Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Defending The Electoral College

In my book “The Myths of the Founding Fathers and Their Constitution” ( I describe six key issues that those Founders struggled with in pursuit of a new form of government for the United States. Among them were the questions of the basis of representation, and the manner in which power should be shared and distributed. How the power of thirteen individual, unique, and here-to-fore autonomous and equal states should be subsumed to a new central government proved contentious from the outset of the Constitutional Convention. Should representation be based on geographic size, wealth, or population? How should the mighty Commonwealth of Virginia sit next to the small state of Delaware and pretend “fairness” to each other? The wealthy powerhouse states sought recognition of their strength; the small states fought to protect their viability from being overrun and swallowed up. The division over this issue threatened to sabotage the entire Constitutional effort before it barely got underway. Yet the unity of all thirteen was the understood targeted outcome.

In the end, after hours of deliberation, many written drafts, and seemingly unending changes of mind, the conflicting positions were finally reconciled. The result was the creation of two separate bodies within the Congress: a House of Representatives based upon population (a concession to the large states); a Senate based upon equal two votes for each state (a concession to the small states). It was a compromise balancing size with maintaining the integrity of each unique state.

When the discussion subsequently moved to the question of the President, the same issue of “who gets to decide” arose. It was the “big states / little states” yet again, combined with a broad distrust among the convention’s Delegates as to the capability of the general population to make such a critical choice. (It was already presupposed that such capability could only be entrusted to a select subgroup within white adult males.) To get out of this philosophical bind, the Delegates ultimately returned to the solution that they had used to resolve the representation argument regarding the Congress. That is, voters in each state would elect representatives to a similar body, but one with the sole and temporary charge to elect a president. Representation to that electoral body would be equal to each state’s combined representation to the Congress – i.e. two Senators plus their number of apportioned Representatives – a combination of an equal vote yet weighted by population. Those electors would thereby vote on the people’s behalf for the person they felt to be most qualified for President, with a majority rule. Having fulfilled this singular Charge, the electors would then adjourn and go home, their business completed with no subsequent role to potentially complicate their decision. It was a solution the Founders loved – a compromise, with something for everyone.

And thusly was born the Electoral College. A compromise mechanism for: effecting the delicate balance between the powerful versus the weak; confirming majority rule while protecting the important role of the minority; ensuring that a stampede of the masses does not overwhelm the concerns of the few, while conversely preventing the few from unduly blocking the national will. It is an imperfect system because we are an imperfect, diverse country of competing interests and divergent beliefs that we attempt to accommodate, not ignore or defeat.

Given this objective of balance, over the years the Electoral College has worked pretty well for us overall. It failed to choose a winner in 1800 between Jefferson and Burr, and forced the election into the House of Representatives. It failed in 1876 when disputes in three states over the voting results resulted in Hayes defeating Tilden is spite of Hayes losing both the original Electoral College vote AND the popular vote. In the last sixteen years, we have now had two occurrences of the Electoral College winner losing the national popular vote – “a losing-winner.” These two losing-winner elections have raised voices calling for the end of the Electoral College system in favor of one nationwide direct popular vote – such voices perhaps understandably coming from the losing side of the decision. It is a call with which I could not disagree more.

We need to remind ourselves that we are a federal system of governments. A national government that reflects shared values and principles applicable to all Americans, and able to act on their collective behalf. We are also a collection of individual, dissimilar states with little in common, thereby providing opportunities to do some things differently that reflect local needs and more appropriate solutions. The federal government is our commonality; the state governments are our separateness and individuality. Both are good ideals engaged in an always difficult and evolving dance to jointly serve the citizenry.

The reality is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has very little in common with the State of Texas. As Florida has little in common with Idaho. As California has with South Carolina. Meanwhile, Hawaii sits alone in the Pacific no doubt very happy to have its distance from the mainland. These are differences – sometimes extreme ones – of geography, weather, culture, heritage, immigrant background, population, wealth, education, recreation, and natural wonders. Differences not at all unlike those among the original thirteen states that formed this Union, differences as true today as then. Respecting these differences, not steamrolling over them, is the challenge to the federal government vis-à-vis the states.

Actually, the same arguments over power sharing happen within individual state boundaries, among state, county and local governments. Major population centers frequently claim the “weighted right” of population that risks overwhelming their more scattered, rural neighbors. There is sprawling Atlanta and the whole rest of Georgia. Northern and western New York constantly fight to not be overwhelmed by New York City. Northern California and southern California regularly threaten to secede from each other. In North Carolina, we have the rural and coastal economies of the east, the high-tech Triangle and the high-population areas of the Triad in the center, and the Appalachian heritage of the western mountains. Balancing all of these varied needs, goals and perspectives means exercising due diligence while proceeding cautiously. (Clearly, we in North Carolina are not doing this well at all!)

