Tag Archives: elections

The Density Divide

The Density Divide is the title of a very important paper issued in June by Will Wilkinson, Vice President for Research of the Niskanen Center. It looks in depth at the phenomenon that I usually refer to as the “urban/rural divide”–delving into the attributes that make individuals more or less likely to move into cities, and examining the consequences of those differences and the steady urbanization of the American polity.

The paper is lengthy–some 70 pages–but well worth the time to read in its entirety. it is meticulously sourced, and replete with graphs and other supporting data.

Wilkinson confirms what others have reported: a substantial majority of Americans now dwell in the nation’s cities and generate the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth. But he goes beneath those numbers, referencing a body of research demonstrating that people who are drawn to urban environments differ in significant ways from those who prefer to remain in rural precincts. He focuses especially on ethnicity, personality and education as attributes that make individuals more or less responsive to the lure of city life.

He goes on to describe how this “self-selected” migration has segregated Americans. It has not only concentrated economic production in a handful of “megacities”–it has driven a “polarizing wedge” between America’s dense and diverse urban populations and the sparse White populations remaining in rural areas. That “wedge” is what he dubs the “Density Divide.” (Wilkinson is careful to define “urban” to include dense areas of small towns–the divisions he traces aren’t a function of jurisdictional city limits. They are a function of residential density.)

Wilkinson finds that the “sorting mechanism of urbanization” has produced a rural America that is lower-density, predominantly White, and “increasingly uniform in socially conservative personality, aversion to diversity, relative disinclination to migrate and seek higher education, and Republican Party loyalty.”

That sorting has also left much of rural America in economic distress, which has activated a “zero-sum, ethnocentric mindset.” (That mindset is reflected in the angry rhetoric spouted by rural MAGA hat wearers about “un-American” immigrants and minorities, and disdain for “liberal elites”–all groups that are thought to reside in those multi-cultural cities.)

The density divide–together with America’s outdated electoral structures– explains the 2016 election. The “low-density bias” of our electoral system allowed Trump to win the Presidency by prevailing in areas that produce 1/3 of GDP and contain fewer than half of the population. That low-density bias continues to empower Republicans far out of proportion to their numbers.

Wilkinson reminds us that there are currently no Republican cities. None.

As he points out, the increase in return to human capital and density has acted to amplify the polarizing nature of selective urbanization. Temperamentally liberal people self-select into higher education and big cities, where the people they encounter exert a further influence on their political attitudes. They  leave behind a lower-density population that is “relatively uniform in white ethnicity, conservative disposition and lower economic productivity.” Economic growth has been shown to liberalize culture; stagnant or declining economic prospects generate a sense of anxiety and threat.( In that sense, the political scientists who attributed Trump votes to economic distress were correct, but the distress wasn’t a function of individual financial straits–it was a reaction to the steadily declining prospects of rural environments.)

Wilkinson argues that there are no red states or blue states–not even red or blue counties. Rather, there is compact blue urban density (even in small cities in rural states) and sprawling red sparseness.

This spatial segregation of people with very different values and world-views is radicalizing; Wilkinson reminds us that a lack of exposure to intellectual diversity and broadly different points of view breeds extremism. Because urban populations are far more intellectually diverse, more homogeneous rural populations have shifted much farther to the right than urban Americans have shifted left.

The United States population is projected to be 90% urbanized by 2050–not too many years after we are projected to become “majority-minority.” Those projections suggest we will see increasing radicalization of already-resentful rural inhabitants.

The prospects for returning to rational politics and a truly representative governance will depend entirely upon reforming an outdated and pernicious electoral framework that dramatically favors rural Americans. Whether those reforms can pass our very unrepresentative Senate is an open question.

 

FIXING it

Yesterday’s post focused on legal reforms aimed at official corruption. Important as those are, they aren’t the only reforms we need to make.

We need to fix our elections.

Even those of us who follow politics closely and who are familiar with the country’s legal framework often miss the way in which demographic shifts have upended America’s electoral system and shifted power to an unrepresentative minority of voters– aided and abetted by America’s minority party.

Over the last few years, more people have come to recognize the inequities caused by gerrymandering and the Electoral College, but beyond that, our comfort with “the way it is” has blinded us to the equally troubling consequences of equal Senate representation, for example. Currently, over half the U.S. population lives in just nine states. The result is  that less than half of the population chooses 82 percent of the country’s Senators. And that means that the Republicans hold their current Senate majority despite the fact that the Democratic Senate minority represents more than half of the American people.

