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In Defense of the Electoral College

by danps Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 05:11:20 AM EST

The Electoral College, when it is noticed at all, is usually dismissed as an anachronism at best and a foe of democracy at worst.  But some of our current problems might be more manageable if we made more use of it, not less.

For more on pruning back executive power see Pruning Shears.


No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Every four years there are rumblings about the Electoral College (EC) and calls to abolish it.  Since doing so requires a Constitutional amendment the calls usually don't get very far; even in the best of times there always seem to be bigger fish to fry.  Sometimes, though, the vagaries of the system are anything but trivial, as we were all reminded in 2000.  The immediate and understandable reaction on the left was, why are we still stuck with this thing when it just put someone who lost the popular vote in the White House?  It seemed to exist only to block the will of the people.  But in 2004 a popular and electoral win led the president to characterize it not just as the popular preference for president, but an accountability moment that granted him political capital, which he in turn defined as comprehensive support for everything he wanted to do.  Dana Nelson describes this understanding of the presidency on page 177 of "Bad For Democracy", citing Barney Frank's use of the political science term plebiscitary democracy: a system "wherein a leader is elected but once elected has almost all of the power."

Such a formulation is nothing less than a radical attempt to seize power from the citizenry (and can only be done if we acquiesce).  We should expect, and be expected, to do more than cast a quadrennial ballot for president.  We should be talking, persuading, agitating and advocating between elections for or against those policies that matter most to us.  For better or worse Congress is the object of these efforts.  Think about the big issues of the last few years - Social Security privatization, immigration reform, various FISA changes, the bailout - and they all received passionate response and intense lobbying efforts by Americans towards their Representatives and Senators.  Even though not all succeeded, the fact is that is where people directed their energies.

Since that is where we have the best chance of affecting policy, transferring some authority there could easily make the government more responsive.  For example, instead of having EC electors selected in a separate process just make everyone in Congress one (and let D.C. continue to use its current process to get its three).  There are some noteworthy benefits to doing this.  First, it would take away some power of the executive branch - which throughout our history has almost exclusively expanded.  A vote by Congress for the president would make it much more difficult to assert an accountability moment, mandate, or otherwise claim near-total freedom of action.  Second, the president would owe something to Congress.  Heaven knows the last eight years in Congress have been an ongoing, catastrophic failure of courage in the face of presidential bullying.  While no rules, legislation or other mechanisms can compel anyone to stand up to such tactics it certainly might help to stack the deck a little.  If the "accountability moment" had been with Congress and not voters we might have seen much different behavior on both sides.

It also might mitigate one of the structural weaknesses in our theoretical model of checks and balances: The tendency of officials' parochial interests to trump institutional concerns.  A nearly perfect example of that is on display at the very moment.  We have just found out that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have spent more money on the financial system in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did in World War II.  How exactly the money is being spent and who in particular has benefited is basically a complete mystery.  Bloomberg News - not, remember, a branch of the federal government - has filed a lawsuit to obtain details on where it has gone.  Congress ought to be asking the same questions and could much more easily find out.  But instead we have politicians squabbling about relatively small amounts based on how much their constituents depend on the domestic auto industry.  The much larger executive overreach passes unnoticed.

It is important to not fly from crisis to crisis and to not always look for solutions to future problems by generalizing from the most recent one.  But those of us on the left are in a position to argue from principle (and with great credibility) about scaling back the scope of the presidency now that a Democrat is about to enter the White House.  In the last week Libby Spencer has exhorted her readers by post and in comments to not focus too much on Barack Obama.  Instead we should focus on what we can do, and what we can convince or representatives in Congress to do.  Such an ongoing and hands-on commitment might be more effective - and empowering - if the presidency receded somewhat from its overwhelming primacy in our political life.

Display:
by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 05:11:55 AM EST
defending the indefensible.  

I mean, why not?  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 02:40:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I actually believe the US electoral college is unconstitutional.

It violates basic principles.

I know the US residentially based voting system is itself PART of the constitution, but that doesn't mean that parts of the constitution may not be, well, contradictory and unconstitutional.

Clearly, back when only landowners with pasty faces voted, there didn't seem to be any inconsistency whatsoever.

But now, if you lose your home, move to a new address where you don't pay the bills (and thus can't prove your residency through such normal means) you are deprived of your right to vote.

The whole electoral college system has an installed bias against poor people who are temporarily housed. And the homeless as well.

by Upstate NY on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 08:58:09 AM EST
What does the electoral college have to do with the broken electoral roll system in the US?

Indeed, keep the current electoral roll system in place, and make any reform you wish to the current system of electing the President, and the problem cited remains in place.

