USA

After Trump victory at Electoral College, world views collide

Christine Buckley / FRANCE 24 | Approximately 200 activists gathered at the Florida Capitol on Monday, December 19 in an attempt to dissuade the state's 29 GOP electors from voting for President-elect Trump.

Donald Trump will become the 45th US president next month, after prevailing Monday at the Electoral College amid nationwide protests at state Capitols. FRANCE 24 spoke to electors and insiders with divergent views of where the country is headed.

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reporting from Tallahassee, Florida

On January 20, Republican Donald J. Trump will raise his right hand, place his left on the Bible and swear to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States".

After a long-shot push by a small-yet-vocal grassroots movement of detractors to block him from the White House, the last remaining barrier to Trump’s ascension to the presidency fell away early this week as GOP electors across the nation voted to quickly solidify his majority.

Half a dozen electors broke ranks with their parties to cast a “faithless” vote for a third candidate, the largest number to do so in more than a century. Despite two Republican electors in Texas voting against their candidate, that state put Trump over the 270 votes needed to win. He finished with 304 to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 227.

Florida’s Anti-Trump contingent, quickly pulled together on social media by various groups including Democracy Spring and a Tallahassee activist group led by Lakey Love, lined the halls of the Capitol as electors and their guests made their way into the Senate chamber, which was closed to the public. A small group of peaceful protesters had requested access to the proceedings but were stymied in the office of the Assistant General Counsel to the Secretary of State, who was said to be “out to lunch".

Even so, the approximately 200 activists sang songs and chanted phrases like “Climate Change is Real” and “Say No to Hate” under the Capitol’s rotunda while the vote went according to the GOP script. All 29 party faithful cast their ballots first for Trump and then for his running mate, Mike Pence.

Elector and Florida representative Blaise Ingoglia closed the ceremony, describing the unprecedented amount of attention the electors had received during this election cycle. He said they had experienced an “intrusion on your privacy, taking away from your family time". The gallery applauded.

“We are a part of history,” he continued. “God bless the greatest Republic the world has ever known.”

After the nationwide votes were tallied, Democracy Spring’s Philadelphia-based Deputy Mission Director Curt Ries told FRANCE 24 in an email, "Although we are disappointed that only two Republican Electors had the courage to stand with the people and reject Trump, we are heartened by the incredible display of people power that took place on December 19.”

Ries estimates that 7,000 people came out to protest at all 50 Capitol buildings. “Going forward, we will use that people power to stop the kind of systemic corruption that produced a Trump presidency. We will mobilise to end voter suppression, abolish the Electoral College, and get big money out of politics."

A few minutes later, as the slate of electors posed for “class pictures” and left the Senate floor, the remaining protesters behind velvet ropes in the hallway called out: “Love Trumps Hate!" and “Shame! Shame!”

Trump insiders

Making her way past them, first-time elector Robin Bernstein and her husband told FRANCE 24 the protesters were “sore losers” who should know that “Mr. Trump will keep our country safe so we can travel again".

Bernstein reported receiving thousands of emails, letters and calls in the last few weeks, “most of them the same". But there is not a shred of doubt in her mind about Trump, who is a personal friend from Palm Beach, where their “kids grew up together". The Bernsteins mentioned they are members of Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago club and Trump International Golf Course.

When asked if she was concerned about some of the president-elect’s cabinet appointments or his proposition to build a wall or impose a Muslim registry, she shook her head. “I’m Jewish, and this is totally different than what happened in World War II. All he wants is a temporary ban until they figure out how to sort the good ones from the bad ones.”

Bernstein added, in French, that Trump would be a “meilleur ami” to French people “so what happened in Paris, Nice and Orlando won’t happen anymore".

Sharon Day, another elector and Republican National Committee co-chair, told AP the letters she had received were “amusing” and said, of the protesters, “What lemmings they are.” By the time she spoke to FRANCE 24, just after casting her ballot for Donald Trump, she had softened her rhetoric on the letters and postcards: “I didn’t even read them.”

Asked what she was hoping for from a Trump administration, she said: “I’m looking forward to big changes to jobs, the economy, less governance, less regulations and to repeal Obamacare.” She could not clarify what kind of healthcare plan would replace it.

Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, who was a top Trump fundraiser and now serves on his transition team, was a bit gentler about the letters he had received. He told FRANCE 24 some of them were “nice, but they didn’t affect me in any way".

‘Déjà vu all over again’

Longtime Leon County, FL Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho - one of the country’s most outspoken elections officials well known for the crucial role he played in the aftermath of the tumultuous 2000 presidential election, which saw George W. Bush eke out a narrow Electoral College margin (271 to 266) over Vice-President Al Gore to become the president despite losing the popular vote  - is worried about what partisan politics have wrought.

Speaking at his office just two blocks from the Capitol, the independent county elections officer told FRANCE 24 that this election cycle felt like “déjà vu all over again in Florida".

