Allow me to retort: We must protect the election laws

This article appeared in Everything and perfectly explains the frustration by those of us that try to honestly follow the rules and highlights the ineptitude of those that are supposed to protect the laws of the state. Of course that ineptitude may be influence by financial incentives. I am not the one to judge that. The following events actually happened in this state and few took notice.

By Neil Siders 

While most of Everything Hendersonville’s “Allow me to retort” editorials focus on statements made by one individual, this addition will “retort” to a situation as a whole. Throughout the last few months of this election cycle, one overriding fact has become clear; there is no real enforcement of election regulations. No accountability expected of those who violate election rules and no serious consequences will result from violations.
This election cycle has seen PAC’s (Political Action Committees) run wild, failing to register before taking action, politicians entering the polling places against state regulations, and groups advocating the use of official governmental organizations and paid county employees to implement a political goal.
None of these violations have seen any serious consequences.
While the violators face no serious price for their transgressions, all of these actions could potentially greatly influence the electoral process.

Violations and potential disasters

Allowing PACs to take action before officially registering is allowing anonymous institutions and people to influence elections with an influx of funding and publicity. Though the recent violations did not demonstrate the worse case scenario, allowing the violations establishes a dangerous precedent. If PACs are allowed to operate in this fashion, what is preventing a liberal organization from founding a republican PAC and influencing the Republican primaries, and failing to disclose their true intentions until after the election is decided in early voting? Obviously the reverse could be possible with a conservative organization influencing a Democratic primary.  Furthermore, in an even darker potential situation, what prevents a terrorist organization from creating a PAC and influencing American elections in the fashion that would support their agenda, then following complaints being lodged and the truth being revealed, citizens who were influenced by the organization would have no recourse as their votes would have already been cast.
What would legally happen if one of these clear attempts to undermine the American electoral process was committed? Well, if recent events are any indication, as long as they registered and filed financial disclosure statements after the complaint was lodge, the answer is absolutely nothing. (The Free and Strong Tennessee PAC demonstrated this principle, when failing to register before flooding the state with political mailers, and faced no consequences for these violations.)
Another violation during this election cycle was demonstrated by the video of County Commissioner and Hendersonville Alderman Paul Goode hanging out inside a polling district. Goode who was supporting Len Silverman’s campaign for the Republican nomination for the 45th district, and is a mouth piece for the pro education group Sumner Strong Schools, was included on the ballet as a candidate for a County Commission seat, created the potential to effect citizens’ votes with his presence.
Statements made by any politician as citizens wait in line to cast their vote could contaminate the electoral process. While Goode does not cast a intimidating presence to many of the voters (More that of a used car sales man, apologies to used car sales men) a politician who is allowed to loiter in polling places, could easily intimidate citizens though his presence or statements into voting for the candidates they support. Furthermore, the presence of politicians removes the anonymous nature of the American voting system. In a worse case scenario, a 6’6″ muscular politician with a great deal of political connection, could stand in the polling place making statements relating to the consequences of not voting their way. While some voters would still walk their ways to the polls and cast the vote they intended, many may leave or cave to the threatening nature of the comments and vote they way they were instructed. What would be the consequences of these actions? Well, if the Goode video and the State’s reaction is a demonstration, again absolutely nothing.
Lastly, many political organizations have attempted to use County, City and State employees to influence the election. Strong Schools’ leadership sent out a Facebook message asking teachers to distribute preferred candidate lists at the schools. While members of the organization, such as Victor Minicozzi, have called those who comment, or reported on the message, liars in an attempt dilute the truth with political spin, screen shots of the comment have been circulated on Facebook, and one such screen shot is in the possession of Everything Hendersonville. While SS claims a correction was delivered, the intent to utilize a government organization as a guaranteed voting block was clearly present. As Everything Hendersonville stated in a previous editor’s note, any exposure of students to these types of political materials represents a political indoctrination of students. But, the problem extends well beyond the implication to the students.
SS has strong connection to the Director of Schools Del Phillips and many of the sitting School Board members. For an origination to deliver a demand to vote for particular candidates to these governmental employees while they are performing their duties, places the employees in a precarious situation. Due to the high level school administration connection, this organization has clearly demonstrated employees could view the preferred candidate list as an ultimatum. As teachers and other school employees’ jobs are directly affected by the School Board and Phillips’ decision, can an employee vote against the wishes of this organization, or publicly support the opposing side without becoming ostracized from the organization which provides their pay check. It is ultimately unfair to the very teachers this organization claims to support.
In a worse case scenario, governmental employees could face repercussion of being transferred, demoted, or fired for failing to comply with the wishes of a political organization due to the connection of that organization to sitting politicians or other administrative positions. Currently a case, filed by Hendersonville Attorney Roland Mumford in Macon County, allegedly demonstrates the ability of politicians to use the power granted to them to strike back against political adversaries. Mumford has filed suit on the behalf of four employees who claim their positions with in a governmental organization were affected by their unwillingness to support a political agenda. While Mumford has filed a civil suit on the behalf of the four employees, the State of Tennessee has taken no official action on the subject.

