DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Month: August, 2016

Excess of Democracy?

Although the United States has been an active promoter of democratic governance around the globe for decades, here at home, there has always been skepticism about the public’s ability to make informed decisions. Most people periodically come away from discussions with friends and family members with their faith in universal suffrage severely in doubt, and events in 2016 are illustrating why.

Our Founding Fathers qualified their enthusiasm for “representation” as the means for governing. Obviously, we all know the inherent limitations presumed in the 1776 phrase, “All men are created equal.” The Constitution, written a dozen years later, not only excluded women and slaves (except for purposes of assessing population), but incorporated many other features to guard against majority rule.

The best known of such limitations include the indirect election of U.S. Senators (until 1913) and the use of the indirect Electoral College to determine the presidency. Nor were voters given the ability to elect federal judges, who were given life terms to insulate them from retribution.

It should be noted that the Founders didn’t have much inherent trust for the people who would be elected by such a system either. “Where annual elections end,” wrote James Madison in Federal 53, “tyranny begins.” (Anti-Federalists actually favored a one-year term for the House of Representatives.) “The greater the power is,” Madison (or perhaps Alexander Hamilton, founder of Paterson NJ) wrote in Federalist 52, “the shorter ought to be its duration.” Since the awesome power of initiating taxation lay with the House of Representatives, its term of office was the shortest, and its Members the most accountable, in the federal system.

Over time, suspicion of government and those who select its members has generated demands for reform. In the early 20th century, progressives within both political parties embraced a series of reform both to inject more public will into the political process, to limit the role of bossism and urban political machines, and to facilitate lawmaking outside the legislative process altogether. The initiative gave voters the ability to propose and vote on legislation drafted by private citizens; the referendum allowed voters to assess the work product of elected officials; and the recall gave voters the ability to remove officeholders without having to go through the messy business of proving high crimes or misdemeanors. An additional reform allows voters themselves instead of bosses in smoke-filled backrooms, to select party nominees.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, actually, quite a bit. Few axioms of politics or history are as certain as that of unintended consequences, and political reforms certainly have proven no exception. Take primaries, which have allowed tiny minorities of voters to select the candidates who will appear in general elections, increasingly open primaries that allow voting by those who are not even members of the political party whose mantle the candidate will carry and whose policies he or she presumably would espouse.  The vast majority of voters are too uninterested, disgusted, or disengaged to bother casting a vote in a primary.  This year, just 9% of eligible voters selected Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively, a phenomenon that regularly occurs in congressional and other primaries where pluralities rule, allowing the most extreme base elements to exercise hugely disproportionate influence in the selection process. It doesn’t matter why the other 91% stayed home; the candidate selected by the hard base represents the Party in the fall campaign. This primary process is one reason we end up with officeholders beholden to the intense base that they are loath to offend.

The initiative process is just as loaded with problematic consequences. Designed to circumvent corrupt legislatures bought by special interests, the initiative process has spawned what may be a far worse process for decision-making, one in which opinionated oligarchs find it much quicker, and cheaper, to buy the voters than to buy the legislature. When I worked on Capitol Hill, virtually every election cycle would produce some advocate explaining why my boss had to support their cockeyed initiative that ignored every other point of view. When I explained we could not endorse their pie-in-the-sky initiative (no matter how resplendent its contrived name) because it was unbalanced and couldn’t even make it out of a subcommittee mark-up, we faced outrage from the rich benefactor or special interest who thought their idea should become law undiluted by opposing viewpoints.

Others had fewer qualms, which is one reason that California spent much of the last quarter of the 20th century reeling from crisis to crisis, many instigated by misinformed zealots who were able to entice voters into approving a pleasingly-named tax and budget initiatives they neither read nor understood. As documented in his excellent 1988 study, Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future, Peter Schrag noted the extensive damage to the State’s economy and political system resulting from a mistaken notion that direct democracy was superior to the messiness of the legislative process. The exploding role of private money in initiative campaigns complicates the problem. Voters continue to make snap judgments based on slick advertising promoting initiatives that promise painless policy nirvana without regard for how the proposal might actually be implemented of whether it might conflict with other policy directives. “We all want a free lunch,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who was unceremoniously tossed out through a dubious recall and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, “but unfortunately, that doesn’t exist.” As Davis noted, California has spent decades “papering over this fundamental reality.”

