Former Senators Argue that the Senate Must Stand in Defense of Democracy

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, a bipartisan group of former senators “urge current and future senators to be steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy by ensuring that partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest” in this difficult time in our history.

Earnest Dialogue in Michigan

Michigan recently joined three other states—North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania— which all have legislation pending in state legislatures in support of a national popular vote initiative.

Michigan State Senator Mike Shirkey (Republican) introduced the bill into the senate, where it has gone into committee as of September 6th. It was co-sponsored by Senate Republican Eric Leutheuser.

The proposed legislation drew bi-partisan support, and both the Michigan House of Representatives and the State Senate have bills pending which support the national popular vote initiative.

The bi-partisan support is especially noteworthy considering that many Democrats and Republicans in the Michigan’s legislature believe that the popular vote would benefit both parties; it is thought that the passage of national popular vote legislation would give Michigan more influence in the presidential election by increasing the number of votes that matter.

The path to changing the presidential selection system is itself a matter of some contention; while Senator Leutheuser acknowledged that there are “some of the issues with the current electoral system in the U.S.,” he said that his decision to co-sponsor the legislation is “not necessarily an endorsement of the NPVIC [National Popular Vote Interstate Compact], but merely an effort to start an earnest dialogue about it.

At a time when hard-line partisanship and political polarization may seem like insurmountable problems, it is heartening to observe the dialogue opening up at the state level.

Change, it would seem, is not impossible.

National Popular Vote Would Help Protect Nation From Influence of Russian Disinformation

Professor Josh Douglas, an election law and voting rights expert and professor at the University of Kentucky, had this to say about the Electoral College: it creates a highly exploitable vulnerability in our presidential elections that could alter the results; under the U.S. Electoral College system and its current political demographics, "eight to 10 states will typically 'decide' a presidential election."

The reach of Russian interference, consisting of highly targeted social media disinformation campaigns in the United States, poses a national security threat and a threat to democracy in general. There is even strong evidence, uncovered by journalist Casey Michel that Russia has been backing the Texas secessionist movement for years through covert operations, including during the 2016 election.

The 2016 presidential election brought the issue of Russian meddling to the fore, as the Russians brazenly exploited social media in efforts designed to exacerbate partisan divisions and the political polarization in the American public.

The implications of our Electoral College system and of the winner-take-all method of apportioning states electors from each state, make the consequences of hacking elections, even on a small scale, potentially disastrous. They could in fact tip national presidential elections in whatever way the Russians decide. Senior Trump administration officials informed the public on August 2nd that Russia plans to interfere in this year’s midterm elections in November, as well as in the 2020 presidential election.

Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), the Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said, “a change in a national election doesn't require penetration into 50 states ... arguably, you could pick two or three states, and two or three jurisdictions, and alter an election."

Professor Douglas agreed, "the unique nature of the Electoral College, with the effect of making only a few states matter, means that it is presumably easier for a foreign actor to target just those states."

If we were to change the system to a National Popular Vote, the effects of hacking by foreign governments would likely have little effect. It would be very difficult for any actors, even with the backing of a nation state, to subvert an election in which every vote mattered.

Democracy East and West

The United States and India are the world’s two largest democracies. They are populous and diverse. This national unity through cultural diversity is what the two nations have been known for. There is another bond between them.

Emerging as a democracy one-and-a-half centuries after America, India has looked to the United States as the model of a democratic republic with a global leadership role. Both democracies are grounded in the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers and judicial integrity.

Similarly, the US Constitution has been a founding document for other nations, for example in South American countries, though quite a few there have slipped away from democracy at times. Democracies around the world are now backsliding—in the case of Hungary, where one party gained the majority in the last election and then imposed restrictions on other parties to prevent them from standing a chance in future elections. These examples teach us that, once lost, democracy may be very hard to regain, and reform— including election reforms— must therefore be fought for before it is in danger of extinction.

India and the United States are also going through, in parallel, a period of deep division and extreme polarization. In both Indian and American politics and government, there is a high and rising risk of eroding democratic principles and norms. The recent political trends in both countries, it seems to me as an Indian who has gone to law school, traveled in and cares about America, are less about the traditional left-right divide and more about the bitter clash between narrow xenophobic populism and a more generous appreciation of their countries’ roles in the global community. Politicians have exploited this clash and the electorate is not only splintered but also confused, unaware of the issues, fearful and distrustful.

