What Issue Delayed House Speaker?

US Capitol Building at sunset with American flags is the home of the United States Congress in Washington D.C, USA. iStock

What was the issuebehind the Speaker ballots?

Look at the possibilities—the economy, immigration, the War in Ukraine—yield not one single issue to unite behind Kevin McCarthy’s bid. When last the decision of a leader in the House dragged on for days—1855 and 1859—one point burned across the landscape, slavery. With few exceptions, the choice blazed “yes” in the South and “no” in the North before the Civil War. Neither side wanted a leader in the House who did not share their views. But then, slavery or the defeat of slavery would be debated. But in 2023 it’s to feed the personal agendas of those 20 Members seeking to raise money for their own political campaigns and for right-wing causes, but mainly to grasp TV time on CSPAN and FOX.

In 1855, it took 133 ballots to elect Nathaniel Banks (R-Massachusetts) of the American Party as Speaker. The decision stretched from December 2, 1855, to February 3, 1856, when he bested William Aiken D-SC just 103 to 100. The contest began with 21 candidates for Speaker but winnowed to three final candidates, who were called upon to state their views on the recent legislation on slavery expansion in the West. Rep. Banks had ties to anti-slavery New York Times Editor Horace Greeley. In one of many fights on and off the House floor that year, Albert Rust (D-Arkansas) tried to disqualify Banks, punching him with his fist. Then later, Rep. Banks found Rep. Banks and Greeley downtown and hit Banks with his cane.

Now the U.S. House vote for Speaker came down to 213 FOR, not slavery or any defining policy, but in support of giving the POWER of the gavel to Kevin McCarthy v. 213 AGAINST McCarthy and FOR Hakeem Jeffries, who consistently pulled his Party members, but could not reach the 218 required to win the gavel. In the end, past the midnight hour Friday, McCarthy swayed a few votes his way, then persuaded six to vote “present,” reducing the number needed to stop the impasse. (Heaven help us if he promised more than giving the far right the ability to remove him if five of the 20 far-right Members do not fancy his leadership, requiring another ring-around-the-rosy.) Finally, at 1:30 am Saturday, McCarthy snatched the gavel and waved it above his head, nearly like an ax. Let the games begin.

I wondered who won the gavel in 1859-1860 after that Congressional battle. William Pennington won the election for Speaker on Feb. 1, 1860, after 63 ballots. He had been governor of New Jersey from 1837-43. His father served in the Revolutionary Army and as and had served as N.J. governor after the war (1813-15). Later Madison appointed William to a federal judgeship. Amid that balloting for Speaker, there were nine physical fights of the floor of the House and one street fight involving Members of Congress.

ASIDE: To show every era has its voting challenges, twenty-three years before William served as Speaker, he was involved in the “Broad Seal War” in New Jersey. Two contingents of candidates (Democrats and Whigs) in a closely contested race came before him as governor. Each held commissions bearing the seal of New Jersey on the opening day of the 26th Congress in 1839, requesting to be seated. Pennington seated the Whigs (his Party) and refused to sit 5 of the 6 Democrats. Finally, after they proved the county clerks in Cumberland and Middlesex counties suppressed returns in certain townships, the Democrats were seated on February 28, 1840. These members gave the Democrats the majority in the House.

Members avoided violence in 2023, but late on Friday when on the 14th ballot Matt Gaetz (R-FL), leader of the “Never Kevin” extreme right-wing contingent, voted Present,” tensions mounted. At first, GOP members thought that would be enough to seal the deal. Instead, Congressional fisticuffs threatened Friday night when Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) moved fists drawn towards Rep. Gaetz only to be restrained by a fellow Southern Member, averting a battle, not wanting to solve frustrations with violence. Later it was learned that Rep. Rogers had been rumored to be the next Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Will his undisciplined action on Friday night deter other Members from confirming him to this leadership position?

Promises to grasp the gavel in 2023?

Offerings to the Publicity-Thirsty Gang of 15 foretells of rocky times ahead. Could it be called blackmail? We will have two years to determine how this quid-pro-quo operates.

