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Saturday, January 23, 2016

The case for replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote system

This post is a mix of my 2008 Wyoming Seminary Oratorical Contest-winning speech, a previous essay of mine on the issue, and a bit of fresh thoughts on the matter.
You might be under the impression that you can now one day vote for the next President and Vice President of the United States. However, the truth is that you will not be and never will be voting for these offices in your lifetime. This is despite the fact that the United States is often regarded as a leader in democratic values and a nation that strongly underscores the criticality of majority rule and the power of the people. However, ironically enough, the election of the President and Vice President of our nation is not by direct public vote. Rather, it is done through a system deemed the “Electoral College.”  It has served as our means of electing the president and vice president of the United States for over two centuries and has emerged as the subject of considerable controversy. In a presidential election, American voters pull the trigger for electors rather than actual presidential or vice presidential candidates. It is such that in the final tally what is significant is not the total number of votes a candidate received nationwide yet how many electors he or she won. Although this system has served as a major element in our democracy, it is nonetheless very undemocratic. For that, the American Electoral College system must be rescinded in favor of a national popular vote election system.
         It is critical to take into account the history and methodology of the Electoral College system. It was established by the U.S. Constitution in Article II, Section I as a system in which “each state shall appoint a number of electors equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” Typically, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, the state parties are the entities that select such electors, being chosen to account for the state’s total number of electoral votes. Given the total of 100 members of the U.S. Senate combined with 535 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and in addition to three electoral votes granted to the District of Columbia, there are a total of 538 electors or electoral votes nationwide.
 On the day of a presidential election, voters in regions throughout the nation cast their ballots for electors for their choice for president and vice president. Whichever ticket wins at least a plurality of the votes in a state, that ticket receives all the electoral votes of the state. The only existing exceptions to this winner-take-all system are Maine and Nebraska, which award their electoral votes based on results in congressional districts. Whichever ticket receives at least a 270-vote majority in the electoral count is elected President and Vice President of the United States, regardless of who won more votes nationwide. In turn, the electors representing these electoral votes of each state proceed to vote, usually in state capitals according to MSN.com, for the ticket that won the most votes in that state. However, such a procedure is of no significant value and only serves to simply validate the results of the electoral vote. While there are a sizable number of states that legally mandate electors to vote for the state’s popular vote winner, it could occur that electors in states with no such laws could potentially vote for whomever they want regardless of who won that state. In the most recent presidential election, a Democratic elector in Minnesota, a state carried by John Kerry, voted for Mr. Kerry’s vice-presidential nominee, John Edwards, for the presidency, thus decreasing Kerry’s electoral vote total from 252 to 251. Although these appropriately dubbed “faithless electors” have yet to have any substantial influence on the result of a presidential election, the possibility that they may in the near future is not entirely improbable. Another potentiality is the possibility that no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes if there are more than two competitive nominees, as occurred in 1824. All of these and other components of one of the most long-lasting establishments of our democracy reveal a rather undemocratic and frankly disingenuous manner in which we elect the leaders of our society.
         Most alarming regarding the Electoral College system is that it makes it possible that an individual could win the presidency without actually receiving more votes than the opposing candidates. Thus far, this has occurred four times in all of American history – 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. In the latter three of these instances, the winning candidate received a majority of electoral votes and lost the national popular vote. Most recently, in 2000, then-Democratic Vice President Al Gore received 540,000 more votes nationally than Republican Governor George W. Bush. Nevertheless, Bush’s narrow 271-266 advantage in the electoral vote guaranteed his election to the presidency. The fact that such a direct abdication of the very ideals that have defined what a democracy is for ages could take place on the soil of our nation is appalling. If we are to be that country where "it is the right of the people to abolish" a government not of our liking and if we are to be a country that fought against tyranny because of a lack of representation of the people, it is essential to get rid of the Electoral College. Our nation is very often described as a democracy. Democracy is defined by the Meriamm-Webster Dictionary as rule by the people. In addition, the Declaration of Independence clearly sets forth a truly magnificent idea that “governments are instituted among men.” If we are in fact a democracy in which governments are instituted among men, then we cannot allow the decision made by the people to be completely brushed aside in favor of a system that even founding father Thomas Jefferson grew skeptical of at one point. 