This coming November, California might be an Election Day snorer except for the presence on the ballot of 17 initiatives that would impose the voters’ will on everything from state bonding priorities to public education to safe sex in the pornography studios.  (Local activists can cram the ballot with additional measures; in San Francisco this fall, there will be an additional 25 items for voters to decide.) Qualifying for the ballot just got easier because the number of signatures required — only 365,000 this year for a state initiative – is tied to the turn-out in the last gubernatorial election, in which voter participation was low. Professor Thad Kousser of UC-San Diego, a political scientist, characterizes the panoply of 2016 proposals as “Sex, Drugs, Guns, and Death”; now, there’s a litany of issues we certainly want millions of minimally informed voters to be deciding.

Voters will get lots of help between now and Election Day in “understanding” these measures. Thus far, supporters of one health care proposition affecting hospital fees have spent $59 million, and it’s just August. Those promoting a measure to regulate prescription drug prices – also arguably an issue legislators should address within the broader context of health care – have spent nearly $10 million, but opponents have shelled out $70 million, and counting. By the time it is all over, experts estimate, as many as eight initiatives could cost more than $40 million apiece, outstripping the cost of Senate races in many states. And unlike congressional and legislative races, there are no limits on contributions. Some recent reports indicate that some legislators raise vast sums for “ballot measure committees” that, in addition to promoting their pet projects, skirt contribution limit laws and pay for new wardrobes and foreign travel.

Citizens’ cynicism about the electoral system, fed by both the Right and the Left, may well be justified by the low productivity of many in policymaking positions, but the low participation exacerbates public disenchantment with politics: growing polarization, special interest domination of the debate, and the exploding effect of money in campaigns. Every step that cedes influence to the fringes, the wing-nuts on both ends of the spectrum, and those with the big dollars for whom an investment of a few million dollars represents an intelligent investment further diminishes our democracy and the legitimacy of the political system. Simply tossing the tough decision-making into the hands of amateurs who are utterly unskilled (and often uninterested) in the complexity of policy and the need for balance in any functioning democracy may be intended to empower the people against special interests, but too often, it has exactly the opposite effect.

Real power lies in the hands of voters (which is why some interests are so busy trying to discourage or obstruct voter participation). Magic pills that attempt to circumvent the messy and time-consuming nature of politics often fail or have perverse, unanticipated consequences. As a political friend once said, “You can’t take politics out of politics.” Hold elected officials accountable, sure; cede power to small, unrepresentative factions of the electorate, and you get what you ask for. Pretending that direct democracy will solve the problem is disproven by the historic record: excessive reliance on initiatives, referenda and low-turnout primaries has made the political system, the campaign finance crisis, and polarization even worse.

 

The Canary in the House Chamber?

“What are the odds,” I was often asked following the collapse of the Boehner speakership, “that Paul Ryan will be more successful?” Without a hesitation, I always answered, “Zero,” because the fundamental problem that Boehner confronted also looms over Paul Ryan. Denied solid support from his own Conference to secure the 218 votes needed to pass legislation, Ryan (like Boehner) has no choice but to solicit votes from Democrats. By collaborating with Democrats, he alienates the same Freedom Caucus faction that compelled him to seek Democratic assistance in the first place. This has been the circular scenario with virtually every major piece of legislation – must-pass appropriations, tax bills, and policy measures – since Ryan reluctantly ascended the podium to the Speaker’s chair.

Freedom Caucus members have fumed furiously about Ryan’s behavior. While the Speaker has little option but to seek the votes wherever he can find them to prevent very bad outcomes (e.g., repeated government shut-downs), the Freedom Caucus absolutists have no such responsibilities, in their view.   Not only do they not care if must-pass bills pass, but they embrace shutting down the government and besmirching the reputation of the Congress, which serves their objective of reducing confidence in government. The voices that now chant “Lock her up!” are the same as those that chanted “Shut it down” in the past.

