Monday, April 25, 2011

Questions, answers

By Bill Kraus

When something goes wrong in computerland, the complaint one files is rarely answered by a human being or is specifically responsive to the question asked. Instead it is referred to an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) website which almost always fails to have a solution to the problem posed.

I can only hope this political FAQ is not similarly faulty.

Q: Why are campaigns in the U.S. almost endless while in other places, like England, they are very short?
A: Because our campaigns are date-specific. Theirs are not. Theirs are triggered by unpredictable events or by occasionally whimsical party leaders. Since they don’t know when the election is coming there is no logical time to start campaigning without looking foolish.

Q: Why don’t we have free TV time on what are essentially public airwaves to replace the mind numbing-deluge of 30-second commercials that dominate the campaign communication system?
A: The incumbents who would have to put this idea into place have been convinced by the professionals who run the big campaigns that 30-second commercials are the yellow brick road of campaigning. The TV stations that rely on political advertising for their profits support this line of reasoning. The Supreme Court which views anything that might limit anyone’s right to a megaphone for the free speech we all revere would probably side with the professionals and the TV stations if it ever came to it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

If not us, who? If not now, when?

I hope that the answers to the questions asked in the following blog are US and NOW. If you think they should be, would you be willing to put your name on the virtual letterhead of a virtual organization that is going to ask the legislature and governor to bring something other than partisan warfare to this year’s redistricting?

If you are willing to lend your name, please send a message to or call 608-256-2686.

- Bill
April 23, 2011


By Bill Kraus

Anyone who has seen the process up close wants nothing more to do with drawing the lines for legislative districts. All turf battles bring out the worst in our political system, and redistricting is a virtual golf course.

And that’s only half of it.

When the opportunity to get a 10 year advantage rears its ugly head, really bad things happen.

This could be that kind of a year. And it’s not like the results achieved in prior decades by legislative fiat often adjusted by judicial revisions have been God’s gift to democracy.

The most recent rearrangement of Wisconsin’s legislative districts have created a map where only one of our eight congressional districts is demographically competitive, and
informed sources tell me as few as nine of the one hundred and sixteen seats in the state legislature that were on the ballot last year were considered “in play.” All the rest were considered “safe” for the candidates of one party or another. This was not an accident. The maps are made by and for the incumbents. The leaders of these incumbents recruit, slate, fund, and manage most of these campaigns. They do not have the unlimited funds needed to compete in all 116 races. Their objective is not admitted or even well known but comes down to “the fewer toss up races the better.”

The maps they have drawn if left alone or have submitted to the courts if not are not egregiously gerrymandered, but the result of these designs have created a democracy where some 82% of the voters who show up for the final vote in November did not have a real choice. The results of the elections they participated in were pretty much predetermined by the people who decided on the basis of how the people in the districts in their maps could be expected to vote.

In short most of us do not choose our representatives. Our representatives choose us.

We are not at the table when the maps are drawn. We do not necessarily share the priorities of the people who are at the table. Most of us might, for example, like to have more rather than fewer contests that were more competitive.

This could be done. This is being done in other places. Right next door, for example, in Iowa a disinterested state agency that doesn’t want to limit the number of competitive elections makes the map the legislature ultimately approves.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s farewell gift to the voters of California was a mapping system similar to Iowa’s. A couple other states follow that path as well. And, astonishingly, in North Carolina the Republicans in the legislature are also trying to turn over this fractious responsibility to non-partisans.

We could do that. It isn’t rocket science. We could turn the mapmaking over to some agency as dispassionate and fair minded as, say, the Government Accountability Board where the responsibility for overseeing our elections already resides.

Why would the legislature and the governor do this for us?

It would get a very distracting issue off the table in a contentious, issue filled year.

It would save money. The legislative leaders wouldn’t have to hire expensive, otherwise worthy law firms to help them do the mapping.

And it would be the right thing to do in a year when finding a proposal that a very large bi-partisan majority of citizens might regard as praiseworthy is as rare as a robin in a Wisconsin spring.