The President is elected to serve all Americans, as varied as we are. The Electoral College ensures that candidates for that office campaign in most, if not all, of America. S/he is obligated to connect with, and be cognizant of, the vast diversity of this nation s/he seeks to lead. One cannot, and should not, just concentrate on the big population states/centers to win an election. A candidate needs to eat county fair food in Iowa, barnstorm the back roads of New Hampshire, conduct town meetings in New Mexico, and fill stadiums in California. That was made imminently clear in this most recent election when rural/small-town voters demanded to be heard, not ignored.

In this high-tech 21st Century, the Electoral College can seem like an old, unnecessary throwback to an earlier, simpler time. But electorally, we are only slightly different now than in those simpler times. This system was designed from the beginning to remind us of the diverse complexity of our country and its citizenry. We are more than just one aggregate number; we are more than just the loudest voice. Rather, we are many versions of shifting pluralities deeply interconnected to, and dependent upon, each other for our overall well-being. Our political representatives need to understand and navigate among these pluralities to build coalitions for action while also respecting those who stand outside those coalitions. We are all the dairy farmer in Vermont, the factory worker in Michigan, the struggling single parent in Baltimore, the cubicle worker in Silicon Valley, the aging fixed-income grandparent in Oklahoma, the forgotten Native-American on the North Dakota reservation. All of these voices need to be heard and responded to. The value of the Electoral College is not measured by whether our choice wins or loses. Rather, it exists to help ensure that each of our voices matters.

©   2016   Randy Bell     

Monday, November 14, 2016

Bodies Alongside The Campaign Highway

Election 2016 has come and gone. Decisions have been made. Winners and losers in each race have been anointed. Over the course of this too-long and nightmarish election season, many casualties were left behind long before November 8th arrived. Casualties of people, institutions, and concepts. It is important to not forget those who the campaign defamed, and the meaning of their dispatch, for therein lies much for reflection and learning in the coming times.

In the presidential campaign, many people had their reputations and character unduly damaged by the campaign rhetoric and tactics employed, rather than by debates of issues. The field started with 17 Republicans and five Democrats. The Democratic field was quickly winnowed to three, and then two, by the lack of qualifications and substance of three wanna-be’s. What proceeded as genuine debates of ideas went to assaults of personality when the race became competitive. The wounds were lasting when it came time for the general election.

On the Republican side, the large field included several wanna-be’s, several stale old faces trying to reclaim relevance, leaving around half the field with substantive candidacies but of mixed qualifications. They were, each in turn, chewed up and banished to the sidelines not because of their ideas or their potential strengths and weaknesses as a political leader, but by unrelenting assaults on their character, being painted with insulting nicknames, or by simply being outshouted for media attention due to a swirl of outrageous and negative statements that defied a response. Negative statements were directed to vast segments of American society, without apology or defense. All of these actions continued through to the general election, creating an unworkable environment for conducting an effective political discourse. Most all of it came from one source – the eventual winner of the nomination and election. Some good people were left deeply scarred from it all, and the American public learned little about alternatives for their future.

But it was not just candidates for office that were casualties of this campaign. Institutions and their leaders were wounded in the crossfires. The chairperson and staff of the Democratic National Committee was caught “guilty as suspected” of favoritism to one candidate over another, a cardinal sin for people charged with guiding the party nominating process. There is much party rebuilding work to do, but what trustable person is available to lead that process?

While the race among Republican candidates proceeded forward, the Party itself was engaged in virtual civil war. After much emotional handwringing, “What is a Republican / What is a Conservative” emerged as principal unanswered questions – still unanswered as of Election Day. Large numbers of voters turned out in Republican primaries, but were these really “the Republican base,” or a wholly new contingent of voters unwedded to any political party? Republican party leadership, elected Republican officials, conservative political philosophers, special-issue promotors, business leaders, Republican voters, and the Republican presidential winner are all out of sync. Candidates with “Republican” labels won big, which can temporarily mask deep divisions. But the fight for control, direction and identity of the Party is not over and will likely prove to be brutal.

The FBI, having spent years successfully rebuilding its reputation for neutral objectivity versus past periods of excesses, became political fodder with its conduct of the Democratic nominee’s email handling. The Director’s public statements, the unprecedented revealing of evidence and notes from a non-prosecuted case, and acknowledged “leaks” of investigations and negotiations by agents from various field offices, clearly made the agency an inappropriate and significant campaign player – a concern for those who still believe in a nonpartisan legal process. It will take years for the public and the agency to recover from this. Even the Supreme Court became an inadvertent player in this campaign, though not of its own making, as the failure to replace the current vacancy due to political and campaign reasons created an abrogation of the Senate’s Constitutional responsibility. The entire federal court system was forced to be drawn heavily into the election process just to deal with all of the voter’s rights / voter suppression cases brought before it. Even our vaunted military institution, which has performed admirably for the past 25 years, took a big hit by unconscionable criticisms of our military leaders, the strategies for defending our country, and veterans and POWs.

