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The Winningest Name: Why Some of Our Elected Officials Should Be Appointed

Money doesn’t always win elections. Just ask Jim Hogan, who finished first this week in the Texas Democratic Party’s primary election for agriculture commissioner. Hogan spent less than $5,000 on his campaign, most of which went to his filing fee. In contrast, the party-backed candidate spent $40,000 and had another $85,000 left on hand – and wound up finishing third behind Hogan and country singer, Kinky Friedman.

At first, the story seems almost quaint, especially at a time when money is flooding into political campaigns: the former dairy farmer who bested his well-known and well-funded opponents. But examining some of the likely reasons behind Hogan’s victory is troubling.

Hogan may have finished first because, well, voters liked his name.

In this post, I’ll discuss both the benefits and unintended consequences of using elections as a means of selecting administrative and regulatory offices (as opposed to legislative and executive offices, which must be selected via election in a democracy). I will argue that many voters are unaware of these types of down-ballot races and use indicators like what a candidate’s name is and where on the ballot her name appears in order to decide for whom to vote. Finally, I will propose that states consider moving to an appointive system for certain offices, similar to what the Founding Fathers established at the federal level, and then conclude by proposing some broad principles for reform.

But first, back to Jim Hogan.

THE PROBLEM

By his own admission, Hogan did not do much in the way of campaigning. He has mainly mounted his campaign by making phone calls and checking his Facebook page. Hogan does not have a campaign website where voters can read about his platform and life story; he decided he does not need a website because “All you gotta do is Google my name—’jim hogan ag commissioner’—and there’s enough on there.”[1]

That is not to say he is unqualified to run for agriculture commissioner. After all, he apparently has more than 30 years’ experience in the dairy farming industry. And he said that he has been studying the position for the past six years. The trouble is, it is very like that many voters knew nothing about Hogan when they cast their ballots for him.

The Texas agriculture commissioner is just one of many statewide positions up for election this year, including U.S. senator, governor and lieutenant governor. When a Texas voter stepped into the voting booth for the primary election this year, he or she faced several pages of candidates.

It is both unlikely and unreasonable to expect that most voters knew anything about most of these candidates.

As much as it would be ideal if voters were fully informed about all of the candidates on the ballot, the unfortunate reality is that people have limited time and resources. People have work, school, families, social lives, and any number of other commitments. When faced with a crowded ballot, they may not know where to even begin. They may not even have a clear idea of which candidates are on the ballot or where to find this information.[2]

As a result, people often prioritize the most high profile races in the election, usually president, senator, congressman, governor, or mayor, depending on the election. The media reinforces this urge by giving people the coverage they demand. Covering the governor’s race will sell papers and boost clicks. Covering the comptroller’s race? Not so much.

Candidates know this. That is why they seek to differentiate themselves in any possible way during the campaign: to stand out in the hopes that voters will remember their name when they walk into the voting booth.

Take former Texas State Rep. Wayne Christian, for example. Christian is currently running for Texas Railroad Commissioner, a position you might wrongly assume had something to do with railroads (it instead regulates the oil and gas industries in Texas). Christian calculated that it might be worthwhile to tout his pro-life credentials as part of his campaign for an office that has no authority over abortion rights in the state.

Whether that helped him or not, Christian finished first in the four-way primary election.

Still, not every candidate is able to differentiate themselves in a way that translates to name recognizability in the voting booth. Instead, they must often rely what a voter sees when he or she walks into the voting booth. That is, when a voter walks into a voting booth knowing little to nothing about the candidates in a given race, he has two choices.

He can either not vote in that race or he can find some way to decide who to vote for given the information he has at hand in the voting booth.

There are three main strategies (other than random choice) our hypothetical voter could use to decide in this situation:

  1. Decide based on party preference.
  2. Decide based on ballot position.
  3. Decide based on the candidate’s name.

The first strategy (party preference) cannot occur in a primary election because by definition all of the candidates belong to the same party. But in the general election, for instance, a Democratic voter may vote for a down-ballot Democratic candidate because they believe that candidate, as a Democrat, may share their values. The same principle applies to Republican voters.

The second strategy refers to where on the ballot a candidate’s name appears.[3] Someone’s name has to come first on the list and research suggests that candidates whose names appear first outperform their opponents. In other words, many voters vote for the first candidate they see. Indeed, the impact of this effect may be large enough to actually swing some elections one way or another.

The third strategy seems to be the one that lifted Hogan from obscurity and into the media spotlight: deciding based simply on the candidate’s name. In his race for agriculture commissioner, Hogan faced off against country singer Kinky Friedman and rancher Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III.

Friedman, like Hogan, spent little money on the race. But unlike Hogan, Friedman likely had fairly good name recognition among voters, known for his music career and his failed 2006 bid for governor as an independent. This name recognition would not necessarily translate into broad support. Some Democrats blame Friedman for playing the spoiler to their 2006 gubernatorial ambitions, while others simply do not see him as a serious candidate.