Offerings were made to those who changed their vote from “Never Kevin” to “Present,” making it possible for McCarthy to acquire the Speaker’s gavel. Here are some of the suggested concessions:

  1. If just one Member disagrees with the Speaker, a roll call of the House could be called to determine whether he stays or goes (referred to as having a pistol pointed at the Speaker’s head).
  2. More of the 15 Disaffected could serve on the all-important Rules Committee that sets what bills would be placed on the calendar, when, and what amendments are allowed.
  3. Allow a House vote on term limits.
  4. Possibly also setting the 2022 spending limit for 2024, requiring federal budget cuts and a $75 billion cut in the federal military budget.

It remains to be seen how much of this wish list will be delivered, difficult voting on the Rules of the House and the 2023-2024 legislative agenda. In the Spring, America’s debt ceiling is expected to be reached. A similar legislative fight took place in 2011 when the nation also experienced divided government between the House and the White House. Will the U.S. maintain its financial reputation around the globe? Will media on GOP and DEM sides be able to adequately explain the real impact failing to pay America’s debts have on the average American? In 2011, the nation’s credit rating declined. What will happen in 2023?

Freeman, Joanne B. “It’s Tempting to Laugh at McCarthy’s Struggles, but History Shows That This Type of Chaos is Not a Joke.”  New York Times, Jan. 7, 2023.

Rolling on the River. . . to a Bridge

How Lincoln and Modern Technology Changed History

When the Effie Afton (not pictured) ran into the Rock Island Railroad Bridge stone pier in 1856, exploding in flames and destroying a section of the bridge, it led to the transcontinental railroad. Today people and goods move across the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean because of this court case argued in a Chicago courtroom in 1857. Abraham Lincoln, who had a vision of swifter, cheaper travel and a nation united east and west, joined this legal team before he ran for President.

The case: The Effie Afton highlighted the economic interests of steamboats vs. the railroads and competitors along the Mississippi River. Technically: Hurd et al (steamboat investors) v. The Railroad Bridge Company. The steamboat owners filed suit to recover damages against the Railroad Bridge Company, which retained Lincoln and a panel of lawyers to defend themselves against the steamboat company.

The incident: A high wind whipped across the water as the Effie Afton paddled the upper Mississippi the night before the collision. Calmer morning winds encouraged Affie’s captain to get a fresh start. He zoomed backward from the dock into the steamboat John Wilson butkept going, even engaging in a race to the bridge with the slower J.B. Carson. Effie won the race, but about halfway under the drawbridge, the boat began to sway, then plowed into a supporting pillar for the Rock Island Bridge on May 5, 1856. Just open for two weeks, the Rock Island Bridge was the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi River.

The impact could be felt from Effie’s bow to stern. Emergency bells blared, and the hissing sound of escaping steam filled the air. Two hundred people were on board, including fifty crew, plus livestock, machinery, farm implements, and groceries weighing more than 350 tons. Desperate passengers braved the cold water to swim to nearby ships, and some even reached out to grab sections of the bridge now jutting down from the suspension. Some cattle swam to shore, but others drowned or burned on board. Every person survived as other steamboats fished them out of the water. Firefighters extinguished smaller fires erupting from space heaters on the deck or cooking stoves in 50 staterooms, but then the timbers of the bridge caught fire. Eventually, the remains of the ship and the fallen bridge span floated down the river until they rested on a Rock Island sandbar.

Steamboat Heyday & History’s Influence

Steamboat traffic in the 1850s became the lifeblood of cities along the river, like St. Louis and New Orleans, bringing food, shelter, and people starting a new life. But the boats could not guarantee when any boat would reach port because of surprise sandbars and snags that could delay a trip for days until a strong wave helped ease the ship back on its way. If you glance at a map of the U.S., you will see the Mississippi and its tributaries follow a winding route, not a straight line, south to New Orleans. The Big Muddy weaves lazily through 3,000 miles of soggy land, taking a trip a bird could fly directly in 675 miles, according to Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi (2).

