Who Gets To Vote?

Two hundred thirty-eight years ago today America was born. Under the shadow of the American Revolution a nation of promise and hope was created. Then it happened: the Second Continental Congress restricted the right to vote to white, free, male landowners, over the age of 21. That was the start of our nation’s still bumpy ride on the road to voting equality.

Every time there was a boost for democracy, there came an equal opposing force. In Florida, blacks composed almost half of Florida’s population at the end of the Civil War. Like in other Southern states, most blacks in Florida were slaves and none had the right to vote.

As a condition for rejoining the Union, Florida and the rest of the Confederate states had to draft new constitutions protecting the political rights of the newly freed slaves as directed in the 15th Amendment. Florida politicians then adopted other provisions to eliminate black voting.  The 1888 poll tax and literacy test reduced black voter turnout from 62% to 11%.

In 1907 US born women lost their citizenship if they married a non-citizen.

In 1917 interpreters for Mexican-Americans were banned at Texas polling places.

In 1928 the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans living on reservations were wards of the state and could not vote.

In 1947 Caddo Parish, Louisiana, black voters were enrolled only if three white voters vouched for them.

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed to shore up the 15th Amendment and fix all that. Has it?

In 2004 Arizona was the first state to require a government issued photo ID as a prerequisite for voting.

Thirty-four states have passed voter ID laws in the last ten years. According to Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “These laws represent the most significant cutback in voting rights in decades.”

Currently, the laws are being challenged in the courts by several advocacy groups, as well as the United States Department of Justice. However, court cases can take years and no matter the fate of this law in the courts, elections in the near future will be greatly impacted.

The North Carolina Center for Voter Education reported that 260 new voter IDs were issued in the first three months of 2014. Of that number 87% of the IDs were issued to new voters, leaving approximately 31 of the more than 300,000 already registered voters as having received an ID. It’s not all bad news though.

A recently released study, conducted by Jack Citrin, Donald P. Green, and Morris Levy, gives strong indicators there is opportunity in educating and assisting voters whose right to vote is at risk. The Citrin, Green and Levy study contends, “the Help message appears to raise turnout, with positive effects ranging from 0.66 to 2.03 percentage points.”

RuralVotes and South Forward have been hard at work on the North Carolina Voter Identification Assistance Project (NCVIP).  Our mission is to reach out to hundreds of thousands of affected North Carolina voters, explain the new laws and make sure they have access to the identification they need to continue to be able to vote.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal … the promise of July 4, 1776 has yet to be delivered. There is plenty of work to be done and you can help by visiting: www.VoterIDProject.org to make a donation.

One judge issues death penalty to Arkansas Voter ID Law, Arkansas Supreme Court stays the execution…

This story says it all when it comes to relying on the courts to upend voter ID laws.

RuralVotes has teamed up with South Forward to launch a new Voter ID Project. First stop, North Carolina.

From the early suffragists, to the repeal of the Poll Tax and Jim Crow laws, it took generations of struggle for women and minorities to be granted the right to vote. With the final passage of the voting rights act in 1965, America was finally a land where every vote truly counted.

Less than one generation later, in 2012, with the stroke of a pen, North Carolina Governor McCrory disenfranchised over 300,000 North Carolinians – over half who vote regularly.

Currently, this law is being challenged in the courts by several advocacy groups, as well as the United States Department of Justice. However, as witnessed by recent events in Arkansas, court cases can take too long and and elections can be left impacted. The solution isn’t simple, it starts with hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Our mission is to reach out to affected voters in rural North Carolina counties. We will contact them, county by county, explain the new laws and make sure they have access to the identification they need to continue to be able to vote under the new laws. The most important weapon in our arsenal in defending democracy is our vigilance. Crossing our fingers is no substitute for action.

