Sunday, September 18, 2011

Another Power Play Masquerading as Democracy

A few days before the 2000 election, there was speculation amongst the Talking Heads world that whereas George W. Bush seemed poised to win the popular vote, Al Gore had a reasonable chance of winning the only vote that mattered by means of a victory in the Electoral College. Republican spewers of talking points bemoaned the archaic system whereby the Voice of the American People (Always capitalized. Always.) was subject to such flagrant misrepresentation; their Democratic counterparts babbled about how “rules are rules,” and both sides knew them from the outset.

Of course, the actual election was as close as it was expected to be, but it was Gore who won the popular vote and Bush who (with a little help from the Supreme Court) claimed the presidency. I need hardly mention that the airwaves were promptly filled with more blatherers from both sides, making precisely the opposite points from what they’d been saying only a few days earlier. Neither side as much as missed a beat. One was indeed reminded of Lili Tomlin’s sage observation that no matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.

Since then, there have been numerous attempts to tinker with the electoral process. Mostly, these have consisted of Democratic attempts to register more voters in urban areas with significant minority populations, and Republican efforts to require more identification than had hitherto been necessary. Both these campaigns seem legitimate on their surface: the ethical position must be that every effort should be made to allow all qualified voters the opportunity to exercise that franchise while exercising appropriate controls to prevent abuse (voting by non-citizens, multiple votes by the same person, etc.).

Of course, both sides were actually engaged in largely disingenuous endeavors not to provide a comprehensive and legitimate electoral base, but to help their side win. Indeed, about the only thing more outrageous than the campaigns themselves was the opposition to them. That is, while Democratic efforts to register voters were unquestionably more self-serving than altruistic or patriotic, the GOP’s hysteria about ACORN and the like was as disingenuous as it was voluminous. Similarly, Republican efforts to require photo identification of prospective voters purported to be a response to a problem that was largely imaginary, but actually expecting some sort of real identification from someone attempting to vote hardly qualifies as the sort of diabolical voter suppression the left would have us believe.

True, there are exceptions: Steve Krieser, the jackass in Wisconsin who decided that state employees shouldn’t tell citizens that government-issued ID cards are in fact free (if you ask specifically), not $28, should be bitch-slapped; whoever was responsible for firing a state employee for having the audacity to inform the public of their rights should face a worse fate than that. But I confess myself unable to work up much righteous dudgeon at the idea of actually needing the card (provided that it’s free).

The latest attempt to fiddle with the system seems on the surface to be innocuous enough, even though everyone on both sides knows it’s a power play. Pennsylvania is contemplating, and—given who’s currently in power in the state—may well pass, legislation to change the way its electoral votes are allotted. Needless to say, Republicans, who currently control state government but haven’t won the state in a presidential contest in a generation except in the blowout of 1988, claim that their proposition is intended only “to more fairly distribute our electoral votes based on the popular vote in Pennsylvania.” Meanwhile, Democrats argue that the problem with the idea is that it would reduce the influence of Pennsylvania on the national election. I need hardly mention that both sides are lying.

This is all about gaining a political advantage, and has nothing to do with providing a real voice for voters or ensuring an accurate representation. Why else would the Dems have thought this was a good plan a couple years ago and the GOP hated the idea? Of course, the cleanest and most sensible solution would be to adopt the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would ensure that the Presidency would be won by whoever gets the most votes. The ploy here is to entice enough state legislatures to vow that the entirety of their state’s electoral votes would go to the national popular vote winner, regardless of who wins their state.

If states totaling 270 electoral votes sign on (they’re currently at 132), the problem is solved. Don’t expect it to happen any time soon, however: the Pennsylvanias, Ohios, and Floridas have too much to lose if presidential campaigns—and the accompanying media buys, demand for office space, hotel rooms, restaurants, and the like—were to afford them only the same interest those of us in states dominated by one party (whichever one it is) receive. Indeed, of the eight states (and the District of Columbia) which have passed this legislation, which would kick in if and only if the 270 vote threshold is achieved, only one, New Jersey, is ever seriously in play in a close election.

