Election reform experts: 2020 may be the most secure election in American history

Lawrence Norden directs the Election Reform program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. Derek Tisler is a fellow with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Here is a taste of their recent piece at Foreign Affairs:

Here, there is some good news. Over the last few years, and particularly since the novel coronavirus struck, election officials nationwide have gone to work to make this fall’s elections resilient. Because of their efforts, the American electoral system is far likelier to dispense with these twin threats than it was just four years ago.

Read the rest here.

When the United States held an election during a civil war

Here is Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University:

With President Trump’s illness disrupting his campaigning and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic afflicting Americans across the country, some commentators have wondered whether the 2020 election should be postponed. But the election of 1864 and President Abraham Lincoln’s insistence that it be held, even amid civil war, provides a resounding answer: No. Indeed, Lincoln believed that holding a fair election under even the most challenging circumstances was needed if self-government was to survive.

From the very beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln insisted that he was willing to fight to ensure the survival of republican government. “Our popular Government has often been called an experiment,” he told Congress in a special message on July 4, 1861. It was now for the American people “to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets.” Once ballots had “fairly and constitutionally decided” a contest, resorting to anything “except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections” could not stand. This, Lincoln wrote, “will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war.”

Read the rest here.

The history of voting by mail

The practices goes back to the colonial era. Here is Olivia Waxman at Time:

In the U.S., showing up in person to cast one’s ballot on Election Day has always been the standard way of exercising that fundamental right. But over the centuries, voting by mail has become an attractive alternative for many—thanks in large part to the influence of wartime necessity.

Even the scattered examples of absentee voting (the terms are often used interchangeably) that can be traced to the colonial era tend to fit the pattern: In 17th-century Massachusetts, men could vote from home if their homes were “vulnerable to Indian attack,” according to historian Alex Keyssar’s book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, and the votes of some Continental Army soldiers were presented in writing “as if the men were present themselves” in Hollis, N.H., in 1775 during the American Revolution.

But it was during the Civil War that America first experimented with absentee voting on a large scale, as so many of the men who were eligible to vote were away from home fighting. During the 1864 presidential election—in which Republican incumbent President Abraham Lincoln defeated Democratic candidate George McClellan—Union soldiers voted in camps and field hospitals, under the supervision of clerks or state officials.

Read the rest here.

Zakaria: “Prepare for election month, not election night”

Great stuff here. Fareed Zakaria writes about possible scenarios that might take place on election night. It may also all come down to John Roberts. Here is a taste of his Washington Post column:

All of us need to start preparing for a deeply worrying scenario on Nov. 3. It is not some outlandish fantasy, but rather the most likely course of events based on what we know today. On election night, President Trump will be ahead significantly in a majority of states, including in the swing states that will decide the outcome. Over the next few days, mail-in ballots will be counted, and the numbers could shift in Joe Biden’s favor. But will Trump accept that outcome? Will the United States?

First, an explanation of why this is the most likely situation. Several surveys have found that, because of the pandemic, in-person and mail-in ballots will show a huge partisan divide. In one poll, 87 percent of Trump voters said they preferred to vote in person, compared with 47 percent of Biden voters. In another, by the Democratic data firm Hawkfish, 69 percent of Biden voters said they planned to vote by mail, while only 19 percent of Trump voters said the same. The firm modeled various scenarios and found that, based on recent polling, if just 15 percent of mail-in ballots are counted on election night, Trump would appear to have 408 electoral votes compared with Biden’s 130. But four days later, assuming 75 percent of the mail-in ballots are counted, the lead could flip to Biden, and after all ballots are counted, Biden would have 334 electoral votes to Trump’s 204.

And this:

Is there a way out of this national nightmare? Two powerful forces could ensure that the United States, already tarnished by its handling of covid-19, does not also end up as the poster child for dysfunctional democracy. The first is the media. We have to abandon the notion of election night and prepare the public for election month. In fact, states have never certified winners on election night. News organizations do that on the basis of statistical projections. It is time to educate the public to wait for the ballots to be counted.

The second and decisive force will be Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. If this type of scenario unfolds, it will end up in court. Ordinarily, this would not get to the Supreme Court. The Constitution is crystal clear that it is the states, and the states alone, that get to determine their electors. But the Supreme Court abandoned its restraint in 2000 with Bush v. Gore. That means a disputed election could quickly move up to the Supreme Court, where Roberts would be pivotal as both chief justice and the swing vote. So it might come down to this: One man will have the power to end a looming catastrophe and save American democracy.