Just in from National Farmers Union

WASHINGTON (Jan. 28, 2014) – The National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson, under direction from the NFU Board of Directors, sent a letter today to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner calling for the 2014 Farm Bill to be called up and voted on this week.
Farm bill conference committee members have agreed to a compromise that will provide farmers, ranchers, rural residents and America’s consumers with policy certainty over the next five years,” said Johnson. “Thanks to the leadership of Chairwoman Stabenow, Chairman Lucas, Ranking Member Cochran, and Ranking Member Peterson, and, the farm bill is now at the final stage in the legislative process.”
The letter outlines several of NFU’s priorities that were included in the final report language.
“NFU is pleased with the conference report for a variety of reasons,” said Johnson. “The bill includes fixed reference prices to provide assistance to farmers only when truly necessary. It provides a strong crop insurance title and approximately $4 billion in livestock disaster assistance. The bill increases funding for the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program and related initiatives. We are also encouraged by the inclusion of robust mandatory funding levels for renewable energy programs. We’re also very happy that the bill preserves the ability of American family farmers and ranchers to distinguish their products in the marketplace through the existing Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law.”
“On behalf of all family farmers, ranchers, fishermen, rural residents and consumers, I call on Congress to pass the bill this week,” continued Johnson. “It is time to move forward and pass the farm bill.”
Click here to view the letter.

Phillipines Relief Information

The ever widening devastation brought to the islands of the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan burst into our homes via images of survivors hanging on the thread of hope that the world cares.  Governments from every corner of the globe pledged aid to the victims in the forms emergency shelter, personal hygiene supplies, tons of food and most precious of all, water.

It’s almost too huge to comprehend as we sit comfortably in our living rooms and try to absorb the enormity of the suffering happening more than 8,000 miles away. We can help. Donating to help efforts to stave off hunger, illness and homelessness is as easy as a text from your cell phone. Please make a $10 contribution by texting the word AID to 80108 to the eGive Foundation or to 27722 for the World Food Program.

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Just in: President Obama says it’s time for a Farm Bill

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson agrees.

WASHINGTON (Oct. 17, 2013) – National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson issued the following statement today, after the end of the U.S. federal government shutdown:
“Last night’s action by Congress ended a shutdown of our government and will return agencies back to normal operating status. This is good news for family farmers, ranchers and rural residents who were left without critical services for far too long.
“It was promising to hear President Obama mention specifically the unfinished business that is the farm bill in his address to the nation last night. Now that conferees have been named, it is time for the committee to get down to business and take action to bring certainty to our family farmers, ranchers, fishermen, rural residents and hungry neighbors.
“We have already had discussions with some of the members of the conference committee, and will continue to do so in the coming days. NFU will continue to encourage the conferees to maintain permanent law, establish fixed reference prices for commodity programs, enact an inventory management tool as part of the dairy safety net, provide $900 million in mandatory funding for renewable energy efforts, oppose adverse amendments to Country-of-Origin Labeling, and include adequate funding levels for the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program.
“With the support of the president, we have reached the critical time for Congress to make some real progress and pass a farm bill this year.”

Seems to Me I’ve Heard That Song Before

The title of this essay is that of a song I remember from bygone days. Frank Sinatra used to sing it. Listening to Barack Obama and John Kerry give their rationale for attacking Syria, gave me an ear worm – the song keeps running around in my brain and I’m sick of hearing it.

The US’s 43rd president, may his name be forgotten, justified attacking Iraq by saying Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was likely to give them to Al Qaeda to use on us Americans. His secretary of state carried the president’s water to the UN and around the world. England provided ammunition in the form of a memo on Saddam’s attempts to obtain yellow cake uranium from Niger. None of this was true.

Now we have the 44th president saying that the Assad administration in Syria used sarin gas (now described as nerve gas, while the UN inspectors do their thing) on civilians and must therefore be punished. His secretary of state warns that if Assad has nerve gas Al Qaeda can get it and use it to attack us Americans.

Seems to me I’ve heard that song before.

This president assures us he’s mindful of the lies that preceded the attack on Iraq, and I believe him, because instead of blaming Assad categorically, he avoids outright lies by saying, as he did today, “It’s quite likely….” and “We’re pretty certain.”


