Law Day 2014 Speech – Why Every Vote Matters – American Democracy and the Rule of Law

Note: The speech below is being shared with my followers over two years after I gave it to a crowded room of mostly lawyers and Judges at the Stamford Marriott in May 2014 at the Fairfield County Bar Association’s Law Day Luncheon.  My sentiments and the information here is as relevant today as it was then.  Our country is at a crucial and potentially drastic turning point in this election cycle and our political history.  I urge all Americans to take their duty to vote very seriously this November.

Good afternoon. My name is Carmina Tessitore, I’m one of the co-chairs charged with the duty of ensuring you each have a pleasurable experience celebrating Law Day here in Fairfield county.

In 1958, President Eisenhower established Law Day as an annual celebration honoring the American heritage of justice, liberty, and equality under the law, and by joint resolution in 1961, Congress designated Law Day to be celebrated on May 1st. Annually, the American Bar Association, in conjunction with state, regional, and local bar associations, offers events and activities to celebrate Law Day.  Law day events target not just legal professionals, but also students and anyone in the community with a passion for law and justice.

The Fairfield County Bar Association annually celebrates law day with a series of events – beginning with an arts and essays contest at the Superior Court, which was held last Friday, where students from the region participate in submitting beautiful works showing, in pictures and words, what the law day theme means to them, and many firms donate prizes to be handed out to the participating students. In addition to today’s luncheon, the FCBA will also be hosting a Road Race on May 17th, whereby all proceeds will be donated to Connecticut Legal Services for their hard work providing indigent parties with legal representation. For more information on the upcoming Road Race, please contact the FCBA.

As we approach the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this year’s Law Day theme is, American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters. The theme calls on every American to reflect on the importance of a citizen’s right to vote and the challenges we still face in ensuring that all Americans have the opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

“One of our most cherished national ideals, expressed eloquently by Abraham Lincoln, is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is a principle enshrined in our Nation’s founding documents, from the Declaration of Independence’s assurance that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, to the opening three words of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, “We the People.”

The right to vote is the very foundation of government by the people. For this reason, striving to establish and protect every citizen’s right to vote has been a central theme of American legal and civic history. Much of the struggle on voting rights began decades ago, but the work is far from complete, a citizen’s right and ability to cast a ballot still remains at risk today, and ensuring that cast ballot translates into a citizen’s voice being heard by their representative is a struggle we’re all still working to overcome.

Over the years people have reported trouble with casting their ballot on election day – storms and traffic jams cause transportation issues getting to polling locations, the elderly, housebound ill, and disabled not having the strength or ability to make the trip, folks with hectic schedules not being able to take the time away from work or other obligations to make it to their polling site in time, and the cynical who believe their vote doesn’t really matter anyway.

A 2013 Washington Post article reported Connecticut as having a voter turnout of only 61.5% in 2012, ranking 21st nationally, though our numbers were up from 2008 where Connecticut ranked only 14th nationally. This new ranking shows some progress, yet still the numbers are staggering. Almost 40% of our neighbors don’t vote. It begs the inquiry into how voting can be made more convenient in modern times.

While technology has increased the efficiency of how most businesses and governments operate, voting in this state is still conducted in a somewhat antiquated manner – you must appear in person at your polling place, sometimes waiting in line for hours in frigid temperatures, and once inside manually fill out a scantron ballot, then feed that ballot into a machine for tallying. The ballots themselves contain not only the names of candidates for federal and state seats, but also local and municipal seats, some of whom you may never have heard of. Folks that do turn out to vote have often reported knowing of only a few of the candidates on the ballot, then employing the inie-meeni-mini-mo method of choosing between those candidates that they were unfamiliar with.

In an effort to minimize that, in 2011 Connecticut began allowing ballots for upcoming elections to be available in advance online, so that voters could view them, research the names they were unfamiliar with, and hopefully make an informed choice on election night. That’s a step in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Online voting has been raised as a potential option to help increase voter participation in elections, and is an attractive option for those whom are out of state and may neglect to mail in their absentee ballots, and is certainly an attractive alternative to appearing in person for citizens who are housebound or not able to leave their jobs to make it to their polling place in time. As technological privacy controls continue to develop, ours and certainly our children’s generation will likely to see a transition from in person to online voting. It will be interesting to compare what our voter turnout percentage is once that option becomes available.

Ensuring the citizenry votes is one hurdle, another is ensuring a vote means something – that the process of campaigning, holding elections, voting for candidates, is not just some empty symbolic gesture, a ceremony we undertake for show.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case declared the corporate expenditure ban for campaign contributions unconstitutional, holding that independent expenditures could not be constitutionally limited in federal elections, and implicitly that corporations could give unlimited amounts to other groups to spend, as long as the expenditures were made independently from the supported candidate.

