Election Commissioner Calls For Vote-By-Mail, Wider Participation to Help Fix Democracy
By Donald Gilpin
Federal Election Commissioner (FEC) Ellen Weintraub has called for nationwide vote-by-mail, as essential to the safety and fairness of the process and to the strength of democracy, especially in the context of the current pandemic.
Speaking last Thursday in a virtual town hall with Princeton University Professor and Gerrymandering Project Founder and Director Sam Wang, Weintraub stated that voters should not have to risk their lives to cast their votes.
The 90-minute online session was the first in a series, “Fixing Bugs in Democracy,” sponsored by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and Princeton University’s Pace Center for Civic Engagement and designed to address structural problems in American democracy and to encourage civic engagement in spite of social distancing restrictions.
“Democracy is worth the money it will cost,” Weintraub said, in advocating universal vote-by-mail. “I am very concerned about this. A lot of people are not going to be feeling comfortable going in and voting in person. If we’re still in a situation this fall where people don’t feel safe lining up to vote, we’re really going to have to beef up our capacity for vote-by-mail.”
Weintraub, a commissioner since 2002 and a strong proponent for campaign finance law enforcement and regulation of money in politics, pointed out that states and localities need to start now to order equipment, get envelopes and ballots, and prepare to explain the system. “People are going to have to learn how to do it,” she said. “We need to get all these procedures in place. It’s going to be a full-court press to get this done.”
The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, recently introduced in the U.S. Senate and endorsed by Weintraub, would make voting by mail easier and would reimburse states for costs they incur by making voting by mail more widely available.
Weintraub addressed several comments directly to Princeton University students and other younger voters, as she emphasized the importance of all eligible voters casting ballots. “Your generation is not good at voting,” she said. “It’s important to vote so that politicians feel they need to be accountable to you, and so that you can get the kind of government you deserve and have a voice in that government.”
She expressed concern over “a long history of voter turnout that is not all that impressive.” The 2018 election was heralded as the highest midterm voter turnout in 100 years, but still less than half of those eligible voted.
Another dominant issue for both Weintraub and Wang is microtargeting, the practice employed by advertisers, organizations, and political entities of creating different digital realities for each individual. “Technology has gotten ahead of where the rules are,” Weintraub said, referring to laws that the FEC had not revamped since 2006.
“Every time we look at something online, the platforms are sucking up all this data about us and using it to sell ads that precisely target each individual,” she said. “So not only are you not getting the same ads as the person in the house next door. You might not even be getting the same ad as the person sitting across the table from you.”
She continued, “It’s more important than ever at a time such as this that the information we are seeing online be shared broadly enough that there’s an opportunity for counterspeech, in accordance with the first amendment. If you don’t like what one person is saying, you can get out there and make a better argument on the other side.”
Lamenting the polarization that characterizes the current political climate and has been exacerbated by online microtargeting, Weintraub noted, “This kind of divisive advertising that is so precisely tailored contributes to polarization. It makes people think they’re going to get their own tailor-made candidate and that compromises don’t have to be made. Politicians are not accountable for saying one thing to one person and the opposite to someone else.”
Wary of heavy-handed governmental regulation, Weintraub urged that online platforms like Google, Twitter, and Facebook “not undermine our democracy but instead “should voluntarily adopt advertising rules for political ads that may be different from the way they advertise soap.”
Wang agreed, “It’s fine if they want to use information about you to sell you shoes, but it’s a different issue if they’re trying to sell you candidates and politics and governance.”
On the subject of the spread of fake news, Weintraub again shied away from advocating government involvement. “What we need is a lot better information about where this stuff is coming from and whether it is coming from credible sources. The problem with having government involved is that it’s a slippery slope,” she said. “We have to be really careful about going down the road of making it the role of government to decide what is true and what is false. What we have to do is empower our citizens with much better information. So they are in a position to assess for themselves the truth or falsity of the information they are seeing online or anywhere else.”
Weintraub warned that the polarization of our country has made us particularly vulnerable to disinformation. “People are ready to believe whatever confirms their own biases. We have become polarized in our politics, polarized in the news sources that we read and trust.”
Criticizing the public’s tendency to embrace its own biases, she continued, “Now when people listen to a news show and don’t like what they hear, they say, ‘That’s not true. I know that’s not true because I don’t want it to be true. ’ We need to grow up about that. There are facts. There is objective truth out there. And truth matters, and facts matter.”
Weintraub acknowledged that the FEC, currently locked in partisan gridlock and awaiting the confirmation of a fourth nominee necessary to constitute a quorum, “like much of Washington and much of the country has become so polarized on ideological grounds.” Campaign finance issues have become very partisan, she said, and the FEC has had great difficulty coming together to make rules or other decisions.
In spite of the many challenges facing the FEC and the country as a whole, all compounded by the current pandemic and the nation’s polarized political environment, Weintraub maintains her optimism. “Even Supreme Court justices read the newspapers, and they can be susceptible to the mood swings of the country. I don’t give up on the courts or the possibility of justice. We have to believe in that. Otherwise where is our country headed?”
She continued, “It is possible for people to change. It is possible for people to convey to their leaders that these are not their values and that they want a better country, a more equal country, a country where everybody has a fair shot.”
In closing, Weintraub encouraged Princeton University students and others, “all those smart, young, energetic, ambitious people, to make a difference in their community, their country, their world, to think about careers in public service, in the helping professions where they would really make a difference in the world.”
She added, “As somebody who has spent the better part of my career in public service, I tell you not a single one of you will regret it if you make those kinds of choices. And don’t forget to vote.”