Elect the President by Popular Vote?

From police to portraits, from statues to school buildings, Americans are taking a new look at our racial – and racist – past. One legacy of that past is the Electoral College for electing Presidents.

You may think it takes a constitutional amendment to change that. Not so. An ingenuous workaround is working its way around the country, and North Carolina could become part of it. 

We don’t elect Presidents the way we elect everything else, from City Council to Congress. For President, each state has a number of electoral votes equal to the total of its two Senators and members of Congress – 538 in all. To be President, a candidate has to win enough states to get 270 electoral votes.

You don’t have to win the popular vote. Both George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump lost the national popular vote but won the Electoral College. It happened three times in the 19thCentury: 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes) and 1888 (Benjamin Harrison). It could happen again this year.

Because of 2000 and 2016, the issue has become partisan. But reform has support from Republicans, like former National Chair Michael Steele and some state-level officials.

Let’s take off our partisan glasses and look at history.

The Electoral College was a compromise in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers didn’t trust a “democratic mob” to elect a President. Instead, the people would elect wise, sober “electors” to pick the President. Elitism beat out populism.

Slavery came in when it came to deciding how many electors each state would have. Southern states wouldn’t go for assigning electors according to free white residents only. Then the North would dominate. The result was the infamous “three-fifths compromise” that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. 

Some 40 percent of the people living in the South were slaves. Virginia, where slaves were 60 percent of the population, got 12 electoral votes, more than one-fourth of the 46 required then to win the presidency. 

For 32 of the nation’s first 36 years, a slave-holding Virginian occupied the White House (John Adams from Massachusetts was the exception).

The Civil War ended slavery, but not the Electoral College. The Civil War also changed the nation from a collection of states (“The United States are…”) to an indivisible nation (“The United States is…”)

Still, the Electoral College endures.  

Abolishing it by constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote by Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. That isn’t going to happen.

A group called National Popular Vote is pushing an interstate compact that would keep the Electoral College but ensure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes President.

How? By getting states with a total of 270 electoral votes to assign their votes to the popular vote winner nationally, not the winner in their states.

To date, states with 196 electoral votes have joined the compact. The bill has been introduced by Democratic legislators in North Carolina (15 electors, maybe 16 soon), but it’s not going anywhere in the Republican legislature.

At its virtual state convention in June, the North Carolina Democratic Party endorsed the idea.

The compact’s supporters argue that Presidential elections aren’t truly national; they’re decided in just six to ten battleground states. The 40-some other states are predictably Democratic or Republican. Sometimes North Carolina is a battleground, sometimes not.

With a national popular vote, every American’s vote counts the same. Candidates would have an incentive to campaign everywhere for every vote.

Is this an idea whose time has come? It may come here if Democrats take the legislature in 2020.

Taking Down the Confederacy

It was a jarring sight. The Confederate flag was flying above the State Capitol building in Raleigh.

No, this wasn’t the Civil War. It was May 10, 1977.

Jim Hunt had been Governor just four months. I was his press secretary, and I was on my way to the press office in the Capitol that beautiful spring morning when I saw the flag. It stopped me in my tracks.

I asked the Capitol historic staff about it. They said it was Confederate Memorial Day and, by tradition, the Confederate flag flew over the Capitol every May 10. That was the date of Stonewall Jackson’s death, and the date Jefferson Davis was captured after the war.

I don’t recall what happened next; nor can anyone I’ve asked. But somebody talked to somebody, and the flag came down that morning.

I do recall what happened then: Thad Eure went ballistic.

Eure was North Carolina’s long-time Secretary of State. First elected in 1936, he called himself “the oldest rat in the Democratic barn.”

Thad Eure

He was also an unreconstructed Southerner. He liked to wave the Confederate flag at UNC football games. He was the author of the notorious Speaker Ban Law in 1963.

Eure complained loudly about taking down the flag. Some legislators joined him. It was such a big stink that a compromise eventually was worked out. In the future, the Confederate national flag – the “Stars and Bars” – would be flown on the date, not the notorious flag that is a symbol for racism and a banner for racists.

The Confederate national flag

I don’t know how long that practice went on. But it was still too long.

I thought about that day when Governor Roy Cooper ordered Confederate monuments removed from Capitol Square. 

I thought about how many years so many of us took for granted those Confederate symbols and statues – and much, much worse.

I thought about the Ambassador Theater, Raleigh’s finest, one block down from the Capitol on Fayetteville Street. Blacks couldn’t sit with white movie-goers; they had to sit in the upstairs balcony.

When the Raleigh Caps minor-league baseball team played in Devereaux Meadow (I saw Carl Yastrzemski hit a home run there once), Blacks had to sit in a separate section along the left-field line.

