[MUSIC UP AND UNDER: Steam-Powered Walrus Dentures- “Orchestrated Pandemonium”]
Well, it’s that time again when we go to the polls to elect the next President of the United States.
And amidst all the confusion of talking heads, attacks and counter-attacks, negative ads, positive ads, swing votes, polarization, voter participation and general apathy on the part of the populous,
…the fact remains… that by the morning of November 3 rd, we should be able to identify the next leader of the free world (or if this is anything like the last election, we’ll at least know by mid-December).
So… have you made up your mind yet?
WOMAN 1: “Uh… probably Bush.”
WOMAN 2: “I prefer John Kerry.”
MAN 1: “I like Bush. I think he’s a pretty good leader.”
MAN 2: “John Kerry because he’s not George Bush.”
WOMAN 3: “Umm… I’ve definitely seen better options.”
But what are your options as an Oklahoma voter? Also coming up, we’ll pay a visit to the state film commission, and we’ll hear from author Hank Stuever about his cross-country travels.
This is “Oklahoma Voices.” I’m Scott Gurian. Stay tuned.
SMITH: “Yes, sir, we’re going right ahead with it.”
SAUNDERS: “We’re going right ahead with what?”
SMITH: “The bill—my bill for a national boys’ camp. Where’s my briefcase? Oh, there it is.”
SAUNDERS: “Just a moment. Do I understand that you’re going to present a bill?”
SMITH: “Yes! Senator Payne and I decided that the only way we could…”
SAUNDERS: “Senator Payne decided this with you?”
SMITH: “Yes, it was his idea. Of course I should have been the one to think of it.”
SAUNDERS: “My deal Senator. Have you the faintest idea of what it takes to get a bill passed?”
SMITH: “No, no. You’re gonna help me.”
You’re listening to a clip from Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film is about Jefferson Smith—an inexperienced, naïve, young senator played by Jimmy Stewart—who goes to Washington as a sincere and honest politician. Initially, he’s enthusiastic, he’s optimistic and he has great plans to enact legislation that’s truly in the best interests of the people of his state.
SMITH: “What do we have to have? What books do we have to have? How do we write the bill?”
SAUNDERS: “Look, Senator. Uh… do you mind if I give you a rough idea of what you’re up against?”
SMITH: “No, no, no. Go ahead.”
SAUNDERS: “Well, a Senator has a bill in mind, like your camp. Right?”
SAUNDERS: “Fine. Now what does he do? He has to sit down first and write it up: the why, when, where, how and everything else. Now that takes time.”
SMITH: “Well but this one is so simple!”
SAUNDERS: “Oh, I see. This one’s simple.”
SMITH: “Yeah, and with your help…”
SAUNDERS: “Oh, I’m helping, yeah. Simple, and I’m helping, so we knock it off in record-breaking time of, let’s say three, four days.”
SMITH: “Oh, a day!”
SAUNDERS: “A day?”
SMITH: “Yes, just tonight!”
Jefferson Smith’s eagerness is soon tempered by reality, as he discovers that being a politician is no simple task. During the course of the film, he also confronts a pervading sense of cynicism throughout the halls of Congress, where he finds out that political decisions are strongly influenced by hefty corporate donations.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is largely about the end of innocence of the American political psyche. But ultimately, what viewers remember most about it is the idealistic notion of a common man (or woman) being able to go to Washington and make the laws that the rest of us abide by. And… when you think about it, it… really sounds so simple, so inherently democratic, yet so far removed from our current political reality. Still, some part of our civil consciousness seems to hold on to that notion.
If you don’t like what’s going on in your children’s schools, you shouldn’t just complain; you should run for the school board. And if you don’t like what’s going on in your country, and none of the candidates running for office seem to satisfy you, you should consider running for President.
Now, of course all of this is far easier said than done. You’d need to raise massive amounts of money to launch a campaign as an independent or third party candidate, and actually getting elected would probably be a long shot. But still, it is possible, that is, unless you live in a place like Oklahoma. Then it’s next to impossible. At least that’s what Tom Laurent says.
LAURENT: “For a fledgling organization of any sort to compete with somebody that’s experienced, it’s like an expansion team being thrown into the Super Bowl. But even beyond that, it’s like they tie one arm behind your back and put your feet in cement or something. It’s a… It’s so far from a level playing field, that I can’t understand, but under Oklahoma law we’re supposed to have fair and equal elections. Anybody that wants to break the current monopoly of the ‘Demopublicans’ has that kind of problem.”
Tom Laurent is the Chair of the Central Oklahoma Libertarian Party. He’s referring to Oklahoma’s ballot access laws, which some critics have characterized as the strictest in the nation. As it turns out, this issue is of concern to third party candidates across the political spectrum. Rachel Jackson is co-chair of the state Green Party.
JACKSON: “We’re sort of in a catch-22. We can’t get the attention we need to raise out numbers because we’re not on the ballot, and we can’t run candidates. And people really aren’t interested in registering Green until they can cast their vote for a Green Party candidate. Umm… so our numbers are small in these efforts because of the ballot access laws in many ways.”
To begin to understand the frustrations of third parties in Oklahoma, you’ll need to understand how the state laws regulate whose name does and doesn’t appear on the ballot when you go to cast your vote. So I paid a visit to State Election Board Secretary Mike Clingman, in his office in the basement of the capitol.
