Methods of Counting (part two)

Part One discussed gerrymandering and voter ID laws; now we turn our attention to somewhat darker matters.


Another form of voter suppression is still more deeply cloaked in legalism: convicted felons can’t vote. For violent felons this may be a reasonable punishment, even if it is lifelong. For non-violent drug offenders, however? Especially for marijuana? Use of marijuana is so common that if everyone who had ever smoked up was tried, convicted, and stripped of their voting rights, the electorate in this country would shrink by half. At least. Which means that being denied your right to vote, perhaps for your whole life, on the grounds of a felony drug possession of marijuana, is a travesty of justice. Yet it happens… and perhaps predictably the rate of drug felonies is dramatically higher among minorities.

It is sometimes said that the restrictions I’ve described are “the new Jim Crow.” That’s an exaggeration… except in the case of convicted felons, as Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book makes abundantly clear. More black people are in the justice system than were ever enslaved, and more African-American men are denied the vote on the grounds of felonies than were denied the vote in 1870. We have, in fact, gone backward. By intent or by evil luck, racially-based denial of the franchise exists… and Alexander presents evidence which suggests it was quite intentional. For example, H. R. Haldeman, advising Richard Nixon, who launched the “War on Drugs”: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system which recognizes this while not appearing to.” Which means Jim Crow is indeed come again.

Thus the existing “methods of counting” can turn the simple math of a majority into something less clear-cut, and thereby perhaps warp the will of the people. There are a few other proposals on the horizon, though.

The most insidious I have yet heard of is a proposal in Pennsylvania, which will change the way Pennsylvania’s electoral votes go in presidential elections. On the surface of it, it seems like something I can get behind: I have long hated the winner-take-all method of allocating electoral votes in most states, which can totally distort the popular vote (and reminds us yet again that the presidential election system is the most clear and powerful relic of the days when the United States was not one country but an alliance of thirteen separate ones). Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already allow for their electoral votes to be split. But the plan in Pennsylvania is not aimed at better reflecting the will of the people in the slightest: under the proposal, each congressional district will have one electoral vote, and its citizens will determine where it goes. On the surface that seems respectable… until you remember gerrymandering.

Consider: under the current system, let’s say a state has 300,000 votes cast across three districts (with 100,000 votes in each district). If 180,000 people vote for President Obama, then he carries the state and its three electoral votes. But if the districts are gerrymandered so that 90,000 of those votes for the president are in one district and the other 90,000 are split among the other two districts and buried, then you still get the president winning the popular vote but only getting one electoral vote out of three.

As this proposal was launched by the Pennsylvania Republican Party, which currently controls the legislature and the governorship, but lost the state to Obama in 2008, it’s hard to see it as anything but an effort to strip electoral votes away from the president in a battleground state. The Constitution leaves decisions about the electoral votes up to the states. So this proposal is entirely legal. It’s just not democratic, in any conceivable way. When a state government launches a plan to circumvent the will of the majority in that state, democracy is under direct assault.

On a related note, there’s a plan to have states cast their electoral votes for the winner of the national electoral vote. The ranking Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has decried it as a dire threat to democracy. It would be an erosion of democracy within a state, yes, but it would be an expansion of democracy nation-wide, so Sen. McConnell is either short-sighted, pledged to an anti-Federalist position, or understands that Republicans are increasingly less likely to win a national vote, and defines a threat to his party’s power as a threat to the country.

Some Republicans would like to go further yet. The Seventeenth Amendment states that the people shall elect their US senators. Prior to the Seventeenth’s passage, senators were elected by the the state legislatures. The Founders, who generally dreaded what we call democracy, did this deliberately to make it harder for the people to influence the Senate. In fact much about the Senate was designed to impede democracy, as the power of the filibuster reveals. Read up on the Founders who opposed the Constitution, such as Thomas Jefferson; one fear they had was that the Senate concentrated too much power in too few hands. For a more recent critique, former Senator Ted Kaufman has publicly stated that the Senate’s job is to keep things from happening, and it’s succeeding.

And then there’s Michigan.

Many of you have probably heard of that state’s “emergency manager” law, which states that if a city or other civic institution cannot manage its funds, the governor has the power to appoint an emergency manager who will have complete control over the city or district. A dictator, in essence, as the manager is answerable only to the governor, while having power over the people affected. The Detroit Public School system is currently under such control.

What’s come out more recently is that Michigan’s constitution delays laws coming into effect for quite some time, unless two-thirds of the legislature votes to put the law into effect immediately. Most of the laws passed by Michigan’s legislature in recent years have been put into effect under this method… except that the Republicans, currently in control, don’t have a two-thirds majority.

There is, in fact, some evidence that the Republicans controlling the legislature have simply been ignoring the state constitution in order to put their legislation, “emergency management” included, into effect at once. They certainly have been ignoring appeals from Democrats to actually do a full roll-call vote to check their tally. There are hints that the Democrats did the same when they had  control of the legislature, but this is all still under investigation. If it turns out that Republicans are indeed refusing to count votes in the legislature, and if they have been doing so while passing laws that strip voting rights from cities and towns, then democracy in Michigan is in severe peril.

But then, there are impediments to the will of the people everywhere. I could go on and on: the fact that elections are held on a Tuesday, and that Election Day is not a holiday, keeps working people from voting easily; the fact that our political party system limits the ability of third parties to get started curtails voters’ choices overall; the fact that elections are winner-take-all, and that “none of the above” is not an option, frequently forces voters to choose the lesser of two evils, or to simply accept the unopposed incumbent’s victory — or, as Jim Hightower put it, “If God had intended us to vote, he would have given us candidates.” One might add that if God had intended us to vote, he would have also made it a lot harder to turn a simple exercise in counting into a process of suppression, distortion, and deceit.

It is important to note I level much of this criticism at both parties. On the whole I would argue that the Democratic Party has a deeper history of corruption, because it is older and because it was the party of the original Jim Crow. But it’s worth noting what happened after Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson: the Southern Democrats left the party. And which party did they join? Perhaps it is no real surprise that the vote suppression I see today is so reminiscent of Southern segregation, in targets and in tactics. And perhaps it’s no surprise that the most aggressive vote-suppression tactics are being put forward by Republicans. Neither party is blameless, however. Everyone gerrymanders. The accusations being flung about in Michigan may apply equally. And the “new Jim Crow” was undoubtedly put into effect by both parties — if the GOP was the driving force under Nixon and Reagan, Democrats cheerfully went along to appear “tough on crime.” It does seem, however, that the Republicans are, on the whole, doing more of this lately.

The government of ancient Athens had many faults. Only a fraction of the population had citizenship, and the citizens were often easily led by demagoguery and deception, if the histories we have are true. But at least everyone who was a citizen could come to the council, be present and watch, participate in the government. At least no one was told he had the right to vote but in the end was turned away. Here in the United States, that seems to be less true every day.


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