The founder of the Free & Equal Elections Foundation reflects on the power of people united in a common pursuit — and how this can be applied to our electoral system.
For full disclosure, MintPress News editor-in-chief, Mnar Muhawesh, was a speaker at Free & Equal Elections Foundations’ 2014 United We Stand Festival.
“[P]ublic confidence in the two parties and their management of government has eroded. America’s polarized politics are mired in a dysfunctional and increasingly unpopular two-party system that has failed to address this nation’s major challenges and threatens its future.” – Linda Killian, the Wall Street Journal
BLOG ENTRY— The Republican- and Democrat-controlled Congress is about as popular as head lice and only slightly more desirable than the Internet’s favorite punching bag, Nickelback, according to recent poll numbers.
Add to these startling statistics the very low approval ratings of the last two presidents, and it would seem that we now have a nation full of people who are disgruntled with the political process and the corporate-aligned political parties — yes, both corporate parties.
Americans are increasingly affiliating themselves as political Independents, rejecting the two-party system in an exponentially growing way. At least 40 percent of voters are registered as Independents, more than those registered as either Republican or Democrat.
But the question must be asked: If nobody likes the two-party system, how do 90 percent of congressional politicians get re-elected?
In 2008, I created the Free & Equal Elections Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, non-partisan organization, with a mission to create open and transparent elections to give power back to the individual voter.
When I was just 17, I saw my father, Jim Tobin, wrongfully knocked off the ballot for Illinois governor as an alternative party candidate in 1998, and that’s when I knew something had to be done to fix this broken system. Since then, I’ve helped gather over 1 million signatures to get candidates across the spectrum on the ballot. I also organized the first nationally televised alternative presidential debate in 2008 with Independent Ralph Nader and Constitution Party Candidate Chuck Baldwin. That marked the creation of Free & Equal, with the goal of being a peaceful, positive, powerful, solutions-based movement, using education to inspire people to be the change on a grassroots level.
Since our founding, we’ve hosted election reform panel discussions and forums, press conferences, a music festival, and presidential, vice presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial debates, in our efforts to open the discussion to fresh voices. Larry King and Thom Hartmann moderated the Free & Equal open presidential debates in 2012, which featured Gary Johnson, Dr. Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson and Virgil Goode. These debates reached an estimated 1.1 billion households globally, shattering the perceived monopoly that the two-party system purports to hold over the electoral process.
The 2012 debates made many inroads on social media, trending on the front page of Twitter and making waves on Facebook. Hearing about topics that actually matter to voters inspired newfound hope for the electoral process and brought to light the many topics that are usually ignored by the superficial debates held by the corporate media. The 2012 debates also hoisted formerly ignored presidential candidates onto the national stage, giving a voice to the roughly 40 percent of Americans who now identify as Independents.
As the founder of Free & Equal, I spent the last year working with a dedicated team of volunteers to create the 2014 United We Stand Festival. The goal of the event was to bring reality back into our political process. We wanted to use Congress’ 8 percent approval rating to initiate material change by actually getting them replaced by representatives who reflect the peoples’ sentiments, not special interests. We sought to unleash the awesome power of music to bring people together to unite independent thinkers for change.
We created this festival to encourage more individuals to get involved in the political process and to get voters from all political perspectives engaged in civil discussion. This diverse festival brought together many cultural, political, musical, intellectual, spiritual leaders and activists, including Immortal Technique, founders of the Wu-Tang Clan, bestselling author Marianne Williamson, 2012 Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s, filmmaker Sean Stone, Kimberly and Foster Gamble of Clear Compass Media, and journalists Amber Lyon, Ben Swann, Mnar Muhawesh and Abby Martin. This was Free & Equal’s follow up to our 2012 Open Presidential Debates.
For nine months leading up to the May 10 United We Stand Festival in Los Angeles, I had been working closely with the UCLA Recreation Department to hold this epic event on campus at the Pauley Pavilion. Everyone at Free & Equal was excited about the potential of this partnership with a major university system, as it is essential that higher education encourages critical thinking in all areas of study, especially in the area of public policy.
Tipping the balance back toward the people is no easy feat
It was all coming together beautifully until five days before the event, when we asked for, and received, an extension on our final payment. Then, just minutes after our sponsor wired the funds to UCLA, I received an email informing me that UCLA had canceled our contract for the Pauley Pavilion, despite our having met the new deadline. As a result, UCLA instructed Ticketmaster to issue refunds to all of our ticket holders without informing them that the event could be rescheduled or relocated.
With UCLA still holding onto the funds, our legal counsel attempted to negotiate with them for several days. Finally, one day before the festival was to take place, the UCLA administration cancelled all negotiations.
I was staring at the edge of a cliff. That Friday was the darkest day of my life. We lost our venue. We lost our ticket revenue. We lost our sponsorship. Things looked hopeless, but then something amazing happened: The people united.
Free & Equal succeeded against the odds
When word spread that the festival had lost its venue, people immediately started contacting us, offering to help. We tripled our volunteer staff and relocated the festival to the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles overnight. One of our national volunteers graciously loaned us funds to book the new venue a matter of hours before showtime. The news of the cancellation and relocation rapidly spread throughout social media and the local press, including the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and the LAist. The venue reached capacity shortly after the doors opened and brought in more than 3,000 festival attendees, many of whom had driven across the country to attend. The festival was an incredible success and exceeded even our own expectations. The performers were powerful, the speakers inspiring, and an overall spirit of unity penetrated downtown Los Angeles.
Looking back at the amazing success of the United We Stand Festivaland reflecting on the various obstacles we were forced to overcome, I’m more encouraged than ever before because the people came together as one to make this festival happen. I finally saw with my own eyes the resilience and potential of this movement. The more resistance we encounter, the stronger we becomeand the more our numbers seem to grow.
I am grateful for the tremendous support I received from the performers, speakers and members of the press who pitched in and helped with the production.
Looking ahead: Expansion
Free & Equal is currently expanding its Free & Equal Network to include an independent media outlet, a Free & Equal Marketplace, and the upcoming Election Assistant, an interactive database of all candidates that will create a level playing field for voters to choose candidates based on merit, not political party. We are also networking with state leaders, and, of course, we’re looking forward to the 2015 United We Stand Festival next summer.
We will continue educating and inspiring people to engage in the election process, run for office at all levels of government, and reform our electoral system to address our country’s electoral issues such as election fraud, gerrymandering, the electoral college, ballot access, closed-source software voting machines and the influence of money over politics.
I wanted to create a movement for the people, and we’ve become unstoppable because we cannot be divided. The information revolution is on, and the success of the 2014 United We Stand Festival perfectly demonstrates how drive, passion and unity can overcome seemingly impossible odds.
Looking ahead, we hope that by restoring power to the people by making their voices heard and generating interest in, and support for, alternative candidates outside the two-party system, Congress’ approval rating may surpass that of Brussels sprouts and colonoscopies.