           According to Newsweek magazine, Jefferson himself is quoted as saying that the Electoral College is a “blot” on our Constitution. Congressman Gene Green of Texas clarifies that The Electoral College was “necessary when communications were poor, literacy was low and voters lacked information about out-of-state figures, which is clearly no longer the case.” Mr. Green’s brilliant assessment demonstrates that the Electoral College was intended for an era in which America and its population were radically different than they are today by any measure. It was perceived by many of our founding fathers that the populace was not well informed enough to have the upper hand in a presidential election. However, in the past two centuries, there has been such an incredibly sufficient surge of invaluable education, technology, and media that voters are more than capable of reaching a reasonable decision based on solid facts and assessments. The Electoral College is a system meant for the past and it entirely refutes the foundations of democracy highlighted by the Declaration of Independence that our nation always yearns to follow.
Furthermore, the “winner-take-all” system that 48 of the 50 U.S. states use in the Electoral College should be most definitely reexamined. Firstly, many argue that it obstructs the competitiveness of third party candidates. It does such by effectively obscuring them from having any truly real effect by ensuring that all the electoral votes of that state are appropriated to the winner of the state’s popular votes. For instance, in 1992, highly popular third-party candidate Ross Perot scored 19 percent of the nationwide vote and yet that historically large total is often overshadowed by his failure to win a single electoral vote, despite finishing ahead of one of the two major party candidates in a handful of states. Some point out that this in turn works to reduce voter turnout, never a positive sign for any democracy, among voters who are in strong opposition to the major party candidates and see it as pointless to vote for a third party. In fact, according to president-elect.org, since 1992, the most popular third-party candidate’s total in the popular vote has decreased in each election, indicating less and less voter support as it became clearer that the winner-take-all system was a deterrent to independent parties’ success. MSN.com points out it serves to force many of those who would vote and would otherwise support independent candidates to vote for the candidate many so aptly dub “the lesser of two evils.” 
In addition to this, there are additional significant negative aspects of the ‘winner-take-all’ concept. The most glaring of these, as many Electoral College critics point out, is that it allows for rather large sections of the United States to be largely disregarded in the general election. NationalPopularVote.com asserts candidates will probably never darken the streets of states in which they have a clear advantage or disadvantage considering that there is no gain. Thus, candidates invest in states where the outcome is rather unpredictable, meaning that the criticality of votes cast in a less politically reliable state such as Ohio and Florida are far more sought after and outwardly important than the votes cast in the heavily Democratic Massachusetts or the heavily Republican Utah. In the past three decades, the 1984, 1988, and 1996 presidential elections, highlighted by predictably huge electoral landslides and a lower number of contested states, saw an average voter turnout of roughly 50.7 percent of the voting-age population. By comparison, years in which a higher number of states were contested and the electoral map was less titled, 1976, 2000, and 2004, saw a 53.4 percent average turnout. This clearly indicates reductions in voter turnout that have been caused by the undemocratic nature of the winner take all system. NationalPopularVote.com cites that in every presidential election since 1988, roughly two thirds of the states have been highly uncontested. On the other hand, if we had a national popular vote system, critics of this method claim candidates would run to heavily populated areas like New York City and Los Angeles and shun smaller states that currently get attention. In the end though, the residents of large cities are just as much American as everyone else; we are all Americans and so our votes would all count equally in a national popular vote system with no care for swing states having more sway than others. People all across the country would feel like their vote is very valuable, much more so than now, because, as it is now, a voter in Ohio arguably has more sway in the election than a voter in reliably Democratic Vermont. In a national popular vote system though, the presidential election could literally come down to a single vote anywhere in the U.S. so all Americans' votes would be equally important.  
Finally, during the 2004 presidential campaign cycle, Michael Mugner, chairman of the political science department at Duke University, referenced that “too much rides on too few votes.” For instance, 1976, a swing of over just 5,500 votes in Ohio and just 3,687 votes in Hawaii would have propelled President Gerald Ford to victory over Jimmy Carter in the Electoral College and yet Carter would still hold a roughly 1 million-vote lead in the national popular vote. This illustrates that an alteration of a very small number of votes in an electoral prize state could determine the presidency without any significance to the vote of the general people of our land across the country. All of these signs are that the Electoral College must be rescinded. 
Ultimately, a national popular vote system would be preferable because it effectively validates the important American ideal of rule by the people, facilitates a truly nationwide campaign, and puts third parties in play. Should we not follow the will of the people in a democratic society like ours? That idea is at the heart of our dem As  one of our own founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson beautifully said, "we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." 



