Month: January 2016

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

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Every four years when the Presidential election season is upon us, we hear cries that the Electoral College is an outdated, anachronistic institution, that we should just get rid of it and rely only on the popular vote to elect the President. After all, the one-man, one-vote principle works well enough as we select members of legislatures and governors, does it not?

I agree that the system is overdue for change, but I should hate to see us “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

The founding fathers, judging by their own situations, nevertheless seem to have been decidedly prescient for our times, too. Those men (they were, of course, all men—more’s the pity) worried that heavily populated States would ride rough shod over the smaller States. They wisely left most electoral matters within the States themselves up to the States (see the 10th Amendment), though the 17th Amendment in 1913 allowed for direct voting for members of the U.S. Senate.

The problem in 1787—and today—is how—in a federal republic—to make the States more or less equal in selecting the chief executive position—the President. The solution was two votes: a popular vote and a vote of the Electoral College—groups of citizens chosen by each State to equal the combined number of members that State has in the national legislative body. As Congress increased in numbers, so did the Electoral College. Today, that number is 538 which equals 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 Senators, plus 3 for the District of Columbia which by law is to have a vote equal to that of the smallest State (though its population exceeds that of the smallest State).

Thus did the founders seek to balance the small and large States. And thus do we today have California casting 54 votes in the Electoral College and Alaska, 3. Within almost all States, it is a winner-take-all matter. As a system, it is by no means perfect, but I would argue that it does accord the smaller States a measure of power they might not otherwise have and that it helps balance the vote of the individual in Delaware with that of the individual in Texas or Florida. Were we to rely on the popular vote alone, few candidates or political organizations would ever bother with the smaller States (like mine—Nevada).

Over the years, there have been a number of alternatives proposed—any of which would require a Constitutional Amendment. The most simplistic (and the probably least likely to survive the amendment process) is to rely only on the nationwide popular vote. There are two other proposals that I find quite attractive. (1) The Electoral College vote in each State is distributed by percentage according to how the State’s popular vote went. So, if 40% of the popular vote in Kentucky went to candidate A, he or she would get 40% of Kentucky’s EC vote. (2) Another plan (the one I like best) calls for each EC vote to go in the same direction as each Congressional District voted, with the two votes equal to the Senate being on a winner-take-all vote for the entire State.

I’m sure that one can go on line—or consult a civics textbook—and see not only the pros and cons of the several alternatives, but also how recent Presidential elections would have been decided by any of them.

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RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE LATEST (Jan 14) REPUBLICAN DEBATE

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In the interest of full disclosure: I am a moderate (leaning left) Democrat, but I am a full-fledged political junkie. So, yes, I watched the latest Republican debate last week—until the final segment which was to be on economics and I gave up and went to bed. Economics, which I do recognize as being of paramount importance, has just never interested me very much, though I am savvy enough to know that the dollar is strong now, the unemployment figures are way down, and until the few days the stock market had held pretty steady.

That said . . .

Jeb Bush showed more life and political acumen than I had heretofore credited him with. But, like his brother, he seems to me to be too eager to send other people’s children off to war.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are birds of a feather. About equal in ignorance and arrogance, and both scary. I would not welcome the idea of either of them with his finger on the button.

John Kacik is hanging in there—seemingly a voice of reason among a gaggle of “shoot from the hip” types. Kacik, who actually seems to listen as well as talk, and who probably has more, and more varied, real experience in government than any of the others on the stage last week, could prove to be the worst nightmare of whomever the Dems put up.

Christy and Rubio struck me as “also rans” in this latest debate, neither of them contributing substantively to the Republican discourse. Hard to take their campaigns really seriously.

There. Did I miss anyone?

Oh, yeah. Carson. He strikes me as a nice man, but just sadly out of his element. He may be great in an operating room, but I have doubts about his expertise in the oval office. I’m inclined to think he’d be about as successful in dealing with the Washington establishment—not to mention any number of foreign leaders—as Jimmy Carter was.

Overall, what struck me most in this debate was the constant picking at Obama—and in the vaguest of terms at that. News flash, Repubs: Obama is not running! STOP telling me (the voter) what Obama did wrong and tell me (the voter) exactly what policies and programs YOU will put forth. That line of “I will do it better than the guy in the oval office now” is simply not convincing all by itself. You’re going to kill “Obamacare”—fine. And replace it with exactly what? YOU know how to deal with ISIS? OK. Credible specifics, please—and do NOT even think of beating that “boots on the ground” war drum. Over 7,000 American dead in the Middle East—not to mention tens of thousands wounded—is enough already.

