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27 Jun, 2016

Parsing Constitutional Games on 'Veep'


The June 26 episode of HBO’s “Veep” concluded an intriguing fifth season that played on the concept of a tie in a presidential election. The concept is catnip to political scientists and fans of U.S. history, given all the quirks built into the United States Constitution and its subsequent amendments and laws concerning succession of power. Unfortunately, the result of “Veep” might prove a disappointment to such wonks, given how it turns on common misconceptions of electoral procedures.

The situation on “Veep” involved President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seeking to be elected outright after serving for a year when the previous president resigned. Election night ended with a tie in the Electoral College between her and Senator Bill O’Brien. And that’s just the start of this political rollercoaster.

Most voters have probably heard of the Electoral College, but don’t quite understand it in its full context. When the Constitution was originally written in 1787, the Founders envisioned the Electoral College as a council of experts qualified to choose a chief executive, chosen by the individual state governments. The idea was to guard against an uninformed electorate while at the same time preventing larger states from becoming too dominant. Over time, states granted the power over their Electoral delegates to a popular vote. So, when you vote for president, you actually aren’t picking the candidate on the ballot — you are voting for that party’s slate of electors who are pledged to that candidate. Each state gets a number of electors equal to their number of senators (two) plus their number of representatives in the House.

Interestingly, at the end of last season Selina remarked that giving the system an even number of electoral votes (538) to make a 269-269 tie possible was an oversight of the Founders. Actually, with a fixed Congress of 435 and two senators for each state, the number would be odd if not for the 23rd Amendment, passed in 1961, which gives Washington, D.C., a minimum number of electors, which in this case is three, which creates the even number. Also, the issue isn’t the tie per se, it’s that no single candidate received the 270 majority number, which could also happen if more than two candidates were strong enough to win a state, or if there were faithless electors who didn’t end up voting for their pledged delegates.

The Electoral College tallies their votes state-by-state in December, with each elector choosing one presidential candidate and one vice-presidential candidate, and sends the results to Congress. New congressional terms begin Jan. 3, and the Electoral College votes are announced and recorded Jan. 6. If no one has a majority for either president or vice-president, or both, then Congress has further work to do.

The procedure is covered by the 12th Amendment, which states:

“… if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice.”

That means that each state delegation meets to determine who that state will vote for, which would likely break along party lines. It also means that states with just one representative can have a lot of influence. To win the presidency, a candidate needs to win 26 votes from the state delegations.

At the same time, to determine the vice-presidency, “if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice.”

After a recount plot failed to resolve the tie, the story on “Veep” ended up in the House and Senate. Now, a reading of the Amendment might imply that the votes are supposed to happen as soon as they read the Electoral College results, and keep voting until someone wins. But that’s not what happens on “Veep,” which may be the first signal of some Constitutional disorder on the part of the show’s writers.

On the show, the House holds a vote, though it’s not clear it’s immediately after the Electoral College results are read. No one gets a majority, so no one wins the presidency on the first ballot.

Here’s where the show starts to mess up its exposition to viewers about the proper procedure. Selina’s advisors on the show say that if the House can’t decide, the vote goes to the Senate, and that the VP chosen by the Senate becomes president.

This isn’t quite the case in real life, though the scenario is covered by Section 3 of the 20th Amendment: “If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.”

In this case, the president needs the House vote to qualify, and if that doesn’t happen by the Jan. 20 beginning of the next term, then the Senate’s choice for vice-president, if they made one, “acts” as president until the House breaks its deadlock.

Yes, this does create the potential for a president and vice-president from different parties. But for the moment, the relevant language is that word “acts.” It means that the vice-president does not actually become president, contrary to the implication on the show. Rather, the VP is merely entrusted with the powers of the presidency on a temporary basis, until the House picks the true president, or the term ends, whichever comes first.

On the show, Selina’s running mate, Sen. Tom James (Hugh Laurie) schemes with the Speaker of the House to ensure the House vote for president doesn't yield a winner, and block further votes. The popular James is confident he can win the Senate vote for VP, and thus would be president given the other vacancy. The show also holds the Senate vote a few days after the House vote, which seems contrary to what the Amendment says. Remember, both the House and Senate are in theory meeting in a joint session to hear the Electoral College results. The Founders probably figured that, if no one wins, then the two houses would break into their constituent groups and call for an immediate roll call.

Given Congressional procedural rules, delaying another House vote might not be out of the realm of possibility. The length of the delay might cause some public outcry, and could send the candidates affected out to lobby for a new vote and to get Representatives to change their vote. And with a long-enough delay, a midterm election to select a new House might decide a presidency as well. But for now, let’s assume the situation on “Veep” so far is possible as presented.

