Election Day draws near. Have we learned any lessons?

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 31, 2020

In a few days it will be over. Finally.

The 2020 campaign and election that pretty much started in November 2016 will have run its course. It is unlikely the presidential election will be decided only in the electoral college or in the courts. The popular vote will determine the winner this year.

While living in Columbia has many advantages, it is not the optimal vantage point for gauging American public opinion. Missouri has conceded its role as the “median state” that was once a reliable bellwether of presidential election outcomes.

Public opinion polls have been rather steady for months, differing only in some state details. A reasonable guess is that Joe Biden wins 52% of the popular vote and more than 325 electoral college votes. My hunch is that Biden will pick up Georgia and North Carolina but maybe not Florida, and probably not Texas. Regardless, Donald Trump will not be reelected. For some reason, Trump has trouble saying he will accept the legitimacy of the election, but I think most American voters will.

A group of election specialists with the American Political Science Association express concern about Trump’s behavior on Election Day.

The scholars rank the Trump administration as highly likely to reject the results of the election in the event of a Biden win. In fully 80% of scenarios, experts predicted Trump would reject the results, regardless of whether Biden’s victory margin was wide or narrow. There may be protests in the street supporting Trump, but if they are peaceful, they can protest until the cows come home with no electoral impact.

It is likely the U.S. Senate will become a Democratic majority. Senate seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina look like they will flip Democratic, with the seat in Alabama likely to return to the GOP. Two Senate seats in Georgia and Sen. Lindsey Graham’s seat in South Carolina could go to Democrats. It is likely that Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell will no longer be in the majority.

The House of Representatives is likely to flip about 10 seats, thus expanding Democratic majority control that the party won in 2018 when it picked up more than 30 seats. One of the top races to watch is in Missouri’s 3rd congressional district, which includes St. Louis County, between Congresswoman Ann Wagner, a Republican, and State Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat. This suburban race might be an early indicator of how suburban women are voting.

Among the lessons we should have learned since November 2016 are that public opinion polls are a reasonable estimate but not a precise prediction of the electoral outcome. The polls in 2016 were within the margin of error but most of us were surprised that Trump beat Hillary Clinton in three pivotal states —Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — giving him an Electoral College win. The polls were not statistically wrong, our expectations were wrong.

In 2020, however, another expectation may lead to great anxiety — the expectation of an Election Night decision. Many states, Pennsylvania among them, apparently do not begin counting votes until the polling places close. With large increases in absentee votes due to health concerns over COVID-19, historically high absentee ballots make it unlikely that final state election results will be announced.

There’s little doubt that Russia and other nations are attempting to influence the election. What is unclear is whether they will be successful. U.S. intelligence agencies, social media companies and the American public are reported to be much more primed to combat foreign meddling than they were four years ago. So far, there have been no major hacks as there were in 2016, and the odds are low of U.S. election systems being compromised — to a level where actual votes might be changed.

Next to knowing the identity of the presidential victor, the second most important feature of the election campaign is the amount and composition of voter participation. Because of protest groups such as Black Lives Matter, sports teams and even some major corporations, all Americans have been inundated with the importance of voting. Turnout should be increased in all states, despite official efforts in some states to limit voting through long lines, mail snafus and handwriting analysis.

An attractive feature of the American electoral system is that we get to start over every four years. The year 2020 feels longer than 12 months, but a new administration with less tweaking, more visible and credible Cabinet secretaries and White House staff, more public discussion of policy substance, and less need for media events will bring a national respite that allows citizens to focus on getting back to normal during this COVID-19 and political pandemic.

Amendment 3 is sneaky way to make constitutional change

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 24, 2020

Amendment 3 on next week’s election ballot should be defeated because it restores more political influence in the redistricting process and reduces the standard by which political competitiveness is measured.

Amendment 3 would undo changes to the redistricting process passed by voters in 2018 by a 62% to 38% margin.

Amendment 3 is critical because it will affect the way Missouri legislative and congressional districts are drawn using the 2020 census data in time for the 2022 elections.

The constitutional change in 2018 created the position of a non-partisan state demographer to be selected by the Senate majority and minority leaders from a list prepared by the state auditor. The state demographer would be responsible for proposing redistricting maps that achieve the reasonable standards of similar size, non-discriminatory racial makeup, contiguous, preserving ethnic communities, and be as politically competitive “as is practicable.”

