Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Range of Fraud

Common Cause tweeted me yesterday about my post about the ability of the Electoral College to limit fraud. Common Cause suggested that there would be a much greater incentive for fraud under the Electoral College because one state (or a few swing states, which are usually known in advance) could matter so much. So if you know that, say, Florida is a swing state, you might be much more likely to commit fraud for your side there.

This is not an unworthy point. However, as I suggested in my original post and as Tara Ross tweeted back, the Electoral College localizes the incentive for fraud. Under the Electoral College, the benefits of fraud are really only there if you're in a swing state. If the state is clearly trending toward one side, you're just adding meaningless numbers to your candidate. This localization allows for increased public scrutiny. The public (including the media, watchdog groups, national organizations, federal lawyers, etc.) would know where to keep its attention fixed for voting irregularities. So not only would there be a more limited motivation for fraud; the public would be more likely to find out about this fraud due to the concentration of potential areas for fraud.

Under a National Popular Vote scenario, every precinct in the nation could be an opportune place for electoral fraud. And there have been a lot more elections where the popular vote was close than where the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college. In the past 50 years, there have been 3 presidential elections which were decided by a fraction of a percent: 1960, 1968, and 2000. And 1976 and 2004 were also very close; they were decided by less than 2.2%. A few hundred thousand votes either way could definitely have altered the outcome. Under NPV, those votes could come from anywhere in the nation; under the Electoral College, those votes could only come from a few close states.

Because the Electoral College places buffers around fraud, it may help protect the public sense of legitimacy of presidents elected in close races. Because the opportunities for fraud are more limited, the public has fewer places to look for irregularities. Of course, the Electoral College is not a panacea in this regard: certainly, much of the vitriol of the 2000 election was unhappily facilitated by the Electoral College's structure. But consider an alternative National Popular Vote scenario of a close race, where partisans of both sides would have thousands of precincts across the nation about which to cast aspersions of skulduggery and fraud. The poison of 2000 would be magnified. Every single precinct would become a battleground. The ensuing firestorm (and, if history is any guide, there would be plenty of close elections) could very much damage the sense of the legitimacy of the office and the holder of this office.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wait and See

The New Jersey legislature has just passed a budget for Gov. Chris Christie (R) to sign:
New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled Legislature has approved a $29.4 billion budget, sending back to the Republican governor a spending plan that cuts hundreds of millions of dollars in public school aid, suspends property tax rebates and adds levies on businesses, students, the elderly and the disabled.

The budget, approved by the Assembly early Tuesday morning and by the Senate hours earlier, is close to the one Gov. Chris Christie introduced in March amid some blunt talk about the state’s bleak finances. He said New Jersey was facing an $11 billion deficit and needed to cure its addiction to spending.

Democrats got just $74 million in programs and services restored to the budget out of roughly $400 million sought. They insisted that Republicans sponsor the budget bills, so the GOP would own the bare-bones budget...

Even Republicans said they didn’t like parts of the budget, which cuts spending by 9 percent over last year. But, Republican Sen. Joe Pennacchio commended Christie for charting a more responsible fiscal course for the future while Democratic Majority Leader Barbara Buono said the budget contains wrong-headed choices.

The budget skips a $3 billion contribution to the state pension system, for example, and saves $848 million over last year by suspending property tax rebates.

Democrats enacted a one-year surcharge on millionaires, but Christie vetoed the tax and the Legislature failed to override it. The $600 million or so the tax would have raised was to restore rebates for senior citizens and disabled homeowners.

Christie faced off with the legislature about this measure, and corralled enough Democrats to vote for the measure out of fear of a government shutdown. This was a hard-fought battle, but it looks like Christie got his way. Christie's victory in this battle is a sign of political resolve and toughness: he didn't blink.

Now comes the time of waiting. If this budget is not successful or if Garden Staters find these cuts too painful, the weight of failure will fall squarely upon Christie's shoulders. He fought for this and made it the centerpiece of his agenda; if it fails, his administration may fail. If it succeeds, he could very easily find himself an icon for Republicans across the nation.

But more rides on this budget than Chris Christie's political future. Conservatives have taken to speaking of the need for austerity budgets to restore the nation's finances. New Jersey offers a testing ground for this policy prescription. If this budget can shore up the financial state of New Jersey and if the public find its budgetary pain bearable, New Jersey would provide one model for fiscal reform. Its failure would engender considerable doubts about the feasibility and future of austerity budgets.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Electoral College: Opponent of Fraud

The push is on by some to have an end-run around the Electoral College. In addition to the various claims made on the Electoral College's behalf, we might add that it provides a decreased incentive for fraud.

