Graceful Closure to MoveOn EC petition drive
Reply-To: "Michael Baer" <[email protected]>
A Remarkable Journey: Reflections of a MoveOn Petitioner
Early January, 2017 Eight weeks ago, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The MoveOn petition that I had authored on a lazy afternoon in the summer of 2012 suddenly came roaring into significance. It gained a half million signatures to abolish the Electoral College (EC), in the first six days after the election. I knew that such a petition, no matter how many signatures it received, would not be easily translated into successfully ending the EC. Since the Bill of Rights was approved in 1791, only 17 amendments have been successful and only two in the last 55 years. A supermajority of two-thirds of each house of Congress is required, and then it must be ratified within 7 years by three-fourths of all the various states. That means 34 Senators, or 13 states can block any amendment. I also learned that attempts to get rid of the EC have been tried numerous times. The greatest number of failed attempts to amend the constitution is this anachronism from our foundational document.
These are challenging obstacles under any circumstance. The framers intended it to be that way. But we live in a particularly polarizing era, and the candidate of the minority has just been awarded the keys to the kingdom. His base is mobilized. To abolish the college under these circumstances would be about as easy as breaking into Fort Knox using a biodegradable spoon and a toothbrush.
But back in mid-November, with the momentum of 500,000 fresh signatures, it still felt possible, and worthy of my best effort. The strategy quickly formed to develop a Facebook (FB) Community Page to create “views” and “likes” to drive new people to signing the petition, and to use the increasing popularity of the page to try to win celebrity endorsements of one kind or another. The FB page would act as a forum for conversations, brainstorming, sharing of information and dialogs as an attempt to create a community “brain” capable of meeting the challenges, while simultaneously trusting that opportunities would present themselves for meaningful action as the story unfolded. Build it… and the path forward will emerge.
What emerged was an engaging drama. Trump chose unconventional (and often frightening) cabinet appointments. He engaged in twitter conflicts with China, Saturday Night Live, the Press, and others. We learned more about Russian hacking. Jill Stein raised $7 million in four days to investigate voting anomalies in Midwestern mid-sized swing states. Those state courts shut her down, but not before she exposed serious voter suppression activity, and legitimate suspicions of outright voter fraud. A group calling themselves the Hamilton Electors raised the specter that electors had a duty to vote their conscience; country over party. Although it was an admitted longshot we watched with interest to see if the effort might flip the outcome or present the House with a compromise Republican alternative to Trump or Clinton. Our FB page reported all of it and more, posting three to five times daily on the various threads and stories, and in the process grew a following currently at 21,700.
Then, on December 19, the Electoral College endorsed Trump as anticipated with very few defections. We had imagined that such an outcome might create a backlash that could boost the petition drive further with another mighty wave of activity, perhaps pushing it over a million signatures. But in fact, the opposite happened. Signatures dropped from a range of fifteen hundred to three thousand per day down to a couple hundred per day and activity continues to wane. In the two weeks since the electors cast their ballots we have gained less than 2000 signatures. Granted it is the holidays, but it feels like the tide is out for a while.
Another eye-opening part of this journey has been participating in the community conversation of the FB page via the comments section available below each posting. I began by advising the community to ignore the “Trump trolls” i.e., the hateful, rude, obnoxious, and childish commenters whose strategies are reducible to expletives, insults, untruths, and gloating, often invoking all four in a mere sentence.
Over time I ignored my own advice and began trying to engage the trolls. I thought I might disarm them by asking sincere questions or injecting chiding humor without overtly insulting them as an effort to draw them into civilized discussion. Sometimes it worked and I felt minor victories when the troll became a human beneath the façade. We still disagreed, but a bridge of respect had been established.
But there is a constant influx of new trolls to the FB page, as we strive to expand the reach by doing some FB advertising to people who identify as interested in politics, government and voting, which brings in all stripes. Encountering all that negativity begins to feel like toxic psychological warfare and the dreck starts to stick. After being provoked several dozen times, I began to feel the need to strike back; to “go low” with them. I have begun to do that, but what I hope is in a clever way.
That is a bit of a detour from the MoveOn petition drive, and I realize it is not helping the cause, nor is it healthy for me. I have become polarized, and in turn polarizing to others. This was not my intent when I started. It’s time to drain my own swamp.
Eight weeks, and the way forward has not emerged. However, my views on the Electoral College have evolved during the journey. I used to think it was just old and antiquated, never updated because of a few special interests in a former era, and that these interests might now be overwhelmed by popular sentiment, motivated by recent results, and organized into the tip of a spear to cut through the antiquated and unpopular ideas.