Ironically the relative of a future President, great-uncle of Teddy Roosevelt, Nicholas Roosevelt, financially helped build the first steamboat in America with Robert Fulton and Robert R. Livingston in 1810-11 when Abe Lincoln was just two. In October 1811, Roosevelt made the first steamboat trip from Pittsburg to New Orleans aboard the New Orleans with his wife, Lydia Latrobe. Her father, Benjamin Latrobe, served as the second architect of the U.S. Capitol, creating his reputation.

Railroads’ American Entry

America’s railroads grew from a horse-drawn tramway used to carry granite from Quincy, Massachusetts, four miles to Milton to construct the Bunker Hill Monument in 1826, the origin of the Granite Railway. It took thirty years before the rail industry grew to build the Rock Island Bridge over the Mississippi. Just twelve years later, with Lincoln’s assistance in the White House, two trains met at Promontory Point, Utah,on May 10, 1869, opening the transcontinental railroad to passenger and freight traffic from coast-to-coast.

When he was in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln voted to straighten and deepen river channels, build roads, and build bridges over creeks and rivers. In addition, he supported state financing of a nearly one-hundred-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal linking the Chicago River (near Lake Michigan) with the Illinois River, which flowed into the Mississippi. A twelve-year project (1836-48), the canal pushed Chicago to become the Midwest’s principal commercial (and agricultural and cattle) center. (Zobrist, “Steamboat Men versus Railroad Men,” 160.)

Lincoln and the Effie Afton

As a prairie lawyer, Lincoln strolled into the Chicago courtroom in the Effie Afton case and proceeded to etch his role in history. Abraham Lincoln, then 48, had hundreds of civil and criminal cases under his belt (eventually totaling 3,200 cases over 25 years). Twenty years earlier, he began to ride Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit on horseback, his proving ground. From spring into summer, he endured the glaring heat and swirling dust on horseback, then returned to do it again each fall.

In his free moments traveling the Circuit, Lincoln read Euclid’s Geometry to study the logic he found there. He put it to use in the courtroom. Once Billy Herndon, his law partner, questioned Lincoln about why he took the jury so far back in the history of the law in a particular case in the Illinois Supreme Court. (Lewis v. Lewis, 48 U.S.[7Howard] 776 (1849) Lincoln’s response: “I dare not trust this case on presumptions that this court knows everything. I argue the case on the presumption that the court did not know anything.” Herndon noted that Lincoln “won the case by the history he was so careful to state fully.”

Lincoln prepared well for jury trials, particularly those before the Illinois Supreme Court. He removed other cases from his calendar to spend a week or two in the library studying both sides.Lincoln would argue the appeals of more than two hundred cases that other lawyers had lost at the trial court level.

In Effie Afton, Abraham Lincoln served on the legal team for the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad Company and the Mississippi and Missouri Railroads, running on either side of the Big Muddy. Lincoln began his speech in his characteristic way by telling the jury that “he did not propose to assail anybody, that he expected to grow earnest as he proceeded but not ill-natured.”When Lincoln spoke of the depth of the river channel under the bridge, following him took attention and some skill. He conveyed detailed information; his voice gave assurance and facts. While his voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping,” as he continued to speak, it “became harmonious, melodious, musical, if you please; his form dilated, swelled out, and he rose a splendid form, erect, straight and dignified.” (Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life 1:320)

Lincoln honed his analytical and debating skills in this case, further building his reputation. He had learned how to communicate effectively with juries, to speak to them in words that would convince them that justice should prevail. During this trial, Francis Saltonstall, a stock and bond broker, recalled Lincoln “seemed to have committed all the facts and figures to memory, and often corrected evidence so effectively as to cause a ripple of mirth in the audience.”  Then Lincoln applied what he learned about appealing to members of the jury to voters in his political life. However, he won his first election to the Illinois State Legislature in 1834, more than two decades earlier.