But Ryan, like Boehner or any Speaker, cannot go there. When Boehner bowed to the Tea Party’s demands for a shutdown in 2013, the Republican Party’s favorability plummeted more than 20 points. There is no chance Ryan will opt for that strategy as we head into votes on the Continuing Resolution needed to keep the government functioning just weeks prior to the election. Of course, the Freedomites will insist on amendments to void the Iran nuclear agreement, repeal Obama Care (for the 60+ time), or send Hillary Clinton to Guantanamo. But since such amendments cannot pass the Senate or secure a presidential signature, Ryan will turn them down, and the fury of the Freedom Caucus will be on full display as the September 30th fiscal year deadline – and the election — close in.

This coming conflagration was previewed in Tuesday’s landslide defeat of Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Boehner-detesting Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KA) in his primary. Numerous other GOP hardline followers of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in the state legislature also went down to defeat. Boehner had grown so irritated with Huelskamp, a Tea Party zealot elected in 2010, for opposing leadership directives on key votes like Paul Ryan’s budget resolution and the farm bill that he removed the Kansan from the House Agriculture Committee in 2012.

Huelskamp was pounded mercilessly for his failure to secure a reappointment to the Committee and for his extremist, non-cooperative positions. Significantly, as occurred in a Louisiana special election a few years back, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in on behalf of Huelskamp’s inexperienced challenger, Roger Marshall, a self-described conservative who nevertheless promises to be less irreconcilable than the incumbent, who had the backing of the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers.

Although Donald Trump is getting most of the attention in this political season, the Huelskamp defeat deserves to be discussed. The primary battles illustrate the possible emergence of a division between pragmatists and purists within the GOP, with the former increasingly able to secure financing to successfully compete. The factionalizing of Republican groups providing key financial support to candidates can only complicate efforts to ensure the functioning of the House under Ryan’s leadership.

Ryan, who likely hopes for a productive Congress to boost his standing as a 2020 presidential candidate, must be gratified by Huelskamp’s loss. A leadership staff member who worked with the Kansan recalled that he was “often untrustworthy and rarely worked as a team player.” Party leaders must accept hard-liners in order to ensure a House majority, but they will cut them off at the knees when an opportunity presents itself to replace the dissenter with a loyalist. That opportunity presented itself Tuesday in the case of Rep. Huelskamp. His loss, and the potential setbacks that might affect the GOP this November,  are unlikely to make for a collegial or productive lame duck session in November, but they might be the canary in the House Chamber foretelling a reassertion of leadership by more responsible and operational Republican forces, inside and outside the Congress, in 2017.

 

 

 

Trump’s Ado About Nothing

National polls are looking a little grim for Republican nominee Donald Trump. Given his one-man political tsunami, with attacks on Gold Star parents, Speaker Paul Ryan, ex-POW John McCain – really, against just about anyone other than what’s-her-name – his deteriorating numbers are hardly surprising. Let’s just say that when Party leaders begin poring over the rule books to see how one might go about withdrawing a nomination, there’s not much “grand” in the Grand Old Party.

Which may be why Mr. Trump has decided to open a new line of attack: impugning the electoral process itself. Trump has still not finished condemning the unfairness of the primary procedure, even though it ended in his nomination. But now, perhaps anticipating a drubbing in November, he has decided to blame the manipulation of the election returns three months from now.

Now, there’s little question there has been partisan manipulation of the election process, as documented by three federal court decisions this past week. However, those rulings all focused on electoral hanky-panky designed to prevent Americans from casting votes, leaving little doubt that the voter ID laws enacted by Republican legislatures were ill-disguised efforts to obstruct minority voters from casting what will likely be overwhelmingly Democratic votes.

Trump, not surprisingly, chooses to look through the other end of the telescope and predictably sees a very distorted image: voter fraud. Is there a genuine issue that justifies not only the spate of voter ID laws but also the millions of dollars spent on examining allegation of vote manipulation? Or is this simply a trumped up charge designed to damage the credibility of both the elections and those who prevail?

“If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” Trump said this week. “The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.” In fact, there have been multiple, exhaustive studies of voter fraud allegations, and no one has been able to point to a single case where the miniscule cases of fraudulent voting (generally accidental, not intentional) has impacted a single race.

 Two years ago, Justin Levitt of Loyola (Los Angeles) Law School conducted a study of alleged voter fraud since 2000 in local and federal elections. Out of one billion votes cast during that 4-year period, he found: 31 cases. “Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated,” Levitt concludes from his empirical research, “and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked.”

