Chesco D’s and R’s and the Issues

It seems the Chester County Republican party is starting to worry about Donald Trump.

Whatever resonances the leading R presidential candidate might find in certain other parts of the country, it’s pretty clear that his peculiar combination of the cult of personality and anti-immigrant prejudice won’t play well in Chester County.

A recent email from the Chesco R party is imaginatively entitled “Chester County Republicans! Stop the Out of Touch, Local Democrat Party!” Let’s just see who is out of touch (besides Mr. Trump, of course).

First, let’s note that the email does not reproduce any document as circulated by Chester County Democrats. It actually includes, for unknown reasons, an automatic English translation of a Spanish-language ad plus the original English-language graphic. Not good scholarship; but of course, this is politics.

The “President Trump?” motif, which obviously strikes a local R nerve, has been used in several forms. Here are the text and image as they actually appeared on the CCDC Facebook page, July 30:

Don’t kid yourself: it can happen.
If not Trump, then Bush or Walker.
And with a Republican President, we’ll see the repeal of Obamacare, a 20-week abortion ban, the end of the EPA, and war with Iran.
If we’re going to elect Hillary or Bernie next year, we must start right NOW! The Chester County Democratic Party isn’t waiting… and neither should you. If you’ve got some time, we’ve got important work for you to do… starting TODAY!
Please call us at 610-692-5811 or email to join this historic and crucial movement. Thank you!

The Spanish version dubiously rendered in the R email did refer to “a candidate who can continue in the footsteps of Obama.” For anyone who saw that email, the incoherence of the text is explained by the automatic translation, which starts out: “Do not deceive.” Though “Make no mistake” was the original thought, “Do not deceive” seems like good advice.

The email goes on to claim that “The Chester County Republican Committee is increasing its commitment to expanding our big tent and going back to the vision our strongest leaders have had for this country – small government, a strong economy, a leader in foreign policy and national security, and a voice for the middle class.

I’m not sure what “strongest leaders” they refer to, but probably not Democrats Wilson and Roosevelt, who led the country in World Wars I and II.

If Trump and the wall-builders are in the supposed big tent, I fear there isn’t much room there for recent immigrants. If Mike Huckabee is there, there isn’t much room for gays and lesbians. Rick Santorum doesn’t leave much air for working mothers, nor Ted Cruz for people concerned about global warming. And if the Kochs are there, no union workers need apply.

I’m always amazed when Pennsylvania Republicans talk about “small government.” Those are the very politicians who forbade municipalities from setting limits on gun sales (that law was thrown out in court) and who proposed House Bill 809 to prevent municipalities from limiting the number of tenants in a rental unit and the density of student homes.

Historically, the US economy has grown less under R presidents than D ones. The rise of the 1% and the decline of the middle class were engineered by the Reagan policies, the “trickle-down” economic theory, and the ongoing attacks on labor that have caused union membership, and consequently many middle-class salaries, to decline continuously since the early 1980s. The big hit in family net worth came in 2008 as a result of the Great Depression caused by loose government oversight of banks; the disastrous collapse of the Bush-era housing bubble made many middle class families lose part or all of their principal resource, the equity in their homes. Under Obama, unemployment has shrunk below pre-2008 levels and millions of newly insured are no longer one serious illness away from losing their assets and home.

The favorite R foreign and national security policy seems to be military action, as is clear from the calls to return to Iraq, send troops to Syria, and sabotage a nuclear agreement with Iran. But diplomacy is also foreign policy, and the health and welfare of Americans also contribute to national security.

Conversely, the R email claims that “Chester County Democrats want to continue the failed, wasteful programs put forth by President Obama that have crushed small businesses and hurt our middle class families in America.”

Over half of working Americans are employed in small businesses (under 500 employees), so I can’t see anyone being “crushed” right now. Certain tax policies, going back decades, favor multinationals, exporters, and internet vendors; but I don’t see the Chesco R’s calling for change there.