The national media once again was a major player in the voting outcome. The most blatant example was its handling of the early Republican primary debates by unilaterally deciding who was a valid candidate and who was not, leading to a “kid’s table / 2nd tier” debate group. There may have been candidates who did not deserve much attention, but that is for the voters to decide from a level playing field that gives exposure to all. Decisions about who to give air time to, which issues to over- / under-focus on, who to give how much air time, chasing the sensationalized headlines of the most outrageous comments, and the incessant drumbeat of poll standings which reduced the campaign to seemingly a running score of a sporting event, seemed very poorly made. “The national media” is an easy campaign target, and often an intended distraction from poor campaigning, but at times it is a target well deserved.

Then there were the “values” casualties. Truth probably took the biggest hit. We are used to the normal suspension of reality for campaign rhetoric – out of context TV ads, sound bites over substance, painting the opposition’s bad character as formed by his/her supposed misdeeds. This campaign took mistruth to a whole new level through inventing “facts” out of completely thin air, drawing from unproven conspiracy theories, and using the fantasies of the National Inquirer as research material. In turn, debates –the give and take of ideas to arrive at better conclusions – disappeared, replaced by a series of televised insults and noise-making, won not by the strength of intelligent argument but by who succeeded more in talking over the other. Values of interpersonal respect evaporated in “a basket of deplorables,” social media fights with Gold Star parents and a beauty contest winner, and audio tapes made on a bus ride. Integrity fled when violence to candidates and voters was encouraged while taking no responsibility for frightening outcomes – both real and potential. Unproven accusations of dishonesty (“Lying Ted,” “Lock her up”) and non-impartial federal judges insulted our dearly-held principles of justice.  Respect for America itself was defaced when voting itself, and the elected outcomes, were cast in suspicion as “rigged systems” and probable cesspools of “voter fraud” – accusations which quickly disappeared when the accuser won! (These accusations often put Republican voting officials in the awkward position of defending their voting systems as “safe, secure and sound” after spending several years, and much time and money, on Voter ID Card proposals because supposedly our election systems were so rife with potential abuse!)

Before we get on with the necessary job of planning for governance, why is this recapping of the litany of campaign horrors needed? We were all there. We lived through it all. We saw it all go down, albeit perhaps through very different eyes and interpretations. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we also acknowledge that many of We the Voters did not perform very nobly either, descending into the profanity and violence of character modeled by too many of the candidates. Therefore we recap these events not to emotionally dwell on the past, or to relive our personal disappointment or elation.  Rather, we do so to remind ourselves how bad this campaign really was, involving so many players – both principals and sidelineders, and ourselves. How much this embarrassment cost this country, financially and emotionally, as well as in our principles of character. How the image of the world’s leading aspirational democratic country, the in fact leader of the globe’s developed nations (a leadership now called into question by much of the world), descended into a 3rd-world image of the democratic process. We recap these events to energize ourselves to never let this form and degree of negative experience happen again regardless of our political opinions and preferred directions.

I have many concerns, if not fears, about where our country will be driven over the next four years. One of those concerns is that there are many aspiring politicians out there right now thinking about running for office in the future. “How to win” is one of the things they are thinking hard about, perhaps more than they are thinking about their positions or about actually serving the public. Will they conclude that 2016 is now the model for how one runs a campaign, how one wins an election in America? A model not based on our best American Character of optimism, respect and good will but of negativism and division.  Is what we just saw to be the “new normal” for us? We passed up the opportunity to say “No” to this form of campaigning in 2016 by in fact endorsing it. How will we – Republican, Democrat, Independent of all differing political views – stop it from coming back around again in 2018/2020? Sometimes, the past is our future. We have unleashed a Pandora’s box of electoral demons. Whether we can return those demons to their container is highly questionable. It will be for all of us to decide.

©   2016   Randy Bell   

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Sanctity Of The Vote

Voting. It is one of the remarkably small number of things (like jury duty) that we are asked to do in order to enjoy the many benefits of U.S. citizenship. Voting is a pretty painless obligation, one of government’s more well-performed functions. It is a shame that one of our presidential candidates is unjustifiably seeking to undermine the sanctity of this most basic pillar of democratic government. When confidence in the value and meaning of one’s vote is shaken, it leaves the resulting government open to questions of legitimacy. Too many of those questions can, in turn, lead to Constitutional collapse. Trifling with that confidence for one’s personal political advantage stands on treacherous ground.