After ruling out voting for Friedman, a Texas Democrat would be faced with two candidates about whom he likely knows little to nothing. And in this scenario, it is possible that many Democrats opted for the candidate with the more folksy, homey name.

Hogan essentially predicted as much himself in an interview with the Texas Tribune from before the election:

“They either don’t vote at all — now, this is the primary — or they say ‘eenie, meenie, miney, mo,’ or they look at a name. They see Kinky Friedman and think, ‘That looks familiar. … Naw. Asa? Naw. Jim Hogan? I’ve heard of Hogan! Yeah, I think I’ll vote for him! He sounds like a nice guy!”

The name factor may also be a reason why Texas Democrats have decided to run Sam Houston for attorney general and Daniel Boone for the state senate.

Research also supports the idea that voters sometimes use name indicators to decide between candidates, including gender and ethnic cues, as well.

THE SOLUTION

Of course, the fact that some voters select candidates based on party preference, ballot position, or name indicators (and the fact that these effects may be large enough to decide elections) does not necessarily mean we should take these candidates off of the ballot. There may well be compelling reasons why these positions should remain elected. But the discussion as to whether the benefits of electing certain administrative and cabinet-level positions outweigh the unintended consequences is one worth having.

I believe that the evidence demonstrates that the benefits of electing these administrative and regulatory offices do not outweigh the very real negative consequences of the system we see in practice. The main benefit of electing these types of offices is the direct accountability it provides to the voters. If an individual is performing poorly, voters may oust him at the next election.

However, this does not often occur in practice, for reasons I’ve already examined in detail: time-strapped and resource-limited voters are often unable or unwilling to adequately research down-ballot candidates, prioritizing the ‘top of the ticket’ races instead. As a result, many of these important positions are selected on the basis of their party affiliation, ballot position, or name, rather than their experience or performance.

Before I continue, I should be clear: I am not criticizing democracy or the democratic process. I believe very strongly in both. I am simply suggesting that we, as a society, may want to consider whether to transfer the selection process for some of our public officials from election to appointment or merit selection. (I discussed, at length, some of the implications of using an election process over merit selection or appointment in a previous blog post.)

I would propose that the officials we consider this transfer for offices where the primary function is administrative or regulatory, not lawmaking or executive. Essentially, executive branch leadership (governors, lieutenant governors, and mayors) and legislators (senators, representatives, county commissioners, and city council members) should always remain elected while judges and cabinet-level positions (attorney general, agriculture commissioners, railroad commissioners, comptrollers, etc.) may be transitioned to an appointment or merit selection process.

The logic behind this is simple. Legislators and executive leaders have two crucial authorities that these administrative and regulatory officials do not have:

  • Lawmaking Authority. Legislators and executive leaders write, pass, and approve laws, while administrative and regulatory officials function within the boundaries laid out by those laws.
  • Oversight Authority. Legislators and executive leaders oversee these administrative and regulatory officials.

Legislators and executive leaders have these authorities because we defer our self-governing authority to them as our representatives. They govern in our stead, whereas administrative and regulatory officials function within the governing framework legislative and executive leaders establish.

(For judges, the logic is similar, but a bit different, since they are a completely separate branch of government; I laid out my proposal for a judicial selection system in another post, so I will not focus on that here.)

Put another way, I would argue that we elect legislators and executive leadership because doing so is a basic tenet of representative democracy; in contrast, we elect administrative and regulatory offices only as a way to choose who fills these positions. After all, the U.S. Constitution does not provide for election of these latter types of offices. If we accept, then, that the Founding Fathers established a democratic system in the Constitution, then appointment of these administrative and regulatory offices (and judges, for that matter) must be compatible with democracy.

Of course, there are a number of different ways to do an appointment or merit selection process. In general, I believe such a system should meet two basic criteria. It should be a system of:

  • Checks and Balances. Power of appointment or selection should not be concentrated in a single branch of government, but should be spread over two or three in order to provide a check against abuses.
  • Democratic Accountability. These officials should still be accountable to voter, either directly or indirectly.

The federal system that the Founding Fathers established meets both of these criteria. The president appoints members of his cabinet with Senate approval (checks and balances). Voters are able to hold these cabinet members accountable indirectly, through their elected representatives. For instance, public opinion may pressure the president to fire a cabinet member, voters may elect another president who will appoint a new cabinet, and the people’s representatives in Congress may impeach and try a cabinet member.

In this system, the executive has an incentive to appoint qualified and effective individuals to these cabinet-level positions because their performance will reflect upon the executive’s own administration.

Texas — and many other states across the nation — may seek to use this federal model, or try one of their own.

A potential state system, for instance, could mirror the federal system, but also include a ‘triggered retention election’ for direct democratic accountability. Essentially, this system would allow citizens the ability to oust these officials directly. First, citizens would have to gather enough signatures to trigger the retention election. If the number of signatures crosses a certain designated threshold, then a retention question (‘Should X retain his position as Agriculture Commissioner?’) would be added to the ballot at the next scheduled general election.

