Category Archives: United States

Internet voting and turnout

Via Election Updates, comes this story out of Virginia,

Many county and state election officials often lament of low voter turnout, but Surry County, Va. is anticipating 100 percent voter turnout for an upcoming Republican Primary — or a zero percent turnout. A quirk in redistricting means that the county will have to open a polling place for one voter for the upcoming primary. It will cost the county approximately $2,000 to open the polling place for the day and even if the lone voter shows up in the early moments of election day, the county must keep the location open till polls officially close across the state. Registrar Lucille Epps said she contacted the Virginia Board of Elections to ask if the lone voter could be sent to the next closest precinct but was told that was not possible.

Paul Gronke astutely adds:

This is a fun and silly story that Mindy Moretti dug up, but there is a very good reason beyond cost that the voter should be sent to another precinct–privacy!  Obviously, Registrar Epps can not report returns for this precinct, but notice that the Registrar CAN’T REPORT PRECINCT LEVEL RETURNS FOR THE OTHER PRECINCTS EITHER, because a simple calculation will reveal the single voter’s choices.

Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development

This is a good point, and I wonder about it in a few other contexts.  In Norway, for example, the country will be piloting an internet voting system for ten municipalities in their upcoming September local elections.   If internet turnout matches that of Estonia’s first trial with i-voting, i-voters would be somewhere around 2 percent.   Combine that with the low number of people per municipality, and the low number who vote in local elections, and it’s somewhat possible that you could have an extremely small number of internet voters per area.  Maintaining transparency requires the government to post who voted via each method (paper ballot, early voting, internet) as well as the results for each method, so there could be a theoretical risk of being able to identify internet voters’ decisions.  In most cases this isn’t that big of a risk, but it’s just a reminder of the many things that have to be considered when developing such a complex system.

The Party Still Decides…continued

Jonathan Bernstein probably doesn’t read my blog, but I was happy to see him repeat some of my recent arguments in his New Republic piece.

The key to grasping the place of Ames in the Republican nomination process is that it occurs right in the middle of the invisible primary—that portion of the process that takes place before voters are involved. During this period, candidates aren’t seeking the support of rank-and-file Republicans; they are appealing to party insiders of various kinds: party-aligned interest groups and media; governing and campaign professionals; formal party officials; and activists. From the point of view of those actors, the invisible primary is a time to sort out conflicts and coordinate action.

Read Bernstein’s piece (and his great blog!) and mine.  Horse race narratives are generally not important, but elite signaling is.  What’s happening now in Iowa is actually extremely important.

Institutions still matter

I try not to stray too much in US politics on this blog, only because that information is so easily obtained elsewhere.  With that being said, party and electoral systems are well within the scope here so please read Hans Noel and Seth Masket’s new article in the Los Angeles Times.  The arguments shouldn’t be novel to readers of this blog but apparently it’s possible to be very successful while making the opposite points, so it’ s good to get this out there.

I think the key parts here aren’t the explanation for why we only have two major parties, but the defense against those who see parties as the problem.

All of this seems unfair. Why should these two parties have such an advantage? That’s the wrong way to look at it. The Democrats and the Republicans are not our overlords. They are us. They are the natural creations of politically concerned citizens who want to make a difference. And because in a democracy, the more people you have, the more chance you have of making a difference, parties organize together to have strength in numbers.

That is democracy: people joining together, compromising among themselves to arrive at policies, and trying to get those policies enacted.

If you’re not content with the way this country is being governed, one of the best ways to change it is to get involved with one of the existing parties and work to nominate and elect candidates at all levels of government who will fight for the things you care about. Odds are, one of the parties will want much of what you want. Pining for an independent, third-party dictator is not only a waste of your time, but if you somehow got what you wanted, you’d quickly find it wasn’t what you wanted at all.

Pretty much my thoughts. Organized people, elected by citizens, debating policy in deliberative bodies is a wonderful thing.    People who like democracy should not get so upset when they see it in action.

The Party Still Decides

The Party Decides

Walter Shapiro has an article in the New Republic about the overhyping of the Iowa Straw Polls.

