October 26, 2016

"No Wall of Words"

I recently came across a quote attributed to George Washington, in one of the drafts for his first inaugural address in 1789. It elegantly captures the essence of my own recent internal grumblings. George Washington said

[N]o wall of words, [and] no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.
To put this in more concrete terms, whatever protections are afforded by the U.S. Constitution, it will never be enough. In order to safeguard people from sweeping torrents of boundless ambition, individuals must speak out, the media must investigate and report, Congress might need to amend the Constitution occasionally, and the Supreme Court must continually interpret and reinterpret the Constitution.

Constitutional interpretation has become such a messy business that it has burst onto the 2016 election scene as a hot-button issue. Republican Senators are vowing to reject all Supreme Court nominations from Democratic Presidents - sight unseen. More recently, Republican Party members are taking the stance that they will not even hold Senate hearings for these prospective nominees. Either strategy will effectively block the appointment of new members to the Supreme Court, even as aging justices retire. As it turns out, the Constitution is quiet on both of these fronts. It neither requires senators to take a vote on a nominee, nor does it stipulate that they must come to a hearing with an open mind. Historical expertise is unlikely to resolve this scenario should it come to pass. And if it does, both Democrats and Republicans will undoubtedly be bad actors in the ensuing drama.

Washington's quote resounds even more loudly when applied to our election processes.

Until recently, I took it for granted that our republic had figured out how to formulate and run a fair election. As far as voting, I was still snug in the mindset that we could safely leave all this to the experts.

Let me put that statement in perspective. I grew up in a big city. If we had a problem, there was always somebody who specialized in fixing that problem. It wasn't really worth agonizing over do-it-yourself projects, because it was so easy to call someone with much more expertise. In general, it seemed prudent to spend time developing expertise in a few areas and let the experts handle the rest. Farmers grew cantaloupes better than I would. Piano movers hoisted pianos up to the 17th floor better than I would. Mechanics kept our station wagon running better than I would. But whatever I had left of my childhood faith in experts is quietly vanishing. Especially after voting in Florida for the last seventeen years.

In the year 2000, I was willing to write off the Florida butterfly ballots that probably cost Al Gore the presidency. It was a one-time error. The Supreme Court intervened and put a halt to the Florida recount. That did not sit well with me. The seemingly partisan split within the Supreme Court didn't bode well for the future, but Al Gore accepted the results anyway.

In the 2006 primary, I was quite surprised when the electronic voting machine I was using "skipped" a page of my ballot. The touch screen was practically catatonic, sometimes responding to my finger pressure and sometimes not. By coincidence or perhaps not, a local group, Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, put an amendment on the ballot for the general election to return to paper ballots and require mandatory audits. The amendment easily passed. In the future, we would have some real accountability for our elections in Sarasota County.

During that same election, there was an historic 18,000 undervote for our Congressional Representative that experts agreed probably changed the outcome of the election. Yes that's right; somebody else should have won. After considerable evaluation, the experts all pointed to poor ballot design as the culprit. I was willing to write this off as another one-time error.

Four years later in 2010, we had good news and bad news. The good news was that Sarasota had returned to paper ballots, but the bad news was that the Florida Legislature overrode the will of Sarasota voters and preempted all Florida counties from having more rigorous election standards than the state. This gutted the ballot amendment that had passed in 2006. My gut feeling that we could leave this to the experts was starting to waver.

At around this time, I realized that I couldn't remember having voted either for or against my County Commissioner, even though I voted in every single election. That's because every Sarasota County Commissioner for the last 40 years has been a Republican and generally no candidates from other parties tend to run. Florida's closed primary system was to blame. But voters tried to remedy the situation in 1998. A state constitutional amendment passed that allowed all voters (regardless of party preference) to participate in a primary election, should only one Party file to run for a specific seat. Sounded good. Unfortunately, both major parties found a loophole. Register a write-in candidate - someone who will never appear on the ballot - and they're back to a closed primary. In southeast Florida, Democrats take advantage of this to disenfranchise voters. In my neck of the woods, it's the Republicans.

In 2011, Florida went whole-hog with its partisan voter suppression laws. The laws made it harder for groups to register new voters, cut short early voting periods, and barred ex-felons from the polls. This was quickly followed by Florida's Secretary of State requiring local Supervisors of Elections to purge their voter rolls using lists of 182,000 non-citizens and 50,000 dead voters. These lists were created by the State, and turned out to be quite partisan. And, as it turns out, they were riddled with inaccuracies. Thankfully, local Supervisors of Elections for the most part rejected these purge lists, and a judge ruled against Florida on several of these actions. Nonetheless, my belief in our ability to hold a fair election had greatly diminished by this time.