CLINGMAN: “So umm… for a uh… a candidate who wants to be on the ballot one time, to run for President, say Ralph Nader, who’s on the ballot in some states would have to get 37,027 signatures. If you want to actually form a party that could have primaries and so forth, it takes 51,781 signatures. Now they have a year—in the case of a party—to circulate petitions to get those. In the case of a political candidate wanting to be on the ballot, they have three months to do that.”
GURIAN: “Three months just to get 37,000 signatures, and that would get that particular candidate on the ballot for that one time…”
CLINGMAN: “That’s correct. I think Oklahoma is like North Carolina and a couple of other states that do require a significant amount of activity. For instance, a new political party needs 51,000 signatures over a year, which is just less than 5,000 signatures a month to get on the ballot. But it is a fairly steep climb. I think that the legislature does require parties to show enough activity to be viable and have a place on the ballot as a party. I remind you again that anybody can be a member of the Libertarian party or an Independent and can be on the ballot for US Senate, Governor and all of our other offices. It’s just for President for Independents where the bar is fairly high.”
But let’s say you are running a fledgling Presidential campaign as an Independent or third party candidate. How would you go about collecting the required number of signatures to get on the ballot in Oklahoma?
LAURENT: “Basically, paid petitioners.”
That’s Tom Laurent again, from the Central Oklahoma Libertarian Party.
LAURENT: “You offer a dollar, two dollars, three dollars, whatever it takes per signature for people, and there are people that do this for a living [chuckles], ah… and that’s it. Because your volunteers… you might go out and get a hundred, two hundred signatures in a day, but if all your people had to be working people, they just don’t have time to do that. You can go to certain events, and you can pick up quite a few, but still it’s not going to be near enough. You have to hire paid people.”
GURIAN: “So these are mostly people from outside the state who come?
LAURENT: “A good many of them. Some local, but a lot of them outside, because there’s a certain skill to it, and if you’ve got people that are working with you in Iowa and Ohio, all these people are trained, and they know what they’re doing, so it’s a lot better. You don’t have to teach them how to do the job.”
GURIAN: “What are the downsides of bringing in paid people versus just volunteers?”
LAURENT: “Well the downside to me is that you’re taking money to pay all these people that should be spent in the state. It’s approximately a hundred thousand dollars to get the job done. Now that’s not a lot of money to a Democrat or a Republican, but it’s a pretty good size for us. That’s money we’re not buying media with. You know, it would be nice if we could be putting that money back into our local economy and using it to, you know, take these ideas and get them in front of the people.”
Still , despite all the extra effort and expense, the Libertarian Party usually does manage to get on the ballot in Oklahoma every Presidential election. In fact, Tom Laurent says he can only remember one occasion in the last thirty years when the party was not on the ballot. He notes that that’s due in large part, though, to an influx of help from the national Libertarian party. In his words, whenever the party wants to be on the ballot in all 50 states, it usually has to “go rescue Oklahoma.” And that, he says, steals resources from the national party.
For smaller, less well-endowed parties, the situation is much more difficult.
JACKSON: “We don’t have the resources… financial resources… either in our state party or in our national party to support such an extreme amount of petitioning as the Libertarians have been able to do.”
That, once again, is Rachel Jackson, co-chair of the Oklahoma Green Party.
JACKSON: “In the Presidential election of 2000, we had an enormous effort to get Nader on the ballot, and I think we were something like a couple thousand signatures short, which was-- to many people-- quite defeating. And so we had a little bit of trouble getting them eager to go again this time around.”
I ask Rachel how successful the Green Party’s petition drive was this election season. She can’t remember the exact figures off-hand, so she goes to her room and comes back a few minutes later with a folder.
JACKSON: “Uh… Any candidate that would run representing our party would need over 50,000 signatures to have full ballot access. Um… In this current Presidential election, we turned in a petition with what was I believe… according to the Election Board office… [unfolds paper]… 57 signatures.”
GURIAN: “57 signatures. That’s… that’s almost kind of embarrassing. Why did you even bother turning them in?”
JACKSON: “Well, many people warned… many people in our party were very much concerned that it would be an embarrassment, but those of us who went ahead and pushed for the petition felt like—if anything—it is symbolic of a protest of the ballot access laws in our state.”
So just how do Oklahoma’s ballot access laws compare to the rest of the country? I mean… you’d think that running a Presidential campaign as a third party or independent candidate would be challenging wherever you are. Could Oklahoma really be that much more difficult? To find out, I called Richard Winger, editor of ”Ballot Access News,” a newsletter that tracks election laws nationwide. When I reached him on the phone in his San Francisco office and told him where I was calling from, he said he’d rather speak to someone from Oklahoma than anyone from anywhere else in the country.
WINGER: “Oklahoma is a unique state because it gives voters fewer choices than the voters in any other state. First of all, it’s one of only five states that doesn’t permit write-ins. On top of that, it has the hardest ballot access for minor party and independent Presidential candidates of any state. Every other state has some procedure to get a minor party or independent Presidential candidate on the ballot if that candidate has voter support of two percent or some smaller figure. Oklahoma’s the last state in the country to have any ballot access procedures for President that are harder than two percent.”
I should clarify something about the thresholds State Election Board Secretary Mike Clingman spoke of earlier. The figure of 37 thousand signatures an independent candidate would need to get to be on the ballot one time is three percent of the number of people who voted in the last general election. And the 51 thousand signatures a party would need to appear on the ballot is five percent of Oklahoma voters from the last Presidential election.
