Tag Archives: turnout

The Slog of Sustained Opposition

The recent special election votes in Virginia, New Jersey and even more recently, Oklahoma, gave Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans a sorely-needed infusion of hope. A lot can happen in a year, of course, but there are several promising omens for 2018 in the magnitude of the wins and the repudiation of divisive and ugly campaign tactics.

That said, I think the most important lesson–the most significant “takeaway”–has largely been overlooked, probably because it simply reinforces what has been conventional political wisdom for eons.

Elections are all about TURNOUT.

Democrats in Virginia won races for their House of Delegates despite running in massively gerrymandered districts, reminding us that the “art” of gerrymandering relies on previous voting patterns. When large numbers of citizens who haven’t previously voted cast their ballots, so-called “safe” districts are a lot less safe.

In a recent column for the Guardian, Rebecca Sollnit makes an important point. Reviewing the election that gave us Donald Trump, she suggests that his narrow victory was likely attributable to–and vindicated– the GOP’s intense and persistent emphasis on vote suppression tactics.

You can’t count the votes that weren’t cast, and you can make a case that the election was sabotaged without taking them into account. But when you add up the different means of disenfranchisement – voter ID laws and illegitimate enforcement of them, the Crosscheck program, voter roll purges, reduction of polling places, gutting the Voting Rights Act – you see that millions of poor, student and nonwhite voters were denied one of their basic rights as citizens, along with more than six million disenfranchised because of felony convictions.

That is a huge chunk of the electorate, and had half of them voted, it would have given us a wildly different outcome – in fact, it probably would’ve dictated significantly different campaigns and candidates.

Good government groups have brought lawsuits challenging most of these suppression mechanisms, and I am cautiously optimistic that at least some of those suits will succeed. But as helpful as that would be, the 2018 remedy lies elsewhere: in civic activism that vastly increases turnout, including in, but not limited to, the populations that have been the target of these suppression efforts.

Unlike countries like Australia, where there is mandatory voting, in the United States we rely on voluntary exercise of the franchise–and even where intentional efforts to suppress the vote are absent, we haven’t made voting easy or convenient. As a result, those of us who are focused upon ousting the corrupt and illegitimate cabal that is the Trump Administration face a daunting–but not insurmountable–challenge. We must register and turn out hundreds of thousands of previously absent voters.

Large turnouts have almost always favored Democrats. That’s doubly true in the Age of Trump. The big question–what we used to call the 64 Thousand Dollar Question–is whether we can sustain the remarkable increase in political and civic participation triggered by the results of the 2016 Presidential election.

Does the resistance have stamina enough for the long slog? Are volunteers prepared for the tedium of house-to-house registration and GOTV efforts? Will enough of us resist the normalization of the daily eruptions of thuggery and ignorant belligerence, and keep our eyes on the prize–the restoration of competent and ethical government?

A year can seem like an eternity, but a dogged and sustained effort that dislodges and replaces Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and gives us a sane cohort of lawmakers actually interested in the public good would be a wonderful reward for persistence–and the beginning of the end of an incompetent, shameful and destructive administration.

Why Hoosiers Don’t Vote

Yesterday, I took part in a “Pancakes and Politics” discussion hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. There were three of us on the panel–yours truly, Beth White (former Marion County Clerk) and Abdul Shabazz (local radio personality and commentator/provocateur).

Abdul has actually posted the whole thing, so if you like beating your head against the wall, you can click here.

The panel was focused on civic engagement–especially voting–and as one might expect, there were a number of explanations offered for Indiana’s continaully abysmal turnout. (A pathetic 7% turned out for yesterday’s Indianapolis primary.) I’ll leave most of those for another day, but today I want to talk about a comment made by Beth White, because it really struck me.

Beth ticked off the numerous barriers that Indiana erects and noted that voting here is thus more difficult than it is elsewhere. Abdul disagreed. (Any election law expert will tell you Beth was right. Sorry, Abdul.) Her response was perfect: she pointed out that Indiana makes it easy to pay taxes, to get your auto license, and to do other things that policymakers want to encourage. It’s pretty clear– given the fact that our Voter ID law is the nation’s strictest, our polls are the first to close, we refuse to establish convenient voting centers or to allow vote-by-mail–that state government is not interested in encouraging people to vote.

Especially egregious is the refusal to allow the use of government-issued picture IDs to verify identity if those IDs don’t have an expiration date.