And the R’s don’t choose to mention a host of other important issues of our time, such as:

women’s rights and equal pay for equal work

a path to citizenship for worthy immigrants

reducing gun violence and proliferation, attacks on police, and killings by police

increasing the number of citizens who choose to vote (here’s a good contrast: Gov. Wolf today unveiled online voter registration, the very opposite of the Corbett policy to reduce turnout through voter ID requirements, mercifully tossed out in court)

the perception (or is it reality?) that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has cast elections to the highest bidder

more support for preschool education, job training, and all levels of public education

dealing with the crushing (yes, that word fits here) loan debt borne by many college students long after graduation

reducing economic inequality, including the recent hits to African American and Latino homes and assets; increasing the minimum wage

regulation of banks to prevent further crash and bailout cycles

fighting overincarceration of Americans and the proliferation of profit-making prisons

and the big long-term challenge to humanity: climate disruption, with the resulting record heat waves, water scarcity in many areas, wildfires, and extinctions of vulnerable species now becoming undeniable

Look at the Chesco R website; the issues just aren’t there. The main argument seems to be that Chester County is a great place to live and the Republicans deserve all the credit.

I think Democrats and Independents (who together comprise 55% of Chesco registered voters) and no doubt many R’s too would welcome local debate on those issues. And it would be interesting to hear whether the local Republican leadership disagrees that “with a Republican President, we’ll see the repeal of Obamacare, a 20-week abortion ban, the end of the EPA, and war with Iran.”

All national evidence suggests that those eventualities would come true under a President Trump or any of his 15 rivals for the Republican nomination.

Posted in Democrats, President & candidates, Republicans | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

In the Name of Trump

It can be interesting to learn the origins of public figures’ names.

For example, knowing that Secretary of State John Kerry’s family name was chosen by his paternal grandfather Fritz Kohn can save us from making assumptions based on his Irish-sounding name.

But Vice President Joe Biden’s name really is of Irish origin, right? No, his ancestry is Irish on his mother’s side, yes, but English on his father’s, except that his middle name Robinette (his father’s mother’s maiden name) is a clue to French Canadian ancestry.

How about Donald Trump? I had guessed that his last name might have been shortened from some longer Eastern European one, but not so. According to Wikipedia:

Trump’s mother was a Scottish immigrant, born on the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, and Trump’s paternal grandparents were German immigrants. His grandfather, Frederick Trump (né Friedrich Drumpf), immigrated to the United States in 1885, and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1892. Frederick married Donald’s grandmother, Elizabeth Christ … at Kallstadt, then Kingdom of Bavaria….

So, as in Kerry’s and many other cases, a name was changed in the US: Drumpf (the u would be short, as in “put”) to Trump (after seven years in this country). Probably a good choice: the real estate mogul Donald Drumpf, Drumpf Tower, Drumpf for President—those just don’t have such a convincing ring to them.

So what is the origin of the name Trump to which Donald’s grandfather chose to Anglicize the ancestral Drumpf?

According to, the name Trump is

English (Devon): metonymic occupational name for a trumpeter, from Middle English trumpe ‘trumpet’. German (Bavaria): metonymic occupational name for a drummer, from Middle High German trumpe ‘drum’.

The Internet Surname Database accepts the trumpeter or drummer meaning but gives the name a French origin:

This early English medieval surname is derived from the pre 8th century Olde French ‘Trompeor’, and as such was introduced by the Norman invaders of England in 1066. It is a metonymic or job descriptive name either for a trumpeter or a maker of trumpets, and is recorded in the modern forms of Trump and Trumper.

Another form of the name, according to Coat of Arms Store, is Trumbo, and

The surname of TROMBO was derived from the Old French word ‘trompeor’ a name given to one who played the trumpet. The name was brought into England from France in the wake of the Norman Invasion of 1066.

And here (to the left) is the Trumbo coat of arms. trumbo-coat-of-arms-trumbo-family-crest-3

At any rate, the name of Trump, with its variants, has its origin in the trumpet—a fitting association for a man who is so skilled at broadcasting his own name and fame (see also here). Since our word drum came from the same root in the 16th century, we could get a drum and trumpet duo going just from the name of Trump.

The root tromper in French also means “deceive”—not a meaning that Mr. Trump would probably wish to broadcast. Sources suggest that this meaning may have arisen, in the 14th century, from the idea of “playing the trumpet at someone” to draw them to a huckster’s wares or otherwise lead them astray—sort of like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, perhaps?

