Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Election Day Experience

The 20 December issue of Germantown Chronicle carried a column by Republican activist J. Matthew Wolfe titled "Democrats Investigate Election Problems but Avoid the Real Election Fraud." I'd been thinking for a while about writing the City Commisssioners about some aspects of my experience on the election board, but had been unsure of how to proceed or whether it would get any attention. This column made me realize I didn't need to rely on the Commissioners' interest to express my concerns. I wrote the paper as follows:

Matt Wolfe's opinion piece has prompted me to describe my own experience on Election Day, when I served as a Machine Inspector. There was a Minority Inspector at my polling place (59/21), but I have reason to be skeptical about how effectual he was. The elected Judge of Election, I was given to understand, had not shown up, so someone from another division was filling in for her.

Although she had presumably received the same training I had, this substitute Judge of Election seemed oblivious of a basic rule that is stated unambiguously in the training paper: the Judge of Election is not permitted to assist a voter with voting. The reason for this rule is readily apparent: as a partisan officer in charge of the polling place, "assisting" voters can easily be abused to exercise undue influence on their choices.

For much of the day, this Judge of Election was routinely opening the curtains for voters. While this might be seen as a courtesy, she also frequently offered (prohibited) assistance when none had even been asked for. In one case I clearly heard her assume, "You want to vote straight Democrat." When I told her she wasn't permitted to assist voters, she acted as if I were just inexperienced and didn't know what I was talking about. Eventually the Majority Inspector joined me in calling her on this, and she finally relented. She didn't acknowledge that she'd been doing anything wrong, however, and represented that she was leaving the assisting to me "now that I see you know how." I'd always known how; I just hadn't offered it when not asked. (And unlike her, when I did, I was strictly nondirective.)

For a little while the Judge of Election left to vote in her own division, and I filled in for her at the table. I observed a good bit of confusion. The Minority Inspector, who preceded me in the procedural sequence, repeatedly put the same number on two consecutive voters' cards. I don't know what partisan purpose this could have served and, as he looked past retirement age, I supposed it was innocent error. Still, the confusion and extra work it created for me were frustrating.

Afterward, it struck me as odd that, whereas the Majority Inspector had eventually joined me in taking the Judge of Election to task for her improper conduct, the Minority Inspector -- whose role would seem more logically to encompass this -- had not spoken up. It's possible she'd only "assisted" while he was out of the room, and that I didn't notice this because I was focused on what she was doing and what I could do to stop it myself; but she did it so much, he must have been absent quite a bit for that explanation to hold water.

Short of abolishing party primaries and ballot columns -- in my view the ideal solution -- the best strategy for curbing such abuses is to build a credible opposition -- one whose values are in sync with those of most Philadelphians.This is one reason I'm a Green.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Definition of the Day

Fanfare, n. food eaten by fans. (Ex.: "He provisioned the con suite with great fanfare.")

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Republican state senator Dominic Pileggi has proposed that Pennsylvania change the way we choose our Presidential Electors. He did so last year as well, in a way that was easily criticized for its potential to "lock in" an unfair GOP advantage based on gerrymandering, because it would have let each Congressional district choose its own Elector.

His new proposal is different. Now -- except for two Electors who would still be determined by the statewide plurality -- he'd like us to choose them by proportional representation. While his likely partisan motivations are just as obvious as before, this strikes me as a progressive proposal, and I have written him, as well as my own state legislators, to express my support. Here's the text of my letter to Sen. Shirley Kitchen:

I support Sen. Pileggi's proposal to adopt proportional representation (PR) in our presidential elections. As the prospects of our continuing to be viewed as a "close" state appear to be dimming, this would restore the average voter's sense that te has some chance of affecting the outcome. As other states followed our example, it would also reduce the danger of a popular vote/electoral vote mismatch while gradually familiarizing people with PR, thereby making it easier to extend it to other elections such as for state legislatures and Congressional delegations -- which would, in turn, better guarantee the representativeness of these bodies by eliminating the role of gerrymandering.

I am proposing that the Green Party also endorse this measure, as PR has long been one of the electoral reforms it supports.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Trouble With Steven Spielberg’s 'Lincoln'

The Nation  November 26, 2012

The Trouble With Steven Spielberg’s 'Lincoln'

Jon Wiener

Daniel Day Lewis deserves the Oscar for best actor for his wonderful portrayal of Lincoln in the new Steven Spielberg movie. But while the acting is great, there’s a problem with the film: it is dedicated to the proposition that Lincoln freed the slaves. Historians say that’s not quite right. The end of slavery did not come because Lincoln and the House of Representatives voted for the Thirteenth Amendment.

The best work I know about the end of slavery is Eric Foner’s unforgettable book The Fiery Trial: Lincoln and American Slavery, published in 2010, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. Foner and many other historians over the last couple of decades have emphasized the central role played by the slaves themselves, who are virtually invisible in this movie. During the three weeks that the movie deals with, Sherman’s army was marching through South Carolina, where slaves were seizing plantations. They were dividing up land among themselves. They were seizing their freedom. Slavery was dying on the ground, not just in the House of Representatives. You get no sense of that in the movie.

In the film Lincoln is dedicated to the great task of getting the House to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. But the film fails to note that Lincoln did not support the Thirteenth Amendment when it was proposed in 1864—by the Women’s National Loyal League, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lincoln’s view at that point, as Foner shows, was that slavery should be abolished on a state-by-state basis, since slavery had been created by state law. He changed his mind in response to political pressure from Radical Republicans.

According to the film, Lincoln in 1865 was in “a race against time” (this synopsis comes from the semi-official Internet Movie Data Base), because “peace may come at any time, and if it comes before the amendment is passed, the returning southern states will stop the amendment abolishing slavery before it can become law.” That is simply not true. The movie focuses on the lame duck Congress that met in January 1865. If it had failed to ratify the amendment, Lincoln had announced that he would call a special session of the new Congress in March, where the Republicans would have a two-thirds majority. It would have passed the amendment easily—slightly more than one month later than the lame-duck Congress featured in the film.

The film makes another false argument, that once the Southern states were back in the union, they would have the power to block the amendment’s ratification, which required the vote of three-quarters of the states. Lincoln and the rest of the Republicans were not going to allow the Confederate state governments to remain in power after surrender—that was what “Reconstruction” was all about. Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia had already formed new governments that abolished slavery. There was no “race against time”—and thus the central drama of the film is bogus.

Another question raised by the film but not really answered is why the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863, did not free all slaves. Lincoln knew that, under the Constitution, the president had no power to repeal laws passed by states—including the laws making slavery legal in the South. But he did have the power as commander-in-chief to take action in wartime that he deemed a “military necessity” to save the government—in this case, undermining the Confederacy by declaring its slaves free and recruiting them as Union soldiers. Thus the Emancipation Proclamation was a military measure that applied only to slaves in areas under Confederate control. A half-million slaves in the four border states and West Virginia remained enslaved. Lincoln believed that once the “military necessity” had passed, legislation would be required to end slavery permanently.
Abolitionist critics argued that the Emancipation Proclamation in fact freed no slaves at all. But as Foner explains in The Fiery Trial, the proclamation “was as much a political as a military document.” Before the war Lincoln and many others had argued that slavery should be ended by the states, gradually, and by compensating slaveholders. Now his proclamation “addressed slaves directly, not as the property of the country’s enemies but as persons with wills of their own whose actions might help win the Civil War.” Foner emphasizes the point made by the Abolitionist Wendell Phillips, that the proclamation “did not make emancipation a punishment for individual rebels, but treated slavery as ‘a system’ that must be abolished.”

“Never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free,” Foner concludes. “By making the army an agent of emancipation and wedding the goals of Union and abolition, it ensured that Northern victory would produce a social transformation in the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life.” All that is missing from Spielberg’s film.

It is altogether fitting and proper that this film honor Lincoln. But historians have shown how slavery died as the result of the actions of former slaves. As Eric Foner concludes, “That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Right to Work": Rhetorical Misdirection

The misnamed "right to work" laws are based on an ideological sleight-of-hand. Union shop contracts are enforced not by unions but by employers, because it's their private ownership of the means of production that gives them the power (backed by the state's guns) to exclude people from social production. When they do so they are simply exercising exactly the same right as when they exclude someone -- i.e., decide not to hire them -- for any other reason (aside from those specifically excluded by law like "race" or gender). And they will do so whenever they've judged it's in their interests as capitalists to sign such contracts, just as when they exclude people on any other basis. Laws prohibiting such contracts don't create an actual right to work because they leave untouched the institution that actually stands in its way: capitalist private ownership of productive wealth.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Yesterday I saw the film of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, the first sizable book I ever read at age eight, at Bryn Mawr Film Institute. They made a few changes but it kept to the spirit of the book, and I found the ending moving. It's ironic this film came out in 1970, close to the time I read it, yet I didn't know of its existence till I saw the screening announced in the paper the other day.