Unlike most recall election systems in which the state holds a special election to decide the question at hand, voters would decide this ‘triggered retention election’ during the general election. General elections often see larger turnout than special elections and are probably a better venue for deciding such questions.

This proposal and the federal system are only two models for how to address the issue discussed in this post. States could pursue a number of different systems characterized by both checks and balances and democratic accountability. The politics of implementing any system will likely be difficult. Voters will naturally (and rightly) be suspicious of any attempt to remove an office from the ballot. Also, many politicians use these positions as launching pads for higher offices and may not want to remove that opportunity.

Still, it is worth having the discussion as to whether or not to transition cabinet-level offices from elected to appointed positions. Doing so could help ensure a more effective government, while also maintaining a system of checks and balances and democratic accountability.

 

NOTES

[1] Searching ‘jim hogan ag commissioner’ on Google News for results from before the 2014 primary election (all news results from anytime before March 4, 2014) yields about 131 results. By the day after the election (that is, a news search range of between March 4 and 5), there were 820 new hits. Searching Google more broadly for results from before the 2014 primary election yields about 14,600 hits. By the day after the election, there were already 1,790 new hits. (Search conducted on March 9, 2014.)

[2] And while Hogan contends that there’s enough information online about him without him pulling together a website of his own, some voters may not be very skilled at tracking down legitimate sources of information online. Or they may not even realize he is running for office in the first place.

[3] States have different methods for choosing ballot order, ranging from random selection to chronological filing order.

 

FURTHER READING

Byrne, Gary & J. Kristian Pueschel. “But Who Should I Vote for For County Coroner?” The Journal of Politics.

Gaudini, Michael. “Government Officials: Elected vs. Appointed.” Diniverse Major.

Gaudini, Michael. “Justice For Sale: How Judicial Elections Are Corrupting Our Court System.” Baines Report.

Greenblatt, Alan. “How To Pick A Candidate In Texas: Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe.” KUT.

Krosnick, Jon. “In the Voting Booth, Bias Starts at the Top.” New York Times.

Matson, Marsha & Terri Susan Fine. ”Gender, Ethnicity, and Ballot Information: Ballot Cues in Low-Information Elections.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly.

Satija, Neena & Jim Malewitz. ”In Crowded Primaries, Names Can Be Everything.” Texas Tribune.

Tilove, Jonathan. “Jim Hogan: Dem Ag candidate may be “some hayseed from Cleburne,” but he’s nobody’s fool.” Austin-American Statesman.

 

Government Officials: Elected vs. Appointed

A county official in Pennsylvania recently made headlines when he decided to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, defying a 1996 law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

D. Bruce Hanes, the county official in question, explained his actions by saying that he believed that the law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and that he “decided to come down on the right side of history and the law.”

Hanes is the Register of Wills in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.[1] Although many Pennsylvanians may not recognize the position, it is one of several county offices they elect every four years in odd-year elections. Pennsylvania has a history of electing minor offices, such as coroner. The state has done so at least since its 1776 Constitution, and has continued to do so with each subsequent redrafting.

Normally, these offices and the political campaigns candidates for these offices run are fairly low profile, overtaken by county commissioner, mayoral, and city council races.[2] However, Register of Wills Hanes burst into the media spotlight in a big way when he announced he would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Daily News writer Stu Bykofsky succinctly summarized opposition to Hanes’ actions in a column he wrote criticizing the Register of Wills:

Civics 101: The people elect representative who write the laws which are enforced by the state and, if necessary, confirmed by the courts.

Of course, American democracy has never really functioned in this manner. As far back as President George Washington’s administration, the executive branch intruded upon the legislative branch by proposing new laws and pushing it’s own legislative priorities.

President Andrew Jackson even went so far as to ignore a court decision he disagreed with, supposedly responding that “[Chief Justice of the Supreme Court] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”

Today, President Barack Obama’s administration has decided to prioritize which laws it has the resources to enforce more vigorously than others.

In Pennsylvania specifically, the General Assembly officially desegregated schools and public accommodations in the late 1800s, but local governments and officials refused to implement these laws and actively circumvented them for almost a century.

Of course, none of this contradicts Bykofsky’s main point. Bykofsky is not saying his “Civics 101″ lesson of separate branches with separate powers is how government actually works in practice; rather, he is saying that this is how government works best in an ideal world. And, as a columnist for a major publication, it is his role to hold public officials accountable to the ideal.

However, I would also say that any discussion of Hanes should consider the political structure within which government exists. Bykofsky may be correct on a theoretical level that government works best when separate branches do not infringe upon each other’s authority, but ignoring the political incentive structure provides only an incomplete picture of the situation.

Hanes’ actions speak directly to the difference between elected and appointed public officials, and the very different incentive structures they face.

Elected positions are the ones people often think of when they think of government: president, governor, mayor, legislator, county commissioner, etc… These are the officials whose names show up on the ballot on Election Day.