I do not presume to have a prescription for how the United States can fix itself, but I do know that it is important to India and the rest of the world that it do so in a way consistent with the principles of democracy, [transparency], freedom of the press and an independent and non-partisan judiciary. India must also undertake reforms that advance these values, protecting its institutions and civil society from the threat of democracy declining. Nations can and should be models for each other. Now, more than ever, it is important for like-minded countries, like the United States, India and others, to uphold and pursue the values we share consistent with our own distinctive cultures.

Capt. Loveleen Kaur Mann is a former JAG officer of the Indian Army. She is a fourth generation Sikh soldier and belongs to Panjab, India. During her corporate stints, she has had the opportunity to work with colleagues of religious diversity including in Kashmir. She is an alumna of Georgetown University Law Center, Washington DC. Her interests include skydiving and exploring new cultures and places, having travelled 34 US states.

Our Current Presidential Election System Promotes Divisiveness

David Brooks, the celebrated conservative New York Times columnist, occasionally quotes the statistic that 40 years ago only 5% of Americans said they would be "displeased" if their children married somebody of a different political affiliation, whereas that number is about nine times higher today.  Numerous other statistics show that political polarization is at an all time high.  Oddly, but meaningfully, recent polls demonstrate that members of the House and Senate would like to be less partisan but say that their constituents’ zeal prevents them from being so.  Yet other studies show that voters are fed up with their federal governments hyper-partisanship.  Note also, that Brooks’ statistic indicates that the divide has become far more than political and threatens the fabric of American society.

Various reasons are given for this alarming development — the emergence of partisan news and commentary, radio talk shows, cable networks and social media, the drastic decline in the exposure of the public to news sources with an array of viewpoints, the accelerated widening of the income gap, the aftermath of the severe financial crisis of 2008, and economic frustrations generally.  But even these oft-cited causes of the bitter divide rendering our nation are rooted in a deeper, fundamental and increasingly devastating defect in our system for electing our Presidents.  This defect is widely unrecognized, and there is virtually no realization that it is the principal cause of these injuries, specifically polarization, divisive partisanship, unyielding extremism and government paralysis.

Nor is it recognized that the defect is located not in the U.S. Constitution, the electoral college, or federal law generally but in the laws of 48 states and the District of Columbia.  These laws first enacted in the early 19th century, allocated all of each state’s electoral votes to the Presidential candidate who earned the most votes in that state.  As a result, when the electoral votes from the states were tallied, the candidate who received the second most votes in that state was credited with no electoral college votes in that state and the votes of citizens who cast them for that candidate did not count at all.  This is the case even if the electorate in that state was split 51-49. 

This badly skewed system has meant that only competitive states, not representative of the whole country, determine the outcome of the election and, thereafter, to an alarming degree subsequent government decision-making after the new President and administration takes office.  Candidates, national parties, and Russian saboteurs understand this and in pursuing their own obviously self-interested goals focus on those states.  As a result in the 2016 election the Presidential candidates of the two national parties made between them a total of two campaign visits to safe states like Texas, California and New York, which constitute over 26% of the country’s population, while they visited swing state, New Hampshire, with less than one-half percent of the country’s population, 21 times. In 2020, we can expect the four closest states that determined the outcome in 2016 to receive the lion’s share of attention. Those states are New Hampshire as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, each won by less than seven-tenths of a percentage point. The rest of the country will not matter. Doesn’t seem right does it?  It certainly isn’t democratic.

And the consequences of this system are devastating.  Voter turnout in safe states is 7% less than in battleground states.  They receive more disaster relief from the federal government per capita than safe states, and the views of citizens in swing states have more effect on government than those of citizens in the 40 to 46 other states

This disproportionality of the Presidential election process (by the way, not replicated in the Presidential nomination process or in any other election of the tens of thousands of elections conducted every year in the country) rewards and, therefore, promotes myopic and fractionalized view of the issues facing the entire nation.  The first step in solving a problem is to understand that it exists.  Citizens of all political persuasions understand the severity of our problems.  The second step is to diagnose their causes.  Making Every Vote Count and a few others, like Professor Lawrence Lessig and National Popular Vote, have taken this step.  The third is to fashion and enact a remedy that addresses the cause of the seminal problem.  Various remedies have been proposed.  Now is the time for citizens of our country to rise up and insist on a fix.