Let’s face it, our election system is a mess. That’s true regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Last May, while we were up to our necks caucuses and primaries, John Oliver noted on Last Week Tonight that we only seem to talk about how screwed up our elections are in the months leading up to them. Once we’ve voted, we develop amnesia and forget about fixing anything — which is a large part of why the system stays screwed up.
Now that the dust has settled — and before things start heating up for the next round of elections — is the perfect time to make some noise and push for changes. Here are areas that need our (and our legislators’) attention:
1. The Primary/Caucus System
Just watch the whole thing. You’ll be holding your head in your hands by the end of it. That this is how we choose presidential candidates is appalling.
Oliver must’ve been psychic (or just paying attention to history) when he said, “The problem is there’s no guarantee that the candidate with the most votes will win next time.” The fact that Donald Trump won the electoral vote while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote has been discussed/flame-warred about for months. This has spilled over into a debate over whether the electoral college itself, once created to make sure presidential elections are more equally representative, has become obsolete.
Oliver’s solution: “Let’s together pick a date early next year to actually write an email to the chair of each party and remind them — politely — to fix this. I propose February 2. Now, that will be easy to remember because it’s Groundhog Day, which does seem appropriate because, unless this primary process is fixed, we are all destined to live through the same nightmare scenario over and over again until the end of fucking time.”
Gerrymandering basically means “drawing really funky boundaries to define voting districts so that one party is favored.” Fun fact: the name is a mashup of the name of a former Massachusetts governor — Elbridge Gerry — and the word salamander, because one of the voting districts drawn up when he was in office resembled a salamander.
In recent months, courts have been paying close attention to this issue. In March, a federal appeals court found that Texas Republicans had racially gerrymandered some congressional districts to weaken the voting power of minorities. “The record indicates not just a hostility toward Democrat districts, but a hostility to minority districts, and a willingness to use race for partisan advantage,” the court said in a 2–1 ruling. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when there’s evidence of racial motivation in the drawing of voting districts, it doesn’t matter whether they’re shaped like salamanders or they appear normal: the process must face scrutiny under the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
However, the fact that the courts keep having to say that gerrymandering is wrong (especially when it’s racist), and it keeps happening anyway, means more pressure is needed on the folks drawing the boundaries. Lean on your legislators. Tell them to knock it off.
3. Voting rights
The November 2016 election was the first presidential election since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. This issue was under-reported in the months leading up to the election, and aside from a couple of stories around election day, it doesn’t seem to have gotten much mainstream media attention since.
What we know is that the ruling allowed states to change how people voted, including requiring ID and closing or changing locations of hundreds (possibly thousands) of polling sites — shifts that used to require federal approval. What we don’t know is how many people were prevented from voting because of those changes. It’s hard to tally a group of people who were turned away, or didn’t bother trying because they lacked ID or their polling place was too far away (and for some reason we keep holding election day during the work week, when it’s not easy for everyone to get time off to vote).
Like gerrymandering, voter ID laws tend to disproportionately impact racial minorities, a group that leans Democratic. There’s also the fact that convicted felons are barred from voting — and that’s a group that tends to include more black and brown folks, due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
A new piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, has been introduced. It would repair much of the damage done to voting rights by the Supreme Court. To urge Congress to support the act, click here and fill out the form.
4. Campaign finance
The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which removed regulations on corporate campaign donations. Oddly, most people’s definition of government corruption still includes the idea that politicians can be bought, particularly by a specific company or industry, and yet the Citizens United ruling pretty much makes that legal.
It costs a fortune to run for a major political office, meaning only those with lots of money to start with — and those with rich friends and supporters — stand any real chance of winning. That’s problematic in many ways, including the fact that wealthy people often do a terrible job of representing middle- and lower-income people. But corporations and industries are even wealthier than the average wealthy person, and have even more invested in making sure the laws go their way.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the Supreme Court is likely to reverse the decision anytime soon. But the American Civil Liberties Union is fighting for campaign finance reform in this and other areas, and you can pitch in if you want to help them do that.
5. Improving everyone’s bullshit detectors
We are awash in information. Some of it’s fact-based. Some of it’s biased. Some of it’s propaganda. And some of it’s totally made up. We need to be able to tell the difference, or we wind up drowning in confusion.
It’s easy to say that only uneducated or unintelligent people would fall for information that isn’t true. In reality, we’re all vulnerable. “When our brains process information belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity. Research shows that when we process and comprehend a statement, our brain automatically accepts it as true, whereas the subsequent skepticism of the statement requires an extra cognitive step, which is a heavier load to lift. It is easier to just believe it and move on,” according to Business Insider.
I’ve been a journalist for two decades, and I still find myself getting suckered by “news” items I see shared on Facebook. Seconds later, my skepticism kicks in and I check Snopes or Google for more information. It takes practice. It also takes extra time, and people feel busy and overburdened already. My general rule is: if I don’t have time to fact-check something, I don’t share or repeat it. Then, at least, I’m not compounding the problem. But for those who want to go further, here are some good tips on spotting fake news.
This article is full of ways to reach out and begin to fight, but here are two more: the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee and the U.S. House Committee on House Administration which, despite the vague name, oversees election issues. Go forth and make noise.