Appointed officials are more insulated from politics than elected officials (relatively speaking, because even appointed officials are not totally insulated). In general, there are two kinds of appointed officials: political appointments and merit appointments.

Political appointments, as the name suggests, are more reactive to the politics of the official who has appointed them and holds the power to fire them. So, for instance, a governor who does not believe in regulating oil and gas companies would appoint a Secretary of Environmental Protection that would be friendlier to such companies when deciding how to enforce the law.

Most appointed governmental positions today are merit appointments, which means that employees are hired and promoted based upon their ability, rather than their political ideology. It also means that they are protected from being fired simply due to their political beliefs. This structure attempts to focus their efforts mainly on administering the law and insulate them from political concerns as much as possible.

The United States used mostly political appointments (also known as the “spoils system,” because the winning party would reward its friends with jobs) until the late 1800s.[3] Today, however, most appointed positions are merit-based.

One of the key differences to keep in mind when thinking about elected vs. appointed officials is who undertakes the hiring and firing and how. Generally, the system works like this (though there is some variation): voters elect the elected officials who appoint political appointments who hire the merit appointments.

The incentives for each of these positions are vastly different. Elected officials must court voters in order to ensure re-election, and are thus responsive to their interests. Political appointments must serve the elected officials’ interests in order to keep their positions. Merit appointments, however, because of civil service laws insulating them more from politics, have more leeway to administer the law in a way they believe is fair.

This takes us back to the Montgomery County Register of Wills. The question I pose here is not whether Hanes was right to issue same-sex marriage licenses.[4] The question is whether we can expect elected officials like Hanes to take these sorts of actions, simply due to the fact that they are elected and respond to very different incentives than other officials.

Can we expect elected officials to respond to what they believe to be unjust and unconstitutional laws in a way they think their constituents would approve?

Or, to put it another way: can we ever reasonably expect elected officials to be mere administrators? To this latter question, history certainly seems to suggest we cannot, unless the electorate wants an administrator.

If we, as a society, then, think that officials like Hanes should only administer the law, then perhaps we should consider either automating these positions (thus removing any judgement calls whatsoever) or else transitioning them to merit appointments.[5]

If we wish to keep these positions elected, then the remedy already exists: other branches and levels of government.

Bykofsky presents an image of governmental branches as confined to separate spheres. I would argue that in America, branches of government were not designed to fill completely separate spheres so much as they were designed to battle against each other for influence — and in doing so, provide a check on the other branches’ power.

In this system, it is not only up to Hanes to police himself. It is up to the county commissioners, to the judicial system, to the governor, to the General Assembly, and, ultimately, to the voters to all check Hanes if they believe he is doing something wrong.

So, if you believe Hanes erred in issuing licenses to same-sex couples when he believed that the law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, then the remedy is for another branch or level of government to push back. And that is exactly what has happened, with the Corbett Administration suing to stop Hanes.

This is not to say that all county officials will take similar actions because they are elected. Many likely will not. But we should not be surprised when elected officials act according to their incentives. Sometimes we may agree with them, other times we may not. Either way, the existing political system already provides the means for opponents to counter them.

NOTES

[1] The Register of Wills, for his part, is responsible mainly for recordkeeping and other administrative services related to wills and marriage licenses.

[2] As an aside, one of the 2011 Montgomery County Coroner candidates pointed out how many autopsies he had performed and how many death certificates he had issued as part of his campaign.

[3] President Andrew Jackson is closely associated with the history of the spoils system in the federal government. Although presidents before him had made political appointments, he did so on a much larger scale. In Pennsylvania, the commonwealth’s second governor, Thomas McKean, introduced the spoils system to his state’s government. Reformers began to pass civil service reform laws in the late 1880s to switch from the spoils system to merit appointments. In 1881, a disgruntled office-seeker assassinated President James Garfield after he was not rewarded with a patronage position. In response, Congress passed and President Chester Arthur signed a major civil service reform bill, the Pendleton Act.

[4] You might think, like Bykofsky does, that he was wrong to do so. You might think, like State Senator Daylin Leach does, that Hanes was right to do so because Hanes swore an oath to protect the Constitution and he believes the same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional.

[5] The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based local government watchdog, has already argued that these roles should be appointed rather than elected — albeit, on efficiency grounds.

RELATED READING

Bruce Castor Gets It Right.” Stu Bykosky. Philadelphia Daily News.

PA Official Legally Right to Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licenses.” Sen. Daylin Leach. Huffington Post.

Roadmap: Needless Jobs.” Committee of Seventy.

Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.

FURTHER READING

2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

 

The Pileggi Electoral College Plan and 1960

In 1962, after the successive failures of both his presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, a weary Richard Nixon bid the press goodbye:

But as I leave you, I want you to know: just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Of course, if Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi had his way, Nixon might not have spoken those famous words. He would not have had to: if Senator Pileggi had been in charge, Nixon might have beaten John F. Kennedy and become president in 1960.

