The World’s Worst Electoral System

Foreign observers
eye our polling stations,
as yellow press scribblers
push lies and sensations.
I find myself won’dring,
with some consternation,
when we turned into
a big third world nation.

The little poem above is called “Election Day.” I wrote it in November 2004, two full Presidential cycles ago. It seems even more germane now than it did then.

When Marcia and I went to see President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter a few weeks ago, the President referred to our electoral system as the worst in the developed, democratic world. He’s got some pretty good perspective on the topic, not only because he’s been through the process twice, but also because he has observed 92 elections in 37 nations since 1982 via his and the First Lady’s work with The Carter Center. His opinions carry weight.

President Carter noted, especially, the impact of the Citizens United case on the current election, which has allowed essentially limitless corporate and individual funding to be devoted to campaign advertising — most of which takes the form of attacks on opponents, rather than advocacy for candidates. He believes that such unrelenting negativity, over time, produces fatigue with both candidates. Once the election is over, therefore, people are as tired and sick of the limping, damaged winner as they are of his or her vanquished foe. I think that’s a wise observation.

So is the solution to just to work the courts to have a case come before some future formation of the Supreme Court so that Citizens United can be over-turned? Maybe, though that could be a long time coming, and I personally think the structural problems run a whole lot deeper than just the issues associated with partisan political advertising by corporations.

While our soundbite driven culture leads many people to think that the bottom-line take-out of Citizens United is embodied by the seemingly dubious phrase “Corporations are People,” this (simplified) statement has actually been an underlying assumption for most of our Nation’s history, and the issue of “corporate personhood” has been a contentious point back to the earliest days of our Republic, e.g. Dartmouth College vs Woodward (1819). To simplify to that same soundbite level, Citizens United did not say “We now declare corporations to be people, so they have the following rights,” it said “Because corporations are already people, they have the following rights.” And odds are that corporations are always going to have (most of) those rights once they’ve been granted, since our Nation’s judicial tendency over the long term is to extend rights, not reduce rights. Even to corporations. (This bit of disappointing legal history notwithstanding, Andy Prieboy’s 2012 single “All Hail the Corporation” remains one of the best political songs, ever).

So I believe that changes to the electoral process must come from directions other than a full frontal assault on Citizens United. If I could be King, President, Federal Election Commission Chairman, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Speaker of the House, Pope, Sheriff and Chief Justice for a day, here are some of the changes that I would make before our next Presidential cycle gets underway:

1. Shorten the cycle: Party conventions one month before Election Day, and first caucuses and primaries no earlier than six months prior to Election Day. The only people who benefit from the endless formal cycle we engage in now are second-tier advertising agencies, while potentially great candidates are deterred from running by having to give up two years (or more) of their working lives to do so.

2. Expand the size of the Electoral College by expanding the size of the House of Representatives: The House of Representatives was supposed to represent more “local” concerns on the Federal stage than the state-wide Senate does, but since the number of House members has been frozen at 435 since 1911, the number of citizens represented by each member of Congress has increased exponentially, to the point where it’s easier (and more effective) for our Representatives to answer to mobilized corporate interests than it is to answer to the voters who elect them. In the way that electoral votes and representation are recalculated every 10 years following the census, at some less-frequent rate (let’s say, once every five censuses), the total bottom-line number of representatives (and electors) should also be increased to reflect the growing size of the Nation. With more electors representing smaller portions of their home states (yes, I know they’re not literally assigned to districts like Representatives are, but maybe we should make that change, too), more states would have the chance to have their votes really matter, making the map of the United Swing States of America more inclusive.

3. Require some form of proportional allocation of electors: Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that don’t currently follow a “winner takes all” approach to allocating electors, so in those states, some electoral votes may (in theory) go to one party, and some to the other. Imagine if mega-states California, New York and Texas followed their lead, so that a Republican could have some slim chance of earning some electoral votes in New York and California, while a Democrat could possible score some votes in Texas. Add this to proposal number two above, and the list of swing states becomes even more inclusive. (At this point, someone should say “Why not just get rid of the Electoral College altogether”? I don’t support that, because I think that a true direct national election would be a nightmare, especially if it was a close one and a recount was required. It’s hard enough to do that within a state, much less the nation as a whole).

4. Apply truth in advertising principles to the campaigns: Businesses can’t make fraudulent claims about their products in the commercial world, so why can politicians and their supporters do so in the electoral process? People can differentiate candidate-sponsored commercials from independent commercials today because of the requirement that candidate’s verbally approve of the content of their own advertisements, e.g. “I’m Barack Obama, and I approved this ad.” People should also be able to differentiate factually accurate commercials from untruthful propaganda or attack ads, via the insertion of some seal of accuracy at the end of the commercial that would be provided by an independent, public interest, nonpartisan, nonprofit body, something like Consumers Union, the organization behind Consumer Reports. If you don’t see the seal, you are watching lies. Caveat emptor.

