Congressman Moran and the Interactive Voter Choice System
In previous posts, I’ve looked at the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS) in from a number of different perspectives, hopefully illuminating in general terms how it would work to enable us to restore American Democracy. Specifically, I’ve written about the IVCS as: 1) a way of preventing the collapse of American Democracy; 2) the only way around all that money in politics; 3) a way of people self-organizing into voting blocs and electoral coalitions to make candidates and electoral officials accountable once again; 4) the remedy for overcoming the threat to open society; and 5) the remedy for the movement toward increasing mass behavior and perhaps totalitarianism in the United States. It’s time now to try to envision how the IVCS will impact politicians and candidates for office. In this post I want to begin by looking at the potential impact of IVCS on my Congressperson James P. (“Jim”) Moran, Jr.
Jim Moran has been elected Representative of the 8th Congressional District in Virginia 11 times. He was elected for the first time in 1990, beating Stanford Parris with 51.7% of the vote to Parris’s 44.6%. That first election was the closest Congressional contest Moran has ever experienced. Since then his majorities have ranged from 56.1% of the vote to a high of 67.9% in 2008. His District has been both solidly Democratic and also solidly for Moran since that first victory.
Moran’s strategy in representing the District has been one of presenting a progressive face along with the usual accompanying rhetoric about the economy and employment, but also favoring “fiscal responsibility,” “pay-as-you-go” budgeting, and support for small business and Government contractors in the 8th District. In addition, Jim expresses support for universal health care, “free” but “fair” trade agreements and legislation that will increase US exports. He also supported the stimulus bill, the Credit Card Reform bill, TARP, and the Wall Street Reform bill during the 111th Congress. But in earlier years, he was one of the leaders of an effort to legislate harsher bankruptcy conditions, an effort that was successful in 2005. Jim has also been among the major consistent opponents of the Iraq War, and also a consistent supporter of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He also expresses strong support for comprehensive immigration reform, reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, full funding for “no child left behind,” is strongly pro-choice in his public pronouncements, and also wants to expand embryonic stem cell research.
In short, Jim Moran has a pretty progressive point of view punctuated with support for neo-liberal views on the Budget, the big banks, international trade, and aid to small business. On the other hand, he’s also one of those progressives who while stating support for progressive goals and objectives, refuses to commit to fighting strongly and publicly for them in specific contexts, and often refuses to commit to support anything concrete until the Party Leadership and since 2009, the President, have brought legislation to the final stages. At that point, he ends up supporting whatever the Leadership and the President want him to support, without any visible regard for what his constituents want.
We’ve seen this pattern manifested a number of times recently. On health care reform, Jim Moran was at one time a co-sponsor of HR 676, the Medicare for All bill. But when the Administration, working with Max Baucus, decided to take it off the table, Jim, along with other progressives, didn’t join with the 80 or so other co-sponsors in the House to object, but like most of them readily accepted the strategy of working towards getting a “public option.” As the various versions of public option policies were offered, watered down, and finally removed from the bill, there was never a move by Jim to resist the removal of any public insurance alternative from it, even though his own District was overwhelmingly in favor of Medicare for All. Instead, he just accepted the gospel that it was better to have any health care reform bill (however far from “perfect” it was) than to have no bill at all.
In the case of Jim’s opposition to the Iraq War, his efforts were mainly verbal, his voting patterns followed the Leadership of the Party. When TARP was passed, he was again a good soldier, and he, along with other Democrats did nothing to prevent the payment of outrageously large bonuses, by organizations taking TARP funds, to their employees.
When, in early 2009, the big banks needed the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to change the “mark-to-market” accounting rule so that they could avoid recognizing their toxic real estate on their books, Jim did not object to the pressure Congress placed on FASB to change that vital rule. This one failure alone led to the banks being able to escape resolution, declare profits that are not real, and pay those outrageous bonuses based on those non-existent profits, while remaining in a position to influence the political system in favor of Wall Street and against Main Street, and to continue speculating in the derivatives market rather than lending money to small business.
Jim also sat by, along with other House Democrats, when the Administration let its stimulus bill be savaged by Republicans and blue dog Democrats, until it, in the end, provided only 1/3 of the stimulus needed to get out of the recession. He also stood by when the Credit Card Reform Act failed to limit the interest rates banks could charge to consumers, and voted for the 9 month implementation period, which allowed banks to reformulate their Credit Card businesses to charge uniformly higher interest rates to strapped consumers, allowing the banks to make as much as 28% profit on the interest charged to some consumers against their own cost of money.