Over the years, I have reached a different conclusion: The Iowa Straw Poll is one of the most insidious events in politics. Even though the straw poll is about as scientific as sorcery, political reporters over-hype the results and pretend that they mean something.

I’m normally very sympathetic to these arguments, and I get what Shapiro is getting at.  Unfortunately, I have to disagree with his premise, and I wonder if he secretly does too.   Shapiro starts by noting how unrepresentative of the larger Republican party the  Straw Poll is:

 In November 2008, 682,000 Iowa voters cast their ballots for McCain. The 119,000 Republicans who participated in the 2008 caucuses were the party stalwarts. But the 14,000 Republicans who voted in the 2007 straw poll were a microcosm of that microcosm—just 12 percent of the caucus attendees and a microscopic 2 percent of McCain voters. N

Yes, the event may only be made up of the most hardcore Republicans, but who does Shapiro thinks decide primaries?  I’ll again encourage people to read my professor, Hans Noel’s book, The Party Decides, to get an idea of how modern presidential primaries really work.  Events like the Straw Poll are a good way for party elites to test the loyalty of candidates to their policy preferences, while simultaneously examining their electablity.  These events may play a large roll in the “invisible primary” that is actually quite crucial in determining who winds up getting the party’s nomination.

But my problem with Shapiro’s argument is not  just that these elite events matter, it’s that he himself seems to admit that in his piece, which at times almost contradicts itself. As an example, Shapiro states:

Given the skewed nature of the event, you might think journalists would ignore the results. But, on the contrary, too many of my colleagues in the press inflate the straw poll’s significance, because they are desperate for any tangible numbers to enliven the long wait until convention delegates are actually selected.

Then, in the very next sentence!

And so the consequences of failure at the straw poll can be dramatic. In 1999, a disappointing sixth-place finish at Ames forced Lamar Alexander out of the race immediately after the results were in. The poll also fatally damaged the campaign of Elizabeth Dole, who dropped out two months later.

Ending the campaigns of two candidates doesn’t sound like an insignificant event. I sympathize with Shapiro’s frustration over something that’s important only because we say it’s important (cable news with its small audience comes to mind), but that doesn’t mean it’s not important!  One could make the same argument about overstating importance to a wide number of things such as the Iowa Caucus itself.  After all, it’s only so many delegates, but we make it out to be a big deal! For better or worse, it is a big deal and I think it would be wise to pay attention to what happens there.

The Party Decides

Republicans held their first official debate last night, which I missed because I was watching the hockey game.   Just because I didn’t feel like watching, however, shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning I don’t think the debate was important.  In fact, I think it may be one of the most consequential debates of the year.

My professor, Hans Noel, is coauthor of a great book, The Party Decides, which contends that post McGovern-Fraser reforms, party elites still essentially control the nominating process.   According to the book’s model, modern parties should be viewed as a coalition of intense policy demanders with their own pet interests.  The role of the party leaders is to manage and placate each group so they stay in the coalition. This is somewhat similar to Seth Masket’s model, which states that Informal Party Organizations, or IPOs, determine the winners of primary elections, and thus, control party agendas.

I think this model of party structure is far more convincing than Aldrich’s model, laid out in Why Parties? (although otherwise a great book!) and certainly better than the very outdated bimodal model created by Anthony Downs so many years ago.  What’s especially great about the model, though, is we can actually test it during the current primary campaign! According to Hans and his coauthors, we are in the middle of the invisible primary, where the party, defined here as a wide assortment of elites, are making their decisions.  These elites will then signal primary and caucus voters on who to support.  That’s why these early debates are so important.  The Republican Party is made up of a many interested groups; all of whom are looking at how to best maximize their influence in the coalition.  Each elite then is evaluating candidates based on policy compatibly and electablity.  That’s why this early period is so important. While it’s difficult to quantify an inherently closed-door phenomenon, I think we should still be looking for elite signals in the next few months.  The average primary voter may not necessarily be watching these debates, but the party elites certainly are.  What they think may be all that matters.