Another study by Lorraine Minnite of Columbia University found that most assertions of fraud (which Minnite agreed were “exceedingly rare”) fall into one of three categories: mischief and administrative or voter error, unsubstantiated claims, or false claims by the loser of a close race.” Although we love to hear the stories of Mayor Daley turning out the graveyard vote, Minnite found that in 95% of so-called ‘cemetery voting’ instances in the 2010 South Carolina mid-term vote, “human error accounts for nearly all” of the “fraud” alleged by the state’s law enforcement chief.

 Similarly, a study of the 2012 general election by professors at the University of Wisconsin and Stanford examined allegations of repeated or fraudulent voting and vote buying, and concluded, “The notion that voter impersonation is a widespread behavior is totally contradicted by these data.”

Nor are these studies just being conducted by liberal professors committed to discrediting Republican allegations of fraud.   When Iowa’s Republican secretary of state examined 117 allegations of fraudulent voting, there were 6 convictions. In 2011, Wisconsin investigated charges about the 2008 election and charged 20 people, most of them ineligible because they were felons.

When the press dove into the allegations, it similarly came up dry. A New York Times review of the George W. Bush Justice Department’s five year investigation found just 26 convictions, mostly attributable to people who filled out voter registration forms incorrectly or “misunderstood eligibility rules.” In other words, people who did not intend to deceive officials or steal elections. The Times reported that the Justice Department found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” In Arizona, a student journalism project similarly concluded that “while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal.”

Those findings have not dissuaded 37 state legislatures – overwhelmingly Republican — from passing laws that create barriers to voting, mostly voter ID requirements.   And what might be the actual impact of those dubious laws enacted to address non-existent problems? Professor Zoltan L. Hajnal of the University of California, San Diego concluded that “strict voter ID laws double or triple the gap in turnout between whites and nonwhites.”  Admittedly, that conclusion should not be a major surprise, since discouraging minority turnout is precisely what the laws were designed to do (as the federal courts agreed this week). About one in seven voters lacks a government issued ID, and disproportionately, those without IDs are poor, old, disabled, rural and non-white minorities.

So the problem with suffrage in America is not fraud, which impacts election outcomes, but rather barriers created by politicians to keep voters they dislike from voting. When Greg Abbott was Texas’ Attorney General in 2005, he was determined to investigate what he called “an epidemic” of voter fraud. Two years later, Abbott’s investigation found no evidence of voter impersonation. There were 26 prosecutions – every one of them a black or Hispanic person – against people who helped the elderly with mail-in ballots but failed to sign their names and addresses on the envelopes, as required by state law. Abbott rode such unsubstantiated hysteria into his current job: Governor of Texas. By the way, Abbott paid for this witch-hunt with $1.4 million in federal funds, doubtless while lecturing about the need to cut down on wasteful federal spending.

Now, there are real problems with voting in America that Congress and the next President should focus on, but they don’t have to do with fraud; they have to do with access. Congress should make it simple to vote – Oregon uses all mail-in ballots and has reported no problems with fraud – instead of forcing voters to line up for 6 or 7 hours in the freezing cold in November. Expand early voting (politicians hate it because it messes up ad buys); allow same day registration, or, like California, make registration automatic when you get a drivers’ license.

But we also have to recognize that the biggest barrier to voting is likely indifference, often disguised in the language of being “too busy” to vote. In a close Texas race in 2014, nearly 26% of those who did not vote cited as a reason that they were “too busy,” as compared to just 6% who lacked a proper ID. Indeed, when I asked my undergraduate students this spring about their intention to vote, several told me it was just too difficult and they were “busy.” Voters are influenced in decisions about going to the polls, of course, by their confidence in the system, in its fairness and the likelihood that their vote will make a difference. There isn’t much question about the latter; a vote per precinct is more than enough to impact many legislative races around the country.

This is where disparaging the political system is part of the GOP strategy. Denigrating those in office, and the government itself, discourages participation, and likely reduces voting by those least likely to vote in the first place: young voters and minorities who would overwhelmingly vote Democratic. When over 60% of the electorate just decides to stay home – and we can’t blame that on voter ID laws – we have an electoral crisis in this country; requiring voter IDs is not likely to fix it.