The Electors’ Moral Duty

I am entirely opposed to the Electoral College as a means of choosing the President of the United States. I proudly worked for an organization that had repeal of the Electoral College, replacing it with a national popular vote, as one of its three or four prime reasons for existing.

But that’s what we’ve got right now. While I’m horrified that it has allowed Donald Trump to become the president-elect, I don’t believe that his election is “unfair” just because Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won the popular vote. Both campaigns ran to win the Electoral College vote, not the popular vote, and Trump succeeded. That’s the game both of them were playing. If it had been a popular vote contest, they absolutely would have run entirely different campaigns, and it’s impossible to say for sure what that outcome would have been (though we can guess). Hillary knows it. Al Gore knew it. Them’s the breaks.

As the electors themselves are about to vote, there is a lot of noise about whether some of them will “defect,” as it were, and that some of those who are pledged to Donald Trump will vote for someone else, or not at all. There are talks of secret discussions, compromise candidates, legal challenges, intelligence briefings, and postponements.

I don’t think anything is actually going to happen. Sure, one or two electors may ultimately vote in contradiction to their pledge, but I do not believe we’re going to see anything that changes the result of the election.

But I do support the efforts to do so, and I hope I am wrong that nothing will change.

It’s not a simple matter. Changing the result of the election will have enormous consequences, the likes of which we can’t yet predict. Put aside the legal and constitutional questions, put aside the totally unprecedented confusion over transitions and appointments that will transpire.

Merely imagine for a moment a scenario in which, by one mechanism or another, Trump is denied the presidency in favor of another candidate, be it Clinton or a GOP compromise candidate. I cannot believe that such a reversal would not spark chaos among the populace. I’m talking actual riots and violence from angry Trump supporters, supporters who are not exactly peaceful and friendly in victory, let alone defeat. People will be hurt, some may be killed, the economy will take a rollercoaster ride, and whatever regime does wind up taking power will be debilitated in myriad ways: choked by a thick cloud of illegitimacy, pilloried by hails of lunatic conspiracy theories and vicious opposition from the far right, and who knows what else. It will be awful.

But it will pass, eventually, and even in the worst imaginings, it will be better than a Donald Trump presidency.

I know I am on record months ago as believing that Trump was preferable to, say, a Cruz or Rubio presidency, but I of course have been thoroughly disabused of this, and I would gladly welcome a President Ted Cruz over what we’re about to endure. More likely, if there was some kind of alteration of the election, we’d be looking at a President Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, or John Kasich. Fine. Great. Welcome to the Oval Office. Nice to have you.

Why is this better than just coping with the status quo and dealing with whatever comes of a Trump administration? Here are some things a Trump presidency will, with near certainty, mean. They require almost no speculation, just common sense:

  • Climate change will accelerate beyond the point that humans could do anything to mitigate
  • The Supreme Court will lurch far to the right, perhaps for generations
  • Putin’s Russia will become far more powerful and audacious
  • Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other badly needed social programs will be gutted or destroyed entirely
  • The Affordable Care Act will be mutilated or repealed, and millions of Americans will lose their insurance
  • American police will become even more militarized, and incarcerations will go way up
  • Public education will lose funding in favor of private and religious schools
  • The EPA and the FDA will be neutered, if not abolished altogether, or else turned into marketing tools for the industries they are supposed to regulate, putting millions of lives in danger
  • The poorest Americans will become poorer
  • Minority groups will have their voting rights strangled to the point of de facto disenfranchisement
  • The press will be stifled and under constant threat of retaliation from the government
  • Nazis, white supremacists, men’s rights advocates, and other blights on humanity will complete their exit from the shadows and become normal parts of American public life and politics

I could go on.

The members of the Electoral College, I feel, have a moral duty to stop this.

I think it’s worth the short-term risk of chaos and the loss of confidence in the Electoral College system. It’s worth these citizens violating their vows to vote as directed by their states. The electors are human beings, Americans who have to live in this country, and on this planet, too. But they are also Americans who by dint of circumstance have the power to save us, and one chance to do it.

They won’t. I’m nearly sure of it. But I really hope they do.

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P.S.; Here’s an interview Lawrence Lessig just did with the Washington Post, discussing his initiative to confidentially assist any electors who are considering taking action like this.


This Fucking Guy: How Our Shitty Electoral System Let a Monster Run Maine

1024px-LepageumaineEven in the Age of Trump, one political figure stands out above all others as the lowest of the low, the king of the boors, the bastard of disaster, Paul LePage, second-term governor of the great state of Maine, my home.