The system being proposed in Pennsylvania has already been adopted by Maine (in 1972) and Nebraska (in 1996), but those deviations from the norm have swung a grand total of one electoral vote ever, giving then-Senator Obama a slightly larger margin of victory over John McCain than he otherwise would have. But it is perfectly plausible that a state like Pennsylvania, with a heavy concentration of Democratic voters in and around Philadelphia but a largely Republican electorate elsewhere in the state, could vote for Obama’s re-election but he not only wouldn’t take all the state’s electoral votes, he might not even get the majority. Yale University constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar argues that “[it] might be very likely to happen in [Pennsylvania], and that’s what makes this something completely new under the sun. It’s something that no previous legislature in America since the Civil War has ever had the audacity to impose.”

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with dividing a state’s electoral votes. But, even apart from the obvious partisanship that underlies this proposition, there are problems here. First off, it leads to a bizarre patchwork of state policies that leads to a system even more arcane and, frankly, stupid, than even the silliness that is the Electoral College to begin with. Indeed, about the only thing more inane than giving a state’s entire complement of electoral votes to someone who wins by a couple hundred votes is to give the majority of electoral votes to a candidate who doesn’t even win the state. The Republicans don’t care, of course, and I’m not naïve enough to think the Democrats would be any different if the shoe were on the other foot.

More importantly, especially in the short term, this change provides a further incentive for the shameless gerrymandering characterized by post-Tom DeLay Texas. Politicians’ first instinct, alas, has little to do with service and everything to do with power: theirs, and that of their ideological brethren. The Republican Congressmen and their staffers who are quoted periodically admitting that they don’t want to do anything to help the President—as agreeing to a jobs package that they implicitly admit would have benefits to the country would do, for example—are different from their colleagues on either side of the aisle only by the frankness with which they confess their unfitness for office.

So it comes as no surprise that we get districts—state and federal alike—that look like butterflies, cobras, and coatimundis (complete with tails). Indeed, identifying the shape of gerrymandered districts is the 21st-century equivalent of naming constellations a couple of millennia ago or playing “that cloud looks like…” when you were a kid. The inevitable result, however, is a democracy in name only. The majority of the population voted for Al Gore and we got George W. Bush. I think that’s a calamity: not (just) because Bush was the worst President in American history (although he was), but because of the means by which he was… ahem… elected. But at least (with the possible exception of the Florida debacle) that was “by the rules.” More significantly in the here and now: gerrymandered state districts lead to gerrymandered federal districts, which could reasonably lead to tipping an election by means of the kind of vote-splitting now being contemplated.

Indeed, the only significant officials at the state and national level who are elected directly by voters without artificial and often dishonest districting policies are governors and US Senators. There are a lot of idiot governors out there—there’s one in my current state and another in the state I lived in before moving here—but at least the people actually had a voice, however much the Citizens United decision may have skewed their ability to discern the actual characteristics of the people they were electing.

But nothing can pass the US Senate if Senators representing a pretty damned small percentage of the population decide to filibuster (or, given the fecklessness of today’s Democrats, even threaten to do so). The 15 states with two GOP Senators total less than 27% of the population. Add in 11 other Republicans (from states with one Republican and one Democrat) representing another 10% of the population, and you’ve gummed up the works for everyone. Meanwhile, over 42% of the population lives in a state that elected two Democratic Senators, and another third live in a state with one Democratic Senator. And, of course, citizens of the reliably Democratic District of Columbia, with essentially the same population as reliably Republican Wyoming, have no representation in the Senate at all. For all this, we get gridlock… if we’re lucky.

Choosing electoral votes by Congressional districts is not the end of the world. But taking one more step down the road towards re-writing laws to benefit those currently in power might be. And that’s where this proposed legislation will take us. In a just universe, of course, if the bill passes, the Republican nominee (whoever that may be) will squeak out a narrow victory in Pennsylvania, but the handful of electoral votes President Obama gets by winning Philadelphia tips the election to him. It could happen. Hey, it’s even possible the GOP will nominate someone sane. Just don’t hold your breath.

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