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Hedrick Smith wants to fix our democracy. And he’s coming to town to work on it.

Hedrick Smith
Hedrick Smith
My phone rang. It was Hedrick Smith.

That’s a big name to an old news scribbler like me. Smith was a two-time Pulitzer winner with the New York Times, who covered the Cold War (from the Soviet Union), the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and other small matters.

More recently, he’s worked on books and documentaries, many of them big hits, including “Who Stole the American Dream” in 2012. Now he’s an activist, with an organization called “Reclaim the American Dream” that wants to fix our democracy.

He’s coming to Minnesota next week to work on that. A local friend of his had recruited me to cover some of Smith’s Twin Cities events. I was interested, but had a few questions. I was expected some emails with details of the events but the phone rang and it was Smith.

He is 85, he told me within a few minutes, and “not interested in wasting time.” He said he wanted to “speed this up,” meaning, I guess, get me committed and revved up about his visit and his cause. Things did speed up.

We quickly established that we both think the Electoral College is an undemocratic relic of the framing era that has become worse with developments over the decades, like the winner-take-all nature of electoral votes in 48 of the 50 states, which creates negative incentives for presidential campaigns, like focusing overmuch on a few “swing states,” and creating the possibility (currently, a reality) of having a president who received neither a majority nor a plurality of the overall popular vote.

Smith favors the Electoral College workaround called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, under which enough states with enough electoral votes would commit to give its E-votes to whichever presidential candidate won the overall national popular vote. I told him I favor it too, and have written about it, but that I had the impression the campaign for it had stalled for lack of new states getting on board and was well short of the number of state and electoral votes needed to make it work.

He told me I was wrong. That several states had recently joined the compact. I hadn’t noticed but I checked and that was true. After four years of no progress, four new states had joined the compact in 2018-19, but they are small states, bringing the total of votes in states that have joined to 189 (according to the NPV site.) But it takes 270. (Minnesota has not joined the compact, but a bill to do so comes up in every sessions. Currently it’s part of House File 1603, which is an omnibus bill on election related matters.)

Smith claims there are several more states edging close to joining. I’m skeptical. That dynamic kept occurring. Smith sees things happening, with significant potential to change our democracy for the better, to strengthen its weaknesses. Why should I cling to my skepticism when he is trying to do something?

Smith favors Ranked Choice Voting (aka Instant Runoff Voting) which allows voters in multi-candidate races to rank their choices in order of their preferences and, by a series of instant runoffs allows a voter’s ballot to be transferred to whichever candidate he or she prefers that is still in the running.

I favor it too. I don’t like the idea that a voter whose favorite candidate might not be in the top two, has to decide between not voting for the candidate he actually prefers and “wasting” his vote. We have it in Minneapolis and St. Paul city races. Duluth rejected it by referendum.

Smith is outraged by the gerrymandering of U.S. House districts, for blatant partisan gain. I am too. What rational and fair-minded person isn’t? I know of no principled, ethical, democratic argument in favor of gerrymandering. But whichever party benefits from it feigns oblivion.

Smith favors a constitutional amendment, if necessary, to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. In Citizens United, you probably know, the Supreme Court ruled that any practical laws that would keep corporate money out of election campaigns would violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. I favor freeing our democracy from the campaign finance mess Citizens United created too; do you?

Smith doesn’t want to do away with capitalism or equalize incomes, but he does favor policies to reduce the historically high and growing concentration of wealth at the very top. I do too. But he’s devoting his 80s to this and the causes above and several more, while I sit here typing.

Smith will be giving several presentations over the weekend. At several of them, some or all of his latest film project, titled: “Winning Back Our Democracy,” will be shown. Here’s the lineup of events, but try to check before you go:

* Sunday, April 28 at 3:00 p.m. at Bethlehem Church, 4100 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis;

* Monday, April 29 at 6:30 p.m. at Stillwater Library, 224 3rd St N., Stillwater

* Tuesday, 3-5 p.m., Roseville Library.*

* Tuesday, April 30 at  7:00 p.m. at Coon Rapids Civic Center, 11155 Robinson Drive, Coon Rapids.

*Thursday, May 2 at 6:00 p.m. at the Southdale Library in Edina

Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/26/2019 - 04:30 pm.

    Man, I bet a former writer for the New York Times can convince conservatives to support all these things.

    I would like to have a flying carpet and a lazy river built around my house. Unfortunately, that is about as likely as the things this guy is talking about.

  2. Submitted by Dee Ann Christensen on 04/27/2019 - 07:01 am.

    Another event unlisted. He will be at the Coon Rapids Civic Center on April 30 at 7 PM. I have hope We have to try.

  3. Submitted by sharon tornes on 04/27/2019 - 08:58 am.

    Oh well then. Let’s just not do a dang thing about all of these outrageous issues.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/27/2019 - 11:36 am.

    Well, to get anything done, somebody has to begin talking about them. In detail.

    Kind of like Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is peppering the Democratic primary contest with solid, detailed policy proposals, to extend to reasonableness and detail several of the broad ideological concepts Bernie Sanders has been talking about for several decades at least.

