Tuesday Talks: Electoral Reform

Tuesday Talks will be an ongoing series of discussions among the contributors to Greater Scheme. We will discuss of variety of issues, mainly political, but we will discuss other topics as we see fit.

JOHN: All right, let’s talk about electoral reform. There are a number of factors that determine how the current electoral system in the United States operates, and Patrick and I will discuss those factors and address potential solutions with the hope of promoting and protecting democratic values. Patrick, would you like to start with some issues you’re seeing with the current system?

PATRICK: Absolutely! Thank you for discussing this vitally important topic with me. I think one of the biggest problems with our current electoral system is that it is a pretty firmly entrenched two-party system. It results in similar candidates, lack of meaningful choice, and allows parties to put forward increasingly unpopular candidates – this has culminated this year in the major parties presenting the two most disfavored candidates in any contemporary American presidential election.

Outdated voting machines and a complicated registration process are also cause for concern.

JOHN: What I find interesting about this argument is that the two-party system is nothing new. The current two-party system dates back to the 1850s when the Republican Party was formed. And we’ve had some solid presidents and statesmen come our way since then. Abraham Lincoln was part of that system as was Teddy Roosevelt and FDR. I think the problem with the current two-party system is its relationship with campaign finance. The Koch Brothers, of course, don’t fund Libertarian candidates because they don’t win. They spend most of their campaign funds on Republican candidates. As a result, the Republicans get most of the money. The Democrats have their fair share of corporations and special interests that fund them. Don’t get me wrong.

People’s discontent toward government has grown because the politics is getting more polarized. That wouldn’t have happened if Newt Gingrich didn’t have 24-7 news as his soapbox so that he could speak out against Bill Clinton and his policies. Polarization wouldn’t have happened if Fox News didn’t become the conservative network, if MSNBC didn’t become the liberal network, if CNN didn’t become the establishment Democrat network. People get to customize their news, and the news customizes itself to boost its ratings. That’s a very tricky problem that doesn’t have a clear governmental solution. Requiring certain news to be more neutral or punishing news corporations for not being truthful is very dangerous if we want to preserve the First Amendment. How does one define neutrality? How does one define truth? The truth is that it is somewhere in between, and we need to change as a culture, think critically, and move toward a society that is open to cognitive dissonance.

And sure there is bipartisan corruption, but I think instead of the parties being opponents, they have become even more like enemies. And it’s trickled down to regular people.

PATRICK: I agree! It is very interesting how two parties that in the grand scheme of things aren’t that different ideologically, have become almost childish in their relations with the other party, often refusing to compromise and saying pretty awful things about members on the other side.

Americans have been quick to follow the example they set, and we seem to enjoy demonizing our neighbors who belong to the other party.

JOHN: I think a big thing we’ve seen is that lately the Republicans have been the ones that are better at sticking to their guns than Democrats. The Democrats will generally support something in name only, but often won’t get to do much about it. And of course, who will support a party who tries to emulate the center-right in the name of ending gridlock when that gridlock never actually ends?! The Republican Party currently thrives on gridlock because ideologically it supports their ends. The government can’t grow if new laws aren’t passed. And it’s very hard politically to repeal laws once they have come into effect. So, they stick to gridlock because they are trying to prove that government doesn’t work and that we should have less of it. It’s a fairly brilliant strategy because, along with gerrymandering, the Republicans continue to control both houses of Congress. It’s an awful strategy because disapproval of Congress is even worse than that of cockroaches, and people have begun disliking the two parties even more.

And yet, approval of individual candidates is stronger. People like their House Rep or Senator because they bring funds into their home states. It’s sort of like rooting for the Bears if you’re from Chicago but disapproving of the NFL for all the concussions. The Bears are part of a system of constant concussions that the NFL won’t acknowledge. Politically, the system is more corrupt, because individual politicians try to do the right thing, but the system is stacked against them (money, egos, etc.)

PATRICK: I think new restrictions of pork barrel spending are going to gradually reduce the popularity of individual lawmakers and Congress over all while making gridlock even worse, but your Chicago Bears analogy is apt. Some people will support whoever represents their hometown. Without pork we’ll see less quid pro quo compromise. And I think we are already starting to see that.

JOHN: That’s an excellent point. I believe Lincoln was the one who realized that pork was necessary to get anything done. And it’s easier to advocate for more spending in your state if you’re a longtime incumbent.