I can guarantee that the the 82% of us who are geographically disenfranchised would cheer.

Anyone willing to wait tell 2021 to do this?

I didn’t think so.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Impartial Justice's future (if it has one)

By Bill Kraus

The Impartial Justice bill, which saw the light of day in a reform-averse Legislature only because all the sitting members of the state Supreme Court urged it on them, was supposed to be the poster child for full public funding. It was designed to get the candidates out of the demeaning money raising business and removing the taint of being beholden to their significant donors. It’s companion piece was intended to diminish the role of interest money in these campaigns as well.

The bill that passed was funded at a modest level which made it kind of good news/bad news for the incumbents. Potential challengers would no longer be daunted by the need to raise a large campaign fund to mount a respectable campaign which could open the floodgates. Advantage challengers. The low level of spending allowed by the candidates would make it very difficult for a challenger to produce and run the TV commercials which are widely considered necessary to get the name recognition they would need to be competitive. Advantage incumbents.

The companion piece which would have used the infusion of additional public money for candidates to offset and disincentivise outside spenders did not become law. It did get past the soon-to-be-dead body of the then-majority leader of the state Senate, but the brain dead or duplicitous also soon to be a dead body speaker of the Assembly put it in the trash can instead of to a vote. The Supreme Court by a 4-3 vote rejected an attempt to bring it in through a side door.

The poster child was still there, but less attractive.

The two survivors of the 2011 Supreme Court primary contest which would test public funding and run campaigns that made these campaigns shorter and maybe even sweeter. This, in turn, would prompt the great majority of voters who say they hate the tenor and cost and endlessness of the campaigns to demand an extension of full public funding to all elections. Full public funding ascendant.

Events intervened.

A placid primary which looked like it would lead to an easy victory for the incumbent morphed into something unseen and unanticipated in judicial elections. The outsiders came in with all guns blazing. Some supported the candidates. Most did not. Trashing and demonization dominated the airwaves.

The candidates were outspent and overwhelmed but did their level best to dodge or refute the firestorm of false and exaggerated charges by the outside bomb throwers and stay--er--judicial.

Expectations for the future of Impartial Justice are cloudy at best. The good thing is that those of us who think the election system needs to be repaired are accustomed to celebrating small victories. Despite all the clatter both candidates were spared the indignity of raising the amount of money it would have taken to be financially competitive and the recusal requests that come with taking money from supplicant/donors who appear before the court.

Nonetheless the poster child is pretty banged up. The first clean up is a full disclosure treatment so that the voters know who the outsiders are. If they want to play they should be asked to put prominent upfront labels on the TV commercials that are their main--more like only--weapon, so voters know that these scurrilous outbursts are not coming from the candidates themselves. Those whose money sources or supporter biases are not easily evident (as unions, manufacturers, lawyers, realtors, etc. are) should also be asked to tell the voters where they get their money. They can put in as many chips as they want, but full disclosure should be the price of getting a seat at the table.

Even the freedom-of-speech-crazed-collateral-damage-blind-U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that those who want to play the game can’t do it anonymously. No more blindsiding.

The Legislature has to do its small bit as well and put the modest sum for full public funding that was available to this year’s candidates back in the budget from whence it disappeared. Another letter supporting Impartial Justice from a unanimous Supreme Court would probably make this easier.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Our upended state

By Bill Kraus

A Supreme Court justice who was one of the court’s unanimous signers of a letter to the Legislature urging the passage of full public funding for elections to the court says he didn’t mean it and that the law was intended to cripple his election prospects. He said this even though he sailed through the pre-protest primary where the law got its first, unfettered test.

Another candidate for the Supreme Court takes a pass on a golden opportunity to trash the trashers who are demonizing everybody with their attack ads paid for with their anonymous money and who are undermining the Impartial Justice bill which has made her candidacy painless at least and maybe even possible.

A perfectly respectable, church-going, good neighbor family in rural Dane County with no evident dog in the current fight going on at the Capitol is accused of being responsible for telling 16 elected officials to put their affairs in order because they and their families will be killed.