One of the jokes put forth on the show is that, assuming James wins the vice-presidency and then elevates to the presidency, he would pick Selina as his veep, putting her back in the position she was at the start of the show (hence the show’s title). This is covered by Section 2 of the 25th Amendment: “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”

On the show, James is essentially proposing to nominate Selina to be VP. This wouldn’t be possible, however, because the VP position wouldn’t be vacant. Even as he’s acting as president, James would still be VP.

It’s at this point the show makes its most egregious Constitutional error. James starts getting cocky about his potential to win the Senate vote, and all the scheming for votes in the House and Senate has slighted lame-duck VP Doyle, who begins his own scheme. The Senate vote subsequently ends in a 50-50 tie, and the show cites Article 1, Section 3, Clause 4 of the Constitution: “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”

This means that when a Senate vote is 50-50, the VP breaks the tie. This is what happens on the show. Doyle betrays his party and selects O’Brien’s running mate, Laura Montez, to be VP. The show then immediately elevates her to be President-Elect.

But the show’s exposition about the VP breaking ties is overly simplistic. What makes the show wrong about this procedure is the phrasing of the 12th Amendment, which specifies that a majority of the “whole number” of “Senators” is required to select a winner.

A majority in this case is 51 Senators. And since the vice-president isn’t a senator, his vote doesn’t matter. In a 50-50 tie, no one wins and the Senate votes again.

The show either tries to cover for this or is confused by the VP’s role in the Senate, thinking that the title of President of the Senate makes him a member of the Senate, which it does not. The show confounds the error by presenting a C-SPAN graphic identifying VP Doyle as “Senator Doyle,” which is obviously wrong, though might be understandable if the show’s writers thought the VP was a member of the Senate.

Still, that’s a quibble based on a dramatic conceit to give Doyle a chance at revenge. A 51-49 vote would yield a similar result, provided the House vote remained blocked.

However, at this point the show goes off the rails, Constitutionally. Everyone declares Montez the next president, and the population doesn’t seem to have a problem with the legislative maneuvers putting someone who didn’t receive any votes into the White House instead of two people who are still ahead of her in line to get the job. On top of that, Montez is identified as the “First Elected Female President,” as a way for the episode to further slight Selina, who wanted to be the first woman elected.

This statement is just a bizarre leap of logic. On top of Montez not actually being president, and not actually being elected, her maneuver into the presidency is still due to a vacancy, which was the same way Selina became president a year earlier.

The show’s intent seems to dump on the luckless Selina as she leaves office, and implies she has nothing left to do. But with the House vote still technically open, she and O’Brien could continue to lobby for votes. So her resigned attitude at the end seems bizarre.

What’s a shame is that the show could have achieved very similar results with a few twists that were more Constitutionally accurate. The episode is still very funny, but understanding the Constitutional sidestepping involved detracts a bit from the end result.
 


22 Jun, 2016

Target Adds 'Harry Potter' to Pre-orders


Target has extended a promotion for movie pre-orders to a new 'Harry Potter' book.

Target is offering a $5 gift card with pre-orders for the home video verisons of Warner's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Marvel's Captain America: Civil War, and Disney's The Jungle Book.

Now, the $5 gift card also comes with pre-orders of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child book, due July 31 in hardcover. The book is a re-creation of the script for the play based on the popular wizarding series.


14 Jun, 2016

Best Buy With the Blu-ray Equalizer

Best Buy's '10 Cloverfield Lane' steelbook
Best Buy's '10 Cloverfield Lane' steelbook

Best Buy engaged in some interesting pricing for the new releases of June 14, offering a number of the newcomers at the same price on both DVD and Blu-ray.

The affected titles include Universal's London Has Fallen, Paramount's 10 Cloverfield Lane, Fox's Eddie the Eagle and Fox's The X-Files: The Event Series.

What makes the move especially interesting is that the Blu-ray versions of London Has Fallen, 10 Cloverfield Lane and Eddie the Eagle are combo packs that include a digital copy and the DVD version. That means, at Best Buy's debut price for these titles, anyone wanthing the DVD version who buys the combo pack is essentially getting both the Blu-ray versions of the film for free (although the DVD versions are cheaper at Target and Walmart, if anyone wants to forgo the Blu-ray because of cost).

Best Buy also offered an exclusive steelbook case with the 10 Cloverfield Lane Blu-ray.

Also interesting is that among the big three retailers, only Best Buy offered the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray of Eddie the Eagle in stores, while Walmart had it online and Target didn't offer it at all. On the other hand, Walmart offered the UHD versions of Paramount's 2009 Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness in stores, while Best Buy had them only online and Target didn't have them at all.


7 Jun, 2016

Plenty of Options for '13 Hours'

Walmart's '13 Hours' gift set with shirt
Walmart's '13 Hours' gift set with shirt

Shoppers looking to pick up Paramount's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi June 7 had plenty of retail exclusives from which to choose.