Read the rest here.

Barack Obama’s 2020 DNC convention address, democratic virtues, and the failure of Trumpism

Watch Barack Obama speak to the nation on Wednesday night from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia:

Obama’s choice of venues speaks volumes. At a time when many on the Left are disparaging the American Revolution as racist or built upon slavery, Obama chose to give his DNC 2020 convention speech at a museum that commemorates the ideas behind the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution.

Let’s be clear. Obama did not take us on a ride through a rosy and innocent American story in the way Donald Trump did at Mount Rushmore on July 4, 2020. The former president understands the moral complexity of the past. Three sentences into the speech he says:

I’m in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women — and even men who didn’t own property — the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal, and more free.

The American founding was not perfect. But Obama is unwilling to give up on its ideals. This has been a common thread running through Obama’s entire political career. It is also the spirit that motivated the men and women who were part of what Obama called “the early Civil Rights Movement.” These reformers, as Obama put it, “knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth.” They strove to “bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.” They did not abandon the founding ideals, but sought to fulfill them.

Obama painted Donald Trump and his administration as a threat to democracy:

But we should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy. We should expect that regardless of ego, ambition, or political beliefs, the president will preserve, protect, and defend the freedoms and ideals that so many Americans marched for and went to jail for; fought for and died for.

I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.

But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.

Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.

What is a “custodian of democracy?

At its most basic level, a custodian of democracy makes it easy for people to vote. Here is Obama:

Well, here’s the point: this president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.

But a thriving democracy also requires a leader who cultivates and models democratic virtues. For such a modern society to thrive, citizens need to learn how to live together with their differences. But not just any differences. A democratic community must be built upon human dignity, the celebration of truth, a belief in science and facts, and a commitment to empathy and decency.

When a leader of a democratic society weakens or seeks to damage this foundation it is our responsibility as citizens to say something about it–both in the public sphere and through the voting booth. In other words, a citizen is responsible for exposing and calling-out those who fail to exalt human dignity, those who refuse to expose lies, those who reject evidence-based arguments, and those who do not practice basic civility.  Not everyone is required to share the same political views, but we all should be willing to live, work, speak, and think within such a democratic framework.

We need to reclaim such a society. A democracy needs “informed citizens” (as Obama, echoing the founders, called them in his speech).  As Mary Ann Glendon once put it, “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.”

Because we all have our own views and opinions, a civil society requires conversation. We may never come to an agreement on what constitutes the “common good,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with one other. As author and activist Parker Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.”

The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. His description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is worth citing in full:

The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But argument are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents’ minds–something that can only happen if we give opposing  arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.

Writers at the conservative National Review will, inevitably, argue over policy with writers at the progressive at Mother Jones. The editors of The New York Times are going to opine differently than the editors of The Wall Street Journal. These debates are good for democracy. But the failure to have these debates within a framework of evidence, facts, truth, and decency is harmful to our democratic life. Let’s call this failure “Trumpism.” And there are people on both the Left and the Right who deserve the moniker.

Obama’s speech at John Lewis’s funeral

Watch:

I was struck most by the way Obama rooted John Lewis’s life, and by extension the civil rights movement, in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the vision of the founding fathers, and our failure to live up to these universal ideas. Here are some thoughts:

0:00: Obama begins with James 1:2-4. It is good to hear again from one of the most explicitly Christian presidents in American history.

1:28:  Let’s remember that Obama is talking here about John Lewis, a graduate of American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and an ordained Baptist minister. Lewis’s Christian vocation–his calling, if you will–was to fight racial injustice in a non-violent way. There is something deeply Christian about Obama reminding us that Lewis considered it “pure joy” to suffer as a result of his call from God.

2:17: Obama says, “This country is a constant work in progress. We are born with instructions. To ‘form a more perfect union.’ Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect.” Here Obama is reflecting the founders’ view of human nature. They knew that humans were imperfect people who needed to rise about their passions and imperfections to create a just democracy that celebrated the dignity of all people.