He didn’t need to stay working in out-back Illinois. After Lincoln won several important cases, a prominent Chicago attorney named Grant Goodrich invited him to join his law practice, but Lincoln said “no,” explaining directly that he “would rather go around the Circuit . . . than sit down & die in Chicago.” (Herndon’s Informant’s: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 349)

When Lincoln spoke of the depth of the river channel under the bridge, following him took attention and some skill. He conveyed detailed information; his voice gave assurance and facts. While his voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping,” as he continued to speak, it “became harmonious, melodious, musical, if you please, with a face somewhat allow; his form dilated, swelled out, and he rose a splendid form, erect, straight and dignified.” (Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life 1:320)

In this case, he honed his analytical and debating skills, further building his reputation. In addition, he had learned how to communicate effectively with juries, to speak to them in words that would convince them that justice should prevail. Then Lincoln applied what he learned to gather Illinois voters to his political life. He advanced from his earlier victory as an Illinois State Legislator in 1834. During the trial, Francis Saltonstall, a stock and bond broker, recalled Lincoln “seemed to have committed all the facts and figures to memory, and often corrected evidence so effectively as to cause a ripple of mirth in the audience.”  

He didn’t need to stay working in out-back Illinois. After Lincoln won several important cases, a prominent Chicago attorney named Grant Goodrich invited him to join his law practice, but Lincoln said “no,” explaining directly that he “would rather go around the Circuit . . . than sit down & die in Chicago.” (Herndon’s Informant’s: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 349)

Lincoln would argue the appeals of more than two hundred cases that other lawyers had argued at the trial court level. When preparing for a case before the Illinois Supreme Court, he would quit his other work for a week or two in the court’s library or his office. When he stood to argue an appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court, the opposing lawyer never had an opportunity to make a point Lincoln had not already investigated.

Lincoln on the River:

As a youth, Lincoln learned to navigate the Mississippi River. In 1827, when he was 18, he operated a private flatboat ferry on Little Pigeon Creek, charging twenty cents daily. Eventually, regular ferry operators became angry and arrested him for operating a ferry without a license. He defended himself before a justice of the peace. Lincoln argued that Kentucky law (he lived close to the border between the two states) did not forbid non-licensed ferry boats from conveying passengers to steamboats in the middle of the river. Later Lincoln said this experience helped him develop an interest in the law.

Far from being against water transportation, Lincoln appreciated what steamboats could do to widen the horizons of his fellow Midwesterners. So he built a simple flatboat sailing down the Mississippi to New Orleans. While there, Lincoln saw many black people, including women and children, in chains, being bought and sold in the market, many to work on plantations growing cotton. That experience awakened him to the perils of slavery and stayed with him throughout his political career.

This case fell within Lincoln’s philosophy –the American System–(and the 1830 Whig Party philosophy of Henry Clay). The Whigs called for tariffs to protect and promote American manufacturing and create a home market for American products, a national bank to provide a sound and uniform currency, and federal support for roads, canals, and river improvements.” (Holt, Rise, and Fall of American Whig Party, speech by Henry Clay, March 30, 1830)

History’s Verdict of the Effie Afton

Abraham Lincoln cemented his legal reputation based on this victory. Then after a series of debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln overcame better-known candidates to be the Republican nominee and mounted a successful campaign for President in 1860. (Although candidates did not travel around the country in those days, but had surrogates who spoke for them.) But, unfortunately, the jurors could not reach a legally binding verdict—the jury was hung—since they could not reach a unanimous decision. Financial results show the steamboat companies’ fears of the rail industry were realistic. Still, technological change brought faster, less expensive, more reliable transportation that made all the difference, sinking the steamboat trade.  

  • Despite the Effie Afton litigation cost, the railroad spanning the Mississippi made money the year after the decision.
  • 1866 – Railroad bridges were funded and built at Quincy, Ill; Burlington, Iowa; Hannibal, MO; Prairie du Chien, WI; Keokuk, Iowa; Winona, MN; Dubuque, Iowa, and St. Louis and Kansas City, MO
  • 1879 –  More than 85 percent of farm products were shipped from states along the Mississippi by rail and 15 percent by the river.
  • By 1890, the entire rail business out of St. Louis was twelve times the river traffic; by 1906, it was one hundred times.

