Gary Hart Concerned About Emergency Powers of President 

 Gary Hart, the former U.S. Senator from Colorado and a former presidential candidate, has said, “We have recently come to learn of at least a hundred documents authorizing extraordinary presidential powers in the case of a national emergency, virtually dictatorial powers without congressional or judicial checks and balances.” And this March President Donald Trump bragged, “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” [1]

According to Hart, “What little we know about these secret powers comes from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, but we believe they may include suspension of habeas corpus, surveillance, home intrusion, arrest without a judicial warrant, collective if not mass arrests and more; some could violate constitutional protections.”[2]

Hart, therefore, presses for an investigation and public disclosure of such powers. Indeed, he says, “public hearings should be held before the November elections, especially with rumors rife that the incumbent president might interfere with the election or refuse to accept the result if he felt in jeopardy of losing.”

“The most obvious first question is why these far-reaching powers are kept secret, not only from Congress but also from the American people. The second question is why they are necessary at all. And ultimately, should not there be permanent congressional oversight of any suggestion for calling these powers into operation? Under what dire conditions should our system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches be abandoned in favor of a dictatorship? And once a dictatorship is declared, what would be required to return us to our historic democratic system of government?”

Hart’s concern is made even more pressing by the recent disclosure that the Trump Administration is collaborating with attorney and law professor John Yoo on his expansive view of presidential power to rule by executive order.[3]

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[1] Hart, How Powerful Is the President?, N.Y. Times  (July 23, 2020).

[2] Brennan Center for Justice, Emergency Powers. presid

[3] President Trump Prepares To Rule by Decree, dwkcommentariews.com (July 23, 2020).

 

Other Opinions About the U.S. Electoral College

A prior post discussed the July 6 Supreme Court decisions about the “faithless electors’ in the U.S. Electoral College for electing the president and vice president and initial reactions to those Supreme Court cases. Here are some additional reactions to those cases as well as other commentaries about the U.S.’ complicated system for election of a president and vice president.

Jesse Wegman[1]

Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board and the author of a book about the Electoral College, rightly says these recent cases did not address the issue of the continued existence of that institution, which, he says,” is rotting American democracy from the inside out.” First, it potentially can award “the presidency to the candidate who earns fewer votes among the people as a whole — which violates the fundamental premise of majority rule.” Second, it violates “the constitutional mandate of ‘one person, one vote.’ In the presidential election, the value of your vote depends on where you live. If you live in one of the half-dozen or so ‘battleground’ states, it matters hugely. If you happen to live in a ‘safe state,’ as a vast majority of Americans do, it’s effectively irrelevant.”

The Electoral College was created in the late 18th century Constitution because its “framers worried that most voters — who rarely ventured far from home and had no easy way of getting information quickly — couldn’t know enough about national candidates to make an informed decision.” However, Wegman says, the College has never worked that way with the immediate formation of national political parties.

As a result, Wegman argues, “there is no remaining rationale for the Electoral College. What remains is a system that serves no purpose other than to erase the votes of 100 million Americans every four years, making them bystanders to the most consequential election of all.” In short, amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College.

Wall Street Journal[2]

A Wall Street Journal editorial also points out that these new cases do not “address the most controversial question about the Electoral College, which is whether the U.S. should have one at all.”

The editorial, however, does not address that issue either. Instead, it discusses the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact whereby some states agree to grant their electors to the winner of the nationwide popular vote and which presumably is valid under the Opinion of the Court. However, says the Journal, Justice Thomas in his concurring opinion, points out that the Constitution in the last clause of Article I, Section 8, states, “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress . . . enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State.”

In any event, that compact currently has 16 members (15 states and the District of Columbia) with a total of 196 electoral votes and by its terms would go into effect when enough additional states join to constitute a majority of the Electoral College (270 votes).

Richard L. Hasen[3]

 Just before these Supreme Court decisions, Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of a leading book on problems of the U.S. election system, noted several problems with that system.

  • First, it “features deep fragmentation of governmental authority over elections. Not only does the United States use a highly decentralized and localized election system that gives many powers over national elections to state and local bodies, but also, even within the approximately 10,500 bodies expected to run the 2020 election, there is sometimes disagreement over who has decision making authority over voting rights decisions.”
  • Second, “protection of voting rights in the United States is marked by polarized and judicialized decision making.”
  • Third, U.S. “ constitutional protections for voting rights remain weak. The U.S. Constitution contains no affirmative right to vote. It speaks of voting rights mostly in the negative: thanks to a number of constitutional amendments, it is now illegal to bar someone from voting on the basis of race, gender, age of at least 18, or through the use of a poll tax.”
  • Fourth, this “decentralized, federalist approach to voting rights has led to a self-perpetuating system of voting inequality, where in some places you may be disenfranchised even if you do everything right.”

Therefore, Hasen proposes the following short-term remedies. “All states need to expand opportunities for online voter registration in time” for this November’s presidential election. . . . Congress needs to adequately fund additional expenses related to running an election during the pandemic. . . .  States need to form independent bipartisan task forces to conduct full and independent investigations into why areas with more poor voters and voters of color saw significant problems voting in person during the primaries.”

In addition, Hasen advocates for a new constitutional amendment that would “guarantee all adult citizens the right to vote in federal elections, establish a nonpartisan administrative body to run federal elections that would automatically register all eligible voters to vote, and impose basic standards of voting access and competency for state and local elections.