    I had no idea that the electoral College reform idea–give a state’s EC votes to the winner of the national presidential vote count–had come so far, as to be 189 votes! Great! Minnesota should add itself to that.

    Who cares whether died-in-the-wool Know-Nothings on the right don’t want to hear of new ideas?

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/29/2019 - 07:58 am.

      to extend to reasonableness and detail several of the broad ideological concepts Bernie Sanders has been talking about

      Like letting the Boston bomber vote?

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/29/2019 - 09:01 am.

        Sander’s point is that we have gone to such excess that disenfranchising 100 legitimate voters to root out 1 illegitimate one is simply wrong.

        Better to have a system that universally respects the right to vote by all than a system that cherry picks by location, economic status, students vs workers, etc. As in Texas where your concealed carry permit gets you into the polling place; but a student photo ID does not.

        Of course, allowing all eligible voters a common path to voting spells doom to today’s GOP; so, let’s just crow about exceptions that have little true bearing on anything.

        • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/29/2019 - 09:42 am.

          Wow. That’s a fascinating viewpoint. Let’s unpack it a bit.

          Sander’s point is that we have gone to such excess that disenfranchising 100 legitimate voters to root out 1 illegitimate one is simply wrong.

          What makes one violent felon a legitimate voter, but another illegitimate? Convicts lose just about all of their constitutional rights. That’s worked pretty well so far, but maybe you’re right.

          But if we agree that violent felons should have the right to vote, what about other rights, which are just as important? Why shouldn’t felons be able to come and go as they please? If they’re trustworthy enough to make decisions about what societies rules are, why wouldn’t they be able to have firearms?

          As in Texas where your concealed carry permit gets you into the polling place; but a student photo ID does not.

          Well, one is a state issued ID, the other is not, but OK. Should we make Cub bonus cards acceptable ID? Why or why not?

          Of course, allowing all eligible voters a common path to voting spells doom to today’s GOP; so, let’s just crow about exceptions that have little true bearing on anything.

          Well, I’d be remiss not to observe it’s not Republicans who are dredging federal penitentiaries for voters. But It’s the GOP that’s in trouble….

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/29/2019 - 10:20 am.

            A note:
            Most college students attend public institutions, so their student ID’s are state issued.

            • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/29/2019 - 11:04 am.

              College ID’s do not require one to establish residency in the college’s state. Many college students vote in their home states via absentee ballots.

              • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/29/2019 - 02:29 pm.

                OK, let’s cut to the chase:

                Any tightening of voter ID procedures results in currently legal, eligible voters to be subjected to requirements that may prevent them from voting in the next election after legally voting in the previous one through the imposition of attainable; but inconvenient and difficult new provisions to comply with.

                What do you see as an acceptable ratio for disenfranchising voters:

                A. Stop 100 illegal votes at the cost of preventing 1 legal vote.
                B. Stop 10 illegal votes at the cost of preventing 1 legal vote.
                C. Stop 1 illegal vote at the cost of preventing 1 legal vote.
                D. Stop 10 legal votes at the cost of preventing 1 illegal vote.
                E. Stop 100 legal votes at the cost of preventing 1 illegal vote.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 04/27/2019 - 12:53 pm.

    I’m glad “you both agreed the electoral college is an undemocratic relic”. Unfortunately for you two, it is here to stay. Getting 2/3’s of the States to give up their ability to determine elections will never happen.
    Putting effort into this is just wasting time. Put that effort into falling public schools and you will get support.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/27/2019 - 02:30 pm.

      Public schools wouldn’t fall if they were rebuilt as often as factories are.

      • Submitted by Joshua Larson on 04/27/2019 - 04:11 pm.

        Public schools fall precisely because they are public. Factories are rebuilt because they are private. And that statement is not about politics or economics. It’s about ownership.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/27/2019 - 02:32 pm.

      No State can determine an election.
      The question is whether elections are determined by state legislatures or by individual voters, with every voter in the USA counted equally.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/28/2019 - 02:07 pm.

      Joe Smith wants us to turn our attention to something less sweeping than a no-Constitutional-Convention-necessary elimination of the skewed system upheld by the anachronistic and undemocratic Electoral College.

      Thanks. but we’ll decide how ready or eager we are to have every vote be an equal vote in the country. Not to have any more people in small rural states getting huge voting advantages over large-population states with crowded cities.

      One person, one vote. It’s the only place where real live persons have the advantage over the “persons” the Supreme Court deemed corporations to be.

      Corporate “persons” multiply their “right to free speech” with tons of money spent on our elections. But we can outvote them, real human being by real human being. One by one, counting each vote with the same weight as any other vote.

      Great concept!

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/29/2019 - 09:15 am.

      Better take a closer look at today’s scorecard.

      If the remaining blue, blue/purple states with current legislation on the compact and FL, that also has current legislation, opt in, it becomes law.

      Why is it that any element, old or new, established or proposed, that allows a minority vote to win is a key element for most GOP platforms and pundits?

