Thursday, January 7, 2021
Like many others, I was glued to watching and reading news yesterday. I woke up celebrating that the turnout in Georgia was so large. I could not go to sleep until the certification process was finished.
Do I think democracy is dead because of yesterday? No. America has never fulfilled the dream of democracy. But I do think that the attempted coup in the national Capitol was a grave injury to the hopes for more democracy. When Black Lives Matter protesters were in DC, there were rows of military and police officers protecting federal buildings. The president called for stiff 10-year sentences for anyone who damaged property in a federal building. When a sitting president has the power to refuse the protective forces that could prevent entry by those who planned violence, we have a significant problem with how authority is organized. One person having that much power is dangerous.
People died because they believed that they were being encouraged by that person to invade the Capitol and stop the VP and the Congress from doing a Constitutional duty. And that person could only mildly suggest they cease their actions, sending them home with messages of love.
(And if you’re one of those “we’re not a democracy we’re a constitutional republic” I hope you agree that attempts to prevent a constitutionally-mandated process from taking place, to maintain in office a president, also undermine our status as a constitutional republic.)
We need to do more than breathe a collective sigh of relief that the crisis ended without the intended hostage-taking, maybe even murder, of office-holders. (Carrying police-issue zip-ties into the building made clear intention to take hostage. A lawyer linked to the president’s campaign called for execution of the Vice President several times, including yesterday morning, if he did not move beyond his constitutional authority and throw out votes that states had certified after audits.)
The contrast between Capitol Police throwing people in wheelchairs around for daring to be in the building to ask for health care, and taking selfies with vandals threatening the members of Congress and breaking windows, is stark, as is the contrast between precautions when the Black Lives Matter protesters were present and these people who proclaimed their intention to stop the Congress from counting Electoral College votes. It may be a shock to see it happen. But is not a surprise to anyone familiar with American history, past and present.
The hope of expanding democracy, so that every human being is valued as a person instead of a hierarchy of who matters most with white men at the top, will indeed die if votes can be thrown out because they came from cities and were more than usual. There were only a couple of credible cases of fraud, not enough in any location to change the election. Courts with judges appointed by the party trying to stay in power threw out case after case after case for not including evidence. I’ve been a pollwatcher and caught election day vote fraud happening — it is simply not possible to hide it so thoroughly in so many different systems, if it were really happening. The real attack on legitimate votes was throwing people off the rolls just because they hadn’t voted recently or signed their name slightly differently, or removing polling places where certain groups of people were more likely to vote.
We have repair work to do. Maybe the silver lining is that there will be the courage to do that. Significant weak spots in our democracy — that is, in having a government of the people, by the people, and for the people — I believe are imbedded institutionally, and may be difficult to change. But we need to imagine that different way and then act to bring it about. Here are some of my ideas — within the current system which attempts to balance power so that no branch has absolute power over the others, but significantly changing how it works. You may disagree with some or all, but I ask that you at least consider that each is based on the basic value of equal human rights and human responsibility.
- The Senate is an obsolete institution, created to protect rich white landowners from the will of the people. The makeup of the Senate does not look like America — it is not of the people. (When the Rev. Dr. Warnock takes his seat at Senator from Georgia, he’ll be only the 11th Black Senator out of more than 1900 total Senators in our history.)
- The Congress used to have each elected representative representing far fewer people. Congress expanded its numbers, and then capped them. The number needs to increase to foster real democracy, where people can really know their Representative and the Representative can listen to them.
- The provision for dealing with challenges to an election by having Congress vote once per state also has to go. It is anti-democratic and undermines the constitutional republic.
- The Electoral College is in conflict with the 14th Amendment. While abolishing the Senate and enlarging the House would help bring the Electoral College closer to a democratic institution, the Electoral College is no longer needed. We should be embarrassed to have so many recent presidents elected by a minority vote. Yes, voting in a general election has some new risks of vote-stealing, but it is less of a threat than the current system is. Everyone who is eligible to vote should have the same impact on the presidential election as any other. We know that the origin of the Electoral College was to protect the institution of enslavement and to protect wealthy male landowners, but that is autocracy, not democracy. Time to end it.
