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