Thursday, December 17, 2020

Well and Faithfully: A Day in the Life of a California Elector

 Monday, December 14, 2020 6:50 A.M.

       Monday morning Sacramento under a deep blanket of fog. From the 10th floor of the Citizen Hotel the city seems a dream, barely here at all. Yesterday’s rain soaked streets have turned to ethereal suggestions.

       Yesterday I caught an Uber to the airport and flew Southwest Airlines to the State Capitol, leaving sunny San Diego and dropping into a Sacramento rain storm. Another Uber brought me downtown to this venerable old hotel three blocks from the State Capitol building. The forecast says no rain today. Walking will be a delightful relief from all these back seats and plane aisles.

       I am in Sacramento to serve as one of California’s 55 electors. Nationwide, there are 538 of us. Established in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, and advocated for primarily by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the Electoral College was an awkward compromise between the sheer lunacy of mob rule (the popular vote), and the equally sheer lunacy of allowing the legislative branch to select the President. The Electoral College was envisioned to be a rational check on both of those whirlwinds.

       Each state gets as many electors as they have U.S. House members and U.S. Senators. California, being exceptionally populous, has 53 House districts and, like every other state, two Senators – hence 55 electors, the most of any state by a wide margin. I was granted this honor by my friend Ammar Campa-Najjar, who earned the power to appoint an elector by being the largest vote-getter in the March 50th House district primary.

       So because today is the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, electors are gathering in all 50 states to cast their votes for President and Vice President – the only two elected officials in America not elected by popular vote. This, in the United States, is how we elect Presidents, and it’s how we’ve always elected Presidents for 233 years.

       The Constitution, obsessed as it is with state sovereignty, left the details up to the states – how electors are selected, and how they vote. Forty-eight states including California have a winner-take-all approach, where all electors vote for the winner of the popular vote in that state. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, divide elector votes up proportionally.

       Like I said, there are 538 electors – party luminaries like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Stacey Abrams – and unknowns like me. One thing we all have in common is our connection to party politics, and our relationships with candidates. The only thing the Constitution says is electors cannot be federal office holders. Madison and Hamilton wanted citizens from outside the direct influence of national politics, but still educated and informed enough about the issues at hand to be rational actors.

       While the idea of electing the President by popular vote was floated at the Constitutional Convention, it didn’t get much traction. In 1787 no country on earth elected their leaders by popular vote – it was an untested, radical novelty. Even today that method remains exceedingly rare. In 1787 there was no compulsory education, literacy was low, and there was no widespread journalism or media. Only one in six Americans could vote – property holding white males. Today, America is a very different place. Conditions have changed. The old rationale for having an Electoral College has worn thin. Many see the Electoral College as fundamentally undemocratic. Take California for example. Biden got 64% to Trump’s 34%. But because of California’s winner-take-all Electoral College policy, all of California’s 55 Electoral College votes go to Biden. It’s as if those millions of Trump voters never even existed. And in other big states like Texas and Florida, the opposite occurred – Trump beat Biden by a few percentage points, but took all the electors.

       Those who defend the Electoral College point to this very dynamic as its strength – that state’s rights, especially smaller states, are preserved by this curious process. If we went to a nationwide popular vote, they argue, a small handful of populous states – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio – would have disproportionate power effectively erasing the influence of smaller states. The same dynamic is in play with the US Senate, but that is a conversation for another time. It’s an argument I’ve never understood – democracy is supposed to represent people, not tracts of land.

       Kowtowing to the autonomy of states was the only way the framers of the Constitution could get the colonies to band together into a fledgling nation. But now, it seems a costly anachronism that warps and distorts the noble aim of all democracies – to represent the will of all the people.

       Still, abolishing the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment – a Herculean undertaking.

       In a few hours I will walk the three blocks to the State Capitol to cast my elector vote, not as a singular citizen (I already did that in November), but as a representative of the 700,000 people of the 50th district. I vote on their behalf, not my own. Fortunately, California chose the ticket I chose – Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – so this will be painless.

6:05 P.M.

       Long, amazing day. And now I’m sitting in Sacramento International Airport waiting to board my 7:15 Southwest flight back home to San Diego. Today was truly historic – politically and personally.