But just a few decades after the court’s ruling, these economic events gave the victory to travel by rail that now operates across the country. Of course, as history continues, rail passenger travel focuses more on efficient regional trips on both coasts. Now less bulky freight travels by air for swifter service. Instead, large trucks carry products to final destinations, generally for shorter distances, though some 18-wheel trucks haul bulky equipment and agricultural products.

All transportation services compete for drivers and currently rail freight engineers are negotiating higher salaries and sick leave after working through the Pandemic without upgrades. Transportation that moves America will continue to evolve as advances in electric batteries create opportunities for less polluting vehicles. However, the electricity that runs the modern vehicles still relies in part on coal as an energy source. New inventions and advances in energy sources will bring new challenges, just as in the 19th century.  


McGinty, Brian. Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015)

Is This the Founders’ Free Speech?

Online messages hoping to increase eyeballs from the right or left have flooded the net since 2015. Now with Elon Musk’s purchase of the massive mega horn Twitter, could we see the floodgates open for neo-Nazi, fake news, racist, anti-seminist, and pornographic content?

Musk’s emails at the time of his up-and-down indecision about whether to pay $44 billion to acquire Twitter tried to assure conservatives it would be a platform for “free speech.” Yet, a week after the purchase, Musk said he would not immediately lift the ban on those dropped from Twitter until after a review. This comment gave some security to those concerned about where his statement challenging “political correctness” might lead.

Musk tried to reassure the public that his Twitter would not be a “free-for-all hellscape,” then he proceeded to play follow-the-leader with other conservatives spreading fake news last weekend. Now the quick “trim” of half of Twitter’s workforce makes no allowance for Twitter’s fast response to expected hits testing the protective nets for “free speech” allowed on the network (if any remain). Concerning evidence has come already with a 500 percent increase in the use of the “n” word on Twitter, according to Princeton’s Network Contagion Research Institute. 

For political or financial reasons, Musk could have painted himself in a deep corner for a company that has not made a profit for eight of the past ten years. (Was his inclination to buy Twitter based on more than money?) In purchasing a company valued at $25 billion, Musk needs quick moneymakers. (He took out a $13 billion loan to complete the sale.) That brings us to Musk’s idea of charging Twitter users $8 a month for the privilege. Yet a poll of Twitter users indicates 50 percent would not be willing to pay, even with a promise of fewer ads. While the former Twitter owners planned to reduce costs by cutting the staff by 25 percent, Musk sent pink slips (via personal email) to as many as 50 percent (or more) of the company’s employees on Friday.

Another money maker being considered is allowing porn to run on the channel Twitter. This change for Twitter might need serious consideration since corporations pay the bills by running their ads alongside Twitter so that individual users can twitter along for free. Several large corporations, including General Motors (albeit a competitor to Musk’s Tesla), Oreo (Mondelez International Inc.), VW/Audi, Pfizer, and L’Oreal cosmetics, have paused advertising on Twitter until their future course stabilizes.

Major media companies IPG and Havas Media, both multinational ad firms, are advising their clients to pause ad spending on Twitter. In addition, Musk will meet by video with clients of Publicist Groupe (Anheuser-Busch In-Bev SA and Samsung Electronics), and WPP LLC (the largest multinational ad company with Coca-Cola, Google, and the home products under Unilever’s umbrella).

Americans will not directly access these corporate discussions with the Twitter owner. Still, we can make our voices heard by emailing our support to Twitter and the companies standing up for a Twitter we would not be afraid to share.

In the meantime, could false statements burn holes into America’s “free speech” blanket? Since the Republic’s beginning, few limits have been placed on Americans’ “free speech.” This freedom of speech comes under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights passed in 1791.

A lot has happened in America over the past 230-plus years. Words mattered then too, but discourse came through the spoken word, not broadcasts. For example, the musical, “Hamilton,” reveals a time when the personal offense could lead to violence to “solve” disagreements through duels. Aaron Burr, offended by something Alexander Hamilton said at dinner, challenged him to a duel. Burr killed Hamilton, then fled to become a hunted man. Today an insult is spread to 100 million people in the blink of an eye or demeans an entire race by racist comments that disgrace a nation. Is this where we are going? Is this the free speech America’s Founders enshrined in 1791?

