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“Giant Gap In Voter Participation”: If You Want A More Democratic Nominating Process, Take A Look At Caucuses First

There are, among the 50 states (the territories are another matter), 20 nominating contests left in this presidential cycle between the two parties.  Nineteen of them are primaries, which means (with the exception of North Dakota Democrats) we can close the book on this year’s caucuses. The numbers are not very pretty in terms of participation.

An analysis published last week by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball of turnout in both parties for primaries and caucuses over the course of this year shows a predictable but still startling disconnect between levels of participation in the two basic types of events:

As a matter of participation, it matters considerably whether a state or territory uses a primary or a caucus. So far this year, in the 22 states where both parties have held primaries, the combined turnout of registered voters has been a reasonably healthy 36.1%. But in the eight states where both parties have used caucuses instead of primaries, just 11.3% of registered voters have cast a ballot.

Turnout in the all-caucus states ranged from a high of 17.6 percent in Utah (followed closely by Iowa at 17.1 percent) all the way down to 6.5 percent in Alaska. There were five additional states that held caucuses in one party and either conventions or yet-to-be-held primaries in the other, and their caucuses rang in at single-digit turnout percentages.

Those in either party who like to complain about party elites controlling the nominating process instead of voters should be focusing on the primary-caucus participation differences before worrying about anything else. In particular, Bernie Sanders and his supporters, who have been making the case that closed primaries unacceptably disenfranchise independents, should be equally willing to oppose the use of caucuses, which exclude far more voters, including those who in a primary state might be offered an opportunity for early or absentee voting (though it should be noted that Iowa pioneered limited absentee and distance voting in this year’s caucuses). That would involve, of course, acknowledging that many of Sanders’s best states, where he’s often been able to win very high percentages of delegates, have been in low-turnout caucus states (he’s won them in Utah, Minnesota, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska). And that’s why Sanders’s share of the popular vote is significantly lower than his share of pledged delegates.

Fairness is fairness, though, and reforms cannot follow any one campaign’s grievances. Sabato argues that caucuses themselves should be reformed, and where that’s not possible, abolished:

[C]aucus states should be required by the parties or state law to make extensive efforts to include soldiers, the ill and infirm, and those who must be working or traveling during the designated caucus time. Some early, absentee balloting is simply essential to any basic notion of fairness.

Even with reforms, the giant gap in voter participation between primaries and caucuses cannot be bridged. Why not have each caucus state hold a separate primary? Occasionally, state parties have done just this — such as Texas Democrats, whose “Texas Two-Step” was done away with before 2016, or Washington Republicans, who used both a caucus and a primary in some prior cycles. Some proportion of the delegates can be picked or apportioned by the caucus and the rest by the primary. This hybrid could combine the benefits of each nominating system. This would apply to Iowa, too. To satisfy “first-in-the-nation” New Hampshire, a primary state, Iowa has to choose a caucus — but the Hawkeye State could stage a separate primary later in the calendar.

One practical problem is that some state parties hold caucuses for financial reasons: Legislatures don’t authorize (or pay for) state-run primaries, leaving parties holding the bag. If they chose, of course, the national parties could use their leverage over credentialing delegates to coerce states to hold primaries, and barring that, could require state parties to make caucuses more like primaries — abandoning, for example, the complex multistep delegate-selection processes or non-presidential discussion topics that make caucuses, especially among Democrats (who often follow the Iowa model), a lengthy and voter-unfriendly prospect. For that matter, it’s worth noting that technically caucus participants are not “voters,” but “caucusgoers.” The distinction is a useful reminder that attending a caucus does not bring with it the protections and privileges of voting, and thus should not yield its rewards, either.


By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, April 27, 2016

April 29, 2016 Posted by | Caucuses, Democracy, Electoral Process, Primaries | , , , | Leave a comment

“Ringing The Alarm Over Voting-Machine Troubles”: The Threat Of A Catastrophic Meltdown In Next Year’s Presidential Election

For those involved in voting rights, concerns about voting machines are hardly new. But a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice rings the alarm in new and noteworthy ways. MSNBC’s Zack Roth reported yesterday:

America’s voting machines are reaching the end of their lifespans, and many states appear unwilling to spend the money to replace them, a detailed new report warns. The impasse raises the threat of a catastrophic meltdown in next year’s presidential election.