Nationwide , it’s slowly gotten easier over the past several decades for third party and independent candidates to run for President. But Richard Winger says that hasn’t been the case in Oklahoma.
WINGER: “About half the states have loosened their ballot access laws in the last fifteen years. As a result, the number of signatures that a minor party or independent Presidential candidate needs to get on the ballot of all fifty states has slowly been decreasing every Presidential election year. Right now it’s about 600,000 to get on the ballot of all fifty states put together, of which [chuckles]… of which the number in Oklahoma is about six percent of the entire national total, even though Oklahoma’s only got about one percent of the population in the United States.”
Tom Laurent of the Libertarian party recalls that the process was much simpler when he first moved here thirty-five years ago.
LAURENT: “Prior to 1974, it only required 5000 signatures for a party to get on the ballot. But George Wallace and the American Independent Party scared the daylights out of the Oklahoma establishment, I think. And that’s when they passed this outrageous law to make it more difficult.”
Yes, that’s right. This was the same George Wallace who declared at his 1963 inauguration as Governor of Alabama…
WALLACE: “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever’” [applause].
… So although I think anyone should have the right to run for President, I also… kind of understand why Oklahoma politicians would seek to change the state’s ballot access laws after something like this. But Richard Winger of “Ballot Access News” says the history actually goes back much further.
WINGER: “In 1912, it was the only state where people couldn’t vote for Teddy Roosevelt, in 1932 it was one of only five states where the voters couldn’t vote for Norman Thomas, the Socialist, running his best campaign at the height of the Depression. In 1948, it was the only southern state where people couldn’t vote for Strom Thurmond. It was also one of only three states where people couldn’t vote for…”
You get the idea. Now… remember before when I said that the Libertarian party has managed to get on the Oklahoma ballot in almost every election over the past three decades? Well, this time it only obtained petition signatures from two percent of the people who voted in the last election, so it failed to meet the 5% threshold. Unless the Libertarian party wins an appeal of a lawsuit it’s filed in the state Supreme Court, Richard Winger notes that Oklahoma will be the only state in the country where the Libertarians are not on the ballot in this upcoming election. Or—said another way…
WINGER: “Unless the Libertarians win their pending lawsuit, Oklahoma will be the only state in the country where people must vote for Bush or must vote for Kerry, or they can’t vote at all.”
Which brings us to the issue of write-in candidates.
WINGER: “Once upon a time, there were no government-printed ballots in the United States. Any voter could just take a piece of paper and write down whom he or she—back then it was mostly ‘he’s—wanted to vote for. And therefore, in the 19 th and 18 th centuries, the government didn’t have the power to prevent people from voting for anybody they wanted to. But in the 1890s, we started government-printed ballots. So then, of course, every state had to figure out a set of laws to determine which names to print. And when these laws were written, people didn’t want to lose their old right to vote for anybody they wanted, so invariably the states left write-in space on the ballot, just in case there was somebody who people wanted to vote for, but that person didn’t get his name on the ballot. And that’s the origin of write-in voting. But for some odd reason, when Oklahoma became a state in 1907, it didn’t provide for write-in space on the ballots. One would have thought the Supreme Court would have protected write-in voting in all the states, but uh… in 1992, the US Supreme Court surprised me and a lot of other people when they ruled that states don’t have to provide write-in voting, so there’s nothing we can do to get write-in voting in Oklahoma except persuade the state legislature to put it in.”
GURIAN: “So it’s—what, one of five states now that doesn’t allow write-ins?”
WINGER: “Yeah, the other four are Hawaii—and that’s where the Supreme Court case came from that settled this—Nevada, South Dakota and Louisiana. But I must say, ballot access in those four other states that don’t have write-ins is very easy. In Hawaii, a whole new party can get on with just 600 signatures. In Nevada, a minor party candidate for statewide office can get on for about 500, and South Dakota it’s about 3000. And in Louisiana, anybody can get on the ballot just by paying a filing fee.”
Imagine that! If you’re running for President as a third party or independent candidate, you can get on the ballot in Louisiana (and Colorado for that matter) merely by paying a small filing fee. No annoying and costly ballot drives to deal with, and no stealing of resources from the national party. But then again, maybe that’s not such a good idea either…
JACKSON: “Well, I believe that a filing fee is probably most fair, as far as access is concerned, as long as—you know—the amount is small…”
That’s Rachel Jackson from the Green Party again.
JACKSON: “…However I know that there are some concerns that if that happens, anybody—you know—can get on the ballot, and some people think that that would lead to loss of control.”
Tom Laurent of the Libertarian Party agrees.
LAURENT: “…Reasonable restrictions, I guess, so you don’t have the oh… the ‘Let’s Get Drunk’ party or something like that. Uh… sure.”
So even members of the third parties themselves agree that there should be at least some minimal requirements for candidates to appear on the ballot. And they would be thrilled if only those requirements were reduced in Oklahoma.
But wait a minute, now. Would the problem really be that bad if no such safeguards were in place? I mean, the “Let’s Get Drunk” party? C’mon. Would people like that really run for office?
[MUSIC: “Tico Tico (Samba)” UP AND UNDER]
Well… actually, I did some research and found out that they already do. Here are just a few of the close to 160 people running for President this election:
Mr. Michael W. Bay of Lakewood, Colorado is running for President from the National Barking Spider Resurgence Party.