As part of my education as a journalist and while studying for a master’s in mass communications, I took several Constitutional Law courses covering the constitutional rights of “free speech” and the First Amendment. Of course, this is no substitute for law school, but it stimulated an interest in the subject.

Mental Health Checklist: Wondermind.com

A life, any life, is a series of connections. Sometimes these links are broken. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no hand to reach out to or help when we need it most.

A life, any life, is a series of connections. Sometimes these links are broken. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no hand to reach out to or help when we need it most.

Selena Gomez launches mental health website

Selema Gomez, the singer and actress, now 30, experienced her mental and physical health crisis in the past decade. Her ability to address these issues encouraged her to reach out to help others. Today is World Mental Health Day, October 10, when medical teams and individuals worldwide seek to raise awareness, educate, advocate for mental health support, and remove the stigma associated with the disease.

Today Goma introduced the trailer for “My Mind & Me,” to be released on Apple TV Plus on November 4. She has also launched the “Wondermind” computer platform (www.wondermind.com), a mental health fitness site, to help people address various issues, including loneliness–an essential way to learn more about mental health.

Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. The need for help can be simple or overwhelming when we become depressed because the mental fog has depleted our view of the world of depression or other mental illnesses. This can result in a lasting depression that requires medical attention.

Since the Pandemic, the need for mental health services has increased. While legislation in the U.S. supports insurance and funding to place mental health on equal footing with physical health, budgets and services have not kept pace. As a result, parents seeking treatment for their children and teens are forced to pay “out-of-network” costs to find services for their children. Others unable to pay for these services have been forced to go without treatment, possibly causing safety issues in their communities.

In the last decade, Gomez has been diagnosed with lupus, a brain disease that impacts the joints and organs of the body, and bipolar illness, which includes bouts of depression and mania. Both are under control now, and she wants to reach out to help others learn about mental health and remove the stigma attached to these diseases.

Take this step to learn more. Check out the mental health fitness site. We must make mental health and well-being a global priority—NOW.

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?”    


What’s the Magna Carta have to do with Pleading the 5th?

Signing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights 1787, Continental Congress, Philadelphia
Signing of the Magna Carta, King John (far right) Knights (far left) 1215

Remember when we believed someone who pleaded the Fifth was guilty? Those who took the 5th did not want to “incriminate” themselves. So the accused would not answer questions. Donald Trump, the same guy who in 2016 lacerated Hillary Clinton’s tech staff who installed her private email server, for taking the Fifth.* Trump said, “only the Mob takes the 5th.” But in 1990, in his first divorce trial and just last week, Trump took the Fifth himself. He says the allegations against him are a “witch hunt” or a “fishing expedition” as his excuse for not responding.

Trump sat with New York State’s Attorney General Letitia James a week ago. She has been investigating Trump’s state tax returns in a civil suit for tax evasion (lowering his income for purposes of income taxes) and inflating his wealth to obtain loans to cover his debts.

During his presidential campaign, Trump said that evading taxes “shows he’s smart.” But now, Trump’s long-time chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, 75, pleaded guilty to 15 counts of evading taxes on $1.7 million perks, including a free apartment in Manhattan, school tuition for his grandchildren, and lease payments on a luxury car. (He made a plea deal rather than face 15 years in prison and will spend five months at New York City’s Rikers Island. He will be answering questions.)

What’s the source of the Fifth Amendment?

It goes back to the heart of Anglo-Saxon law–The Magna Carta signed on June 15, 2015, by King John, the British barons, and landowners at Runnymede. The charter limited the king’s absolute authority and laid out the rights of English citizens and commoners. American law is based on this social contract written into the Magna Carta.

