Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 4.11.19
Just Outside Washington


We need to vote

We like to talk about how we live in a democracy, but we don't. Formally, the form of government we have is a democratic republic. Word-smithing, you say; maybe, but first, two definitions:

Democracy (Greek, literally 'Rule by People') is a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting. The citizens as a whole form a governing body and vote directly on each issue.

And second:

A democratic republic is a system of government: 1) where the citizens vote to elect politicians to represent their interests and exercise power and 2) where a constitution or charter of rights protects certain citizen rights that cannot be taken away by the government, even if it has been elected by a majority of voters.

Our really smart Founders had classical educations. They read about Athens where thousands of male citizens gathered in the Agora — the central public space in ancient Greek city-states — to vote on every issue. Decisions became really difficult when Athens had to fight wars, and so Athens resorted to the dictatorship of Pericles.

At the writing over the Constitution, the Founders felt the specter of the Glorious Revolution in England and Oliver Cromwell. They wanted to prevent a Cromwellian dictatorship in the new United States so they chose to separate the powers — legislative, executive and judicial — when creating our representative government.

After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government we have, he replied, "A republic, if you can keep it".

From the start, we had a problem; while All persons born or naturalized…are citizens not all of these citizens could vote. For example, neither slaves, women, nor men who did not own land could vote. In the case of slaves it took the Civil War and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to grant them full citizenship; women had to wait until 1920 for the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, for the right to vote.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the laws. However, it does not guarantee equality of the votes of citizens. Nor does any section of the Constitution because two major inequalities were built into the structure of our democratic republic from the start:

For the U.S. Senate, the Constitution provides that each state shall have two Senators, who are now elected by the citizens of the state. The state with the largest population, California, with about 40 million people has the same number of Senators as the smallest state, Wyoming, with 578,000 people. The result is a Senator from California represents almost 100 times the number of citizens as a Wyoming Senator. Both Senators have one vote in the Senate.

The Constitution's provision for the election of the President is not for direct selection by the people but by an indirect vote of the Electoral College. In our country's history, five Presidents have won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote. Two were recent: George Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000; Al Gore won the popular vote by 543,816 votes, and Donald Trump vs. Hilary Clinton in 2016; Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by 2,868,686 votes. .

While these are things we probably should think about, they are not things we can change in the short run. Any change in these two inequities would require constitutional amendments. And, political considerations would slow, if not prevent, these amendments. Besides, there are other inequalities in our system we can change and that would make our governance much more democratic. These inequalities we can rectify in a faster time frame and with less political struggle, they include:

Voter Registration — Almost everyone deals with their state and local governments on a variety of interactions, such as driver's licenses, tax payments, high school graduations, and more. Each of these interactions could be used to keep voter registers up to date. The technology for this is readily available and far less intrusive than what Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other private firms are currently doing with our data. For those who did not want to participate, they could opt out of the automatic update.

Voting Convenience — This has a number of aspects: First, voting day for federal offices should be a federal holiday, which could be overlaid on an existing holiday, say: Columbus Day or Veterans Day, and with mandatory time off to vote. Alternatively, as some have suggested, voting day could be moved to Sunday. Second, criteria for the number of polling places, based on population and distance to population centers, would help reduce the extreme waits experienced in some places in 2016, example five hours in Phoenix, AZ. Third, a number of states have made ‘absentee’ voting easier or adopted vote by mail, which advocates claim increases voter turn-out and lowers costs. However, this eliminates a large part of the communal aspect of voting, which builds rapport among neighbors and support for the voting process.

However, it can contribute to problems such as in Florida in 2018, where thousands of absentee ballots were not counted because they arrived after Election Day. Another issue is that a number of states, Virginia for example, hold their elections for state offices in years where there is no federal election. In Virginia, this appears to lower voter turn-out. For example, in 2017, where every member of the House of Delegates and Senate was up for election, as was every Supervisor of every County Board, every county Sheriff, and every county School Board Member, the turn-out was 29 percent of the registered voters. Pretty bad!

Gerrymandering — The manipulation of the boundaries and shape of electoral districts is done to distort election outcomes. The purpose is to increase the effectiveness of one group of voters at the expense of a second group, such as African-Americans, Native-Americans, or members of a political party. This has resulted from assigning the drawing of electoral districts to politicians who have a stake in the outcome.

A proposed solution is to remove re-districting from the political process by assigning the responsibility to independent commissions, with oversight. This solution has been adopted in a number of states, including Arizona and California. This process has been found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Civic Education — In recent years Civics, which used to be taught in most public schools, has been replaced by STEM and other subjects that have caught the public attention. Also, overall public school budgets have been declining and the public school system is under attack. A democratic republic cannot be maintained without an educated citizenry, but I will leave the argument to Thomas Jefferson: "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."

We the People have elections coming up in 2020 and some states, like Virginia have elections this year, so let's get active. Let's support organizations that are working for election changes, which accomplish the above changes; let's support candidates that articulate the equal vote goals; let's talk to friends and neighbors; and let's VOTE.