On the other hand, fix the electoral roll system, while keeping the Electoral College system in place, and the problem described goes away.

So I would argue that the two are quite clearly distinct and separate issues.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 09:48:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Easy answer: because towns and cities have a much bigger stake in figuring out if someone resides in their town, given the way local taxes work.

But the electoral college should not insist that people votw at their local precincts, where they have to prove residency. Voting for the President should be a national affair open to all, as long as you can show citizenship.

The problem is, some states are small, and so, within a state, you can have such close votes that residency suddenly becomes very relevant. If there were no electoral college, we wouldn't care so much about voter residency in electing a President.

by Upstate NY on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:13:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"But the electoral college should not insist that people vote at their local precincts"

It doesn't. There is no such requirement in the electoral college. That requirement is decided by each state.

And the diagnosis of the problem here is off the mark as well. The problem is that one political party had adopted, as a strategy, the goal of reducing the number of people who vote in elections, focusing (obviously) on cutting the potential support for the other party.

We are not going to be abandoning local and Congressional elections, no matter what is done in terms of selecting a President, so it will still be necessary to establish your place of residence. Its just that in a full fledged democracy, this would be a technical process of sorting out the electoral roll, rather than a part of the political contest.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:26:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You can have elections on two separate days.

I showed up to vote three times over a three month period this year.

by Upstate NY on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 05:03:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but that doesn't mean that parts of the constitution may not be, well, contradictory and unconstitutional.

I'm not sure how parts of a constitution can be unconstitutional, since they are, by definition, the things that decide what is and is not constitutional.

And Bruce is right: You're confusing the laws on voter rolls with the Electoral College.

The US system is biased in favor of low-population states.  It's ridiculous that Idaho has as many votes in the Senate as California.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 11:58:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The story goes that when the famous logician Gödel asked for US citizenship, he was strongly ordered by Einstein not to answer questions about the US constitution by pointing out that it meant nothing because it was logically inconsistent...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 12:06:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
True, but "inconsistent" is not the same as "unconstitutional".

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 12:13:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... the disenfranchisement of those large chunks of the state of California just because of the cancerous growth of the Northern California and Southern California megaloplexes ... terrible.

If only California could be divided into two states ... the empty bits north of the Bay and inland in one, and the Bay, the LA basin, the Central Valley, and along the coast down to San Diego in the other, so that all that land could have the representation it deserves.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 12:12:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, I'm not confusing them.

My position is that the Electoral College influences the laws on voter rolls. Without the EC, we wouldn't care so much about residency for the national vote.

by Upstate NY on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:16:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is only one election that it is possible to make independent of residence. The idea that we are going to have one electoral roll for the Presidential Election and a second electoral roll for Senate, House, State Senate, State House, Governor, State Secretary of State, State Auditor, County / Village / City Commissioner, Sheriff, District Judges, State Higher Court Judges, State Ballot Initiatives ...

... is just silly.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:29:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No it's not.

I voted multiple times this summer on different days.

I'm quite sure the state roll is completely unaware of the municipal voting roll in my area.

I know this because I saw it with my own two eyes, different books.

The multiple lists already exist.

President one day, everything else some other day.

by Upstate NY on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 05:02:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... but you are suggesting that multiple lists be extended nationwide ... have the peculiarities of some other area imposed in your own state is something quite different from tolerating those peculiarities in the states where they currently exist.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 05:27:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm saying one national list for the Presidency.

There are different things at stake in a local election versus a national election.

by Upstate NY on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 05:39:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm saying one national list for the Presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives.

Of course, I'll note that I am a big fan of building the movement capacity to put pressure on the House of Representatives. Some prefer the Imperial Presidency approach of putting all their bets on one horse.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 05:54:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...House district gerrymandering.

The Democrats in Ohio took over the lower house of the state legislature. This is, it was noted, a historic event: it was the first time in history that a party had taken over a majority without controlling the districting of State House of Representative seats.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 09:52:03 AM EST
I dunno, Dan. What would that have gotten us during the Delay-Frist years?  It's hard to imagine an administration worse that Bush-Cheney, but I'm afraid the Delay-Frist Congress might have given us something much worse.

We all bleed the same color.
by budr on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 12:01:23 PM EST
In terms of standing up to the president the Republican congresses were better than the current Democrats.  For one example, think about the Military Commissions Act - the congressional pushback was from the right, not the left.  They still ultimately capitulated, of course; I'm not saying they covered themselves in glory.  But even if we went with what you mention, the GOP would have delivered the presidency in 2004 and Democrats in 2008 based on their respective control of Congress.  In other words, the same result.  But maybe there would have been a little more spine along the way.
by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 03:31:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Setting up a system in which the president gets elected by Congress while maintaininga first past the post system for Congress gets you a British style parliamentary democracy, specifically of the presidentialised form that was practiced under Thatcher and Blair. This is not an improvement.