Much has been made of the way Reinhold Niebuhr has influenced Obama. We definitely see some of that influence here as the former president reflects on human nature. Obama’s eulogy combines both a belief in the limits of humanity and a belief in the hope of humanity. As a Christian, I can never fully embrace Obama’s optimism, but like Niebuhr taught us, we should never stop confronting sinful actions, institutions and leaders. (I prefer to see this task in the way theologian N.T. Wright explains it. The work for justice and our defense of human dignity in this world is required of all citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our work in this world is building and preparing that Kingdom, a Kingdom that is “now,” but also “not yet”).

5:00ff: Obama’s discussion of Lewis’s life and his moral courage is so refreshing in the context of our current presidential administration. Obama’s eulogy has pulled many of us, at least for a moment, out of the cynicism of the Trump presidency. It certainly lifted my own daughter out of her cynicism. We watched the speech together. What Obama said has pervaded the conversations taking place in our household over the last twenty-four hours.

13:50ff: Obama connects the Civil Rights struggle to American values. If I hear him correctly, the problem is not with the values themselves, but with the failure to apply them to African Americans.

14:21: Obama references 2 Corinthians 4:8-10. It is worth remembering the context surrounding these verses because the larger passage says a lot about Lewis’s Christian faith and the way it manifested itself in the fight for justice and the dignity of all of God’s human creation. Here is 2 Corinthians 4:

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

15:00: “The troopers [on the Edmund Pettus Bridge] parted.” (Or perhaps this).

15:30ff: Here Obama starts dabbling in civil religion. This is a kind of Christian nationalism. He uses theological words like “redeem” to describe Lewis’s, and by extensive all American’s, faith in our founding values.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, this kind of Christian nationalism was a dominant theme in the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and much of the early civil rights movement. While men like John Lewis put their faith in the God of the Bible, they also put their faith in the Enlightenment ideals that informed the founding of the United States of America.

Obama says Lewis lived an “exceptional” life–a life representative of an exceptional nation. He embodied:

that most American of ideals, the idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals. What a radical idea. What a revolutionary notion–this idea that any of us, ordinary people–a young kid from Troy–can stand-up to the powers and principalities and say ‘no, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just.

Obama’s reference to “remaking” America echoes Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” He is suggesting that the American Revolution was radical in the sense that it allowed people like John Lewis to stand up to racial tyranny. This entire section of the speech reminded me of the recent discussion of the American Revolution sponsored by the World Socialist Web Site. Obama reminds us that the American Revolution is not an event fixed in time, but rather a constant struggle to apply its principles to our daily lives. Each generation must take-up this struggle.

23:00ff: Obama channels Lewis here. His attack on Trump speaks for itself. He says that democracy requires us to “summon a measure–just a measure–of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are.”

25:57ff: Obama quotes Acts 18:9: “One night the Lord instructed Paul, ‘do not be afraid, go on speaking, do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you for I have many in this city who are my people.” While Paul was not referring to the right to vote, the idea of using the ballot box to fight injustice and defend human dignity is a fair application of this verse.

36:40: Obama connects the black lives matter protests in the streets to the ideals of the American Revolution. He uses the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

“By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people–black and white–have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Dr. King said that in the 1960s and it came true again this summer. 

The work continues…

How will Americans vote in November?

Ballott

Check out Kate Rabinowitz’s and Brittany Renee Mayes’s piece at The Washington Post to see the rules in your state.

Six states will be sending ballots to all voters. They are Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, and Vermont. So is the District of Columbia.

Eight states will be sending applications to vote by mail to all registered voters. They are Hawaii, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Maryland.

Here is a taste of the piece titled, “At least 76% of American voters can cast ballots by mail in the fall”:

As of now, nearly 180 million Americans who are eligible to vote would be able to cast a ballot by mail. Of those, 22 million live in states that will accept fear of the coronavirus as an excuse to vote absentee, or have switched to become “no excuse” states.

Read the rest here.

The Coming Pennsylvania Nightmare?

5268e-pennsylvania_counties_mapAs the November election approaches, Pennsylvania is a key swing state. Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes in 2016. Though Biden currently leads in the polls, a lot will change between now and November. The election here will be close.

Last year, Governor Tom Wolf signed no-excuse mail-in ballot voting into law.  This means that any citizen can cast an absentee ballot. This system will get a test run on June 2 when Pennsylvania holds its presidential primary.

