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A New Year's resolution: Exercise your constitutional rights

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The U.S. political system is letting itself go. After generations of hard fought expansions toward political equality through the 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and numerous landmark Supreme Court decisions, we are now backsliding into the dark waters of dysfunctional institutions, institutions that are supposed to safeguard the most sacred right of a constitutional republic, the right to an equally weighted vote. Our votes quite literally “constitute” our republic, or res publica, “thing of the people.”

But we are failing to uphold the integrity of our electoral institutions, and as a result, we look increasingly weak, flabby, and resigned to mediocrity. In 2016, our courts faced numerous cases, some before and some after the election, addressing claims of racial vote dilution and other violations of representational rights. Broken ballot scanners in New York, improperly coded memory cards in Utah, and outdated, poorly calibrated voting machines stretching from North Carolina to California resulted in long lines, election day triage by poll workers, and voters being turned away in several states.

As a result of all these flaws, and based on indicators as varied as election procedures, ballot access, registration laws, redistricting, and media coverage, our electoral integrity is ranked about 40th out 100-plus countries in the world, according to the Electoral Integrity Project. Worse, we rank at the bottom of the 35 longest operating, advanced democracies in the world, and states like North Carolina and Wisconsin barely qualify as democratic. I’m proposing a New Year’s resolution: Let’s get back to the gym and exercise those constitutional rights that so many in the past have fought and died for.

At the federal level, we can start by pushing Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act, gutted by the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder. A bi-partisan proposal led by Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin would provide preclearance standards, but GOP leadership is refusing to act. Sensenbrenner understands that the Voting Rights Act “is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed, and is vital to our continued commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process.”

Congress should also enact national electoral integrity standards, with electronic voter registration technology and an infrastructure capable of early detection of voting system defects, and procedures for real-time notification and quick correction. On the campaign finance front, President-elect Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominees will likely preclude any attempt to fix the flawed decisions of Citizens United and McCutcheon, but there are actions that citizens can take statewide and locally to improve system-wide integrity.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that, “Diluting the weight of votes because of place of residence impairs basic constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment just as much as invidious discriminations based upon factors such as race or economic status.” The Electoral College is a feature, not a bug, in our system, but it increasingly violates these core principles and must be abolished, just as slavery and previous constitutional restrictions on voting have been dismantled. We don’t have to wait for the Supreme Court, as states can pass a provision to allocate their electors to the popular vote winner, as California did in 2011. Under the National Popular Vote compact, when enough states totaling 270 electoral votes sign on, we can finally respect majority rule and popular sovereignty in presidential elections.

Further, all states should adopt bi-partisan redistricting standards, like those now used in California, to reduce the bias of racial and partisan gerrymandering (drawing biased election districts). California now has one of the least biased districting plans in the country as measured by the “symmetry” standard (how each party’s voters are treated), but it is still a disproportional system, with the majority (Democratic) party still taking a disproportionately large share of seats. Citizens should urge our state to adopt more proportional representation, along with the option of ranked-choice voting for all cities.

Charter cities like San Luis Obispo can adopt ranked-choice voting now, which ensures broad bases of electoral support from candidates. But possibly the most important thing cities can do to improve electoral integrity is to implement democracy voucher programs, like one initially adopted by San Luis Obispo last year, before a close vote reversal. Providing a rebate, like a gift certificate card, that would allow eligible voters to support candidates of their choice, could vastly improve civic engagement and serve as a model for the rest of the country.

So there’s the resolution list. In the weeks to come, I will address local proposals in greater detail, demonstrating how average citizens can sustain an above average democracy, and affirming with Chief Justice (and former governor of California) Earl Warren that “the democratic ideals of equality and majority rule, which have served this nation so well in the past, are hardly of any less significance for the present and the future.”

Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.

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