Sunday, June 30, 2013
Keeping after the goal of voting rights for all
After writing my previous post about the question of voting rights, my first idea was to promote an end to the gerrymandering that has given the conservative and reactionary and utterly unrealistic GOP a lock on the House of Representatives, as well as on many state legislatures. In fact, nothing tangible can be done about that problem until the next census in 2020. Meanwhile there is something that could be done. It would be difficult but practicable. It doesn't depend on waiting for another census. It does require cooperation with Congress.
My idea is very simple: enlarge the Supreme Court. The Court has not always had nine members. The size of the Court is not specified in the Constitution. What Obama needs to do is to enlarge the court to eleven members and appoint two new members. We would then have a Court with a 6 to 5 majority of liberals. Then Congress could pass laws similar in intent to the laws the present Court has thrown out and the new liberal majority would uphold them.
OK, so I''m dreaming. I'm still in pretty good shape for all my ninety years. I want to live to see some of the damage done by the Roberts Court repaired and corrected. Pray for me.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
The Voting Rights Act
As a practical matter, the Supreme Court has made this historic law history. The Court has expressed disdain for considering race prejudice as a remedy for gerrymandered voting districts or effectively discriminatory practices in deciding which students are allowed to enroll in prestigious law schools. What is to be done?
Well, one thing is to go after the practice of gerrymandering. This is a way of guaranteeing that a minority party will elect a majority of members to a state or national legislature. The way this is done is to place as many as possible of the majority party voters in a few districts, so that those few districts have overwhelming majorities of majority party voters. Then the minority party voters will be distributed in the other districts so that those districts will nearly always elect members of the minority party.
Right now we can replace "majority party members" with "Democrats" and "minority party members" with "Republicans." The Democrats outvoted the Republicans in the 2012 election. Because of the way districts had been gerrymandered in most states, the Republicans still managed to elect more members to the House of Representatives. It happened that in the year that the districts were redrawn (2011) the Republicans controlled the legislatures in many states. These legislatures drew the district lines to favor Republicans. Republican governors in the states signed the gerrymandered districts into law. The district boundaries will not be revised until after the next census in 2020 unless a convincing case can be brought before federal courts to disallow the gerrymandered districts and have the district boundaries drawn fairly. Getting rid of gerrymandered districts would help minorities who happen to belong to the Democratic Party or prefer to vote for Democrats achieve better representation in Congress and in state legislatures. This change would accomplish much of what the voting rights act was supposed to accomplish without anyone having to say squat about race discrimination.
Saturday, June 22, 2013
Border Security First, then a Path to Citizenship
There is a serious proposal in Congress to build a high fence along the border from Texas to California. The fence will keep wildlife (except birds) from crossing the border and will, therefore, have a bad effect on the critters that now are able to forage on both sides of the border for food and water. It won't stop the flow of humans. Humans are clever enough to find ways around and through the fence.
The people who are making these proposals aren't stupid. They know the limitations of fences and border agents in keeping people out. But, don't forget an ancient maxim of politics: It isn't truth that matters, but rather what people believe. The voting public, or at least some voters, believe that it is possible to close off all "illegal" immigration. A few of them believe that it is possible to locate all of the six million or so persons who are living here without papers and send them all back south across the border into Mexico. These are the voters who must be placated before anything serious and practical can be done about the six million.
Hence, Congress will appropriate money for a fence and for thousands and thousands of additional border guards. There will be stories in the news about capturing and returning hordes of migrants. The rate of sneaking in will diminish to a trickle. Then Congress will be free to enact legislation to allow the six million to pay fines for sneaking in - or staying in after their visitor visas have expired - and applying for permanent residence permits, green cards, and, ultimately, citizenship.
Of course there will be a few die-hards who will never agree to the idea of allowing the six million to stay regardless of border security. The die-hards will insist on rounding up every one of the six million and marching him across the border. The fact that not all of the six million came from Mexico won't matter. They have brown skins and speak a different language.