The Sears store in Cameron Village, where Harris Teeter is now, had “white” and “colored” bathrooms and water fountains.

Jesse Helms was on WRAL (“The Voice of Free Enterprise”) every night, fulminating against Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, Terry Sanford, the “liberal News & Observer” and communist agitators behind the “so-called civil rights movement.”

In those days, TV stations signed off the air late at night. Most stations played the national anthem over video of the American flag. Not WRAL. It played a slow, mournful version of “Dixie” over photos of mossy plantations and Civil War battlefields.

I went to Raleigh public schools for 12 years, after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision. I never had a Black student in my classrooms. There were few Blacks when I went to N.C. State in the late 1960s.

At some point in the 60s, many white Southerners realized that the old ways were wrong. An older friend remembered going to UNC, hearing about the civil rights movement and suddenly realizing, “Everything I’d accepted about race all my life was just wrong.”

It was wrong, and it was wrong for way too long.

Take it down, Governor. Take it all down.

Politics in the Pews

Race and religion have always shaped America’s politics. Race now dominates the 2020 debate, but religion will play a crucial role. It always does.

Churches are on the front lines of protests against racism. People of faith, black and white, may not be packing the pews because of Covid-19, but they’re standing up and speaking out.

In white evangelical churches, some people view the protests as riots, lawlessness and one more sign that America is on the wrong path. These are the people President Trump was signaling when he held up that Bible.

Lt. Governor Dan Forest has deeper roots among these evangelical Christians than any Republican gubernatorial candidate before him. When North Carolina’s original Covid-19 restrictions covered churches, Forest told pastors the political left is using the pandemic in a war against churches:

“There is no doubt that there are people that are on the left that are using this to pull certain levers to see how far that they can go. How far are they able to push? How long can they keep churches shut down? How long will Christians be silent on this matter before they stand up?”

I learned the hard way that those voters can be crucial. When Governor Jim Hunt ran against Senator Jesse Helms in 1984, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had a goal of registering 100,000 new voters for Helms through fundamentalist churches.

Hunt got swamped in many of those precincts, especially in rural areas and small towns. He lost by about 86,000 votes, 52-48 percent.

In 1980, the Moral Majority played a big part in Ronald Reagan’s election. Ironically, he beat Jimmy Carter, whose openness about his born-again faith in the 1976 campaign made some Democrats uncomfortable. 

Elizabeth Dole, who succeeded Helms in the Senate, courted evangelicals and “prayer warriors.” But she hurt herself in her 2008 reelection race with an ad suggesting that Kay Hagan, her Democratic opponent, was affiliated with atheists who wanted to remove references to God from the public arena. The ad ran Hagan’s photo with another woman’s voice saying, “There is no God.”

Dole lost.

After Republicans won control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010, evangelicals pushed for the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In 2016, the legislature passed the “bathroom bill,” which Lt. Governor Forest and evangelicals strongly supported. Former Governor Pat McCrory’s quick decision to sign that bill may have cost him reelection.

Democrats have their own church ties. African-American churches host voter registration and Election Day turnout drives. Candidates flock to churches on Sundays.

North Carolina has a tradition of progressive white churches. Just as they support today’s protests, they were active in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests.

Religion and politics go way back here.

In 1928, anti-Catholic feeling was so strong that solidly Democratic North Carolina went 55-45 for Republican Herbert Hoover over Al Smith, a Catholic.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy faced anti-Catholic prejudice. When he campaigned in North Carolina that September, he was asked – in a question his campaign may have arranged – if he’d take orders from the Pope. Kennedy said no; he would take an oath as President, on the Bible, to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Period.

He carried North Carolina. He won big margins in eastern counties that were heavily Democratic then and are heavily evangelical now.

America may have separation of church and state, but politics and religion are inseparable. Where you sit on Sunday says a lot about how you vote on Election Day.

Sic semper tyrannis

We Americans have no tolerance for tyrants.

We fought a revolution to get rid of the King. We fought a civil war to get rid of slavery. We fought World War II to get rid of the Nazis.

Earlier this year, people across North Carolina and the nation protested against what they called the “tyranny” of Covid-19 restrictions that kept them from bars, gyms and hair salons for a few months.

Reopen NC protesters called Governor Roy Cooper a “tyrant.” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear was hung in effigy at the state Capitol, with a sign reading “Sic semper tyrannis” – “thus always to tyrants,” what John Wilkes Booth yelled after he shot Abraham Lincoln. 

But the Covid restrictions aren’t tyranny. They’re an inconvenience during a public health crisis, a crisis that isn’t over yet. 

