18 October 2012

Five Questions on the US Election your Students should Wrestle With

There are many resources for kids studying the current US election, including one from Lynn University's School of Education focusing on the final Presidential Debate.

It was in looking at that site, and trying to ask questions about it with Dean Craig Mertler that I began to really wonder about all the questions we do not ask our kids to wrestle with. Because there might be value in a 17-year-old working on: "Reforming the Electoral College: The students will, as a whole class, debate the Electoral College; examining the merits and problems associated with the current system and each of the proposed reforms. The students will propose an amendment to the Constitution to reform the system and vote on it as a class," or a 13-year-old practicing: "The voting process: (Common Core - SS 7 C 2 7 Conduct a mock election to demonstrate the voting process and its impact on a school, community, or local level). The students will run for student council elections. They will campaign for themselves and create a brochure providing information about themselves and why their peers should vote for them," but I think our students are not just capable of much more, I think they need much more if they are going to be effective citizens of this nation, and this world, in this century.

So, here are five questions you might raise in your school:

(1) Why do Americans vote the way we do? Should we continue to do that?

This is a question I keep begging educators to engage with, because how we vote largely determines how we are governed, and in a global century the ignorance of Americans about democracy around the world - even around their own nation - is both absurd and dangerous.

An Irish General Election Ballot, choosing five "TDs" - members of the legislature
by ranking candidates in preference order.
There are many ways to vote, not just the "single-member-constituency" and "First Past the Post" systems the United States inherited from 18th Century England. There are consequences to the choice of any system, for First Past the Post, the key consequence is the diminishment of choice:
"The main reason for America's majoritarian character is the electoral system for Congress. Members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party or parties win no representation at all. The first-past-the-post election tends to produce a small number of major parties, perhaps just two, a principle known in political science as Duverger's Law. Smaller parties are trampled in first-past-the-post elections."—from Sachs' The Price of Civilization, 2011
First Past the Post Voting with three parties gets confusing. The inner
circle in this graph shows percentage of the votes British parties
received in the last general election, the outer ring shows the
percentage of seats won in Parliament.
A few US states - Louisiana is one - use the "French" system of runoff elections for some offices, requiring a majority win. But in most elections in the United States, the more parties, the fewer votes one needs to be elected.

In Canada, for example, in the last election, the Conservative Party received 39.68% of the votes against four left-of-center parties (Liberals, New Democrats, Parti Quebecois, Greens) yet ended up as the "majority" party in Parliament with 53% of the seats in a nation in which over 60% of voters strongly disagree with their policies.

In other words, choice is discouraged. If there were just two Canadian parties - as the US has - the Conservatives would not have won a Canadian election since 1988.

But what might happen if we had multi-member-constituencies with "proportional representation" ("PR")? What if we had, as Ireland does, "transferrable votes"? What are the implications - what else changes - if we chose another electoral system? Get your students talking.

(2) Should it be easier to get on the ballot everywhere in America?

Does democracy require choice? Who gets to limit what your choices are in an election? In Pennsylvania a group called the Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition says they (like many in other American states) are, "seeking more choices for all of us on Election Day. Current Pennsylvania law makes it difficult for independent and minor party candidates to appear on the ballot — much more difficult than in most other states. The result is less political competition, less political dialog, and fewer choices to vote for in November. The current system is simply not fair and does a great disservice to the ideal of democracy and to the voters. In 2006, independent and minor party candidates were required to collect over 67,000 valid signatures simply to get on the state-wide ballot in Pennsylvania on Election Day. Legally, Democratic and Republican candidates require no signatures to get on the state-wide ballot, and even the 2,000 signatures required for the Primary Day ballot are ridiculously smaller than the virtually impossible hurdle of 67,000." So, first question, should it be easier to get your name on the ballot because you say you are a "Republican" instead of saying that you are "Green" or a "Socialist"?

Voters in Israel pick between 18 political parties (Wikipedia Photo), what are your choices?
What choices you have on your ballot are limited in many ways. Most US states prohibit "Electoral Fusion," a ballot system which helped break "one party rule" in New York City. Fusion voting empowers smaller parties in remarkable ways. New York City mayors John Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani owed their election victories to New York State's Liberal Party, while New York State's Conservative Party elected a United States Senator, and no Republican has been elected to statewide office in New York since Nelson Rockefeller without Conservative Party cross-endorsement.

Limited ballot access in the United States is a battle without traditional dividing lines, with everybody from the Green Party to Michelle Bachmann weighing in, from Oklahoma to Georgia, and the inconsistency of these laws mean you may not have the same choices as your neighbors a hundred miles away. As USA Today says, "It is a quirk of American democracy: Your choices for president depend on which state you live in."

(3) Should all votes be counted in every election?

West Virginia, and many other states, refuses to count the choices of many voters: "Only votes for official write-in candidates will be counted" says their website. And an "official" write-in candidate is one who, "submits a Write-In Candidate's Certificate of Announcement to the proper filing officer."

Why would there be a law like this? A law which also has a date limit on when someone can become a "write-in" candidate? 

Let's begin with the "ridiculous" - suppose a whole bunch of people decided to write in "Mickey Mouse" or "Bart Simpson," is that "joke voting" or "throwing their vote away" or might it suggest a deep unease about available candidates which should be recorded?

Or, what if people chose to write-in the name of someone who had not chosen to become an "official" candidate? Surely that person has the right to refuse office if elected, but shouldn't voters be allowed that choice?

And finally, let's consider this situation. In my county in Michigan about half the people on the ballot are running unopposed. It is pretty much a one party community (like the old Soviet Union). But what if the only candidate on the ballot dies eight days before the election? (Michigan has a formula for a candidate dying under 7 days before election day )Or gets arrested for robbing a bank? Voters where I live are then deprived of any choices at all.