Mr. Freddy Irwin Sitnick of Baltimore, Maryland is running as an Independent candidate for President. Mr. Sitnick lists “Messiah” as his second middle name. Before you make up your mind, though, you might also want to consider Mr. James Lewis “Watchman” Dezort of Portland, Oregon. Under “professional experience,” Mr. Dezort notes that he has worked as a “prophet” since 1996.
Larry J. [SHOOT-er] of [sa-SOON] City, California is running for President as a member of the self-proclaimed Turtle Party. As part of his campaign platform, he’s calling for the US to annex Mexico as the 51 st state.
Presidential candidate Joseph [MART-nik], Jr. from Wood Dale, Illinois has set up his own campaign website, vote for joe (dot) org. After you read through his lengthy, well-thought-out issue statements and scroll to the bottom of the page, he tells you that he doesn’t really want to be your President. He says, quote,
“ I'm a short dumpy guy, who stutters and stammers when I talk. I'm afraid of heights, always about to have an anxiety attack. I'm a terrible businessman, a failed inventor. I'm always broke. All the mud they'll sling at me, all the bad things you'll hear, are true. But what does that have to do with building a better tomorrow?”
And last, but certainly not least, let me tell you about a guy I met in Boston whose legal name is Vermin Supreme. Yes, that’s right. His driver’s license says Mr. Vermin Love Supreme. He ran for the Democratic nomination for President for the 4 th election in a row this year on the satirical platform of mandatory tooth brushing.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
Most of that info came from Project Vote Smart’s candidate profiles at vote (dash) smart (dot) org.
But now that we’ve had our fun, let’s differentiate between these far-fetched examples and the more serious parties and candidates, really trying to reach out to Oklahoma voters.
Here’s Rachel Jackson again.
JACKSON: “In talking to people, both as the co-chair of the state Green Party and just as a friend and neighbor, there are many people in Oklahoma who are anti-death penalty, who are pro-labor, who are pro-environment, who are anti- you know- corporate power, who do not feel that their opinions and their perspectives are being represented by candidates who are running in the two major parties. Because of that, those people are politically alienated. They’re estranged from a system that promises them the freedom to cast their vote for whom they choose.”
In theory, this all makes perfect sense, but State Election Board Secretary Mike Clingman says the existence of third parties and independent candidates in a political race raises an important question.
CLINGMAN: “Really the thing to get at, and what the lawmakers have to wrestle with is, at [what] point does a party—when it draws support away from another party—become just a tool of one of the two major parties? In other words, in Ross Perot’s case several years ago, it was alleged that he was pulling more votes from the Republican party, and the Democratic party was using him as a stocking horse to try to beat Bush and have Clinton elected. Uh… spin forward eight years later. Um… Al Gore was having votes taken away from him apparently by Ralph Nader, and the Republican party was using Ralph Nader as a stocking horse to try to pull votes away. So the question really becomes: When does a party stand on its own feet with its own supporters and attract votes, and when is a party being used by other major parties to help them achieve their objectives of getting elected?”
A random sampling I conducted of potential voters on the campus of the University of Oklahoma seemed to add credence to Mike Clingman’s concerns. A third of the people I spoke to had not yet made up their minds for the upcoming Presidential election…
MAN 1: “I’m Democrat, but I have no interest in Kerry, and I hate Bush, so I guess I’m an independent for now.”
MAN 2: “Uh… right now it’s kind of like uh… I’m sitting in between.”
MAN 3: “I’m not really excited about any of them. It just seems like a lot of fighting, a lot of cross-attacks and a lot of shifty facts. It’s hard to tell what any of them stand for, what any of them really think.”
But many of them seemed less than enthusiastic about the prospect of voting for a third party or independent candidate, particularly in this election, even if they theoretically were given that option on the Oklahoma ballot.
WOMAN 1: “I think the issues are too important to waste a vote on a third party candidate.”
MAN 1: “I think it’s like throwing your vote away, honestly.”
MAN 2: “What makes it bad is that you kind of know that they don’t really have a chance of winning.”
WOMAN 2: “Not if it was going to take away from a candidate that I really wanted and what happened the last time, where the Republicans ended up winning.”
Still, the question remains: Should state lawmakers through their ballot access regulations be the ones to decide which candidacies are legitimate, or… is that judgment best left up to the electorate?
ANDERSON: “I would leave it to the voters to decide whether or not a candidate is simply frivolous uh… and is on the ballot simply for notoriety uh… and for mischievous purposes that would serve no useful end. That’s for the voters to decide, not hide-bound state legislators that have an interest in perpetuating the status quo.”
John Anderson understandably has strong views on the subject of ballot access because it’s an issued he’s personally encountered on several occasions. It began with his 1960 US Congressional campaign, when he was first elected as an Independent Representative from Illinois, and it culminated with his 1980 run for President as an Independent candidate. If John Anderson’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember seeing him on the Oklahoma election ballot that year. In addition to successfully getting on the ballots of all fifty states, he won six million votes—or seven percent of the national total—in the 1980 election against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
More recently, he’s taught courses in American Constitutional Law and Electoral Process at Nova Southeastern University, and he serves as chairman of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-profit organization that researches and advocates more democratic voting systems.
Anderson claims that third parties and independent candidates have played important roles throughout American history.