The English word trump has several meanings of interest, as we find from the Online Etymological Dictionary

as a verb:
1) “surpass, beat,” 1580s
2) “fabricate, devise,” 1690s

as a noun:
1) “playing card of a suit ranking above others,” 1520s, alteration of triumph (n.), which also was the name of a card game
2) “trumpet,” c. 1300
3) “elephant’s snout,” 1560s

If you want an association of this rich word family with its prominent bearer today, you can’t miss with any choice.

Mr. Trump’s supporters could emphasize the “winning suit” meaning and its derivation from the idea of triumph.

Or a rival could choose to apply to Mr. Trump’s political persona the expressive derivative trumpery , originally “deceit, trickery” but now (Oxford) “1) Attractive articles of little value or use; 2) Practices or beliefs that are superficially or visually appealing but have little real value or worth.”

As in: “That’s enough Trumpery for one campaign!”

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Trump, DiGiorgio, and the Big Tent

It’s nice that local Republican chairman Val Di Giorgio has felt he needs to dissociate the Chester County party from part of Donald Trump’s offensive remarks about Mexican immigrants (letter “Local GOP not in line with Trump behavior,” Daily Local News, 7/31/15).

The part DiGiorgio criticizes Trump for is “his blanket condemnation of Mexican immigrants as rapist[s] and criminals” and “his comments about Mexican immigrants as a whole.”

The part he agrees with is “focusing debate on the human and financial costs of allowing criminals access to our borders.”

That’s a rather fine line to walk, isn’t it?

And what does Mr. DiGiorgio have to say about actual immigration issues? Do undocumented immigrants have a right to health care, a drivers license, and education for their children? Should parents be deported leaving their US citizen children behind? Should we establish a practical path to citizenship beyond the ridiculously long wait through official visa channels? Should we really build a “great wall,” which Trump was for before he was against it? Readers will scan Mr. DiGiorgio’s letter in vain for any answers.

Mr. DiGiorgio goes on to mention two local Republican African-American office-holders as evidence of the local GOP commitment to “building a truly big tent party.” Well, not exactly Mexican immigrants, are they?

The national GOP, unfortunately, has not rejected Donald Trump and his prejudices. In fact, you can still vote for him (or 17 others) in a straw poll at the Republican National Committee site. I wonder if he will come in first there as he has in public polls among his party members.

I hope voters will watch carefully for any GOP progress in renouncing Trump and all he stands for or in getting serious about the well-worn Big Tent principle.

Is there room in the tent for the long-term unemployed, Americans in need of vocational and professional training, the earners of minimum wage, children who would benefit from the universal pre-school, students who have had to run up huge college loan debts, people who depend on public transportation, union members, homeowners still reeling from mortgage fraud, women needing family planning assistance, seniors and the disabled depending on Social Security, the many millions who receive health care through Medicare and Medicaid or who have gained health insurance from the Affordable Care Act, and other groups currently under attack in the Boehner-McConnell Congress?

Will it take Donald Trump to loosen up GOP tongues?

Come on, Donald, please start the conversation in your party with some more controversial pronouncements in tomorrow evening’s debate!

Posted in Immigration, Politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Referendums and democracy, Greece and West Chester

Democracy – politics – oligarchy – … We wouldn’t have those words without the Greeks of over 2000 years ago. The Greeks have been at this governing business for a long time, though the rest of Europe now wants to tell them what to do.

The recent Greek nationwide vote was properly a plebiscite: “a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question.”

Under the Roman republic, plebiscites were laws passed by the Plebeian Council, which (in contrast to the Senate) represented the vast majority of Romans who were free non-patricians.

For some reason, our press prefers another Latin word, referendum, “the principle or practice of referring measures proposed or passed by a legislative body to the vote of the electorate for approval or rejection.”

The Greek word used today is Δημοψήφισμα (transliterated dimopsifisma), literally “decree of the people.”  And “decree of the people” is the underlying meaning of both plebiscite and referendum today.

On July 5, as their leaders recommended, the Greeks voted No to the austerity program imposed on them by Europe and then the government went ahead and implemented Yes, so go figure.

The French have used national referendums at various times in their history to approve constitutions or for other purposes. In 1969, the negative vote in a referendum caused president Charles de Gaulle to resign.

Scotland held a referendum earlier this year on the question of independence from Great Britain, which in turn will soon be holding a referendum on its membership in the European Union.

