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September 2016

The author makes two broad points in this extremely well crafted study of a much maligned and seldom understood institution.

Electoral cover.jpg

(1) The original Constitution of the United States created a federal republic, rather than a democracy. That is, democratic elections were but one part of the institutional array arrived at by compromise to create a strong but limited central government. The Electoral College was born of that desire to refract public and popular opinion, not merely transmit it, though the selection and timing of the Electoral College vote which were products of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century manners, morēs, and technology.

(2) The democratic impulse has since grown and grown in step with the growth of the legal and moral authority of the chief executive, the President, since 1789. The rhetoric of democracy, the reality of corruption in some legislatures, and the speed of communication technology have combined to make the democratic presidential election the highest expression of the Constitution, leaving the Electoral College a relic of the past (and the Supreme Court an annoyance to be tamed through appointments). Or so it might seem to a casual observer.

The author makes very cogent arguments for the continued importance of the Electoral College, though of necessity each argument ultimately rests on speculation.

The first argument is that the need to secure a majority of Electoral votes means a winning candidate has to gather support across the nation. Without the check of the Electoral College, astute candidates would concentrate their efforts where the voters are: California, Florida, New York, Texas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. In those states they would further concentrate on the big cities. This assertion is not entirely speculative since this concentration occurs now, but as the author demonstrates it is currently balanced by the need to distribute effort.

The second argument must needs be speculative. It is that the Electoral College, by aggregating support from across the country, drives candidates to the middle range of opinion to find that magic 50% + 1. It is an institutional disincentive to extremism. In so doing it is also a buttress to the two-party system. While third party candidates have had impact - Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and George Wallace, in particular - none has had a chance to win. The speculation is that without the need for a majority in the Electoral College, the field of candidates would increase. In 2016 we could then imagine Bernie Sanders running as an independent and Mitt Romney acting on his words as another independent candidate, along with Hillary Clinton and Trump Donald. Plus that man who has never heard of Aleppo. Well, so what?

Electoral votes.gif

With more than two high-profile candidates, it is likely that none of them would secure an overall majority of popular votes. If the slate in 2016 were Clinton, Romney, Sanders, and Trump that certainly seems likely. One of the four would have a plurality, that is, more votes than any other single candidate, but in such a crowded field it is unlikely to be a majority, and there would also be other minor candidates draining votes, say a resurgent Al Gore, to pick an amusing example.

A Constitutional amendment would be necessary to anticipate such a possibility. currently the Constitution does have provision for a contingent election where no candidates has a majority in the Electoral College; a joint sitting of Congress would choose from among the top two candidates. Would such a contingent election, a likely outcome of the democratic impulse, be democratic? Moreover, the question might be which Congress? The one that exists or the one elected coincidentally with the Presidential election? There are many complications here because the House is elected in whole while the Senate only by thirds.

In fact, Congress in a contingent election would act as an Electoral College and in so doing would subordinate the executive to the legislature. The scope for politicking in this eventuality is unlimited and nearly unprecedented. By the way, there was such divisive four-way race despite the Electoral College in 1860 and that precipitated the Civil War though Abraham Lincoln won sixty percent of Electoral votes his support was purely Northern, and his popular vote was forty percent, far ahead of the second place. Not an example to be repeated to be sure, but not discussed in these pages either.

The author also suggests in passing the scope for recounts and other ex post facto contests would be greatly expanded in the search for a national majority or plurality. This does seem likely with the result that vote counting could take longer and longer and the incentives for disputes, political, moral, and legal, would increase, as per the 2000 election, and be settled perhaps by a court. Hardly a democratic outcome.

Note well, there is no constitutional provision for a chief executive once the incumbent’s term expires in January. Vote counting and resolution could go well beyond that date. I can add to the speculation by supposing that there would be some who would try to influence the outcome by affecting eligibility laws.

The author also points the numerous lacuna in the United States Constitution, which ought to be fixed long before the Electoral College is changed. Here are a couple to consider.

Let us imagine Trump Donald wins the November 2016 election with a sizeable majority of popular votes that guarantee sufficient Electoral votes. Then a week later, after the poll is official, he dies. (Those voodoo dolls finally come through!)

Who is in line to be the next president? No, not his Vice-Presidential running mate because he did not get the votes for president and in any event he has not been sworn in, and the Constitution does not recognise the political parties so the Republican Party, much as it would like to do so, cannot put up David Duke instead. There is no remedy in the Constitution.

Here’s another. A triumphant Trump survives and the Electoral College meets in December and gives him a majority, while Congress is in recess. Then he dies the day after. Again there is no path to a president. His Vice-Presidential running mate has still not yet taken the oath of office and has no claim on the office of president, though he would have a legal claim to the office of Vice President as explained below. The Electoral College results only become constitutional when they are submitted to and accepted by Congress in January. There are measures for emergency sessions, true, and the sitting President can call for an emergency session, but it is too late if Trump Donald died.