The die-hards will eventually be overwhelmed by the more sensible ones.
I'm optimistic this morning.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
The Power of Terror
First, I wonder why it is news. There were reports many years ago about the "secretive" NSA and how it was intercepting telephone calls, e-mail messages, and other types of electronic communication. Why is it that the same information today becomes such an important news item? There's nothing really new in the information presented in the newspapers and other news sources. One proposed explanation is that we knew that the NSA under the Bush Administration was collecting intercepted communications. We thought naively that the practice had stopped after Obama took office. Not so! The scope of the snooping and the amount of information collected and stored has increased under Obama.
Second, I marvel at the thought that all the information collected will ever be analyzed. It's something like studying beach erosion by conducting a detailed study of every individual grain of sand on the beach. There aren't enough analyzers to do the job.
In a way, the sheer volume of information collected is comforting. The NSA may have copies of all of my e-mails in which CC's or BCC's were sent to individuals or addresses in other countries. The organization has as much information as the beach has grains of sand. There's small chance that my e-mails will ever be looked at.
My third reaction is that I am troubled that the public is not bothered by this large-scale snooping. It can be argued that the NSA has intruded on our privacy in a way that we are helpless to defend against. If the public is willing to put up with what the NSA is now doing, how long before a President wants more information and the NSA begins tapping phone lines of specific individuals, such as political opponents, all in the interest of security against acts of terror? After all, the political defeat of a President can be called an act of terror by his most ardent supporters.
And that is my point. All of this data collecting, legal or illegal, is justified as a means of thwarting terrorists. The public is terrified of terrorists, and as long as that condition exists, any Administration is justified in pursuing the most intrusive and intimate snooping on potential terrorists. We are on the road of replicating the extensive spying and snooping carried out by the "Stasi" of the Peoples' Republic of (East) Germany. In that country, everyone was encouraged to spy on everyone else. The slope of our progress in this direction may be gentle but it is greased with the public fear of terror. According to one poll, 69 percent of us are willing to give up privacy and a bunch of other civil liberties so that we can be "secure" and safe from terror.
How can we stop ourselves from slipping into a copy of East Germany? I think we must attack the basis of our fear: terror itself. Why do we fear terror? An act of terror is almost always a crime. Terrorists are criminals, like muggers and bank robbers. We laugh at the suggestion that we should give up the Bill of Rights to combat muggers and other criminals. Why are terrorists different? This is the question that must be debated in public, so that the public can achieve a balanced and thoughtful opinion about extensive and secret collection of data about our communications with each other. Who is the public figure who can start such a debate and public discussion? First, our President. He is precluded from seeking reelection to a third term, so he is politically immune from the pressure of seeking reelection. Second, a former President. Bill Clinton would be an excellent leader of such a debate. He is a capable speaker and knows how to explain things to just ordinary folks. Third, a former Presidential Candidate. I'm thinking of Bob Dole. He's a Republican and his words would be more persuasive with Republicans than those of Democrats Obama or Clinton.
Monday, June 03, 2013
What's Wrong with our Democracy?
Being retired and not having much of anything important to do, I spend a lot of time watching television. I'm fond of three PBS stations here in Woodland Hills: Channels 28, 50, and 58. I do not subscribe to a cable service but use a roof antenna to receive the signals from television transmitters in the area. Each channel has four "sub-channels" and from each station I have the choice of four different programs. Sometimes the same program will be aired at different times on different sub-channels.
Not long ago I watched an inspirational program about citizenship. In particular, it was about immigrants who become citizens and what they are taught about our government. New citizens are taught that ours is a representative government, a republic of elected representatives and an elected president, and that they, as voting citizens, can choose who represents them and who is the national leader.
After a while this idealistic picture turns sour. At present we have in our national legislature two bodies, a House of Representatives and a Senate and neither one of them represents the majority of voters at the last election. In the election last year, more voters chose Democrats than Republicans. The person elected as President was a Democrat. A majority of the Representatives elected were Republicans. The Senate is not designed to represent the entire population but rather the voters in each separate State, regardless of the State's population. Thus, as few as ten percent of the voters can elect a majority of the Senators.
