Tag Archives: elections

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.

 

Rerun

Facebook has a feature dubbed “your memories.” A couple of days ago, it reminded me of a blog I posted a year ago about voter turnout. I have never repeated a post before, but as we count down to critically important May and November elections, I think this one is worth re-running. (It was titled, “It’s The Turnout, Stupid!”)

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Do references to “President” Trump make you wonder how we ended up with a Congress and an Administration so wildly at odds with what survey research tells us the majority of Americans want?

This paragraph from a recent Vox article really says it all:

A general poll doesn’t reflect voters very much anymore. A general poll would have had Donald Trump losing substantially and the Democrats winning the House. About 45 percent of people in general polls don’t vote at all. What you saw in the election was that Republican voters came out at a very high rate. They got high turnout from non-minority people from small towns.

There are multiple reasons people fail to vote. There is, of course, deliberate suppression via “Voter ID” laws , restrictions of early voting periods and purposely inconvenient placement of polling places.

Gerrymandering, as I have pointed out numerous times before, is a major disincentive; why go to the polls when the overwhelming  number of contests aren’t really contested?

And of course, there are the holdover mechanisms from days when transportation and communication technologies were very different–state, rather than national control of everything from registration to the hours the polls are open, voting on a Tuesday, when most of us have to work, rather than on a weekend or a day designated as a national holiday, etc.

The Vox paragraph illustrates the repeated and frustrating phenomenon of widespread public antagonism to proposed legislation that nevertheless passes easily, or support for measures that repeatedly fail. If vote totals equaled poll results–that is, if everyone who responded to an opinion survey voted–our political environment would be dramatically different.

Americans being who we are, we are extremely unlikely to require voting, as they do in Australia. (Those who fail to cast a ballot pay a fine.) We can’t even pass measures to make voting easier. I personally favor “vote by mail” systems like the ones in Oregon and Washington State; thay save taxpayer dollars, deter (already minuscule) voter fraud, and increase turnout. They also give voters time to research ballot issues in order to cast informed votes. (Informed votes! What a thought….)

If the millions of Americans who have been energized (okay, enraged) by Trump’s election want to really turn things around, the single most important thing they can do is register people who have not previously voted, and follow up by doing whatever it takes to get them to cast ballots.

Voter ID laws a problem? Be sure everyone you register has ID. Polls and times inconvenient? Help them vote early or drive them to their polling place.

Gerrymandering a disincentive? First make sure that someone is opposing every incumbent, no matter how lopsided the district, and then help people who haven’t previously voted get to the polls. Those gerrymandered district lines are based upon prior turnout statistics; on how people who voted in that district previously cast their ballots. If even half of those who have been non-voters started going to the polls, a lot of so-called “safe” districts wouldn’t be so safe.

Not voting, it turns out, is a vote for the status quo. There are a lot of Americans who are cynical and dissatisfied with the status quo who don’t realize that the plutocrats and autocrats they criticize are enabled by–and counting on– their continued lack of involvement.

If everyone who has found his or her inner activist would pledge to find and register three to five people who haven’t previously voted, and do what it takes to get them to the polls, it would change America.

Purging the Voter Rolls

According to The Hill,

Indiana has purged nearly a half-million registered voters from its rolls since Election Day.

The purge is part of a massive effort to update the state’s voter rolls after years of improper maintenance and neglect, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson said. Since the November elections, 481,235 registered voters have been taken off the list.

“When I became secretary of state, I discovered voter list maintenance was not being done statewide and many outdated voter registrations were still on the rolls,” Lawson said in a statement.

Lawson is undoubtedly correct that Indiana’s voter rolls were out of date, a situation not unique to Indiana. Giving states the responsibility of maintaining their own voter rolls is one of the many idiosyncrasies of America’s election “systems,” and it doesn’t work very well. (I put systems in quotes, because the way in which we conduct elections is anything but systematic. Or uniform.)

Other countries–not that we would ever admit that other nations may have things to teach us–have established national, nonpartisan agencies to administer elections. The virtues of such an approach are rather obvious, especially in a country where voters freely move from state to state. A national system makes record keeping uniform, ensures that polling places adhere to the same rules and stay open during the same hours (Indiana’s polls close at 6:00 pm, while citizens in most other states are still casting ballots at 8:00), and it minimizes the opportunity for local partisan mischief.

Perhaps political hostility to that last “virtue” is why we still have local control…

Secretary of State Lawson initiated her purge by sending postcards to every registered voter in Indiana. If postcards were returned as undeliverable, Lawson’s office would send a second, forwardable postcard.

People who failed to update their voter records after receiving the second card were marked as inactive on the state’s list of registered voters. And those who didn’t cast ballots in 2014, 2015 or 2016 were purged from the rolls after the November election.

That sounds simple enough, but of course, nothing in American democracy is simple. As Huffpost reported a month or so ago,

In April, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) signed legislation authorizing election officials to remove voters from the rolls if they were found to be registered in more than one place. According to the legislation, one of the ways officials can identify people who are registered in more than one place is by using Interstate Crosscheck, a system developed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) that 27 states use to compare voter information.

It isn’t illegal to be registered in more than one state. But if Crosscheck flags a voter as being registered in another state, the Indiana legislation authorizes local election officials to remove them from the rolls if they can verify that person is indeed registered in their jurisdiction.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday by Brennan Center for Justice on behalf of the Indiana chapters of the NAACP and League of Women Voters accuses that process of violating the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. The federal law requires election officials to provide notice to a voter they are at risk of being removed and then permits the officials to remove them from the voting rolls if they don’t respond over a period of time. In their complaint, lawyers called the Indiana law a “flagrant” violation of NVRA.

