Friday, May 24, 2019

Student Loan Debt is a Serious Threat

     Apparently, there will not be an early bipartisan solution to the ongoing student loan crisis in America, despite the broad impact of the problem and the potential danger to the overall economy if the problem is not soon resolved. The outstanding student loan debt in America has reached $1.6 trillion and affects over 44 million individuals, primarily students, but also parents.

     Student loan debt exceeds both credit card debt and auto loan debt. Only home mortgage debt is higher. 

     How did we get to the point where protecting broad access to postsecondary education is not recognized as societal obligation, critical to our economic and political well-being.?

     When I graduated from Wofford College in 1959 I owed about $1,000 to the Darlington (SC) Kiwanis Club college loan fund. I had dropped out for the last semester of what was to be my junior year in order to go to work and pay off an earlier loan from the Kiwanis, but I had to borrow more so I could complete my degree.

     Borrowing money for part of the cost of my education was an inconvenience, but not stressful. I paid off my loan within three years, and never questioned the value of my investment.

     The world of higher education in America is a little different today.     

     First of all it is clearly more expensive. Today, the annual costs at a private liberal arts college like Wofford can range from $50,000 to $75,000.

     Even public institutions today carry a hefty price tag.  In South Carolina the yearly cost among public campuses ranges from approximately $20,000 to nearly $30,000 for in-state students. Out-of-state students can pay as much as $20,000 more.  North Carolina’s public institutions are only slightly cheaper.

     With today’s costs it’s obvious few service clubs or fraternal organizations can offer the kind of financial assistance the Darlington Kiwanis Club provided me. A couple thousand dollars in the 1950s was generous and covered about half the cost of my college education. Managing loans that could easily exceed $100,000 would not be feasible for most volunteer organizations today even if they could raise the necessary endowment.

     To help offset at least part of the cost of attendance today, some institutions attempt to use their own resources, private endowments, and access to various federal grant and loan programs. But keep in mind, the median annual family income in America today is $61,000. Half the families in America have no greater income. What is the likely reaction among students from such families to the stories about the current student debt crisis?

     This crisis did not developed in some mysterious manner.  It came about because politicians over the past three or four decades have viewed education as a benefit for the individual rather than as a public good broadly of value to our entire society. This has led states to reduce funding for traditional colleges and universities and forced the institutions to raise tuition and fees imposed on students.

     The change in attitude as to the purpose of education has led to a plethora of for-profit colleges that advertise easy access to lucrative jobs. According to The Economist, between 2000 and 2010 enrollments in for-profit college chains more than quadrupled. Nearly a quarter of their revenue went to marketing, “more than on educating students.”  

     Fewer than a quarter of students at for-profit institutions complete their program, but virtually all wind up with debt. For-profit college borrowers have a default rate of 48% within 12 years, compared to 12% default rate for public college borrowers, and 14% of private college borrowers.

     Billionaire Robert Smith’s recent promise to repay the student loan debt of the 396 men in the 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College was a generous gesture. Unlike nearly two-thirds of their fellow college graduates this year, Morehouse men will not have the burden of approximately $30,000 to shoulder as they embark upon their careers.

     There is, however, little evidence that other wealthy individuals are similarly motivated.  Also, Smith’s commitment does nothing for students who have not graduated or who have transferred to other institutions.

     A proposal to provide tax credits to graduates and their employers for repayment of student loans suffers from the same flaw.

     Since 2004, student loan debt has more than quadrupled which indicates the problem is of recent origin. Continuation of this burden will have a long lasting effect. At least three generations of Americans already face serious restrictions on their participation in our economy. Buying a house, marrying and raising a family, or entering critically important professions, like K-12 education, healthcare or social work, all are impacted.

     Surely, if we can find the means to give a 40% tax break to corporations, we can find a way to eliminate the current student loan debt and to create a more rational system for funding colleges and universities. Until recently, American postsecondary education has been the envy of the rest of the world.  It is not too late to restore that acclaim.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Another Billionaire for President?

Another billionaire is offering to save the United States from its current political dysfunction.
It appears an occupational obsession that individuals, generally men, who have acquired great wealth in the business world are convinced they can lead us to some sort of nonpartisan nirvana.

The latest self-proclaimed wizard is Howard Schultz, the Brooklyn-born billionaire who built Starbucks into a worldwide dynamo.  He has announced consideration of a run for president in 2020 as an independent.