In creating 51 different races (the states plus DC), the Electoral College provides a partial buffer against fraud: the most fraud can do in any one state is deliver that state's votes to the wrong candidate. While obviously that is a lamentable outcome, it does limit the extent of fraud and, moreover, makes the fraud only really valuable when the votes are hovering around the 50% mark (assuming a winner-take-all election, the most common system of apportionment in the US). Whether one candidate has 55% of the vote versus 60% of the vote doesn't affect the state's electoral result.

If, however, the Electoral College were abandoned in favor of a national referendum, suddenly there would be a big difference indeed between 55% and 60% of the vote. There would be an increased incentive for vote fraud, because fraud would, at any point, be valuable. Getting a 10,000 more votes in one state could offset being 10,000 votes behind in another.

I have a suspicion that the temptation for fraud can be bigger in those areas (whether towns, cities, or states) where one political party dominates: since that party controls all the levers of power, fraud is easier to effect and cover up. Currently, those areas have less incentive for fraud, since this fraud would be limited to the state. Removing that buffer of state boundaries would also remove one practical disincentive for fraud: fraud could provide national and not merely statewide benefits.

So the Electoral College may offer a way of isolating corruption in our voting system, helping our elections stay fairer and more transparent. There have been more close elections in US history than elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not win in the Electoral College, and, since close elections would be especially vulnerable to fraud, this would not be an inconsiderable advantage.

Boston Globe: Scott Brown Most Popular Politician in MA

A new Boston Globe poll has some good news for Scott Brown: he is the most popular national politician in Massachusetts, outpolling both President Obama and Senator Kerry (emphasis added):

Asked their opinion of Brown, 55 percent of those polled said they view him favorably, only 18 percent unfavorably. His rating among Republicans is 79 percent favorable, 3 percent unfavorable. And 55 percent of independents — the majority of the state’s voters — say they like him, while only 11 percent have an unfavorable opinion. The poll has a margin of error of 4.2 percent.

Despite the fact that his election in January was a crushing blow to both the state and national Democratic party, 41 percent of Democrats say they view Brown favorably, and 32 percent, unfavorably.

In contrast, Kerry was viewed favorably by 52 percent of those polled and unfavorably by 37 percent of the respondents. And in a sign that Obama is a polarizing figure even in Massachusetts, 54 percent of the respondents view him favorably and 41 percent unfavorably, according to the polling data.

Brown's support reaches across party lines, showing that a Republican can succeed in building a coalition even in Democrat-leaning states. These numbers also suggest some of the damage Obama's standing has suffered over the past few months.

This poll has good news for the (Brown-endorsed) Jeff Perry running in the 10th Congressional District.
Republicans can take hope in the state’s only contest for an open seat, being vacated by Democrat William Delahunt. Voters in the Southeastern and Cape and Islands communities that make up the district are evenly divided on whether they will vote for a Republican or Democrat.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rasmussen: Patrick Losing Momentum

In the Massachusetts governor's race, incumbent Deval Patrick (D) has lost some momentum, according to a new Rasmussen poll:
Patrick 41 (-4 vs. last poll, May 10)
Baker (R) 34 (+3)
Cahill (I) 16 (+2)
Und 9
These numbers put Baker closer to striking distance of Patrick, whose disapproval rating exceeds his approval rating. Last week's gubernatorial debate seems to have helped Patrick's opponents.

Another interesting tidbit from these Rasmussen numbers: President Obama's approval rating in the Bay State has fallen seven points over the past month (with 56% approving and 43% disapproving).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fraught Divisions

This statistic from a recent Colorado poll may trouble attempts to read the reaction to Arizona's immigration bill solely through a racial lens:
» A higher percentage of Hispanic voters (62 percent) would support a law similar to the one in Arizona in Colorado than would whites (61 percent).
Overall, 61% of Coloradans would support a law similar to the one recently passed in Arizona.

Not in the Bag

Charles C. Johnson has a telling piece at the National Review on the obstacles facing Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's opponents in November---despite Patrick's low approval ratings:
Despite the best efforts of a renewed Massachusetts Republican party, Patrick seems to be on his way to a second term. A recent poll shows him with a 14-point lead over his closest challenger, Charlie Baker, former Harvard Pilgrim Health Care CEO. Baker has outraised Patrick nearly two to one, but despite a new slogan — “Had Enough?” — he still can’t break away from the most unpopular governor in America.

And it isn’t for lack of trying. Hoping to play a social-liberal/fiscal-conservative line, Baker picked Richard Tisei, a progressive and openly gay Republican state senator as his running mate, even going so far as to march with him in a gay-pride parade. Much good it did him. Mass Equality gave its endorsement to Patrick anyway, for the simple reason that Tisei “is not running for governor.”
State Treasurer Tim Cahill, a Democrat-turned-independent, is running as an outsider concerned with the state budget and has raised considerable concerns about the sustainability of Massachusetts' health-care program.

Meanwhile, Republicans have spent plenty of money attacking Cahill, a move which seems only to have improved Deval Patrick's approval ratings.

