The term “A Modest Proposal” has had a negative connotation ever since Jonathan Swift used that title for his 1729 essay on dealing with poverty in Ireland.
Swift suggested poor parents sell their babies to the rich as food. Swift was engaged in satire, but you know how touchy people are about cannibalism. You so much as mention it as an option, and you’re never again asked to bring a dish to potluck dinners.
Therefore, even though the proposal I’m about to make is, indeed, modest, I want to make it clear that no children were parboiled in the process. Also, the hors d’oeuvres are totally vegan.
Maine currently requires candidates for public office to collect a certain number of signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot. This is supposed to demonstrate that these would-be politicians have some minimal level of support. It eliminates cranks with no organization and no backing. And it clears the way for serious contenders with thoughtful agendas worthy of intelligent discussion.
Just kidding. It does no such thing. If it did, almost nobody running for major office in this state would have qualified.
What signature-gathering does do is create a bureaucratic mess. A recent article on the Stateline website was headlined “What Stops Political Campaigns From Forging Signatures? Not Much.” It noted there’s no effective way to check all those names to see if they were signed by real people.
After Republican U.S. Senate candidate Max Linn was disqualified from running for having the audacity to claim support from dozens of dead people (Jonathan Swift?), Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for the Maine secretary of state’s office, told Stateline that Linn’s petitions were initially approved because screening signatures is “an eyeballing process,” even though some of those names that got eyeballed belonged to people whose eyeballs had gone dim a long time ago.
In smaller municipalities, the checking for fakes is even more casual. “It’s a routine thing,” said Mary Jane White, the city clerk in Bath and president of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association. “Some of these people I know personally. I can spot one if something’s funny.”
Jonathan Swift was pretty funny, so I suppose he’d never pass scrutiny in Bath.
The fact is that unless states devote a lot of resources to checking signatures, there’s no surefire way of telling if some of them are phonies. Colorado has software that allows clerks to do that kind of cross-checking, but it’s expensive and requires petitions to be digitally scanned and juxtaposed with voter registration cards. Stateline called it an “arduous process” and a pollster said, “It’s ridiculous we’re wasting all of this money.”
The reality is that signatures are no guarantee of authenticity. A bunch of Linn’s names were those of real, live people who testified they’d never signed his petitions. Somebody else apparently did that for them. It’s little glitches like that that have convinced major credit card companies such as Visa and MasterCard to stop requiring you to sign whenever you make a purchase.
Also, when I have to sign on a touchscreen, I routinely write “Jonathan Swift,” and nobody notices.
So, what’s the answer? In some states, candidates qualify for the ballot by winning support at party conventions. In a few, they just have to pay a fee. But conventions are all about insider politics, and even a small fee might preclude some people from running.
Let’s make it as easy as possible. My modest proposal calls for requiring all potential candidates to do no more than fill out a form stating their intentions to run for office. They’d list their names and legal addresses, party affiliations if any – and, yes, they’d have to sign their names at the bottom. Just for tradition’s sake.
No petitions. No signatures.
Would this result in a lot of kooky candidates clogging up the ballot? Yes, it would, but we already have a lot of kooky candidates clogging up the ballot. What harm would a few more do? It might even be enjoyable to have the opportunity to vote against Max Linn.
But the real advantage of this method is that it eliminates the myth that the current system is secure against fraud. Under my modest proposal, you’d know that the nutjob arguing that we could solve the poverty problem in Washington County by allowing poor people to sell their babies to the rich for food was actually serious about doing that, and not just some clown plagiarizing Jonathan Swift.
Non-cannibalistic recipes for reform can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.