In America, the Continental Congress passed the Bill of Rights in 1789; this included the 5th Amendment to protect a person’s rights in these ways:

  1. A person cannot be forced to give testimony against themselves (Self-Incrimination). The 5th Amendment is the basis for the Miranda Warning. (“Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law.”)  The government must call other witnesses and find evidence to prove the crime.
  2. You have the right to a fair trial that follows procedure through the judicial process
  3. You are judged innocent until proven guilty. (Due process)You can’t be tried twice for the same crime (Double Jeopardy)
  4. A Grand Jury looks at the evidence to determine whether to indict the accused for a criminal offense; if they decide to charge a person with a crime, they issue an indictment and hold a trial. The Grand Jury traces its roots directly to 1215, the Magna Carta, and Due Process.
  5. The government cannot take your private property unless you are paid current market value in return. (Eminent Domain)

Another critical case about the Fifth Amendment (self-incrimination) involved five young black men convicted of killing a white woman in Central Park in New York City. After they were imprisoned for ten years, a court ruled they had been coerced into giving false testimony after lengthy interrogation and abuse. Under the Fifth Amendment, a confession obtained illegally is not admissible in court. They were freed when the truth came out. Then the actual killer was arrested and convicted.

Due process says that a person is innocent until proven guilty and deserves an opportunity to present their case in court. The concept of due process tells me to reconsider my idea that those who plead the 5th are “guilty,” but it is challenging at times.

Taking the 5th has different outcomes in criminal vs. civil courts. In federal cases, taking the Fifth does not imply guilt. But in civil cases, it can have consequences—providing an inference of guilt is allowed. The current case in New York State likely will be the beginning of a triangular legal sea saw between Trump, NY Attorney General James, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

What’s the Magna Carta’s role in Pleading the Fifth in American courts today? It’s bedrock. American law sits on the foundation of British law that traces to the 13th century when the nobility and the landed gentry demanded fairness in their courts and protection from the absolute power of the king.

Next week I’m looking at David Litt’s book Democracy in One Book or Less.

  • No one was ever charged after the investigation into the mail server.

DOJ Doesn’t Play Games

Who holds the Aces? Time will tell.

Let’s get the objections out of the way first. Last week’s FBI visit to Mar-a-Lago was not spur of the moment. In January 2022, the Department of Justice issued a subpoena for documents that Donald Trump had taken back to his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Springs upon leaving the White House. Then they obtained 15 boxes, some marked classified. These were taken back to the National Archives, where Presidential Records are kept. After a review, the Archives found that boxes of classified information were missing.

Donald Trump, like any other former President, could take with him diaries and personal documents not related to official business in office as president. But the records are not like a tray of mints offered upon leaving Sardi’s in New York, free for the taking. According to the Presidential Papers Act, originally passed in 1978 responding to Richard Nixon, official presidential documents were to be released to the Archives upon leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

During the outrange by the former president’s supporters last week, there has been a reference to Watergate. Many of these people either weren’t alive then, haven’t cracked a history book, or just liked throwing around the word “Watergate” to gain support from others not curious enough to learn the true backstory. This search for documents took place in broad daylight.

Trained members of FBI operated with a legal search warrant, which was granted based on information about where the documents were located (all necessary before a federal judge in Florida would sign off). The attorney general added his signature to the warrant on Friday, two days prior to the search.

Watergate” involved a break-in at a Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in 1972. The five men arrested for the break-in were connected to the Committee for Re-Election of the President (Nixon) sponsored by a political branch of the Republican Party. They were low-level thieves hired because Nixon had become paranoid, thinking he would lose the election. So paranoid that he set up an audio taping system on his White House phone that laid out his illegal deeds like a roadmap.

The search of Mar-a-Lago came with a legal search warrant and did not come without warning. In May 2022, AG Merrick Garland and the DOJ sent a subpoena to DJ obtain information about the missing documents. Trump ignored it. Because of the sensitive nature of the documents, the DOJ determined to press for the documents. They needed to learn where the classified documents were kept in order to obtain a legal search warrant. Someone within Trump’s inner circle provided the information needed to obtain the warrant. A Florida judge signed off after receiving specific information about the documents and the location on August 5. On Monday, August 8 the search began. This wasn’t a spur of the moment “witch hunt.”