Since when does the US attack a sovereign nation that has neither harmed us nor threatened to do so on the basis of “quite likely” and “pretty certain?”

In what way is killing innocents with nerve gas any worse than killing them with bombs and drones?

What is the argument against waiting for the report of UN inspectors before deciding what to do?

What if we attack and then find out we were wrong when the UN reports?  That the Al Qaeda contingent within the Syrian rebels did it, as some claim? That we can’t even know for certain who did it?

In the aftermath of the 9/11/01 attacks we learned that the US “intelligence” community had warning a month earlier of a planned attack on US soil but failed to “connect the dots.”

In the aftermath of the 8/21/13 nerve gas attack in Syria we learn from the Associated Press that

One of the key pieces of intelligence that Secretary of State John Kerry later used to link the attack to the Syrian government — intercepts of communications telling Syrian military units to prepare for the strikes — was in the hands of U.S. intelligence agencies but had not yet been “processed,” according to senior U.S. officials.

In other words, the US “intelligence” agencies failed to “connect the dots.”

Seems to me I’ve heard that song before.

In 2003 we were told that the attack on Iraq would evoke “shock and awe,” overthrow Saddam Hussein, and bring peace and democracy to the country in little time.

Now we’re told the purpose of a strike on unspecified targets in Syria is to punish the Assad regime, that it will all be over quickly, that no US forces will be deployed to fight in Syria, and that there will be no adverse affects resulting from the attack.

Seems to me I’ve heard that song before.


Who among us is sufficiently clairvoyant to be able to say such an attack will have no consequences — retaliation from Syria, Iran, or Russia, for example, on US installations abroad?

When this “limited” action metastasizes, as it surely will (see our history in Vietnam and Iraq) how will the US pay for it? Will we see more children deprived of Head Start? More families deprived of fuel assistance this winter? A successful effort on the part of the ultra right in Congress to end the SNAP program? Cuts in Medicare and Social Security?

If Congress votes not to intervene in Syria’s civil war, will the president go ahead anyway and authorize the attack? If he does, shall we establish once and for all, by considering impeachment, whether the Constitution reserves the right to declare war to the Congress, and whether an undeclared war is war nonetheless?

Had enough? Ready to do something to head off this blatant violation of international law?

The ABC news political unit has put together a “whip count” of Congress members showing how they intend to vote at present. The count will change in the next few days. ABC promises to update it. The vote won’t happen before Wednesday – the president plans a major speech on Tuesday – so there’s time to make your thoughts known.

Here’s where things stand at this writing, according to ABC:

  • Sure or likely to vote against attacking Syria: 217
  • Sure or likely to vote to attack Syria: 43
  • Undecided or unknown: 172

Needed to vote the resolution to attack up or down: 218

Your path is clear. If you want to prevent another Middle East war, look at ABC’s tally, find where your congress member stands and get in touch.

Don’t ignore those Democrats listed as being opposed. The pressure on them is likely to be horrendous. Make the case to those listed as likely to oppose, undecided, and unknown. Contact your own representative only. Contacts outside your congressional district are useless.

I don’t feel good about hoping the president will lose on this vote; I know that some who will vote against his proposal will do so only because they want him to fail in everything. But foreign policy should not be a partisan matter and I want him to lose by an impressive majority, not because he’s who he is, but because he’s wrong about this. And then I want him to obey the will of the people, as expressed by their representatives.

To find your congress member’s contact information, to phone or send email, go to


and enter your ZIP code. Then find your rep’s phone number or the “contact me” e-mail link. E-mail is probably best, especially over the weekend. I’m guessing voice mail boxes will be full by now.

You know you should let your voice be heard. Don’t put it off. Do it now.

Stomping on Martin’s Dream

Writing to overturn key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts declared, “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act ‘[v]oter turnout and registration rates’ in covered jurisdictions ‘now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.’…The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.”

“Justice,” in this case, is best understood as an occupational title, not a moral principle, let alone an aspiration to mend our grievously fragmented social contract.

