Monthly Archives: November 2012

Some plausible future Constitutional Amendments

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was watching the interesting and amazingly well-acted film Lincoln, which is about Lincoln’s efforts to garner enough votes to pass the 13th amendment banning slavery. I wondered whether in today’s partisan world whether or not it is foreseeable that the Constitution will ever be amended again.

Many amendments are submitted each year by Congressional representatives (if you remember your social studies class, an amendment needs 2/3 of both chambers of Congress and 3/4 of the state legislatures to pass), but few are ever voted upon.  The last Amendment that came close to ratification was the “Flag Desecration Amendment” — which barely fell short of the needed votes on multiple occasions.  Probably the most noteworthy attempt to amend the Constitution lately was the Republican-led effort to pass a balanced budget amendment last year — an effort that fell over sixty votes short of the necessary 2/3 majority in the House.

Constitutional amendments are obviously meant to be difficult to pass and need a high degree of cross-party support.  Although I would, for instance, be in favor of an amendment banning the death penalty, there is no chance for such an amendment to pass in the foreseeable future.  Here are, however, some amendments that I think would benefit the country and would have a plausible chance of passing in the coming years:

1). Supreme Court term limits.  The Supreme Court is an extremely ageist institution.  Since the Constitution provides for lifetime terms (for all federal judges), Presidents have the incentive to nominate the youngest possible judges. Why appoint a 65-year-old judge when you can appoint a 55-year-old who will represent your views an extra ten years? As this author points out, Justice Roberts could very well still be on the Supreme court in the year 2045.

How about a 15 year term limit that allows the Supreme Court justices to retire with dignity rather than holding on as long as possible until their health holds out – especially if they are likely to be replaced by someone with opposing views if they step down. This would also increase the chances of seeing a qualified senior citizen nominated over a less qualified middle age candidate whose main purpose is to enshrine the views of the sitting president for the next generation or more.

2). Eliminate corporate “personhood” — The idea of that corporations-are-people-too has been used to block attempts to regulate corporate behavior since the mid 1800s.  In the late 1800s Supreme Court Justices even found the 14th Amendment, meant to protect freed slaves, applied to corporations.  More recently, the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, which found that corporate free speech could not be regulated, led to a huge expansion of corporate spending in public elections.  Corporations are not people, and they do represent the people — the government does that and needs to be free to reign in the enormous resources available to the corporate sector.

3). End the Electoral College — This shouldn’t even require a lot of thought.  Sure, there are some benefits one can argue for a system that concentrates presidential campaigns into a small number of swing states.  But seriously, can any reasonable person argue that the candidate who receives fewer votes than their competitor should ever get to be president?

4). Run-off Presidential Elections — While on the topic of Presidential elections, it’s worth thinking of what would have happened this year had someone like Michael Bloomberg had thrown his hat into the ring (hint: it probably wouldn’t have been good for the President).  As a matter of fact, two of the last seven presidential elections (1992 and 2000) would probably have turned out different without third-party candidates.

Third parties might sound good in principle, but they are terrible for democracy under our current system because any third-party will disproportionately draw more votes from one party than the other.  This means that the side of the political spectrum with more support actually has less chance of winning.  The solution — a second round of elections if neither candidate gets fifty percent of the vote.  I think we can all spare another trip to the polling station to make sure the President who is elected is the person most people actually wanted.

5) Allow for foreign-born Presidents — Would it really have mattered if the wing-nut birthers in the Republican Party had been right and President Obama had been born in Kenya and immigrated to the United States with his parents as an infant?  The stipulation in the Constitution requiring the presidency to be a “natural born” citizen was intended to shield the institution from foreign, particularly British, influence in the late 18th century. While I suppose the Russian sleeper agent story from 2010 gives some pause as to how hard another country might try to infiltrate the US government, it is hard to believe that someone who has lived here since their youth would have any less an American identity than someone born here. There could still be a restriction on how long someone is required to a citizen, but it could be something like 25-30 years rather than life.  Because, let’s be honest, a Schwarzenegger presidency would have been pretty interesting – and the American people should have been allowed to have made it happen!