And there’s an argument that we need term limits, but then there’s the issue of having constantly inexperienced people coming into the system and then leaving without making much of an impact. I think a big issue with these Congressional terms is that they are too short. Two years is not enough time to get anything done in the House of Representatives. You cajole people into giving you campaign funds to get elected, and then a year later you’re already campaigning again. There’s no time to actually do your job. I realize that the Founders wanted that turnover for the sake of common people having a say more often, but it doesn’t take into account the rising costs of campaigns. If we wanted to fix that, four-year or even six-year terms would be better. We want our leaders to focus long term, not on the current election cycle.

PATRICK: I think you’re on to something. If you listen to former congressmen talk about the fundraising aspect of their job they all absolutely detested how much time they spent doing it. A lot of them came in wanting to make a difference, only to find themselves spending huge chunks of time on the phone asking for money from people they really didn’t know.

JOHN: But I wanted to jump back to that polarization conversation. The polarization and gridlock in Congress makes people leave their respective political parties and become independents. Often, the people left behind are even less sane, the groupthink gets groupier, and the gridlock gets worse. And now you have all these independents who don’t have a say in who gets to be the Democratic or Republican nominee. If independents actually got to vote in these primaries, I think Bernie Sanders would have squeaked by and John Kasich might have actually had a fighting chance.

PATRICK: Maybe. The primaries aren’t very democratic. They put independent-minded populists like Bernie Sanders at a disadvantage. Trump falls in that category too. In Louisiana, he got more votes than Ted Cruz, but fewer delegates!! The deck was stacked against him, but amazingly he still won.

JOHN: I think a big thing with that GOP primary was that all these billionaires could buy their own presidential candidates. The dumbest thing for the GOP to do was allow 17 candidates to run. At least in hindsight. They had no idea Trump could actually come into the scene and win. If they had known what was going to happen, the GOP could’ve sat down with potential candidates and try to talk them out of running for president by offering them support for a different position instead. I don’t know if their efforts in that case would have been fruitful, but having that many candidates fractured the voice of whatever sanity was left in the party.

And sure, Trump had the cards stacked against him in a way. The GOP traditionally picks the tried-and-true establishment candidate. But all Trump had to do was win the plurality of the votes in many states and take all of those states’ delegates! 60% of the voters in a state could have voted against him and yet he is 100% the Republican nominee today.

PATRICK: That’s a good point. The “moderate” Republican vote was pulled every which-way during the primary.

JOHN: Maybe preferential voting could have helped, but that might just encourage more people to run. I’m a special ed teacher, and I don’t think people need that risk of candidate ADHD in their lives.

PATRICK: I hear that argument invoked sometimes when I bring up how terrible the two-party system is, which plagues not only the presidency, but Congress as well. Perhaps its effect on Congress is even more damaging. Congress is not representative of the electorate.

JOHN: Of course it’s not. Only a third of registered voters even bother to show up for midterm elections.

PATRICK: When they do, they are often presented with just 1-2 choices for a given office. And those choices are often not a great match for the voter.

JOHN: I know some countries mandate voting with the penalty of a fine so that the leaders are representative of the electorate. I believe Australia is one of these countries. I’m concerned that many politically inactive would just vote randomly and not take the process seriously. What do you think?

PATRICK: I agree. I don’t think voting should ever be mandatory. Not only do you risk random voting but I think not voting makes a statement too. I support a really right not to vote, ha ha ha. I do favor a parliamentary/proportional representation system for our Congress. But participation in that process shouldn’t be compulsory.

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Image 1.

JOHN: If we really want to increase turnout, I think it would be smarter to stop making voting access worse. Often, polling places are put in an area that poor people can’t access because they can’t drive to the location. We also really need to hammer home the fact that people can send an absentee ballot. But the sad thing is that a lot of people don’t vote because they don’t think the candidates are any different or because their vote doesn’t count. Well, maybe if we got these people together (which is often the majority of voters!) and we said to them, “Take a look around you. These people stayed home just like you because they thought their vote wouldn’t count. If all of you voted, your vote would count. Big time.” (Image 1).

PATRICK: A proportional representation system would increase the differences in the views and backgrounds of candidates. I think it would do a lot to stifle the view that all politicians are the same. A belief that a vote doesn’t matter isn’t helped by undemocratic primaries. A lot of people feel that way because of the Electoral College too. But I see the utility in the electoral college (making sure a candidate is popular across a wide geographic range).