The Bush presidency itself saw a creeping kind of party unity on the Republican side, which I think is historically inconsistent. Willful weakness on the side of the Democrats also played into that.

Dualism is one of the few features of the American system. It would be a very bad idea to abandon it, in my opinion. It would be a far better idea to abandon the electoral college, and shift the House of Representatives to a mixed member proportional system. Alas, that is not a likely dream either.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 02:11:26 PM EST
... to proportional election. Since the current winner-take-all system emerged from an "arms race" for influence in the late 1700's, early 1800's, all that is required is a "cease fire" among a reasonably balanced mix of "red" and "blue" and maybe "swing" states, with each member of the group using proportional distribution if all members do.

Then each large state would have swing electors going into a Presidential election and most small states would.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:02:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Speaking of cease-fire, this is an attempt:

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement among U.S. states that would effectively replace the current electoral college system of presidential elections with a direct, nationwide vote of the people. As of September 2008, this interstate compact has been joined by Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, and New Jersey; their 50 electoral votes total amount to almost 19% of the 270 needed for the compact to take effect.

The compact is based on Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives each state legislature the right to decide how to appoint its own electors. States have chosen various methods of allocation over the years, with regular changes in the nation's early decades. Today almost every state awards its electoral votes to the candidate with the most popular votes statewide.

States joining the compact will continue to award their electoral votes in their current manner until the compact has been joined by enough states to represent a controlling majority of the Electoral College (currently 270 electoral votes). After that point, all of the electoral votes of the member states would be cast for the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. With the national popular vote winner sure to have a decisive majority in the Electoral College, he or she would automatically win the Electoral College and therefore the presidency.



Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 09:20:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... require an EC college majority to adopt proportional ... a smaller group could do it to convert what are normally safe states either way to a group of states each with EC votes in play.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 10:45:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm generally favourably disposed towards parliamentarian government, which is essentially what you're suggesting, but it should be noted that it is not without its problems. Most notably, there is little separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches (not that I'm sure that there ever was much such separation in real life in any functioning democracy - the only time in the history of pre-parliamentarian Danish democracy that the distinction came to a head, the result was... not pretty).

That aside, you have far more fundamental problems with your democracy than the precise mechanics of the electoral college. To whit:

  • A substantial fraction of your population is disenfranchised for various reasons.

  • In many places you use a first past the post electoral scheme rather than a proportional representation scheme. As far as I can tell, FPTP does Really Bad Things for a country's political culture.

  • Endemic corruption and rampant clientism. And no, that didn't start with Enron, Halliburton and Bechtel, as the etymology of the terms "pork barrel" and "banana republic" will attest.

The first and last of these issues are more cultural than constitutional, so if I could get one shot at changing your constitution, I'd go for replacing FPTP elections with proportional representation for all relevant bodies. Abolishing the voting weights assigned by the number of electors is, IMO, nice to have but not need to have compared to the elimination of FPTP voting.

Where I could see a role for the electoral college is for elections to bodies with only one seat (president, mayor, etc.). Here, the electoral college could be retooled as a cushion against vote waste by changing the election to it to proportional representation, and leaving it to the electors to form post-election coalitions.

A couple of examples would, perhaps, enlighten:

Gore, Nader and Bush run for POTUS

Gore gets 48 % of the vote
Bush gets 49 % of the vote
Nader gets 3 % of the vote

In a direct, countrywide FPTP election, Bush wins under this scenario. In my proposed scheme, Gore wins, because Nader's electors will presumably - when it becomes clear that there's no possible coalition that makes Nader president - prefer Gore over Bush.

(Under the current system, the winner depends on the precise pattern in which states are won and lost, which is more complicated, but a direct, countrywide FPTP election suffices for illustration.)

The Republicans, Democrats, Black Panther Party and the Greens run for Congress

R gets 47 % of the vote
D gets 43 % of the vote
BP gets 3 % of the vote
G gets 7 % of the vote

In the current system, only D and R would be represented (because BP and G don't gain pluralities in any states), and a full ten percent of the vote would be wasted. Under a proportional representation system, with four hundred and some Representatives, parties down to a quarter of a percent of the electorate can be represented, leading to much lower vote loss.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 02:51:49 PM EST
Thanks Jake - you make a lot of really good points.  Proportional representation is a great idea, but the Lani Guinier circus set it back at least a generation.
by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 03:37:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Surely you realise that the main problems of the electoral college are:
-Winner takes all
-The strange notion that an Idaho voter is represented as much as 8 Californian voters.