This year’s Amendment 3 would restore party politics by restoring the role of the governor in appointing “bipartisan” House, Senate and U.S. Congress redistricting commissions that need to be bipartisan in that there would be both Republican and Democrats on the commissions. Unfortunately, such bipartisan approaches always seem to coincide with some politically motivated sweetheart deals.

The single best opinion piece about Amendment 3 is by former U.S. Senator John Danforth written in May.

I remember that in 2018 Danforth was part of “Republicans for Amendment 1” that included several formal Republican state senators, including Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, Bob Johnson of Lee’s Summit, and Marvin Singleton of Joplin, whose perspectives are now probably less politically short-sighted than when they were still involved in partisan politics.

Danforth describes very well the advantages of having political competition that gives voters a real choice. Without competitive districts, one party or the other has a “safe district” where it is easier for the extreme fringe of the party in control to elect an extreme Democrat of Republican. The net result is that it contributes to the hyper-partisanship we see today.

Across the United States, legislative gerrymandering is a bipartisan issue — i.e. both parties do it. It is a majority-minority issue, not a Republican-Democratic issue. The majority party wants to stay in the majority and will draw legislative districts to achieve its goal. “Packing” and “cracking” are the historical terms of art involved. “Pack” all the opposing party’s voters into a small number of districts and “crack” open a concentration of opposing voters to spread them out, rendering them politically weak. Either way, the goal of gerrymandering is to maximize the majority’s legislative seats given the proportion of the party’s constituent strength. Votes above and beyond what is necessary to win the seat — usually 50 percent plus 1 — are “wasted votes” in that they could have been moved to another district.

The 2018 Amendment 1 requires that “wasted votes” be as close to zero as is possible, thus maximizing political competition. This year’s Amendment 3 replaces the “close to zero” requirement with a 15% leeway, thus allowing the seeds of gerrymandering.

The more I read about 2020’s Amendment 3, the more it smells. I use the term “stealth politics,” but others call it a “trojan horse” or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Some people call it “politics as usual.” Rather than directly proposing that 2018 Amendment 1 be overturned, the ballot measure reimposing the previous “Bipartisan Redistricting Commission changes their name to “Independent Commissions” and places two minor issues out front. Amendment 3 tempts voters with banning lobbyist gifts, which are already banned if over $5, and pretending to “strengthen campaign finance laws” by reducing contributions by $100. Different language in this year’s amendment may also open the door for legal disputes about who should be counted for redistricting: voters or all citizens.

Amendment 3 has the markings of misleading language intended to distort the will of the people as demonstrated in 2018 Amendment 1 that established a more non-partisan process for redistricting.

Legislative redistricting is a critical issue that shapes how the legislature operates until the next decennial census, but is an issue that few citizens think about. States use a variety of processes that differ from Missouri’s traditional approach that would be re-imposed if Amendment 3 passes.

Rather than trying to overturn the 2018 Amendment 1 to restore the politics of redistricting, sponsors of the Amendment 3 would have served the public more had they looked at the success in states that use judicial commissions or citizen commissions. The simplest approach may be Iowa whose non-partisan staff is forbidden to use partisan data in proposing a state redistricting map for legislative approval.

Rejecting Amendment 3 is critical because there is no legal recourse by which politically drawn maps can be challenged. Aside from the principle “one person, one vote” requiring that legislative districts “be of as equal in size as is practicable” — except, of course, for the U.S. Senate— the courts have largely refused to rule on challenges to state’s legislative re-districting plans calling them “political issues, not judicial issues.”

The Supreme Court reaffirmed this in 2019 with Chief Justice Roberts writing: “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust … The districting plans at issue here are highly partisan, by any measure. The question is whether the courts below appropriately exercised judicial power when they found them unconstitutional as well.” In a 5-4 decision, Roberts continued the practice of keeping the courts out of “political issues.”

Restoring our political system to a more civil, collaborative process will require dozens of small changes. A less partisan redistricting process is one of them. Missouri voters should reject Amendment 3.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Packing the Court isn’t the answer. Ending the politicizing of judge selection might be.

(Not quite the headline I would have written).

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN,October 17, 2020

As ugly and partisan as Supreme Court selections have become, dating back to at least the Robert Bork nomination in 1987, the real problem with the Supreme Court is that it is poorly designed and has been not subjected to careful scrutiny as has the other two branches.