Sunday, January 3, 2016

2015: Year in Review!

Best Political Moments of 2015

1. THE PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT is announced.
There were doubters and there were skeptics but, even while the deal announced was insufficient, it's a step forward, all "thanks to American leadership," to quote the president who led the effort, in keeping this world a safe, clean, and inhabitable place. There will be difficulty in enacting this agreement and there will be a lack of political will in many parts of the world. However, capping carbon emissions, going after polluters, and ensuring strong and solid regulations for the benefit of air, land, and water will take continued activism and pressure. There should be optimism though that that will be the case because it is precisely that -- political pressure from activists -- that led to the agreement in the first place. 

2. THE SUPREME COURT upholds the federal subsidies in the Affordable Care Act.
It's not just abstract: millions of Americans are better off because of this decision. The right-wing Roberts Court has made plenty of awful choices, mostly to the detriment of the marginalized, but this one assured stronger peace of mind for families struggling to make ends meet. I was privileged to be able to be present at the steps of the Court when the decision was announced and jubilation ensued. And why not? There is greater economic security and healthier bodies now for millions and millions of individuals who, without the protections and benefits of Obamacare, would be languishing in the pre-ACA Wild Wild West of health insurance (unregulated, unsubsidized, and inaccessible for the vast majority of the public). 

3. THE IRAN DEAL is enacted.
For over a decade, the international community struggled to reach a consensus based on diplomatic negotiations to curtail Iran's nuclear program, widely suspected of being the first step to a weapon. Strong-willed diplomats, a mutual showing of respect from the U.S. and Iran after decades of strained relations, and economic pressures -- as well as the loud voice of the Iranian people, clamoring for change -- made it happen. The deal makes war less likely, prevents an Iranian nuke, and empowers more moderate forces within Iran. There's no greater evidence of this than in the fact that Iran has already abided by many elements of this deal, including the reductions of centrifuges and the shipping out of 25,000 pounds of uranium, and that the U.S. has followed through with some cooperation with Iran on fighting ISIS and resolving the situation in Syria. This won't be easy. Iran's regime is still routinely repulsive, as seen in its treatment of dissidents, some of its onerous economic policies, and its support of unsavory actors on the world stage, like Bashar Assad and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Iran's economic isolation from the rest of the world before this deal did nobody any favors. The Iranian people realized this, elected President Rouhani, and, thus, changed the course of history. With their help, in February's parliamentary elections, the world can continue to move in a better direction.

4. THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION on criminal justice reform and #BlackLivesMatter changes the political culture and policy.
Were it not for the protestors and activists who spoke up and demanded change in the wake of Freddie Gray's the death and in the wake of the video footage out of Chicago recently, we wouldn't be having the political and policy conversations we're having in this country about issues of mass incarceration and the inequities of our criminal justice system. These debates fueled criminal justice reform bills' progress in House and Senate committees, spurred trials for police officers, dramatically changed public opinion, as evidenced in polling, regarding the plight of black Americans, and led Democratic presidential candidates to meet with #BLM activists. It's not all rosy at all for these individuals. There's ample evidence for that (look no further than the lack of charges in the Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice cases) but it's hard to deny that protests are making a difference.