That should prompt most voters to immediately dismiss his candidacy as fantasy.  No independent candidate, i.e. an aspirant not the nominee of one of the two major parties, has ever won the presidency.  The last one to even receive electoral votes was George Wallace who racked up 46 in 1968, not enough to block Richard Nixon’s victory in the Electoral College. 

However, billionaires get a pass on rational thinking because of their apparent unlimited resources. Americans tend to be in awe of wealth even when they might question how it was accumulated.

It is easy to see how billionaires get the idea they should be in charge of the country.  Although they have acquired their wealth in an economy undergirded by a very friendly, even pandering political system, the conventional wisdom credits them with being rugged individualists.

Billionaires, and some self-styled billionaires, you may have one in mind, claim they bring important skills to the table.  They are problem solvers, consensus builders, pragmatist.  People will listen to them and respond accordingly.

And in the world of business that is normally true.  But in business CEOs operate in a well-defined space with well-defined rules.  The products and services they seek to deliver are targeted for an easily identifiable audience. Personnel needed to perform essential functions whether employees or contractors are under the ultimate control of the CEO.  Their job security and financial well-being depend upon his, or her, whim.

In the political world it is a very different story.  Yes, some personal attributes, like character, discipline and intellectual rigor are important in both settings, but the environment of America’s political arena is far more complex than that of a single company or even a large conglomerate.  It also defies attempts to rule by executive decree.

A US president shares power with the 537 members of the US Congress, much more assertive than the average corporate board member. Passage and funding of the president’s agenda requires congressional approval. Most of his executive staff must be approved by the legislative branch.

Sometimes senators and representatives may owe their election to a president, but generally, that is not the case. Their obligation to the president, even one of their own party, is tenuous.  Each is independently elected by his, or her, own constituency, unlike in a parliamentary system.    

In addition, a US president must operate with far greater transparency than that demanded of an American corporate leader. The media and special interest groups are not only free to assail any proposal or action the nation’s chief executive pursues, they view their constant carping as a sacred responsibility.   

The late presidential scholar Richard Neustadt wrote extensively about the modern American presidency. In his view the US president is not powerless, but there are formidable forces within government and within the political system who have more specific constituencies and consequently an independent set of responsibilities. A president’s task is to persuade those forces that what he “wants of them is what they ought to do for their sake and on their authority.”

Arguing that no billionaire nor successful businessman could perform ably as president is not reasonable, but he or she would have to recognize the different milieu as well as the likely difference in objectives. And therein lies the rub for a potential candidate from the business world in 2020.

In comments related to his candidacy, Schultz labeled himself as “socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” decrying extremes of both parties.  But then he compared Democratic support for universal healthcare with Trump’s demand for a wall on the Southern border. 

Political definition may be in influx today, but universal healthcare is no longer a radical idea. Most Americans, unless they run a drug company or a health insurance monopoly, think it’s a good idea.  After all, other developed countries have had it for decades.

Schultz also expressed concern about the persistent deficit and growth in the national debt, but he refused to state his position on tax increases.  This leaves the suspicion that spending cuts would be his answer to reducing the deficit and the debt, not raising taxes on people like him.

This would not be a very popular or credible position for a presidential candidate in 2020.  For Schultz it could be toxic.  In 2016 his last full year as Starbucks CEO Schultz’s compensation was more than $21.8 million. Using Starbucks 2018 median employee pay as reported, under Schultz the CEO-median employee pay ratio would have been at least 1,700 to 1.

Not a good platform for a presidential run in 2020.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Crafting a Better Presidential Nominating Process

Even though it is 22 months before the next general election and 17 months before the major parties hold their political conventions, the 2020 presidential campaign is already underway.  However, the leadership of neither major party seems interested in crafting a nominating process likely to produce a candidate capable of governing.   

This is not a new problem. At its heart is an obsessive emphasis on primaries as the way to evaluate and filter potential candidates.  This allows too much focus on personal charisma and rhetorical skills and only incidental discussion of issues important to the public and how to resolve them.  It also leaves the nomination process open to manipulation by wealthy moguls using their money to pursue narrow motives.    

The problem was front and center in 2016 when both major parties botched their presidential search, producing two flawed nominees.   

The Democratic leadership tilted the process in favor of Hillary Clinton, even though many party faithful viewed her as too cozy with corporate elites and too concern for her own political and financial fortunes.  Superdelegates drafted from the party establishment were handed a major role in the nominating process, and both primaries and debates were scheduled to give Clinton an advantage over others. The ease with which she obtained the nomination disguised her lack of broadly based voting strength. Given the critical role of the Electoral College, this led to defeat in November despite winning the popular vote. 