The Supreme Court is too powerful, too political and too parochial. Our constitutional founders’ genius was their notion of checks and balances of the system as a whole, not the detailed design of each branch. They avoided deciding about political parties, punted the slavery issue and came up with the Electoral College out of thin air — all out of practical necessity to form a “more perfect union” to provide “our common defense” against foreign and domestic American threats.

The present judicial selection process has been dominated by rather narrow political interests promoting rather narrow judicial perspectives instead of broad-minded jurists seeking to further the goals stated in the preamble. Supreme Court decisions about the constitutionality of Congressional legislation are actually a sliver of the Court’s workload, although other decisions settling disputes between states or about criminal procedure certainly affect public policy.

Using the “originalism” perspective of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett and her mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, which aspires to interpret the Constitution as it was written, all citizens should review the text of the Constitution pertaining to the Supreme Court and the judiciary.

There is not much there. Article 3 simply states: The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” There is no mention of number of justices nor does it grant the Supreme Court the authority to rule on duly passed legislation unconstitutional.

As all political science majors should know, “judicial review” was announced, i.e. invented, by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v.  Madison in 1803. His best argument for it is that “well, somebody has to be the final decider so it might as well be the Supreme Court.” Some people call that judicial imperialism. Marshall just announced it and we all have gone along with it for two centuries.

It seems unlikely that the drafters of the Constitution originally intended nine unelected judges to dominate American public policy by 5-4 decisions. Article 1, establishing Congress, is the first article for a reason. “We, the people,” established the national government so that the people could govern ourselves.” Article 1, establishing the legislative branch, clearly has more thought and detail than does Article 3. It’s almost like James Madison said “heck, they will figure it out.”

My concerns about judicial supremacy are unrelated to a potential justice Barrett, for I have had many of these ideas since my first political science class in 1970. Back in those years, the Supreme Court was viewed as the protector of criminal rights, e.g. the Miranda rights we all know from TV, and that most classmates and the professor spoke so highly of. I was skeptical, even back then.

Since then, the Supreme Court has decided to overturn Congressional legislation about campaign contribution restrictions, that gun rights apply to individuals, and limited voting supervision of states with a history of racial suppression. Now we are waiting for the new justice to decide if people with pre-existing conditions and citizens under 26 will have health care after confirmation hearings where she artfully pretended she has no opinion on the matter.

A frequent suggestion for court reform is to limit the length of service of justices by adopting a retirement age or term limits of a decade or more. While I don’t oppose these suggestions, they don’t get at the fundamental problem of excessive Supreme Court power and the hyper-politicization of judicial selection. Faster turnover of justices would reduce the long-lasting influence of individual justices.

Judicial selection will always be “political” but can be made more cordial and thoughtful by adopting, via a Constitutional amendment, a judicial selection commission similar to the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan that is used in half the states. A judicial nomination commission, that includes some appellate court judges, would nominate a slate of names to the president who then makes a nomination to the Senate. Alternatively, we could expand the selection process to include the House of Representatives or to require two-thirds vote in the Senate for confirmation.

My preference is to limit the Supreme Court’s power by requiring a super-majority — at least six out of nine justices — or by congressional restriction on court jurisdiction, including in legislation that statement that “this Act is not subject to judicial review.”

Alternatively, a reform that is based in the American concept of “checks and balances” is to adopt a “Congressional Review” of non-unanimous Court rulings based on congressional legislation. As a practical matter, such Congressional Review could be required within a specified time period or for decisions with less than two-third of the justices.

While amending state constitutions is quite common, there are two proposed amendments this upcoming election, amending the U.S. Constitution is not part of our political culture. Our constitutional founders did a heck of good job for their time. Unfortunately, part of the American political tradition is that it is a perfect document that seldom, almost never, needs amended. Rather than have incremental adjustment we have a Constitution that is too old and rigid to amend because the stakes are so high. We have had a failure of imagination and analysis when it comes to the Supreme Court.

Without the capacity to amend the Constitution to make it “more perfect” we resort to more expedient political solutions such as “court packing” that are less than ideal.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

A remembrance of the Million Man March at its 25th anniversary

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 9, 2020

The Million Man March on Oct. 16, 1995, should have a larger place in America’s memory of racial history.