JOHN: I mean, the number of swing states seems to have gotten smaller historically. So, in theory, it would be easier for presidential candidates to only have to campaign in those states. But then they pander to those states only, and campaigns still get more expensive.

I know voting equipment was an issue for you. What are some issues you’re seeing there, and what should we do to address them?

PATRICK: For starters, some polling locations are still equipped with machines from the 1970s. At least some of these machines will lose its record of all the votes cast if its battery depletes. This is unacceptable. If there is one thing most people would agree is worth investing in, it would probably be safeguarding our democracy by ensuring our votes are counted.

And it’s not just equipment! Purging someone from the rolls because they haven’t voted in X years is ridiculous. A lot of New Yorkers ended up unable to vote in this primary after discovering on election day they had been purged in this way.

JOHN: It’s important to keep our equipment updated. Nothing lasts forever. I’m not sure I’ve heard of the equipment being as old as the 1970s. I don’t think they had touchscreen machines and Scantron machines back then. I have heard of equipment that hasn’t been updated in 10 years, which makes sense, because there was a huge exodus from punch cards toward electronic equipment. And then we just stopped bothering to keep them up.

I made sure to check online to see if my dad or I had been removed from the polls. We weren’t, but it’s important that people know these online resources exist!
PATRICK: I think I saw machines from the 1970s on an episode of the Daily Show this year. I’ll look up the video later tonight, I think it’s on youtube!
JOHN: I think John Oliver brought that up as well. Maybe, maybe not.
PATRICK: A lot of people are totally unaware of online resources to expedite voting. And even I’m not sure how absentee ballots work. I’ve changed my address with the election board each time I’ve moved, even if the move was just for school.
JOHN: I’ve used absentee ballots on numerous occasions. I’ve kept my address the same as that of my parents even though I don’t live with them for work reasons. It’s because I enjoy voting in the village elections in Skaneateles. I’ll probably change it to Binghamton in a few years though. But absentee ballots are fairly straightforward. I just went online, looked at the due dates for when everything had to be sent and received, filled out the form, and sent it to the Onondaga County Board of Elections.
PATRICK: Painted Post elections aren’t very exciting. Our mayoral elections are often uncontested. My father ran in 2006, and was the first Democrat to seek that office since the 1940s. Most things are pre-destined here.
JOHN: Oh, before we forget… There is a huge, huge issue that we need to talk about… And that is voter ID laws.

PATRICK: Ah, yes. There is no real need for them. But they are great at keeping poor people of color away from the polls. “Voter fraud” the reason given for their existence by their proponents, almost never happens. Almost no cases of double voting whatsoever.

JOHN: It’s very obvious that they are discriminatory. I think it was a majority leader from Pennsylvania’s state legislature that said that they were solidifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for the GOP presidential candidate. Awful. In reality, that would have only swung it 1% in favor of Romney in 2012, but that is still WAY bigger than the 0.0001% or whatever votes that are fraudulent.
PATRICK: Yes!!
JOHN: And I’m reading about Alabama which is closing down DMV offices in mostly counties that are majority black and that voted for Obama. If you really want to crack down on fraud, that’s one thing, but it’s very obvious that you are manipulating whatever Democratic votes are left in Alabama instead of actually cracking down on voting fraud.
PATRICK: That’s sickening.
JOHN: Fact check — Those DMV closures in Alabama happened in 2015, and the state reopened them. But it’s still horrendous.
PATRICK: Agreed.
JOHN: Clear violation of the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
PATRICK: Gerrymandering though is often racial. Racial barriers are everywhere.
JOHN: North Carolina has realized that. They’ve gerrymandered a district such that it has a significantly African-American electorate and as a result an African-American representative. But then the rest of the state’s representatives are disproportionately Republican even as the state has gotten more purple. That’s because the Republican state legislature realized that they could pack a ton of Democratic voters into that district and not have to worry much about them elsewhere.
Anyway, I think we should wrap up this discussion. I’m getting sleepy! Any final thoughts?
PATRICK: The two-party system is awful, especially for our picking our representatives in the legislative branch. We need to make voting easier, but not compulsory. The decline of pork barrel spending means an increase in gridlock in Congress. Finally, voter ID laws are terrible, and their proponents have a pretty obvious ulterior motive.
JOHN: And there you have it! Our first Tuesday Talk has come to a close. We’ll see you next week, folks!
PATRICK: Thanks for having me!
JOHN: Always a pleasure.
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