On the other hand, the GOP leadership abdicated responsibility for shaping the nominating process. With a plethora of candidates the Republican National Committee chose to essentially surrender management of the process to the candidates and their wealthy backers. Too many aspirants participated in the numerous debates for any meaningful focus on issues. Relying on celebrity interrogators contributed to the melee, and the aggressive and outrageous persona of Donald Trump prevailed. In all likelihood, Trump will be the GOP nominee again in 2020 and will dictate his party’s nominating process, if there is one.

Current Democratic leaders are ecstatic about the multitude indicating interest in the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.  Obviously encouraged in part by Donald Trump’s low approval ratings, nearly three dozen candidates have made some move towards seeking to be the party’s flagbearer in the next general election. So many in the hunt, however, may distract the party from addressing mistakes which produced the 2016 debacle.  

In mid-December, Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee chairman, revealed a vague plan for 2020 which calls for twelve candidate debates beginning in June 2019.  That is more than a year before the Democratic Convention in July 2020, and eighteen months before the 2020 General Election. And it sounds eerie like the GOP disaster in 2016.

Although Perez said accommodating the large field “is a first-class problem to have,” he did not offer a first-class response as to how the DNC plan to deal with the challenge. No indication of how the debates might be structured nor how questioners would be selected.  No definitive word as to how participants would be determined except to say that one relevant metric would be “grass-roots fund-raising.”

The United States is a representative democracy in which American citizens elect agents to act in our behalf and interest. It cannot function well if the two-way communication between citizens and representatives breaks down.  Historically, political parties with genuine grass roots organizations at all levels of government have been vehicles for facilitating that communication, but in recent years neither major party has performed this function effectively. 

Although primaries were originally viewed as instruments of reform, allowing greater say in the nomination process for the general public, today’s primaries are controlled by a very small slice of the electorate usually energized around narrow interests. Little time is spent by candidates during the primaries actually listening to the public. Voter surveys are disseminated by candidates and parties, but the vacuous questions confirm their purpose is fundraising not enlightenment.    

Instead of placing so much emphasis on primaries, the DNC would do well to explore initially ways in which to engage prospective voters in discussions about the problems that concern them.  State or regional forums focused on specific concerns could be held during 2019.  Expert authorities could be invited to participate in the forums as well as potential candidates, but there would be dialogue, not sermons.

Maybe it is pie in the sky to believe either major party would be willing to invest so much time and energy in listening to the American public. It’s much easier to organize campaign rallies and to fill the airways and social media with 30 second commercials that oversimplify and overpromise. Given the dysfunction of our government today, however, the survival of the major parties likely depends on crafting a presidential nominating process that produces not just electoral victory but also the capacity to govern.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Silver Lining?

The ongoing shutdown of most federal agencies may have a silver lining after all.  Since before Christmas nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments have been essentially closed or forced to operate with reduced staff, leaving 800,000 federal employees unpaid.  The consequences for the public are proving to be enlightening.

For forty years we have been bombarded with political rhetoric about an overbearing government intruding into every aspect of our lives and undermining our innovative spirit. Ronald Reagan gets credit for initiating the onslaught, famously saying, “Government is not the answer.  Government is the problem.”  And Bill Clinton piled on in his 1996 State of the Union address declaring the “the era of big government is over.”

Deregulating and making government smaller has been the almost universal message of both Republicans and Democrats. The shutdown, however, is offering a broad array of opportunities for ordinary Americans to gain new insights as to the role of government in our everyday lives.  It may lead to a reassessment of such political pontificating.

As result of the shutdown’s impact on the Food and Drug Administration inspections of our food supply and evaluations of proposed drugs for combating disease or chronic illness are restricted.  The Agriculture Department is hampered in monitoring the safety of our meat, poultry and egg production. Also, subsidy payments to farmers suffering losses as result of the trade conflict with China are on hold and agricultural statistical data needed by farmers for future planning is not available.

A variety of services supporting US business and trade activities are on hold or have been significantly reduced.  For example, the Commerce Department has suspended collection and publication of data related to our domestic economy and international trade.

Access to the National Parks and the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, have been restricted and in some cases eliminated.  A few states concerned with the impact on tourism have actually taken over park maintenance.  Since a significant source of park funding is visitor fees, the shutdown is a double whammy. 

The quality of our air and of our water supply are at risk because funding for the Environmental Protection Agency has been suspended, and protection for consumers from monopolistic and other fraudulent business practices cannot be provide without appropriations for the Justice Department.  Failure to fund the Securities and Exchange Commission limits oversight of the stock market and prevents approval of new corporations.