In this scenario Trump’s Vice Presidential running mate would have a claim to be Vice President because on inauguration day, the Vice President-elect is sworn in first in the Senate. This practice evolved to insure that the Vice President was available should the President-elect die on the spot. This provision came into being after an assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson. Swearing in a Vice President without a President, there is no constitutional or legal justification for that. Nor is there any legal or constitutional provision for another election. Still less is there any constitutional or legal framework for a caretaker government by the incumbent whose term expires on inauguration day.

No, commonsense would certainly not prevail.

In the polarised and poisonous miasma that now suffocates Washington, D.C. every step would be contested ad nauseam, and the struggle for supremacy among the talking heads would fan every ember into a conflagration. Imagine Murdoch’s Organs as king-maker. Shiver.

The author concludes that the Electoral College be kept pretty much as it is, but that the casting of its vote be made automatic on the majority result in each state, on a winner take all basis. There is another complication here for a later date.

It should be kept, she argues, because it bolsters the two-party system which in turn moderates public opinion to the centre from the extremes and it promotes a nationwide campaign. Though it cannot absolutely guarantee to deliver each of these benefits with certainty, it does provide palpable incentives for each, as was the original intention of its creation.

Electoral teeter.jpg

The author also supports the winner-take-all approach to Electoral votes so that if Trump Donald wins 50% + 1 of popular votes in New York state he gets all of its Electoral votes. This is currently the law in forty-eight states. The winner-take-all rule makes the fewer votes of the smaller states more valuable, goes the argument. As poker pots are won in all and not split by the value of the hands of the respective players, so are Electoral votes. Yet it is two small states (Maine and Nebraska) that have split their few votes according to congressional districts, a quirk that allowed Barry Obama to win one Nebraska electoral vote. Amazing. The winner-take-all provision magnifies the winner’s support and that is supposed to increase legitimacy. Yet to many these days it does the opposite; it decreases respect for the process by inflating the margin of victory contrary to the popular vote per 2000 and 2016. The author is silent on this point.

By the way, official results are those certified by each state attorney-general as compliant with state laws. There is plenty of room in this process for dirty work. Check Florida for recent examples where lawsuits go away with campaign donations.

The author does not consider Facebook as an alternative to the Electoral College. A glaring omission that is. The candidate with the most friends and then the most likes wins! There are some entries on Facebook about the Electoral College but none to be recommended.

While the author refers to many historical examples, in none of them does the Electoral College save the day. Yet that is the master narrative. Hmmm.

Tara Ross.jpg Tara Ross

The book is very well written and very thorough. The prose is clear and specific. The approach is analytic. Having said that the author’s preference for retention of the Electoral College is apparent from the start.

There is more to the book and I may do another comment, but I wanted to publish this one before the United States election, so here it is.

An aside for Australian readers: The preferential ballot in Australia has the same function of creating and magnifying a majority, even creating one where none existed. This fiction is enthusiastically embraced by Australian voters, despite the anomalies it sometimes creates through elaborate preference deals that give parliamentary seats to candidates with few first preferences. In some ways it is just as wacky as the Electoral College but it is an article of faith not to be questioned.

An exotic setting for this krimi in the heart of Africa. It opens in a tourist camp at the Okavango Delta, at the confluence of the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers where Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana meet with Angola not far away.

okavango-delaa.jpg The red dots are tourist camps on higher and drier ground.

The nearest town, for those consulting a map, is Kasane near Victoria Falls. The waters are replete with crocodiles, water snakes, and hippopotami.

Delta boat.jpg 'Don't fed the crocs. Keep your hands and feet in the boat!'

There are many descriptions of sunsets and sunrises in workman-like prose. Our hero is Detective David Bengu, known as Kubu because of his resemblance of his manly figure to a hippopotamus.

It is a small tourist camp; one that is decidedly downmarket: Basic, no luxuries to attract high-paying guests. It represents the inheritance of the owner, and it is run by Dupie who has spent his life in the bush. The area is a swamp more than anything else and boats are essential and even more essential is someone who knows how to handle them in the rivers, the current with those crocodiles and hippos have to be avoided.

The dozen or so guests are a combination of Europeans and Africans, white and black, local and foreign. That is the norm in these camps, we are given to understand.

The abnormal is that one of the guests, an African black name Goodluck Tinubu, according to his driver’s license, is found dead in his tent one morning. He was very clearly murdered, his throat cut. The local plod from Kasane arrives and deploys the usual conventions of the police procedural.

No sooner do the police investigate the camp staff and the remaining guests than another of them is found dead, with his head smashed by our old friend, blunt instrument. Two murderers in quick succession within a few meters of each other is too much for the local plod and a call goes to distant Gaborone for help. The Number One Detective Agency is not available so our protagonist takes the case.

It gets worse when fingerprint identification shows that the the titular first victim died thirty years earlier during the Rhodesian War! This is his second death.

