What Measures 66 and 67 mean
FIVE DAYS before January 26, Oregon's Election Day, I heard the news: voter turnout in our state was dismal in the very places where it couldn't be if Measures 66 and 67 had any chance of passing. These two measures placed an unfair and unjust tax structure under the democratic microscope.
Due to our mail-in ballot system, election offices around the state had a running tally of ballots. The percentages showed that the "blue beltway" of liberal voters tucked along the Cascade Mountains had turnout percentages below 40 percent.
A very bad sign, especially when compared to Grant County, as one example, in rural Eastern Oregon, which was already over 50 percent. (Grant County has the dubious distinction of having previously passed a measure declaring the United Nations to be a "global conspiracy." Another very bad sign.)
So I sent an e-mail to family, friends, and co-workers: "Vote! And do whatever it takes to help those you love--and even those you just sometimes tolerate--turn in their ballots, too!" I offered to pick up and drop off ballots since it was too late to mail them. I mentioned Grant County. And global conspiracies.
I questioned the dignity of a society that sputters along with working-class families paying 8.7 percent of their income in taxes while the wealthiest Oregonians pay 6.1 percent. I asked why any state with the third-lowest corporate taxes in the country should have to justify an increase to support the basic needs of society. Especially considering that, if these measures passed, we would still have the fifth-lowest corporate taxes in the country, while the wealthiest individuals would move up to a whopping 6.6 percent--still far below the 8.7 percent paid by the working class.
Those in the 6.1 percent tier unleashed the hounds. With Nike's world headquarters housed on former farmland outside of Portland, the "shoe emperor" himself, Phil Knight (among many other lesser-known "emperors" with close ties to our only statewide newspaper, The Oregonian) spent sackfuls of money to fight these measures. Apparently, a 0.5 percent increase--that's "point" 5, half of one percent, just to be clear--and a two-spot jump in corporate taxes was just too much to ask. Way too much.
Then, the irresponsible reporting and toxic editorials of The Oregonian sunk to a new low as they pulled numbers out of their emperor-funded arse. I wondered if an article would appear announcing that us working-class folks had crossed the line back at a one-spot jump in corporate taxes and a 0.2 percent increase in taxes for millionaires and half-millionaires. I could see the paid advertisement masquerading as a headline: "And not one tenth of one percent more!"
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ON MY way to the office on Election Day, I stopped by Portland's living room: Pioneer Courthouse Square. It's the gathering spot for summer concerts, autumn brewfests, a winter tree with lights and spring protests. Against war. For sanity. You know, the usual.
And on Election Day, it's home to one of the main drop boxes for ballots in the city. In 15 minutes, I counted 15 ballots being dropped in the box. One ballot per minute seemed like a good rate, but I was still anxious.
I also noticed a lot of frustration, because there's only space for three cars to pull over so that drivers can get out and walk the 15 feet or so to the collection box. With the three spots taken, one woman slowly drove along not knowing what to do. Her ballot was in one hand with her other hand on the wheel.
In a matter of seconds, her frustration grew as she realized that she would not be able to pull over and stop given that the three spots were already taken. So she threw her hands in the air in disgust, tossed her ballot in the passenger seat, and sped off.
The questions began rolling through my mind. What if she didn't attempt to drop off her ballot again? What if that was her one shot at voting? (At least she could say she tried.) Yet that ballot wouldn't be counted. And since I was standing in the bluest county--Multnomah County--of the blue beltway tucked along the Cascade Mountains, she more than likely lived here as well, which meant she more than likely voted "yes" on both measures.
The day got colder, the rain came in buckets, and I could not get that woman out of my mind. So in the evening after work, I walked back to Pioneer Courthouse Square with an oversized umbrella and stood near the collection box. As cars pulled over, I walked toward the driver's window and motioned that I would drop their ballots in the box for them. They rolled down their windows, handed me their ballots, and said, "Thank you!" I thanked them for voting, ran the 15 feet to the collection box so they could see me actually dropping their ballot in the slot, and watched them drive off.
Three people asked if I worked for the county elections office. I said that I did not. That I was a voter like everyone else pulling up in their cars, and I was just trying to prevent bottlenecks like what I had witnessed that morning. All three of those people gave me their ballots.
I ran back and forth for 90 minutes with cars rolling smoothly along until the county election officials arrived with their stopwatch to collect the ballots.
