Monday, January 02, 2012

Arrested for Voter Registration


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When I wrote “America’s Unequal Heritage,” my column in this space in last month’s Zenger’s, I had no idea that the San Diego Police Department would so quickly prove my point! But that’s just what they did on the morning of November 29, when they arrested Occupy San Diego media spokesperson and former Congressional candidate Ray Lutz for setting up a table at Civic Center Plaza in order to register voters.
In my earlier piece, I noted that while the Tea Party movement has come up with some real howlers in their attempts to link their points of view with those of the Founding Fathers — notably their preposterous claims that the original 1789 version of the U.S. Constitution was “divinely inspired” (if we could bring them back, the Deists who wrote it would either be angry at that or find it hilarious) and the First Amendment really didn’t provide for the separation of church and state — there was one aspect of their thought that was shared by the authors of the original Constitution.
It was the idea that the U.S. should be, not a democracy, but a republic — and one in which the right to vote should be restricted to a carefully selected few. James Madison, the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the only President besides George Washington who actually was at the convention that wrote it, made the point very clear in #10 of the Federalist Papers, when he argued that a representative republic would be a healthier system than a true democracy because a republic would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
What this meant in practice was a system in which no office higher than a member of the House of Representatives would be directly elected — Senators would be elected by state legislatures, and the President would be chosen by electors picked however the state legislatures decided — and the vote would be limited to people with “property,” i.e., white male landowners. Though activists from the 1820’s through the 1960’s challenged this elitist system and eventually expanded the franchise (first to all white men, then to people of color, then to women and then to young people) and amended the Constitution to allow people to vote directly for Senators, the Tea Party openly has called for a return to a more restricted franchise and for returning Senate elections to state legislatures.
Republican state governors and legislators have aggressively been pushing for measures to make voting harder. In Maine, a Republican governor and legislature repealed same-day voter registration — though Maine voters were able to pass a referendum to restore it. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker has also ended same-day voter registration and, according to Elisabeth Pearson of the Democratic Governors’ Association, “said students could only vote with a college ID that meets certain criteria — criteria that almost no schools meet. Now they’re saying technical college ID’s don’t count. And in the six months since he’s passed his voter suppression laws, they still haven’t updated the online forms that say to get a voter ID you need a birth certificate, which you can’t get without a photo ID.”
In my earlier article, I quoted Florida State Senator Michael Bennett (R-Bradenton) as calling voting “a hard-fought privilege” — not a right, but a favor government giveth and government taketh away. And at Civic Center Plaza the idea that voting is a “privilege” has been enforced by the San Diego Police Department and used as an excuse to put Ray Lutz in jail.
Not that that’s what they said they were doing. In the two-minute video of Lutz’s arrest, one of the cops taking him into custody said that they had no objection to him registering people to vote, merely to setting up a table so he could do so. That’s one of the many mind-numbingly absurd regulations the police have subjected the Occupiers to from day one, often seemingly made up on the spot and all based on the idea that the police and the city government “own” the square and allow anybody else to use it or not at their whim. Since the Occupation started October 7, the law in Civic Center Plaza has been essentially whatever the police say it is at any given moment — and when the police are allowed to make up their own laws on the fly, it means you’re living in a police state.
What’s more, the city government had already made it clear that they considered the Occupiers as a group apart from the “legitimate” citizens of San Diego. A reporter for San Diego CityBeat wrote that when he had taken a group of people from the Occupation into the Mayor’s office to fulfill their legal right to inspect city records, a security person told them that “Occupy people” were not welcome into the Mayor’s office. In other words, because they had congregated in Civic Center Plaza to fulfill their First Amendment right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” they were not allowed into the Mayor’s office to petition the government for a redress of their grievances.
The arrest of Ray Lutz wasn’t simply the enforcement of the arbitrary will of a handful of police officers. It was a clear class statement on the part of the rulers of San Diego that they don’t want the “wrong” people, the “Occupy people,” to be able to vote at all. Ironically, the Occupiers themselves are divided on the issue of voting; some believe that republican institutions are inherently corrupt and only direct democracy is a legitimate form of governance (the exact opposite of James Madison’s position), while others understand that political power in a republic goes to whoever is on top when the votes are counted (accurately or otherwise), and therefore people seeking social change not only should but must involve themselves in some manner with the electoral system.
That, no doubt, was the point Ray Lutz — whose other social-change project besides Occupy San Diego is a Web site,, that aims to make it easier for San Diego residents to hold their elected officials accountable — was trying to make. His table was intended as a message to the Occupiers themselves that, despite their legitimate criticisms of the electoral system as too dominated by corporate money and power, they should still exercise their right to vote. An Occupy movement that rejects electoral politics altogether is one the powers that be don’t have any reason to fear; an Occupy movement that uses both direct street action and electoral politics is one that can move the center of gravity in American politics Leftward, the way progressive activists in the U.S. did in the 1910’s, 1930’s and 1960’s — and Right-wing activists moved it Rightward in the 1980’s and the last three years of the Tea Party.
Whatever the police or the city authorities say, Ray Lutz was arrested on November 29 because he wanted to help the “wrong” people vote. A once-popular slogan of the anti-electoral U.S. Left said, “If voting could change things, they would make it illegal.” Between the attempts of Republican governors and legislators to shrink the electorate and make it more difficult for younger, poorer and darker people to vote, and arrests like Ray Lutz’s, maybe that’s just what the 1 percent that runs this country is trying to do!