Celebration: That Long Winding Road

The three-mile hike through the woods to Windsor Castle featured the “beefeaters” (castle guards) and Naval marines walking near the modern black hearse carrying Queen Elizabeth’s body.

Once in death, friend and foe alike ponder one’s life. At 96, the Queen’s history offers much to consider. By this decade, her subjects had come to see her as the nation’s mum, if not a national grandmother, whose calm, leadership skills were much more than the extension of her hand to in-coming Prime Ministers.

Countries wanting to renounce their allegiance to Britain now that the Queen has passed on will deal with younger royals moving beyond the Elizabethan period of British history.

But those who disdain women of a certain age do so at their peril. The British appreciate the talents of mature women, maybe given the long reign of Queen Elizabeth. This woman also exhibited a sense of humor. She enjoyed playing her part in a spoof, pretending to parachuse from a plane with another British favorite, Daniel Craig.

In his 007 roles, Craig led a chase with another well-known British actor, Dame Judith Dench, who passed through much of Bond history as the leader of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. Pardon my comparison bringing together the Queen with another celebrated Brit, Dame Agatha Christy, who sold more mystery books, short stories, and plays (one billion copies) than anyone except Shakespeare. He began publication three centuries before Christy wrote a word. Nevertheless, her Belgium Detective Poirot still draws an audience to the small screen or the bookstore. Now fifty years after Christy’s death, her creation, Miss Jane Marple, continues to detect the guilty evil doers in homicides in quaint English villages.

Unlike Christy’s fictional characters, the Queen’s final ceremony reminds us that sooner or later, we will all take that final journey to be placed under a headstone or in an urn. Unlikely we will have bagpipes or Beefeaters along, but life is a winding road; rough or smooth will be up to each of us.

What Queen Elizabeth brought to the British during her 70 years on the throne are two attributes in short supply in 2022–continuity and stability. For that, her countrymen and women offer their gratitude.

The Games Founders Played… Repeated with Software

The scales of justice are not always applied to elections when district maps are drawn.

Do you remember Elbridge Gerry? If not for one slip-up, he could have a role in “Hamilton” or been revered like Thomas Paine.

How soon we forget that Gerry was a genuine Founder, a signer of the Declaration of Independence at 32. Being from Massachusetts, he nearly guaranteed the American Revolution by voting to block shipments of British tea into Boston Harbor (disappointing local tea drinkers) and serving in the Continental Congress. In addition, Gerry helped draft the Bill of Rights. The job of Vice President might not have been any more revered in 1811 than in modern times, but he served under President John Adams in his second term. Adams proclaimed before the district plumping incident, “If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the gates of Earth and Hell.”

All that is forgotten—Gerry’s 36 years of public service from Signer to U.S. Rep to Governor—disappeared with a cartoonist’s rendering of a salamander in the Boston Gazette in 1812. David Litt’s book, Democracy in one book or less, explains Gerry redrew Massachusetts’ senate district lines, so the Republicans were “guaranteed” to win.

Both political parties have engaged in gerrymandering over the intervening years. Both Parties have done it, but in recent times the Republicans have been more efficient and used the 2020 Census to fine-tune their game. So now, after 200 years, we battle salamander divisions in multiple Congressional districts in many states.

Gerry was not the first to fudge the lines. None other than Patrick Henry, in the cradle of democracy, Virginia, during the first congressional election in 1788, warped the district lines attempting to prevent none other than James Madison from winning a seat in the House of Representatives. Litt jokes about “Henrymanders” but doesn’t have the same ring. Now Henry doesn’t have a role on Broadway, and his name has been unblemished for 200 years. He is not forever linked to his political grudge against Madison, who took his seat and might have been too much of a gentleman to call him on it. (More research needed.)

BTW, Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) lost the 1812 election for governor, his Party lost the State House of Representatives, and when his opponents took the statehouse, they overturned the changes Gerry had made to the map. His reputation suffered again when a follow-up cartoon portrayed a salamander skeleton with the epitaph: “Hatched 1812, Died 1813.”

In 1997 American voters decided on 165 swing districts by ten percentage points or less. By 2012 the number of swing districts fell to 90, and by 2016 down to 72 nationwide. Over the next twenty years, gerrymandering cut the chances of living in a competitive House district by half.

How did this come about? Many factors combined, but gerrymandering became a snowball flung downhill after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, and a renewed majority in the House.

Team Mitch McConnel for the GOP spent $30 million to find a tool to help them dig into redistricting in 2010, a year of the Census. They acquired REMAP software for the “Redistricting Majority Project,” centered on flipping and winning state legislative chambers in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. In 2010 the GOP won 117 state legislative races in these states and redrew not just their state maps and Congressional districts. The Party created a red wave that took the House and Senate for the GOP, helped eleven of its own takeover governors’ mansions, and flipped twenty state legislatures to red. Former Wisconsin State Senator Dale Schultz (R) explains the philosophy behind their plan: “It really represents legislators picking voters rather than voters picking legislators.” A bent view of democracy.

The GOP drew four times as many state district boundaries as the Dems, who became sitting ducks, with a surplus of “vote sinks,” uncompetitive congressional districts. In the wake of the 2011 redistricting cycle, Litt identified five states skewed Democratic and nineteen skewed Republican.