The Problems with election laws

The first and most obvious problem with the current election laws is that they have no real consequences for violations. At the worst, politicians face the possibility of fines for violations. Many of these politicians fail to pay their fines with no consequences for their failure to pay the fine. Most violations are civil matters and violations that do carry criminal penalties are almost never pursued.
In the current win at all cost political environment, if politicians face no penalties for these violations, what’s to stop them from committing a violation, and dealing with the simple public reprimand, after they have in essence cheated to obtain their goal of being elected.
Secondly, the system counts on career politicians to regulate and enforce the rules on other career politicians. In Tennessee the amount of connection between politicians has reached an almost ridiculous state. Local politicians have connections ranging all the way to the federal government and many of these politicians have received support and money from other politicians within the State and Federal government. Is asking one politician to regulate the actions of another not like asking a thief to watch the store so that others won’t steal goods?
Lastly, the current system has no official investigative branch. This places the entire responsibility for investigating, reporting, and proving violations squarely on the citizens’ backs. With the number of PACs, politicians, and amount of money flying around during election, it is asking a bit much from the citizens to have the time, ability, and resources to track these violations, to see the offenders simply receive a slap on the wrist and be allowed to return to the position which these campaign and election violations may have helped them secure.

The Solution

The first and most important solution to this ever increasing problem is to attach real penalties to violations. In a country whose very existence is based on the principle of honest, open and free elections, to know penalties for crimes that cause no real harm to anyone other than the offender, such as simple possession of Marijuana and public intoxication, are punished more severely than attempting to illegally influence the election process is the definition of ludicrous. Those who have been proven to have taken actions forbidden by election and campaign law must be held accountable for their actions in order to send the message that the citizens will not tolerate a contamination of the sacred election process.
Independent enforcement and investigation organizations must be created in order to ensure political connections are not used to protect certain politicians for the consequences of their actions. The brave and bold citizens, who volunteer for this crucial job, must waive their rights to support political campaigns, in financial or other means to ensure the neutrality of these enforcement and investigation organizations.
All distribution of political materials within a governmental organization must be forbidden. All government employees are citizens as well, and should be allowed to make political statements on their own time, but utilizing official governmental functions such as schools, county, state, and city departments can not be allowed. No governmental employee should face the perceived or real consequences for not supporting the same political agenda as the administrators who control their fate.
Lastly, politicians who have won seats and are proven to have committed violations must face the possibility of ouster or recall procedures. The NCAA removes championships and awards from teams and players who have been proven to violate their rules. It should not be the case in any country touting free elections that violations of athletic recruiting rules are taken more seriously than violations relating to elections. If athletic organizations understand that cheaters should not be rewarded for their actions, is it asking too much for the local, state, and federal government to view political violations in the same light? No matter the playing field, cheaters should never be rewarded.

Take a Stand

While the very politicians who commit these offenses can not be expected to take a moral stand and secure the citizens right to open, honest, and free elections, based on the public outcry against many of these violations, it is clear the citizens have had enough. It is time for media outlets, and citizens to come together and demonstrate to the elected officials that we demand accountability relating to the electoral process. Recent events such as the implementation of new annexation laws fueled by citizens’ organizations, such as Tennesseans Against Forced Annexation (TAFA), have demonstrated that the will of the people can overcome any political obstacle.  It is time to rally behind leaders such as William Haupt III, and citizens’ activist Ken Jakes, and tackle these problems. It is up to each and every voting citizen to decide if they want to ensure the validity of the American electoral system.
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