5. MARRIAGE EQUALITY becomes the law of the land in all 50 U.S. states.
A decade ago, as I wrote extensively in an essay for a public opinion course (as published on here), same-sex marriage was viewed, in the eyes of most Americans, as an abhorrent concept. Today, over 60 percent of the public agrees with marriage equality: the fastest, most radical shift in public opinion on any policy issue in recent memory. As much as the Supreme Court likes to claim they don't follow public opinion, it's difficult to imagine that the Court would've ruled the way it did on marriage were it not for the public support in the country. In making that call, the Court not only ruled in favor of the public but they also ruled in favor of an extension and expansion of equal rights, consistent with our history of continually broadening our liberties and protections to live up to our promise of equal justice and treatment. Consequently, the U.S. stands out in the world as one of the few nations to have nationwide marriage equality.

Honorable Mention: President Obama, defying GOP governors and Republican presidential candidates and the majority of the American public, stands firm in defending his administration's acceptance of thousands of Syrian refugees into the U.S. 

Best Policy Ideas or Actions of 2015

1. TUITION-FREE or DEBT-FREE or TWO YEARS of FREE COLLEGE
A college degree is increasingly vital for obtaining and keeping a high-paying job in the U.S. Unfortunately, the price of this degree is far too high in the wealthiest nation on Earth. It would actually cost the U.S. federal government less money to make college tuition-free than it would for them to continue their system of various subsidies for higher education. Further, making college tuition-free reaps numerous benefits down the line, including more Americans with jobs, less welfare spending, less spending on prisons, and a more educated, productive, and tax-paying populace. It's an investment that is very worthwhile which is why it merits the #1 spot here and why it's been proposed, in various forms, by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden (tuition-free for four years), Hillary Clinton (debt-free), and Barack Obama (two years of free community college). 

2. LIFTING THE BURDENS OF FLAWED STANDARDIZED TESTING 
The flawed standardized tests that have long dominated our public education system have never been a true measure or reflection of students' intelligence nor have they ever been a fair or just way to evaluate teachers and schools. These tests also prioritized reading and math, pursuant to the requirements of No Child Left Behind, to the detriment of other important subjects like history and art. That's why it was welcomed news when the Obama administration announced in October that they would be stepping away from years of policies of heavily promoting and encouraging such testing. They made good on their promise when President Obama signed into law a large-scale federal education bill that got rid of core elements of NCLB and returned a great degree of power back to the states and local educational institutions that know best how to teach their students. 

3. CHANGING THE WAY COUNTRIES ARE CLASSIFIED 
In the GW Roosevelt Institute's Omnibus publication, Erin Agnew argued for a dramatic reform in the manner in which countries are classified in the United Nations. Instead of the current standard that marks nations as "developed" or "developing," Erin proposed using the Human Development Index (HDI), among other vital metrics, to categorize nations. That way, nations' relative economic success, social equality, and other factors, that take into consideration countries' living standards and rates of poverty, would be considered more strongly. The most compelling reasons for this change are reflected in Erin's accounting of what is happening in the world today. Countries like China are taking advantage of their status as "developed nations" to avoid obligations on climate change whereas nations like Russia claim to be developing nations to skirt responsibilities on helping the homeless. Given this status quo, a change like the one Erin is seeking is much needed.