ANDERSON: “Well, I think you have to remember that it was the American Women’s Party that after Seneca Falls way back in 1848 was able to get on the ballot and popularize the idea that something was wrong with a Constitution that did not give women the right to vote. Similarly, it was the Sons of Liberty, the Liberty Party, the Constitutional Union Party, third parties way back before the Civil War uh… who saw that there was something wrong in our democratic society uh… when people were denied on the basis of race and color the right to vote. And they really gave birth; they were the formative voices that encouraged the third party, which became a major party… the Republicans were… After all, you had the Whigs and the Democrats. They initially, in 1854, when they started in Ripon, Wisconsin, were simply a third party. You go back into history a little bit further: 1890, when James B. Weaver had eight percent of the vote, uh… and he talked about a progressive income tax. Uh… he talked about the unwarranted, unbridled corporate power of Standard Oil trust and the Railroad trust and the other big business interests and how they ought to be curbed. …Led to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, led to the Clayton Act of 1914, led to changes in the regulation of our economic society. So-- clear evidence that third parties in our prior history have been the torchbearers of new ideas, put them out there into the national dialogue. And what has happened is that—as Richard Hofstadter put it— it’s been the fate of third parties to sting like a bee and die, because their ideas have then been appropriated by one of the major parties, and the third party has not been able to maintain itself. Well so be it. At least they have forced the consideration of the issues and forced their adoption by one of the major parties. And so historical evidence is abundant to establish that neither major party today would have enacted some of the significant legislation that is on the books even as you and I hold this conversation. And on the books only because of the efforts of third parties to drive home the importance of those ideas, to add them to the national agenda.”
Tom Laurent of the Central Oklahoma Libertarian Party argues that third party and independent candidates continue to infuse such ideas into the political dialogue, even in the present day.
LAURENT: “Take uh… Oh, what would be a good issue? Um… less government involvement in education, work towards privatization. Ending the war on drugs. Non-intervention foreign policy. A lot of these ideas need to be talked about. Whether you’re for these ideas or not, they need to be talked about. But your majors won’t, because to get elected, you can’t take some of these stands. They’ll come out and say, ‘He’s a good family man, he goes to church every Sunday, and he believes in America.’ Well, yeah… OK… So does everyone. Where’s the idea in that? Where’s the meat in that? And that’s what your candidates run if you look at all your commercials. That and the fact that they’ll call the other guy names. You know, uh, ‘That guy’s a no good so-and-so, but I’m great because I go to church every Sunday, and I believe in America.’ Uh… [chuckles] It’s nonsense! And folks go, ‘OK,’ and they’re going out and voting for it. By opening it up, what you do is you put ideas—actual honest-to-goodness ideas—into the marketplace that people have to talk about and think about. And I think it’s essential. You stop that, you start to kill your democracy.”
So what’s the next step? Representatives of Oklahoma’s third parties say they’ve tried to get state lawmakers to introduce legislation to loosen the ballot access restrictions. But most Democrats and Republicans have generally expressed a lack of interest in the issue. They claim it’s simply not something about which their constituents have ever expressed much concern. In fact, I had trouble finding anyone who’s a strong advocate of the current ballot access laws to interview for this piece. It’s not that most politicians oppose the current rules. I just got the sense that they mostly take them for granted. The third parties—on the other hand—allege that politicians from the two major parties are entrenched and comfortable in their positions, so they have no desires to see the “political waters roiled” by potentially unpredictable competitors in future elections.
Looking ahead, John Anderson sees hope in a recently proposed constitutional amendment by Illinois Representative Jesse Jackson, Junior, that would state that all Americans have the right to vote.
ANDERSON: “Heavens! Who in good conscience can oppose that? Such an amendment would then be the fulcrum that I think could then be used to leverage additional efforts that would be made to go to state legislatures across the country and say, ‘The right to vote is an empty right unless it is for the candidate of my choice! I want the kind of ballot constructed that will enable me to elect someone who represents my views, and is actually my choice. Not the kind of ballot constructed by the narrow artifice of saying only two parties because of high ballot access restrictions are gonna to see their candidates’ names on the ballot.’ I think we’d see a vastly expanded interest, reflected in an outpouring of voters that would overcome the fact that in a Freedom House study of democratic nations, we were 139 th in voter participation. In the democratic nature of our elections, we were far down the list, behind many other far younger democracies, far less-experienced than we are in the democratic process, and yet willing to open up the floodgates to more ideas, to new opinions, to new candidates and a healthier democracy, and with it enlarge the rate of participation and the feeling on the part of millions of people that ‘Yes, we are a part of the American electorate. We have a responsibility. We can exercise it. The road is open to us.’ I think it would be the healthiest thing that we have seen since the Constitution itself was finally ratified when that ninth state New Hampshire in 1787 said, ‘Yes, we will have a new American republic based on the Constitution of the United States.’”
GURIAN: “John Anderson, anything else you’d like to add?”
ANDERSON: “I’m 82. I’ve been in politics ever since I started to run in a primary in 1955, which is almost—what—55 years ago. I feel so strongly about the changes and the improvements that need to be made in the electoral process, that I guess until I draw my least breathe, I will welcome the opportunity that you have given to me to talk to the people of Oklahoma about the importance of the electoral process and a strong democracy.”
[MUSIC COMES UP UNDERNEATH]
GURIAN: “It’s been very informative. Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.”
