Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dirtiest Election Ever: Voter suppression, a time-honored tradition?

If you’re following U.S. politics, you know the current contest between Governor Romney and President Obama is getting nastier with each passing day and will soon surpass the primaries for down-n-dirty campaigns.

People decry how nasty campaigns have become, but the nastiness was injected almost from the beginning. Many historians put the campaign of 1800 at the top of the list for dirty contests.

That election pitted the sitting president, John Adams, against his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. 1800 was the first big contest between two distinct emerging parties. Adams represented the Federalists while Jefferson stood for the Republicans (predecessor of today’s Democrats.)

Although it wasn’t considered gentlemanly to actually campaign, Adams and Jefferson worked the levers behind the scenes, the totally partisan press stirred the pot, and their surrogates were out there campaigning. Jefferson was especially adept at the anonymous press articles and getting his friends to “leak” his letters.

But what about the electorate?

Today there is a raging controversy about voter suppression. In my home state of Florida, the state is suing the Federal Government to get access to citizenship records and the Feds are suing the state for violating the Voting Rights Act. At this writing the issue is not resolved.

But are the notions of who is eligible to vote and voter suppression really new? Of course not! The very existence of the Voting Rights Act testifies to the history of suppressing the vote of African Americans and others. (In full disclosure, I benefited directly from the Voting Rights Act. Until the law passed, I could not vote in Indiana where I was a town resident and university student.)

Blacks, Indians, women, and propertyless whites were denied access to voting from the beginning of the Republic. But a twist on voter suppression was actually written into the Constitution – the infamous Three-Fifths Rule.

In Article I, Section 2, which describes the qualifications for Representatives, here’s what our founding fathers agreed to in 1787:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of other Persons.

First, let’s decode it: “three fifths of other persons” means each enslaved person was to be counted in determining the total population as 3/5 of a person. This increased the number of people counted in the population to determine congressional districts inflating representation. However, these “other persons” were not allowed to vote.

The practical effect of this notorious clause was to provide more electoral votes to states with large enslaved populations than they would have had based on the white population. This skewing of the electoral vote meant Jefferson had a distinct advantage over Adams. In fact, it helped elect the Virginia dynasty – Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. (For dedicated political junkies, check out Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills for a detailed look at the implications for electoral votes.)

In 1800 the issue was gerrymandering the Electoral College to suppress the vote of states without a large enslaved population.

This odious section of the Constitution was not eliminated until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868. Even then, Indians were still excluded. In 1870 the 15th amendment was passed finally providing:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Women were not a part of the voting system (with a few exceptions) until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

What are the lessons for today?

Lessons for political leaders:

Tempus fugit: The Roman poet Virgil is credited with adding this handy phrase to our lexicon when he wrote, “fugit irreparabile tempus.” Time flees irretrievably. While politicians in every age get mired in the immediate mandate to get elected and re-elected, they fail to notice history is leaving them behind. The wrongs will eventually get righted and they will be on the wrong side of history.

Carpe diem: The Roman poet Horace coined this useful phrase as, “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero.” Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future. For politicians this could be interpreted as, “Do what is right today and don’t wait for a ‘better time’ at some date in the future.” Gradualism and hope are not successful strategies for change.

Usque ad: All right I’m pushing the Latin translation but, roughly, it means “inclusive.” In terms of political leaders this means including every citizen on the voting rolls, educating them, and getting them out to the polls. Some countries have mandatory voting, which probably world not work here. But the embarrassingly low turnout, even for presidential elections, erodes democracy.

Lessons for leaders and managers:

Tempus fugit: The time to fight bias, especially unconscious bias in the work place is now. Time is fleeing and every day that passes without tapping into the totality of human potential sets companies, governments, and nonprofits/NGOs back. In a globally connected world, there is no rational, financial or organizational reason to exclude the creative capacity of every human mind.

Carpe diem: Every year the Catalyst Award seeks out companies that have unearthed their hidden biases, broken down the barriers, and tapped every employee’s potential contribution. There is always a bottom-line upside.

Usque ad: Inclusiveness can easily slip into the buzz-word-du-jour waste bin. Yet, as the most successful leaders have figured out inclusiveness and celebrating diverse ideas, opinions, and insights leads to the innovation necessary to compete successfully today. Why would you exclude anyone? Which ideas can you afford to miss?

Lessons for personal action:

Tempus fugit: Time flees while you divert your mind with ____ (fill in the blank.) The election draws near. Inform yourself on the issues, choose your candidate, and go to work for him or her.

Carpe diem: Speak out. Look for every opportunity to support full voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Voter fraud is not threatening our democracy…Voter apathy is.

Usque ad: Insist your candidates embrace inclusiveness, not only in their campaigns, but in their support of full voter participation. The actual number of fraudulent voters is miniscule and non-consequential. The impact of non-participation is devastating. Turning this around could change the game entirely for all of us of every political stripe.

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What's your idea: Can we progress from our checkered history on voter suppression and apathy to full participation? Please post your comments.
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Next: Is money the great corrupter of politics?

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Rebecca Staton-Reinstein president, Advantage Leadership, Inc. 

Want to know more about the tumultuous fights at the Constitutional Convention and the election of 1800? Check out
Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers

I NEED YOUR HELP: I'm beginning research for my new book on the influence of leaders on their organizations (Washington's Shadow) and I'm interested in your experiences or ideas for case studies. Do you know a leader who has had a profound influence shaping the organization's culture and changing it for the better? (I'm not interested in negative stories which are much more common.) Drop me a note:


Ken Okel said...

Great post Rebecca. It seems the desire for election manipulation or sneakiness is not limited to one century. Democracy must be earned and then maintained by a vigilant citizenship.

Rebecca Staton-Reinstein said...

Thanks,Ken. Your insight is right on target. I hope the electorate agrees with you.