Though reelection efforts are often viewed as a referendum on an incumbent, the mere unpopularity of a political figure is not always enough to guarantee his or her defeat at the polls---a fact that Massachusetts Republicans and Republicans nationwide will need to take to heart.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Motives Matter

Compare and contrast. Congressman Etheridge (D-NC)'s statement in the wake of his unfortunate encounter with a presumed student reporter:
“I have seen the video posted on several blogs. I deeply and profoundly regret my reaction and I apologize to all involved. Throughout my many years of service to the people of North Carolina, I have always tried to treat people from all viewpoints with respect. No matter how intrusive and partisan our politics can become, this does not justify a poor response. I have and I will always work to promote a civil public discourse.”
It takes some level of personal responsibility and acknowledges the importance of having a "civil public discourse." Etheridge's apology admits that a wrong was done.

Now look at some of the talking points that national Democrats are putting around:
2. Why would any legitimate student doing a project or a journalist shagging a story not identify themselves. Motives matter — what was the motivation here? To incite this very type of reaction?

3. This is clearly the work of the Republican Party and the “interviewer” is clearly a low level staffer or intern. That’s what explains blurring the face of the “interviewer” and refusing to identify the entity this was done for. The Republicans know if they were caught engaging in this type of gotcha tactic it would undermine their own credibility — yet if it was an individual acting on his own there is no reason that person would have blurred themselves out of the video — and if it was the work of a right wing blog they would have their logo on the video and be shouting their involvement from the roof top.

4. This was a purposefully partisan hit job designed to incite a reaction for political reasons — but it is a tactic so low — the parties involved are remaining anonymous.

But how is this a "hit job"? Assuming nothing significant has been cut from this footage (perhaps a big assumption), all the interviewer did was ask Etheridge whether he supported the "Obama agenda." Is asking a member of Congress whether he supports the agenda of his president now considered fighting words? The congressman's reaction speaks more to Democratic anxiety about the popularity of President Obama's agenda than to the social vulgarity of his interviewer.

Embedded within these talking points is a kind of red herring that has become such a prevalent rhetorical tactic among the "progressive" left and Obama partisans:
Motives matter — what was the motivation here? To incite this very type of reaction?
Yes, motives matter, but the motivation of the speaker here is far less significant than the rancor of the congressman's reaction. So what if this interviewer is a partisan hack? So what if he is an eager non-partisan student journalist? Etheridge knew nothing about the motivations of the interviewer of the time of this encounter. And whatever the interviewer's motivations, how is it appropriate for a sitting member of Congress to grab another person by the wrist, then reach for his neck, and refuse to let him go---all in broad daylight?

These sorts of excuses put out by national Democrats are just attempts to void Etheridge of any personal responsibility. According to the thinking of this use of "motives matter," we should judge people and not actions: because this interviewer is a Republican apparatchik (according to the myth of these talking points), he is not worthy of basic courtesy.

Over the past year or so, we have witnessed "progressive" partisans attempt to distract from discussions of facts (about health-care, spending, cap-and-trade, and so forth) by impugning the motives of their opponents. The Tea Partiers are racist wingnuts, Republicans are nihilistic fanatics, etc. etc. etc. This relatively small incident shows how pervasive this tactic is. Even a congressman striking out at an interviewer on the street is rendered right and fit by the (assumed) motives of this interviewer.

Maybe Etheridge was having a bad day. Maybe he had come from a terrible meeting and his nerves were frayed. In any case, his reaction seems out of line, and Etheridge admits that. A member of Congress, he is a powerful man and has a duty to comport himself responsibly. And admitting a mistake is itself a sign of responsibility.

It should be a cause for concern when a congressman responds to an anodyne political question with physical intimidation. But it should be an even greater cause for concern---on behalf of our ethical and civil sanity---when some would excuse this intimidation because it happens to a member of a certain political party.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mass GOP Rallying

Long considered a fortress for Democrats in Congress (until Scott Brown's election in the beginning of the year, the state's delegation was uniformly Democrat), Massachusetts is witnessing a rise in Republican excitement potentially beyond even that of 1994 (emphasis added):

By last week’s filing deadline, 37 candidates qualified to run in primaries for the state’s 10 seats in the US House of Representatives, twice as many challengers as in recent years. That includes 24 candidates on the Republican side alone — meaning a party that has often had trouble fielding even a single candidate will now have some crowded and competitive primaries.

Just one House seat, held by Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, is uncontested. Two Democratic incumbents, South Boston’s Stephen F. Lynch and Newton’s Barney Frank, are facing opponents in both the primary and, if they survive that round, in the general election in November...

The 2010 election features double the number of House candidates than have run in other election years this decade. Even 1990 and 1994, active years in state and national elections, had fewer candidates qualifying for the primary ballot, though it is not yet clear who among this year’s candidates can raise enough money and marshal enough volunteer support to mount serious challenges.

