Posted on April 29, 2008
This weekend, I took off my election reform hat and left Washington, DC to go see Feist play in Philadelphia. It was perhaps the best concert I've ever been to (and I've been to many) -- but while in town, I thought I would also check out the new National Constitution Center.
The building itself is quite nice looking and set in the heart of Old City, but to be honest, I didn't know quite what to expect when I plunked down the $12 admission fee. Well, it turns out this new landmark to the formation and evolution of the U.S. Constitution is very much a museum about the history of voting rights and suffrage in America.
Okay, so I had to put my election reform hat back on my head once inside. Given that the evolution of suffrage is central to the evolution of our Constitution, a great deal of the museum's permanent exhibits were dedicated to this topic. I was pleased to see that the museum did not shy away from pointing out our nation's sordid past -- including atrocities ranging from the internment of our citizens to the exclusion of women and communities of color from our political process.
But... (I wouldn't be writing this post if there were no "but", would I?)
I have two bones to pick:
Electoral College: There was actually a decent chunk of space dedicated to a discussion of the Electoral College, and I have to say the curators of the museum got this part dead wrong. I wouldn't be so irritated about this, except for the fact that the main errors in the exhibit are exactly the type of misinformation that Electoral College/winner-take-all defenders spread. First, the write-up on the Electoral College stated that supporters of reform claim the current system forces candidates to spend all of their time in large states, while claiming that defenders of the current system claim the system encourages candidates to campaign nationally.
These points are quite amusing given that our winner-take-all Electoral College, in fact, causes candidates to ONLY spend time in swing-states. Framing this as a big-state vs. small-state issue is both a farce and a distraction. Second, I wouldn't give defenders of the current system as much credit as the exhibit does, as their public arguments are much more specious (ie: deifying the founders and their wisdom or simply saying the "system works"). But more specifically, the writers of this exhibit have the arguments quite backwards -- it is the reformers who seek national elections, and the defenders of the status quo who are satisfied with a system that excludes the vast majority of states.
To the people's credit though, the museum has a message board that asks people to post sticky-notes indicating support for or opposition to our current Electoral College system -- and those opposing FAR outweigh those supporting.
District of Columbia (and territories): The second point of irritation for me was the seeming absence of any mention of the current disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens residing in the District of Columbia (like myself, ahem) or in the territories. As we know, most citizens are unaware of our current plight and lack of voting Congressional representation -- but it is a little bit more disturbing to grapple with when you are standing in the midst of Philadelphia's numerous memorials to the birth of our nation and our revolution. Heck, I even brought my car to Philadelphia with its "Taxation without Representation" license plates on.
The museum is organized chronologically, and as you go through each decade, it asks you to take a quiz to see if you would've been able to vote in your state in a given time period. It asks you about your race, gender, age, citizenship, felony status, etc. But before you take the quiz, ironically, you have to pick your state... (D.C. is not a state - thus the disenfranchisement nuances are ignored here).
In any case -- here's to hoping that the National Constitution Center at least creates some temporary exhibits exploring the current surge in support for a National Popular Vote, as well as D.C. voting rights.