5. Apply public broadcasting underwriting principles to corporate-sponsored advertisements: Public broadcasters don’t have advertisers, but they do have underwriters. It’s a subtle distinction, but generally the way it manifests itself is that underwriters can only state descriptive, objective facts, not subjective value judgements or claims to superiority about their business and products. Campaign advertisements, even on public airwaves, should be held to that same standard. Fines for violating such standards should be levied against the national political parties affiliated with the offending candidates, giving those interstate organizations an incentive to keep their local troops in line.

6. Public election funding should be provided on a state-by-state basis, proportionally, to all qualified candidates: All candidates who manage to pass required State rules to get onto state ballots for the Presidency — or even just onto one state ballot — should have public campaign funding made available to them on population proportional scale, e.g. getting on the California ballot gives you more federal campaign money than getting on the Wyoming ballot. If a qualified candidate is  on the ballot in multiple states, let’s say California and Wyoming, he or she may split the federal funding on spending as needed between the two states. This approach could allow regionally-strong third parties to wield influence in national elections, as is the case in most of the developed, democratic world, where strict two-party systems are not at all the norm.

How would you propose modifying the electoral system to preclude us from becoming ever-more of an international subject of derision when it comes to our electoral process?

Dear New York . . .

Please shut up and enjoy your beer. There are grownups doing serious work out here, and you are just too noisy and distracting. Yes, yes, we know that you have more electors in the Borough of Queens than we have in our entire state, but that and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee. So sit down and be quiet and drink your beer. We’d put the Islanders game on for you, except they’re on strike. Again.  So have a nice, quiet day. We’ll be in touch when you need to know something. There, there . . . shhhh . . . there, there . . .

Best regards,


Two Little Political Theories

I am sitting up tonight waiting to go greet a guest at the airport who was supposed to arrive around 3:30 this afternoon, but is currently scheduled to get in at 2:30 AM instead, a mere eleven hours later. Ah, the “convenience” of modern air travel. Oh, the “efficiency” produced by our many competing airlines. Sigh. I really feel bad for our visitor, though, since he left Oakland, California at Zero Dark Thirty this morning, and is now looking at his second day of sitting in airports if the weather doesn’t clear in Denver.  So while I am waiting and killing time, I offer two completely non-scientific political theories, based on my own recent observations, for your consideration:

1. Based on parallel reviews of political yard signs and dry leaves on the ground in Des Moines, I conclude that Republicans are better about raking and bagging their leaves than Democrats are.

2. I also conclude that two Republican parents are more likely to produce a Democratic child than two Democratic parents are to produce a Republican child.


How Dare I Be So Beautiful?

1. This morning we got up early so I could drive Marcia downtown to run in a 5K race that was staged alongside the Des Moines marathon. It was a chilly, early way to start the day, but I was happy to hang out near the finish line, so I could watch the results shown in the strip above (click it to enlarge): she won her division (based on age and gender), finished 26th out of 682 women running the race, and 135th out of 1,123 finishers overall, including all the men. I was exhausted just watching her sprint across the finish line, well ahead of the main pack of runners. Imagine how all the dudes that she smoked on the course

2. As I’ve noted here before, I don’t watch a lot of television, so when I do, I probably pay more attention to commercials than most people do, since I don’t watch many of them. One of the major themes that I have noted in commercials sponsoring the shows I watch is that apparently having the very latest and greatest in computer and phone technology is a very, very important thing to a lot of people. Personally, I don’t even have any idea what “3-G” or “4-G” or “5-G” means when it comes to my phone, but this seems to be something of deep import to the sorts of folks who camp out overnight to get new tech toys, or who walk around with phone things sticking out of their ears, talking into the air, looking like idiots. I guess I am something of an iconoclast in this regard, as I do everything I can to make my electronic devices last as long as they can. Case in point: I have owned only three computers since 1993, all of them PCs, and all of which I’ve expanded, adapted or adjusted over time to maximize their life expectancies. So I only update my main tech toy every six to seven years, and when I do, it’s usually because something has broken beyond my ability to repair it, not because I am dazzled by its replacement. I guess I am not the target audience for most of those “gotta have the new thing” commercials, huh?

3. Music is an obviously effective communication tool, which is why many artists use their musical talents to make political statements, especially in election years. Here are three of my favorite 2012 tunes that touch on important socio-political themes underpinning this year’s election:

Subprime Lenders by Crudbump (language warning)

All Hail the Corporation by Andy Prieboy

Don’t Roof Rack Me, Bro by Devo

Five Statements, Five Questions II: Albany Edition

1. I am in Albany tonight. Did anyone notice a disturbance in the force?

2. The Albany-Colonie area has about half the population of Des Moines, but the traffic is orders of magnitude worse. Why?

