Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Perils and Problems of Close Elections

All indicators show an extremely close race as we enter the final week-and-a-half of the 2012 election.  It seems that Romney has gained a slight lead in the popular vote, although different polls show leads for different candidates.  The gambling markets, which have a solid track record and backed Obama with ten-to-one odds in 2008, are only giving him three-to-two this timeThe president does have an easier path in the electoral college, giving him a better chance to win: Obama has more electoral votes locked up in states like California that solidly support him, so Romney has to win more of the uncertain swing states like Virginia and Florida to win the election. It appears that Ohio has an even chance of being the key state this year, and it is leaning to Obama -- but only by a 2.9 percent margin, and other tossup states have similar thin margins. If I were the president I would want a much more commanding lead going into election day, both in the electoral college and the popular vote, and I’m sure that his followers would want that, too. 

This didn't have to be a close election.  The conservative governance of the Bush years gave us multiple disasters, beginning with September 11, 2001 and closing with the 2008 financial crisis, and adding Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and other fiascos in between.  When Bush left the White House the country was ready for significant change, so much that Americans were willing to elect, for the first time, a black man to the presidency.  I have contended since 2009 that if the Democratic Party had actually governed well and responded to these crises as they did during the Great Depression, with a massive Keynesian stimulus and a restoration of a healthy public sphere, then that party would be cruising to an easy victory this year, and would predominate in politics for the next generation or two, as they did after the New Deal.

But the current Democratic party doesn't play to win.  They don’t govern to win while in office, nor do they usually promote a strategic vision or do tactical politics to win.  Instead, they always play to not lose, or at best to win by small margins.  Democrats rarely go for the jugular, while Republicans almost always do.  This is why our political culture has become increasingly conservative for the last two generations.  (I have actually heard Democratic pundits say, after a good election year, that they don’t want to win too many seats because they want to maintain the two-party system with a loyal opposition.  But isn’t it that job of those actually in the opposition?  Elections should reflect the will of the people.  The system also fails when the winners fail to carry out the will of the voters, out of excess concern that the losers -- whom the voters just kicked out! -- are now in the minority.)

The Democratic party’s failure to play to win helps to make elections closer than they otherwise would be, and this demoralizes their base by keeping their supporters nervous, diffident, and unmotivated.  Uncertain, narrow victories wear supporters out, while big wins build confidence and enthusiasm.


Close elections create an environment which magnifies potential problems that can undermine democracy, like vote suppression and possible e-voting manipulation.  In a close election every vote matters more, which increases the incentive for political operatives to use tactics that either inflate their own turnout or depress that of their opponents.  

Currently one of our parties,  the Democrats, is widely acknowledged (even by Republicans) to have a better get-out-the-vote effort.  The other party, the Republicans, has chosen instead to try and suppress the turnout of their opponents: under the cover of “vote fraud,” Republican state legislatures and governors have passed voter ID laws.  These ostensibly aim to make sure that voters are properly identified so that no cheating occurs, but the real aim appears to be to suppress Democratic votes.  First, “vote fraud” is a largely non-existent problem: according to the Brennan Center for Justice

There is no documented wave or trend of individuals voting multiple times, voting as someone else, or voting despite knowing that they are ineligible. Indeed, evidence from the microscopically scrutinized 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State actually reveals just the opposite: though voter fraud does happen, it happens approximately 0.0009% of the time. The similarly closely-analyzed 2004 election in Ohio revealed a voter fraud rate of 0.00004%. National Weather Service data shows that Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often.

Second, voter ID laws tend to exclude people who lean toward voting Democratic but are less likely to have state identification cards or other papers: the poor, the elderly, and minority voters.  We even have admissions by Republican officials in Ohio and Florida, key swing states, that voter ID laws are intended to stop African-Americans from voting.

In addition to vote suppression, the fact that ballots are now counted by electronic voting machines owned and controlled by private, for-profit businesses should be a national scandal of such proportions as to have millions of people in the streets.  Because computerized voting machines rely on advanced technology, only computer experts and programmers know what is actually going on inside them; they are completely opaque to the average person.  But democracy requires transparency in order to work: citizens must be able to see, transparently, that their votes are being counted, and being counted accurately.  When e-voting is used, citizens, parties, and election observers do not have the expertise to double-check and make sure that computers are counting the votes properly.  The potential for hacking and manipulation is obvious, and it could be done completely covertly; if an election was rigged through e-voting, we might never know it.  However, stealing an election this way is really only plausible when the race is close.  We swim in a sea of pre-election polls and exit polling, and if someone were to try to flip an election in which one of the candidates had a five- or seven-point lead it would be too implausible to be convincing.  But when an election is within a percentage point or two, an upset victory is plausible enough to make e-voting fraud potentially successful.  While some believe that previous elections may already have been so manipulated, the mere potential for millions of votes to be switched at the mere flick of a switch threatens the integrity of our elections.  This year, the possibility that some of the e-voting companies may have corporate links to the Romney campaign poses an epic conflict of interest.


Aside from the problems on election day, close elections also prevent the Democrats them from implementing middle class policies.  The goal of an election is to win the most votes. Campaign money is only a means to that end; if money didn’t win votes, politicians wouldn’t care about it.  But it does, and there usually isn’t enough money that comes from small donations for candidates to be competitive, so they turn to big donors out of necessity.  But a governing party can, obviously, also win votes by improving people’s lives with their policies.  That is, in fact, how elections are supposed to work, fundamentally.  So the Democrats can compete electorally either by getting money from big donors, or by governing well and winning more votes directly.  Of course, there’s always a mix, but they currently lean toward doing the former rather than the latter, which means they have to implement policies that are wealthy-friendly.  That’s a vicious cycle in which the interests of common people spiral down the drain.  If the Democrats instead governed to win more votes directly with social democratic policies that make life generally better, they would need less big money campaign cash and would be freed to govern even more in the common interest. It would become a virtuous cycle. 

These considerations mean that liberals, whether centrist or progressive, must start pressing for an electoral system that is transparent and accountable.  This would mean something like good, old-fashioned paper ballots that are hand-counted by people, with observers from all parties.  If machines are used to aid in the counting, they must be supervised by real flesh-and-blood humans. Just because we have a technology doesn’t mean that it’s good to use it, and virtual voting by computer is not compatible with democracy. 

Finally, the Democratic party should start playing to win, and should be trying to win by 10-point margins in every election, in order to reduce the incentives for election cheating that close elections bring.  That doesn’t mean more focus-group polling to refine the party’s message; it means governing by populist, Keynesian economics that improves the lives and fortunes of the middle class and thereby wins their votes in large numbers. 

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