chamber of Commerce feels the same way. Only reversed.

Why outlaw people from other states helping to circulate the petition? Because it makes it harder to get enough people capable of overcoming obstacles — gee whiz, you mean like people harassing them? — to gather enough voter signatures. If you want to block measures from the ballot raise the bar higher and higher.

No other job in politics requires residency. Not lobbyists, not campaign managers, not the 30-second ad wizards. But the petitioner seems always a threat to those in power. The others all work for them.

Charge those petitioning their government a fee? Next thing you know, we will have to purchase our constitutional rights one by one. I thought they’d been paid for many times over in blood and vigilance.

One of the key things Posey’s bill does is allow the state to throw out a voter’s signature for some technical mistake made by the petitioner. This would work against a common-sense principle of democracy: Just like every legitimate voter should get to cast a vote that counts, every legitimate voter ought to be able to have their signature count.

Sen. Posey is supposedly “on the right.” It has been widely held that his bill seeks to restrict the voter initiative process only because that’s the road upon which “a liberal measure,” the Hometown Democracy initiative, might get to the people.

Voltaire and I do not need to know what the Hometown Democracy measure does, whether it be right or left, wise or foolish. It is enough that we know what SB 2340 does. It destroys democracy. So that Posey and his posse can win a political battle.

At a hearing on the bill, John French of Save Our Constitution urged legislators to go after paid signature-gatherers, whom he referred to as “gypsies,” arguing, “We really need to know who these people are.”

I couldn’t help but think of the last time they went after the Gypsies.

Jared Ross of the American Cancer Society asked, “Why do we need to keep making the process more difficult?”

The answer: To stop democracy, to silence the people, to allow power to triumph over freedom.

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