A recent article from Vox, which led off with that example of distorted representation,  offered eleven proposals to fix what has evolved into an unfair and unequal system. The article began with a recitation of several of the most egregious elements of our decidedly undemocratic reality.

Intentional efforts to make it harder to vote, such as voter ID laws, are increasingly common throughout the states — and the Supreme Court frequently approaches such voter suppression with indifference. Gerrymandering renders many legislative elections irrelevant — in 2018, Republicans won nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Wisconsin state assembly, even though Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the popular vote. Wealthy donors flood elections with money, as lawmakers spend thousands of hours on “call time,”dialing the rich to fund the next campaign.

And looming over all of this is the problem of race. In some states, Republican lawmakers write voter suppression laws that target voters of color with, in the word of one federal appeals court, “almost surgical precision,” knowing that a law that targets minority votes will primarily disenfranchise Democrats.

After the Democrats took the House in 2019, the first bill they passed was the “For the People Act.” If that act passed the Senate– which did not happen and will not happen so long as Mitch McConnell is in charge of that body–Vox says it would be the most significant voting rights legislation since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (A companion bill, HR 4, would strengthen that original Voting Rights Act by restoring sections of the law that were eviscertated by the Supreme Court.)

That said, as the article correctly noted, even if those measures are enacted, they would still fall short of addressing the major and troubling challenges facing Americans’ electoral system. They wouldn’t address Senate malapportionment or the Electoral College –both systems that hand control of the government to an unrepresentative, predominantly rural minority of our citizens.

The eleven “fixes” identified by Vox include much-discussed measures like eliminating the filibuster and revitalizing the Voting Rights Act, but also less-often suggested changes like eliminating advance registration in favor of same-day voter registration. (A number of states are moving in that direction, which has the benefit of also eliminating flawed and partisan purges.)

Then there are the changes that would make it easier to vote: more early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and other measures that would actually facilitate the process of casting a ballot. What if we emulated Australia, for example?

In Australia, over 90 percent of eligible voters typically cast a ballot in federal elections. The nation achieves this feat by turning Election Day into a celebration, where voters gather at community barbecues to eat what are often referred to as “democracy sausages.” But Australia also uses a stick to encourage voting — nonvoters can be fined about $80 Australian dollars (about $60 in US currency) if they do not cast a ballot.

You really need to read the whole article, but even those who disagree with some of its specific recommendations will find it hard to argue with the proposition that it is past time for lawmakers and citizens alike to focus on the numerous, fundamentally unfair elements of the way we choose America’s leaders.

 

Women To The Rescue

In the period between the 2016 election and the 2018 midterms, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a fascinating study. (A quick and dirty google search failed to find the link–if someone has it, please provide it in the comments.) She and a graduate student studied resistance groups that had emerged outside dependably blue cities and coastal areas, and found that they defied the common clichés. Most were based in suburbs or smaller cities, they weren’t particularly leftist, and most were run by middle-aged and older women who hadn’t been politically active before Trump’s victory jolted them out of complacency.

They were predominantly middle-class women’s networks, although with some men in them, and Skocpol predicted that, if the Democrats took the House in 2018, they would be a major reason.

I thought of that research when I received a lengthy email from a reader of this blog, telling me about just such a group here in red Indiana. She said that her particular story had started “on that awful day in November of 2016, when we all woke up in a fetal position…” She had quit her job of 17 years, and devoted herself full-time to bringing women in her local community in northwest Indiana together. Their initial efforts met with frustration.

In 2018, some ran for office, many ran for Precinct Committee Chair.  We all ran for State Convention Delegate.  We had a grand day out, demanding the Dem party establish a Women’s Caucus with voting rights on the SCC.  We navigated the convoluted system with no help from the party, and got a resolution passed and included in the platform package approved by the entire delegation.  Our posse was walking on air for a few weeks when we were informed by the State Chair that there would be no Women’s Caucus.  The Chair took a lesson from legislative committee chairs who listen to compelling testimony on popular bills, then decide not to take a vote.