Now I see it as something far more nefarious. It arose as a compromise to slave states during the founding of our union. It remains a powerful tool in the toolbox of the white supremacist minority. Combined with voter suppression techniques now exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act, our voting system is deeply corrupted. Donald Trump was right about that: The system is rigged.
Many of you are aware of an alternative approach to neutralize the EC without amending the Constitution. It is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) or more commonly, the National Popular Vote movement. Briefly, the idea is to develop a consortium or compact of states that agree (through their respective legislatures) to cast all their electoral votes for the national popular vote winner. This year that would have been Hilary Clinton. Once the consortium reaches critical mass attaining the majority of the electors (270 at the current time), then the compact becomes binding.
The strategy is very clever. As long as every state member sticks to the agreement it will have the desired outcome: the overall popular vote winner will assume the oval office. Currently the strategy is 61% of the way to its goal with 165 electoral votes in the compact. Notably, none of the consortium is from a traditionally Republican state.
To my mind, this noble end does not justify the means, which are egregious. If a state like Wyoming was in the compact this year and the compact was in effect, Wyoming would cast all their electoral votes for Clinton even though 80% of their voters chose Trump at the ballot box. That would understandably upset, and more importantly disenfranchise, an awful lot of Wyoming folk. Additionally, besides the potential for many states to individually reverse the will of their constituents, there is also a collective injury to all the states who do not join the compact. Here they are, playing by the rules created centuries ago, and a compact of other states just gave them the collective finger. We are already divided and polarized to a point where “civil war” has begun to enter the collective lexicon. I believe the NPVIC is a match light that can ignite the fuse to our doom, if it ever comes to fruition, which is itself a longshot.
So now what? If a constitutional amendment is impossible in the current climate, and the NPVIC is untenable and divisive, where does that leave us? I have come around to the idea of supporting Electoral College reform which does not require two-thirds of the congress and three-fourths of the states to agree. In fact, it is possible that only 5 people could decide to implement it as the law of the land.
The reform proposal would be to eliminate the winner-take-all aspect from the Electoral College. That protocol appears nowhere in the Constitution (nor does the idea of two party system for that matter). Winner-take-all evolved through the states’ rules setting process for choosing electors over the years. The method by which elimination of winner-take-all in the states could be enacted is through the Supreme Court. The argument is that winner-take-all is a violation of the 14th amendment, the equal protection clause.
It is a compromise because several small states will still maintain their substantial per person voting power advantage over voters in larger states. But it means that every vote will count, because states’ electors will be allocated based on the proportion of the popular will of the election. This year, California would break 35-20 for Clinton, and Michigan would have split 8-8. From reports I have read, the overall outcome would have been 270-263 for Clinton, with 5 electors being allocated to 3rd party candidates. The margin is quite close to the 2.1% popular vote margin.
The arguments for this proportional reform to the EC have been made by people far more scholarly and versed in Constitutional law than I, who is but an interested layman on both counts.
On January 3, 2017, the 115th Congress was sworn in, with each member taking a solemn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Never has the need to stand up for that oath been more essential in my lifetime… nor perhaps in my country’s lifetime. I made my own oath shortly after Election Day to stick with this journey at least until now, so that the petition with 616,221 signatures and counting could be delivered to the members of the new Congress. They will be sorted by the signers’ zip codes, so that each petition will be electronically delivered to each signatory’s House member and two Senators and President Obama.
I want to thank each, and every one of you, who were catalysts encouraging me forward each step along the path of this eight-week journey. Many of you sent me invaluable letters of kindness and encouragement or thoughtful strategies on how to proceed. I have learned valuable lessons; about social media, about the Electoral College, about my fellow Americans and about my own nature.
Close One Door, Another Opens
The petition drive is over, but the movement continues. I was a young boy during the revolutionary times of the 1960s and early 70s. But as I reached adulthood and looked back, I marveled that people literally stopped an unjust war, won civil and voting rights for Black Americans and other dispossessed groups, and began the environmental movement. It happened because a large enough group of average working citizens took time from their busy lives and stood up and said, “ENOUGH! Our government and our culture have gone astray. We will not allow this to continue and just stand idly by, waiting for someone else to do something.”
Fifty years later, I believe we are at a similar crossroads. Will enough of us collectively stand up and say “Enough!” The Electoral College is just one battlefield of injustice. History has shown that the American spirit can rise to the challenge. But will we? The answer is up to each of us to do what we can, to persist, and to realize that small things can become big things if enough of us take part. I believe it can be done… must be done non-violently despite the hate, anger and division we see in the polity. What does it take to make a Trump troll? We need to dig for those answers and diligently endeavor to find ways to include them in our collective solutions.
With deep gratitude, and hope tempered with foreboding,
MoveOn Abolish the College petitioner