No sooner did the U.S. Supreme Court stomp on the Voting Rights Act, nullifying some provisions and sending the pivotal Section 5 back to Congress for refinement (good luck with that), than Texas, followed by a host of Republican-led state legislatures, set about making radical changes in election policies, practices, and laws.

The crucial part, Section 5, required certain states and counties notorious in years past for infringing on the voting rights of people in certain groups, said groups defined largely by the color of their skin, to ask permission of the Department of Justice before changing state voting laws.

Adopted initially in 1965 and extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982, the Voting Rights Act was arguably the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress. Then John Roberts got out his chain saw and work boots.

Normally, it takes months or even years before the full effect of a Supreme Court decision can be assessed, let alone felt at ground level. This time it took a day. The ink was barely dry on John Roberts’s signature before the Texas legislature reinstated a voter registration law earlier overturned and put on hold by a lower District Court. Other states followed suit.

Consider this: In Texas, between 600,000 and 800,000 registered voters lack the photo ID the new law requires. People of color are between 46 percent and 120 percent more likely than whites to be in that number. Voter ID cards are issued by the Department of Public Safety. Only 81 of 254 Texas counties have DPS offices. Some people must travel as much as 250 miles to get to a DPS office; counties where the majority of residents are not white are far more likely to lack a DPS branch; non-whites in these counties are about half as likely as whites to have a car. DPS ID cards are free to non-drivers, but the documents required to validate the person’s identity and right to be in Texas are not. Obtaining a birth certificate is no easy matter in any state. Texas requires an original, not a copy. If the person’s name on the birth certificate is not the same as the one being used, then another original document – a marriage license or court ordered name change, for example, also not free – must be presented.

I have a driver’s license. I have my birth certificate. I have a court decree allowing a name change. I am not in Texas. Still, reading the Texas brochure explaining how to document my identity made my head want to explode.

Texas does not accept as valid a student ID card – not even one issued by a state college, a welfare ID card, or a SNAP (food stamp) ID card. But I’m not picking on Texas alone. Other states reject certain state-issued photo IDs but accept others, such as a concealed weapon license.

It’s not just Voter ID cards that are stomping on Martin Luther King’s dream. Republican legislatures and state election officials are cutting back on polling places in strategic areas – places where the majority of voters are of color, to be specific. Here’s Texas again: in one county that is home to a traditionally black college, where there were four polling places now there is one. And that one is expected to serve more than 9,000 voters. The state average is 1,500 voters per site. Outside the 9,000-voter poll are 35 parking places. And the law does not allow polls to stay open after the normal closing time if people are still on line waiting to vote.

Get the picture? Even people who have been able to vote in years past stand to lose that right if the 30-plus states contemplating, or implementing, strict Voter ID laws are successful. Says the American Civil Liberties Union,

“Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely….Three additional states passed laws to require documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, though as many as 7 percent of American citizens do not have such proof.”

Almost without exception, those who will find themselves required to jump through flaming hoops to vote, and those unable to make the leap, will be people of color, elders, students, and those with disabilities. What do these groups have in common? They’re more apt to vote for Democrats; they tend to see the Republican Party as indifferent, if not outright hostile, to their interests.

Now why in the world would they think that?

Personally, I don’t think that rank and file Republicans are necessarily blind to what their chosen party is up to. I think that independent voters and registered Democrats, who see what’s going on but don’t have much sway with the legislators who are stomping us back to the 1960s, have a role to play in talking with reasonable, ethical, aware Republicans, getting them to call on their legislators to remedy this situation before the 2014 elections.

Legal challenges will proliferate. Voter registration drives will help people get the documentation they need to vote. And maybe, just maybe, the Obama Administration will be as good as its word.

On August 22, as the Justice Department filed suit against the new Texas law in federal district court, Attorney General Eric Holder said,

“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Holder said Thursday. “We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. This [suit]represents the department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”

And on August 28, speaking at the ceremony celebrating 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, crowned by Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, President Barack Obama said,

“[W]e would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all…it requires vigilance.