Landlords who rent to tenants receiving rental assistance from Housing and Urban Development will not be paid while the shutdown continues and the processing of home mortgages for many middle income Americans will be delayed.  The impact of the shutdown on the Internal Revenue Service means fewer audits and more revenue losses to tax cheats.

Ironically, even though the stated objective of the standoff is “border security,” some of the most severe reductions in governmental services are being imposed on the Department of Homeland Security.  Employees in the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration, US Citizenship and Immigration Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency are all impacted by the shutdown.  Most are still working but without pay and unable to provide a full range of protections. 

Significantly, DHS has furloughed, meaning they are not allowed to work even without pay, nearly half of the staff of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.  So much for keeping an eye on terrorists sneaking across the Southern border.

When the US was founded it consisted of thirteen states with a total population of less than 4 million occupying 865,000 square miles. New York City was the country’s largest city with approximately 33,000 residents.  Charleston, SC, was the fourth largest municipality with roughly 16,000.  In the primarily rural society of 1790, self-sufficiency was an important and achievable value.

Over 320 million people live in the nearly 4 million square miles that make up the US today.  That includes the 50 states, District of Columbia and several territorial “possessions” (which as advocates of self-determination we try to ignore).  New York City is still the largest city with more than twice as many people as lived in 1790’s America.

There are still rural areas, but most Americans today live in cities or suburbs in close vicinity of urban centers. Rubbing elbows with our neighbors sometimes causes friction, but it is unavoidable.  Under the circumstances the concept of “small government” is a dangerous and mindless illusion, and economically, self-sufficiency is no longer an option, much less a value.

Just how interwoven government’s responsibilities and services are in our everyday lives is being revealed in the shutdown.  Effective and representative government is clearly essential to our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the modern world. Maybe we’ll remember that when the next election rolls around.    

Friday, December 21, 2018

What’s a Job Worth?

It is one of the most vital questions in a capitalist economy, and it’s almost always defined in money terms. In the not so distant past there use to be some occupations in religious or nonprofit organizations that were measured according to other standards. Today, virtual every job carries a monetary value and the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom has never been greater.

There are various estimates of this gap, but it’s generally accepted that the average private company CEO today receives well over 300 times the pay of the median American employee.  Some 50 years ago the typical CEO made 20 times what the median worker did.

This gap did not develop overnight.  It’s been in progress for some time, and it has a cumulative effect.

In 1980 the top one percent of Americans shared about eight percent of national income, while the bottom 50 percent received 18 percent.  In 2010, the one percent at the pinnacle of our economy enjoyed over 20 percent and the bottom half’s share plummeted to 12 or 13 percent.

Corporate leaders, their wealthy allies and their servile panderers in politics and the media argue wages and salaries in the US economy are set by the “market.”  Whatever the “market” will bear is what any job should pay. 

This answer portrays the “market” as some mystical, disinterested entity functioning beyond the control of human actors.  

Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, in his The Wealth of Nations begged to differ:

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties (workman and master), whose interests are by no means the same.  The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible…

Smith also recognized who enjoyed the advantage in these negotiations:

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into compliance with their terms.  The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen…In all such disputes the master can hold out much longer….Many workmen could not subsist a week, a few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment…. 

This has been the age-old story of modern capitalism.  A major objective of FDR’s New Deal was to restore some balance in this struggle by putting government’s hand on the scales in favor of workers, but in recent years, the natural advantage of management Adam Smith noted has been weaponized with an aggressive legislative and judicial agenda to undermine the collective bargaining capabilities of American unions as well as to make it more difficult for them to obtain financial support from the workers they represent.

A prime example of how distorted the struggle has become is the long running battle over increasing the federal minimum wage. The last time it was adjusted was 2009 when it was set at $7.25.  Obviously, it has lost significant purchasing power in the interim.  In fact, the federal minimum wage had its highest real value in 1968, when it was $1.60 per hour, $11.65 in 2018 dollars.

Under the circumstances, the argument for an increase to $15 an hour seems reasonable. On an annual basis that works out to $31,200, approximately half today’s median household income for a family of four.  Payroll and Medicare taxes would reduce the $31,200 to less than $29,000, by no means a luxurious living.

Why in America should anyone willing to work be paid less than $15 an hour?  Why should any employer expect someone to work for less? If an employer cannot pay a “living” wage, why should the job exist?   