The report, released Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice, paints an alarming picture. Experts say today’s machines have an expected lifespan of 10 to 20 years – closer to 10. But in most states, a majority of jurisdictions have at least some machines that were bought in 2006 or earlier, while in 11 states – including presidential battlegrounds like Nevada and New Hampshire – every jurisdiction uses such machines. Fourteen states will use some machines that were bought over 15 years ago.

When the subject of voting machines comes up, we generally hear concerns about hacking and the possibility of rigging the technology deliberately to dictate the outcome of elections.

Whether you take those threats seriously or not, the Brennan Center’s research points to a different kind of systemic problem: a 21st-century democracy using outdated and unreliable election technology in ways that may lead to a disaster.

Consider this excerpt from the report:

As systems age, the commercially produced parts that support them, like memory storage devices, printer ribbons, and modems for transmitting election results, go out of production. Several election officials told us they have used eBay to find these parts. Mark Earley, voting systems manager in Leon County, Florida, told us his old voting system used an analog modem that he could only find on eBay. “The biggest problem was finding modems for our old machines. I had to buy a modem model called the Zoom Pocket Modem on eBay because they weren’t available elsewhere.” Earley told us that the Zoom Pocket Modem can transmit data at just kilobytes per second, making it utterly obsolete by today’s standards.

Ken Terry, from Allen County, Ohio, told us that he feels like he is living in a technological time warp. When he ordered “Zip Disks” for his central tabulator, the package included literature that was more than a decade old. “When we purchased new Zip Disks in 2012, they had a coupon in the package that expired in 1999.”

Remember, we’re supposed to be a global superpower, home to a vibrant democracy that serves a beacon of hope to people around the globe.

Of course, if these out-of-date machines are so common, why don’t states simply replace them? Because as MSNBC’s report explained, municipalities simply don’t have the money to buy new ones.

“We heard from more than one election official that what they’re hearing [from state legislatures] is basically, come back to me when there’s a real problem. In other words, come back to me after the catastrophe,” said Lawrence Norden, the deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, and the report’s lead author.

“We don’t ask the fire department to wait until the truck breaks down before they can ask for a new vehicle,” Edgardo Cortes, Virginia’s director of elections, told the report’s authors.

This problem won’t simply go away. If policymakers invested half as much energy in election technology as they do in voter-suppression tactics, the electoral system would be vastly better off.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 16, 2015

September 17, 2015 Posted by | Election 2016, Electoral Process, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Banana Republicans”: Appalling Content Of Policies Aside, When Not Torturing, They Lie, They Cheat, They Steal

If they can’t offer policies that a majority of voters will support without relentless brainwashing, they free up the billionaire beneficiaries of the policies they actually offer to help them buy elections.

If buying elections won’t give them a majority, they rig the districting so they can hold a minority of seats with a minority of votes.

If they can’t win even in gerrymandered districts, they try to keep Democrats from voting.

If they still lose, they resort to outright bribery.

In the latest case, they offered a Democratic state senator in Virginia – whose vote resulted in a tied chamber, giving the Lieutenant Governor the deciding vote – a cushy job for himself and a judgeship for his daughter if he’d resign, giving the GOP 20-19 majority.

Similar deals have been done recently in New York and Washington State, though in those cases the bribes were legislative leadership positions rather than external jobs.

I can confidently predict that a not a single elected Republican, and few if any Red-team pundits, will speak out against this grossly corrupt deal. If the state AG or the U.S. Attorney decide that it’s a prosecutable quid pro quo, Fox News and the National Review will howl about the “criminalization of policy differences.”

“Puckett” deserves to enter the language alongside “Quisling.”

The appalling content of its policies aside – the latest dirty trick is part of an effort to deny medical coverage to the working poor –  the modern Republican Party is a threat to the principles of republican government. Even when they’re not torturing, they lie, they cheat, and they steal.

Footnote And note the way the Washington Post uses the morally neutral “outmaneuver” to cover the payment and acceptance of a bribe. Did the Communists “outmaneuver” Jan Masaryk? Did the House of Guise “outmaneuver” the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day?