I am referring, of course, to Senator Pileggi’s ill-conceived Electoral College plan (next session’s version, last session’s plan was defeated). The idea is simple: divide all but two of a state’ Electoral College votes up and award them to the candidates according to the percentage of the popular vote that they won. The candidate that wins the state then gets the extra two votes.

Take the 2012 election, for instance. President Barack Obama won about 52 percent of the popular vote to Governor Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. This gives President Obama 12 electoral votes (10 electoral votes for the popular vote, plus 2 more for winning state-wide).

This would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Indeed, changing Pennsylvania alone might not have altered the outcome of most American elections. But it would have had an effect. For instance, in 2000, President George W. Bush’s margin of victory would have been larger, even though he still would have lost the popular vote.

But to really demonstrate how Pileggi’s system would work, imagine that his plan was in effect in all 50 states. Under this scenario, John F. Kennedy stands a good chance of beating Nixon in the popular vote, but losing to him in the Electoral College.

According to my calculations, the Electoral College votes come in like this:

  • 264 for Kennedy
  • 267 for Nixon
  • 6 Unpledged Electors

Those unpledged electors would have come from the largely Democratic Louisiana and Mississippi. But these states were part of the Southern, conservative wing of the Democratic Party — a wing that was suspicious of Kennedy and that Nixon would successfully court years later. It only would have taken 3 of those 6 to make Nixon president.

Can we say with absolute certainty that Kennedy would have absolutely lost in 1960? No. But it is surely a possibility. And a reason to be wary of any claims that Pileggi’s proposal is somehow fairer than the current system.

FURTHER READING

1960 Presidential Election Results: Pileggi Plan (Excel), Diniverse Major Blog.

Co-Sponsorship Memo, Dominic Pileggi.

Pileggi to reintroduce plan to change Pennsylvania electoral-vote system,” Philadelphia Inquirer.

Corbett-Pileggi plan bad for democracy,” Michael J. Gaudini (Main Line Times). *(This article refers to last session’s Electoral College plan)

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?

Last session, Governor Tom Corbett and Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi unveiled a plan to change how Pennsylvania votes for president. Now that the 2012 election has actually been held, Pennsylvanians can see for themselves how that system would have impacted their votes.

But first, a bit of context. Americans do not vote for president directly. Instead, they vote through the Electoral College. In the Electoral College system, each state gets a number of electoral votes for president equal to their representation in Congress. Pennsylvania has 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the U.S. Senate, so therefore it gets 20 electoral votes.

States can choose to decide how they distribute those votes, but most states give all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the statewide election. And, for most of American history, that has worked. Four times in the past, however, president have lost the popular vote but won the presidency: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush.

The other key concept to keep in mind here is redistricting. Redistricting is the process by which legislators redraw political boundaries to account for population shifts. After all, people move, are born, and die every day. In order to make sure that elected officials represent about the same number of people, legislators redistrict their state and Congressional seats every 10 years using U.S. Census data. Without this, one official could end up representing several times as many people as another — even though they both only get one vote in Congress.

States redistrict differently. In Pennsylvania, Congressional redistricting is passed like any other bill. The General Assembly writes it and passes it, and the governor signs it. (There is a different system for General Assembly redistricting, but it is not relevant to this discussion.) There are also few prohibitions on how legislators can choose to redraw the political maps. Legislators cannot discriminate against voters based on race, but beyond that they generally have carte blanche.

This means that legislators can — and do — split up blocs of voters to help their party. If one area generally votes for Party X, legislators from Party Y can simply split up that area into numerous districts that each have a Party Y majority. Thus, Party Y maintains control by watering down Party X’s power — a process known as ‘gerrymandering.’

All of this means that whoever controls the General Assembly and the governorship essentially controls the political landscape of Pennsylvania. For the past few redistrictings, that has been the Republican Party. And so, they have drawn Congressional maps that benefit the Republican Party.

Here’s where Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan comes in. It would have split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by giving them to presidential candidates according to which Congressional districts they win. The candidate to win the entire state then gets an additional 2 electoral votes, to make up the difference between electoral votes and Congressional districts. Of course, the Republican Party is drawing those same Congressional districts that they want to use to distribute electoral votes.

So, how would Pennsylvania have fared if this plan was in place for the 2012 election? Well, President Obama won the Pennsylvania popular vote about 52% – 47%. Under the current system, this means Obama got 20 electoral votes. Under Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan, however, this means Obama would have gotten 7 votes, while Governor Romney would have gotten 13 votes.

To put it another way: under Governor Corbett’s plan, Obama would have won the popular vote in Pennsylvania, but lost the electoral vote. Fortunately for President Obama, this would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Other presidents would not have been so lucky. Had the Corbett system been in place in 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy would never have become President of the United States.

Elections will always be partisan affairs; what they should not be is undemocratic.

FURTHER READING

Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Gerrymandering undermines democracy in Pennsylvania,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Redistricting Texas 2012: A Primer,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Diniverse Major.

Pennsylvania 2012 Election Results, CBS News.

 

I Voted For President! Now What?