Because of these changes, it is going to take a long time–perhaps days–before we know which candidate won Pennsylvania on November 3, 2020. Here is a taste of Holly Otterbein’s piece at Politico:

“My nightmare is that on Election Day in November, you’re waiting for Montgomery County’s results to declare Pennsylvania to declare who wins the White House,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence, a Democrat who chairs the Board of Elections there. “The reality is that all of our counties are going to be in that same situation, and it will take a while to actually count the ballots.”

Less than two weeks away from Pennsylvania’s primary, some state election officials said they lack the funding and staff needed to handle the massive influx of mail-in ballots they’ve received for that race. They also said the fact that they legally can’t start counting those ballots until the morning of Election Day is complicating matters. In addition to delaying a final tally, the chaos and confusion could sow distrust ahead of the general election and give fodder to those seeking to discredit its results.

“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me so far. They got the wrong party ballot sent to them. They got the wrong district ballot sent to them. And now I’m having people getting multiple ballots sent to them. These are the things that are inevitable when you rush the implementation of mail-in voting like we did here,” said Allegheny County Democratic Councilwoman and election board member Bethany Hallam. “But I’m worried that, if Donald Trump loses in November, do the Republicans use all these examples of errors with mail-in voting as their excuse to invalidate election results?”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed no-excuse mail-in ballot voting and other reforms into law late last year, making the June 2 primary the first test of those changes. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, election officials expected to have months, if not years, to acclimate voters to the option of voting by mail. Instead, they’ve been forced to transform the system overnight.

Read the entire piece here.

Yesterday, Donald Trump tweeted:

I think this might be a preview of what we can expect on Wednesday morning, November 4, 2020.

Comparing Trump and the Court Evangelicals on Twitter During the Last 72 Hours

Trump-Bachmann-Pence-religious-right

Tweets and retweets included:

(A lot of our readers are not on Twitter. A “retweet” is a re-posting of a tweet that is then shared with all of retweeter’s followers. When Trump retweets, it is always an endorsement of the content of the original tweet).

And now here are the recent tweets and retweets over the last 48 hours from Trump’s leading evangelical supporters:

It looks like Reed is suddenly interested in politics making racist comments:

Reed has spent his entire life watching polls:

And, of course, Eric Metaxas, senior fellow at the Liberty University Falkirk Center:

metaxas Blackface

Citizens Must Keep Calling-Out Trump

Trump corona speech

Here is the latest Trump tweet:

Here is The Washington Post:

President Trump on Wednesday escalated his campaign to discredit the integrity of mail balloting, threatening to “hold up” federal funding to Michigan and Nevada in response to the states’ plans to increase voting by mail to reduce the public’s exposure to the coronavirus.

Without evidence, Trump called the two states’ plans “illegal,” and he incorrectly claimed that Michigan’s “rogue” secretary of state is planning to mail ballots to all voters. The state is planning to send applications for mail-in ballots to all voters — not ballots themselves.

“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted about Michigan. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

Trump later corrected the error and suggested he would not need to withhold federal money, but he did not retreat from his claim that both states are taking steps that will encourage voter fraud. A spokesman for the Trump campaign asserted that the Michigan secretary of state did not have legal authority to send ballot applications to all voters, a claim that she disputed.

Speaking to reporters later at the White House, the president claimed without proof that mail-in ballots lead to “forgeries” and “thousands and thousands of fake ballots.”

“I think just common sense would tell you that massive manipulation can take place,” he said. “And you do have cases of fraudulent ballots where they actually print them and they give them to people to sign, maybe the same person signs them with different writing, different pens. I don’t know. It’s a lot of things can happen.”

The president’s aggressive and unfounded rhetoric drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and voting rights activists, who accused Trump of intentionally sowing mistrust in U.S. elections.

And his claims that absentee voting will encourage cheating are at odds with the activity of state and national GOP leaders, who are mounting aggressive field operations, including mass mailings of ballot applications, to encourage their voters to cast ballots by mail. GOP officeholders in various states — including Nevada — are also backing expansions of absentee voting because of the pandemic.

Read the rest here.

Voter fraud is very rare. And let’s not forget Trump voted by absentee ballot in this year’s Florida primary, leading to a baffling exchange at an April press conference.

Some will get tired of people who hold Trump’s feet to the fire. They will say we have “Trump-derangement syndrome.” If such a syndrome means that one will not sit back and tolerate this president’s lies, hypocrisy, narcissism, and failure to lead during this pandemic, then I am happy to be called deranged. As Philip Vickers Fithian taught me, “political jealousy is a laudable passion.