And we’ll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much. People of goodwill, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history’s currents.”

From your lips to god’s ears, Mr. President. We can help, but it’s you who ultimately must pick up dear Martin’s dream from under the heels of those who would grind it to dust. At this you must not fail.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Just as Congress was heading home for a five-week vacation, the administration closed embassies throughout the Middle East, warning of increased danger of an attack somewhere, on something, and telling people everywhere to be extra cautious.

Gradually, it emerged that the warning came because someone overheard a phone  conversation between two Al Aqaeda leaders about how they’d like to do something destructive around this time.

Americans who are inclined to be afraid are now Very Afraid. And congressmembers are conveniently at home and can hear directly from those who are afraid about how they don’t mind if their privacy is compromised as long as we don’t get attacked again.

This happens against a backdrop in which some representatives and senators in both parties are preparing bills to curtail the National Security Agency’s snooping powers, ending the FISA Court’s tradition of hearing only one side of the story, and more.

So what I want to know is this: If it’s true, as we’ve been told, that NSA is recording only who we are talking with on the phone and in email, how often we contact them, and for how long we are in contact — but not what we say — how is it that someone heard the conversation between these two Al Qaeda leaders (I’m omitting their names purposely)? Doesn’t that mean NSA is actually listening to phone conversations?  And if the program that lets the NSA listen to this phone conversation has nothing to do with the NSA program some legislators will try to curtail, when will the administration tell us that?

They will tell us, won’t they?

Guilty of Getting Himself Killed

You want proof that his race was what got Trayvon Martin killed? Try this: a jury of six white women found his 29-year-old killer not guilty of second degree murder or even manslaughter because the 17-year-old black boy, wearing a hoodie in the rain and armed with a bag of candy and a can of iced tea, put him in fear for his life.

Forget that the killer, a fully-loaded pistol stuffed in his pants, called police to report a “suspicious” person on the street, said “these assholes always get away,” and muttered “effing punks” under his breath. Note the use of the plural nouns, “assholes” and “punks.” It shows the shooter saw the boy not as an individual human being, but as the representative of a class of undesirables he didn’t want in his neighborhood. Walking while black was Trayvon Martin’s crime, and he paid for it with his life.

Okay, I’ll grant you that Trayvon, on his cell phone talking with his girlfriend, described the man who challenged his right to be in the neighborhood as a “creepy-ass cracker.” Note the use of the singular noun. Trayvon confronted one person. The killer confronted an entire class of people — black men, to be specific.

I submit to you that so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws such as the one that gave the killer permission to shoot a boy in the chest at point-blank range give an unfair, even fatal advantage to non-black men who harbor fantasies of black men as bigger, stronger, and angry to the point of threatening their lives simply by existing.

The prosecution had to prove malicious intent to get a conviction. All the defense had to do was sow a reasonable doubt in the minds of six women, people like me who have never evoked terror or size envy in a man who saw them as representatives of a class of less-than-human beings.

I certainly have a reasonable doubt that Trayvon Martin could have banged his assailant’s head on the concrete sidewalk — repeatedly, as the defense claimed — without rendering him unconscious, or dead. I have a reasonable doubt that Trayvon even put up a good fight; there was no evidence of blood on his hands, or of the killer’s skin under his fingernails.

If you doubt for a moment that Trayvon died because he was black, picture his shooter as the black man and Trayvon as a light-skinned Hispanic boy. What do you think the verdict would have been then?

Don’t tell me America is not still a racist nation.

I have one consolation to offer: Even if he loses all the weight he gained while awaiting trial, unless he undergoes a face transplant George Zimmerman is marked for life. He’ll always have the 4-a.m. horrors of remembering how it felt to pull the trigger. He doesn’t dare shoot another black man; that would reveal who he really is. But he’ll always be looking back over his shoulder, fearing vengeance.