Puerto Rico held a referendum in 1952 to approve its constitution and more recent plebiscites to determine if voters wanted to change their current status.

But no question or crisis is great enough for the US to consult all its people directly. We do have an occasional local referendum, such as to see if voters approve a county bond issue, but our system of government is basically indirect: we elect people to make decisions for us (except in some towns small enough to make decisions at town meetings).

Voters in West Chester may soon have the opportunity to vote in a referendum to add a “Community Bill of Rights” to the Borough’s Home Rule Charter. See more information and text here. The organizers are aiming to gather 500 signatures by August 4 to put the measure on the November 2015 ballot.

The text starts out:

We the people of West Chester Borough, Pennsylvania, find that reliance on unsustainable sources of energy, and allowing continued expansion of infrastructure that supports that dependence, prevents us from creating and maintaining the kind of healthy community that is our right…

and goes on to take aim at fossil and nuclear fuel production and transportation, among other threats to local quality of life. Three particularly noteworthy “statements of law” are:

(5) Right to Water. All residents, natural communities and ecosystems in West Chester Borough possess a fundamental and inalienable right to sustainably access, use, consume, and preserve water drawn from natural water cycles that provide water necessary to sustain life within the Borough.

(6) Right to Clean Air. All residents, natural communities and ecosystems in West Chester Borough possess a fundamental and inalienable right to breathe air untainted by toxins, carcinogens, particulates, and other substances known to cause harm to health.

(7) Right to Peaceful Enjoyment of Home. Residents of West Chester Borough possess a fundamental and inalienable right to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, free from interference, intrusion, nuisances, or impediments to access and occupation.

The overall intent, as I see it, is to give the citizens another layer of protection against state, corporate, and institutional intrusion. What do we need protection against? Three examples:

1) West Goshen recently went through a hard-fought battle involving a corporate plan to carry gas through a pipeline from the fracking fields in the western part of the state to Marcus Hook for redistribution and sale elsewhere. Though the township reached an agreement with Sunoco Pipeline, L.P., in May, requiring shut-off valves and limiting the use of the Sunoco property, there will still be a pumping station, a gas flare, and a big pipeline subject to accident.

If West Chester passes the Community Bill of Rights, it could help protect the Borough against, say, a large-scale gas-related use of the Wyeth-Pfizer property on the east side of town.

2) The horrendous House Bill 809, the recent subject of a hearing in West Chester, is now before the state House of Representatives. See my highly negative view in The Times of Chester County and another vociferous local view in the blog Chester County Ramblings.

Having a fraternity move in next door or a 7-bedroom house become the abode for 14 unrelated individuals would clearly violate people’s “right to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes.”

3) Some states in the dry West have actually decreed that rain water belongs to the state. Thus, surprising as it seems, residents can be fined for setting up barrels to catch rain falling on their own roofs or creating ponds on their own property (even where no water ever flowed away in a stream).

The Community Bill of Rights would go against such state dispossession of individuals.

I think our country could use some more direct democracy. Suppose citizens had been able to say whether or not the US should invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq: whatever the result, at least we would have had some meaningful discussion and more chance to seek out accurate information.

Suppose the politicians today posturing to instigate military action against Iran knew that their statements would be scrutinized in a national referendum and that ultimately the people would decide? It sounds like a very good idea to me.

Posted in Law | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Greece / Germany / Europe

American expatriate poet T. S. Eliot wrote that “It is the final perfection, the consummation of an American, to become not, an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.”

The European Union set out to disprove that idea, that no one rooted in a country of Europe can become broadly European. But recent events seem to suggest that Eliot was right.

The Europeans have, at least on the surface, been pretty patient with Greece. According to Reuters, 6/28/15,

Greece … owes its official lenders 242.8 billion euros ($271 billion), according to a Reuters calculation based on official data, with Germany by far the largest creditor.

That figure includes loans made under two bailouts from European governments and the IMF since 2010 — worth a nominal 220 billion euros so far, of which some has been repaid — as well as Greek government bonds held by the European Central Bank and national central banks in the euro zone.

Private investors hold 38.7 billion euros of Greek government bonds following a major write-down and debt swap in 2012 that reduced the Greek debt stock by 107 billion euros and the value of private holdings by an estimated 75 percent….