In 2012 the Dems attempted to reverse the odds spending $48 million on a software-based plan to redraw Congressional district lines to catch up. In most states, districts are drawn every decade by the Party that controls the state legislature in conjunction with the Census. However, a few progressive states have named a bipartisan commission to set the boundaries.

That same year voters chose the Democratic candidate by a margin of 1.4 million votes in their local House races. Using gerrymandering, the GOP placed DEM voters into districts where they were overwhelmed by GOP voters and won a majority of thirty-three seats. The votes of people who live in cities got swamped. For example, in Michigan, Obama won 54 percent of the vote, but Democrats won only 5 of the state’s 14 congressional seats. In Ohio, the GOP won 52 percent of the presidential vote and 75 percent of the Congressional seats.

The number of seats considered “swing,” where either candidate could win, has dwindled over the last 46 years. In 1976, three in four Americans resided in counties that split their vote 60-40 or even closer, according to Bill Bishop’s 2009 book, The Big Sort. In 2012, the number of swing districts dropped to 90. Four years later, there were only 72.

As Litt describes it, “Modern Gerrys can slice districts with a finesse that puts brain surgery to shame.” “Mapititude for Redistricting” can automatically crunch demographic numbers to tell you with extraordinary detail what to expect from a given seat. The GOP’s firm grasp of redistricting technology has skewed today’s gerrymandering on a scale “unprecedented” in modern history. Due to the political circumstances of the last election, the Dems hold on to the House (by a thread now), but as of 2020, the GOP started with a gain of between twenty and thirty Congressional seats. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court may indirectly help DEM voters even the score in the months before November 8. But as far as a correction to the voting situation, the now conservative Supreme Court, after the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, has declined to rule on gerrymandering issues.

Finally, elections in Alaska, California, Maine, and New York city-wide have used “ranked-choice voting” to allow the voter to select the candidate they like best and vote for whatever Party without wasting a vote. When the polls close, the election staff begin by counting first-choice votes. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent, they win. If not, anyone who voted for the last-place finisher gets their second-place choice count. Litt believes this will increase participation because voters can vote for the person who excites them the most.

Elbridge Gerry has something in common with 21st-century politicians; his desperation to carry his Party to victory in 1812. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who played a role in the Continental Congress, he threw away his legacy as a Founding Father. Instead, he fell to the human trait that has afflicted political candidates for over 200 years—the lust for power that corrupts and spurs candidates to bend or ignore the rules to win a campaign. Unfortunately, the hunger for victory or the desire to retain it (at all costs) seems to turn some politicians’ ethics to mush.

No Voice, No Vote, No Liberty

Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, PA matadornnetwork.com

“They who have no voice nor vote in the election of representatives do not enjoy liberty but are enslaved to those who do.” Ben Franklin, 1774

I signed up for VDVR training (Voter Deputy Voter Registrar) since Labor Day begins the campaign season for the 2022 Midterm Election. VDVR is not risk free. The completed registration form lists my name and VDVR number at the bottom. If I incorrectly fill out the form here in Texas, it can bring a criminal penalty, a felony, even if I make an honest mistake. Strange that helping people register to vote can create such fear and loathing in the TX Legislature.

How many people can I register in a day going door-to-door or sitting in a booth at a parade or civic event? 20 to 40. How many people could be registered if automatic registration took place at the DMVor Social Security? Millions. It’s a numbers game. Nationwide 1 in 4 eligible voters are not registered to vote, which partially explains why the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of voting among the developed nations.

But adding registered voters to the rolls does not appeal to some elected officials, who prefer the status quo. Yet progress is being made. Since 2015 nineteen states have switched to automatic voter registration (AVR), primarily blue states. But wait, nineteen mostly red states have acted to restrict voting rights, mostly in 2021. Bills to restrict voting (440) have been filed in 48 states, just 34 have passed, including four wide-ranging omnibus voting restrictions in Georgia, Iowa, Florida, and, yes, Texas.

False Smoke Screen: “Voter Fraud”

Since the 2020 Presidential Election, former President Donald Trump’s redundant and fake cries of fraud, have complicated the registration process. But what’s the risk here? David Litt in Democracy in One Book or Less does not deny there is voter fraud, but instead of dreaming up any old number, he relies on recent, nonpartisan studies.

Litt points to the fact that impostors filling out multiple ballots in places where they’re not registered is rare indeed. Impersonation “tarnishes approximately one ballot out of every 32,250,000.” If you can’t wrap your brain around that number, “imagine a human chain of voters, starting at polling in New York City, stretching across the country to Seattle, dropping down to Los Angeles, and returning back east as far as New Orleans.” In that 5,000-mile line, precisely one of them will commit fraud. (That’s .0000017 percent.) Checks and balances make it much more difficult to commit fraud.

