What a long strange trip it’s been

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I spend a lot of time in my car. Driving for work or for pleasure, many miles and many hours go by behind the wheel. I’m always looking for something to help keep me alert and focused. Depending on my mood, sometimes I’ll crank up the volume on some classic rock. Recently, you’re more likely to find me listening to podcasts. Science, history, true crime, politics, sports, pop culture… there’s tons of listening options floating around the internet just waiting to be downloaded.

Some are little more than a guy with a cheap microphone giving his opinions about this or that — much like an audio version of this column, right? — while others are professionally produced with quality talent.

One of the latter, and one of my current favorites, comes from the journalists at ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog. The organization was founded by statistician Nate Silver, who still serves as its editor-in-chief. If the name is familiar, it’s probably because Silver correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 presidential election in 49 states… and topped that in 2012 when he accurately forecast the results in all 50 states plus Washington DC. Silver’s staff at FiveThirtyEight is comprised of economists, statisticians, and empirical analysts. These guys know their stuff.

But not always.

Recently, iTunes somehow decided to update my podcast subscriptions with an old episode from last summer… a discussion that aired immediately before the first Republican presidential debate. The panel took turns giving their way-early projections on the candidates’ chances of nailing down the party’s nomination. The contenders most frequently mentioned as having the best chance were Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker… all of whom have since taken their lumps and withdrawn from the race. One of the pundits went so far as to say that Donald Trump had a “minus ten percent” chance of ending up at the head of the Republican ticket.

And yet, here we are.

To the surprise of many, a television personality with no apparent hands-on management experience and who has never been a political candidate is on the verge of entering a head-to-head match-up in our next presidential election. With Sen. Ted Cruz the most recent casualty, Trump’s victory in the Republican race is a foregone conclusion.

It’s as if we’re living in an alternate universe where a Kardashian has just been selected as the next pope.

Naturally, the steady thinkers of what remains of the Republican party are throwing their hands up in frustration. An exasperated George Will, the award-winning and long-respected conservative columnist, wrote a piece in the Washington Post calling for his own party to prevent Trump from ascending to the Oval Office. Will argued that conservatives must assure Trump’s defeat in all fifty states as a means of “preserving the identity of their 162-year-old party” while simultaneously trying to prevent the damage a Trump-led ticket will likely cause to down-ticket races across the nation.

Will isn’t the only voice of reason. Mark Salter, Sen. John McCain’s long-time chief of staff and co-author, tweeted out a message of disgust with Trump’s juvenile behavior and ended with “I’m with her”, a slogan used by supporters of Hillary Clinton.

Sadly, the words of Will, Salter, and many others are falling on too many deaf ears. Motivated by years of simmering distrust of government combined with a growing disdain of organized politics and, perhaps, an overwhelming urge to just try something different, Americans have been turning out in fairly large numbers to cast their votes for Trump. It’s too bad so many of them are clueless about how our nation’s elections work.

Take the recent primaries in New York and Pennsylvania. Both states follow the “closed primary” election form, in that only members of the two major political parties can vote for the respective candidates. However, boards of elections in both states were inundated with complaints from citizens who were unable to cast ballots. Why? In many cases, voters who were registered independents didn’t realize that they couldn’t just show up and choose one of the parties’ ballots. Many others had simply never bothered to register at all. This was not limited to the Republicans; many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders learned too late that they couldn’t vote for their candidate because they had failed to join the Democratic party.

I know this may sound eerily similar to the Jim Crow literacy tests designed to deny African-Americans their right to vote, but I think people should be required to display some basic knowledge of the electoral process before they are handed a ballot. In these days of 24/7 news channels and Google at your fingertips, there’s no excuse for not knowing what you need to do to become eligible to vote.

Unfortunately, in an age when the willful disregard of facts is embraced by so many people, those of us not embarrassed to use our brains will just have to muddle through.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald May 5, 2016.)

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