Electoral College – Keep or Toss?

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Category: Constitutional Law, Election Law, Political Processes & Rhetoric, President & Executive Branch, Public
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electoral-college-2016By Mathew O’Neill

During the Twilight craze, the country was split between Team Edward and Team Jacob.  The battle was over Bella Swan’s heart.  Edward, a 200-year old vampire, was devastatingly handsome, kind, chivalrous, and his skin sparkled in the sun.  Jacob, a teenage werewolf, was brash, muscular, impulsive and fiercely protective of his tribe and Bella.  Oh, and Edward murdered a few thousand people but felt badly about it, while Jacob only killed vampires but had a bad mullet.  I was decidedly Team Jacob.

After the 2016 election, the country is split about the Electoral College.  There are again two camps: Team Keep and Team Toss.  Before going into the merits of each, some brief background.

As of this writing, Donald Trump won 56% to 44% in the Electoral College (290 to 232), while Hillary Clinton leads in the popular vote count 62,523,844 to 61,201,031.  So, while Trump romped to an 11-point Electoral route, he actually got clobbered by 1,322,813 votes.  What gives?  I thought this was a democracy.

This anomaly is the work of the venerated Electoral College.  The College was created in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which states in part:

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.  He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:

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 representative to which the State may be entitled in Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

The 23rd Amendment granted at least three Electors to the District of Columbia, bringing to 538 the total number of current Electors: 435 Representatives, 100 Senators and the D.C. trio.

The Constitution does not direct how the states must “chuse” their Electors.  In colonial times, most states did not call for a popular election to select their Electors.  Instead, party bosses made those decisions.  Eventually the cigar-smoke cleared, and today all states and D.C. hold a general election for President and Vice President, and nearly every state (48 of 50) has chosen to award all of its Electors to the winner of that state’s popular votes.  Thus, because the margins in various states can differ (Clinton won California by 3.5 million votes; Trump won Florida by 20,000 votes), it is possible to win the Electoral College, and thus the keys to the White House and a cool plane, while at the same time lose the overall popular vote.

Which raises the question: is this acceptable? Read more »

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Supreme Court to Tackle Constitutionality of Residual Clause in Sentencing Guidelines

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Category: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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hardy_they_shall_show_you_the_sentence_of_judgmentIn 2015, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) as unconstitutionally vague, ruling that the provision did not give ordinary people adequate notice of what conduct was prohibited by the statute. The residual clause had included among the category of “violent felonies” any felony that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Next week, in Beckles v. United States, the court will confront the constitutionality of the sentencing guidelines’ version of the residual clause. This is one of two cases this term that address the effect of Johnson on the vagueness doctrine. (The other case, Lynch v. Dimaya, arises in a statutory context.) Two of the nine justices who joined in the six-justice majority opinion in Johnson, including its author – the late Justice Antonin Scalia – will not participate in this case. Because Justice Elena Kagan is recused, a seven-member court will render a decision.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for drafting and amending the sentencing guidelines, removed the guideline residual clause earlier this year and supplanted it in part by commentary, which is also at issue here. It did not, however, make the change retroactive. This case brings the question of retroactivity squarely in front of the court, continuing the interplay between the commission and the court. The ostensible issues of vagueness and retroactivity, however, camouflage a broader question about the meaning and function of advisory guidelines.

Notably, the government has changed its position on both retroactivity and vagueness. Although it supported the defendant’s claims in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit – and those of similarly situated defendants in other circuits – it opposes them now. Adding another dimension to the controversy, the court appointed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” to defend the 11th Circuit’s holding that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the sentencing guidelines. The decision in this case, therefore, will have broad ramifications for vagueness jurisprudence, the meaning of advisory guidelines, and the respective roles of the commission and the court. Read more »

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How Did We Get Here?

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Category: Constitutional Law, Election Law, Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public
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Part Six of a Six Part series on Election Law, providing context to our system of government, our election process and a little history to evaluate and consider in the candidate-debate.

In an age where the presidential vote is relatively close, a two-party system dominates politics, and the average voter recognizes that voting for an independent/splinter candidate has no real shot at electoral success, is this really what the framers intended in 1787 when drafting the Constitution of the United States?

Doubtful.

Not only was the Electoral College system problematic almost from the moment it left the starting block, but the election process has grown more complicated, more winner-takes-all, and more divisive than perhaps the delegates could ever have imagined.

