Your wish is my command

A guy is walking down the beach, and he trips over an old-fashioned oil lamp half-buried in the sand. He picks it up and, having heard all the old stories, he can’t resist giving it a rub. Sure enough, out pops a genie who, in gratitude for having been released from the lamp, grants him 10 wishes.

“Wow!” says our hero. “I always heard it was three or less; you’re pretty generous.”

“Well, there are a few rules,” the genie replies. “All 10 have to be in the same category, and if any wish is beyond my power, there are no substitutions. You need to make sure what you’re asking for is something a genie can do.”

“What’s beyond your power? I thought you guys could do anything.”

The genie snorted. “Look, if I could do anything, I’d have gotten out of that damned lamp 10,000 years ago. As it was, it took everything I had just to keep the toilet working. As for other things I can’t do, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”

Our hero struggled with his decision. Considering all the jokes he’d heard about this situation, he knew he had to avoid traps. Ten wishes! Money? Power? Sex? Finally, he decided to concentrate on something historically significant, since this was clearly the opportunity of a lifetime.

“OK,” he said, taking a deep breath. ” I know what I want, so here’s my category: I want my country, the good old U.S. of A., to really be a democratic republic. Will that fly?”

“No fair asking,” said the genie, “But are you sure that’s what you want? Don’t you live in a democracy now?”

“We’re supposed to be one,” came the reply. “But too many of us are prevented from voting, and when we do vote, we can’t always be sure our vote will be counted correctly. We’ve got this outmoded and undemocratic system of selecting our president that makes the vote of a citizen of a small state worth more than the vote of someone from a large one. Legislative districts are designed to protect the power of the two main parties, rather than the interests of citizens. Election campaigns are so expensive that only the wealthy, or those indebted to them, can afford to run. The two main parties work together to keep third parties with new ideas from even being heard. We do have a democratic republic, but we’re losing it fast. I think the place to start repairing it is right here in the states.”

By now, our hero was really wound up, so he plunged ahead, saying, “Here are my 10 wishes:

1. I want every voting machine in North Carolina to be a touch-screen machine with a voter-verified, auditable paper trail.

2. I want an adequate number of machines in every precinct.

3. I want Election Day registration here. Those states that have it have the highest turnout in the nation.

4. I want Election Day to be a legal holiday.

5. I want to get rid of the winner-take-all Electoral College vote in our state and split the electoral vote proportionately between the winner and loser in the N.C. presidential election.

6. I want an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission to ensure that voters select their legislators, rather than letting legislators select the voters, as we do now. Because of this and the high cost of political campaigns (see wish No. 9), one-third of candidates for the North Carolina legislature run unopposed.

7. I want instant-runoff voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, that vote goes to the next ranked candidate, until someone collects a majority of the votes.

8. I want lobbying reform, requiring lobbyists to make prompt, comprehensive reports of their gifts and contributions to government officials and their families and mandating a long cooling-off period between elective office and lobbying or employment by lobbying firms.

9. I want voluntary, adequate public funding for candidates for local and state elective office, provided they can show they have support in the entity they wish to represent and pledge to raise no more money and adhere to strict spending limits.

10. I want free television airtime for candidates for public office.”

The genie just looked sad and shook his head; finally, he spoke: “Sorry, buddy, but you just struck out. I can’t do any of these things. I can read minds, though, and no, I’m not a chiseler. You see, if you had asked me to make you dictator of the country, I could have done it with a wave of the hand. But you want democracy, and that can’t be imposed from above or even created by magic. It only comes from an aroused citizenry demanding it — and that, my friend, requires the hard work and determination of people dedicated to waking up their countrymen and women to what’s being lost and convincing them that they can prevail.

“You want this more than the sex, money and power that I saw passing through your mind as you decided what to ask for. But do you want it badly enough to stick your neck out and work for it? Because that’s the only way you’ll ever get it.”

[Tom Coulson has lived in WNC since 1977. A former vice president of Thoms Rehabilitation Hospital, he serves as coordinator of the Jane Bingham Chapter of Common Cause/North Carolina and on the state governing boards of Common Cause/N.C., N.C. Voters for Clean Elections and Democracy North Carolina.]

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