In recent weeks, thousands of times more Americans have protested against real tyranny – the tyranny of racism that has terrorized African-Americans for centuries and continues today.

First it was slavery, America’s original sin. Then it was the Ku Klux Klan and post-Reconstruction terror. Then it was the Black Codes governing the conduct of freed slaves, then Jim Crow and white supremacy. 

In North Carolina, it was the organized massacre of black citizens in Wilmington in 1898 and the armed overthrow of a legally elected government, a story told in David Zucchino’s book “Wilmington Lies.”

Then it was segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters and discrimination in employment, housing and all facets of life. It was lynchings, whippings and police beatings. 

It didn’t end with the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. It goes on without end.

Now all Americans have been abruptly awakened to the reality of black America, where police officers are more feared than respected. We saw cellphone videos of police brutality against African-Americans. We saw George Floyd plead for his life while a policeman’s knee squeezed the breath out of him.

After the protests began, we saw police officers across the country turn on protesters and journalists with clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. We saw a riot squad knock down a 75-year-old man in Buffalo and stalk by him as he bled on the pavement.

We saw police departments bristling with armored cars, riot gear and semiautomatic weapons. Is their motto “serve and protect” or “dominate the battlespace”?

Sometimes the police looked more like military units. In fact, military units were called out in the nation’s capital. So were agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Homeland Security.

Also on the streets in Washington were officers from the Bureau of Prisons who wore riot gear but no badges or identification. They smacked of the Brownshirts in 1930s Germany.

Officers with no badges or insignia at D.C. protests

The menacing presence of these police units – and their conduct – brought white America face-to-face with what black America experiences.

Racism has deprived black Americans of the fundamental promise in our Constitution – that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet the Founding Fathers also justified slavery. They counted slaves as three-fifths of whites. For generations, Americans used the Constitution to protect slavery and then to preserve discrimination and oppression.

It’s time to finally end that contradiction, keep the Constitution’s promise and rid America of the tyranny of racism.

Coming Apart – or Coming Together?

Covid-19 might as well be called Divided-2020.

When the pandemic started, optimists thought it might inspire us to come together, the way our parents and grandparents did in the Depression and World War II. 

But if you watch the news and follow social media, we seem more divided than ever. 

As usual, we seem split along pro-Trump and anti-Trump lines. North Carolina has a “Reopen” team and a “Stay Home” team. Wearing a mask, or not, is a political statement.

Those divisions are by choice. Other divisions leave little choice. The pandemic shows that, as former North Carolina Senator John Edwards used to say, there are “two Americas.”

In one America, people still have jobs. They can work from home. They may lose some income, and their 401k’s took a hit, but they’ll make it.

The other America lost their jobs or got furloughed without pay.  They worry about paying the rent and keeping their home. They worry about feeding their families. They line up at food banks. They file for unemployment and wonder when they’ll get the check and how long it will last. They may have to go to work even if they don’t feel safe there.

In one America, we can see a doctor to get tested for the virus. In the other America, an estimated 43 million people may lose their health insurance. They can’t afford to go to a doctor.

A teacher reminded me that children, too, live in two different Americas. 

In affluent America, children have parents with the time, ability and desire to home-school. They have easy access to their schools’ online classes.

In fact, the teacher said, these kids may benefit from this time. They get a break from end-of-grade testing pressure. They get a vacation from daily schedules packed with tutoring, advanced-placement classes and music, voice or dance classes. They’ll catch up when school starts back up.

But, in the other America, children don’t have Internet. They don’t have books at home. They may not get decent meals. They get no break from neglect, abuse and homelessness. They’ll never make up what they’re missing now, the teacher said.

America needs an honest and constructive discussion about how we address these gaps in economic security, health care and education.

Will our poisoned political climate allow that? Well, maybe we’re not as divided as it seems. 

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll May 5-10 found that two in three Americans think it will be July or later before gatherings of 10 or more people will be safe.

Yes, there is a partisan split; 80 percent of Democrats agree with that timeline. But a majority of Republicans, 54 percent, also agree.

Despite all the media coverage of protests, only 21 percent in the poll said current restrictions on restaurants, stores and other businesses in their state are too restrictive; 58 percent say they are appropriate and 20 percent, not restrictive enough.

Maybe we should pay less attention to the people yelling – on the streets, on TV and on social media. Maybe we should listen to quieter voices that speak to the basic decency of all Americans.

Like former President George W. Bush. He was never known for his way with words, but he put it pretty well recently:

“Let us remember that empathy and simple kindness are essential, powerful tools of national recovery. Even at an appropriate social distance, we can find ways to be present in the lives of others, to ease their anxiety, and share their burdens.”

Amen, Dubya.