ANDERSON: “Very good.”
John Anderson is the Chair of the Center for Voting and Democracy, and a former Independent Presidential candidate. Tom Laurent is the Chair of the Central Oklahoma Libertarian Party. Rachel Jackson is co-chair of the state Green Party. Mike Clingman is the Oklahoma State Election Board Secretary. And Richard Winger is the Editor of “Ballot Access News.” You’ll find links to all of them on our website, http://www.kgou.org
Oh, and Mike Clingman wants me to remind you that the voter registration deadline for the November 2 nd general election is Friday, October 8 th.
When you think of popular settings for movies, what comes to mind? I think of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and occasionally places like Boston and Washington, DC. Think Good Will Hunting and The Manchurian Candidate. But of course films are made in lots of other, smaller and more unusual places as well. In fact, all fifty states, as well as Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have their own film commissions, which are basically offices deemed with the responsibility of attracting and assisting television and film crews in the region-- whether it’s a famous director making the next Hollywood blockbuster or a group of students shooting a low-budget, independent film.
I decided to pay a visit recently to the Oklahoma Film Commission to learn just how it works and what it does. I met F ilm Commission Manager Julie Porter, in her office just down the hall from the State Tourism Board.
PORTER: “The main thing that we do is try and help filmmakers who are coming to Oklahoma to make films, especially parts of their films. You know, if you’re doing a road picture, Route 66 might be really important to you. We also help local, independent filmmakers work out their permitting regulations and insurance requirements and make sure they have all their locations lined up, and that everything’s gonna work smoothly.”
GURIAN: “So I guess most people in Oklahoma probably don’t even know of the existence of the film commission.”
PORTER: “Uh… you might be surprised. Um… there have been movies like Rainman. Part of that was shot here in the ‘80s. People kind of became aware of us then. Twister was here in 1996. That got us some notoriety. And um… then recently we had a film called Return to Cinder that shot in Tulsa for about three weeks. We get a lot of documentaries. The BBC has shot several documentaries in Oklahoma just this year. And also, a lot of people who are from Oklahoma end up wanting to come back to kind of make an opus or a film that they view as particularly important, even if they’re used to doing large, studio pictures as actors or producers or something. They’ll come back here to make maybe a smaller, independent film that they’ve fought to have made.”
I asked Julie Porter to give me a quick tour around her office.
GURIAN: “So what are all these cabinets here?”
PORTER: “All these cabinets represent photos of different places, so you know, like this drawer: farms near Edmond and Norman.”
GURIAN: “So you have them all listed here—of different types of locations that people might be looking for?”
PORTER: “Right. It’s difficult because you can’t just have your whole Burns Flat file unless in your mind you know exactly what Burns Flat looks like and what someone might be looking for there. So you have to categorize it by airports, banks, barns, bars…”
GURIAN: “Can we look for example at drugstores?”
GURIAN: “Can I see…”
GURIAN: “…pictures of drugstores from around Oklahoma? So these are from all over the state?”
PORTER: “Uh huh. Like here’s an old drugstore in Pauls Valley that you can see has the original drink fountain, and then there’s the old drugstore in Guthrie that has all the original old cases and everything, the glass lamps, kind of the Tiffany-style lamps. It really does, you know, look like an apothecary. And so, you know, someone will call and say, ‘I need a main street, small town, um… I need a façade that looks like a theater. And we’ll go to this drawer, and we’ll pull the files, and we’ll scan them in electronically and then e-mail them off.”
GURIAN: “How often do you get calls like this?”
PORTER: “At least every day there’s a call about something. Sometimes it’s something really big. It’s a—you know—Paramount film, and sometimes it’s something really small: a little documentary or a student film, but from acorns… I mean, you don’t want to blow anything off because anything could be important, and that’s our mission—is not just to accommodate the large studio films but to make sure everybody gets a chance to see Oklahoma.”
But when large studio films do express an interest in shooting in the state, the Oklahoma Film Commission goes out of its way to provide whatever logistical support it can. Just last month, Academy Award-winning Hollywood Director Cameron Crowe brought a crew to shoot several scenes of the upcoming film Elizabethtown, with actors Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst.
Film and Music Commission Director Dino Lalli describes what happened.
LALLI: “First got the call in October of last year from one of the location scouts who was doing a cross-country trip, and he said he wanted to stop in Oklahoma. There’s a scene in the film that actually takes place at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. And he said, ‘I’d like to come through. If you would set me up with meetings with them to see about the possibility of filming a scene there.’ Then I talked to him a few days later and just really tried to start working him a little more, saying, ‘Well what else are you looking for? What other locations are you looking for?’ And he finally started to open up a little bit, and by the time he got here, I had pulled a rather extensive photo file for him of all the different locations that he had been looking for as he drove cross-country. And over dinner he let me read just a couple pages of the script describing, for instance, the scene at the Memorial and all that. And I read something that sort of caught my eye when it said something about driving across Kansas. And I said, ‘Well you can shoot Kansas here.’ And he was quite surprised, and he said, ‘Really?’ and I said, ‘Certainly!’ I said, ‘I’ve been trying to tell you, we have all these different looks. You can probably stay based in Oklahoma City and travel within—you know—a thirty mile radius and get several different types of looks. Some of the stuff may be generic, but…’ So—long story short—we worked on him, we worked with him, we worked with him and kept pulling everything that they wanted, and they ended up shooting six scenes here instead of one, and literally he fell in love with Oklahoma. So Oklahoma gets a lot of the credit in that it kind of sold itself. I just pointed out to him why they needed to stay here, and then the state did the rest for me.”
