If politics is the art of the possible, then the first general election of the millennium is sadly signaling that possibilities in the political process exist only for professionals, not volunteers.
Marketers, spin-directors and sound-bite cooks have annexed the political terrain of the season. Beyond the voting booth, the average citizen has been relegated to little more than to spectating and speculating. It’s little wonder that Americans are turning off to politics when they are only given the chance to exercise their political muscles once a year.
Debates may rage over whether the voter can really choose between Al Gore and George Bush, but most individuals accept that there is no choice for a volunteer to exert their citizenship to make significant policy.
When was the last time any of us heard a knock on our door from a genuine campaign volunteer with a passion for policy, not a political professional on loan to a campaign? Is it even surprising that every ballot initiative on the statewide November ballot was qualified through the use of paid-signature gatherers?
The true vacuity of politics today is not just the absence of real debate, but the lack of a genuine citizen movement to challenge commercialized electioneering and politicking. The only hope is a new political brand that the California initiative process is in a unique position to incubate — V.Q.I. or the volunteer qualified initiative.
While there is no statewide example of a V.Q.I. this November, California is the epicenter of local V.Q.I. efforts that have great potential to spread, if nurtured by the legislature.
Prop J in San Francisco, Prop LL in Santa Monica, Prop W in Vista, and March initiatives in Pasadena and Claremont were placed on the ballot because FTCR’s Oaks Project turned in over 65,000 volunteer-gathered signatures for the same initiative in six cities. (An additional measure submitted in Irvine failed to qualify by 81 signatures.)
Under the proposed “Taxpayer Protection Initiative,” no politician can receive campaign contributions, gifts, or jobs from a person or corporation that he or she has awarded taxpayer money to (such as through a city contract, zoning variance or tax break). Politicians themselves have yet to conjure such a reform, but the volunteer spirit that created Props LL, J, W and their March counterparts has spurred bi-partisan support in San Francisco for the measure, which is also endorsed by Common Cause and the Sierra Club.
Ironically, Santa Monica politicians, including Mayor Ken Genser, have tried to undermine Prop LL, despite the city’s reputation as a progressive enclave. The tactics included an effort led by Mayor Pro-Tem Pam O’Connor to exclude Ralph Nader’s signature of support for the initiative and entirely eliminate FTCR’s rebuttal argument in the ballot pamphlet, until a court forced the city’s hand. The retrenchment in progressive Santa Monica shows that V.Q.I. efforts can radically redraw possibilities within the political spectrum.
Volunteers who stood in front of supermarkets after work and on weekends for months this spring qualified these V.Q.I. measures to show that volunteer politics can work and interest far more citizens than paid-for politics. The Oaks Project, which coordinated the effort, requires its volunteer members to contribute fifteen hours per month and collect 1,000 signatures per year with the goal of making V.Q.I. a statewide concept. (Potential Oaks can email FTCR about their interest at [email protected]) Such a commitment is Herculean in today’s paid-for politics. It deserves the support of the Legislature, which should give governmental preferences to the V.Q.I. concept when it returns in December.
Tax incentives are often given to businesses to participate in certain endeavors. Volunteerism in politics should also be incentive-ized. When statewide initiatives are qualified on a volunteer basis they should have a special designation in the ballot pamphlet as V.Q.I. efforts. This will tell voters to give special consideration to any initiative that motivated enough volunteers to collect over 700,000 signatures.
The legislature could also require disclosure through television advertising about whether ballot initiatives qualified on an all-volunteer or paid basis. All-volunteer efforts could also receive state matching funds for campaign promotion by an act of the legislature.
For years now, voters have been turning against the initiative process because of their concerns that it has been colonized by corporations and special interests for their own self-ends. V.Q.I. can rescue the process, and its emphasis on volunteer action, if successful, can ignite a national movement that turns politics-as-usual into politics of the possible again.
Jamie Court is executive director of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which is the fiscal sponsor of the Oaks Project. To respond, email [email protected].