This shift led to the creation of Super PACS. Super PACS are federally registered political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts in contributions, then funnel those contributions to candidates of their choosing, so long as the candidates themselves, and the candidate’s people, are not directly affiliated with that PAC.

More recently, in April of 2014, in McCutcheon v the Federal Election Commission, while the Supreme Court maintained the caps on individual contributions to $2,600 per candidate, per election; to $32,400 to political party committees per year; and to $5,000 per PAC, per year, the court did remove the aggregate total cap, so that now individuals can also give campaign contributions to as many candidates or entities as they so choose.

What does campaign financing have to do with a citizen’s opportunity to participate in our democracy?

As Justice Breyer noted in his dissent in the McCutcheon case, “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”

The new rules mean that a single individual can contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign using various means, and while federal law continues to ban direct contributions to candidates by corporations and unions, they nonetheless remain free to spend unlimited sums through super PACs and similar vehicles. It effectively creates a new method of discrimination, between those that have money and those whom do not.

The influence of big money on conduct will never disappear in any arena, but we can take steps to limit it in the governmental arena.

I can’t help but think of the show HOUSE OF CARDS when talking about these issues. For those of you not familiar, spoiler alert, I’ll try not to give too much away, it’s an incredible show, very addictive. The show was initially only available on Netflix online, but recently Comcast bought the rights to broadcast it as well, so can you can now order past episodes.

The show is set in D.C., and centers on the political maneuverings of Francis (Frank) Underwood (played by Kevin Spacy), and his wife Claire (played by Robin Wright).

Frank starts out as the House Majority Whip, and rises through the ranks quickly and in remarkable fashion – and by remarkable, I mean insidiously, deceitfully, and corruptly. He fully knows his conduct is morally and ethically reprehensible, and at times criminal, but his quest for power and fulfilling his own ego and agenda is paramount to doing what’s right and appropriate for the people. Throughout the episodes he speaks directly to you the viewer, explaining his next strategy, he tells you how he’ll pull the puppet strings, and you sit amazed as the intricate puzzle he’s crafted and complex plan he sets in motion falls right into place.

In one of the many subplots of the show, a senator from Philadelphia was going to be testifying before a congressional committee to keep open a shipping yard in his district, which was a source of 12,000 jobs for his constituents. Frank comes in and needs this senator under his thumb for various reasons, and ultimately convinces him not to fight for the shipping yard by offering him a sweeter carrot. The shipping yard ultimately closes, and 12,000 people are left unemployed.

I raise the show as an example rather than pointing to the many real life examples we have of misapplication of power and corruption in government, because frankly its less disheartening to point to entertainment than real life events – but it does depict what we all know in our gut to be true…and that is who pays the piper calls the tune.

We tell our populace if you don’t like the way your representative is representing you, vote for someone else next cycle, yet these potential new candidates, who may good people with character, integrity, a backbone willing to make sure the needs of their constituents are heard and met, putting aside their own ego and ambition, are virtually eclipsed out of having a chance to compete for our votes when their opposers have millions being funneled to them because they made promises in exchange for that money, and let me just put a disclaimer here – that’s not to say every politician who has substantial backing is corrupt.

But marketing is expensive, and the more you spend the more exposure you get, and the more exposure you get the more it creates name and brand recognition, and that recognition is the difference between someone filling in the bubble next to your name on the scantron ballot, or going inei, meeni, mini, mo and picking someone else. Just like in business – those who have a greater marketing budget may not necessarily be offering a better quality product, but they come up higher on the google list, and that’s what the people see.

Equalizing the playing field, putting caps on campaigning, giving the opportunity to anyone of the people a chance to afford to compete for our votes, based on who they are and what their platform represents, leads to a broader pool of candidates to choose from, and the opportunity to choose to vote for someone else next time if our elected official does a poor job during their tenure.

That’s not to say the citizenry should not also be doing their part and their homework before voting. But researching candidates without also reforming campaigning expenditure limits doesn’t solve the ultimate problem of favors being exchanged for money which limits the candidate pool, and silences the voice of the general public once that candidate is seated and those favors called in.

Let’s not erase the work of our predecessors, fighting so hard for the right to vote, by diluting the power that a vote has. A “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – that’s our legacy, that’s what we need to protect.

Can we really blame the cynics that don’t even bother anymore, being so repulsed by the way the game works. And really it shouldn’t be a game at all, this is our life, our children’s lives.

This Law Day, lets reflect on the hard work of those who came before us, fighting to end discrimination in our democratic process, and lets strive to ensure their hard work and sacrifices were not in vein.

Thank you for bearing with me while I stood on my soapbox. I should also note that the views expressed in the last few minutes are not necessarily the views of the FCBA or its members, and if I’ve alienated any of you, please place that blame on me, and not on the group.

I hope that you continue to enjoy Law Day and thank you very much.

(C) Carmina K. Tessitore 2014

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