3. I put my suitcase in the back seat of the wrong rental car, and now it’s gone. Do you have my clothes?

4. I had dinner with Jed Davis tonight, who’s one of my favorite songwriters ever. Who are yours?

5. I drove from Great Barrington to Albany tonight taking a shortcut on Dugway Road, which is a gorgeous dirt path southeast of Spencertown. Why does it feel so good to drive fast on dirt roads?

Objects and Humanity

I spent three days last week in Salt Lake City at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting, to accept a national award for an interior preservation project that was planned and executed long before I actually started working as Executive Director at the House. I was delighted to be there, of course, and even more delighted to have our Curator and Director of Education, Leo E. Landis, join me to receive this honor in front of a large and enthusiastic gathering of Leo’s museum and history colleagues from around the country, since he’s the person who really deserved it. The trip also gave Leo the chance to do some original research at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, where we learned some interesting things about Carl Weeks’ days in “Mormon Dixie” (Southwestern Utah) as a young man, but we’ll save those for another blog post later!

I participated in various plenary and breakout sessions during the AASLH conference, one of which had to do with the importance (or lack thereof) of objects when it comes to interpreting history. There was a healthy discussion about whether historic objects have intrinsic value in and of themselves, or whether they need to be linked to specific people or places to gain historic resonance. I really sit on the razor’s edge in this argument, as I sense that some objects are intrinsically valuable simply because they are beautiful or haunting or cool or unique, while some objects gain value only when they are connected via specific personal or physical associations. I guess the real challenge, for me, is figuring out which object are which, and why. And I would probably defer to the philosophers on that one.

As part of the discussion in Utah, I suggested in our group that connecting objects to people and places in history may sometimes be a pointless enterprise if those objects, people and places are not also somehow connected to relevant contemporary concepts, understandings and ideas. At Salisbury House, we’re trying to use our social media initiatives to accomplish this past-to-present connection via objects in our collections. At staff meeting every Monday, we look at what’s going on in the world around us, and then try to tap our collections to find unique Salisbury House-specific objects that link our founding collectors (Carl and Edith Weeks) with current issues of impact and import.

My last blog post here about Banned Books Week was one such attempt to frame a story with modern relevance, using specific objects that were once considered taboo, that were collected by specific people at a specific time in years gone by, and that remain in our collection today, for the cultural and educational benefit of the public. During the course of the week, Leo and I found various banned or suppressed books and posted about them on our Facebook Page . . . which you should follow, if you aren’t already!

While it was really neat for us to find and share some truly incredible art works and early editions of banned, bowdlerized, censored or suppressed books, the most meaningful find for me last week was Carl Weeks’ copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, not for the book itself, but because of Carl’s penciled notes within its margins. The text of Man and Superman clearly meant a great deal to him, as the book is filled with exclamation points, underlines, checks, brackets, and other notes attempting to distill the deeper meaning within and beyond the words on the page.

I provide a visual sample taken from Carl’s copy of Man and Superman, which bears his signature in its inner cover, and the date “8/17/04,” presumably when he purchased it. (This was before the play made its actual theatrical debut in May 1905). The page in question is taken from the controversial and often-censored third act, and it is worth noting that Man and Superman was not performed in its uncensored entirety until 1915.

Sample page from Carl Weeks’ annotated copy of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” circa 1905.

In 1904, Carl was a 28-year old single man, actively courting his wife-to-be Edith (who had far more formal education than he did) and working with his brother at his mother’s family’s drug company. He had experienced some misdiagnosed health difficulties and some painful surgeries as a result (that’s what led him to Utah). I see, in his marks on these pages, a young man at a particularly tumultuous time in his life, seeking to better understand and make sense of both the seen and the unseen worlds around him. I feel I know him better, even though he died before I was born, for having seen these and so many objects that he purchased, protected and passed on in his lifetime.

I am reminded, in seeing this particular facet of Carl’s collections, of a quote I have always loved about the study of the humanities:

Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason. — “The Humanities in American Life,” Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities (1980).

I am fortunate to come to work daily in a building that houses the most extraordinary collection of primary humanities-based objects with which I have ever had the chance to interact . . . which is really saying something given some of the amazing collections I’ve worked with in years past. I believe one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Salisbury House Foundation must be to use this collection of objects to help others — scholars, students and non-academics alike — make “moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of [the] world” by deploying these resources to the teaching and celebration of the humanities as a vital pursuit for our city, state and nation. Through his objects, I can see a young Carl Weeks trying to answer that big humanities question — what does it mean to be human? — and I relish the thought of having his collection assist generation after generation in their own efforts to understand.

Toward this end, we are in the planning phases of a collaborative program with several other humanities-based institutions around the state of Iowa, and will soon announce a Spring 2013 event that will serve as a pilot/kick-off program for a state-wide celebration of the humanities, centered at Salisbury House. We hope you will follow this blog and our Facebook page to keep abreast of this exciting project as it develops, and to learn more about the many incredible objects (and the places and people with which they are associated) at Salisbury House, and how they give meaning, substance, perspective or resonance to so many important topics today.