The US has a $20 trillion economy.  Approximately 205 million Americans are in the workforce meaning a per capita national income of about $60,000.  Obviously, things are out of balance when so few  of those dollars flow to workers in the lower wage range.

It is a constant dilemma of capitalism that individual companies generally view labor only as a cost, but for the overall economy, workers are also consumers.  So a viable economic system needs to recognize that duality and the consequent importance of insuring that jobs are available and accessible to all willing workers. 

Some American companies have sought to escape that dilemma by outsourcing its workforce needs and extending its marketing reach abroad.  This has been particularly true in the tech industry.  But recent conflicts with China should be a wakeup call for this strategy, and a reminder that a major source of strength for American capitalism is this country’s commitment to representative government and the rule of law. 

Income inequality weighs heavy on the American economy today and is having a corrosive effect on the concord among our citizens undermining the willingness to find common ground on a host of issues beyond those strictly related to salaries and wages.  It is past time to rein in excessive executive compensation and share the fruits of American prosperity with workers at all levels.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Can We Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment?

The longest serving member of the South Carolina House of Representatives has vowed to seek ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) when next year’s legislative session begins.  Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Democratic minority leader of the SC House, apparently knows the odds are against her in gaining approval to add the guarantee of women’s rights to the US Constitution.

It was on December 10, 1923, that the first attempt was officially made to enshrine such protection. Two Kansas Republicans, Senator Charles Curtis and Rep. Daniel R. Anthony, Jr., introduced an ERA proposal to Congress that day, ninety-five years ago.  It went nowhere.  By the way, Anthony was the nephew of Susan B. Anthony.

Not until the 1970s did the ERA make any significant progress.  In 1971 the US House of Representatives approved the amendment by a vote of 354-24.  A year later the US Senate followed, voting 84-8 in favor.  However, two Democrats, NC Senator Sam Erwin and NY Rep. Emanuel Celler, two old white guys, succeeded in attaching a seven-year ratification time limit, a seldom used caveat.  Therein lies the challenge Cobb-Hunter must address.

Initially, the time limit did not appear an obstacle. With Hawaii leading off, 22 states ratified the ERA by the end of 1972.  Another eight gave support in 1973 and three more followed in 1974.  At this point the ratification process began to stall and only two additional states, North Dakota (1975) and Indiana (1977) voted for the amendment before time ran out. Indiana was the 35th state to ratify.  Thirty-eight are necessary.

In general, opposition to the ERA has not been straightforward---women do not deserve equal rights.  That would be easily rejected by most Americans.  Instead, arguments have been more deflective, perhaps not maliciously so, but still diverting attention from the true purpose and effect of the amendment which is simple in language but comprehensive in intent:

Sec.1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Sec.2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. Sec.3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Antifeminist icon Phyllis Schlafly epitomized early naysayers arguing the ERA would eliminate gender-specific privileges for women, such as dependent wife Social Security benefits, separate restrooms and exemption from the draft.  She called her campaign STOP ERA, STOP an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” More reasonable opponents, including some labor organizations, expressed misgivings about the ERA’s impact on protections for employed women regarding working conditions and employment hours.  

I must admit my initial attitude towards the amendment was wary. I was not opposed to “equal rights for women,” but it seemed they already existed and did not need reinforcement by constitutional amendment. But during the latter stages of the ratification campaign a student in my American National Government class at USC Spartanburg wrote a position paper on the ERA.  She laid out the case that protections women enjoyed were legislatively granted and were not only limited in scope and application but could be withdrawn by congressional whim or narrowly interpreted by judges.  Her arguments were so cogent, I became a supporter.

Events in recent years have reinforced the vulnerability to discrimination women face in today’s US economy.  The Equal Pay Act passed in 1963 purportedly abolished wage disparity based on sex, but in a 2007 decision, Ledbetter v. Goodyear, the US Supreme Court denied the plaintiff relief because she failed to file her grievance within six months of the first discriminatory salary decision even though Lilly Ledbetter had no way of knowing about the ongoing disparity until years later. 

In January 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act overturning the decision but doing nothing for the former Goodyear employee.  Nor did it discourage the US Supreme Court from ruling in 2011 against 1.6 million women employees of Wal-Mart who were alleging gender discrimination in pay and promotion policies and practices. In Wal-Mart v. Dukes the court claimed the plaintiffs did not have enough in common to constitute a “class.” 

There has been progress in reducing bias against women. Women participate in the military, they are increasingly found in leadership positions throughout society and their numbers in the US Congress just got a considerable bump up. Ratification of the ERA would reinforce these advancements.  