When the new “finreg” legislation was being formulated, Jim Moran supported the Leadership and has stated his belief that the bill finally passed will prevent a repeat of “too big to fail.” Most economists however, believe that this is dreamland and that the bill does no such thing. Jim has also supported the Leadership in the recent “compromise,” extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and lately he has been agreeing with the “deficit hawks” that Social Security has a problem that must be resolved by “strengthening it,” while refusing to commit to doing so by eliminating the payroll tax cap, even though his District certainly prefers this alternative to any cuts in the program, or raising the retirement age.
In short, there are many things Jim Moran has supported that don’t represent the people of his very progressive district. In this respect, he is not very different from most Congresspeople, both Democratic and Republican. As a variety of surveys have consistently shown, Congressional approval levels are very low, and the primary advantages incumbents have over challengers is often in campaign financing, and also in the widespread belief that the other Party alternative to one’s Congressperson, is just as bad or worse.
The IVCS is a web-based Information Technology/social media environment now in development that will enable people to create a network of voter-driven political organizations around shared policy priorities to eliminate the gap between voters’ priorities and the legislation enacted by their elected representatives, and counter the influence of money in politics, including the cognitive distortions created by using big money to frame debates and constantly introduce distractions from key issues. The collective action power of the Internet combined with specific capabilities of the IVCS will make the creation of such organizations feasible. When fully developed, IVCS will provide voters free policy agenda-setting, organizing, problem solving and consensus-building tools to:
— Define their own policy options and prioritize them to create policy agendas,
— Social network with others who have similar agendas to their own,
— Collaborate and solve problems with others to create collective policy agendas, voting blocs, and electoral coalitions that can work within existing parties or build new political parties, and
— Hold elected representatives accountable by monitoring and evaluating how well their performance matches the policy agendas of the voting blocs that have elected them to office.
The result of using IVCS will be voting blocs of various sizes and influence, formed by voters across the political spectrum. People will use the system to formulate common policy agendas, and then create self-organizing transpartisan voting blocs, electoral coalitions, and political parties around those agendas. They can use the system’s search/data mining tools to locate other voters whose policy agendas are most like their own, and join with them.
To organize voting blocs that develop cohesiveness and staying power, people will have to negotiate out their differences to join together. But negotiating common agendas, and crafting winning electoral strategies from the bottom-up, gives voters a lot more power than being hamstrung by the two major parties. The system will support such negotiations, and create the potential for so many policy agendas and voting bloc coalitions to form, that it is virtually certain that new and powerful blocs, electoral coalitions, and even political parties, will emerge, grow rapidly, and begin to acquire national influence.
Voting blocs will make decisions and resolve conflicts either by consensus or by using the IVCS Voting Utility. They can also use the Utility to vote on proposed political alliances and coalitions. Since voting bloc members can always “vote with their feet,” by forming new blocs or joining other already existing blocs, and since new voting blocs will always be coming into existence, the dynamic environment created by the IVCS will always be biased toward bottom-up organization, problem solving, and influence, rather than top-down control. Since problem solving in the system will be web-based and distributed, rather than centralized, blocs will be able to quickly increase their size by using the system to reach out to other voters online and adapt to their environments better than traditional voting blocs. They will also be able to transcend the awkward stages of initial growth, and rapidly develop into new political organizations that can successfully challenge the legacy parties and the special interests as the driving force in the American political system.
Since it will cost little more than time to organize and get one’s messages out by using the IVCS, it will eliminate the need for voting blocs, political parties, and candidates to rely on contributions and special interest campaigns to get support. They’ll be able to spread their message using the facilities of the IVCS alone. The system will de-fang the Citizens United decision, and the influence of special interests more generally, because mass media-based propaganda campaigns will conflict with, and be critically evaluated by IVCS-based interactions and messaging within informal social networks and voting blocs.
Visualizing the Impact of the IVCS on Jim Moran and the Democratic Party
The IVCS will lead to the introduction of new, organized political forces in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District. One or more voting blocs and electoral coalitions may very well emerge with many thousands of voters participating in the process of formulating a policy agenda they will want Jim Moran to do his utmost to enact. The big challenge is to develop a large enough bloc of voters to convince Congressman Moran that if he does not pledge to exert his best efforts to enact their agenda the bloc will run a winning candidate against him in primary and general election. The IVCS environment makes it possible for them to pose such a threat because it has the capacity to enable voters to assemble very large political coalitions by successively aggregating and synthesizing policy options in round-after-round of negotiations, until they form a large enough voting bloc/electoral coalition to be able to influence Jim Moran to change his behavior. What do we mean by that?