Americans just do not like to vote.

For all of the talk of American democracy and the importance of the ballot, a strikingly small number of eligible Americans show up at the polls each November. Presidential elections, of course, see the largest level of turnout as a percentage of the voting age population. But for many Americans, that is it. The only time they see the inside of a voting booth is in a year that is divisible by four.

Take Pennsylvania, for example. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, about 64 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians showed up at the polls. That was a couple points above the nationwide turnout of about 62 percent.

Just two years later, those numbers were down to 42 percent for Pennsylvania and 41 percent for the United States. That election, significantly, decided which party would control not only the House of Representatives, but numerous state legislatures and governor’s seats. Last year, turnout in Pennsylvania dropped even lower, to 32 percent.

The Keystone State is no outlier; most states see similarly dismal figures. Why, then, is voter turnout so much lower in midterm and off-year elections? To simplify: the president. Or, rather, the absence of a presidential candidate on the ballot. The president is the only official elected nationwide in the United States. Campaigns for the office are fought over high-stakes national and global issues. The media cover the proceedings extensively.

And the perception that there will be relatively high voter participation, possibly reinforced by friendly conversation and media coverage, could have the effect of turning out more voters simply due to social pressure. That is, people go to the polls because they do not want to be the person caught not voting.*

All of this can make presidential elections seem more relevant than off-year or midterm elections. But these latter elections — which generally feature many state and local positions — often have a direct impact on voters’ everyday lives. State and local governments are the ‘boots on the ground.’ They are responsible for keeping your neighborhood safe, paving your streets, picking up your trash, educating your children, providing for poor, zoning your community, and countless other services that affect your daily life. As Hurricane Sandy has recently reminded many Americans, state and local governments also prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

Not only that, but these elections also have far-reaching political ramifications. I wrote about just such a situation in a 2011 election op-ed:

[I]n 2009, only 21 percent of registered Pennsylvanians cast their ballots. The majority of those select few chose Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin as the next justice of the PA Supreme Court, solidifying a 4-3 Republican majority on the bench.

 

This year, as in the past, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose the tie-breaking member of the commission that redraws the legislative districts in the state every decade. The resulting map was a patchwork of gerrymandering and political protection submitted on a party-line vote in the Republicans’ favor. By carefully designating which group of voters elects which representative, this map will likely dictate the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections for years.

And it had the potential to dictate the 2012 presidential election, as well. That year, Pennsylvania Republicans (swept into office in a midterm election) introduced a bill that would have changed the way the Commonwealth distributes its electoral votes for president. Instead of following the “majority wins” system that nearly all other states use, this plan would have split its votes according to Congressional districts that the Republicans themselves drew. To put that into perspective, had this system been in place in 1960, Richard Nixon would have bested John F. Kennedy for the presidency.

Midterm and off-year elections can have huge ramifications. Keep that in mind for 2013, and beyond.

FOOTNOTES

*As an aside, Pennsylvania actually has a “Voter Hall of Fame,” where it recognizes those citizens who have cast their ballots every November for 50 consecutive years or more. If you have not gotten started on that yet, now might be a good time.

FURTHER READING

Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “‘Like’ the Vote,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again,” Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

United States Election Project: Voter Turnout,” George Mason University.

Voter Hall of Fame,” Pennsylvania Department of State.

‘Like’ the Vote

America had an electoral fraud problem. Voter intimidation was pervasive. Bribery, too, was common. Laws against both were regularly ignored. What Americans needed most was a secret ballot.

Today, many people may take for granted the fact that they are able to cast their ballots in secret, but Americans that lived up until the late 1800s had no such illusions.

“Confidence was shaken in a voting system which made known the contents of every man’s ballot,” declared an 1892 essay on a new Pennsylvania law that established, for the first time in the state’s history, a secret ballot.

The new system, known as the “Australian system” after the country in which it was first implemented in 1856, ensured secrecy and fairness in several key ways. It stipulated that all ballots must be the exact same. It ordered the names of all legally nominated candidates be printed on the ballots. And it required voters to mark their preferences in secret.

The laws combated intimidation and bribery by making it difficult to verify how a person had actually voted. But the laws, which had spread to nearly every state by 1892, had another, unintended side effect, as well.

Voter turnout in the mid to late 1800s had been fairly high, around 70 to 80 percent of the voting age population for presidential elections. In the years after the spread of the secret ballot, that percentage steadily tumbled, finally settling around about 50 to 60 percent.

What happened?

Well, the late 1800s were a period of rapid change in America. Industrialization was quickly changing the country. Immigration increased tremendously and the population exploded, with workers flocking to the nation’s cities. At the same time, reformers focused on “good government” laws, like civil service reform, and attacked political ‘bosses’ and their machines.

All of these societal changes likely had an effect on voter turnout. But so too did the secret ballot.

Voting has long confounded economists, as the act of voting seems to be inherently irrational. The gains — one lousy vote in an election decided by hundreds of thousands — seem small compared to the time and effort spent waiting in line at the polling place.

