We Can All Ignore the Next 18 Months

Thousands of articles will be written. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent. There will be interviews and debates. There will be speeches and rallies. There will be polls and predictions. Strategies and personalities will be analyzed. Policies will even be discussed.

We can safely ignore it all.

The only question regarding the presidential election in November 2016 is whether we should elect a Republican or Democrat. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you already know how to vote.

Paul Krugman explained why last month:

As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.

To paraphrase the differences Krugman points out:

Any Democrat elected will try to maintain or strengthen Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. Any Republican will try to do the opposite.

Any Democrat will seek to maintain or increase taxes on the wealthy. Any Republican will do the opposite.

Any Democrat will try to preserve regulations on Wall Street and the big banks (she or he might even try to break up banks that are “too big to fail”). Any Republican won’t.

Any Democrat will try to limit global warming and make it easier for immigrants to become citizens. It’s pretty clear that any Republican won’t.

I’ll add that any Democrat will try to stimulate the economy and create jobs by increasing infrastructure spending. You can count on any Republican to protect the wealthy at all costs.

And any Democrat will nominate reasonable people to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, well, how do you feel about Scalia, Alito, Roberts and Thomas? 

Professor Krugman continues:

Now, some people won’t want to acknowledge that the choices in the 2016 election are as stark as I’ve asserted. Political commentators who specialize in covering personalities rather than issues will balk at the assertion that their alleged area of expertise matters not at all. Self-proclaimed centrists will look for a middle ground that doesn’t actually exist. And as a result, we’ll hear many assertions that the candidates don’t really mean what they say. There will, however, be an asymmetry in the way this supposed gap between rhetoric and real views is presented.

On one side, suppose that Ms. Clinton is indeed the Democratic nominee. If so, you can be sure that she’ll be accused, early and often, of insincerity, of not being the populist progressive she claims to be.

On the other side, suppose that the Republican nominee is a supposed moderate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. In either case we’d be sure to hear many assertions from political pundits that the candidate doesn’t believe a lot of what he says. But in their cases this alleged insincerity would be presented as a virtue, not a vice — sure, Mr. Bush is saying crazy things about health care and climate change, but he doesn’t really mean it, and he’d be reasonable once in office. Just like his brother.

There are a lot of big books around the house I’ve been meaning to get to. If you have any time-consuming projects you’ve been putting off, the next 18 months will be a great time to get going.

Krugman’s whole column is here.

The Criminals Who Poison Our Elections

Anybody with the sense God gave a goose understands that Republican efforts to stamp out voter fraud are really an attempt to reduce the number of Democratic voters. Here’s what’s been happening in Georgia:

[The Republican] Secretary of State publicly accused the New Georgia Project in September of submitting fraudulent registration forms. A subsequent investigation found just 25 confirmed forgeries out of more than 85,000 forms—a fraud rate of about 3/100ths of 1 percent [in decimal terms, that’s a rate of 0.000294].

Meanwhile, a group of civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit claiming that thousands of registration forms submitted this summer still haven’t been recorded in Georgia’s voter database, “nearly all of them belonging to people of color in the Democratic-leaning regions around Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus”. State and county officials, however, said they have already processed all of the applications sent to them by the October 6 registration deadline, and anyway, there is no state law that requires properly-submitted registrations to be processed by any particular date. A local judge has declined to intervene, citing a lack of proof that the registrations have gone missing.

Then there is this detailed report from Al Jazeera America:

Election officials in 27 states, most of them Republicans, have launched a program that threatens a massive purge of voters from the rolls. Millions, especially black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters, are at risk. Already, tens of thousands have been removed in at least one battleground state, and the numbers are expected to climb…

At the heart of this voter-roll scrub is the Interstate Crosscheck program, which has generated a master list of nearly 7 million names. Officials say that these names represent legions of fraudsters who are not only registered but have actually voted in two or more states in the same election — a felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison.

How does this Crosscheck program work? You can appear on the list as a suspected felon if your first and last name matches the first and last name of someone who voted in another state:

The actual lists show that not only are middle names commonly mismatched and suffix discrepancies ignored [such as Jr. or Sr.], even birthdates don’t seem to have been taken into account. Moreover, Crosscheck deliberately ignores Social Security mismatches, in the few instances when the numbers are even collected.

A statistical analysis revealed that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans appear on the list much more often than their percentage of the population would indicate, while white Americans appear less often. The reason is that there is less variety in the names of certain ethnic groups, and among those groups are African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, groups that all tend to vote for Democrats. (By the way, you can enter your own name at the Al Jazeera America site and see if you’re right to vote may be challenged.)

If you’ve watched enough Fox News, you might conclude that the hordes of Democrats who poison our elections by illegally voting in more than one state don’t use the same birthdates or Social Security numbers when they register to vote in this state and that, so why bother matching on those criteria?

Or you might infer that America does indeed have a criminal element bent on interfering with the electoral process. Unfortunately, the most crafty and dangerous members of this criminal conspiracy are Republican officials whose job it is to administer elections.

PS — Paul Krugman wrote an excellent column the other day called “Plutocrats Against Democracy”. I suggest reading the whole thing, which isn’t very long. It ends this way:

But now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.

The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy.

Professor Krugman is an optimist. He thinks the plutocrats haven’t already won.