Arrrrgghh. Wake me up on Wednesday after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, please . . .

DONALD TRUMP—AGAIN

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Along with thousands of others, I thought it absolutely laughable when “the Donald” announced his run for the Republican nomination for the Presidency. At the time, I thought the man a buffoon and, frankly, I believe many thinking Republicans (yes! there are still many of those in our midst!) shared—and share—that view. But now I have to admit that his poll numbers are downright scary. How on earth can so many people be taken in by rhetoric that offers almost nothing in the way of specifics, by tirades that feed into people’s prejudices and fears; by such blatant appeals to all that is worst in the human condition? What do those numbers say about us as a nation?

I keep wondering if ordinary German people in the late 1920s and early ‘30s found themselves simply shaking their heads in disbelief at what “that man” was saying? Then, too, a demagogue was taking advantage of people’s discontent to advance himself through a sort of personality cult.

However, the German population’s being so duped is more understandable than what we see in some parts of the American electorate today. Germans were in the midst of perhaps the worst suffering of any nation during the Great Depression—when it often literally took a wheelbarrow of Deutschmarks to feed the family on a given day. And who knew what it would take on the next day? The jobless rate was astronomical. The nation had just come through a disappointing (to say the least!) and ill-advised military venture. Veterans returning to their homes were having a rough time of it.

Then, along comes this Pied Piper promising that he alone knows how to deal with these problems, that he alone can “make Germany great again.” What’s more, in the minority Jews, he offers citizens a ready scapegoat on which to load their suffering, their uncertainties, their fears.

One cannot overlook the fact that America has just come through our worst economic situation since the Great Depression and that a good portion of our citizenry have not yet seen a full portion of the benefits of the on-going recovery. We, too, worry about our losses in a recent military venture and about how to help those trying to reestablish themselves at home. But, however ineptly at times, our system does seem to work. We are taking care of our own. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, we are not facing anarchy and chaos.

While I am not a Republican (how’d you guess?), I do cringe at what Trump and his ilk are doing to the Republican party, for I think they are undermining the very basis of the two-party system that has always served our nation so well. Not since the last days of the Vietnam War or the chaos of the Watergate period have we experienced such uncertainty in the body politic.

We survived those by letting the system work. We did not resort to elevating a demagogue as some sort of father/savior figure. Nor should we do so now.

INFLATED GRADES

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A recent study listed twenty-some colleges where it is hardest for students to get As. I say “get” here, because in a huge number of colleges—and especially in high schools—there is often very little “earning” of those grades. The average grade at many institutions is no longer the gentlemanly “C”; it is a high “B”—not just a B, but a high B. (One is reminded of Garrison Keillor’s claim that Lake Wobegon parents do not produce merely “average” students.)

Why do we have this grade inflation?

I lay the blame largely at the feet of parents with an overly developed sense of their own importance and educators who are simply too cowardly to stand up to them. Such parents want to be able to brag that not only is their kid enrolled in AP classes, but the little darling is an A student in those classes. (Never mind that the parents themselves never measured up to the standards they demand of their children.) Of course, this trend means that educators, unable to stand up to assertive parents, offer an increasing number of “advanced” (?!) classes which then have to be watered down to accommodate students who cannot otherwise cope. God forbid that the student take a different class or that the pushy parents admit that they are biting off more than their kid can chew! Talk about the dumbing down of America . . .

Is it any wonder that college admissions people place little importance on an applicant’s grade point average? GPA is simply no longer a reliable indicator of a student’s potential for success.

Like parents who just sigh and give in to the whining pleas of their kids for the newest techie gizmo, educators usually just cave to parents who demand higher grades for their little darlings—because Johnnie or Susie “worked so hard on that project or that essay.” Never mind that the work itself did not measure up. Often enough, such parents try to put the same pressure on college instructors, and are only marginally less successful in undermining the system there. (Bequests to this or that college building project are powerful persuaders.) One wonders what will happen when that overly protected, overly indulged kid hits the real world of work.

Unfortunately, I do not have a solution to this problem, but I do deplore the lowering of standards and I, for one, am no longer at all impressed when someone brags to me that his or her child is “a straight A student.”