    • Submitted by Tom Crain on 05/01/2019 - 12:40 pm.

      The NPVC now has 2/3 of EC votes needed to trigger it.

      The remaining 89 EC votes will be hard to get, but not impossible. It would seem to require that Democrats control all parts of state government to pass. Four states with legislation pending that have not yet signed on and where Democrats have full control of state government: Delaware, Maine, Nevada and Oregon, would contribute a total of 20 more electoral votes leaving 64 shy of the number needed for it to take effect.

      Here are some good candidates to get the remaining 64 over the next decade- States that have had in the recent past all (D) govt or that are trending and close: MN!(10), NC(15), NH(4), IA(6), AR(6), LA(8), WV(5), GA(16). All of these states have had a (D) controlled state govt within the last 10 yrs with the exception of GA where 2002 was the last (D) controlled state Govt; however, by all accounts, GA is trending quickly (D).

      Add to this the popularity of this idea and it seems very possible; not in the next election cycle, but likely in (most of) our lifetimes. Polls show ~70% approval for this one person=one vote idea. Even amongst self identified Republicans 60% support it.

  6. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 04/27/2019 - 06:25 pm.

    All of this makes “too much sense” for any regressive republican.

  7. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/28/2019 - 10:11 am.

    All well and good, but what would Mr. Smith propose to do about the fact that (as in many other nations now) a third of the nation now rejects democratic values, norms and process in favor of an authoritarianism that protects the political and economic prerogatives of the few and defines fellow citizens as the enemy? When enough of a plurality will vote for Trump that he can be manipulated into office, there’s a more fundamental problem with our “democracy” that changing the electoral college and limiting gerrymandering aren’t going to overcome.

  8. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/29/2019 - 08:07 am.

    I know of no principled, ethical, democratic argument in favor of gerrymandering.

    How about the ability of people to elect representatives that actually represent their views?

    The Twin cities hold large majorities of leftists, but that doesn’t mean there are no conservatives living there. Thoughtful gerrymandering allows marginalized voices to be heard…what’s more Democratic than that?

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/29/2019 - 09:42 am.


      “Thoughtful Gerrymanderers”

      Never thought I would see those two words next to each other.

      The GOP leads the league in “partisian Gerrymandering” where districts like the MN 4 and MN5 corral enough liberal votes to skew the MN2, MN3, MN6 and MN8 which have the potential to flip D to R and back again. Push MN5 into Edina and the Western suburbs and MN4 to Stillwater and plenty of current MN 4 and MN 5 D voters would be injected into MN2, MN3 and MN6 improving D chances there, while still holding MN 4 & 5.

      And these are marginal examples of Gerrymandering, look at some of the states where the courts have undone political decisions to really see the effects of Gerrymandering.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/29/2019 - 10:16 am.

        You have provided examples of gerrymandering, but you have failed to address my point. Has gerrymandering allowed like minded conservatives to be represented in a state that is marginally leftist?

        Why is it a bad thing, other than a desire to silence diverse opinions?

        The courts have overruled gerrymandered maps where there was evidence of race being used as a criteria, not political preference. That’s evidently more than OK in hiring and school admittance, but not for voting.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/29/2019 - 10:42 am.

          Take a look at PA where in the 2016 Gerrymandered map 13 of the states 18 (72%) CDs went GOP and the total CD vote was 54/46 GOP.

          In 2018, the court ordered map produced a 50/50 split of the 18 seats with the total vote being 55/45 DEM.

          The court action reflected correcting this imbalance more than any racial imbalance:

          Are you supporting the idea of adding the Western suburbs to MN 5 and Stillwater to MN 4, with other parts of 4 and 5 finding their way into MN 2,3 and 6?

          The D’s agree with you…

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/29/2019 - 01:10 pm.

          “Why is it a bad thing, other than a desire to silence diverse opinions?”

          Because election maps are not supposed to be drawn to reach a pre-determined outcome.

          It doesn’t matter what your political opinion is. You are not entitled to have an elected representative who reflects your ideological bent. You are entitled to vote, and make your opinions known before and after the election, but that’s as far as your entitlement goes. No party, or shade of opinion, has a “right” to representation unless a majority or plurality of the voters put them in office.

          Once again, governance is not just about elections and who’s winning.

          PS Yes, I know that the Democrats in Maryland gerrymandered that state’s maps in their favor, and that is one of the redistricting cases now before the Supreme Court. I hope Maryland loses.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/02/2019 - 09:17 am.

      Unfortunately, the fact that you feel unrepresented falls squarely into the “it sucks to be you” category. Life isn’t about getting everything you want. If you want to be represented as a conservative in a sea of “leftists” it’s your job to convince your neighbors that your point of view benefits them and convince them to vote the way you’d prefer. In the meanwhile, you’re just gonna have to live with it. A representative democracy isn’t a direct representative government, so you are not entitled to your own personal representation. And a representative democracy does not mean that the minority gets to cobble out their own undemocratic representation–THAT’s what gerrymandering is. There is a LOT of thought put into gerrymandering, but no moral or democratic thought. Just selfish thought.

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