Research has shown that purging based on Crosscheck causes the cancellation of 200 legitimate registrations for every registration that could be used to cast a double vote. Researchers at MIT have found a 13.6 percent chance that any random voter could be matched to another voter with the same name and birth month and year.

Florida and Oregon have both discontinued use of the program, citing its unreliability. (Florida evidently did so after the program purged Governor Rick Scott. Schadenfreude, anyone?)

If you are an Indiana voter, and you want to be sure you are still eligible to vote, use this link.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What do Mike Pence and Donald Trump have in common? They both exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect— a scientific theory establishing the truth of Mark Twain’s observation that “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Or–in other formulations–it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know.

There are plenty of politicians in both parties who exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect, but few do so with such stunning obliviousness as these two. Here in Indiana, voters have been treated to ample evidence of our Governor’s ideological rigidity in the face of inconvenient realities (it will be interesting to see how “gung-ho for vouchers” Pence responds to recent research showing that Hoosier children using those vouchers perform more poorly than children remaining in public schools).

But I must admit that even Pence’s delusions pale next to those displayed by “The Donald” he has endorsed.

Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.

….

For example, in a CNBC interview, Trump suggested that the U.S. government debt could easily be reduced by asking federal bondholders to “take a haircut,” agreeing to receive a little less than the bond’s full face value if the U.S. economy ran into trouble. In a sense, this is a sensible idea commonly applied—at least in business, where companies commonly renegotiate the terms of their debt.

But stretching it to governmental finance strains reason beyond acceptability. And in his suggestion, Trump illustrated not knowing the horror show of consequences his seemingly modest proposal would produce. For the U.S. government, his suggestion would produce no less than an unprecedented earthquake in world finance. It would represent the de facto default of the U.S. on its debt—and the U.S. government has paid its debt in full since the time of Alexander Hamilton. The certainty and safety imbued in U.S. Treasury bonds is the bedrock upon which much of world finance rests.

Even suggesting that these bonds pay back less than 100 percent would be cause for future buyers to demand higher interest rates, thus costing the U.S. government, and taxpayer, untold millions of dollars, and risking the health of the American economy.

Those of us who teach public administration–whose academic mission is to give prospective government workers the specialized knowledge and tools they will need in order to perform adequately and in the public interest–get pretty disheartened when voters who would never ask a non-dentist to extract wisdom teeth, a non-electrician to wire their homes, or an auto mechanic to draft a lease, blithely assume that anyone with “business sense” (or in Indiana, the “right” religious beliefs) can therefore manage a nation or a state.

Too many voters think of their ballots as a form of symbolic speech, rather than as the act of making a real-world choice between inevitably imperfect alternatives.

The fact that our alternatives may all be flawed is not to suggest that all flaws are created equal.

In November, Indiana voters will have a choice between pretentious piety and managerial competence.

Nationally, voters will have a choice between the unthinkable, a Democratic candidate that many find unsatisfactory, and a smattering of minor-party candidates with absolutely no chance of winning the Presidency. If the electorate doesn’t know what it doesn’t know–if voters fail to understand the difference between less than ideal and dangerously, monumentally unfit, we’ll all suffer the consequences.

 

Secret Government

A few weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran an article that should be required reading for all of the activists–left and right–proposing deceptively simple”fixes” for what ails government.

The article began by noting candidate Obama’s promises to reign in the NSA, close Guantanamo, and roll back portions of the Patriot Act.

But six years into his administration, the Obama version of national security looks almost indistinguishable from the one he inherited. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The NSA has, if anything, become more aggressive in monitoring Americans. Drone strikes have escalated. Most recently it was reported that the same president who won a Nobel Prize in part for promoting nuclear disarmament is spending up to $1 trillion modernizing and revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons.

Why did the face in the Oval Office change but the policies remain the same? Critics tend to focus on Obama himself, a leader who perhaps has shifted with politics to take a harder line. But Tufts University political scientist Michael J. Glennon has a more pessimistic answer: Obama couldn’t have changed policies much even if he tried….

In a new book, “National Security and Double Government,” he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term “double government”: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.

The article describes what Glennon came to recognize from a career that included stints as  legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and consultant to various congressional committees and the State Department: in a number of policy areas, but especially national security, the people we elect have limited ability to effect policy change. Bureaucrats–and the systems within which they operate–call the shots far more than most of us realize. As he notes,

It hasn’t been a conscious decision….Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.

The national security apparatus is probably the most extreme example, but the phenomenon that Glennon describes operates, albeit to a lesser extent, in virtually all large bureaucracies, public or private. (There’s a reason business schools and schools of public affairs offer classes in organizational culture—systemic dynamics make change far more daunting than those on the outside realize.)

When you add policy complexity and specialized expertise to systemic inertia, the barriers faced by would-be “change agents” become even more daunting.

This phenomenon is why well-meaning calls for term limits aren’t just naive, but dangerous. When a newly elected Congressman or Senator takes office, he is utterly dependent upon (nameless, unelected) staff to show him the ropes. With term limits, by the time he  learns enough about how it all works to actually be effective, he’s gone. The result is to place even more power in the hands of staff members who have staying power and know how the system works—anonymous functionaries that voters cannot hold accountable.

It would be far better to use the original mechanism for limiting terms: the ballot box. Unfortunately, rampant gerrymandering has removed that option by ensuring that far too many districts are uncompetitive.

It’s a problem.