In just the last 72 hours, he has left a threatening voicemail with a state legislator, promising to “come after you” and calling him a “cocksucker.” He also demanded the legislator “prove I’m a racist,” which LePage quickly did all by himself:

When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red, don’t you? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.

These are just the latest two examples of what kind of an abysmal pit of a human being he is.

Believe me when I tell you that Maine is a good state. The people are by and large good-hearted, decent, and tolerant. There is a generosity of spirit within the state’s culture that I’ve not seen the likes of in any other place I’ve lived. Now, of course, Maine is populated by humans, and that means a large number of them will be assholes, ignoramuses, vultures, bullies, cowards, and gross opportunists. Such is homo sapiens in all its wonder.

But Paul LePage does not represent the Maine I know. His governorship is not a true reflection of the politics, nor even the simplest notions of decency, of Mainers as a whole. And yet somehow he has been elected the state’s leader, twice. How could this be?

You might already know that in both of LePage’s gubernatorial races, he faced not one but two opponents: A Democratic nominee, and an independent, Eliot Cutler. Now, Maine has a history of being open to independent candidacies that sets it apart from other states. Sen. Angus King is one such independent, and was previously a very popular governor. It is rational for other potentially-strong independent candidates to think they have a realistic shot at being elected over the major party candidates.

You know how this ends, of course. In 2010 the vote was more or less split three ways, with LePage eking out a plurality victory with almost 38%, and the independent Cutler coming in second with 36%, and the Democrat Libby Mitchell lagging with about 19%. Fast forward to 2014 and the unthinkable was thunk all over again, but this time Cutler faltered, earning only a little over 8% of the vote, but enough to deny a victory to the Democrat, Rep. Mike Michaud, who lost with 43% to LePage’s 48%.

I say that Cutler denied a victory to Michaud because there was very little overlap in those who favored both Cutler and LePage. Had Cutler not run, Michaud would have won. In 2010, had the Democrats realized they were out of luck that year, they could have rallied behind Cutler, and kept LePage from ever having gotten near the governorship, with a guaranteed blowout victory.

So is it all Cutler’s fault? Is it Libby Mitchell’s for not facing reality in 2010? In the narrow view, yes. For the good of the state they sought to lead, they should both have examined their consciences and done what needed to be done to stop LePage from becoming governor.

But in the broad view, the fault lies not with the candidates, who rationally believe they have a shot to win and a right to run, but with the electoral system itself. Hate the game, not the player.

I’m talking of course about the first-past-the-post system used for almost every office in American politics, where the person who simply gets the most votes – not the candidate who gets a majority of votes, and that’s important – wins. Pluralities, not majorities, decide who takes power. And pluralities have a funny way of being very small and very unrepresentative of electorates as a whole.

Let’s pretend that Maine instead used a voting method that allowed voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If voters get to indicate their second and third (and so on) choices on their ballots, non-viable candidates can be eliminated and a real consensus can emerge.

You might have heard of Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff Voting (insider secret: they’re the same thing!), particularly during the 2000 election when Ralph Nader began to whittle away at Al Gore’s support. It’s actually wicked simple.

To be brief, you look at your ballot, and you mark your favorite candidate with a 1, your second-favorite with a 2, and so on. In 2010, a Mitchell voter would likely have indicated Cutler as their second choice (not all of them, of course). So when the ballots were counted and showed that Mitchell had come in third place for first-choice votes, she’d have been eliminated, and those ballots would then be allocated to Mitchell voters’ second choices. Most of those would have been for Cutler, and Cutler would have gone over the 50% mark, winning with an actual majority instead of a mere plurality.

If you have a gut reaction to this along the lines of “well that doesn’t seem fair,” let me put it this way: Is it fair that the person taking office is someone wholly rejected and disliked by two-thirds of the electorate? By counting the second-choice votes of non-viable candidates, the electorate gets the candidate who was the true consensus choice of the majority. Mitchell voters, otherwise relegated to electoral irrelevance, can now say, “If I can’t have Mitchell, I’ll take Cutler,” and actually be heard. They still count.

Now repeat this for 2014. Chances are most Cutler voters (doomed to see their candidate get crushed) would have preferred Michaud over LePage. Eliminate Cutler in the first “round,” reallocate his supporters’ second-choice votes, and you probably have Michaud eking out a majority.