GURIAN: “What’s the benefit to Oklahoma of filmmakers deciding to shoot their films here in the state?”
LALLI: “Well there’s a couple of benefits. It’s almost two-fold. One, it is considered economic development. They did hire a lot of local people. They hired actors, extras. They did hire some production assistants and crew people. They did hire security guards. They spent a lot of money on locations, and that goes into the local economy. Then-- once a film comes out, you have the benefit of where a film was shot. And you got to remember it’s like—as big as Hollywood is—it’s still a small community, and they’ll see where some of these scenes were shot. Plus, you have the crew members that were here, namely the three location managers, all of whom have incredible A-list credits on their resume. The verbal PR that they will take back to Los Angeles is worth ten times more than any kind of advertising I could do in the trade papers— The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The location managers have kind of a union, if you will, and they have a website that you have to have access to get to it, and they were telling me before they left, they said, ‘Look. You know, rest assured when we go back, we’ll tell everyone just what an amazing place that this is. It’s sort of an untapped gold mine.”
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LALLI: “And um… word gets out pretty quickly. On this big website, they’ll say, you know, ‘Has anyone shot in Oklahoma recently?’ And then that way, these guys can call them and say, ‘Yeah. We just got back from Oklahoma and, man, you have got to check them out! It’s an amazing place, they’re film-friendly, it’s easy to get around, it’s affordable.’ So that type of PR is very good for the state, and that’s one of the benefits from it.”
Dino Lalli is the Director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Commission. The Commission is sponsoring a two-day filmmaking workshop for the public on the weekend of September 25 th. For more information, you can visit the film commission’s website at http://www.oklahomafilm.org.
Oklahoma native author and journalist Hank Stuever is a staff writer for the Washington Post’s Style Section. Twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, he’s just compiled several of his favorite columns into a book that Publisher’s Weekly describes as “ an homage to the rhythms and cadences of modern life.” KGOU’s Susan Shannon spoke with Stuever at a book signing last month, at the Full Circle bookstore in Oklahoma City.
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SHANNON: “Hank Stuever was born and raised in Oklahoma City. His new book is called Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere. I asked him for his definition of “The American Elsewhere.”
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STUEVER: “When I’m in my car, I like to think of America as a disjointed, endless and yet somehow connected stream of off-ramps and underpasses and overpasses and strip malls and malls and box stores. And these are places that we’re trained not to think about as very lovely, places that we tend to ignore or places where we tend to put all the things that we don’t want to look at: our storage units, our funeral homes, our megaplexes, our multiplexes, our complexes. And it is these places, this indefinable ‘elsewhere’ that is neither ‘red America’ nor ‘blue America,’ and does not easily categorize itself. To me, that’s where the stories are. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve written several hundred stories and essays. This book has 26 of my favorites, gathered under the theme of ‘the American Elsewhere.’ I think it’s the only book that would take you to haunted waterbed stores and storage units and wax poetic about plastic patio chairs, but also take you to the hunt for Chandra Levy-- the missing Washington intern, look for pieces of the exploded space shuttle, sort of be around for the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, and yet we go to Miss America, and we go to a wedding, and we go to a strip mall where there’s a discount funeral home does funerals for half price. This is my world.”
SHANNON: “It seems like you’re looking at things that maybe a lot of people don’t look at. Like you said, they just want to look away. Do you think that your growing up in Oklahoma, your Catholic school background has somehow prepared you to look at things other people don’t want to look at?”
STUEVER: “I think yes. I think growing up here in Oklahoma City, I was a very imaginative and bored child. And yet I was a keen observer, and I knew that the world was bigger than Oklahoma. In fact, I think Oklahomans tend to develop an inferiority complex around that very idea that, you know, instead of viewing Oklahoma as a definite ‘somewhere,’ we spend a lot of our energy viewing it as a ‘nowhere.’ It is definitely a ‘somewhere,’ and it was how life was lived here in my childhood that informs a lot of how I work now. Absolutely.”
SHANNON: “Um… nowadays there’s been a lot of talk about the homogenization of America, and your book seems to touch on that.”
STUEVER: “It’s complete! The homogenization of America is, is complete and uh… and unchangeable. Um… so OK. Uh… you know, my job now is to not rail against that, but to find birth and love and death and true, real American stories in this America. I’m sorry that America didn’t build Paris in the middle of America. I’m sorry that they didn’t build Vienna or Rio de Janeiro, but we built something nevertheless, you know. And we built it with, you know, Extended Stay America suites and Waffle Houses and rows and rows of storage units and shopping malls, but nevertheless, we did build something, and we’re now living our lives out in it. And it’s not up to me to go find quaint, bucolic, satisfyingly soft-focus pictures of America. I want to go to these places. I want to write about these places.”
SHANNON: “At the beginning of your story on the Oklahoma City bombing, you have a quote from two anthropologists about ‘Oklahomaness.’ What is meant by that?”