My religion holds that there is that of God in everyone. I’m trying to believe that about George Zimmerman, but I can’t help but hope he never again experiences a good night’s sleep.

And I also hope that those who are expressing their anger in public will honor the stoic dignity of Trayvon’s parents, and not answer violence with violence. The best revenge will be to stand up tall and witness for justice, every time we see a violation of a human being’s right to walk free.

We, the people…and the Farm Bill.

Growing up in Massachusetts means a special kind of connection to the Fourth of July. Along with Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July is one of two holidays all Americans can claim as our own. Both were born in Massachusetts: Thanksgiving in Plymouth around a communal dining table and the American Revolution, which started with the shot heard ‘round the world in Lexington and Concord.

The Fourth of July here is almost as long-planned for as is Christmas and the winter holiday season. Patriotic fun abounds and is helped along by all kinds of traditions. Boston’s Harborfest is the ultimate spectacular. Here in western Massachusetts there’s a somber reading of the Declaration of Independence at Old Sturbridge Village; in New Bedford the traditional Blessing of the Fleet; fine art shows in Brewster; a road race on Nantucket and a week of fireworks displays in every region of the Commonwealth.

Sure, we all learned about the American Revolution as school children. Even before we studied American history in high school, we knew July 4th is the birthday of our nation. My dad was a Marine and a veteran of the Korean War. The Fourth was a big deal. Back then, we kids lit sparklers and the grown ups fussed over packing up snacks for the trek to see fireworks at Szot Park.

As a child, I didn’t give much thought to what the day really meant. I did know that voting was the first test of patriotism in my parents’ house. When I turned eighteen, I registered to vote. I have kept faith with what my father taught me.

Each of us who step into a voting booth honor our forebears: fifty-six men pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in a Philadelphia meeting hall to the original thirteen colonies, soon to become the United States of America. Honorable men, who debated for hours before signing the Declaration of Independence. Some gave their lives in the war that followed, many gave their fortunes, and all of them preserved their sacred honor.

All for a philosophy of freedom that turned the world upside down and changed the concept of what it meant to govern and be governed.  A nation of promise and growth “from sea to shining sea.” Lately, I’ve come to think of this day as more than
just the birthday of a nation.

I think a lot about our people, our farmers and our food. Watching the unfolding political landscape that lacks congressional cooperation in getting a farm bill passed to support our farmers and our people hits a nerve. The same one that made me register to vote 40 years ago, and the reason I encourage everyone to do the same. Voting matters.

There are those in Congress, notably US Representative Eric Cantor, who welcome the opportunity to break the traditional alliance between rural and urban by separating  the agricultural and nutrition title pieces of the Farm Bill. National Farmers Union Board of Directors passed a resolution this week that said, in part, “Not only would this be a jarring disruption to the historic coalition of urban, rural and conservation groups, it would also likely effectively kill both bills, producing no legislative action for either.”

Today we have two million farms down from five million farms thirty years ago, and 313 million people up from 227 million people during those same thirty years. According to the American Farm Bureau, farmers and ranchers receive only 16 cents out of every dollar spent on food at home and away from home. In 1980, farmers and ranchers received 31 cents. We have less farmers producing food for more people.

If you are looking for more good reasons not to let a new comprehensive Farm Bill go unpassed, I suggest you read Joel Berg’s article. Berg points out that supporting our farmers and feeding our hungry are not exclusive of each other, the crux of the rural-urban partnership that creates the Farm Bill is not partisan, it’s practical. While fingers have been pointed across both the aisles, it’s appropriate to call out Eric Cantor for his part in the shenanigans aimed at hurting our farmers and everyone else.

The Fourth of July is a reminder that our government is created and managed by our people, with no powers except those granted to it by our people. We seem to forget the basis of our nation’s founding sometimes, and we never should. Let your elected representatives to Congress know you want them to go back to work on passing a comprehensive Farm Bill before the extension of the 2008 Farm Bill expires on September 30.

If they can’t manage that, maybe it’s high time that we, the people, throw the bums out.