Keep sending those e-mails! 🙂

Stacy Abrams Meets With American Historians

Abrams

Stacy Abrams, who lost a very close race for Georgia governor in November, was in Philadelphia on Friday to talk to American historians in town for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  The topic was voter suppression.  Here is a taste of  Jennifer Schuessler‘s piece at The New York Times:

...last Friday, Ms. Abrams dropped in on a much quieter venue: the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Ben Franklin, which bills itself as the oldest cultural institution in the United States.

It wasn’t a stop on Ms. Abrams’s book tour. Instead, she was there to participate in an intimate two-hour conversation about the history of voter suppression with four leading scholars. It will be published next year by the University of Georgia Press as part of a new series called History in the Headlines, which aims to bring historical expertise to bear on today’s most hotly debated issues.The Trump era has been a red-alert moment for many historians, who have mobilized in the classroom, on op-ed pages and on social media to combat what they see as the erosion of democratic norms and an attack on truth itself.

For the conversation, the moderator, Jim Downs, a professor at Connecticut College, had recruited what he called a “dream team”: Carol Anderson, the author of “One Person, No Vote;” Heather Cox Richardson, an expert in the history of the Republican Party; Heather Ann Thompson, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Attica prison revolt; and Kevin Kruse, who has become famous for his epic Twitter threads smiting the dubious historical claims of pundits and politicians.

Before the event, they seemed galvanized at the prospect of talking with someone who has, as Mr. Kruse put it, skin in the game.

“When the email went out saying she was coming, I was like —,” Dr. Anderson, a professor at Emory University, said, clutching her heart. A few minutes later, Ms. Abrams approached.

Read the entire piece here.

“March on Harrisburg” Calls for a New Era in Pennsylvania Politics

Harrisburg_capitol_building

I am happy to publish this piece by John Craig Hammond,  If you care about the fate of democracy in Pennsylvania please give it a read. –JF

Google “corrupt” and “state legislature,” and guess what name pops up over and over again? Pennsylvania – of course.

This is not “new” news. Our commonwealth enjoys (if that is the proper term) a century-long history of corruption that continues unabated to the present. The impact on public confidence is predictable: a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll shows that only 35 percent of Pennsylvania voters think we are “headed in the right direction.”

It is news, however, that Pennsylvanians are at last so fed up with dysfunction, ineptitude and lack of responsiveness in Harrisburg that they are banding together to bring about fundamental change. A grassroots group that I’ve joined, March on Harrisburg, is living up to its name literally and figuratively, as thousands of citizens call, write, meet and actually journey to the statehouse with the goal of launching a new era in Pennsylvania politics.

We believe that just three key measures will go a long way to establish open and responsive government:

End gerrymandering. Pennsylvania’s current system allows the party in power to draw up the voting district map in its own favor; in essence, politicians get to pick their voters. Thus, Pennsylvania is one of the three most gerrymandered states in the nation, with some of the least competitive elections. In the 2016 elections for state house and state senate, for example, about one-half of incumbents ran unopposed thanks to the “safe” districts that they gerrymandered for themselves.

March on Harrisburg seeks to end gerrymandering by establishing an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission. You can help by calling your state legislators to demand that SB 22 and HB 722, currently in committee, be brought to the floor for a vote.

End gift-giving. Even as you read this, legislators, along with their staff and their family members, are accepting gifts from special interests – and it is perfectly legal. Pennsylvania ethics and reporting laws are so murky and ineffective that gift-giving is, in practice, an open invitation to corruption.

March on Harrisburg seeks to ban such gifts. Please contact your elected officials with two requests: to pledge personally to stop taking gifts and to propose legislation forbidding gift-giving.

Institute automatic voter registration. Politicians tend to favor our state’s antiquated voter registration mechanism because it narrows the electorate and reduces the number of pesky voters who otherwise might go around expecting good, responsive government.

Automatic voter registration is easy to implement, and there is no excuse for failing to do so in Pennsylvania. March on Harrisburg believes that if you are legally entitled to vote, you should be automatically registered to vote. We hope you will contact your legislators to express that view.

With these three important measures, Pennsylvania citizens can begin the process of reclaiming the state house. The fight will not be easy. But it can and must be done.