Did I mention gerrymandering? Currently, 26 of 40 Florida State Senators are Republican, even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state. This might be due to some terrific Republican candidates, but it is more likely due to rampant gerrymandering. After the 2010 Census and the voter-approved Fair Districting Amendment, I had high hopes that Florida might curb its penchant for gerrymandering. It took six years of court wrangling, but we now have district maps that comply with the law. However, legal challenges are still pending.

This year as I watched the 2016 presidential nominating process unfold, I was confronted with a dizzying litany of flaws. Going in, we all knew that Iowa and New Hampshire played oversized roles in the nominating process. This is troubling, because neither of them are particularly representative of the whole country, being more rural and containing so few people of color. And it turns out, I was never voting for a candidate. I may have thought I was voting for a candidate, but I wasn't. Rather, convention delegates were awarded based loosely on vote counts. By the time delegates arrived at the national convention after various computations, regional conventions, and a state convention, the original vote counts most assuredly would no longer correspond directly to delegate counts. And what about those poor chumps who had to caucus. After a long day at work, many folks might think twice about spending several hours at a caucus listening to political speeches and what not. I, for one, would probably bring soundproof ear muffs. And what if you had to work during caucus time?  Out of luck, Chuck. All the flaws just listed applied to Iowa. I will leave it to the curious reader to look into each state's catalog of unsound practices. After Iowa, the media bias was stunning. And who knew just how undemocratic the national conventions could be. As I understand it, had the Democratic National Convention been contested after the first round of voting, delegates would have been under no obligation to represent voters. And had the Republican Rules Committee so desired, they could have changed the rules for their National Convention so that the people's choice wouldn't stand a chance. And just think; it used to be a lot worse. Did the third parties even hold primaries? Shame on me for not knowing right off the bat, but shame on the media for not covering it.

And now Trump is claiming that there will be large-scale voter fraud amongst Democrats with dead people and non-citizens casting votes and some people going from precinct to precinct, voting many times. This notion has been bandied about quite a bit over the last decade by Republican officials. As it turns out, anyone who has looked into these claims has found no large-scale voter fraud. Whatsoever. Unfortunately, these claims have been used as the pretext for large-scale partisan voter disenfranchisement programs.

Trailer for Greg Palast movie
About a month ago, I went to see Greg Palast's film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. I was in for a shocker. Although Florida had earned my scorn with its sketchy voter disenfranchisement activities, disenfranchisement may have gone multi-state-viral and it's even sketchier. The program Palast uncovered is called Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. If you are one of 7.2 million voters on the Crosscheck list, you have been accused of voting twice. These voters hail from 29 states, but thankfully for my own voter registration prospects, not from Florida. The names on the list have been matched for first and last names only, but not middle name, not date of birth, and not social security number. So, basically Crosscheck is a list of common first and last names.  And it's a mess, since most of the alleged double voters have middle names that don't match. More importantly, since minorities are overrepresented in 85 of 100 of the most common last names, the result is that there are many more minorities on the Crosscheck list than are found in the general population. Beware if your name is Jose Garcia. I'm not sure we know which states are using the Crosscheck list to purge their voter rolls. But, if you are one of the unfortunates on this list, that means you might be legally denied a ballot even if you are properly registered!

I am no longer willing to cede authority to election experts. Even though we have a lot of history to draw from, there is still so much that goes wrong. Having observed many elections over the years, I have noticed the tendency for some of our election officials and legislators to concoct rules that help a particular party keep power. Historical expertise hasn't really helped us too much. A plurality voting system such as ours always leads to a two party system with all the power plays elaborated above - and then some (see previous article). No wonder so many are ready to give up on the whole enterprise. Elections seem simple. People go to the polls. They make choices about issues and candidates. The votes are counted. But so much can go wrong. George Washington nailed it. That leaves it to an informed citizenry to watch over our democracy. Given the current climate, that's a mighty tall order.

1 comment:

  1. In Washington State we can vote by mail. This year it started on around October 20th. I sent it in and a few days later was able to confirm online that my ballot had been received and counted. Loved it!

    Thanks for this Diane. I learned a lot. I also learned that I need to see the movie The Best Democracy Money can Buy - 8.4 on IMDB by the way. Very cool!