Germany’s exposure for the two bailouts totals 57.23 billion euros, France’s is 42.98 billion, Italy’s is 37.76 billion and Spain’s 25.1 billion….

But now the Europeans have been pretty rough in imposing their requirements on a people who cannot realistically comply. Jacob Soll, “Germany’s Destructive Anger, New York Times, 7/15/15, the current crisis brings out the deep-seated antagonism between the Germans and the Greeks, both of whom feel taken advantage of; he concludes:

Here lies a major cultural disconnect, and also a risk for the Germans. For it seems that their sense of victimization has made them lose their cool, both in negotiations and in their economic assessments. If the Germans are going to lead Europe, they can’t do it as victims.

I hate to see people with their backs against the wall, especially people with such a long and glorious history as the Greeks. As usual, it is ordinary individuals who are bearing the brunt of incompetent governments, cultural differences, and international financial structures.

The Greeks have endured more than their share of occupations: by the Roman Empire, the Byzantine empire, and the Ottoman Empire; the larger part of today’s Greece finally gained independence in 1830. Closer to our situation today, Nazi Germany and its allies occupied Greece during World War II. According to Wikipedia,

The occupation brought about terrible hardships for the Greek civilian population. Over 100,000 civilians died of starvation during the winter of 1941–1942, tens of thousands more died because of reprisals by Nazis and collaborators, the country’s economy was ruined and the great majority of Greek Jews were deported and murdered in Nazi concentration camps….

The German occupiers committed series of atrocities, mass executions, wholesale slaughter of civilians and destruction of towns and villages in Greece….

….hundreds of villages were systematically torched and almost 1,000,000 Greeks left homeless. In total, the Germans executed some 21,000 Greeks, the Bulgarians 40,000 and the Italians 9,000….

Greece also endured a civil war from 1946-49 (one of the first proxy wars of the Cold War era) and a military regime from 1967-74. This is all recent history for many Greeks.

The European Union is a good concept, and it has made another war between the major European powers unthinkable for now, but if the founders thought they would obliterate history and the living memory of people who lived through it, they were wrong. And when the Germans are leading the charge for Greek austerity, of course there is resistance, just as there was in World War II.

People have been comparing the situations of Greece, which can’t restructure its debts and economy on its own terms as long as it uses the euro, and Argentina, which turned its economy around in recent years. The Argentine ambassador points out that Argentina restructured its debts in 2005 and 2010, and that

…since 2003, Argentina’s economy grew at an annual average rate of 5.7 percent, the size of its middle class doubled, and the ratio of debt to gross domestic product declined from 166 percent in 2002 to 40 percent today.

If there is one lesson from Argentina’s experience, it is that debt sustainability and economic growth go hand in hand. As former President Néstor Kirchner famously stated, “The dead do not pay their debts.”

If Greece as an economy dies, its creditors will be left holding the bag. Or else, they will have to invade and help themselves to the material assets they want. The British Museum already has the marble sculptures form the Parthenon; it won’t be long till foreign enterprises and banks have bought up the $50 billion in public assets that the current settlement obliges Greece to set aside as collateral.

People have also been pointing out that Germany’s own recovery was paved by loan forgiveness. Eduardo Porter, “Germans Forget Postwar History Lesson on Debt Relief in Greece Crisis, New York Times, 7/7/15, shows that in 1953 Germany made an “agreement that effectively cut the country’s debts to its foreign creditors in half.”

In “Economic Historian: ‘Germany Was Biggest Debt Transgressor of 20th Century,'” Der Spiegel, 6/21/11, Albrecht Ritschl said:

…during the 20th century, Germany was responsible for what were the biggest national bankruptcies in recent history. It is only thanks to the United States, which sacrificed vast amounts of money after both World War I and World War II, that Germany is financially stable today and holds the status of Europe’s headmaster….

In 1924, reparations from World War I, which Germany was unable to pay on schedule, were restructured by international agreement; repayment resumed with the aid of US loans under the Dawes Plan. Then, 90% of the amounts due were canceled under the Young Plan, which took effect in 1930. According to the latter source,

By 1933, Germany had made World War I reparations of only one eighth of the sum required under the Treaty of Versailles, and owing to the repudiated American loans the United States in effect paid “reparations” to Germany.