       This morning the rain stopped, and in its place a cold, thick blanket of fog. After breakfast I went out for a walk and promptly got lost. I thought…never mind what I thought. I was wrong. After ten minutes of no Capitol in sight I consulted the Google Maps app, and soon the storied dome loomed into view. I walked around the grounds which were mostly barricaded from a rough summer of democracy on the streets. As in many large American cities, quite a few downtown storefronts are still boarded up – vast sheets of plywood bearing spray painted editorials, portraits of George Floyd, and the phrases seared into all our minds: Justice for Brionna, Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe. Police cruisers sat parked and empty at the main entrances to the State Capitol like robot sentries – reminders to behave yourself. I spotted my entrance, made a mental note, and headed back to the hotel with a Starbucks flat white warming my hand. My thick grey tweed Ted Baker pea coat was doing good work – it was a bracing 40 degrees in the damp morning shadowed streets.

       Back in the hotel I showered and dressed for the big event. Priya Sridhar, the political reporter from NBC 7/39 in San Diego, emailed me for an interview. Sitting on the bed I did a quick Zoom with her on my iPhone as the morning light outside grew brighter and the fog began to lift.

       I will never be able to explain what happened next. I mean on one hand it was all rather ordinary. One thing happened after another with proficient regularity. But beneath the surface of this bureaucratic process, or perhaps all around it, was an unmistakable air of gravitas. Buildings like this are filled with ghosts and the focused yearning of 40 million Californians. We were there for all of them, for their dreams and longings. The loftiest endeavors of men and women – to govern themselves with wisdom and reason and decorum and dignity – that collective yearning informed everything here, from the architecture to the carpet. The California State Capitol was built for days like these.

       We entered the building at 1:00 and began the check-in. Medical grade masks, temperature checks, TSA-style security screening, enforced social distancing, long walks down long corridors, and one-by-one elevator rides to the California State Assembly chamber. It was a grand space with Corinthian columns, coffered ceiling, ornate molding, pleated drapery, and desks with a weathered feel – this is a working room, not a museum. All presided over by a towering portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

       After being escorted to my assigned desk, and before the proceedings began, I slipped out and walked the halls of our State’s Capitol.

       The Capitol dome, like all domes, is based on the Pantheon in Rome, commissioned by Emperor Hadrian and dedicated in 126 C.E. Rife with Platonic symbolism and archetypal radiance, grand domes like this bridge the gulf between heaven and earth. Looking up into their vast, luminous space – it takes your breath away – you feel yourself lifting off of your feet, swept up in a conviction that more is possible than you ever thought possible. Domes do what they’re supposed to do – remind you that here, in this secular cathedral, we're trying to do something damn near impossible – to bring the eternal imperative of Natural Law to bear on the temporal world of human endeavor; to mold chaos into order; to wield reason and persuasion in the service of a noble aim – the nudging of our imperfect union ever closer to perfection. It is our tireless work. Lives and souls depend on it.

       I slipped back into my seat in the Assembly Chamber a few minutes before the gaveling at 2:00. The room was filling up. A few of us said hi and nodded – congeniality was challenging with the masks and distancing. And besides – something about the room and what we were about to do shushed you and put you in a mood.

       Each of us found at our desk several pieces of paper: a program, an oath, and two paper ballots – one with the name Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, Democrat, and the other with the name Kamala D. Harris of California, Democrat. After a few opening remarks, we rose to our feet, put our hands on our hearts, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t think I’ve said that out loud since grade school. I remembered it. Then we were all sworn in, raising out right hands and repeating our oaths: “I do solemnly swear that I will defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies foreign and domestic, that I will bear truth faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter.” A fleeting thought crossed my mind – Donald Trump took this oath too.

       After that, we elected a chair person by voice vote, California Assemblywoman, head of California’s Legislative Black Caucus, and fellow elector Shirley Weber. She took the podium and said a few words. Then we voted by signing our names on the two ballots. First for Joe Biden, and then for Kamala Harris. The votes were collected and counted.

       When Shirley Weber announced the vote total, “55 votes for Joseph R. Biden, Democrat” the solemn decorum of the room broke as we leapt up and erupted in cheers. And when a few minutes later the second vote total was announced, “55 votes for Kamala D. Harris, Democrat,” the room exploded again into boisterous cheering. Some of us were crying. It felt like a dam broke.

       My phone began to light up – thanks, congratulations, and screen shots of us on CNN, MSNBC, and more. The networks were broadcasting our vote live because California’s 55 votes put the Biden-Harris ticket up over 270, locking in victory. This final nail in the coffin of the Trump Era.