Or maybe you don’t! Maybe I’m wrong about who Cutler voters would have preferred and you still get a LePage win, but at least that would reflect the actual will of the electorate. As you can imagine, though, I find that implausible, and despite LePage’s strong 48% showing in 2014, a sizable enough portion of Cutler’s slice of the electorate would have pushed Michaud over the 50% mark, needing only an additional 6 and a half percent or so.

If Florida had used such a system in 2000, it’s inconceivable that Gore would not have won the state, being the overwhelming second-choice of Nader voters, and saving us from eight years of horror. And more to the point, it would have been the fair thing to do, representing the actual majority consensus of Florida’s voters. You know, “the people.”

(Now imagine if the current presidential election were closer than it is, and it really looked like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein might tilt the race from Clinton to Trump, when you know for certain that Trump doesn’t have the support of the majority of Americans. Yeah, think about that. Think hard about it, then get a drink.)

This is so obvious to me, that it pains me that the push to get ranked choice systems in place, even experimentally, is such an uphill slog. I was in the slog, having worked for FairVote back in the aughts, which is the country’s main advocate for these kinds of reform. There is a real movement to get this adopted in Maine statewide, as it has already been working successfully in the mayoral elections for Portland, Maine since 2011.

So let me wind this down by narrowing the focus back to the Goblin King of New England. Maine is not a state of grotesque monsters, and yet because of our first-past-the-post voting system, we have one for governor, and he’s one that threatens people who get under his skin and talks about shooting down black and Hispanic people. And that’s just what he says out loud. His policies (and just as important, the policies he blocks) are as dark and soulless as his words and his heart.

That’s not Maine. That’s not us. I wish we had a voting system that allowed us to say so.

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The Plausibility Threshold

I’m not at all opposed to the idea of allowing third party candidates into the general election presidential debates. In most cases, of course, there’s little reason to, as even the exposure and legitimization it would give to said third party candidates would almost never result in one of them becoming seriously competitive for the presidency. (Ross Perot in 1992 was legitimately competitive, so he definitely belonged in those debates. In 1996, there was no real chance for him, and being on the debate stage wouldn’t have changed that.)

A great shame of our electoral system as it currently exists is that there is no mechanism for expressing preference for a third party in a way that doesn’t result in self-sabotage. It’s a first-past-the-post plurality game, so a vote for liberal-third-party-candidate X means one less vote for less-liberal-but-actually-viable-Democrat Y. Without something like instant runoff voting, the whole discussion is more or less moot.

But let’s pretend for the sake of argument, though, that our system is set up to make it reasonable to vote for third parties, and that there ought to be a relatively low threshold for getting into these debates. Let’s say, again for the sake of argument, that instead of the current 15 percent in polls, it’s something like 5. That would have probably gotten Ralph Nader on the stage in 2000, and in this election, it would easily qualify both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

But even granting all of this in our imaginary scenario, something still doesn’t sit right with me about it, and I think I know what it is.

To fully understand my thinking, you have to temporarily forget that the Republicans nominated a lunatic huckster this time around. Donald Trump’s presence in the equation clouds the air of gravity for the presidential debates, so it might help to replace him in your mind with someone like Mitt Romney or John McCain. So do that now. On this imaginary debate stage, with Martha Raddatz or Bob Schieffer or whoever moderating, you have some Romney-McCain type, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, and…Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Since winning isn’t in the cards for Johnson or Stein, regardless of the electoral system in place, the ostensible benefits of their participation in the debates would be 1) to have someone articulate positions and concerns not expressed by the major party candidates, and 2) to lend new legitimacy to, and build up the viability of, the third parties for future elections, sending the message that, yes, candidates from these parties are and will be serious options for the presidency.

But is Gary Johnson really presidential material? Really? He seems by all accounts to be a good, principled man with good intentions, and he was a governor, but still. He doesn’t seem to have thought through all of his positions, he has trouble answering questions in succinct sentences, and he hasn’t held an office since a year before Facebook even existed. In my opinion, he doesn’t quite present the figure of a plausible president, and the irony is that he’s the closest the Libertarian Party has ever come to offering up someone who does. He’s more of a “this is the best we could do” candidate for a struggling minor party.

And even presuming the best about Jill Stein (which is a major challenge for me), despite her admirable activist background, she has never won elective office (save for a “Town Meeting Seat” in Lexington, Massachusetts), she panders to conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs, and deifies people like Julian Assange. She is definitely not a plausible president.