The 1953 London Agreement on German External Debts cut German debts left over from World Wars I and II in half.

As stipulated in that agreement, once it was reunified, Germany resumed payments on some other debts in 190 and finally paid off the remainder in 2010–almost 100 years after it started invading and damaging other countries in 1914. I am sure the Greeks would be delighted to have such extended payment terms. Or, on the other hand, if Germany had actually paid realistic reparations to Greece after World War II, the Greek economy might be in much better shape today.

Germany did pay something, per Wikipedia:

In 1942, the Greek Central Bank was forced by the occupying Nazi regime to loan 476 million Reichsmarks at 0% interest to Nazi Germany. In 1960, Greece accepted 115 million Marks as compensation for Nazi crimes. Nevertheless, past Greek governments have insisted that this was only a down-payment, not complete reparations….

On April 6, 2015, Greece demanded Germany pay it the equivalent of $303 billion in reparations for the war. Germany replied that the reparations issue was resolved in 1990.

That figure includes (updated for inflation) “€10.3bn for an occupation loan that the Nazis forced the Bank of Greece to pay,” according to BBC.

Famed French economist Thomas Piketty sums up the situation as follows:

“When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.”

In sum, the Greeks are saying that they deserve the same level of loan forgiveness that the Germans benefited from, and that the Germans owe them about the same amount as the Germans are saying the Greeks should pay to everyone else. It sounds like a rousing game of Monopoly, except that real people’s lives are at stake.

As the 7/15 New York Times editorial “The Eurozone’s Damaging Deal for Greece” says,

The guiding notion behind the creation of the European Union was to resolve problems like this through consensus and cooperation. Instead, the final 17-hour negotiating session was marked by acrimony not only between Greece and the European leaders, but also between Germany and France; between the German finance minister and the head of the European Central Bank; between north and south, east and west.

So the tragedy is not only that the Greek debt crisis has no end in sight, but that instead of the one-for-all-and-all-for-one ethic that was supposed to govern Europe, the rancorous talks showed a roomful of national leaders with sharply differing conceptions of what to do about a bankrupt fellow member.

Greece have long been caught in these historical currents, and I don’t think the Greek people will accept any more humiliation. They seem to think the Germans are greedy and hard-hearted, while the Germans seem to think the Greeks are lazy and untrustworthy.

Such feelings, 70 years after the end of World War II, don’t bode well for European unity and especially not for an integrated European economy.

Posted in Economy, History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

George Houser, civil rights veteran, is 99

Anyone reading this knows who Bayard Rustin was. In case you missed the 2012 exhibit on his life and local roots at the Chester County Historical Society, see my observations here.

I wrote an earlier series on Rustin, which included “Bayard Rustin and West Chester.” 2/6/11, and “Bayard Rustin, PBS, and CCHS,” 1/16/12

This photo from a email today from the Fellowship of Reconciliation shows Rustin with George Houser:

Houser and Rustin

I wrote about them in “George Houser / Bayard Rustin / civil rights,” 5/21/11.

Houser and Rustin organized together the very first Freedom Ride to mobilize opinion against racial segregation in interstate commerce in 1947. Rustin would now be 103 years old. Houser is the only survivor today of the 1947 ride, which showed the way to the civil rights era of the 1960s, the 1963 “I have a dream” march (which Rustin organized), the movie Selma, and on to today’s protests and unveiling of seemingly unstoppable national disgraces.

To see what Rustin, with Houser and their courageous colleagues, went through in 1947, along with his inimitable philosophy of positive non-violent action even in a North Carolina prison, read his “Twenty-two days on a chain gang,” which as far as I know can be found online only in an earlier post on my blog.

Houser’s own account of the 1947 ride and its aftermath is “The Freedom Rides: From Project to Mass Movement,” Fellowship of Reconciliation, 5/24/11.

That’s history worth remembering!

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How the system works: who gets on the ballot?

In honor of primary election day (today), I am reposting this, first posted in the Times of Chester County.

People go in to vote every May and November (at least, that’s what both major parties hope they do). But voters mostly can’t imagine how those names got on the ballot.

Access is basically in the hands of the Republicans and Democrats in our 2-party system.