 Wilfred Codrington III [4]

Last year Codrington, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, pointed out a racist motivation for the creation of the Electoral College at the Constitutional Convention.

“The populations in the North and South were approximately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bondage. Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president, one that could leverage the three-fifths compromise, the Faustian bargain they’d already made to determine how congressional seats would be apportioned. With about 93 percent of the country’s slaves toiling in just five southern states, that region was the undoubted beneficiary of the compromise, increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegation by 42 percent. When the time came to agree on a system for choosing the president, it was all too easy for the delegates to resort to the three-fifths compromise as the foundation.”

This racial impact affected the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, 73-65 in the Electoral College and “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves,” according to a Yale Law School professor, Akhil Reed Amar.

In the 1876 presidential election, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but not the Electoral College vote due to disputes about the status of some electors. An ad hoc commission ultimately awarded the disputed electors to Republican Rutherford Hayes with his agreeing to remove federal troops in the South that were intended to maintain order and protect black voters.

Max Boot[5]

Boot, an historian and Washington Post columnist, reports that he recently participated in a “war game” over a hypothetical narrow Biden victory in the Electoral College, 278-260, including narrow wins in three swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—where Republicans control both houses of their legislatures. Although all three states have Democratic governors, who usually certify election results, there is nothing to prevent the legislatures from certifying different results, especially if Trump “will stop at nothing to avoid the stigma of being branded a ‘loser’” and if hypothetically he and his allies concocted allegations of election fraud in those three states. The resulting dispute over these three states and hence the results of the election could well end up in the Supreme Court, and who could predict how they might resolve the dispute, given what it did in the 2000 election contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

A related concern is whether local, state and federal funding for the expenses of conducting the upcoming election in this pandemic will be adequate. This especially is true for the U.S. Postal Service with the anticipated mailing of election ballots.

David Rothkopf[6]

A lot of these current issues about the Electoral College are prompted by the outrageous conduct of our current president, Donald Trump, who is the “embodiment of the Founders’ worst fears.” So says David Rothkopf, a former professor of international affairs at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown University, former CEO and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine and a senior official in the Clinton Administration.

Rothkopf continues, Trump “has invited our enemies to interfere with our elections to help him win, then sought to do it again. He has misused federal resources, inappropriately elevated his own family members, and enriched his own businesses. He has repeatedly attacked the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. He has had infants thrown in cages and denied relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria at the cost of thousands of lives. He has gutted environmental protections and attacked alliances that the US spent decades building and maintaining. And now he has mismanaged the worst public health crisis in a hundred years, overseen the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, and attempted to use the US military to crush legitimate protests on the streets of the capital.”

Moreover, “in the space of just a few days, . . . [Trump] was revealed to have endorsed concentration camps in China and to have again sought the assistance of a foreign adversary in winning a US election, was quoted as calling for the deaths and imprisonment of US journalists, defended the slave power traitors of the Confederacy, admitted that he suppressed testing during the pandemic because true data about the rate of infections would harm him politically, sought to fire more truthtellers in the administration and had his attorney general remove an official in charge of investigations into him and his supporters. He was reportedly briefed about a Russian scheme to place bounties on American and allied troops in Afghanistan, and not only did nothing about it but continued to act as an advocate for Putin. And so it goes on… before we even consider the many complaints about his character—his racism and misogyny, his ignorance and contempt for science and history, his lies, his narcissism, his vulgarity, his demagoguery. Has there ever been a public official in US history so unable to relate to others, show an emotion besides anger, or view the world through any means but his own self-interest?”

Conclusion

 Support a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College!

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[1] Wegman, Can We Please Pick the President by Popular Vote Now? N.Y. Times (July 6, 2020)

[2] Editorial, States and the Electoral College, W.S. J. (July 6, 2020); Kendall & Bravin, Supreme Court Rules States Can Prohibit Electors From Breaking Rank, W.S.J. (July 6, 2020); Astor & Stevens, Did the Popular Vote Just Get a Win at the Supreme Court? N.Y. Times (July 6, 2020); National Popular Vote, nationalpopularvote.com.

[3] Hasen, Bring on the 28th Amendment, N.Y. Times (June 29, 2020).  Since there are now 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, this article calls for a 28th amendment even though an existing non-profit organization has drafted and is promoting what it calls the 28th Amendment “to end the escalating influence of big money that dominates our elections . . . [by enabling} Americans to enact reasonable limits on campaign contributions and dark money political spending [and] reversing the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision.” (American Promise, The 28th Amendment.)

[4] Codrington, The Electoral College’s Racist Origins, The Atlantic  (Nov. 17, 2019); 1800 United States presidential election, Wikipedia.

[5] Boot, What if Trump loses but insists he won? Wash. Post (July 6, 2020); Reuters, ‘Epic failure’: U.S. Election Officials Warn of November Chaos Due to Budget Crunch, N.Y. Times (July 10, 2020); McCarthy & Jameel, The Postal Service Is Steadily Getting Worse—Can It Handle a National Mail-In Election?, propublica.org (June 15, 2020). See also Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? dwkcommentaries.com (July 5, 2020).

[6] Rothkropf, “The Most Ignorant and Unfit’: What Made America’s Worst Ever Leader? N.Y. Rev. Books (July 3, 2020).