Partisan, geographic, and racial divides over access to the ballot are the law in seven states, which have harsher voter ID laws, seven shrunk the amount of time allowed for mail-in voting, and four limited the use of ballot drop boxes for mail-in votes. Seven states made it easier to purge voters off the voter rolls. In 2020 the Electoral wizards in Georgia applied an “exact match” criterion to registration forms and election day signatures, not by handwriting experts, but by untrained poll workers. Who among us signs their name the same when we’re in a hurry vs. when we’re signing an official document? Is it possible to achieve a “perfect match”? Colorado has agreed to accept “a substantial match” to remove confusion.

Purging Voters: 16 million in 2016

The response to 2020 fears of “voter fraud” created a Catch-22 for those in Florida who have completed prison terms. In 2018 in Florida, nearly 65 percent of state voters supported a referendum (Amendment 4) calling for the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders who completed their prison terms unless they had been charged with murder or felony sexual offenses.

Amendment 4 went into effect on January 8, 2019 and cleared the way for 1.4 million ex-offenders to register to vote. (The state’s ban on felons voting—which disenfranchised 1 in 5 Black Floridians—dated to the Civil War.) However, a year later, Florida’s GOP legislature added another hoop to pass through, contrary to Amendment 4. It requires payment of fines related to their offense (some compounded while they were in prison) before being allowed to vote—essentially a poll tax.

Florida’s county election boards followed the original law established in Amendment 4 and reached out to ex-offenders to register, including 49-year-old street cleaner Nathan Hart. He registered at the DMV in March 2020 and received a Voter’s Registration Card. But on August 18, Hart was arrested by the county sheriff’s deputy and two state law enforcement officers. They charged him with falsifying his registration and being an “unqualified elector.” Both are third-degree felonies. He was held in jail for 14 hours and faced fines of $5,000 and five years in prison.  

Similar cases will grow in Florida with a special “election force, a first-of-its-kind.” Governor Ron DeSantis introduced proudly at a campaign event. He asked for $6 million to hire 52 people to “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest anyone for an alleged violation” of election laws. Florida’s legislature reduced it to $1.2 million and 15 investigators.

It’s understandable to delete the names of voters who have died or moved to another state, but the numbers would not reach the millions. The numbers of purged voters have grown nationwide since the Brennan Center reported that nationwide 16 million voters were culled from voter lists from 2014 to 2016. This total is a 33 percent increase from 2006-2008. Texas threw off 363,000, Wisconsin 232,000, and Georgia won the prize saying goodbye to 1.5 million voters, angering candidates. Some of these voters have been returned, but it’s puzzling to know that these purges were not part of a routine process but came in the heat of political battles. A 2016 Reuters analysis found the cuts hit the largest Democratic counties and twice the rate of GOP. Black city voters were more likely to be purged than white suburban dwellers.

In 2015, Wisconsin began to enforce a photo ID law for all elections. However, a federal judge found that the Wisconsin law led to “real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities.” Although the judge found no evidence of widespread voter impersonation in Wisconsin, the “cure is worse than the disease.”

Scrubbing the names of people who have been verified dead or moved to another state can be routine. But a targeted voter purge is not legal, but a throwback to an ugly time. In 1959, the White Citizens Council of Washington Parish, Louisiana, conducted a purge, removing 85 percent of Black voters and just.07 of whites.

Another example, in 1999, a conservative activist group, ironically called the Voting Integrity Project (VIP), endorsed a company called Database Technologies. Florida hired this company to purge its voter rolls before the 2000 election. One example of their over-zealous approach to cleaning the rolls: legitimate voter Michael Jones of Tampa became “confused” with Michael Jones, a convicted felon in Ohio, and Linda Howell, election supervisor in Madison County, appeared on the list. The conservative estimate is that 12,000 eligible voters were erased from Florida’s voter rolls—half of them African Americans. In 2000 Al Gore lost the Presidential Election by 537 votes. Could this purge, before that election have made a difference? But we moved forward.

Mail-in Ballots: Dangerous or Necessary?

A mail-in ballot made it easier for me in 2021during Covid. First, I requested a ballot online. I had time to review the candidates and issues, then used my notes when I filled in the ballot. I drove to the Travis County Elections office and deposited my ballot into a sealed box (with an election official standing next to it).

Despite the hew and cry against it, mail-in voting is not something new-fangled. Oregon has done it since 1989. Since then, seven other states have instituted mail-in balloting: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah (by no means a liberal state), and Vermont. In addition, Nebraska and North Dakota often experience foul weather in the fall, permitting counties to opt for mail-in ballots.

Mail-in ballots can be a Godsend for disabled people or the elderly who can no longer drive. Nine states allow mail-in balloting in small elections: Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming. As the expense of finding locations for a general election, expensive voting equipment, and the challenge of staffing them grow each year, other states may be forced to reconsider

We have options. It doesn’t need to be so difficult to register or even vote. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems there are elected officials who work to make it more difficult, not easier. We need to tell them with our votes that we, the people, don’t want voters removed to meet their political benchmarks. We want it to be easier to vote for all Americans. Despite the roadblocks put in our way, the message will get through if we work diligently to protect our democracy.

Next time we’ll talk about Elbridge Gerry, who went to Harvard, worked in his family business in Massachusetts, then served in the Continental Congress, became governor, and won praise from John Adams. Did he deserve the shame upon his name for “gerrymandering?”