Are there any amendments you think might be passed some day?

In a couple weeks check in and see how the 2012 predictions I made in January went!

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Election 2012 thoughts

Just a few days away until Election 2012!  If you are reading this then, like me, your pulse probably quickens a bit just thinking about it.  Unlike most of my blog posts in which I address a particular theme at length, I am going to simply go on-the-blog-record with a few thoughts about Tuesday.

1). Hurricane Sandy was a catastrophic event that took a hundred lives and cost tens of billions dollars worth of damage.  It also almost certainly also helped President Obama, whose performance during and after the storm registered the approval of almost eighty percent of Americans.  It’s hard to imagine a bigger boost for Obama’s election prospects the week before the election.  If the hurricane does make a difference for Obama in the election and an Obama victory decides the fate of our new universal health care and the estimated 20,000 plus lives a year it will save, then Sandy will end up sparing many times more lives than it took.

2). Even before the hurricane, President Obama had been the clear favorite to win the only vote that matters — that of the Electoral College.  The mathematics are in the President’s favor because he can afford to lose some, even most, swing states, and still win the election.  Romney, on the other hand, has to win almost every swing state.

Taking a look at George W. Bush’s reelection map from 2004, it becomes clear in hindsight that the former president basically ran-the-table on John Kerry, and still won by only 34 electoral votes.  With New Mexico having become a strong, largely uncontested blue state since then, that’s a net swing of 10 more votes toward Obama.  Comparing 2012 to 2004, Obama only has to hold on to the states that Kerry won, plus win Ohio OR Virginia OR Florida OR lose all three but win combination of 2-3 other smaller swing states in order to win the election.

3). There is a real possibility that President Obama wins the electoral vote and loses the popular vote (but not vice-versa).  National polls show a dead heat between the two candidates, but state polling continues to show a fairly clear Obama electoral victory.

Is a divided electoral college-popular vote the likely outcome?  No.  As Nate Silver pointed out this week, a meta-analysis that combines state polls shows a slightly more favorable national outcome for President Obama than random national sampling.  Furthermore, combining state polling in this manner has been more accurate in the past than national polling.

Still, what would happen if there were a Romney popular vote victory and electoral loss?  Would Democrats take satisfaction in taking revenge for the 2000 election?  Sure – but hopefully, were it to happen, it would also spark a bipartisan effort to amend the Constitution and get rid of the absurd Electoral College system.

4). The polls might be biased, but not intentionally.  When we think of the word bias, we think of racial bias and other similar character flaws.  In polling, however, bias resides in the assumptions that pollsters make about response rates to their polls and whether those polled will actually vote.  Every serious poll engages in stratified sampling techniques that make assumptions correcting for the fact that, for instance, men might answer the phone more than women and that older people might be more likely to vote than younger people.  Contrary to what many pundits say about pollsters having an agenda, polling companies want to get the underlying assumptions right because they have a lot of money and a lot of reputation on the line.

Nevertheless, Romney’s best chance to win the election is for there to be an unknown bias at work in most of the polls that have been taken in recent weeks — a mistaken groupthink concerning response rates or turnout that would leave everyone scratching their heads on Wednesday.

5). A few strange things could still happen, even if there is not much time before the election.  Although unlikely, President Obama could be caught saying something really unpopular about, say, guns and religion.   Hopefully (and certainly) even more unlikely, there could be a terrorist attack that influences the outcome.  There is no week that “Al Qaeda types” would like to strike more than the week before a US Presidential election.  Given the political impact that the Benghazi attacks have had, the incentive is that much greater.

Weather conditions less dramatic than a hurricane could even affect the election.  Bad weather depresses Democratic more than Republican turnout.  Democrats should be pulling for some beautiful autumn weather across the country — or at least in the swing states.

So, what’s my prediction for the election?  Obama wins 303-235 in the Electoral College and wins the popular vote 51.5-48.5%.  Any of you have your own prediction?