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January 9, 2001


Colonial Politics

Have you noticed local folks' fondness for the name "Colonial"? We have Colonial Bank, Colonial Bread, and Colonial Mall, to mention a few. We are also attached to colonial-era political structures -- such as the Electoral College. This is one colonial artifact that needs to be discarded.

Last year's Y2K event was a teaser; the bungled 2000 presidential election turned out to be the year's true disaster. The bizarre outcome, in which the loser topped the victor by more than 300,000 votes, was a direct product of the Electoral College, an archaic political institution born out of political wheeling and dealing more than two centuries ago. Some admirers of the U.S. Constitution suggest that the Electoral College, like other provisions of that document, was crafted by wise founding fathers who amicably agreed to charter a set of institutions that would provide sensible government for all future generations. Not so. The Constitution has proven to be a great and durable document. Yet the original version was very much a reflection of a world that no longer exists, and should not be resurrected, even if that were possible. Would anyone care to reverse any of the twenty-some amendments?

History textbooks typically neglect to mention that the American Revolution had some unpleasant consequences. Though joined through a rudimentary Congress, the original states essentially were foreign nations to one another. Some states actually engaged in armed conflicts over territorial claims to the West. Furthermore, colonial America was very violent and disorderly. Bloodshed was common, and law enforcement was mostly a messy do-it-yourself adventure before "big government" took on the job. Economic disturbances, including waves of speculation and bankruptcies, let to riots such as Shay's Rebellion of 1786, in which angry Massachusetts farmers stormed court houses with force of arms to forestall evictions.

The writers of the Constitution, who were the political and economic elite of their day, agreed on a number of issues: First, that they would no longer submit to exploitation as pawns of a far-away monarch's imperial ambitions. Second, that government had to be limited, but strong enough to maintain order. And they all agreed to keep non-property-owning people at arm's length from the centers of power.

Their disagreements, though largely forgotten or ignored today, were substantial. Many of them were rooted in power struggles among the states, particularly large states vs. smaller ones. The big states had more resources and more population, but the smaller states were more numerous, and could potentially dominate the country if their votes were counted equally. Furthermore, rifts were already emerging between the interests of nascent commercial economies of the north and the plantation system of the south. The issue of slavery illustrates important elements of the debate: Because slave breeding was becoming more profitable than slave labor, the number of slaves in many of the plantation states was growing rapidly, frequently exceeding the number of free whites. The founding fathers clashed on the question of whether slave-holding regions could inflate their political power by counting that large captive population for purposes of determining congressional representation.

The end result was a series of compromises forged in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Though officially secret, recollections and notes from the proceedings indicate that the negotiations nearly broke down a number of times; the final document was stitched together by a series of compromises between the various interests represented at the Constitutional Convention. The electoral-college system of electing the president is a prime example. Originally, it served the purpose of having the state governments select the chief executive. Furthermore, presidential balloting was contrived to create a system in which neither large nor small states could dominate.

The convoluted Electoral College, like so many other provisions of the Constitution, represented a viable compromise for colonial politics of the late 1700s, but is it appropriate for America in the 21st century? The concerns of the colonial era have faded: Slavery ended more than a century ago, and national politics have made conflicts among states largely irrelevant. We even allow women and non-property owners to vote! So why keep the Electoral College, a dysfunctional relic of colonial politics?

The next Harbinger commentary will focus on ways to assure fair election of future chief executives.

Life Forms by Dan Silver - Revisited

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Read more comics in the Life Forms Archive!

Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,

I read something in your publication recently that really rubbed me the wrong way. What was written, basically that was so deeply offensive? It said that although the Bill of Rights guarantees us the right to bear arms, it is no longer relevant because it was written in a time of marauding Indians and revolting slaves.

Well, hell, you would "maraud" also, if: Your land had its resources snatched from under your feet to be annexed and plundered by foreign invaders; your people were raped and murdered; your laws and customs ignored and disrespected; your whole culture, whole way of living, destroyed. You too, would revolt if you were imported from another land to be shackled and chained, bought and sold, ENSLAVED, beat on, raped, humiliated, estranged from homeland and family to be a beast of burden for the White Man you'd better recognize! Sure, there WAS a legitimate need for firearms: For the Blacks and the Indians. If the right side welded that firepower, things certainly would be different today. Remember who the guilty party, the true violators, were. What'd chu smokin' on?

I used to enjoy your book, especially the "Then And Now" feature. Used to. That one statement changed my whole mind around. Get your mind right, don't make me hate 'cha.

Kevin Smith
Mobile, AL

Dear Editor

One of the most compelling issues facing our society as a whole and each of us as individuals is the need to assure safe, high quality long-term care for our elderly and seriously ill or physically disabled. When it comes to how to pay for care, what care options exist for each circumstance and the complexities of nursing home care, consumers and families have been left to scramble for accurate, timely information. The need for this information is so pressing that, according to Reuters Health News Service, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 40 percent of adult children of elderly parents know "next to nothing about health insurance." In addition, only 58 percent of adults surveyed even were aware Medicare is a government program providing health services coverage for people over age 65. Fewer still knew anything about Medicaid or who might qualify for it. Fully 75 percent were "somewhat" or "very" concerned about their own health care as they age.

Most families facing the need to use a nursing home for the first time can't name the types of deficiencies most often cited by state surveyors against nursing homes or most frequent types of complaints filed against nursing homes by residents, families and advocates. But, they could benefit from knowing them so they can try to prevent them and know what to do about them as well as other quality of care problems.

The most frequent nursing home deficiencies (based on OSCAR data from the Health Care Financing Administration) nation wide in 1998 were: 1) inadequate food sanitation; 2) failure to prevent accidents; 3) poor quality of care; 4) failure to prevent or properly treat pressure sores; 5) inadequate care plans; 6) inadequate or inaccurate resident assessments.

Based on the data from the National Ombudsman Reporting System (NORS), the most frequent complaints filed with long-term care ombudsmen nation wide in 1998 were: 1) Poor quality of care (43,849 complaints); 2) violations of resident rights to privacy, choice or autonomy (16,401 complaints); 3) violations of resident rights to freedom from abuse, neglect or exploitation (15,501 complaints); 4) poor living environment (14,067 complaints); 5) inadequate or poorly trained staff (12,959 complaints); 6) poor or inadequate dietary services (11,681 complaints).

I worked as a director of nursing in nursing homes and CNA trainer for nearly ten years. In that time, I saw virtually all of the serious quality problems that afflict nursing home residents. I believe consumers, families and advocates need information to help them know what to watch out for. Information from advocates and recent government reports show that things are not improving for nursing home residents--they are getting worse.

I wrote a book that residents, families and advocates can turn to with information on how to prevent, identify and deal with each of these of problems in nursing homes. Late last year, Consumer Guide to Long-term Care, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press. It can help consumers and families identify and deal with all of the most frequently occurring problems, and it includes information on: advance directives, managed care, Medicare, Medicare+Choice, Medicaid, Medigap, private long-term care insurance, physical restraint and psychoactive drug rules, what's in a medical record and how to get help in any state in the nation.

"Consumer Guide to Long-term Care" is available on, at Barnes & Noble stores or and other book selling sites. For more information on the book, go to the University of Wisconsin Press webpage at I hope you'll feel free to share this information with readers. Thank you!

Gary R. Ilminen, RN
Prairie du Sac, WI


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