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November 22, 2015

The Question Never Asked Candidates -- Restoring power to voters

Ralph Nader

Candidates for public office, especially at the state and national levels, are never
asked this central question of politics: “Since the people are sovereign under our
Constitution, how do you specifically propose to restore power to the people in their
various roles as voters, taxpayers, workers and consumers?”

Imagine that inquiry starting the so-called presidential debates of both the Republican
and Democratic presidential candidates. I’m not sure any of the candidates – so used
to saying “I will do this” and “I propose that” would even know how to respond.
Regardless of their affiliation with either of the two dominant parties, politicians are so
used to people being spectators rather than participants in the run-up to Election Day
that they have not thought much about participatory or initiatory democracy. Too
many of them, backed by the concentrated wealth of plutocrats, have perfected the
silver-tongued skills of flattery, obfuscation and deception.

Many voters oblige candidates by not doing their homework about the candidates,
their records and the issues they want addressed. Such passivity lowers expectations
of what voters should demand from the elected officials who, after all, are supposed to
hold their delegated power in trust and not sell it to big-money donors.

Let’s begin with voters. How could elected officials empower the people they

Power to the voters would mean eliminating the private money financing public
elections. Big commercial interests nullify votes, and turn most elections into low-
grade ditto days of tedious repetition.  Well-promoted voluntary checkoffs up to, say
$300, can make public financing of elections into a more politically acceptable reform.  
But to strengthen the power of voters there must also be more voices and choices on
the ballot lines, the Electoral College should be abolished and state legislators must
stop gerrymandering districts that ensure seriatim one-party domination. Same-day
voter registration and a binding none-of-the-above choice can give more voters  
significant leverage as well. Voters themselves must demand that legislative votes by
their representatives be immediately put on their public website with their justification.

Taxpayers lack the tools and resources to challenge the many hundreds of billions of
federal tax dollars that each year are used illegally, corruptly or are shockingly
wasted. Taxpayers have no standing, under our laws, to sue to stop such abuses.
They are rendered weak and meek by this exclusion. When will voters hear a
candidate pledge to give them their day in court? Another way to increase taxpayer
power is to provide for  a voluntary checkoff on the 1040 tax return that makes it easy
for taxpayers to voluntarily contribute funds and band together with a full-time staff of
watchdogs focused on the government’s waste, fraud and abuse. Big-time leverage is
likely with this taxpayer searchlight.

Workers are empowered when they demand that candidates stand for the repeal of
the notorious Taft-Hartley act of 1947—the most handcuffing law obstructing union
organizing and union rights in the western world. Enforcing fairer labor standards that
are already on the books, protecting pensions from looting by corporate management
(see, establishing full improved Medicare for all (see and lifting the minimum wage (see http://www. – all of these initiatives increase the power of workers.

Finally, how can it be that the “customer is always right” when the consumer has no
might? Consumers are becoming serfs in many ways—deceived and tied up by fine
print contracts that exclude them from the courts, even if wrongfully injured, and allow
vendors, using the same fine print, to unilaterally change contract terms whenever
they want. Consumers have no way to easily band together either for collective
bargaining or collective justice, such as negotiating away those fine-print contracts
and restoring the exercise of trial by jury.

Corporate power, led by the cruel U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., is
stripping  consumers of class action remedies, imposing severe penalties and fines in
the marketplace and intimidating them from complaining for fear of lowering their
credit ratings and credit scores. Add to this the gouging prices for drugs and health
care, malpractice, near-zero interest rates on their savings, high rates on credit cards,
and vulnerability to unregulated foreign imports of food, medicines and other
products, and you have a compelling case for a power shift from  vendors to

Inserts in billing envelopes or online required by vendors—such as electric, gas and
water utilities, banks and insurance companies—inviting consumers to band together
in non-profit advocacy organizations, with full time champions, can be a great step
forward in getting consumers seats at the tables of power (see http://www.

Consider how much of your money and assets the government spends to facilitate
business organizations - with subsidies, handouts, bailouts and giveaways, with tax
credits and deductions and with privileged bankruptcy laws to give mismanaged or
reckless companies second and third chances.

Consumers and taxpayers pay for all these goodies. Where is the reciprocity, where is
the modest payback for all these exactions? Let consumers have easy ways to
organize, with full time advocates, as bank customers, insurance policyholders, car
owners, , energy and credit users, and those simply wanting food that is safe to eat.
When enough consumers can organize, through easy checkoffs,  they can defend
themselves and make for an efficient and equitable economy.

The appeal of these power shifts is that they come at little or no cost to citizens. No
more than the equivalent of one week of the Pentagon’s budget would comprise the
aggregate costs of all of these resets for a functioning democratic society. By their
own accomplishments, they would save consumers, workers, taxpayers and voters
more dollars than the entire Pentagon budget. Not to mention the quality of life, peace
of mind and life-saving justice that cannot be measured just in dollars.

Meet your candidates; ask your candidates “The Question Never Asked!”

To find more ideas for citizen empowerment, check out the introduction to the Public
Empowerment Act of 1997 at