True, there is also the satisfaction of performing a civic duty, but there is also another important component to why people vote: social pressure. Simply put, people know they are “supposed to vote,” and do not want to be caught otherwise.

A 2008 study of Swiss voter turnout after the adoption of optional postal voting demonstrated this. Postal voting, in which citizens can mail in their ballots, is meant to reduce the costs of voting and increase turnout. Yet in small Swiss communities — the types of places where one might expect voters are more likely to know each other — turnout actually went down. Postal ballots, it seems, may have eliminated the social pressure to be seen at the polls because, well, maybe that person mailed in their ballot.

The opposite also appears to be true. In 2006, researchers sent out several kinds of mailers to Michigan citizens, one of which  promised to publish whether they and their neighbors voted in the next election. They found that those people who thought their voter turnout information would be publicized were more likely to vote.

Which brings us to Facebook. If social pressures impact voter turnout, then it would make sense that social media affect it as well. And, in fact, this is exactly what researchers studying the 2010 election reported. On Election Day, Facebook provided an “I Voted” button at the top of users’ news feeds for them to show they had cast their ballots. Some users were shown the pictures of friends who had voted; others were not. By comparing friend data with voter rolls, researchers determined that the first group were more likely to vote in that election.

So go ahead and tweet your followers or update your status this Election Day to let everyone know you voted. You never know who might be watching.

–FURTHER READING–

Charles Binney, “American Secret Ballot Decisions,” American Law Register and Review.

Charles Binney, “The Merits and Defects of the Pennsylvania Ballot Law of 1891.”

Robert Bond, et al, “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization,” Nature.

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, “Why Vote?New York Times.

Patricia Funk, “Social Incentives and Voter Turnout: Evidence from the Swiss Mail Ballot System.”

Michael J. Gaudini, “Election-time reflections on the irrational voter,” Main Line Times.

Alan Gerber, et al, “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment,” American Political Science Review.

John Markoff, “Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Says,” New York Times.

Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2008,” The American Presidency Project.

 

Changing a Law to Win an Election?

The Main Line Times’ “Notes from Narberth” columnist wrote a piece on August 7 (“Narberth zoning meeting; more on voter-ID need“) using Al Schmidt’s recent report on voting irregularities in Philadelphia as proof of need for a Voter ID law. You may read that here.

My response (“Changing a law to win an election?“) was published on the Main Line Times’ website on August 11. You may read that on the Main Line Times’ site here, or below.

 

One of the most interesting things about Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt’s report on “voting irregularities” is not what it says, but how it is being used. Proponents of Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID have praised the report as damning evidence of pervasive voter fraud – which is ironic, considering that a reading of the report gives no such impression.

First of all, Schmidt’s report is not a scientific study, and says nothing about how extensively voter fraud occurs – it only identifies seven types of voting irregularities. And of those seven kinds, the Voter ID law would stop only one. Whether the other six constitute legitimate problems or not is largely irrelevant to the Voter ID debate.

The problem Voter ID actually addresses can be boiled down to one question: is the person at the polling place who he says he is? Under current law, voters must prove who they are the first time they vote at a new polling place, and may use a variety of means to do so. Voters can face harsh punishments for not complying with election law ($10,000 in fines and 5 years in prison for voter impersonation) while they get little in return (one extra vote in an election decided by hundreds of thousands).

Faced with this information, you might conclude that voter impersonation rarely happens. All available evidence suggests you would be right. Numerous studies and investigations – including by the Bush Justice Department – have all reached this conclusion. The attorneys defending the Voter ID law in court recently agreed as well. So it is not surprising that Voter ID supporters have relied upon a single case: “the mysterious case of Joseph Cheeseboro” that the August 5 “Notes from Narberth” column referenced.

In any given election, Mr. Cheeseboro is little more than a rounding error. The same cannot be said of the more than 758,000 Pennsylvanians who may be disenfranchised by this law – a group disproportionately made up of elderly, minority, student and handicapped voters. That figure is larger than President Obama’s 2008 margin of victory, and to date new Voter IDs have been issued to less than 0.5 percent of that number.

Of course, even one illegal vote is one too many, but any voting system will leave room for error. The fundamental question at the Voter ID debate’s core is how to resolve the natural tension that arises from wanting to both keep elections accessible, while preventing any potential fraud.

Opponents of Voter ID do not, as the “Notes from Narberth” column contends, “think black people are too dumb to figure out how to get a photo ID.” Rather, we are concerned because the process of obtaining the underlying documentation and standing in line for several hours at a PennDOT center makes voting less accessible to legitimate voters, especially elderly and handicapped ones. It also opens the door to further chicanery, by providing another venue for vote challenging at the polls.

But perhaps most concerning of all is the nagging suspicion that the law was aimed to, as House Majority Leader Mike Turzai boasted, “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” When you have to resort to changing the law in order to win an election, there is something wrong.