There is NO good to be got from that. It is a crime against democracy.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 04:51:51 PM EST
... system, its how states decided to go about it, in a tug of war for influence in the early Republic.

I quite agree with the argument that it is an extreme anachronism that California is a single state just because there were so few people on the west coast when they decided to push for statehood that they established it with such monstrously oversized borders.

However, I guess people would rather be little fish in a big, dysfunctional pond.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:08:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But surely the fundamental problem vis-a-vis voting weights is that there was no mechanism in the CONUS for making a transition from a confederation to a federation? The way the CONUS sets up the electoral system makes a great deal of sense for a confederation... for a federation, though, not so much.

And mark my words, this will come to bite the EU on the butt eventually, because our system is set up around precisely the same kind of logic.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 23rd, 2008 at 02:36:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But that's not a structural problem. The Constitution gives broad authority to the federal government in Congressional election, expanded further after the Civil War.

And if the US government elected to use that authority to establish a national electoral roll, and simply made it open to state to use that roll for their state elections if they wished, most states would do so for the budgetary savings.

The problem is political ... for forty years, one political party has had a strategy of suppressing the vote turning out for the other party, and for all except six years years of that period, that party has either held the White House or had a majority in the House or both.

The electoral college itself was is an institution with its original intention destroyed by the rise of political parties. However, nowadays, most newly established democracies go to a directly elected Presidency, with all of the flaws of that institution ... certainly nobody is going to establish a system in which local communities are supposed to elect their best representative to go to the capital and help decide who the President will be.

Remember that the big spread between state populations in the US is because of the drive to gain state status with a fixed population threshold required, with some of those states then filling in far beyond the state founder's wildest dreams and some of those states emptying out. AFAIU, in the original House/Senate compromise between big states and small states, the balance was tilted substantially closer to one person one vote than the EU population weighted voting system.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Nov 23rd, 2008 at 09:12:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But the voting weights I was talking about... they can only be changed by changing the CONUS.

And you're probably right that the EU voting weights would make even less sense for a federation than the US' - that's why I'm saying that it'll bite us on the butt one fine day when we wake up and find out that we've evolved into a federation, but still allocate fourteen MEPs to a backwater province like Denmark with barely five million people.

I think we need to plan out - with considerable attention and ahead of time - how to realise when we're transitioning from a confederation to a federation and what steps to take to make the (IMO necessary) transition from weighted majority to one-man-one-vote as smooth and untroubled as possible.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 02:49:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... US voting weights that could not be fixed by subdividing the outsized states in the US.

Indeed, if the EU followed the US model, the members to the European Parliament would be distributed on a one-man, one-vote basis to the extent possible with the boundaries of the subsidiary units.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 07:39:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I didn't realise dividing up states was constitutional.

I'm sure it'd make Montana and Utah scream bloody murder if it were to happen, though :-P

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 04:17:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If dividing up states was unconstitutional, West Virginia would not exist ... West Virginia are the free soil counties of Ol' Virginia that voted against secession.

There's no reason why Montana and Utah (or Rhode Island and Delaware) would care much ... "watering down" the clout of their Senate delegation by a notional 2% from expanding the Senate by two members is not going to stand in the way.

If California was to entirely sacrifice the extra political clout of being a big state by split into five or ten states, that would be something to excite substantial political calculus ... dividing from one egregiously oversized state to two big states would not be all that much of a change.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 05:24:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but to get to the average level of representation, California would have to be divided into 8 states. And to get to the Idaho level of representation, into 70 states.

Dividing into 2 states would still leave it ridiculously under-represented.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 12:13:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... when the extremes represent such a small share of the total representation, is obviously tilting the argument.

And at the same time, average level of representation is not the sole measure of political clout. In a winner take all system, the large states have more influence than an equivalent number of states would do ... if California was divided down into a saner four to eight states, rather than leaving it as the unmanageable, unworkable behemoth that it is, it would lose influence on the Presidential election under the winner take all rule.

So there's another reason to shift to proportional distribution of electoral votes ... to take out that incentive to remain at an unmanageable size.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 10:42:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, USA allocate exactly as many senators to Idaho as to California. That's a lot worse than EU voting weights.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi
by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 10:30:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not really, when you count all the congresscritters, not just the senate. The senate seems to be intended to server roughly the same function as the unanimity requirement in much of the EU's work. And the veto assigned to Denmark that's just as blocking as the veto it assigns to Germany on a those issues. So if the Council is structurally similar to the Senate, and the EP is structurally similar to the House (or at least the closest available analogies), the Union does indeed have more tilted voting weights than the US.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 04:14:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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