Vote, You Apathetic Bastards, Or Else!

Journalist Matt Bai makes a convincing argument here in favor of the U.S. following Australia’s example and requiring citizens to vote. Australia instituted compulsory voting in 1925 after a turnout of 59% in their previous election. Last year, Australia’s turnout was 93%. Our turnout was 58% in our last presidential election and 41% in our last midterm election (the one that determined every seat in the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, various governors, state senators, mayors, etc.).

Australia isn’t the only country with compulsory voting. It’s especially popular in South America, where Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay penalize people who don’t vote.

If you don’t vote in Australia, you have to explain why or else pay a fine of about $20. If you don’t pay the fine, you might end up in court, be fined $170 and have a criminal conviction entered against you. Of course, it’s possible to submit a ballot without voting for anyone. Abstention is legal, but failing to cast a ballot isn’t. (The Australian Election Commission answers questions here.)

Bai considers various arguments against compulsory voting. For example, voting is too difficult for some people now – we’d have to make it easier if it was compulsory (which we should do even if it isn’t compulsory). Another obvious argument is that it would be an infringement on individual rights (imagine the outrage from Fox News!) – so abstain if you want to.

One big argument he doesn’t consider is that we shouldn’t encourage anyone to vote if they don’t care who wins. Many Americans aren’t interested in politics, for whatever reason. Others are interested but think there’s no real difference between the two major parties. Unfortunately, people in the first group aren’t paying attention and neither are people in the second group.

The fact is that in order for a democracy to accurately reflect the will of the majority, people need to vote, even if that means showing up (or mailing in or logging on) and stating “no preference”. If America is going to be a democracy, we need to register our opinions. If we won’t do it voluntarily, we should suffer some consequences. Those of us who vote are already suffering consequences because non-voters don’t vote. 

We Should Expect Divided Government For a Long Time

Back in July, I wrote about the unrepresentative nature of the House of Representatives:

The House doesn’t represent the will of the people, because small states are over-represented (some congressional districts are nearly twice as large as others) and recent gerrymandering results in more Republicans being elected than Democrats, even though Democrats get more votes.

What I should have said is that some small states are over-represented and others are under-represented. For example, Rhode Island’s two members of Congress each represent only 525,000 people. Wyoming’s single member represents about 580,000. Yet Delaware‘s one member of Congress represents 925,000 and Montana‘s represents more than one million.

That might be a wash in political terms, because some small states lean left and some lean right. Unfortunately, of the 12 states that have no more than two representatives in Congress, eight lean right and only 4 lean left.

In addition, we shouldn’t forget the District of Columbia, which has more people than Vermont and Wyoming, definitely leans left and isn’t properly represented in Congress at all (they don’t have a senator and their representative gets to talk but not vote). This all adds up to an advantage for the Republicans.

In that post, I also said that gerrymandering resulted in more Republicans being elected to the House in 2012 than Democrats, even though Democrats got more votes. I was right about the numbers: the Republicans received only 47.6% of the total House vote, but ended up with 51.7% of the seats, which resulted in the Republicans having almost total control of the House of Representatives, since the House is run more efficiently (i.e. less democratically) than the Senate.

It might be the case, however, that gerrymandering doesn’t explain the Republicans’ success. That’s not to say the Republicans haven’t done their best to draw Congressional district boundaries to their advantage. They clearly did so the last time they got the chance and did it with more dedication than the Democrats.

Nevertheless, a recent study suggests that the Republicans have a natural advantage in House races. The reason could be that Democrats have gerrymandered themselves by tending to live in big cities, college towns and old manufacturing centers. That’s how gerrymandering works. You try to clump together people who vote for your opponents in as few districts as possible. This creates a few extremely safe seats for your opponents (ideally, they’d get 100% of the vote in a few districts), and a bunch of relatively safe seats for your side. It’s basically voter segregation or ghettoization. By living close together in places like Atlanta, Ann Arbor and Toledo, Democratic voters appear to have put themselves at a natural geographical disadvantage in House races.

The people who did the study claim to have tried out thousands of different district boundaries in 49 states (no Alaska? no Rhode Island?). The results were not encouraging for Democrats or opponents of gerrymandering:

In the vast majority of states, our nonpartisan simulations produced Republican seat shares that were not much different from the actual numbers in the last election. This was true even in some states, like Indiana and Missouri, with heavy Republican influence over redistricting.

It might be possible to counteract this Republican advantage by creating lots of districts that radiate out from the centers of towns and cities and would include a nice mix of urban, suburban and rural voters. The authors of the study seem to discount this possibility. At any rate, their point is that by living in relatively close quarters, Democrats are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to electing members of the House of Representatives.

A reasonable conclusion to draw from all of this is that Congress is even less representative than it seems to be. The Senate was explicitly designed to favor the interests of lightly-populated states, which now tend to vote Republican, while the House exhibits some favoritism toward small states, but more importantly is gerrymandered, whether on purpose or by simple geography, to favor Republicans as well.

The good news is that Democratic presidential candidates may continue to do relatively well, since most people pay at least some attention to politics during presidential elections and most people agree with Democratic policies (progressive taxation, more social spending, less military spending). Democrats who run for President will do well, that is, until they actually have to govern. Then they’ll have to deal with too many Republicans in Congress.