And that’s so dispiriting. As someone who’s worked professionally for systemic solutions that would clear the way for third party candidacies, I would love to see a more vibrant and dynamic set of views represented in these debates, but that also means I want those views articulated by credible candidates. Plausible presidents.

This year, the Republican Party has decided not to put forth a plausible candidate. In my imaginary scenario, we had a veteran officeholder of real gravitas to stand for the GOP, but in reality, we have a dangerous man-child. So it’s easier to look to the third party candidates and think, well, shit’s already crazy, why not let them in too? And I get that. But it’s also true that he could actually win, unlike the other two minor candidates, so he needs to be confronted by his billion-times-more-qualified opponent in front of the nation.

But for the third parties, in the abstract, I don’t think debate inclusion achieves what these parties hope they might, and what they really need them to achieve: to show the American public that their zone of the political spectrum can offer up real presidents too. The Libertarians are almost there with Johnson, and frankly would be there now if they’d flipped the ticket and nominated VP candidate Bill Weld instead, or recruited some titan of Silicon Valley like Meg Whitman, Larry Page, or Sheryl Sandberg. The Greens are nowhere near plausibility right now, with Nader 16 years ago being by far the closest they’d ever come to putting forth a credible would-be president. I honestly can’t think of anyone today who might jibe with their politics and be a plausible president, save for perhaps Bernie Sanders.

I want to see that debate, with three, four, or more honest-to-goodness potential presidents advocating and arguing their cases. But our electoral system makes it pointless, and the candidates we’ve gotten so far from the third parties makes it doubly so.

Presidential Primaries Might Be a Terrible Idea


Political parties aren’t the government, even though the Democrats and Republicans have so entirely weaved their parties into the machinery of government and the electoral system. Constitutionally, the two major parties are no more “official” than the Natural Law Party or the Rent is Too Damn High Party. They are nongovernmental associations that organize to field candidates for public office around the shared positions and values of whatever coalition of interests they can cobble together.

As such, they can choose the candidates they’ll run for office any way they like. Right now, the two major parties base these decisions largely on constituents’ votes in primary elections and caucuses, run through a very porous filter of delegate allocation. But if they chose, they could have party bosses choose candidates in smoke-filled rooms. They could even draw straws to see who would run for what, or have prospective candidates engage in medieval combat. It’s up to them.

The primary system we have now is relatively new, and on its face, the idea that the constituents of a party would choose a presidential candidate by (more or less) a popular vote seems like a good idea. It feels, if nothing else, fair. This is a democracy, and so we’ll pick our candidates democratically.

We take this for granted as the wisest and most morally correct method. We can see this whenever the prospect of something that might contradict the popular verdict arises, like superdelegates in the Democratic Party, the specter of a brokered convention, or when the particular rules of a given primary or caucus seem less than straightforward. People’s hackles are raised, and there is much crowing about the right to vote and the subverting of democracy.

But of course, we do not have a constitutional right to vote for party nominees. (Indeed, we don’t even have a constitutional right to vote at all, but that’s another discussion.) Candidacies aren’t political offices. It may be cynical or underhanded for a party to subvert the will of its primary voters, but it’s not against the law or a violation of representative democracy.

In case you can’t tell, I’m no longer convinced that primaries are the best way to choose candidates for office. Even just confining the discussion to the presidency, it no longer seems self-evident, as it once did, that the two major political parties are doing anybody any favors (themselves or the American people) with the primary system as it is. I also don’t know if the alternatives are any better.

I used to work for the electoral reform organization FairVote, and wrote many thousands of words about ways in which the primary system could be improved, but those improvements always focused on increasing the democratic fairness of the primary system, including holding either a single National Primary Day or having a rotating calendar of primary elections, all to reduce the outsized influence of New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina on the process. As I write today, though, I’m not sure we should be having these elections at all.

Obviously, it’s this year’s election that’s making me lose faith in the system. The clearest example of primaries-as-shitshow is the GOP race, where an angry, violent, and happily ignorant band of racists is about to lift Donald Trump to the nomination. There is no way this is a good result, not for the Republicans, and not for the country as a whole, which will be subject to his idiocy and thuggery, and have to go through the motions of treating his candidacy with a show of seriousness. It’s abysmal. And if someone like Cruz were the other “popular” alternative among the GOP primary electorate, that’s no better. He’s a maniac, and such a maniac that even his own lunatic colleagues loathe him.