For instance, in 1797, Ththomas_jefferson_by_rembrandt_peale_1800omas Jefferson, the then-sitting Vice President, wrote a letter to his colleague, Edward Rutledge, in which Jefferson reported that the mood of the nation’s capital had become politically divisive:

“The passions are too high at present, to be cooled in our day. You & I have formerly seen warm debates and high political passions. But gentlemen of different politics would then speak to each other, & separate the business of the Senate from that of society. It is not so now. Men who have been intimate all their lives, cross the streets to avoid meeting, & turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats. This may do for young men with whom passion is enjoyment. But it is afflicting to peaceable minds. Tranquility is the old man’s milk.” (Jefferson to Rutledge, June 24, 1797, in Jefferson, Papers, 29:456-57.)

Does Jefferson’s report of a political divide — in 1797! — sound familiar when looking at today’s election debate?

Read more »

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The Teachings of Elections Past

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Category: Congress & Congressional Power, Constitutional Law, Election Law, Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public
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john_quincy_adams_-_copy_of_1843_philip_haas_daguerreotypePart Five of a Six Part series on Election Law, providing context to our system of government, our election process and a little history to evaluate and consider in the candidate-debate.

In the run-up to Election Day, maps of the United States will be colored in as red or blue. This so-called “electoral map” is the focus of all the debate, particularly for the presidency, with pundits asking what color the “swing states” will shade. Of course, the maps don’t show green, purple, or even different tints of red or blue. There are only two colors, red or blue. So why is that?

Without getting too far in the weeds, as it were, and from a political science view, the shading is based on the “winner-takes-all” principle. One party wins and everyone else loses. When a party loses, that party is without representation. Weaker parties are pressured to join a more dominant party in hopes of gaining a voice. This leads to party-dominance. Voters learn that, because of party dominance, voting for a third party candidate is ineffectual to the result, and hence alignment into a two-party race between winners and losers.

And, in terms of the presidency, by devising a system of “electors” as opposed to popular vote, history teaches us that an indirect electoral-election scheme can lead to odd results.

The elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000 produced an Electoral College winner who did not receive at least a plurality of the nationwide popular vote. What did this mean? It meant that in 2000, Al Gore received 543,895 more popular votes than George Bush, yet lost the election. The same was true for Samuel J. Tilden (New York) losing to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Grover Cleveland (New York), the incumbent President, losing to Benjamin Harrison (Indiana) in 1888.

There is also tie-breaker history. Per the Twelfth Amendment, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of electoral votes (currently 270) to win the presidency. If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes in the election, the election is determined by the House of Representatives. The House chooses the President from one of the top three presidential electoral vote-winners. (A run-off vote for Vice President belongs to the Senate.)

As to a run-off presidential vote, this has happened only once since 1804. Read more »

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ACS Panel Explains Voting Rights Litigation in Wisconsin

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Election Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Marquette Law School, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Speakers at Marquette, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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img_5794-meOn October 20, I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion at the Law School devoted to Voting Rights Litigation in Wisconsin.  The event was co-sponsored by the Marquette University Law School Student Chapter of the American Constitution Society and the Milwaukee Chapter of the American Constitution Society (ACS). A crowd of approximately 60 persons witnessed a lively presentation on the right to vote under the U.S. Constitution, recent legislation in Wisconsin that places burdens on the ability of some people to vote in our State, and the status of litigation in the federal courts challenging these state laws.

The event began with a welcome from the Chair of the Milwaukee Chapter of the ACS, Attorney Craig Mastantuono.  Attorney Mastantuono began with a description of the mission of the American Constitution Society and the benefits of membership.  He also noted the excellent timing of the day’s event, given the attention currently being given to the integrity of the American voting system.  Then Attorney Mastantuono introduced the Mayor of Milwaukee, the Honorable Tom Barrett.

Mayor Barrett began his remarks by providing the Marquette University law students in attendance with a bit of career advice: namely, the importance of being nice to your colleagues in the workplace.  Turning to topic of the federal judiciary, Mayor Barrett criticized lawmakers who impose litmus tests on judicial appointees, in a misguided attempt to ensure that there is “only one type of thinking in our court system.”  Mayor Barrett also expressed his disappointment in the fact that Wisconsin is no longer a national leader in ensuring access to the ballot, and criticized recent state laws that have made it more difficult to vote in the City of Milwaukee.  Finally, while he touted the benefits of early voting as a means of improving ballot access, the Mayor explained that there are limits to the City’s ability to expand the early voting process due to the City’s interest in maintaining a well-administered voting process. Read more »

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The School Of Electoral College

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Part Four of a Six Part serwashington_constitutional_convention_1787ies on Election Law, providing context to our system of government, our election process and a little history to evaluate and consider in the candidate-debate.  Prior blog posts mentioned party-politics as having emerged during the Constitutional debate — in the framing days of the late eighteenth century, delegates began aligning along federalist and anti-federalist divides. Alignment shaped the compromise that became the Constitution of the United States, with the process of choosing the President — indirectly through electors — an example of compromise at work.

