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.

If you like my work, please consider supporting it through Patreon.

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.


The DNC’s Cowardice Kills the Lessig Campaign

Image by
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.