4. ENDING THE NSA MASS SURVEILLANCE METADATA PROGRAM 
As a consequence of the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Congress and the President finally agreed to end the metadata mass collection program the National Security Agency administered in the Bush and Obama administrations. The USA Freedom Act, now a point of contention in the GOP presidential primary, passed by large, bipartisan margins in both houses of Congress -- a legislature controlled by Republicans who, for years, swore they'd never curtail national security powers in the name of civil liberties. But Mr. Snowden made this possible because he shed light on the needlessly aggressive surveillance policies of the agency. President Obama initially, and enthusiastically, defended the NSA's policies, ones he continued without any meaningful reforms after taking office in 2009 despite promises to the contrary in the summer of 2008. Even Obama though, after his presidentially-appointed panel (stacked with national security veterans) backed changes that included an end to the metadata program, changed course and endorsed what became the USA Freedom Act. Consequently, a program that never stopped any terrorist attacks (as Obama's own panel told us), violated Americans' civil liberties, and made it more difficult to catch terrorists (because of the vast volume of information collected) has ended.

5. CLASSIFYING GUN SHOWS AND INTERNET SALES as entities "in the business" of selling firearms. 
There's a massive social and public health dilemma in the U.S.: the "epidemic of gun violence," to quote the President. There's a disparity between the severity of this issue -- mass shooting after mass shooting, more Americans dead thanks to gun violence than all of the U.S. casualties in all American wars combined -- and federal legislative action on it. That is to say there is no congressional action on gun violence. Nevertheless, even after President Obama issued 23 executive actions on gun violence in January 2013, there is still more the executive branch can do on their own. This proposal, put forward by Hillary Clinton in her campaign platform, is an example of such. It appears Obama will follow through on this proposal in an executive regulation of his own. It is much needed because background checks are proven to be the most likely policy to actually work in curtailing gun violence as it will keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted criminals. 

Honorable Mention: The proposals put forward by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley to protect undocumented immigrants further than the deportation relief measures promulgated under President Obama 

Best Movies I Saw in 2015

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
Action-packed, suspenseful, straightforward, and entertaining, the latest Star Wars installment, on track to be the highest-grossing movie of all time, lived up to the hype, in no small part thanks to the valiant return of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher reprising their terrific roles in this fantastic blockbuster.

2. The Big Short
A few years ago, my friend Justin Santopietro lamented that financial reform and economics were not "sexy" for young people to understand, grasp, and care about passionately. Regardless of one's thoughts on this assessment, this film is a great stab at making these issues sufficiently sexy. Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, Brad Pitt, and even Anthony Bourdain assist in this amusing, but deeply serious, endeavor. Through it all, superb acting and a compelling story most viewers may be unaware of make this movie a must-see.

3. Trumbo
Almost anything starring Bryan Cranston is virtually guaranteed to be a surefire hit and Trumbo, in which Cranston characteristically delivers as the blacklisted Hollywood director, the namesake of this Golden Globe-nominated film, is no exception. Beneath Cranston's masterful depiction of Dalton Trumbo is a salient and moving political and social commentary, regarding censorship in a republic, that is well worth seeing.

4. Steve Jobs
Aaron Sorkin's TV and movie productions are typically splashy so it comes as no surprise that Steve Jobs is entertaining if only for the cinematography. That's not the only reason why this movie, in which Michael Fassbender offers a wonderful performance as the film's namesake, is solid. The pace, flow, and rhythm of the movie stand out. Indeed, it weaves together the personal and professional sides of Jobs and how they merge into a single and continuous narrative that charts the trajectory of his career alongside the tumult of his relationship with his daughter. The manner in which this is all executed, courtesy Sorkin's brilliant storytelling as a director, make this a much better movie than the 2013 Jobs.

5. Grandma
Put simply, it's short and sweet. Oh, and it stars the magnificent Lily Tomlin, who never fails to be uproarious. She's a riot in this feminist comedy in which she helps her daughter pay for an abortion for an unintended pregnancy. Beyond that, Marcia Gay Harden is extremely good in her role as a hard-nosed, fast-paced, workaholic mom. For a strong, pro-women's rights message, combined with very good acting and unending laughter, check this out.

Honorable Mention: The Overnight 

Best TV I Watched in 2015

1. Breaking Bad
Ok, so, this TV show did not air in 2015 but I did not watch the vast majority of it until 2015 and I have one word: wow. 