The compromised solution was complicated. Rather than allowing election by the populous or allowing Congress to choose the position, each state was given a number of “electors” and these electors would vote for the President.

Each state was left to determine the manner of selecting their electors, thus allowing the states a role in choosing the president. The electors would choose the president on the same day, all in an effort to even the playing field, as it were, in election and governance.

So how did it work, at least initially?

It was a problem.

Read more »

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Whom Do I Want As My King?

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Category: Constitutional Law, Election Law, Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Uncategorized
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2014_1006_1024px-mount_rushmore2_largePart Three of a series on Election Law, providing context to our system of government, our election process and a little history to evaluate and consider in the candidate-debate.  Prior blog posts discussed the lead-up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and provided context to the debate over the American system of government. Here is further context.  For a more in depth discussion and a great read — upon which much of this blog finds its genesis — look to Ray Raphael’s book Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive (2012).

I begin with the delegates. Think of it like this: If you were a wealthy American landowner in the late eighteenth century, and held a position of prominence for some time, you probably wanted to ensure that, whatever government governed, your status remained unchanged. Should not your vote count a little more than someone else? Can we really let the people select of our elected officials?

On these basic questions the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were either conflicted, or outright opposed. As Roger Sherman, the representative from Connecticut proclaimed, “The people immediately should have as little to do as may be about the government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.” On the flip side was Alexander Hamilton who touted the “genius of the people” in qualifying the electorate.

Basically, even if a Constitutional Convention delegate agreed to a national government and an “executive branch” to that government, he still had open questions as to what should it look like, how much power it would have, and who would decide the person/persons for such an office.

So how did the delegates get from point A to point B? First, the delegates took the unusual move of calling for secrecy in their debates, something unheard of then and which continues to be a source of confounding discussion even in today’s society; in 1787, and as often argued today, the delegates wanted the freedom to speak freely.

Second, the delegates used England’s King George III as a counter-point to an executive. They wanted no part of a monarchy, or despotic leader, yet needed the executive position to have some teeth so that it would be recognized internationally and complement intra-national needs. Read more »

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What Does It Take to be “United” As States?

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Category: Constitutional Law, Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Uncategorized
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washington_constitutional_convention_1787Part Two of a series providing context to our system of government, our election process and a little history to evaluate and consider in the candidate-debate.

Anyone who has been part of a committee, whether it be in government, business, or even the local PTA, will recognize that the same discussion points come up over, and over, and over again. In the political realm, the issue is largely taxation. In the PTA, it’s fundraising. Between April 15th and the local bake sale, the same discussions are had, year after year after year.

So imagine yourself in May of 1787, at the Constitutional Convention. The topic de jure was the present form of government — the Articles of Confederation — and how to improve on what was, by then, government gridlock (sound familiar?).

Those in attendance had a choice of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, or improving upon what got them there.

In retrospect, the choice of what to do was clear — out goes the baby — but in 1787 it was as clear as mud.

Keep in mind, the Articles of Confederation were years (decades) in the making, and were fashioned with state-interests in mind. Essentially, the delegates needed to ask themselves who they wanted to govern: themselves as states or a national government with power over the states.

And as the days dragged on, and as the weather changed from comfortable to hot, so too did the debate over what to do, how to do it, and why. Read more »

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What Happens if Trump Drops Out?

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Category: Constitutional Law, Election Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Donald_Trump_-_CaricatureWhat happens if Donald Trump drops out of the presidential race?  Some Republican politicians have begun to call on Mr. Trump to step down as the Republican nominee for President (he cannot be forced out).  If this happens, the Republican Party would then select a new nominee for President.

It might be conceivable for Donald Trump to voluntarily step down, and for the Republican Party to select an alternative nominee.  However, the real issue is whether the name of the alternative nominee would appear on the ballots of a sufficient number of states to permit an Electoral College victory.  At this late date in the election cycle, the names of presidential candidates on absentee ballots have already been finalized in many states.  In fact, early absentee voting using the final ballots already is underway in Wisconsin and many other states such as California, Ohio and Indiana.  Every day, more state deadlines for placing names on the ballot pass, and it is probably already too late to prevent Donald Trump’s name from appearing as the Republican nominee on a majority of the ballots used by states across the country.  To get state officials to print new ballots and then allow re-voting of ballots already turned in would require 1) litigation in state courts across the country and 2) the willingness of a large number of these state court judges to adopt an unprecedented procedure based upon vague “emergency” arguments.  Such a high stakes multi-state litigation effort would make the combative Bush v. Gore lawsuit look like a law school moot court competition in comparison.   Read more »

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How Many Years Does It Take to Bake a Constitution?