Walmart offered a gift set of 13 Hours with the Blu-ray and a camo T-shirt.

Best Buy offered the 13 Hours Blu-ray with exclusive steelbook packaging.

Target offered the 13 Hours Blu-ray with the book upon which the film was based.

For Disney's Zootopia, Target offered the Blu-ray and 3D combo packs with exclusive box art and two exclusive featurettes available to stream through the Disney Movies Anywhere site. The 15 minutes of new content includes cast interviews and an early version of the film.

For HBO's Vinyl: The Complete First Season, Target offered an exclusive bonus disc with video of a cast roundtable.

Best Buy offered HBO boxed sets for up to 60% off.


31 May, 2016

Steel for 'Gods of Egypt'

Best Buy's 'Gods of Egypt' steelbook case
Best Buy's 'Gods of Egypt' steelbook case

Lionsgate's Gods of Egypt was the title given the most prominent attention by retailers May 31.

Best Buy used the title extensively in its weekly circular ad, touting the 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray version and linking it to new UHD TVs and players from Samsung. Best Buy was also the only retailer with an exclusive edition of the title, offering a steelbook case with the 3D Blu-ray edition (for $3 less than the wide-release 3D Blu-ray of the film).

Target, on the other hand, didn't stock the Gods of Egypt 3D or 4K versions either on shelves or online, as of the end of the Tuesday release day. Walmart had both premium formats on its website, if not in stores.

Best Buy also offered 100 My Best Buy points for members of its loyalty program with preorders of Disney's Zootopia Blu-ray, which arrives on disc June 7.


24 May, 2016

Posing for 'Zoolander'

Target's 'Zoolander No. 2' exclusive Blu-ray
Target's 'Zoolander No. 2' exclusive Blu-ray

Paramount's Zoolander No. 2 was the only notable release May 24 to be offered with a retail exclusive.

That promotion came at Target, which offered exclusive box art for the comedy sequel and a 45-minute bonus disc.

Target also offered a $5 gift card with the purchase of a DVD of Sony Pictures' The 5th Wave with any book in the "5th Wave" series.

Best Buy offered a $10 gift card with the purchase of $50 worth of movies or TV seasons. The offer runs through June 18.

In the lead-up to the theatrical release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Walmart is selling off extra inventory of its exclusive gift set of the 2014 film on Blu-ray, which comes packed with miniature figurines of the four turtles.


17 May, 2016

Target Pushing Preorders for 'BvS,' 'Civil War'


Retailers didn't offer much in the way of new promotions for the May 17 new releases.

Target, however, touted a free $5 gift card with preorders of select films at Target.com/preorder. The list includes Disney's Zootopia, DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda 3, Warner's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Marvel's Captain America: Civil War.

Best Buy offered a number of deals on catalog releases, such as a $10 gift card with $50 in spending on select TV seasons; buy two, get one free, or $11.99, on select recent Blu-rays; and two for $10 Blu-rays, or $5.99 each, on up to 60 catalog Blu-rays.


10 May, 2016

Some Packaging Options for 'Deadpool'

Best Buy's 'Deadpool' steelbook
Best Buy's 'Deadpool' steelbook

The big new title of May 10, Fox's raunchy superhero comedy Deadpool, came to retail with a few exclusive packaging options.

Target offered the Blu-ray with a special red case and a packet of eight postcards. Target also offered 10% off Marvel products in the electronics department trend section.

Best Buy had a version of the Blu-ray with special steelbook packaging.

Best Buy also offered a $10 gift card with $50 in purchases of select TV seasons.


3 May, 2016

New 'Wave' Finds 'Joy' at Retail


Fox's Joy and Sony Pictures' The 5th Wave offered a few exclusive promotions for consumers at retail.

Target offered Joy with an exclusive Blu-ray combo pack with a DVD verison of the film, plus 20% off any Huggable Hangers with the purchase of the film. The hangers which were invented by Joy Mangano, upon whom the film is based.

For sci-fi film The 5th Wave, Target offered the Blu-ray with an exclusive bonus disc with a Q$A with author Rick Yancey.

Walmart offered a two-pack DVD set of The 5th Wave and 2012.

For Lionsgate's The Choice, Target offered $5 off when the movie was purchased at the same time as any other Nicholas Sparks book or movie.


19 Apr, 2016

Best Buy Offers Exclusive 'Ip Man' Trilogy


Best Buy April 19 offered an exclusive Blu-ray of Well Go USA's 'Ip Man' trilogy with a steelbook case for $24.99, timed for the disc release of Ip Man 3.

Otherwise, there weren't many exclusives offered with new titles, with many displays still dominated by Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Target is offering a $5 gift card with preorders of Fox's Deadpool on disc May 10.