The state of American democracy

Andrew Sullivan mulls over the collapse of American democracy:

EJ Dionne takes the Weiner “scandal” as the moment he realized we were late imperial Rome. PM Carpenter takes the Bush vs Gore Supreme Court ruling. Personally, I think it was some moment between the Congress’s assent to torture in 2006 and when Sarah Palin was selected as a serious vice-presidential nominee in 2008.

Any thoughts?

I know this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it still strikes me as misplaced.  There is an understandable tendency to overestimate the importance of modern day events, and while I don’t disagree that these are important, I think we need to look at the big picture.  One theme I plan on addressing more in this blog is looking at American history, not as a country that was born as an shining city on a hill, but as a flawed, somewhat autocratic country that underwent a remarkable democratic transition.  I personally think a time to really worry about the state of our democracy would have been when the country split in two and fought a bloody civil war.  Maybe the armed insurgency that existed in the South for decades after would also be a cause for concern.   The successful coup d’etat, certainly didn’t bold well for our democracy, yet we are still here, a stronger democracy than ever before.

The bottom line is this is the first period in American history where the entire population is enfranchised and where political parties aren’t merely patronage machines that avoid adopting ideological policy positions.  Congress authorizing torture and a flawed presidential election may seem like the beginning of the end, until you stop to think about what the beginning was actually like.

In which I sound like a Neocon

Joementum can save Washington

Thomas Friedman has a new column out, which advocates the need for a third party in America to fix our broken system.   This argument gets thrown out there quite frequently, but I was a bit surprised that I had to hear it from Friedman, who managed to write one of the most clueless articles I’ve read in a long time.  It starts out with a comparison to the fall of Rome, which I’m sure in some way can teach us about the inevitable fall of the United States.  I’m not sure how it is supposed to do this, but smart people have long told me that it is the case, so I suppose it’s true.

Friedman then moves on to his main argument; the American system is broken and it it going to cause a third party candidate to emerge.

But in talks here and elsewhere I continue to be astounded by the level of disgust with Washington, D.C., and our two-party system — so much so that I am ready to hazard a prediction: Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.

Ah yes a third party will save America, just like Unity 08 did!  I agree that it is bold to make a prediction that people make every cycle and almost never comes true.  It’s also bold to make one that seems to ignore some entry level political science about why such an scenario won’t happen.  But what is really annoying is the lack of an explanation over how a third party candidate could be effective at solving the problems that Friedman mentions.    But maybe I’m speaking to soon, lets see if he manages to make a convincing case that a third party is needed to help our deadlocked system.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t start out to well:

President Obama has not been a do-nothing failure. He has some real accomplishments. He passed a health care expansion, a financial regulation expansion, stabilized the economy, started a national education reform initiative and has conducted a smart and tough war on Al Qaeda.

Okay, starting out with a paragraph that basically disproves your entire argument that Washington isn’t working probably is not the best way to go, but I’ll keep reading.

There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center.

How did I know we were going to get here? I don’t know why Friedman wants us to feel bad for the poor ignored centrists who always lack a voice. But I’m even more curious as to why Friedman thinks the center can help us get out of this mess.  For example, he goes on to list the things he laments were not accomplished, mainly a powerful climate bill, improved infrastructure, tougher financial regulation and a better health care bill.  But does he really believe that a centrist third party would have made these things possible?  Out of every problem he cites, I can’t think of one that wasn’t slowed down and weakened by the centrists in Congress.  But no, I must be wrong,  a clean energy bill surly would have been possible if only we had more Ben Nelsons in the Senate!

Friedman continues:

We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: “These two parties are lying to you.

I’m wondering at this point if Friedman wrote this article in about five minutes without doing a spot check on his logic.  He talks about the need for a third party candidate to run for president, but every example he gives of special interests and good legislation getting stalled happens in….the Congress!  In fact he acknowledges that the presidency isn’t the problem earlier in his piece:

Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority.

So if we have a President with  the right ideas, but is unable to pass his agenda because of the way congress operates, the obvious solution is to change the presidency, got it?  I was happy to see Friedman  quote Larry Diamond in the piece, but adding a second mustache doesn’t save this astonishingly clueless column.

Plurality Vote

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