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Category: Congress & Congressional Power, Constitutional Law, Federalism, Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public
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articles_of_confederation_13c_1977_issueAs the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November approaches — that is, National Election Day — the talking-head debate intensifies over candidates, politics and what is right/wrong with the American system of governance.  There is one missing piece to the debate — context — that is seldom discussed, or understood. Indeed, if the average voter dislikes the candidates and the election process (something I hear a lot), then it’s time to take a step back and look at the big picture question of how we got here. In what I hope will be a six part series, I will attempt to provide context to our system of government, our election process and, hopefully, a little history to evaluate and consider in your next candidate-debate.

Part One – How Many Years Does it Take to Bake A Constitution?

If you polled the average American citizen, asking if they heard of the Declaration of Independence, most would answer yes. The citizen might even know the year and date — July 4, 1776.

But ask the same citizen when the Constitution of the United States was adopted (which technically means when it was “ratified” by the States), and you’ll likely get a blank stare, an “I don’t know”, or a guess — likely July 4, 1776.

The correct answer to that question is: June 21, 1788. Read more »

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My Client Was Accused of Violating the Cuba Trade Embargo (But What Trump Did Was Worse)

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Category: Constitutional Law, Federal Law & Legal System, International Law & Diplomacy, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Uncategorized
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800px-havana_-_cuba_-_1366I received a phone call from Larry Dupuis of the Milwaukee Office of the American Civil Liberties Union in November of 2003.  He described a Wisconsin resident who had contacted the ACLU after receiving a PrePenalty Notice from the Department of Treasury.  In severe language, this form accused this individual of violating the Cuban Assets Control Regulations which were promulgated pursuant to two federal statutes: the Trading With the Enemy Act and the Cuban Democracy Act.  In essence, by sending him this notice, the Treasury Department wanted this individual to admit that he had traveled to Cuba and that while there he had spent money in violation of the Cuba Trade Embargo.  Technically, any financial transaction between a U.S. citizen and a Cuban national was a violation of U.S. law, no matter how small.  If he didn’t respond to the formal Requirement to Furnish Information (RFI), and thereby admit to violating the Cuba Trade Embargo, then he would be fined $10,000.

Larry asked me to consider taking on this individual as a pro bono client, and represent him in administrative proceedings before the Treasury Department.  The case raised some interesting constitutional issues.  There were possible issues relating to a Fifth Amendment right not to be punished for the failure to admit to having spent money in Cuba.  In addition, the Treasury Department regulations seemed to provide that the only way to dispute the RFI was to do so in person in front of an administrative law judge in Washington, D.C., an expensive proposition that raised due process concerns.  The ACLU was hoping to find a “test case” that would challenge the Treasury Regulations on constitutional grounds.  I agreed to take the case.

Soon after, I met with my client, a retiree on a fixed income.  He was a soft-spoken man, who had gone to Cuba in 1998 on a trip with a church group.  While there, he had spent a few days with his fellow church members bicycling around the island and meeting locals.  This was a goodwill trip, intended to foster greater understanding between the people of Cuba and the people of the United States.  Several years after his return, he received the RFI from Treasury Department alleging that while in Cuba he had spent money that went to Cuban nationals, in violation of the Cuba Trade Embargo, and demanding that he provide further information about the monies spent or else pay a fine. Read more »

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Time is Running Out to Confirm Judge Garland

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Merrick_Garland_speaks_at_his_Supreme_Court_nomination_with_President_ObamaThe unprecedented, and unconstitutional, obstruction of Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland is just one of many recent missteps by Republican leaders.  For example, mainstream Republican presidential candidates strategically withheld their attacks on Donald Trump during the primary season, in the hopes that he would be an easy target to topple once the field sorted out.  This was a major blunder.  More broadly, the decision of Republican leaders in Congress to make the repeal of the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of their legislative agenda, at a time when Republicans lacked a veto-proof majority, was an empty gesture which merely fueled anger among their Party’s base and ultimately made Trump possible. Both of these decisions were political calculations that seemed clever at the time, but which turned out to have disastrous consequences for the Republican Party.   However, the unjustified refusal to hold hearings on a highly-regarded and moderate Supreme Court nominee has the potential to dwarf every other political miscalculation that Republican leaders have made over the last eight years.

First of all, it is important to recognize that Judge Merrick Garland is a laudable nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.  He is a former federal prosecutor, a highly respected Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and someone identified by Senator Orrin Hatch and other prominent Republicans (prior to his nomination) as the type of judge who would receive bi-partisan support in Congress.  Post-nomination arguments raised about Judge Garland’s supposed lack of respect for the Second Amendment are not justified by his actual opinions and, in reality, are merely a fig leaf contrived to rationalize opposition to the nomination by Republican lawmakers.

In addition, the refusal of the Senate to take up the nomination is a clear violation of the Constitution. Read more »

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