As Beth noted, it’s perfectly appropriate to ensure that voters are who they say they are–but that interest in preventing (virtually non-existent) voter fraud doesn’t require disallowing identification issued by government agencies that is widely accepted elsewhere. (According to the Secretary of State’s webpage, “noncompliant” identifications  include “An ID issued by the US Department of Defense, a branch of the uniformed services, the Merchant Marine, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (or Veterans Administration), or the Indiana National Guard.”)

It’s just another petty annoyance for those of us with drivers licenses (like Abdul), but a hassle–and a message–for the elderly or disabled or others who don’t drive.

The message? Stay home. (Thanks to the safe districts created by gerrymandering, there’s no contest in most parts of the state anyway.)

After all, if God had intended us to vote, She’d have given us candidates.

 

The Poll Next Tuesday

Yesterday, WISH TV and Franklin College released the first independent poll of the mayoral election. It had something for everyone–Ballard is polling significantly less than 50%, typically a danger sign for an incumbent. On the other hand, he was ahead of Kennedy. The number of undecideds was huge this late in the race, and the early voters favored Kennedy by a wide margin, suggesting more enthusiasm for the Democrat.

Of course, when a poll has a 4.9% margin of error, any results should be viewed with some skepticism.

Actually, political polling has fallen on hard times. Last year, Brian Vargus–the Political Science Professor who has long been regarded as the local expert on political surveys–came to talk to my class. His message was that most political polling is worthless–that accurate, reliable surveys are prohibitively expensive, and campaigns and media outlets simply don’t do them anymore. That’s why you see such large margins of error.

A good poll will be representative of those actually likely to vote. That means including minority communities that are historically under-polled (Julia Carson routinely polled 15-20 points lower than her vote on election day). It means including younger voters who use cell phones exclusively (and accounting for the fact that they’re less likely to vote). In other words, a good poll requires both accurate sampling and the use of methodologically predictive algorithms.

According to this morning’s news, Vargus raised several questions about the WISH poll, based upon some internal inconsistencies. But even assuming it is reasonably accurate, what it tells us is what politicians have always known: what matters is the poll taken on election day, and that poll depends on who does the best job getting out their vote.

A recent study of 155 elections involving incumbents showed that voters who were undecided two weeks prior to the election broke 80%/20% for the challenger. Evidently, if the incumbent didn’t have them by then, he wasn’t going to get them. That’s good news for Kennedy–if her campaign gets those folks to the polls.

At the end of the day, turnout is the key.

 

 

Rules of the Game

When you teach political science or public administration, you try to explain to students the importance of systems–the rules of the game.

Most Americans watch political campaigns much the same way as they watch football or baseball–as a contest between two (or more) competitors. May the best team win. We recognize that there are rules, that fouls should be punished and not rewarded, but it all seems pretty transparent.

The rules that govern elections aren’t so easily observed, and partisans work hard to rig them. As the Indianapolis Star observed in an editorial this morning,

“state law also has discouraged voter turnout. Indiana’s polls, for example, close at 6 p.m. on Election Day, an earlier cutoff than in many other states. The early close at the polls makes it difficult for many workers, including those with children to drop off or pick up and those with lengthy commutes to work, to show up on Election Day. Indiana also has been slow to adopt innovations such as early voting centers and Election Day voting centers, which eliminate the need to turn out at a specific polling site on a specified day.

Indiana also presents third parties with a higher threshold for ballot access than many other states. The inability to get their candidates on the ballot discourages would-be voters who don’t fit within Democratic or Republican silos.”

This year, Indianapolis voters saw a particularly egregious example of efforts at vote suppression, when the local GOP adamantly refused to authorize satellite voting centers. The rule is that such changes must receive a unanimous vote from the Election Board, and the Republican member consistently blocked the Clerk’s effort to establish convenient polling places. Initially, he argued that setting up satellite sites would be “too expensive.” When a local union offered to pay the (really pretty modest) cost, he still refused–although if he offered a justification for his intransigence, I didn’t hear it.

Coming on the heels of Todd Rokita’s efforts to make voting more difficult for the poor and elderly, by requiring the sort of IDs that most of us privileged folks–who are more likely to vote Republican-already have, it is hard to see this as anything but a continuation of efforts to make voting more difficult for populations that skew Democrat.

The pious justification for the ID requirement was prevention of fraud (although the only documented cases of voter fraud involved absentee ballots, which were not part of the “reform” effort). There is no justification for prevention of satellite voting centers.

As the Star points out, it’s the height of hypocrisy to bemoan Indiana’s low turnout at the same time lawmakers are doing everything possible to keep people from the polls.