America’s commitment to voting has been absolute and resolute. As with anything, there will always be some margin of unintended error, errors that, in the end, likely do not change the overwhelming outcome. That said, getting to the voting booth has been under attack for some years now. It is an attack fueled by a push to try to make voting rules inherently favor a particular candidate or political party. We have pushed for voter IDs to solve a voter ID problem that is acknowledged to be virtually non-existent, with “approved ID cards” slanted to particular groups. We have adopted more restrictive rules for registering to vote. We have cut back on the hours, days, number of locations for early voting, and their proximity to their neighborhood voters. This is happening at the very time when we should be doing everything possible to encourage people to vote. Many of these maneuvers are winding up in court, mostly being overturned, but at a significant cost of time, energy, money, and endless confusion.

The Candidate claims – with no proof offered – that the election is “rigged.” Against him, of course. But if there is any rigging going on, it is We the People who are doing the rigging to ourselves. We do it by not voting, and by accepting questionable new voting rules. A few examples may illustrate this.

In the 2008 presidential election, roughly 230M people were eligible to vote. Only around 130M did – a 57% turnout. In 2012, 235M were eligible, but again only around 130M did – a 55% turnout. We claim to be the shining example and promotor of democracy around the world – government by Law rather than by person – and almost half of our citizens do not show up when needed. Many of these no-shows will nevertheless be happy to subsequently complain about government services and decisions, write insulting postings in social media, all while staying minimally informed about issues of the day. That sideline seat is far too comfortable to hide on.

In 2015, Kentucky held an election for governor. Up-and-comer Democrat Jack Conway was far and away the polling favorite over Tea Party Republican Mast Bevin. To everyone’s great surprise, Mr. Bevin won with 52.5% of the votes cast. Why? Because only 30% of Kentucky’s eligible voters showed up for this off-year election. Put another way … in a country founded on “the majority wins,” all Mr. Bevin needed in order to win was to take just 15.1% of the eligible voters in his state – i.e. 50.1% of the small (30%) turnout. It was the same strategy Donald Trump used to vanquish his 16 other Republican primary competitors: split the field and get a simple plurality of the only 20+% of America’s voters who are registered as Republicans. (In the early going of the primary, Trump rarely got more than 30% of the votes, versus 70% to other candidates.) Today, to lead the pack, to win the vote, you do not need a majority of the citizens. You only need one more vote than anyone else from the reduced numbers of people who enter the polling booth. It is a very different way of strategizing a political campaign.

Take another example. In June, North Carolina had to hold a special primary election solely for candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. This was necessary due to a federal court ruling overturning the Legislature’s redistricting plan. In that election, less than 10% of voters in my county turned out to vote, with a similar pattern in other counties. The resulting vote was so small, so close, that it generated more indecision. Yet another round of candidate protests had to be resolved in order to finally bring that election to conclusion.

Speaking of legislative redistricting raises the discussion of gerrymandering – drawing congressional and legislative districts is such a way as to deliberately tilt future elections to a particular party or group. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a “1 man / 1 vote” (now “1 person / 1 vote”!) basis for drawing electoral districts, requiring that all districts should have roughly equal populations. In 2016, the Court rejected a suit by conservative Republicans in Texas who argued that the “equal count” should rather be based upon the number of “eligible voters,” which (just coincidentally, of course) would thereby favor smaller, rural (i.e. more conservative – read Republican) communities over large, urban areas. The Court instead reaffirmed that the comparative count for redistricting will continue to be based upon the TOTAL population of would-be districts. End of this attempted subterfuge. For now.

Other than this rule mandated by the Court, the criteria for creating districts are vague, if not non-existent. When gerrymandering comes into play, things can go haywire to substantively defeat the people’s will. For example, North Carolina’s Congressional districts look like an abstract Picasso painting superimposed over a state map. District lines weave in and out and around population centers, and inexplicably snake their way into narrow tributaries of individual streets and neighborhoods. The result is not comic relief, but profound impact. In the 2014 Congressional election, Republican candidates received 1,555,364 combined votes (56%); Democratic candidates received  1,234,027 combined votes (44%). Yet due to gerrymandered districts, Republicans won 10 Congressional seats (77%); Democrats won 3 (23%). So much for the “will of the people.”

Voting is the one process that reaffirms what democracy is: governance by the People. When we forgo our responsibility to speak up – not in social media or conversations among friends, but at the ballot box – we hurt both our neighbors and ourselves. When we play with the voting rules and processes, we turn the democratic process into just another political game of sport. We rig the voting process against ourselves by accepting phony excuses that disguise anti-voting maneuvers – just as my southern ancestors did for a hundred years after the Civil War. We rig it against ourselves by fighting about personalities instead of exploring and debating ideas. Going to the polling place may not be as fun and quick as sending out an ill-thought Tweet, but it has a lot more tangible impact than those 140 characters ever will. We need to reject institutional voter rigging as odious to our democracy. Vote. Our country needs our civic service.

©   2016   Randy Bell