It’s not the same with the Democratic Party, but it’s still bad. Not because Bernie Sanders, if nominated, would be somehow be a disaster (though he would be far more likely to lose in my opinion). He’d be fine and perfectly respectable, and I’d be proud to vote for him, though I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s. But the fact that the choice of the Democratic Party’s nominee is being left largely up to Democratic voters, the supporters of the two candidates are incentivized to vilify the candidate they don’t support. If there were no primary contest being held, Bernie people and Hillary people would overlap, and everyone would be cool with each other, working together toward common goals, even if not all of those goals are shared in precisely equal measure. But since we’re subjecting them to a popular election, we have Bernie supporters trying to convince the world that Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee, is evil incarnate, a lying, heartless monster who must be destroyed, which of course damages her chances for the general election and overall poisons political discourse among the constituents of the only party that is, right now, serious about governing.

So imagine a scenario in which a presidential nominee is chosen by existing officeholders within a political party, and that’s it. All the party’s governors, Members of Congress, and heck, even the state legislators and mayors and whatnot, all get together, in person or virtually, and argue and debate until they hold a vote, and then pick their party nominees. It has at least the whiff of representative democracy in that all the stakeholders will have been themselves elected, but it avoids the mob-driven death march of the primary campaign.

Or maybe we still have primary elections, but as they have at times been, they are straw polls, beauty pageants, displays of strength and potential support among the grassroots. And after the entirely non-binding straw poll votes are held, the aforementioned party officials take that into account when making their decision.

Or maybe there’s something else that makes more sense. Maybe a board of directors of a party should just hash it out in a room, with or without the smoke. Maybe a randomly chosen “papal conclave” of party stakeholders should figure it out and draft a candidate. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that we have a problem with primary elections. They’re producing bad results, either in the candidates they annoint or the damage they do to a party. I can’t say I’m now wholly opposed to them in principle, but I can say that perhaps it’s time to at least consider that we should save all the democracy for Election Day itself.

The DNC’s Cowardice Kills the Lessig Campaign

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Lawrence Lessig ended his bid for the Democratic nomination for president today, and I don’t blame him in the least. Due to a last-minute change by the Democratic Party in the rules to qualify for the debates, Lessig was blocked. He accounced his decision to end the campaign in this video:

I’m heartbroken, and I think he is too. I had no illusions that he would be a serious contender for the nomination, but I desperately wanted him on that debate stage. Someone has to make the case for the The One Issue to Rule Them All, fundamental reform of the electoral system. Reform of the systems by which we fund elections, vote for officeholders, and design our legislative bodies really is at the very core of all the other challenges we’re unable to politically confront. But almost no one knows that, or at least they don’t think about it. Lessig, if nothing else, would have made at least a few of us think about it.

I’m heartbroken, too, by the cowardice of the Democratic National Committee. For some reason, they decided that it was in their interest to keep Lessig off of that debate stage. I can think of several reasons why, but all of them are so petty and pathetic, that I am loath to attribute them to the party that ostensibly represents my interests. But who are we kidding? One thing the Democrats have not been known for in many generations in courage. Could they really have been so afraid, or at least squeamish, about Lessig’s message? It’s a message that points out the pox on both houses, but it also offers the vaccine for that pox. I am embarrassed for, and of, the Democratic Party.

I’m disappointed at the Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley campaigns for not advocating on Lessig’s behalf. None of them had anything meaningful to lose by Lessig’s inclusion, certainly not Clinton. Lessig was running as a Democrat because he supports Democratic principles, and was not running to “take down” any of the other candidates. He wasn’t there to “get” them, but to be serve as a kind of conscience. Bernie Sanders is supposed to fill that role, I suppose, but he doesn’t get close enough to the core of what’s wrong. They should have insisted he be included. But of course they wouldn’t.

And I’m seething over the political press, who, when tweeting the news of Lessig’s exit, offered only snark, jokes at his expense. I understand the delight one can take in the failures of ridiculous candidates, the hilariousness that ensues when their hubris far outshines their qualifications or competence. But Lessig wasn’t one of those candidates. He’s a serious, brilliant, accomplished person with a core message that is of existential importance to the republic. But ha-ha, he had to quit, couldn’t get one percent, funny glasses, ha-ha. Whatever plague is making our democracy sick, these people are the rats helping it to spread.