Well, right now, Jim seems to be stating certain positions he is supporting in relatively vague terms, engaging with other Congresspeople, lobbyists, the leadership, and the White House, and arriving at final votes that have only a pretty loose relationship, at best, with the positions he runs on. Meanwhile, he raises a sizable campaign war chest, which allows him to “spin” how he’s voted to persuade constituents that he’s been as faithful to the positions he has articulated as it was possible to be given his circumstances. In addition, his office is very good at constituent services, and when you put all these elements together with the fact that the 8th Congressional District is a safe District for Democrats he becomes pretty much unassailable, while avoiding any tight coupling between his actions as a Representative, and the public positions he takes on issues.
So, being able to influence Jim Moran comes down to being able to more tightly couple his actions to his stated goals and objectives, and that, in turn, comes down to getting Jim to commit to a specific policy agenda, comprised of policy options that he promises to support by introducing these options in legislation, and fighting for them by refusing to vote for anything else except those options, and by informing other Congresspeople that if they want him to vote for their bills, they must craft legislation that is in line with his agenda. In other words, the problem is to create a large enough voting bloc that Jim Moran’s flexibility to do anything but represent the specific policy agenda he’s agreed to support is severely restricted.
So, the next question is, how does the IVCS enable voters in his district to build a voting bloc large enough to induce Moran not only to pledge to enact their agenda but to actually exert his best efforts to get it passed into law. The first step is to figure out how many votes are needed to put a candidate on a primary ballot. In the Virginia 8th Congressional District, only 1,000 valid signatures on a petition are needed to enter the Democratic Primary for Congress. The State recommends that candidates get 1,500 signatures to leave plenty of room for invalid ones, however. Of course, having a voting bloc that is large enough to get a candidate on the primary ballot, would probably not be enough to persuade Jim Moran to commit to a voting bloc agenda, since the Congressman has faced primary challenges before and has always won handily.
The next step is to estimate how many votes will be needed to win the primary. Again, the number is relatively low since very few people vote in primary elections in Virginia’s 8th. For example, in the 2008 primary, Jim Moran beat Matthew Famiglietti with 11,792 votes to his opponent’s 1,764. In the 2008 Republican primary, J. Patrick Murray won with 7136 to 6654 for his opponent Matthew B. Perry. The most closely fought primary in recent years was the 2004 Democratic contest won by Jim Moran with 24,121 to 17,067 for Andrew Rosenberg. The 41,000 some odd votes cast in that primary, represented 10.35% of registered voters.
In view of this previous record, one can make a pretty good guess that a voting bloc/electoral coalition that can generate 40,000 votes in the open Democratic primary would most likely be more than enough to defeat Jim Moran for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2012. Even if the bloc had 25,000 votes, the Congressman would have to give it a respectful hearing if they briefed him on their agenda prior to the Democratic Party primary in 2012, because that vote is more than he’s achieved in any previous primary. This would be particularly true if the voting bloc took the prior step of seeing to it that a candidate of their choosing had entered the primary and already committed to the policy agenda of the group.
How difficult would it be to get 40,000 primary voters to climb on the voting bloc’s bandwagon? Not very difficult. Multiple polls show that upwards of 80% of U.S. voters are so disgusted with their Congressional representatives’ performance that they would like to see them defeated. The organizers of the voting bloc could take advantage of numerous IVCS tools and services to create a transpartisan electoral base of this size that brings together voters across the political spectrum who want to eliminate the gap between Moran’s campaign promises and his votes on legislation in Congress. (See 2012: How U.S. Voters Can Wrest Control of Congress from Special Interests.)
They can use the same tools and services to increase the numerical size of their electoral base to ensure that it is large enough, based on prior turnout, in the range from 140,000 – 200,000 votes. (See Part V of the preceding reference, entitled “How Voting Blocs Can Expand Their Electoral Bases by Increasing Their Membership and Building Electoral Coalitions with Existing Parties, New Parties, Labor Unions and Other Membership-Based Groups.”)
Assuming that an IVCS voting bloc with an electoral base of 40,000 primary voters suffices to get Moran’s attention and commitment to enact its agenda, the voting bloc could then agree not to support Moran in the primary. After he wins, it would then have to face the next hurdle, which is to ensure that Moran maintains his commitment to the bloc’s agenda during the general election campaign.
One way to do that would be to put the primary candidate the bloc had planned to run against Moran in the Democratic primary on a third party primary line and elect that candidate in the primary so that he/she would be a back-up candidate that the bloc could support in the general election, if Moran defaulted in maintaining his support for the bloc’s agenda during that campaign. A second, though less desirable, because more difficult, option would be to conduct a write-in campaign in favor of the candidate during the general election.