Moreover, in 1994, three Democrats were unchallenged (compared to only one unchallenged Democrat today). This year, Republicans are hoping to make a few gains. The 10th District, currently held by the retiring Bill Delahunt, is rated as a toss-up, and other districts could have vulnerable incumbents.

A Republican candidate for the 10th, Jeff Perry, suggests the psychological importance of Scott Brown's victory (Brown has endorsed Perry in the GOP primary):

“The best thing that happened to our ability to win was Scott Brown winning in January,’’ said Jeffrey D. Perry...

“His victory created an understanding that Republicans can win, even in Massachusetts.’’

Certainly, many Republicans in Massachusetts hope that Brown's election will represent the turning of the tide for GOP fortunes in the Bay State.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Hoosier Bellwether?

Choosing bellwethers for any election can be a daunting prospect, since any race comes down to a number of individual factors. But Indiana may play a revealing role in 2010. Howey Politics Indiana notes the following:
Howey Politics Indiana is forecasting that three House seats — the 2nd, 8th, and 9th — and possibly the Senate race will be in play in October and November. All of these seats are held by Democrats and in a worse case scenario for that party, if the GOP can stage a sweep, it would be a reversal from 2006 when the three House seats flipped the other way.
This reversal may do more than gratify a political observer's sense of aesthetic balance. RealClearPolitics rates the 8th as Leans GOP, the 9th as a Tossup, and the 2nd as Leans Democrat. If the GOP can flip the 2nd on election night, it could be a very grim night for Democrats indeed.

PA Senate: The Swing is Back

According to a new Rasmussen poll, Joe Sestak's bounce may be fading in the Pennsylvania Senate race. His Republican challenger, Pat Toomey, now leads by seven:
A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in Pennsylvania shows Toomey with 45% support, while Sestak earns 38%. Five percent (5%) prefer another candidate in the race, and 12% are undecided.
Toomey's back to leading with the independents. Neither candidate has very high very unfavorables right now, so opinions have probably not hardened too much at this stage.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Free Lunch

From her cult classic "demon sheep" ad to her more recent attacks, Carly Fiorina has persistently slammed Tom Campbell in the CA Republican primary for his openness to raising taxes. Campbell has, for example, refused to sign the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," in which a candidate pledges to vote against any and all tax increases. If recent polling is to be believed, attacks such as this (and Sarah Palin's endorsement of Fiorina) have been effective in pulling down Campbell's numbers and lifting Fiorina into the lead in the primary.

The Campbell situation reproduces in miniature a kind of fiscal policy myopia that has all too often afflicted GOP debates about taxes. Fiscal conservatism, or, more to the point, fiscal sobriety, does not depend only upon taxes taken: it also depends upon spending. There are certainly times for deficit spending, but a persistent disregard for deficit spending---a fetishizing fear of tax increases above all else---risks leading to fiscal insanity.

One of the key ideas of conservatism during its intellectual resurgence in the 1970s was the belief that there should be a price. Market reforms have always stressed the importance of paying a price; it is the pain of pricing that helps keep a market efficient.

Well, taxes are a government's price. If citizens do not pay the price for the services and protections that they desire, they will feel less compelled to ensure that that these services and protections are used efficiently. In the short term, a government can (and sometimes should) push the price of a given service off to later years, but the price does, eventually, have to be paid.

Most people (Republicans, Democrats, and independents included) enjoy free lunches. It's very easy to vote for new schools or roads or pensions or other goodies if you don't have to pay for them. Unfortunately (such is our limited state), someone does have to pay for them, and eventually the tab catches up with a free-spending government. Fiscal sanity is recognizing this fact.

If fiscal conservatism is to stand as a kind of fiscal sanity (a very worthy aim), an openness to raising taxes should not be viewed as an excommunicative offense. The emphasis should be upon what taxes are raised, what spending is increased, what cuts are made, etc. These are questions of practice, perhaps too mundane for the world of faxable pledges, but crucial questions nevertheless.

Tom Campbell has thought long and hard about the benefits of various kinds of taxes and how to cope with the current fiscal mess of California and the nation as a whole, as this proposal from last year shows. Campbell's precise advice may be wrong, and maybe he isn't the best standard-bearer for Republicans in California (though he may be the most electable). Or maybe he is the best candidate---I'm not saying one way or the other here.

But it is, I think, a bridge too far to disqualify him for refusing to oppose every single tax increase. The road of perpetually cutting taxes while also increasing spending not only leads to bankruptcy but also undercuts the incentive for reducing the size of government. If new entitlement programs are to be passed and spending programs are to proliferate (a policy seemingly endorsed by both President Obama and his Republican predecessor), a price must be paid for them, either by us or by later generations.

A free lunch is a good campaign slogan, but it's not the best foundation for fiscal policy.