I don’t know if things would have been any different if Lessig had not begun his campaign with the pledge to resign once his legislative agenda had been fulfilled, a pledge he recently recanted in light of the resistance to it, and the fixation on it. I have to think it would have at least helped for the “gimmick” of his candidacy to be the sole focus it ever received from the vapid press.

It seems Lessig is leaving the door open ajar for a third-party candidacy, but I don’t think that’s what he wants. We’re all rolling our eyes at the idea of a Jim Webb independent run, and the last thing Lessig wants is to seem like more of a political joke than the press is already making him out to be.

The point, Lessig says himself, was to get into the debates. That’s where he was going to have his maximum impact. And the Democratic Party has slammed the door in his face. I don’t know what he should do next, although in his blog post following his official announcement, he wrote in a parenthetical:

…first lesson for presidential candidate wanna-be’s: be a Senator first, so your salary can be paid while you’re running for President.

How about it, Larry? You almost ran for the House once. Maybe it’s time to get in the fray at the legislative level. Kick some ass in Congress, and then we’ll see what happens next.

Lessig Says “You Win…I Will Remain President” – But It Might Be Too Late

Image by Robert Scoble (CC-BY-2.0)
Lawrence Lessig has reversed himself on the one aspect of his presidential campaign that I considered deflating, that dampened what would otherwise have been true enthusiasm: He’s no longer pledging to leave office once he achieves his legislative objectives. He means to be president and stay president. He wrote at The Atlantic:

If the Democrats won’t take seriously a candidate with a viable, credible, and professionally managed campaign just because it includes a promise to step aside once the work is done, then fine. You win. I drop that promise.

I am running for president. … After we pass that reform [the Citizen Equality Act], I will remain as president to make sure the reforms stick. I will work with Congress to assure they are implemented. I will defend them against legislative or legal attack.

But beyond that priority, I would do everything else a president must do, too. Which means I bear the burden in this campaign of convincing America I could do that well.

Excellent. I’m delighted by this.

But it’s almost certainly too late to matter.

After the first Democratic debate last week, I said that the quality performances of the first-tier candidates more or less ruled out a Joe Biden candidacy, as the debate made clear that there was no need for either an establishment alternative to Hillary Clinton, nor a left-flank alternative to her or Bernie Sanders. The two of them both did well enough for themselves to settle the race as one between the two of them, and the remaining three candidates were rendered more irrelevant than they already were, if that was even possible.

So my concerns for Lessig are that, first, his being left out of the debates has as much to do with resistance to true reform candidates from the DNC as it does with poor poll showings, or being left out of polls altogether. That resistance certainly won’t have changed now that Lessig is promising to remain president, and the DNC has little interest in someone standing on stage saying that the whole system that keeps them (and the GOP) in power is the real problem. It is the real problem, the problem from which all other problems flow, but it boots the Democrats nothing to admit it.

But second, and probably more importantly, I’m afraid that the moment has passed for grassroots excitement for Lessig to compel the networks, or whoever else has veto power, to care whether or not he’s there. To this time, I have not seen the kind of unbridled enthusiasm for Lessig’s candidacy that I would have expected, especially from the young, civil liberties-minded, Silicon Valley crowd, and I chalk this up to his poorly conceived resignation pledge. Now that he’s wisely reversed himself on this, that enthusiasm has now been channeled largely toward Bernie Sanders. In other words, Sanders is sufficiently reform-minded to sate the appetite for change that Lessig represents. And the debate last week only solidified that state of affairs.

I truly hope that new interest is sparked in Lessig’s campaign, again, not because I think he has any chance of being nominated or elected, but because his message is so vital. The agenda he champions is literally of existential importance to our democracy. A man of his wisdom, intelligence, and humanity carrying a message of achievable and necessary democratic rebirth deserves and needs to be on the next debate stage. He needs to be heard, and the other candidates, the ones who actually can be president, need to address them.

I just despair that it simply won’t happen now. The moment, I fear, has passed. Please, let me be wrong!

Lawrence Lessig, Knight of the Woeful Countenance

Photo by Ed Schipul (CC 2.0)
If Hillary Clinton is my Machiavellian Prince, Lawrence Lessig is my Don Quixote. I know he can’t win (and he knows he can’t win), but his platform, his cause, is closer to my heart than perhaps any candidate’s has ever been.

That cause is one that goes beyond the litany of issues that confront our country and our planet, because it is the One Issue to Rule Them All, the crux of everything, which, if not decisively solved, will mean that nothing else truly meaningful will ever be accomplished. Of course I’m talking about reform of the political system itself.

