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October 11, 2016

Accounting for all of those voices

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Written by: Politis

dc-medallionBy Katharine Welch

Note of the Editors. Katharine “Katie” Welch is a freshman at Northeastern University majoring in Political Science, studying abroad at ACT and interning at the Dukakis Center. She is from San Francisco, California.

On Wednesday October 5, the Dukakis Center for Public and Humanitarian Service hosted a round table discussion on “Voting in America” at the American Consulate in Thessaloniki. Special guests included Michael Ertel, the Supervisor of Elections for Seminole County, Florida, Charles Stewart III, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, Rebecca Fong, US Consul General of Thessaloniki, and David Wisner, Professor of International Relations at ACT and Executive Director of the Dukakis Center.

As an American citizen who will be voting for the first time this November, I was extremely interested in learning about how the electoral system works and the problems they are facing from a panel of experts. For me, one of the more interesting points was the discussion on the electoral college, which came up multiple times throughout the discussion. It was first explained how it implemented in order to separate the electorate from directly voting for officers due to the lack of circulating information and thus intelligence of the citizens. The question was later posed about whether or not the electoral college was still necessary. Surprisingly, Mr. Ertel and Professor Stewart both agreed that they believe the US should keep the electoral college. It allows for smaller states to have a voice. Most of the population is located in cities, so candidates would neglect to go to small towns. They also mentioned how in close elections, as in that of 2000, rather than disappointment and frustration being spread to the entire system, it was focused on one state, Florida. One the other hand, states that will definitely go one way or another, for example Massachusetts, a blue state, will not see any of the campaign from either side. This causes a decreases in voter registration in these states. I am from California, which has voted for the democratic candidate for the past six elections with a growing majority each year. It reminded how little my vote matters, in a presidential election, at least.

Another topic that stood out for me was the discussion on the so-called “ground game.” According to Professor Stewart, the ground game is when parties go door to door or use calling lists to encourage or even hound people to vote. During this election, Hillary Clinton has dominated the ground game, while Donald Trump has had a much more prominent media game. Professor Stewart stated that the ground game is more important and usually leads to that candidate winning the election because they are actually getting people to get out and vote. This election season the democrats have given $100 million to their “get out and vote” campaign. I found this very interesting because Clinton has spoken a lot on her commitment to a constitutional amendment banning Citizens United, a court case which states that money is another form of speech, and should be allowed unlimitedly in campaigns. She wants to ban the use of money in campaigns when she is poised to win the election, based on this criterion only, due largely to her commitment to funding this campaign.

They also touched on the topic of negative campaigning. We are no longer in the Reagan era of “It’s Morning in America.” As this is a very unusual campaign with neither candidate being extremely popular with the electorate, it’s more of a “vote against him/her” rather than “vote for me” campaign. Mr. Ertel also discussed with the rise of early voting, which allows for more people to participate; accordingly, about 50% of the population has voted before election day. This eliminates the possibility of the “October Surprise.” This is a tactic used by many nominees in which right before the election, one candidate puts out a news story which paints the other candidate in a bad light and does not give them adequate time to respond and defend themselves. When the half of the electorate has already voted, it is not worth it to put out a news story at that time. So candidates must spread out their negative campaigning throughout. Being new to the electorate, I am disappointed in what I have come to see. I am very interested in politics and was very excited to hear the candidates debate over important policy issues. But all I have seen in the past year is the candidates yelling insults, making up nicknames, and debating how big their hands are.

The topic of absentee voting was discussed often because the group consisted of many American citizens living overseas, including myself. It was first brought up by Rebecca Fong, who gave an overview of the topic and expressed her disappointed that her vote has not been counted for the past 30 years. She explained that absentee ballots are not counted unless the race is extremely close. This point was initially agreed with, but later when a question was posed about absentee ballots, Mr. Ertel and Professor Stewart both clarified that these ballots would in fact be counted. They discussed how states have found ways to make it easier for overseas votes. For example, they have implemented the use of fax machine to transfer ballots, a process which would never be used for domestic voters. I find it very uncomforting that this topic, which is extremely common, does not have a clear answer. As an overseas voter in my first election, I want to be sure that my voice is heard. On top of that, in 2012 it was reported that there were around 876,000 overseas absentee ballots. That is a number that could severely impact the course of an election, especially a close one, which this upcoming one could surely be.

Based on a question asked by an audience member, Mr. Ertel and Professor Stewart discussed trends in partisanship, especially among youth. They stated that the number of people who associated themselves with specific parties has gone down, but that number isn’t really accurate. Closet voters, as they called them, are people who state they have no party preference but say that they lean towards one side or another. Studies show that these voters are no more likely to vote for the opposing party than any party affiliate. From what they have seen, only five percent of voters are actually independent. They cited a shift away from institutions, especially among youth, rather than the decline of the Democratic or Republican parties. I have noticed this shift in my friends and even in myself. I am very disappointed in how certain aspects of the America’s political system and political parties are run, and for that reason I choose not to pick a party preference. But I do say that I lean towards one side of the political spectrum, and for this presidential election at least, I will be voting for the candidate of that party.

This election is obviously much crazier than past elections, and the panelists discussed how that changed the views and actions of the voters. First, Professor Stewart talked about the different strategies each candidate took to gain their nomination. It was allegedly decided by party elites that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee. Then the Democratic party gave their money, resources, and media time to help promote her. However, this process was not as easy this time because of the rise of socialist candidate, Bernie Sanders, through social media. On the other hand, the republicans went through a “rugby scrum” strategy, as Professor Stewart likes to call it. It is when there are many candidates and each one vies for the party’s attention. The media can’t focus on all of the candidates, so they give airtime to one or two leaders. Although it is a lot messier, the “rugby scrum” strategy is a little more democratic, as it gives the voters more of a say in who they want to be the nominee. It was harder for the Democrat voters to have a say because they only saw one candidate due to all the resources of the democratic party being provided to Clinton.

At this point in most presidential elections, about five percent of voters truly do not know who they are going to vote for. This year, that number is much closer to fifteen percent. As I stated before, neither of the candidates are extremely popular among the electorate, and it has been hard to simply look at their policies when their personalities and past actions are so prominent in the media. I believe that this says something about how we choose our nominees, because it seems like the voice of the people was not heard. This could be the fault of the voters for not showing up at the primaries, or this could be the fault of the parties and the media for focusing all of their attention and resources on the candidate they want to see in office.

Overall, the discussion was very informative and very interesting, for both American and international citizens. But I think that it brought up important questions about how the electoral system works. In the future I think that we need to ensure that the voice of the people is being heard both through the primary process and through how the votes are being counted. It is especially important in this age, when politics are so polarized. In this election, many people have strong opinions about each of the candidates and it is important that the electoral system can account for all of those voices.

 

 






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