The problem with the Senate is fixed in our constitution and can't be changed except by a unanimous vote of all fifty States. The problem with the House is that the boundaries of the various election districts have been adjusted by various State legislatures so that a majority of the districts are designed to favor Republicans. This arrangement can be done by creating Republican-leaning districts with a bare majority of Republican voters (e.g., 55 percent Republican) and Democratic districts with great majorities of Democratic voters (e.g., 85 to 90 percent Democratic). This process is called "gerrymandering," after a politician who introduced the practice.
It is almost an accident that the President was chosen by a majority of the voters, because that's not the way the system works or is designed to work. The President is not chosen by a majority of the voters. The President is chosen by electors. Each State chooses at least three electors (e.g., Vermont, Montana, Alaska) or as many as 55 (California) depending on the total number of Representatives and Senators from that State. We have had Presidents that were not the choice of the majority of voters. A recent one was George W. Bush. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was also not chosen by a majority of voters in 1992, although he out-polled each of his two rivals, George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot.
The founding fathers - the name given to the rather elite group that met in convention an 1787 and drew up the federal constitution - wanted to create a system of government in which the king (e.g., George III or Henry VIII) would be replaced by an elected official. They'd had more than a century of experience with elected legislatures and they knew that the voting public often made really bad choices. They didn't want to try to have Presidents elected by direct popular vote. Instead they set up a system of indirect election in which each State would select electors, one for each Senator an each Representative from the State. The States could (and still can) choose electors any way they want. The electors in each State then meet some time between the election in November and a date in December to choose candidates for President and Vice President. The electoral votes for these candidates are then sent to the House (in the case of Presidential votes) and to the Senate (in the case of Vice-Presidential votes). The respective chambers of the federal legislature then chose the President and the Vice President from the candidates selected by the various electoral colleges. If one candidate had a majority of the electoral votes, he or she would be declared the winner and the new President or Vice-President. If not, the winner would be selected in the respective chamber by a voting method that gave each State equal weight. In the Senate, each State had two Senators, so the matter there would be settled by a majority of the Senators. In the House, each State's delegation would caucus and choose a candidate. The State's delegation would cast the one vote for that State.
Sounds pretty complicated, doesn't it? That's how far the founding fathers would go to avoid a simple direct election of the President. They didn't intend to establish a democracy. They intended to establish a republic. They didn't care that the republic might not represent the will of the majority of the citizens. They wanted something that would work as well as the government of Henry VIII but without the absolute power of Henry himself, who was given occasionally to having a political opponent beheaded.
At any rate, the electoral college system never worked as intended except in the election of 1828, when no candidate had a majority of votes for President. The House chose Andrew Jackson to be the President. In other cases (except one) the electoral college produced a simple majority vote for one candidate. In 1876 some States sent two sets of electoral votes to Washington. Rather than simply voting on who should be President the House chose an "impartial" commission to decide which set of votes was legitimate. Among the undisputed votes, the Democrat Bill Tilden was one vote away from a majority of the electoral votes. However, the impartial commission set about to elect the Republican Hayes and to that end chose only the Hayes votes among the disputed electoral votes.
I have seen copies of typical tests given to new citizens. None of them involve disputed elections or gerrymandering. None of them involved the power of large amounts of money to influence the election of a Representative or Senator. Even so, our new citizens are better informed than most voters. Gerrymandering works because voters tend to stick with their party of choice regardless of the policies of that party. If voters were really thoughtful and independent, the shape of district lines wouldn't matter.
So, to answer the question of the title of this post, the thing that's wrong is that the American People pay too little attention to politics and care too little about national policies. They have a congressman that they like in spite of some of the things that he or she does and they keep electing the congressman. Michelle Bachman sounds like a complete idiot to me, but she must be very popular among the people in the district she represents. Perhaps she keeps them entertained.