Please contact your state representative and senator, and let them know that you support March on Harrisburg and that you expect them to do the same. Democracy depends on you.

John Craig Hammond, Ph.D

Franklin Park, PA

We Are a Republic, Stupid!

I am seeing this more and more from the Trump fans who I meet in face-to-face encounters and online.  In the last month I have been told over and over again that America is a “republic” and not a “democracy.”

Of course we are a republic.  But we are also a democracy in the sense that the people play a role in electing their public officials.  We have become more and more democratic over the years.  The Electoral College, for example, largely votes according to the will of the people.  Unlike the original Constitution, the people now directly elect their United States Senators.  This was accomplished by the 17th Amendment in 1913.  Women (19th Amendment–1920) and African Americans (15th Amendment–1870 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965) can now vote.  There are no longer land qualifications for office.  And we could go on.

So why are so many Trump supporters chiding me and others for calling the United States a “democracy?”  Could it be because Trump did not win the popular vote?

And by the way, if people are so passionate about defending the idea that we are “republic” I would challenge them to consider the moral responsibility that citizens have in such a form of government.  According to the founders (and the Greeks and Romans before them), a republican citizen will regularly sacrifice his or her own self-interest for the greater good of the republic.  They would vote for what benefited the nation, even if that might work against their own particular interest.  Just a thought.

Historians Reflect on the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act Decision

As many of you now know, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  As David Austin Walsh notes at History News Network:

The Voting Rights Act was formulated to target areas with a history of poll tests and historically low registration and turnout for federal oversight. Jurisdictions that fall under the Act’s authority are required to pre-clear changes in local election laws with the federal government,

Section 4 determined the mechanism of determining the target areas; Section 5 of the Act, which provides for the actual pre-clearance requirement itself, was not ruled upon by the Court.

In his majority opinion Chief Justice John Roberts wrote“today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

Currently, nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — are subject to federal oversight; individual counties and/or municipalities in California, Florida, Maryland, New York, and North Carolina are also covered by the Act.

Historians have weighed in:

Eric Foner of Columbia University thinks the decision gives a ‘green light to states with a long history of slavery and racism” to disenfranchise voters.”

Clayborne Carson of Stanford opposes the Court decision, especially since Congress, in 2006, voted to renew the act for 25 more years.

H.W. Brands of the University of Texas supports Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority decision.

Read the article here.

Why Most Americans Shouldn’t Vote

Jason Brennan teaches ethics Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting.

Today at the Princeton University Press blog, Brennan argues that most Americans should not vote because they are not competent enough to make informed decisions on behalf of the good our democratic-republic.  Here is a taste:

Imagine 12 people are serving on a jury in a murder case. The prosecution and defense present evidence and call witnesses. 

The court asks the jury to reach a verdict. They find the defendant guilty.

Suppose four of the jurors paid no attention during the trial. When asked to deliberate, they were ignorant of the details of the case. They decided more or less at random.

Suppose four of the jurors paid some attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty not on the basis of the evidence, but on wishful thinking and on bizarre conspiracy theories they happen to believe.

Suppose four of the jurors paid attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty because he is an atheist, while they are Christians. Like many Americans, the jurors trust atheists no more than they trust rapists.

In the case above, the jurors acted in a vile and despicable way. The defendant is possibly innocent. He does not consent to the outcome of the decision. The decision will be imposed upon him through violence and threats of violence. The decision could harm him, and deprive him of property, liberty, or even life. Jurors have a moral obligation to decide these kinds of cases in a competent and morally reasonable way.

This line of reasoning applies even more strongly to the electorate as a whole. Political decisions are high stakes. Most citizens are innocent. Almost none of us consent to the outcome of the election or to our government.* The outcomes—including all ensuing laws, regulations, taxes, budget expenditures, wars, and so on—are imposed upon us through violence and threats of violence. These decisions can and so harm us, and can and do deprive many of us of property, liberty, and even life. At first glance, we should think that voters, like jurors, have a moral obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable way.

However, as I document in The Ethics of Voting, the best available evidence indicates that most voters mean well, but are politically incompetent. Most are like the first eight jurors in the thought experiment above. (Most non-voting citizens are even worse.) If so, I argue, they owe it to the rest of us to abstain. Citizens have no duty to vote, but if they do vote, they must vote well, for what they justifiedly believe will promote good government.

There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.

What do you think? Read the entire piece here.