The conventions then go into overdrive. We learn Kubu’s backstory, his likes and dislikes, his capacity for beer, his vexed relationship with his boss, his family life… His constant preoccupation with food and drink to the exclusion of much else. In a word, boring. The only part of this backstory that I found amusing was the report of the schoolboy experiences with the game of cricket, and even that was a distracting digression.

Much more interesting are the legalities, political niceties, and social morēs of that part of the world. Though it is far away, South Africa looms large. While the Rhodesians War ended thirty years before, its baleful influence remains palpable. Many of the people we meet in the story were displaced first by the war or then later by the malignant regime that now rules, one set of chains having replaced another. Underlying all that recent history, the ancient tribal differences remain the bedrock of relations among the locals.

The camp is not owned but rather is a concession, one about to expire. The owner of the concession is not at sure she wants to retain it, and even if she did, she is not sure she has the means to do so.

Each of the guests is limned, revealing that each has a story related to this part of the world. The wars for independence and civil wars there left scars, physical and psychic on both the participants and their progeny. And no krimi is complete today without a reference to the drug trade with vast amounts of money that entrails.

The detail of the camp, the tourist trade, the relationship among the actors are all very well done. There is also some insights into the plight of Zimbabwe that remain with the reader. I would prefer much more of that and much less of Kubu's diet.

The authors are a pair, who seem to work together seamlessly. Well done!
Stanleys.jpg Michael Sears and Stanley Trollop

This is the second title in the series. In the way that publishers have of confusing the international market, this book has another title in the United States, ‘A Deadly Trade.’ A reference, no doubt, to alert readers to the drug trade. Strikes the sledge hammer of subtlety again.

I see there is a third and I will get to it one day. I find the exotic setting very interesting but Kubu himself is a bore. He is always far more interested in himself than anything else.

A charming krimi from Mumbai in India, full of colour and movement like the city itself. Inspector Ashwin Chopra has been forced to retire at fifty because of a heart attack.  The upright Chopra has long tried single-handedly to rid India of crime and corruption. He is a man with a mission who has been side-lined! But for how long?  

Ganesh cover.jpg

Coincidentally, Copra's much loved uncle, a father figure, leaves him....a very young elephant!  Huh?  Chopra lives in a gated community on the fifteenth floor of a modern condominium.  While there is plenty of storage in the basement, there is no room for an elephant, large or small, young or old.  Still Copra must accept the elephant, Ganesha, named for the god, out of respect for his departed uncle.  

Poppy, Chopra's wife, is taken aback, nonplused, and...., but before she can lay down the law, the egregious Mrs Supramanium, a neighbour, barges in and demands removal of 'that creature!'  

That’s it!  Under no circumstances will Poppy concur or agree with 'that woman!' The elephant stays!  He is tethered in the courtyard, minded by the doorman as a temporary measure.

However, the elephant is depressed, head down, wobbly on his feet, saggy tail, trunk deflated, and — worst of all — will not eat. Chopra does not know what do, so he buys books and consults a zoo keeper and later a one-time circus trainer. Strangely, he does not turn to Dr Google. 

Of course, the book-writing scholars disagree with each other since that is how careers are made, leaving him little wiser. These books by scientists are desiccated and abrupt without any practical information for the urban elephant owner. But he also finds a memoir by an Anglo-Indian woman who reared an elephant, more or less as a pet, and it does inform him on some practical points. That is a start. More importantly, it heartens him to make the effort.

Then there is the uncle's letter entrusting the elephant to Chopra, which in part said 'This is no ordinary elephant.'  Uncle was not one for exaggeration or superfluous remarks.  Thus Chopra proceeds with care.

Into the mix comes a crime that Chopra, retired or not, cannot ignore.  An innocent young boy has been murdered and no one cares, least of all the police at his old nick now with a new supervisor. In addition, a one-time nemesis reappears.  The thread unwinds with some of the usual twist and turns, but then there is the elephant in the room. Literally in one instance.

While walking Ganesha to a veterinarian for yet another consultation, Chopra sees a lowlife who used to consort with the nemesis and the old impulses take over; off he goes on the trail with Ganesha in tow!  Into the colossal glass-and-steel Mall of India he goes, brushing past security guards who suppose no elephants are allowed.  Too little, too late are their efforts to impede entry. Then there is the escalator ride!  What a tribute to German engineering. What a show for the shoppers!

A Cadbury chocolate bar gives Ganesha a powerful incentive to lumber along.  When obstructed, Chopra declares Ganesha a police elephant.  Police dog. Police elephant.  Out of the way!

Ganesha lives up to the appellation more than once. In turn when the monsoon hits, Chopra rescues the tethered Ganesha from a torrent.  They have bonded.

Along the way there is much elephant lore.  Meanwhile, Poppy thwarts Mrs Supramanium, while coping with her crotchety mother who is not keen on either the elephant or the husband.

V_Khan.jpg Vaseem Khan

Quite a trip and also a fine arrival, leading to the next title in the series. Loved it.

At least some researchers into African elephants, much larger than Indian ones, have declared them free of Machiavellianism. All will be explained upon request.

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