If after winning the primary and the general election with the support of the IVCS voting bloc, Congressman Moran backed off his support of the agreed upon agenda, and decided instead to march in lockstep with the leadership and the President, while trying to spin what he had done, then the voting bloc, with its written agenda in hand and a point-by-point comparison with Moran’s legislative track record, would retaliate by beating him in the Democratic Primary of 2014. This would demonstrate that a voting bloc’s continued support is contingent on observing its mandate, and that it has the electoral clout to hold representatives accountable for failure to exert their best efforts to enact it into law.
Let’s say that a scenario like the one I’ve sketched out works to get a commitment from Jim Moran to support the voting bloc’s agenda so that it moves to the general election in support of his candidacy. Then what are the implications for the regular Democratic Party machinery and its interactions with voting bloc members? After all, the voting bloc with its 40,000+ committed voters was assembled through a new system of political processes running parallel to and outside of the pre-existing local Democratic Party Structure supporting Jim Moran’s campaign efforts.
In the 2008 campaign, partly with the assistance of the Democratic Party organization, almost 223,000 people voted for Jim Moran. Even if one assumes that most of the bloc’s 40,000 voters come from the group of former Moran voters, it’s clear that to win in the general election, Jim would also need many more than the 40,000 votes received in the primaries. As I said above, however, the voting bloc seeking to corral Moran into adopting its agenda and sticking to it, will have a broad repertory of IVCS consensus-building tools that it can use to build winning electoral coalitions with other voting blocs, political parties, labor unions and grassroots advocacy groups. So, during the election campaign it should be able to increase its size to the required range of 140,000 – 200,000 committed voting bloc members.
Once the voting bloc demonstrates its capacity to determine the outcome of both the primary and general elections for the 8th Congressional Districts, it will have the leverage it needs to open negotiations with local Democratic Party officials, if it chooses to do so. Its first step would be to invite party officials to engage registered party members in using IVCS agenda-setting, organizing and consensus-building tools to set their individual policy agendas and use them to set the party’s legislative agenda.
This would perhaps be the most significant institutional aspect of the impact of a successful IVCS voting bloc/electoral coalition effort to get a commitment to a policy agenda from Jim Moran. It would lead to the democratization of local party operations and put voters in control of the party instead of the party being in control of the voters. It could also lead to a very large-scale injection of voting bloc activists into the local Democratic Party that would most probably lead to its revitalization, and to further growth of the voting bloc’s electoral base, while leaving the bloc free to form transpartisan alliances outside the Party, when that’s necessary to forward the voting bloc’s policy agenda.
This expansion of the voting bloc’s network of voters to party members might bring about negotiated modifications of the bloc’s policy agenda. Such an evolution would be both desirable and democratic. The bottom-up character of IVCS participation would introduce a remarkable countervailing force to the Democratic Party’s natural tendency to follow Michel’s “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” It would weaken the present alarming tendency of Party members to follow Party leadership blindly, even when it clearly departs from the Democratic Party’s principles and values.
How generalizable is the picture I’ve presented to other Congressional Districts across the country? Can the Democratic Party be taken over by voting bloc activists, and revitalized across the country, in a very short time using the IVCS? On the positive side of this question is the fact that many Congressional Districts require only a small percentage of registered voters signing a petition to enter a Party primary. Also, most primaries have very low participation ratios, so a small percentage of Party voters can select the Party nominee. This suggests that a quick takeover of one or both of the major parties is possible and even practical, provided large voting blocs can self-organize in a short time so that Congressional District-based voting blocs/coalitions can be created with 40,000 or more members relatively easily. We’ve seen social media phenomena go viral on many occasions now, so I think the potential for this is there. But whether it can be done on a large scale, Congressional District by Congressional District, will remain a question mark until the IVCS is implemented.
Finally, you’ll notice that I’ve written this from the point of view of working within the Democratic Party for change. This isn’t because I’m intrinsically opposed to third Parties, or feel loyal to a Party that has quite clearly abandoned its historical mission. In fact, I’ve been very interested in third Party possibilities for some time, now. However, on reflection about the situation in my own District, I’ve come to believe that Party primaries are easier to enter and win, than elections that attempt to challenge the major Parties from outside. And, I also think that, with the help of the IVCS, we can reduce the influence of money in elections and prevent newly elected primary and general election winners from being bought by corporate special interests and wealthy individuals through campaign contributions. So, in short, I think it will be easier to enter major Party primaries and to democratize them, then it will be to win with a third party strategy, and I don’t see any principles being compromised in doing that since, in either case, it’s about sticking to the policy agendas of the IVCS voting blocs, and making sure that candidates, officeholders, and political parties are accountable to these voting blocs and their agendas.