- Universalizing voting rights from state to state is consistent with the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause as well. Ability to vote by mail, ballot deadlines, which need to be a few days after the election to allow mail ballots to arrive, and requirements of voting places within reach of voters equally are necessary reforms.
- The ability of the executive branch to give a finger to following the law is enabled by having the Department of Justice under control of the president. Other presidents, as a matter of honor, have usually (not always) given that department more independence. But the same people who thought it horrible that the president talked for a few minutes on an airport tarmack with the Attorney General were fine when their president tightly controlled what the Attorney General did and didn’t prosecute. We need imagination to figure out how to have more independence from the executive’s will.
- Congress needs to have the right to hear from members of the executive branch. Very tight restrictions on what is “executive privilege” must be defined and used. Removal from office for refusal to testify should be an option.
- Change rules in Congress. For example, remove those rules that allow one person — whether a single Senator or the Majority Leader of the Senate or Speaker of the House — or even a very few, to prevent a bill from coming to a vote. If 1/3 of the House — and of the Senate while it exists — wants a bill to come to the floor, it should be required to come to the floor for a vote. With recorded votes, so voters know the positions of their representatives.
- The Supreme Court was packed by refusing to follow Constitutional guidelines for one president, holding off on a nomination because that president was in his last year in office, then rushing a nomination in the last months of the next president. And federal courts were packed similarly, holding up nominations in one president’s term and then filling more spots than usual in the next term. The Supreme Court has many more cases proposed to it than ever before, and it is time to expand the number of Justices on the court.
- Similarly, federal judges are overburdened, and district federal courts need to have more judges appointed.
- The Senate (or Congress, if no Senate) should be required to act on all nominations within X days, with no ability to sit on them for months or years. Judgeships, appointments to the cabinet, other required ratifications. Knowing how our representatives stand individually on these appointments is part of the information voters need to make good choices, so the votes should be recorded.
- Term limits for Senate and Congress are likely to backfire. (It will make it even harder for someone not a billionaire to run, given our current systems.) But term limits for judges make sense. It also makes sense for judges to serve longer terms than politicians are elected to, for more continuity — so maybe we need term limits of something like 16 years, without possibility of reappointment. There are some risks (judges thinking ahead to their future employment prospects) but I think those are fewer than the costs of lifetime appointments.
- Candidates at all levels should have financial disclosures enforced before filing for election, and regularly during holding office. Conflict of interest should be strictly forbidden — a Senator being able to hear confidential information that then gives her or him the ability to direct their investments to respond is an abuse of power. Allowing a president to be enriched by expenditures at their business by choices the president makes, is also an abuse of power.
- Overturn rules that corporations are persons for the sake of free speech or freedom of religion. That is a travesty. Corporate contributions to campaigns should be forbidden, as well as gifts and other favors from lobbyists. Continue to report and make transparent the place of employment of individual givers to reveal patterns of giving.
- Public funding of elections to bring the costs down, so that being wealthy, or in the pocket of the wealthy, is not a significant advantage.
- Ranked choice voting, which will undermine the binary idea of just two candidates competing. We’ll be able to vote our hearts and minds more easily, and not always having to vote pragmatically as the only consideration. This is also the best path towards undermining the stranglehold at all levels of a two-party system where each has to depend on those with wealth and power to succeed.
And this one, as well.
- Current legislation is often required to have expert study of the revenue and cost impact. Add to that: require reporting on the likely impact on human equality and inclusion of the measure (how different groups are affected, not one general “average” of all Americans), and require reporting on the likely impact on the climate, on our waters and wetlands, on land, on the air. That reporting should be public, and a requirement that it be edited to be as clear to the average citizen as possible.
I’m sure you have your own imagined changes, too. My point is not to push these particular changes — but to say that we need to have active imaginations about what is possible to change.