It gets worse, if you run a write-in campaign ("officially") in a party primary, you can win that election but not get on the general election ballot because you did not get "enough" votes according to th state ["
if the office involved appears on a partisan primary ballot, a write-in candidate is  nominated to the office if he or she 1) receives more votes than any other candidate seeking nomination to the position and 2) meets a vote threshold provided under Michigan election law. (MCL 168.582)]. If a write in candidate gets three votes and nobody else gets more than two, doesn't that mean he or she won the election?

And in seven US states, write-in votes for President are prohibited!

(4) How many people should be in the US House of Representatives? How many in your state legislature? City Council?

Wikipedia has attempted to list legislatures by size:
Jurisdiction Type of
Population Lower
China People's Republic of China Nation-state 1,333,370,000 2,987 [1] 2,987
United Kingdom United Kingdom Nation-state 61,634,599 650 786 1,436
Italy Italy Nation-state 60,114,021 630 315+7 952
France France Nation-state 65,073,482 577 321 898
India India Nation-state 1,169,850,000 552 250 802
European Union European Union Intergovernmental
499,794,855 754 27[2] 781
Japan Japan Nation-state 127,540,000 480 242 722
Egypt Egypt Nation-state 77,420,000 454 264 718
Indonesia Indonesia Nation-state 229,965,000 560 132 692
Germany Germany Nation-state 82,002,000 622 69 691
North Korea North Korea Nation-state 24,051,218 687 [1] 687
Ethiopia Ethiopia Nation-state 79,221,000 546 112 658
Thailand Thailand Nation-state 63,525,062 480 150 630
Mexico Mexico Nation-state 107,550,697 500 128 628
Russia Russia Nation-state 141,883,000 450 168 618
Cuba Cuba Nation-state 11,177,743 614 [1] 614
Spain Spain Nation-state 45,929,476 350 259 609
Democratic Republic of the Congo Democratic Republic
of the Congo
Nation-state 68,692,542 500 108 608
Nepal Nepal Nation-state 29,331,000 601 [1] 601
Morocco Morocco Nation-state 31,993,000 325 270 595
Brazil Brazil Nation-state 191,956,000 513 81 594
Poland Poland Nation-state 38,100,700 460 100 560
Turkey Turkey Nation-state 71,517,100 550 [1] 550
United States United States Nation-state 307,635,000 435 100 535

So, is the United States Congress too big or too small? You might ask students to start doing some math to begin. How many people are represented by one member of the United Kingdom's House of Commons (62,000,00/650) vs the US House of Representatives (310,000,000/435)? How does that compare to Germany (82,000,000/622) or France (65,000,000/577) or, say Ireland (4,600,000/166)?

How does that compare to your state legislature? To your County or City government? Each "TD" in Ireland represents about 27,000 people, each member of the New York City Council represents 159,000 people. Each member of the Michigan State Senate represents 238,000 people, but each member of New Hampshire House of Representatives represents just 2,350 people - or far less than the members of most local American Boards of Education.

Consider all that this implies. If I, as a candidate, need to get to the voters of a New Hampshire district I could probably drive around and meet almost every voter, but if I want to be in the Michigan Senate I probably need to spend a lot of money on radio, mailings, phone calls, perhaps even television. If I need to spend money I need to either be rich, or I need to have lots of rich friends, or I need to promise things to lots of rich people. None of that is necessary in New Hampshire, where the legislature meets part time and members are paid $250.00 annually. Will that difference allow differing kids of members to get elected?

Who benefits when a legislature is smaller? Who benefits when a legislature is larger? How does size impact function? In what ways? Many questions...

(5) What would happen if the US Electoral College no longer included electors for Senators?

Simple question: Right now each state's electoral vote is based on the number of members of congress - representatives plus senators. What if it was just based in the number of members of the House of Representatives?

Wyoming, its as if all the animals in this photo get to vote for President.
This year, Wyoming gets one electoral vote for every 190,000 people, but California only gets one electoral vote for every 691,000 people. So, every Wyoming voter, effectively, gets more than three times as many votes for President as a Californian.

How might this change things? Consider the contested 2000 election - without those "senate" electors, George W. Bush's electoral vote would have dropped from 271 to 211 (he carried 30 states), while Al Gore's electoral vote would have dropped from 266 to 224. In other words, it wasn't Florida which changed the nation's political course, it was Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota.

What would be fair? Who would be hurt? It is important to note that the United States does not have - and has never had - any kind of "national election." All elections in the US are state-by-state affairs, but in this one instance - what is fair when the state's come together? Is the Senate enough protection for small states? Do we really have "one-person-one-vote"?

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

Mr. Socol, I found your post to be very interesting. I agree that our students should be looking outside of the box when it comes to examining the modern election process. The questions you raised were very open and interesting. I particularly liked the question of if all votes should be counted in each election. My county in southern Alabama is much like the one you live and students nor adults seem to think one way or the other on such issue. I think bringing a question such as that one would be a great way to get students looking at the political system in a different light.

Amanda Durden said...

Hello, my name is Amanda Durden. I am a college student, currently in the EDM310 class, at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned your blog to read this week and I really feel that I learned a lot! I have to admit that I used to be of the opinion that a lot of attention was wasted focusing on politics when these kids are still years away from their first election. However, as a 20 year old facing my first election of real importance. I find myself wishing someone had spent just a little more time teaching me about the systems.
I especially was interested in getting the kids thinking about the way seats in congress are distributed, a topic like that is important enough to make kids feel that votes have power.

Thank you!

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I love this blog... i agree with you. all 17 years old students should read this post..valuable article.