By: Mark Kleiman,  Professor of Public Policy at The University of California Los Angeles: Washington Monthly, Ten Miles Square; Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]; June 12, 2014

June 13, 2014 Posted by | Electoral Process, GOP, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Name Of Free Speech”: The Supreme Court Has Given Us A Government Of, By, And For The 1 Percent

In case after case, the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court have held unconstitutional all efforts—state as well as federal—to restrain the corrosive influence of limitless individual and corporate expenditures and contributions in our electoral process. They do this in the name of free speech.

In their view, the First Amendment absolutely guarantees the wealthiest Americans the right to spend as much as they like to manipulate the American political system to their advantage. According to these justices, as long as the wealthiest Americans do not directly bribe politicians to vote in their favor, the Constitution demands the flow of money is beyond regulation and that the rest of us must simply let the chips fall where they may.

This conception of the First Amendment and of the American constitutional system is truly perverse. By defining “corruption” so narrowly, these justices have missed the central point of self-governance—our elected representatives are supposed to be responsive to the will of the majority.

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that our elected officials are supposed to slavishly obey the will of the majority. Sometimes, the majority is wrong, and it is the responsibility of our elected officials—and our judges—to reject certain policies even if they are supported by the majority.

What our elected representatives are absolutely not supposed to do, however, is to reject the values and preferences of the majority of our citizens in order to curry favor with a small cohort of extremely wealthy individuals who are eager to leverage their wealth to gain control of our government. And this is so even if their money corrupts the system in ways that are more subtle than overt bribes. The vast majority of Americans understand this point clearly. Our five conservative justices do not.

Of course, this would not matter very much if the wealthiest Americans shared the values and preferences of the majority of American citizens. If their values and preferences were aligned with those of most other citizens, then this would not be much of a problem. In fact, though, there is no such alignment. On a broad range of issues, there is in fact a sharp divergence between the views of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and the other 99 percent.

Recent surveys reveal, for example, that 78 percent of Americans believe that government should guarantee a minimum wage high enough to keep a worker’s family above the poverty level, but only 40 percent of the wealthiest Americans agree; 87 percent of Americans believe that government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that our children can attend good public schools, but only 35 percent of the wealthiest Americans agree; 81 percent of Americans believe that a top priority of government should be to protect the jobs of American workers, but only 29 percent of the wealthiest Americans agree; 68 percent of Americans believe that government should take steps to ensure that every American who wants to work has the opportunity to do so, but only 19 percent of very wealthiest Americans agree; 78 percent of Americans believe that our government should ensure that students who cannot afford to go to college can nonetheless manage to do so, but only 28 percent of the wealthiest Americans agree.

Still, none of this would matter if the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans had only 1 percent of the influence in the political process. It is natural, after all, that people disagree about these sorts of issues, it is natural that rich people might hold different views on certain issues than people who are not rich, and it is quite proper for these issues to be worked out through the political process.

What is distressing, however, is that our political system does not work that way. Because of the extraordinary power of money in the electoral process, and thanks to the decisions of our five conservative justices, the very wealthiest Americans have a wildly disproportionate influence on our political process.

According to a recent Russell Sage Foundation study, almost 70 percent of wealthy Americans contribute regularly to political candidates, roughly half are in regular contact with members of Congress, and more than a fifth affirmatively “bundle” their contributions with other wealthy individuals. In the 2012 election cycle, a total of 99 Americans (mostly billionaires) provided 60 percent of all the individual Super PAC money spent by candidates.

Of course, none of this would matter if money did not affect outcomes. But it does. In 2012, 84 percent of the House candidates and 67 percent of the Senate candidates who spent more money than their opponents won their elections. Although money cannot dictate the outcome of elections, it matters, and it matters a lot—which is why candidates spend inordinate amounts of time scrambling to raise it and why the wealthiest Americans spend it so “generously” to elect their favored candidates.

But even this might not matter if our elected representatives disregarded the source of their campaign funds and, once elected, sought to represent the interests of their constituents—rather than the interests of their largest donors. Unfortunately, recent research (PDF) by the political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University shows that it doesn’t work that way.

To the contrary, what they found is that, although average Americans tend to get the policies they want when those policies correspond with the interests of the wealthiest Americans, when their views diverge from those of the wealthiest Americans, they usually lose and the preferences of the wealthiest Americans carry the day. Most of the time, in other words, the 1 percent gets its way. Indeed, as Gilens and Page observe, when the preferences of the average American conflict with the preferences of the top 1 percent, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near—zero,… impact upon public policy.”