2. Bloodline
Kyle Chandler plays a very Kyle Chandler role as a responsible, careful leader of his family in this Netflix original focusing in on the troubles behind the seemingly perfect, ostensibly values-driven fictional Rayburn family. That performance, as well as the unique fashion in which the show initially reveals the series' end and shows you how the characters get there, make this a gem.

3. Veep 
This hilarious sitcom, still the most accurate portrayal of D.C. politics in modern pop culture history, rightfully swept the Emmys this year because it is just so freaking good. Reliably funny, consistently sharp, and buoyed by charmingly great acting in Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Hugh Laurie in this season made this show a wonderful hit.  

4. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert 
Stephen Colbert proved a worthy successor to the legendary David Letterman because he showed how he could utilize his immense comedic talent, famously quick wit, and exceptional interviewing (look no further than the Joe Biden interview) skills into a masterful late-night show. He's owned his new role as a paragon of sophisticated, but sufficiently silly, network late-night banter. As such, he's already made his mark on TV history as himself and not just as a Comedy Central character (though we do miss "Stephen Colbert.")

5. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah & the last episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart's last several episodes at the helm of The Daily Show were among his best, especially his mockery of Donald Trump. Speaking of which, Trevor Noah, in comparing Trump to a lavishly dressed and supremely wealthy African general president who boasts of his greatness, developed his bearings in his first few episodes as Stewart's successor. All in all, they proved how TDS is, to paraphrase Stewart-era alum and Last Week Tonight host, the best political satire there ever was. 

Honorable Mention: The Republican presidential debates starring Donald J. Trump 

Best Essays and Articles I Read in 2015

1. David Letterman, Revolutionary Curmudgeon (The New Yorker)

2. Inside the Iran Talks (The New Yorker) 

3. For the Wealthiest, a Private Tax System That Saves Them Billions (The New York Times) 

4. The Sanders-Clinton Spat Over Middle-Class Taxes Is About A Lot More Than Money (The Huffington Post) 

5. Campaign Promises Matter (Vox) 

Honorable Mention: How Washington Derailed Amtrak (National Journal)

Best Books I Read in 2015

1. The Oath 
Though the book was not written or published in 2015, the Jeffrey Toobin bestseller was especially relevant in this hugely consequential year for the Obama White House at the Roberts Court. I spent a good portion of this summer reading the book and it was well worth it for the sake of understanding the history behind this court and how its decision are shaped. The justices' biographical background, the multilayered legal analysis, and the sharp insights -- woven together nicely by Toobin's excellent writing -- contained here make for compelling reading.

2. Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers 
For decades, Fred Rogers was a public television staple, hero to millions of children, and a widely renowned minister with a penchant for cardigans. Many Americans though were not fully familiar with his role in our public discourse as a pacifist, specifically. Michael G. Long uncovers, examines, and analyzes messages in promotion of a peaceful world and against war that were both sprinkled throughout Mister Rogers' shows and in his other work. The book is another reaffirmation of Mister Rogers' positive cultural legacy. 

3. A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety 
I was lucky enough to meet former President Jimmy Carter at the famous Politics and Prose Bookstore when I met him for the book-signing of this autobiography in July. He was as elated and exuberant as ever even through his old age and physical frailty. That's vintage Carter, the kind that shines through in this recollection of stories from his life. It is as charming and fascinating as ever though filled with tales of how he knew Rosslyn was the one he'd marry when he met her, how he sent the UAW leader to negotiate with China on behalf of the administration, and a hilarious detail regarding an impromptu CIA agent thought that saved a mission. 

4. Tort Law 
Yeah, it's a law school textbook but so what? It was a comprehensive account of consequential tort cases that explained their significance in an interesting and surprisingly fascinating way that actually made you want to turn the page. The political commentary included in here about the unfortunate nature of the right-wing push for tort reform made me realize I had a good book in my hands. 

5. Criminal Law  
The same goes for above, except for criminal cases...and, also, it added some nice social commentary about criminal justice reform. 

Honorable Mention: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush