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The Electoral College: Save it or Dump It?
“I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all”
— Joni Mitchell
“Both Sides Now” – Rock Cellar Examines The Issues of the Day
Our intent is to not try to force-feed any particular opinion, but rather to present both sides of an issue. Our hope is that you read “both sides,” to at least appreciate that there’s usually (at least) two sides to every complex issue.
The Electoral College: Save it or Dump It?
For the first time since George Washington was inaugurated our first president in 1789, a shadow has been cast across America’s peaceful transfer of power. This prospect demands that we take a close look at how the U.S. elects – or selects – its president.
America is widely considered to be a democracy, which translated from the Greek “demokratia” means “power belongs to the people.” So it may shock many Americans that nowhere in Article II, Section 1 or elsewhere in the U.S. Constitution does it mention the citizenry votes for the president. Instead, America’s framed rules mandate that a tiny group called “Electors” shall “chuse” (choose) who the president and vice president will be. Some of these intricate, arcane presidential selection stipulations have already been discarded, although the heart of this constitutional rule is still in effect: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”
As ex-judge Bill Blum points out, Americans actually vote “for a slate of state electors, who cast the real votes” for president.
The Electoral College carries a constitutionally-mandated timeline:
December 8: Deadline for appointing the 538 Electors to the Electoral College.
December 14: Electors meet.
January 3: New Congress is sworn in.
January 6: According to the Twelfth Amendment: “The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.”
If a nominee hasn’t been certified as winning the required 270 Electoral votes and the outcome of the presidential election isn’t resolved by then, the House of Representatives must then decide who will preside in the Oval Office. “[T]he vote in the House is by state delegation, where each delegation casts one vote, which is determined by the majority of the representatives in that state… 26 states have a majority Republican House delegation. 23 states have a majority Democratic delegation.”
January 20: Inauguration day.
PRO ELECTORAL COLLEGE:
It’s served us so well for 231 years.
Four years after defeating the world’s most powerful king, when America’s Founding Fathers created the Constitution their key goal was to ensure absolute monarchs could never rule over a free people again. Thus, our founders rendered framed rules based on checks and balances to guarantee tyranny could not take hold in the new nation being formed. Along with the executive, legislative and judicial branches, the Electoral College is a safeguard designed to prevent a would-be dictator from taking power. As Gettysburg College Professor Allen Guelzo put it, “the Electoral College was designed to act as a brake on over-mighty presidents…” (via National Affairs)
As Alexander Hamilton insisted in 1788: “It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations…
“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”
In his National Affairs article Guelzo added, “The Electoral College was designed by the framers deliberately, like the rest of the Constitution, to counteract the worst human impulses and protect the nation from the dangers inherent in democracy… This is, after all, a constitutional republic… the Constitution says not a word about holding a popular vote for presidents.”
In 2000 Constitutional law expert Ronald D. Rotunda pointed out another benefit: “The Framers of our Constitution invented a system that would establish a democracy while protecting minority rights. They created the Electoral College to protect the residents of the smaller states, and they rejected government by simple majority because plebiscites historically have been the tool of dictatorships, not democracy.”
As part of the formulation for the College includes one Elector for each state’s senators, since all 50 states have the same number of U.S. senators, this gives an advantage to those with smaller populations. For instance, Wyoming may have only 580,000 residents, but it has two Electors (one for each senator) – equal to California’s 39.5 million residents.
In addition to guarding less-populated states Rotunda believed this system offered protection to ethnic groups, contending: “The Electoral College, in practice, gives a little more electoral power to racial minorities, such as blacks and Hispanics, and thus is important in helping to achieve racial justice. Because these minorities tend to live in the large cities of the bigger states, their votes are important in tilting all the electoral votes of their state, thus encouraging candidates of both parties to appeal for their votes.”
Having undergone a prolonged violent Revolution against the British crown, our Founders also had a deep dread of chaos, prompting Hamilton to counsel in The Federalist 68, focusing on The Mode of Electing the President, it’s “peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate [president].”
The same desire for ensuring domestic tranquility also applies when considering the possibility of throwing the Electoral College into history’s trashcan, and the potential fallout for doing so. Guelzo warns: “Ridding ourselves of the Electoral College would not automatically install a national popular vote for the presidency; that would require a highly complicated constitutional amendment specifying comprehensive details for casting such a national vote, and might even trigger calls for a complete rewriting of the Constitution by convention. Simply doing away with the existing process without putting a new one in its place could create the biggest political crisis in American history since the Civil War… And the idea that a national popular vote would lead to clearer and more representative results ignores the nature of our constitutional republic and fails to contemplate the challenges that a truly national election in our vast country would involve.”
If the Electoral College was good enough for Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington and company in 1787, it’s good enough for us today.
CON ELECTORAL COLLEGE:
Let the People Decide
The Electoral College is to democracy what Trump University is to education.
This anti-majoritarian body of Electors must be abolished immediately. It is the College’s officials who legally select our president – not the people. This system of selection is profoundly problematic, not only in principle, but in practice.
The Electoral College is deeply anti-democratic, as the presidential election is constitutionally- determined by only 538 individuals – not by the popular vote of millions of Americans. The Founding Fathers’ anti-majority rule vibe was summed up by plantation-owner James Madison’s belief in the “advantage which a republic has over a democracy.”
This distrust of the masses is unsurprising, considering who the 55 crafters of our framed rules were. According to historian Charles Beard, a majority of the white males participating in 1787’s Constitutional Convention held behind-locked-doors in Philadelphia were lawyers and mostly wealthy businessmen and slaveowners. They crafted a charter to protect their class interests and control the radical impulses unleashed by the American Revolution and Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. George Washington, the Constitutional Convention’s president, was a member of what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Carl Degler called “the colonial ruling class,” and “the richest man in America [with] enormous landholdings,” according to Howard Zinn (www.howardzinn.org/).
The founding document these elite framers crafted – which enfranchised a minority of Americans (women, Blacks, indigenous people, the underaged and often, white males who didn’t own property, couldn’t vote) – also included a clause to ensure a few individuals could veto and reverse the people’s will. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria calls the Electoral College “terrifying… a vague and creaky constitutional process” that “would rival any banana republic on the planet.”
This murky method enables Machiavellian machinations and maneuvers for a minority to install presidents minus majority votes. This already happened five times in U.S. history, as recently as 2000 and 2016, when Republican popular vote losers took – some say “stole” – the White House.
The Electoral College system is so uncertain and fraught with peril that according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, after “the 1876 presidential race between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes… [t]he threat of military force was in the air. [President Ulysses S.] Grant let it be known that he was prepared to declare martial law… and to back the inauguration of Hayes with uniformed troops.”
These Manichean machinations are further compounded by 1877’s Electoral Count Act. “The trouble with the instructions is that they are widely considered, in [Professor Edward B.] Foley’s words, to be ‘convoluted and impenetrable,’ ‘confusing and ugly,’ and ‘one of the strangest pieces of statutory language ever enacted by Congress,’” writes Gellman.
Investigative reporter Greg Palast warns that if an undecided election goes before “the House, members vote as a state delegation – one state, one vote… A majority of states’ delegations are Republican.”
Enter into this complex selection process 2016’s popular vote loser to Hillary Clinton by 3 million-ish votes, conman Donald Trump, the most documented liar in human history (https://www.washingtonpost.com/) and arguably among the most litigious men ever. A master distractor, the cheater-in-chief has cheated on everything from taxes to SATs to Melania. Trump is sowing seeds of doubt about the outcome of the scheduled November 3 presidential election he calls “rigged.”
Behind in most polls, unable to win the popular vote fair and square, Trump is expected to go-for-broke to stay in power (and, presumably, out of prison and to avoid paying massive debts), frantically using the powers of incumbency to try: Pulling last minute vaccine rabbits and indictments of the Clintons by federal prosecutor John Durham out of his hat; withdrawing troops from Afghanistan; packing the Supreme Court with handpicked justices; and refusing to concede and vacate the premises at 1600 Pennsylvania while screeching “voter fraud!” if outvoted by Biden supporters. Abusing the Electoral College’s byzantine rules as a pretext may deliver a second term to the loser of the majority of mail-in and other ballots. As Gellman warns: “Something far out of the norm is likely to happen.”
Beard reminds us “the Constitution was not submitted to popular ratification.” It was so unpopular “our Revolutionary populists demanded a Bill of Rights,” so the 10 Amendments were added to the compact wrought by “Hamilton’s oligarchic elite,” according to historian Harvey Wasserman (https://solartopia.org/?product=1367).
It’s about time we do the same, amending the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College. Our method of choosing presidents must be replaced with a people’s popular participatory direct democracy, guided by the principle of “one person, one vote.” Not only is this way of electing our head of state more democratic and ethical than relying on a handful of Electors, it’s simpler than our current complicated system, which lends itself to sleight-of-hand, corruption and chicanery.
We must stop fetishizing America’s imperfect Founders – they may have had the finest minds of the 18th century, but were still creatures of the 1700s, and much has changed in the 200-plus years since. Women, Blacks, Natives, 18-year-olds, property-less whites, etc., can now vote. The masses and not an elite few should choose our president. Every single voter should be an “Elector” and every vote must count. To paraphrase The Donald, let’s tell the outdated Electoral College: “You’re fired!” Let the people decide. All power to the people.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic, journalist and author who wrote “Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States” and co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” Rampell is an authority on the history of the Hollywood Blacklist, and a frequent arts contributor to Rock Cellar. He has also written for The Progressive, Mother Jones, Hollywood Progressive, The Nation, L.A. Progressive, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Progressive Populist and The Guardian – covering political and arts-related stories. Ed is one of Los Angeles’ most prolific film, theatre, and opera critics and was named after legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. Ed’s new dramatic screenplay is based on true events that spotlight social injustice, racism and solidarity.
January 6, 2021
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