The rebuff led to the establishment of a state-wide organization: 25 Women for 2020. The invitation to participate begins as follows, and explains the purpose of the new organization:

 You are cordially invited to participate in 25 Women for 2020, an Indiana-wide network of Democratic women candidates running for the Indiana House and Senate.

An Historic Opportunity

2018 was a landmark year. 45 Democratic women ran for the Indiana state legislature. Only 18 won their seats, but the other 27 gained invaluable experience and name recognition, positioning them for success in 2020.

The electoral prospects of this cohort of candidates will help and be helped by a spirited and consequential Presidential election. The Democratic candidate will need the mobilization of voters in every corner of Indiana; and women Democratic candidates will be well-served by the political optimism and enthusiasm which only a Presidential race can bring.

Participation in the 25 Women for 2020 Network will bring you the support of other women who are facing many of the same challenges as you. Each will bring their experience, knowledge, understanding, and support to make ALL members of the Network much stronger. The Network staff, Board of Directors, and Advisory Board Members will bring their experience and expertise to further support the strength of the Network and each candidate’s campaigns.

The network promises to provide “open, supportive and effective peer support” to those candidates. They have a website, and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Politically-active Hoosiers can appreciate the multiple barriers these Democratic women face in a gerrymandered, rurally-dominated state. But even the candidates who do not prevail will motivate turnout among Democratic voters in 2020, and test the limits of Trumpification in the state.

Women’s groups like this one were key to Democratic victories in 2018, and they will be critically important in 2020. They deserve all the support we can give them.

 

 

 

The First Order Of Election Business

Americans may not have settled on a candidate to oppose the madman in the White House, but there is widespread agreement that the 2020 election will be a critical test of our national character.

It will also be a test of our electoral structures. Just how democratic are our elections? How easily rigged?

I’m not even talking about the threat of Russian interference. I’m talking about the glaringly obvious susceptibility of our elections to corruption–gerrymandering, of course, but also voter ID laws, and other vote suppression tactics.

It took the Guardian rather than an American news operation to do a front-page story on research by the Brennan Center.

US election jurisdictions with histories of egregious voter discrimination have been purging voter rolls at a rate 40% beyond the national average, according to a watchdog report released on Thursday.

At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, according to a studyby the Brennan Center for Justice. The number was basically unchanged from the previous two-year period.

While the rate of voter purges elsewhere has declined slowly, jurisdictions released from federal oversight by a watershed 2013 supreme court ruling had purge rates “significantly higher” than jurisdictions not previously subjected to oversight, the Brennan Center found in a previous report.

That trend has continued, the watchdog said, with the disproportionate purging of voters resulting in an estimated 1.1 million fewer voters between 2016 and 2018.

It will come as no surprise that the increase in purges began almost immediately after Shelby County v Holder in 2013, a decision that eviscerated the section of the Voting Rights Act that had subjected counties with histories of voter discrimination to federal oversight. The ruling was incredibly naive–it reminded me of Lee Hamilton’s comment that the Supreme Court needs fewer graduates of elite law schools and more justices who’d run for county sheriff. It simply ignored evidence of contemporary voter suppression tactics– strict voter identification laws, partisan gerrymandering and aggressive voter purges.

Voter roll purges are regularly undertaken to account for voters who move or die. But critics say that aggressive and unfair purges of voter rolls in recent years – such as a purge of 107,000 voters in Georgia in 2017 by the then secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who was subsequently elected governor by the electorate he had culled – have warped democracy.

“As the country prepares for the 2020 election, election administrators should take steps to ensure that every eligible American can cast a ballot next November,” the Brennan Center said in a statement. “Election day is often too late to discover that a person has been wrongfully purged.”

The Brennan Center study points to the critical importance of Stacy Abrams’ new initiative. (Abrams, of course, was the Georgia gubernatorial candidate cheated out of a likely win by Brian Kemp.) As The Atlantic  has reported

Stacey Abrams was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2018, when the former state representative came within 54,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race, in an election marred by extensive reports of voter suppression. But despite the wave of calls urging her to parlay that political stardom into a presidential (or Senate) bid, Abrams will instead focus on fighting voter suppression through a new initiative called Fair Fight 2020, which, as she put it, aims to“make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018.” …

“I think what her experience this past year revealed was, regardless of how dynamic of a candidate you are, how much mobilization that you implement—particularly to mobilize voters who may not vote regularly and could not or have not voted at all—the effort to suppress the vote was, in her case, insurmountable,” says Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University. “I think it would be a mistake for any presidential candidate not to think about it.”