With every ballot, my voter turnout fears subsided and global conspiracies went back to their homes in Grant County. This was democracy in action, and we miss this connection to the process with our mail-in ballots. No talking to strangers in line. No getting our names checked off the list. No closing the curtain for privacy. No hanging chads either, I realize, which is a plus. And how many people can say they voted in their pajamas or over hummus and roasted vegetables at a potluck voting dinner with friends?
Then came the moment I knew Measures 66 and 67 would pass. A taxi driver pulled up and rolled down his window. He stuck four ballots in my hand. "Thank you for doing this," he said. "This is my sixth trip today, and it's been the biggest pain in the ass when the cars are backed up!"
"Your sixth trip with these same four ballots?" I asked, prepared to thank him profusely for his diligence. "No, no," he said. "Different ballots every time. I spent the day driving around to hotels asking the workers if they needed me to drop off their ballots. You know, a 10-minute smoke break just doesn't give folks a lot of time to make it here and back."
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AND THAT was it. I knew the measures would pass. The hours I had spent phone banking didn't convince me. Not even the conversation with the woman who started off saying that she "never votes" only to then be stunned when I told her she was paying 8.7 percent as a percentage of her income in taxes while millionaires were paying 6.1 percent. She grabbed her ballot and a pencil. I told her she needed a pen. She grabbed a pen instead. She marked "Yes" and "Yes." She asked where she needed to take her ballot. (She "never bought stamps," so mailing it was not an option.) I told her where to go, and she got off the phone so she could drop off her ballot while she was still mad.
Not even the hours spent talking to friends and family and co-workers and bosses and fellow regulars at my neighborhood cafe convinced me. Not even hearing that my mom's partner had voted "Yes" and "Yes." My mom's partner--who voted for George W. Bush. Proudly. Both times. "It's just not right," he said. "Corporations are paying 10 bucks in taxes? And I'm paying more on every dollar than rich people? It's not right."
None of that convinced me. I was hopeful, but anxious.
Yet with the taxi driver, I knew it was over. I knew people behind the cash registers and carrying the luggage and pushing the brooms were getting a glimpse of what it means to question the legitimacy of a so-called unfettered free market that claims to give everyone an equal chance yet stacks the deck so that the millionaires and half-millionaires get all the aces.
To question the legitimacy of profit over everything that actually makes life livable and meaningful. Profit over clean water. Profit over affordable, nutritious food. Profit over health. Profit over housing. Profit over free education. Profit over time with family and friends. Profit over living wages for janitors.
Can you imagine a society where a hotel janitor makes enough to pay the bills, take a vacation that lasts longer than one week, visit a child who's attending college, and still have money leftover for a savings account? I bet you Phil Knight can't.
Corporations in Oregon had been paying $10 in taxes since 1931. Forty out of 49 tax loopholes that continue to benefit their profit margins were put in place after 1980. And I never heard a single proclamation from a single CEO that said, "Hey, as a percentage of our income, we're sapping more from the state's trough than we're actually contributing to it!"
Of course, this proclamation is missing on a global scale. What does the CEO of H.J. Heinz Company, for example, actually do for society that is more intrinsically valuable than the farmworker who sweats in the sun picking the tomatoes that will become Heinz ketchup? Picking the tomatoes that will provide the CEO with millions while the farm worker gets mere cents. That will provide the CEO with bottled water from Fiji (while children in Fiji go thirsty), steak and roasted asparagus flown in from South America, vacation homes in half of the world's continents with connections to homes on all the others (including Antartica), diamonds for loved ones, and doctors on demand.
Yet the farmworker--the one actually creating the wealth by laboring in the fields--gets polluted water to drink, a can of chili to get through the day, a shack with no heat in the winter, no consistent connection to loved ones much less gifts to send them, and no health care.
In the name of dignity and justice, there is no justifiable reason why these two individuals deserve to live lives that are so polar opposite. They might as well be on different planets.
Both Measure 66 and Measure 67 passed 54 percent to 46 percent. They are two templates for how to give the working class a glimpse of what it means to question the legitimacy of capitalism. To question the legitimacy of profit for some and crumbs for most.
Six hours of phone banking could turn a small tide. One lone yard sign propped up by a friendly neighbor could be more influential than all the toxic editorials of irresponsible newspapers and commercials combined.
All the tributaries flow to the same river. So for everyone in states facing collective billions in budget shortfalls, the time is now. The taxi drivers are waiting.
Nicole Bowmer, Portland, Ore.