Yes, that means the money in politics, but that’s actually the least interesting part to me. Don’t get me wrong, fundamentally upending the way we fund elections is vital to fixing the system at large, both in real terms as well as in how politicians are perceived.

There’s also the question of voter equality: access to the franchise, an opt-out rather than an opt-in voter registration paradigm, and for the love of Jiminy Cricket, make Election Day a federal holiday.

But while these two are the easiest to grasp of the three prongs of Lessig’s “Citizen Equality Act” (too much money bad!!!), I think they are secondary to the biggest problem.

That’s the electoral process. Not the way we fund or run campaigns, but the systems, the mechanisms by which we vote. Here’s what Lessig’s website says about this part of the Act:

Equal citizens must have equal representation in Congress. That means, districts must be drawn, and election systems structured, so as to give each citizen as close to equal political influence as possible. FairVote has offered the most comprehensive solution to achieve this equality. At a minimum, the Citizen Equality Act would incorporate their proposed “Ranked Choice Voting Act,” which ends political gerrymandering and creates multi-member districts with ranked choice voting for Congress.

(Oh, and allow me to remind you that I used to be FairVote’s communications director in the late Aughts, so you can imagine how proud this makes me.)

The way we elect our officeholders is pure crap. It’s garbage, because for single-seat offices like governors and senators, it allows a tiny plurality to claim victory, even when opposed by the majority. (Best example ever? My own state of Maine, where twice Paul LePage was elected with a pathetic plurality of votes thanks to a three-way race, despite the fact that most of the state hates his guts.) If we have a system by which we can rank our choices, sending our votes to back-up choices if our first choices aren’t viable, we will wind up with winners that reflect the actual will of the majority far more often.

In multi-seat bodies like legislatures and city councils, it’s also crap. Galactic-level crap. But this gets kind of complicated to explain, so I’ll let FairVote do it. And of course, that complexity is why the issue is so utterly unsexy, and why the necessary reforms to fix this shitshow are so hard to sell. I know, I tried.

The point is that this is the stuff that will really achieve change. When we stop getting election results that reflect only a warped version of the will of the voters, when we stop blocking access to voting to those we don’t agree with, and when we open political influence to more people than those with loads of cash, we can then, and only then, begin to make a dent in things like climate change and economic inequality.

But now we come full circle to reality. The Imperial Destroyer that is the U.S. of A. will not be so easily retrofitted and modified into the speedy and nimble fleet that it ought to be.

And Lessig won’t be president. Shit, he won’t even be allowed into the debates so that these issues can at least be tested out on the national stage.

But you know what gives me a little hope? Lessig’s interview this past Sunday on Reliable Sources. It gave me a little hope because I saw something I didn’t expect: a fire in Larry’s belly. I’ve always said that you can never underestimate the candidate that really wants it, and you can usually tell which ones don’t. (Feeling entitled to it is not the same as really, really wanting it.) Lessig’s always been passionate about his core issues, but this is the first time I’ve seen him truly roil.

He pokes fun at himself, his appearance, and his “funny glasses” (that I really like but could never pull off myself), but even if he has no chance at being elected, he could still take that quixotic passion and be our Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

Lawrence Lessig’s Noble and Dispiriting Pledge

Image by Joi Ito, CC 2.0.

UPDATE 9/6/2016: Lessig’s campaign successfully passed the $1,000,000 pledge threshold (I pledged a token amount), and formally announced his candidacy on ABC this morning.

I heartily support Lawrence Lessig’s campaign for president, and there’s almost no public figure I can think of that I would prefer to be president. And that’s just the problem.

Lessig’s campaign is premised on the idea that if he runs and wins, he will doggedly pursue a single, crucial legislative goal: to end the influence of money on politics and elections with a still-in-formation Citizen Equality Act. He maintains (and I largely agree) that without fundamental, structural reforms to our political process, none of the other great challenges of our time can be meaningfully confronted.

If and when a President Lessig achieves this goal, he has pledged to resign from office and hand over his job to the vice-president, whoever that happens to be. (Presumably someone who shares his political views, such as an Elizabeth Warren, Russ Feingold, or some such.) He has promised that he would be a president-in-full while in office, working for domestic tranquility and all that, but has specified that he’d have a mind toward building the foundations of his successor, the sitting vice-president.