Sancho was referring to the infamous 36-days of post-election controversy that unfolded here in Tallahassee and ended only when the US Supreme Court, on December 12, 2000, overthrew the Florida court’s request for a manual recount of ballots in three counties, effectively halting the process and making Al Gore the fourth US presidential candidate to lose an election despite having won the popular vote. The previous times were 1824, 1876 and 1888. Gore’s popular vote margin was far narrower (about 540,000 votes) than that of the fifth unlucky “winner” to become an Electoral College loser, Hillary Clinton.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has estimated Clinton’s popular vote lead over Trump at 2.86 million, giving her 48.2 percent of the vote to Trump’s 46.1 percent, with some absentee ballots still to be counted.

Sancho later questioned the integrity of electronic voting machines used in Florida elections and was featured in the award-winning HBO documentary "Hacking Democracy". He was not surprised by Monday’s outcome at the Electoral College. “I’m a pragmatic realist,” said the man who will retire at the end of the month after almost thirty years (seven terms) on the job. But before he does, he hopes the American people will realise they’ve fallen asleep on the job, and act quickly to take back their power.

The voter suppression story ‘no one cares about’

“It’s good to see that people are disturbed,” Sancho told FRANCE 24, “But now I hope we can focus this energy on real election reform, because voter suppression has been going on here since 2000.” He estimates that more than 1.5 million African-American votes were suppressed in Florida during the 2016 election. Which for him, means that “the real story is not whether Putin manipulated the US election - he did. But our elections aren’t fair; they’re manipulated by both major parties, and I haven’t even started to talk about gerrymandering yet".

To understand how this kind of voter suppression takes place, you have to look back to 1868, the year the Reconstruction constitution came into effect in Florida, including a law barring an individual’s right to vote if he had been convicted of a felony, even after having served the sentence for the crime. Nearly 150 years later, that law is still on the books.

Due to disparities in the criminal justice system, African Americans and other people of colour are disproportionately more likely to be kept from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws like Florida’s. A 2010 report conducted by independent research body the Urban Institute determined that 23 percent of African Americans of voting age in Florida were blocked from voting due to prior felony convictions. Other southern states with the strictest policies such as Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia saw the highest shares of felony disenfranchisement among the African American population, ranging from 12.5 to 25 percent.

Sancho calls it “the voter suppression story no one cares about", and it’s an issue the state’s current Republican leadership just won’t touch.

Election law specialist, Tallahassee political attorney and lobbyist Natalie Kato confirmed Sancho’s assertion when she met with FRANCE 24 after the Electoral College vote.

“Disenfranchising that many voters definitely changes the electoral makeup,” she said.

Thanks to the efforts of diligent election supervisors like Sancho, who insist on the use of paper ballots uploaded to optical scan machines, Kato said: “Since 2000 it’s become virtually impossible to steal an election in Florida, at least through the system, meaning through actual vote tampering.”

But Kato agreed with Sancho’s assessment. “You can, however, suppress the hell out of a vote through felony disenfranchisement written right into the Florida constitution,” she said, although her estimated number of disenfranchised voters is even higher than Sancho’s figure, fluctuating between 1.5 and 2 million, due to those on parole.

“When [former governor] Charlie Crist was in office, they automatically reinstated the right to vote when people got out of jail. But if you are arrested again or violate probation, they put you on pending,” Kato said.

And that’s just the middle of the morass. Sancho told FRANCE 24 that not all American elections are created equal. “The first thing we need to do is audit every election in this country. It should all be done on paper ballots. We need to demand evidence, and paper is evidence.” In Leon County, Sancho does a machine-assisted audit of every election. He can do a total recount just by flipping a switch.

Which, he says, is what should be done nationwide, but isn’t. “We could accurately count every vote, but we choose not to. That’s the real scandal.” Sancho was even less sanguine about what this all meant for the future of one nation; under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Authoritarianism: Government without compromise

“Since 2010 when the ‘ideological Republicans’ came to power in this country, the focus has been on ideology over facts, which has all kinds of ramifications,” Sancho said. “Evidence or data is irrelevant because faith-like ‘beliefs’ do not rest on evidence and I believe this has destroyed the American republic. Because it means that the end justifies the means for this kind of public official. And that can only lead to disaster for this nation.”

So what does Sancho suggest the average citizen do now? Read history. Educate yourself and your children. Vote and ensure that others have access to the polls. Believe in the public good. Talk about politics and listen to people who don’t agree with you. Debate. Hold politicians accountable. Demand proof and underlying evidence for everything. “All across the board, we need to get to evidence,” he said. “Opinions are irrelevant. One of the greatest con jobs politicians have pulled off in the last 25 years is to convince people that if you’re arguing on principle, you don’t need to compromise.”

And yet, fruitful human interaction requires compromise. Sancho says we can only blame ourselves for electing a generation of “political figures who reject compromise. And therefore, in my opinion, reject self-governance. If you govern without compromise, then you have authoritarianism".

Sancho is looking forward to being able to step out of the fray for a bit and focus on taking care of his ailing wife, as her sole caretaker. He’s ready to hand the struggle for fair elections over to the next generation. For inspiration, he often looks at a framed photo of a 1900 quotation by Mark Twain, “Principles is another name for prejudices.”

He wants his legacy to be about far more than just voting machine integrity.

“We have to honour the role of protest, he said. “Because without a struggle, we cannot achieve justice.”

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