As for the ratification time limit, the 1992 decision of the US Congress to adopt the 27th Amendment, which had been pending before state legislatures since 1789, is sufficient precedent for removing the ERA’s deadline.  Two states recently ratified the amendment in anticipation of possible congressional action; Nevada in March 2017 and Illinois in April 2018.

For twenty years South Carolina has been among the ten worse states for domestic violence; four times the worst.  In 2016, the last year for which there are statistics, SC ranked sixth.  How delightful it would be if SC were the state to push the Equal Rights Amendment over the top.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Voting in America Needs Help

Another election day has passed.   Democrats have taken control of the US House of Representatives, while Republicans have strengthened their hold on the US Senate.  This likely means continuing gridlock in Washington, but the size of the turnout indicates more Americans are paying attention and are willing to seek change at the polls.  Issues concerning legitimacy and fairness in our election processes, however, remain unanswered and must be addressed because they endanger our democracy.

Since the US Constitution grants individual states significant authority in determining how and by whom  public officials at all levels of government might be chosen, we do not have a unified election system, but 51 different essentially autonomous systems.  This worked reasonable well in the early days of the republic, but as the nation’s borders expanded and as our population has become more mobile, the wisdom of a purely state-based system has become more and more problematic. Several issues require action.

First is the matter of gerrymandering electoral districts for representation in both the US Congress and in the individual state legislatures. Not a new problem, but one that has been exacerbated by new technological and polling tools allowing collection of massive voting data which enables precise partisan gerrymandering.   

North Carolina and South Carolina reflect this new phenomenon.  In the former the overall congressional vote in 2018 was nearly equal, but the GOP won ten of NC’s thirteen seats, a 77 percent edge.  A Democrat pulled off an upset in the SC congressional district that includes Charleston, in part because the Republican candidate favors off-shore oil drilling, an anathema to coastal residents.  Still, with 55 percent of the overall congressional vote, the GOP won five of SC’s seven seats, a 71 percent advantage.  Representation in the two state legislatures is similarly distorted by partisan manipulation.

Second, the 2013 decision of the US Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with records of discriminating against minorities to obtain from the US Department of Justice “preclearance” for any changes in election laws or procedures before implementation.  Almost immediately the covered states, and some others, initiated a wide ranging set of laws and procedures designed to suppress voter participation. 

On the surface some changes appear reasonable.

The archaic voter registration process needs reform.  Communication among the states is lacking which results in some voters being registered in more than one state.  But there is little evidence voters have taken advantage of this situation; certainly, not sufficient to justify the purging of millions of voters from registration lists that has happened since 2013. In Georgia alone, 1.5 million voters were stricken from the voter lists.   

At the same time the US Census Bureau estimates there are 245.5 million Americans ages 18 and older, but fewer than 160 million are registered to vote.  Maybe registration reform needs a different focus.

Requiring a form of photo ID has some merit, but not everyone drives a car and can take advantage of the Motor Voter Act, nor has every state implemented that law aggressively.  Furthermore, there is not uniformity as to acceptable photo IDs.  Many exceptions obviously reflect a bias against certain groups such as minorities, students, the elderly and the poor which cannot be justified.

Finally, the act of voting itself needs improvement.  There is no uniformity among the states regarding ballot design, early voting, absentee voting, mail or online voting, much less the type of electronic voting machinery used.  Given the national focus of elections today, the lack of common standards and schedules contributes to voter confusion and discouragement, which in some states may be the intent.

Stories of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential contest raised public awareness of vulnerabilities in electronic voting equipment.  Possibilities for hacking exist at several points in the election processes and not just by foreign entities.  Although South Carolina does not use machines that provide a paper trail and allow for postelection audits, most states do.  However, few states conduct regular audits and the chaos in Florida and Georgia this year confirms the lack of attention to voter tabulation.

Americans cannot tolerate continued incoherence in our election processes.  We cannot ignore threats to legitimacy and fairness until the next election cycle.  Nor can we reasonably expect the individual states to craft a more harmonious and equitable system, but the US Constitution recognizes that reality.  Article IV, Section 4 of the US Constitution guarantees every state a “Republican Form of Government.”  Whether or not you define “republican” as “democratic,” it still means “representative.” Also, the 14th Amendment indicates if the right to vote is denied, “or in any way abridged,” the representation of that state shall be reduced proportionately. 

The authority for reform is there.  Congress must find the will to act, or our democracy will remain endangered.