Outrange from Trump supporters followed during the week (see Watergate above) reached a dangerous level, threatening the security of federal law enforcement. Garland held a press conference to explain the process of the warrant and indicate Trump had a copy, which he could release if he desired, but set a deadline. Move up to Friday, August 12, DOJ got the go-ahead from Trump and released a copy of the August 8th search warrant and a list of the contents of the 20 boxes removed from Mar-a-Lago on Monday. The boxes taken included 11 boxes marked classified, including 4 sets of top-secret documents. Charges were made for mishandling of defense information (classified documents) and destruction of federal documents. Those included related to Oliver Stone’s pardon and interaction with French Premiere Macron.

One irony in the case is that in 2019 Trump signed into law an increase in the punishment for breaking these laws from one to five years in prison.

Trump could have present the list to the media himself. Instead, he sent out attorney Christina Bobb to explain that Trump was following “decorum.”  Since when in his life has Trump followed decorum?

On Friday, August 12, Garland released the list of the boxes taken from Mar-a-Lago, as the match continues. Garland remained calm, uncharacteristically responding to the uproar during an FBI investigation. He said he signed off one the search warrant himself after the judge. Friday Garland also released the list of the boxes taken from Mar-a-Lago. The match continues, but with classified documents now in DOJ hands, DT’s limo may have hit a speed bump too high to sail across.

You think we have problems?

Clip-art of the British Flag

Have you looked across the Pond lately? They just tossed off a Prime Minister (for cause), and the temperature rose above 100 in a country without air conditioning. It’s not just that they are stiff upper lips and all that. No, it doesn’t usually get that hot, so they’ve gone without. House fans might not be enough to cool off the Brits, particularly in Parliament!

Now that Boris has finally vamoosed 10 Downing Street, they set about the task of finding a replacement. Unfortunately, the British process of selecting a new prime minister bears little resemblance to America’s selection of a president. We may find out in short order if this is better or worse, but Americans have been stuck on what we refer to as “the democratic process” of voting leaders into office, not depending on a select few to choose for us.

Just four people remain in the race for prime minister in Britain, standing up on a stage in London for a televised debate format. (Two of them served in Boris’s cabinet, but bailed ship in the final days and weeks.) No primaries will winnow these candidates down to two. It’s a different process that American media seem not too bothered to cover.

Ah, it’s just the crazy Brits. Well, they are still our greatest ally in Europe. The Ukraine War is also getting scant reference over here, despite its long-term impact on Europe and grain resources around the world (though I understand there is a compromise of sorts to allow shipments to Africa and other starving parts of the world). Money spent on that war will not be available to meet different needs. Yet Putin seems eager to move on to other parts of Eastern Europe; he covets to return to a long-gone empire he craves to become czar over it before his demise.

If you think back to the time of Ronald Reagan, you might remember Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, who teamed with him on the takedown of the Berlin Wall. And Maggie told George H.W. Bush after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990: “Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly.” Well, so the advice goes both ways!

Boris put the weight of his country behind Ukraine, and his party is more populist than in Maggie’s time. For better or worse, he did get Brexit across the plate, though maybe Prime Minister May ahead of him got it up the hill but could not get it over (and got sacked for it, too.) He rushed his country out of the European Union, but the decision is out on that one.

Ah, but back to the election in Britain. But it isn’t what we Yanks would think of as a genuine election—just the five Tory members of the British Parliament. The choice here is before the 650-seat House of Commons, with 358 Members being Conservatives. Generational change will take place in Britain. All four candidates are under 50. In America, many key members in Congress and the president are over 75. We could get a lesson in what younger leadership could accomplish or that experience counts.

The selected prime minister could rule as long as Thatcher—eleven years from 1979 to 1990. So the impact on the future of Britain, Europe, and the US could be substantial, certainly well beyond the amount of coverage this selection is receiving in the States. First, the British lawmakers, not the public, will whittle down the list of candidates to two. It will be up to 200,000 official members of the Conservative Party to select the person who will be the next leader of Britain.

The decisions made across the Pond in the next two to ten years will determine if the Brits experience a renewal moving forward or a decline. Take no joy in a poor decision. Our future also rises and falls with that of our European neighbors. But none more than the Brits, who were once the Mother Country, now are partners in growing a responsible world to meet the challenges of the 21st century.