It was a beautiful fall day listening to major speakers, including Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks, as well as Farrakhan.

It filled the National Mall like a presidential inauguration. I know. I was there 25 years ago and wrote my impressions in the Oct. 20, 1995, Missourian. Download PDF file

The March Committee claimed more than 1.2 million men attended the event; the National Park Service estimate 450,000 and academic study estimates that more than 800,000 people attended the march.

The march was controversial from the start. The late congressman, John Lewis, did not support it because he thought Farrakhan aimed to “re-segregate America.”

Women criticized the march as sexist and exclusionary and held a similar gathering in Philadelphia in 1997 calling for a “day of abstinence” from work, school and community involvement.

The historical context of the march is important. Bill Clinton was president, O.J. Simpson had been acquitted two weeks before on Oct. 3. The Crime Reform Act, providing more federal funding for state prisons, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (“welfare reform”) setting time limits on Aid with Families of Dependent Children were enacted in 1994.

Of course, the march took place several years before 9/11, so security was not as stringent as it would be today.

Perhaps most important, in 1995 there was a generational shift in African American political leadership, and Louis Farrakhan was one man who stepped up to fill the gap. Media and public concern were that the march would lead to radical Islamic persuasion of the men gathered on the Mall.

Surveys conducted among participants found that that concern was misplaced, with nearly 75% saying they attended the rally to show support for the Black family, the Black community and Black unity compared with 5% who attended to show support for Farrakhan.

Surveys revealed that more than 70% of participants were from outside the Washington area and that about half attended with another member of their family. Three-fourths of those attending indicated they had at least attended college.

The principal theme was the recommitment of African American men to personal responsibility for family, community and one another. The rally was notable for the lack of demands for government action and assistance. Academic studies found that there was an increase in voting and foster parenting due to the march.

Spike Lee directed the film “Get on the Bus,” set as a road trip of 20 Black men from Los Angeles to the Million Man March that was released on the first anniversary of the event. The film, available on Netflix, captures heated conversations concerning issues about men’s lives, families, goals, dreams, difficulties and responsibilities that you can imagine a busload of men, Black or white, talking about during a 3,000 mile ride. The film captures brotherhood and personal responsibility in confronting personal conflicts in an engaging way.

There have been many follow-up events across America marking the anniversary of the Million Man March. In 2005, the 10th anniversary saw the “Million More March” on the National Mall followed by a large rally in 2015 on the 20th anniversary. In Columbia, a 20th anniversary gathering was held at Douglass Park.

Nathan Stephens, director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at MU at the time and now a professor at Illinois State University, spoke at the event about the importance of Black men sitting an example for Black youth and investing their time in youth activities that African American kids would not otherwise get a chance to do. Stephens remembers the march for recommitting men in a positive way to their communities.

America has changed a great deal since 1995. We elected our first Black president, who most observers would say served with dignity and class. Our conversations about race are more pointed and direct, but the status of Black America has not improved as indicated by increased economic inequality, the continuance of the “school to prison pipeline,” and the increase in mass incarcerations. Since 2014’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police practices have driven the national civil rights discussion.

I have two lasting memories from the march. First, Jesse Jackson, once a national presidential candidate, spoke about accepting and achieving individual responsibilities such as “getting a good job,” “taking your kids to school and meeting their teachers,” and “reading to your kids.”

Second, Farrakhan surprised me, and probably thousands of other people, by acknowledging America’s tradition of political freedom, saying “America. America the beautiful. There’s no country like this on Earth … because this is America, you allow me to speak even though you don’t like what I may say.”

The 1995 march presents a striking contrast to the street protest and rallies in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The million men on the National Mall were totally peaceful and positive, even joyful. Times have changed, but calls for focusing on personal responsibility can still be heard along with chants of “No Justice, No Peace” and “Defund the Police.”

I specifically recall a young man at one of Columbia’s street actions at the courthouse this summer who had just started a job as an engineer and spoke about the importance of completing your education and helping younger “brothers and sisters” complete theirs.

Certainly, public policies are essential for achieving racial equality and social justice, but our individual behaviors are critical.