In rather sobering terms, Gilens and Page conclude that, although Americans “enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular election, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread [opportunity to vote], we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

And this, say our five conservative justices, is demanded by “freedom of speech.” This is so, they insist, despite the fact that the First Amendment was designed, first and foremost, to preserve, protect, and support an effective system of democratic governance.

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 52, the whole point of our system of governance is to make our elected officials dependent on the will of “the people”—not on the will of the “top one percent.” What we are witnessing is a severe and unprincipled corruption of the American political system, and it is mortifying that this corruption is being carried out not by self-interested politicians, but by the justices of the Supreme Court—in the name of the First Amendment. Can the irony really be lost on them?


By: Geoffrey R. Stone, The Daily Beast, June 3, 2014

June 4, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Electoral Process, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Politics Of Losing Sorely”: How McCutcheon, Citizens United And Voting Restrictions Are Hurting Our Democracy

So let’s get right down to it: when you really think about it, what makes America different from other countries? Yes, there are lots of good answers, but if you ask me, it has something to do with this: one person, one vote.

It’s a pretty simple phrase, but in it lies the promise that no matter who you are, or where you come from, when the rubber hits the road your voice is worth just as much as anyone else’s. You have a say. And no one else’s say is more important than yours.

But for that to work, every citizen in good standing has to have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process. And the question before us today is: Is that getting easier or harder, and which option is more consistent with our concept of American democracy?

Take a look at cases like Citizens United and, this week, McCutcheon, for example. They do one thing: give the very wealthy more influence over elections in the United States. It’s like saying: instead of an electoral process where everyone’s voice is given the same weight, some people, by virtue of their wealth, are going to get megaphones. Yes, that’s been true, in one way or another, for years, but in its recent rulings the Supreme Court’s been busy making those megaphones even louder.

Something similar is happening on the state level, if only from a different direction. You can see it in the tougher voter ID requirements, the diminution of early voting, law after law aimed at making it harder for some people to vote – in this case, people who just happen to be more likely to vote Democratic. The end result is an electorate with an artificially higher concentration of conservative voters. Terrific for Republicans. Less good for democracy.

Take the federal and state efforts together and it’s a kind of a pincer movement aimed at producing a “representative” government that’s actually a lot more conservative than its constituents, a representative government that’s not really all that, you know, representative.

This is what happens when one segment of the population says: We’ve been losing too much and we’re sick of it. But instead of retooling our arguments to better match where the American electorate is, or trusting in the traditional American way of persuading a skeptical audience, we’re instead going to lift the hood on the democratic process itself and see if we can change the system so that outcomes we prefer become more likely – not because they are more representative of the American people but because we’ve figured out how to get a few more of our fingers on the electoral scale.

But here’s the thing: being a good loser is, actually, an essential part of the American system. Every few years, we expect our politics to spit out a government that roughly reflects the priorities and interests of a majority of its citizens, because we all get to participate in the process equally. We may not like what that government looks like, but we don’t go storming across the Rubicon, angry pitchforks in hand because the inclusiveness of the process gives it a kind of legitimacy that you don’t find in a lot of other places. We live with it because we know it basically reflects the views of our peers (as opposed to: some remote cabal) and because we’ll have a meaningful opportunity to change it next time around.

And the fact of the matter is: its good for the process when someone loses on the merits. Because losing fair and square encourages the loser to stop regurgitating the same losing arguments over and over again, and instead to come up with something better. Isn’t that what we want the competition of ideas that plays out in every election to produce? Or are we instead going to stand by and let the sorest of the losers say: If I can’t win the game as its supposed to be played I’m going to change the game, and I don’t much care if doing so undermines one of the very things that makes America a beacon of liberty in an increasingly Putinized world.

Of course, it isn’t entirely up to us, but that’s what happens when the Supreme Court steps in. For me, that only increases the urgency of the following question: is there a point at which changing the nature of electoral inputs, either by giving some outsized influence over the process or making it harder for others to participate at all, gets so out of whack that it begins to undermine the legitimacy of electoral outcomes? If you really love America qua America, you know that’s a place we should never be.

No we’re not there yet.

But it’s sure not getting any easier.


By: Anson Kaye, U. S. News and World Report, April 4, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Electoral Process, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments


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