       I think that’s why we were all yelling and cheering – the sheer relief of the concrete act of sending Trump packing. Of putting a Black woman in the White House. Of fulfilling the will of the people, not appeasing a petty autocrat and his fact-free followers. Of participating in a Constitutional process crafted 233 years ago by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others on that long, hot summer in 1787. Of officially bringing an end to the rein of a petty tyrant. These last four years had been an unending carnival of upended protocols, shattered norms, and worse – far worse. To participate in something so sane, reasonable, and sober was in a strange way utterly intoxicating.

       Now I’m on the bus – a bus built by Boeing that flies at 39,000 feet and gets me to San Diego in an hour. Soon I’ll be home, quarantined yes, but home.

       When we adjourned we poured out into the cold, sparkling, bright Sacramento winter afternoon and scattered back to our ordinary lives. I walked slowly to the Citizen Hotel, savoring each step in the new world we helped create. In the lobby I took a call from my friend Chip Franklin for a quick interview on his drive time KGO AM San Francisco radio show. It felt good sharing this powerful experience with that great city.

       I played a very small part of a very big thing – a peaceful transition of power, guided by reason and the group conscience of the people. I will always remember how today felt. Thank you Ammar for that phone call.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Accidental Elector

 I didn’t set out to become one of California’s 55 electors, but it happened anyway. As the highest vote-getter in the March primary, my old friend, former philosophy student and 50th congressional district candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar got to appoint an elector, and he called me.

“How’d you like to be an elector?” he said.

“You mean the Electoral College, that thing everybody hates?”



I had so many questions. Like most politics watchers, I have complained bitterly about the Electoral College. It is patently anti-democratic. But it is, after all, enshrined in the Constitution. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton thought it was a good idea. And those guys seemed pretty smart. But wasn’t it at best elitist, at worst racist? I needed to learn more.

In the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was rushing to finish framing the rules and processes of this fledgling confederacy of states. Months of debate compressed into the final weeks as a ratification deadline loomed. The states had existed for far longer than this nascent “nation” had, so everyone treaded lightly. 

At a moment’s notice, any of the state’s representatives could have packed up and gone home, shattering the whole thing. And no nation on earth had ever elected its chief executive by direct, popular vote, although there was some support in the room for that idea. And they sure didn’t want the legislature to do it — too much opportunity for cronyism. They had to come up with a way to elect a president that honored the sovereignty of each state while yielding the most rational outcome. This was, after all, a republic they were building, not a raw democracy, and it needed structural support. So they created the Senate, with two representatives per state regardless of population, and a tier of electors charged with choosing a chief executive.

The Electoral College was an inelegant compromise. Even the framers didn’t love it. But they disliked other proposals more. So it passed. Hamilton in particular tried to amend it immediately, but he died before any real changes could be made. Some minor amendments were passed in the 19th century. But the Electoral College we have today is largely the clumsy instrument Madison and Hamilton created in Philadelphia 233 years ago.

So how does it work? Each state gets one elector per congressional district, and one per senator. The rest they left up to the states. State legislatures, and today the political parties, establish and maintain the processes by which electors are chosen and for whom they vote. Forty-eight states have a winner-take-all approach, while Maine and Nebraska rely on their state’s overall popular vote and individual House district victories. And herein lies everyone’s biggest complaint — that in most states, the Electoral College is fundamentally undemocratic.

In 2016, 62 percent of California voters chose Hillary Clinton while 33 percent — vast regions of the north and the central valley — chose Donald Trump. When Clinton was awarded all 55 of California’s Electoral College electors it’s as if those Trump voters didn’t even exist. And it went the other way in other states — Trump won by a hair, but took 100 percent of that state’s Electoral College electors. Which is how Trump became president. 

If we had a simple popular vote, Electoral College critics argue, we’d have a more truly democratic government. But the founders feared raw democracy, which they likened to mob rule. And we all know mobs are far more dangerous than individuals. Allowing an uneducated, uninformed electorate to choose a president would spell disaster, they believed. In 1787, literacy was low and there was no compulsory education, and no widespread journalism, leading to the original “low information voters.” How could uninformed voters in far-flung territories know the candidates or the issues? They couldn’t. We needed a professional political class to make these decisions for us, or so Madison and Hamilton argued.

Conditions are obviously different now. Or are they?

After months of stay-at-home isolation and remote teaching, I was itching to get on a plane, any plane, and go somewhere. Even Sacramento. All I needed was a reason. So on Monday, Dec. 14, I’ll don my mask and walk into the state Capitol to cast my in-person vote for whoever wins California in November. 

Then on Dec. 15, let’s fix the Electoral College.

[This piece first appeared as an op-ed in the October 21, 2020 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and was edited by Matthew T. Hall, and is reproduced here with permission.]