It’s confusing, right? Lessig insists that by pledging to resign when his goal is realized, he makes clear that he is serious about fixing the rigged system, and not interested in power for power’s sake. (Is there anyone who thinks that of him? Or could think that?) And there’s a logic to that. He needs to show that he’s not just kicking around some “on my first day in office, my first act as president will be…” bullshit that you hear from every other candidate. He means what he’s saying. He intends to pass this massively important reform, and when he has, he’s out.

Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that, of course, he won’t come close to being elected or nominated, and may not even reach his fundraising threshold to even begin running.

The novelty of Lessig’s campaign is his pledge to resign, and it’s also the campaign’s greatest weakness.

People familiar with Lessig have been clamoring for him to run for public office for years. He had explored a run for Congress for 2008, but backed down when it became clear that he’d have no shot, and his chief opponent was actually not all that bad on his core issues. Offering to run for president, now, as a Democrat, when Hillary Clinton awaits coronation (which will happen, folks), is a thrilling prospect to those who know of him and his work. Yes, his supporters deeply care about the issues he’s made the cause of his life, but they also just really, really want this guy to be president. I really want this guy to be president.

And they sure as shit don’t want him to resign, especially just after he scores his greatest achievement.

We don’t rally around candidates over single issues, really. We rally around a person, or the projection of one, who embodies innumerable qualities, hopes, fears, and possibilities. Who we support for president is tied into our own identities, it’s part of how we tell the world who we are. And the presidency is the closest thing Americans have to a kind of divinely-ordained rulership. We elect presidents that we expect to stay president.

Lessig’s gambit confuses this paradigm. It’s possible that he’d be seeing much more enthusiasm for his run if he never mentioned anything about resigning, because his core backers would be driven by the idea of four to eight years of their guy in charge. Instead, they’re getting their guy for a little while until some other arrangement can be made. Inspiring, it is not. How deflating to you think it was to McCain supporters when in 2008 it was said that he seriously considered pledging to serve only one term?

Lessig’s cause is inspiring, but it’s not enough. I want him to run, I want him in the debates, and I want him to win. But if, by some miracle, he did win, I’d want him to stay. Until he pledges that, it’s hard for me to get as excited as I might otherwise be. I expect I’m not alone in this.

The Moral Stain on the Electoral College

I wholeheartedly agree with Hendrik Hertzberg, this editorial from the Los Angeles Times in support of the National Popular Vote initiative (which neuters the utterly undemocratic Electoral College and allows for popular election of the president, and was just passed in Vermont) is excellent, and perhaps the clearest and most persuasive piece on the subject I’ve seen (and I am not always a big fan of what appears on the LA Times’ editorial page). A taste:

What both sides recognize is the effect that winner-take-all rules have on campaigns. Candidates who are far ahead or far behind in a state have no reason to waste time on them. Barack Obama, for instance, was a prohibitive favorite to win California in 2008, so he spent neither time nor money here after the primaries. Similarly, John McCain knew he would lose this state, so he concentrated his efforts elsewhere. The result was typical: a national political campaign waged in a handful of battleground states such as Ohio and Florida… .

… what should guide this debate is a recognition that our evolving electoral system has embraced increasingly democratic notions of how we pick our leaders. This bill represents the natural next step in that evolution, and would finally allow Americans to rest assured that the next president of the United States will be the candidate preferred by voters.

Hertzberg also notes, very importantly, that the reason we have such an arcane system now is not simply because the founders feared mob rule or that they considered the states to be the true sovereigns rather than the people (a claim often made by conservative Electoral College purists), but because certain states were a little skittish about granting voting rights to certain members of their communities which were considered livestock as well as a mere 60% of a person. I’ll end the euphemisms there and let Hertzberg take over:

… three-fifths of the enslaved [in Southern states] were counted in determining the size of a state’s delegation to the House of Representatives … The non-accidental result is to give slave masters a gigantic bonus, which is transferred to the Electoral College, where each state gets a number of electors equal to its Congressional representation.

The real horror of the three-fifths rule is not so much that a slave is seen as three-fifths of a man. It is that white men who enslave their fellow human beings are given extra political power by virtue of enslaving their fellow human beings, and at their expense.

With a stain like that, it only makes the already-anachronistic Electoral College seem less like a benign relic, and more like the shameful compromise of justice that it is. Would it were gone with all due speed. Make sure you’re telling lawmakers in your state that you want the NPV initiative passed. (This would certainly please my former employer.)