U.S. elections: The majority voting on the rights of the minority

On Election Day in the United States, Americans are choosing between two different visions for the future of their country. And some are being asked to sacrifice their rights for the sake of one of those visions.

Boca Raton, FL and Los Angeles, CA – Every four years, around this time, people begin criticizing the Electoral College in the U.S., and its role in determining the next American president. The system, which sees a certain number of delegates giving their collective vote to the candidate who secures the highest percentage of votes in their respective state, results in certain states having more influence during the election season, and thus becoming more significant to the contestants.

The system was originally designed as a compromise between the other options: the U.S. Congress picking the President versus a single majority vote. It was feared that in the latter form – one large nationwide contest – candidates would likely spend most of their resources in densely populated areas. (If you only have 4 hours to campaign, one would – in theory – do so in a state with tens of millions of people, and thus potential votes, rather than in smaller less populated ones.)

The majority of states usually go one way or another. California and New York, for example, are considered to be liberal meccas. They will always remain “blue states,” meaning the democratic candidate can count those states and their delegates among his “safe states” count.  Other states, like Ohio and Florida, are what are known as “swing states,” meaning it is unclear which candidate will emerge with the highest percentage of votes. In election, that might go “red” – for the Republican, while in others they might go “blue” for the Democrats.

But there are even “safe” parts within a state. In Ohio, the metropolitan area of Cleveland is solidly “blue,” while other areas – like the conservative Hamilton County with the city of Cincinnati – tend to vote Republican. Ohio thus becomes one of those “every vote counts” states, which will see voter turnout reaching 80 percent.

Today, on Election Day, I am in Los Angeles. California usually has a voter turnout which is around 55 percent, with many people thinking their vote does not count, as the big contest – the presidency – is already determined in their state. (Many still vote regardless of the presidential race, as the ballot has other local, county and state races, and can often include a number of state-initiatives on everything from education to mandatory condom use in the filming of pornographic movies.)

When one evaluates the “popular vote” – i.e. the collective total number of votes the presidential candidates actually receive on Election Day – one must remember the reasons why people turnout to vote in one state while they do not do so in others. The figures can be misleading, as many people simply do not vote due to the very nature of the Electoral College system.

It is this same system that allows for the prominent re-emergence of so-called “social value” issues every four years, as Conservative candidates try to encourage social conservatives to vote.

Not so scary: twin siblings dress up in Boca Raton, Florida as pirates. Their mother is angry that Conservatives are trying to restrict reproductive rights, Oct 31, 2012 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)
Not so scary: twin siblings dress up in Boca Raton, Florida as pirates. Their mother is angry that Conservatives are trying to restrict reproductive rights, Oct 31, 2012 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

Yesterday, on the eve of  the election – and for the past week – I was in Florida. What a difference a few thousand miles and a different coast can make. On Halloween, I walked around a neighborhood “trick-or-treating” with my friend, her husband and their twins. At age 2-and-a-half, they are so cute that there was no way their pirate costumes could scare anyone. And naturally, for someone used to left-leaning pro-democrat circles, the scariest site was a neighborhood full of Romney signs propped up in residential lawns. This was Boca Raton, where a single Obama sign – which one could occasionally spot – stuck out like a sore thumb. (In Fort Lauderdale, 30 minutes south, the situation is nearly the opposite.)

Scary: Romney/Ryan signs decorate many of the residential lawns in Boca Raton, Florida, Oct 31, 2012 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)
Scary: Romney/Ryan signs decorate many of the residential lawns in Boca Raton, Florida, Oct 31, 2012 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

That’s left Obama supporters in Boca Raton feeling besieged. My friend angrily said to me she does not understand how people, let alone women, could vote for someone who she believes would setback women’s reproductive rights. She was referring to the  positions on abortion of Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican Presidential Candidate, and – perhaps more worrying – those of his Wisconsin Congressman running-mate, Paul Ryan, who, in defending his position that abortion should be prohibited even in the case of rape, told a Virginia news reporter:

I’m very proud of my pro-life record, and I’ve always adopted the idea that, the position that the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life. But let’s remember, I’m joining the Romney-Ryan ticket. And the president makes policy…. And the president, in this case the future President Mitt Romney, has exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother, which is a vast improvement of where we are right now.

(As a sidenote, I have never understood why the Republican party seems obsessed with saving the life of an unborn baby, but then promotes policy that effectively abandon the baby once it is born. That baby shouldn’t depend on the government, they would argue, and should be able to stand on its own two feet…and eventually borrow money from her or his parents to go to college. And as a second sidenote, why is the focus on the rights of the victim, rather than curbing the rights of the perpetrator? I’m reminded of Golda Meir’s leadership in Israel, when a rise in incidents of rape prompted some to suggest that a curfew be imposed on women, for their safety. Meir responded that it is the men who are committing the rape, and thus, they should be the ones forced to stay at home. It seems like Ryan should focus more of his time on harsher rape convictions and sentencing, and less on new ways to elongate the suffering of the victim.)

Another friend in Republicanland (a.k.a Boca Raton) told me this vote is critical, and people there are trying to take away his rights. We were in his condo in a country club, sitting on the couch with his husband (like him, age 30), and their two 5-month old children. Yes, once again, same-sex rights are on the ballot.

It all seems quite undemocratic … that people should be allowed a vote on limiting the rights of other people. (I was always taught that your rights end at the tip of my nose.) And the process appears equally undemocratic. In Florida – the notorious “swing state” famed for the “hanging chad” episode of 2000 that led to the U.S. Supreme Court effectively picking George W. Bush as President – the Republican state government has changed the law on early-voting (whereby people can cast their ballots ahead of time), shortening the early-voting period from two weeks to one week, knowing full-well that Democrats perform better in such a system.

Meanwhile, in the race to the finish line, in such states, millions has been spent on advertising, often by corporations – uncapped in their contributions – which stand to gain a lot from the selection of one candidate over another. When I arrived in Florida the day before Halloween, I drove to my friend’s house and along the way saw a billboard picture of Obama bowing to a Saudi King, and two petrol pumps showing “then” and “now” prices. After arriving at my friend’s home, I turned on the television and every ad – yes, every commercial – was anti-Obama.  So I turned off the TV and decided to go on my computer instead. I started playing some clips on Youtube, and – to my surprise – had to sit through a 30-second ad, you guessed it, supporting Romney.

Some advertisements talked about the economy, while others focused on these very core social issues.

A Republican friend of mine in Colorado – another swing state – told me that, while he supports equality for all…

To me, when the economy is on the verge of collapsing, social issues take a back seat.

But to me, that seems like a hard sell: forcing some people to give up their rights in order to save a fluctuating dollar. Naturally, it is easier to do so when you are not one of the “some people.”