STUEVER: “When I was here after the bombing, I was here for about a week. And a photographer came with me. And I was working at the time at the Albuquerque Tribune. And certainly the situation didn’t call for another reporter and another photographer to cover the news every day. What I came out here for was vibe. And I came out here the way you would come out to a place upon learning of the death of a very close friend or relative. Although I only peripherally knew four people in the bombing, I came to Oklahoma because it was home, and I wanted to see how things were, much like you would bring a casserole over, you know, to someone’s house who had died. And after enough time downtown, I fanned out to the rest of the city, to the places I grew up. And I wound up at OCU, at Oklahoma City University in the library because the main library downtown was closed because it had been damaged in the bombing. And the reason I went to the library is because I always go to the library. Wherever I go, part of my reporting… If there’s any time at all, I like to check out the library and read about the place I’m in. And it occurred to me that as a fourteen-year-old in Oklahoma history class required by state law, I had not absorbed nearly enough of the history of my home. And so in reading that day at OCU, I came across that quote from the anthropologist, and it says, ‘Many people link important themes in their lives to a global sense of being Oklahoman, even to the extent of making Oklahomaness the object of their ‘primary role identification.’ And when taken to the extreme, this identity becomes a narrow, overly-invested, constricted one that feels like a highly-defended fortress.’ And it just chilled me to think of my sense of ‘Oklahomaness’ as a fort, as a guarded, highly secure place. And yet, this federal building had just crumbled. The idea of that just sort of gave me chills, and that quote has always stuck with me as a way of defining myself as Oklahoman. If you’ve ever lived outside the state, you know that people are very curious about Oklahoma, but they really don’t have much to work on beyond Rogers and Hammerstein and football. Yes, in my Oklahoma history class, we dwelled on the proud history of football, but we also dwelled on—you know—naming all 77 counties (I hope it’s 77) [laughs]. You know, it’s hard to explain to people what being Oklahoman is. I live in Washington, DC now. I’m in New York all the time, I’m in L.A. all the time, and people say, ‘Where are you from?’ and Oklahoma’s the last word they’re looking for to come out of my mouth. And they’re like, ‘What was that like?’ You know, we know what Texas is like, and we know what California is like. We know so much about so many places, but when people say ‘Oklahoma,’ they really don’t have much of a picture, and so I really take a lot of delight in explaining it to them as an ‘everyplace.’ You know, in the Wizard of Oz, she wakes up, and she says, ‘There’s no place like home.’ And when I’m in the ‘American Elsewhere,’ I feel like there’s everyplace like home. The off-ramps take us to the same places over and over again.”
SHANNON: “Going back to your story on the Oklahoma City bombing, I got the feeling from that that you felt like an outsider a little bit.”
STUEVER: “Very much. I’ve talked to many expatriate Oklahomans out there. You know, who grew up here and come home for the holidays. You know, the BC Clark anniversary sale is like a Christmas carol to them. But if you weren’t here on April 19 th, 1995, then—Hello? You weren’t here. You know? And there is a real sense of loss among people I know that I grew up with who left or people I have met since who say, ‘I’m from Oklahoma City too.’ And I say, ‘How did you feel after the bombing?’ And they said they felt a little bit guilty about having left because in that profound moment where all eyes were on Oklahoma, you could feel that you were no longer part of the picture, you had stepped out of the huge family photograph of Oklahoma, and it’s hard to get back in pre and post. I mean, now enough time has gone by. I think that there has been that, you know, to use a cliché—there has been a lot of closure. I don’t know that crimes-- whether it’s a crime against one person or a crime against 168-- I don’t know that closure exists. But I think that with whatever closure there has been, it has been good to come back to Oklahoma and feel a recovery, you know, an emotional recovery from that. But it was a lonely feeling to be born and raised in Oklahoma City and not be part of that event, even though I was here a day later, or two days later—well actually three days later. I’m sorry. In my mind, I’m already reconstructing. It seems like I got here a lot sooner than I did. You know, it’s almost like being the child who isn’t home when the parent goes, but the siblings are still here. And you know that feeling? That the siblings are like, ‘Well where were you?’ It’s a little bit of that feeling. It’s a little bit of—yeah. It is a guilt, it is a guilt.
SHANNON: “I was here when the bombing happened, and when I began to read your story, it just brought it all back, and I started crying. The whole feeling came back.”
STUEVER: “I’m happy about that. I’m sad that you cried, you know, but I’m happy because—as a writer—I’m trying to get to that place. And in this book, it’s hard to know if-- nine years after you’ve written a story—is it gonna hold up? Does it belong in a book between covers, permanent? And, you know, I just have to trust that, you know, these stories weren’t just fish wrap, that they weren’t just newspapers on a recycling stack. And I hope that they speak to America at a pre and post millennial era in which—this was who we are and how we were living.”
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SHANNON: “Well, his stories certainly are not ‘fish wrap.’ They’re funny, insightful, truthful, and also sometimes sad. The name of the book again is Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere. Apparently, ‘the American Elsewhere’ is everywhere. For Oklahoma Voices, I’m Susan Shannon.
You’ve been listening to “Oklahoma Voices,” a public affairs presentation of KGOU public radio. The views and opinions we’ve been expressing this past hour are not necessarily those of the staff or management of KGOU or the University of Oklahoma.
We’d love to hear your feedback on this and all local KGOU news and public affairs programming. Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And check out our website at http://www.kgou.org, where we’ll have a transcript of today’s show and links for more info on today’s guests posted shortly.
I’m Scott Gurian. Thanks again for listening.
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