Let’s hope the spirit and commitments forged at the 1995 Million Man March continue to grow.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Presidential debate predictable but also disgraceful

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 3, 2020

Reactions by journalists, media observers, Facebook friends, and social media confirm that my decision not to watch the Presidential (so-called) Debate this week was a good one. Who knew it would be a school yard brawl? We all should have known, that’s who.

There have been more than a dozen competent books by, and dozens of personal interviews with, people who know President Donald Trump’s personality and decision-making style, and who have consistently painted a president who lives in his own world of made-up facts and relationships. Not enough of us have paid attention and acted on what we hear.

I recommend “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us” written by Amanda Carpenter, a former staff aide to two Republican senators. Carpenter identifies Trump’s standard tricks of hyperbole, preemptive accusations and distorting by suggestion. She identifies the following five steps that she argues are his standard behavior: stake an outrageous claim to control the news cycle; advance a false claim as he is denying it; create suspense with promises of further information — and policies — that are never produced; discredit the opposition from the start; and declare victory no matter what the outcome.

An amateur psychologist could reasonably anticipate that with Trump’s stagnant election poll numbers and last Sunday’s income tax reports, that Trump would be primed for a night of outrageous claims.

I have watched every presidential debate since 1976, and watched re-runs of 1960, of course, but knew that watching the 2020 debate would not make me any more informed about the candidates, nor would it would increase my personal happiness nor improve feelings about our political system. The first reactions I read on the internet confirmed the correctness of my decision: people felt more aggravated, agitated, and anxious and dozens of Facebook friends turned it off after 15-20 minutes. Opinion polls agree, too. A Politico poll found that 52% of viewers said they did not enjoy the debate and only 10% said the candidates were respectful to one another. Several polls showed that Trump did not help himself.

My immediate reaction to the earliest reports about the debate was concern about our country’s image around the world. In the summer of 1992, I was walking on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and overheard a man from India, bending down on one knee, tell his grade school daughter, pointing to the U.S. Capitol “Look at that dome. All over the world, that building is a symbol of democracy and freedom.” I was so moved that I waited a few minutes and then initiated a discussion with the father as his daughter skipped ahead. He repeated that statement to me and added “All countries look to your county to do what is right.” His daughter would be in her 30s now. I hope she did not watch the debate.

I have heard similar expectations of America in Eastern Europe and in several Asian counties. In South Korea, I’ve read what hundreds of college students write about their first impression of the United States. They were nearly universally positive and often mentioned the Statute of Liberty, seeing an American president or first lady, and seeing Blacks and whites working together. I wish no South Koreans watched the debates.

In many countries , students and adults learn English by watching re-runs of American TV shows and news from the BBC and CNN. This week, they had an opportunity to watch the so-called presidential debates. Two of the first reactions by foreign diplomats described the debates as “insults, bluster, and a sense of a superpower in decline” and  “the country we have looked to for leadership has descended into an ugly brawl.” Ouch.

Sadly, the last person who could have saved us from the debacle as it was unraveling was evidently ill-prepared to do so. Chris Wallace of Fox News, the debate moderator, stated the morning after: “I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did.” Wallace must be kidding.

Historians 10 years from now will be struggling to understand why so many Americans passively enabled Trump to destroy our political traditions of civility and further reduce bipartisan cooperation. Included might be the 30% to 40% of Americans who represent the “base” to which he always seems to be invigorating, but also former Speaker Paul Ryan and several senators who have remind silent in the face of Trump’s destruction.

Lately I’ve been recalling a Paul Simon song, “American Tune,” that was first recorded in the 1970s about the American experience, the Watergate affair andthe widespread feelings of disappointment, betrayal, yet resignation leading up to President Nixon’s resignation. The song depicts Americans as hard workers, struggling to get by, confused and lost. Simon writes about a dream with “the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea.” The last verse of the song is:

Oh, and it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright

You can’t be forever blessed

Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day

And I’m trying to get some rest

That’s all I’m trying to get some rest.

In 2020 that sounds like resignation to our national situation as we each try to fulfill our daily responsibilities.

Trump is not the initial cause of many ills of our political system. For reasons I do not understand, he has an ability to spot them and use them to his advantage at the expense of addressing our major policy problems. As a nation, we have had plenty of facts and evidence about COVID-19, the budget deficit, health care needs, the decaying infrastructure and low trust in governing institutions to list a few of our challenges. If we collectively choose to ignore it, it will be on us.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.