American voters–and the American media–regularly focus on personalities, polls and other “horse race” metrics, giving short shrift to the systemic environment that all too often determines outcomes– and even shorter shrift to coverage of partisans who game those systems.

It isn’t just the anti-democratic Electoral College.

If Americans somehow manage to overwhelm these anti-democratic processes–if we manage to elect rational, ethical policymakers committed to fair elections, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

 

Telling It Like It Is: Election Version

In a riff on the title of the book What’s the Matter with Kansas, Ron Klain’s recent column for the Washington Post was “What’s the Matter with Florida?”

The column could have more accurately headed “What’s Wrong With America’s Electoral ‘System’?” Note the quotation marks around the word system; they’re there because (much like the situation with health care), we don’t have anything that remotely deserves the word “system.”

As the New York Times reported just last Sunday in an article about voting glitches,

Though it wasn’t a 2000 redux, the 2018 midterms exposed persistent problems and the haphazard way the voting process was administered across the country. In Arkansas, three-member boards handle elections at the county level, while in Connecticut all 169 towns and cities use their own registrars.

The inherently political nature of running elections can call into question some officials’ decision-making.

Klain served as general counsel for Al Gore in that 2000 recount effort in Florida; he says he’s often asked why these problems keep happening in Florida.

Part of what we are seeing now in Florida, as we did in 2000, is the product of factors specific to the state: persistently weak election administration in key counties, perennially close and hard-fought elections, and a colorful group of political players that seems ripped from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel. But the most important thing to know about what’s happening in Florida is that it has little to do specifically with Florida at all.

Take a step back and look at the big issues playing out in Florida, and what you’ll see, instead of Florida’s foibles, are three critical challenges to American democracy as a whole.

It’s hard to argue with the negative effects of the three challenges Klain identified in his column: we allow “interested” officials to supervise elections;  we entrust the electoral process to amateurs and incompetents; and state election systems are poorly run and underfunded.

The recent midterms especially highlighted the first of these. As Klain notes,

Florida’s chief law enforcement officer, Gov. Rick Scott, who is also the Republican nominee in the Senate recount, is in a position to allege crimes by election officials, attempt to seize voting machines and dispatch state troopers to try to intervene in the post-election dispute. But a similar spectacle has been unfolding for months next door in Georgia.

As chief of election administration in Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp— who is also the Republican nominee for governor, in a vote also being contested — stalled more than 50,000 new voter registrations, supported closing more than 200 polling places in predominantly minority areas and purged 1 in 10 Georgia voters from the rolls. In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach — again, also the Republican nominee for governor — employed many of the same tactics as Kemp, and fell just short of being elected.

These are egregious conflicts of interest, but such conflicts are only slightly less concerning when partisan officials not running for office oversee elections. Those officials have, as the saying goes, “a dog in the fight,” and significant incentives to game the process to favor their political party.

The clusterf**k in Florida also illustrates Klain’s other points: the machine recount  in Palm Beach County was hampered because old machines overheated from processing so many ballots; and 30,000 ballots in Broward County recorded votes for state agriculture commissioner but not the U.S. Senate. That weird result turned out to be the result of a poorly designed ballot.  More incompetence in the state of the hanging chad….

Klain’s most important point, in my view, is the following:

But again, that’s not just in Florida. While some election misadministration (such as inadequate numbers of voting machines in targeted areas) appears to be a deliberate effort to suppress the vote in minority communities, much Election Day mayhem is caused by systems that are poorly run and underfunded.

No matter how much we hail democracy on the Fourth of July, come November, elections are just another government service: In communities where thin budgets and lax leadership produce scant bus service, slow ambulance response times and unkempt parks, we should not be surprised to find confusing ballots, bad instructions at the polls and slow vote tabulation.

For the past 40 years, Americans have been beating up on the very idea of government. We have voted for people whose proudest “qualification” is that they know nothing about public service, and for people who insist that taxation is “theft” rather than the dues we pay for civilization. We lionize the small percentage of our population who have the means to retreat into gated enclaves and provide for their own comfort and safety.

We the People no longer support government’s most basic obligation: to provide an adequate physical and social infrastructure administered by competent public servants.

It shows. And not just during elections.