Independents can get on the ballot in 2 ways:

1) By winning a party primary. That can happen only in a “cross-filed” primary for school board or for judge of the court of Common Pleas or Magisterial District Judge, most likely only when a party doesn’t have at least one candidate for each position open; or

2) By filing “nomination papers” over the summer, for any position.

The chances of an Independent ever winning in November are, to say the least, remote, which means 20% of the local electorate have virtually no chance to serve in elected office. (For practical purposes, “minor parties” rank as Independents, unless they meet a % requirement to get candidates on the primary ballot, which they usually can’t.)

The campaign season begins in February, when candidates circulate petitions to get on the ballot. They need 10 signatures for municipal offices and school board, 100 for Magisterial District Justice, 250 for countywide offices (including Court of Common Pleas), 1,000 for US Congress, and so on up the ladder.

This is why in late February and early March, candidates and their representatives come around to regular voters’ doors, to meet the needed number of signers. Maybe it’s also why some voters register Independent, so no one will hunt them down for a signature.

Some signatures will turn out to be invalid: either the signer is not really registered, or is not registered in the party required, or is registered somewhere else, or signed 2 petitions for an office limited to one signature, etc.

Usually, opponents will look through candidates’ signatures and file a challenge if they can. So, if you need 100 signatures, you’d want to try for 150+ to be safe, etc.

Signers must be registered voters in the party of the candidate, except that for cross-filed positions, campaigns get R signatures to be on the R ballot and D signatures to be on the D ballot. The circulator of a petition must be a member of the same party as the signers except for cross-filed judges. (Why? Who knows!)

Suppose you are a R candidate and want to cross-file for school board but can’t find a D to carry a petition for you. No problem, you just get a friend or relative to change to D for a few days and get those signatures from D’s. PA doesn’t have early voting or at-the-polls registration, but we have instant party-switching back and forth.

Now, who patrols this complex system? That’s where it gets really interesting. Suppose you are a candidate and discover that an opponent broke a rule; for example, he doesn’t have enough valid signers, or her petition was not circulated by a member of the signers’ party. Well, obviously the County would keep people off the ballot if they don’t follow the rules to be on it, right?

Wrong! No doubt because of state-level regulations, the County takes candidates’ fees but all Voter Services looks at is, as far as I can see, whether all blanks have been filled in on the form and the number of signatures (valid or not). Imaginary people could sign, and the candidate would be on the ballot unless an individual goes to a lot of trouble to keep him off. This happens, but only rarely, because it is a real burden:

You document the invalid signatures or circulators

You get a lawyer to write cover letters and fill out forms

You make 4 copies

You go to one County office to file your paper work and pay $173.

You take a stamped copy to another County office to get your court date.

You take a copy to Voter Services

You take a copy to the person whose presence on the ballot you are challenging.

You wait to hear if you did it all right and then, when you get a date, you and your lawyer go to court to make your case.

And see what the judge says.

Good luck! Wouldn’t you think there would be a better way to see that people who break the rules don’t get on the ballot than to go to a busy judge and say: “We hereby demonstrate that M. Mouse is not registered to vote in West Goshen” or “We hereby show that the Republican candidate is not a Democrat”?

Now, back to those poor neglected Independents. Suppose you, a Green, want to get on the ballot for Prothonotary (that’s the county office where you pay the above-mentioned $173). That office is on the ballot this year. According to the applicable rules:

“… the minimum number of signatures required is two percent of the largest entire vote cast for any officer (except a judge of a court of record) elected at the last preceding election held in the same electoral district, but it may not be less than the number required for nomination petitions for political party candidates for the same office (exceptions to this rule apply to new electoral districts.)”

To file those nominating papers, that number would work out this year to 874 signatures. “What?!” you say, “As an Independent I need over 3 times as many signatures as a D or an R to get on the ballot?”

Yes, Virginia, welcome to the 2-party system.

Still, the Democrats or Republicans who get on your November ballot do deserve credit for overcoming a lot of obstacles, rounding up signatures, paying their filing fees, navigating their own parties’ approval process, and committing to serve in office.

And they are counting on people just like you (except Independents) to turn out and vote in this year’s May 19 primary election.

And then, the winners will appear on the November 3 general election ballot. Put that in your calendar too!

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