 

Voter Meddling Would Be PA’s New Voter ID Law

The Main Line Times’ “Notes from Narberth” columnist wrote a piece on June 14 (“Don’t believe the rhetoric: Voter ID is fair to all“) defending Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law as “a no-brainer” and attacking the many problems with the law as “phony.” You may read that column here.

My response (“Voter meddling would be Pa.’s new Voter ID law“) was published in the following week’s Main Line Times. You may read that on the Main Line Times’ site here, or below.

 

The June 14 “Notes from Narberth” column’s ardent defense of the new Voter ID law (“Don’t believe the rhetoric: Voter ID law is fair to all”) is fundamentally flawed.

At a basic level, I would question whether it is appropriate to compare the procedure required to attend the Penn Relays with that of voting. The latter, after all, is both a civic duty and a right, whereas the former is a private sports event.

Even putting these reservations aside, the column relies much too heavily on anecdotal evidence. It may, indeed, be true that “over 39,000 people, primarily African-Americans,” were able to show some form of photo identification in order to attend the Penn Relays. But even if every single one of those persons were black Philadelphians, that is still only 6 percent of the city’s black population. What about the other 94 percent? Could any of them be lacking a photo ID?

The short answer is yes. State and local figures are hard to come by, but national statistics on which populations generally lack the identification now required to exercise the constitutional right to vote in Pennsylvania are available. As it turns out, certain populations are far more likely to lack the appropriate identification: 25 percent of African-Americans, 15 percent of those making below $35,000 per year, 18 percent of senior citizens, and 20 percent of young voters.

There are many reasons these people may lack the kinds of identification that the law now requires. Perhaps they live in the city and have little use for a car. Perhaps they are elderly and no longer drive. Or perhaps their drivers’ licenses were taken by the state, for any number of legitimate reasons, ranging from underage drinking to failing the vision and medical testing the Department of Transportation administers randomly to drivers over 45. Surely, the right to participate in the democratic process should not be contingent upon such things?

As for handicapped Pennsylvanians, there are no available statistics on how many of these citizens lack the appropriate identification, but it is not a stretch to assume if someone cannot physically drive a car, they would both lack a driver’s license and also face formidable obstacles to acquiring a Voter ID card, such as transportation and the long waits associated with DMV offices.

It is also important to note here that only specific forms of photo identification are allowed under the Voter ID law – namely, government-issued photo IDs, Pennsylvania college IDs, or care facility IDs. Of course, a key problem is that some forms of ID that at first would appear valid under this law are actually barred because it requires a visible expiration date. As a result, most veteran and college ID cards will not be acceptable.

There is also the financial cost to consider as well: implementing the law has been price-tagged at around $11 million, at a time when Governor Corbett is insisting on deep cuts in education.

But surely there are huge benefits to a Voter ID law that would outweigh these objections? Surveying the evidence, one would be forced to conclude otherwise. Perpetrating the very specific form of voter-impersonation fraud this law claims to target is already incredibly difficult and subject to huge penalties. The risks of up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine certainly do not outweigh the benefit of a single extra vote in an election likely to be decided by thousands. Simply enforcing the law, as it existed before this Voter ID legislation, would have been enough to ensure the integrity of our electoral process without disenfranchising thousands of Pennsylvania voters.

As The Economist magazine noted last March, voter fraud is actually quite rare, but “a more frequent tactic is to alter election laws.” For an example of such meddling, one need look no further than Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law.

Voter ID Bill Aims to Help Republicans

The following column was published in the Delco Times in November 2011, as the Voter ID bill was making its way through the PA General Assembly. You may read it on the Delco Times’ website here, or below.

 

Last summer, Gov. Corbett and General Assembly Republicans passed a budget with deep cuts to education, claiming their fiscal discipline would lead to future economic growth. Now, they have shifted their focus to a different form of stimulus: the political kind.

With control of both the executive and the Legislature, Republican politicians have been quick to pursue policies that would fix the system in their favor. Legislative districts are already being meticulously designed to preserve political power. An electoral “reform” bill has proposed distributing the state’s Electoral College votes by gerrymandered congressional district, guaranteeing that several are cast for the Republican presidential candidate.

And a voter identification bill is winding its way through the Legislature, promising to “safeguard” our elections by demanding voters show their government-issued ID at the polls.

This last proposal is particularly galling because it appears, on its face, to be reasonable. Closer inspection, however, reveals the bill’s true aim is to utilize the fear of voter fraud to depress turnout for poor and minority populations.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, says his plan addresses a serious threat to democracy. But such claims of widespread voter fraud are overblown, at best.

In fact, voter fraud is incredibly rare. A vigorous prosecution of voter fraud by the Bush administration found a scant 86 instances in the country over a five-year investigation.

This should not come as a surprise. Voter fraud is already quite hard to pull off, with little to no payoff. Penalties are stiff: up to $10,000 and five years in prison. Illegal immigrants would face deportation. The visibility of the voter fraud alone (after all, perpetrators would have to show up and interact with poll workers) deters the crime.

And even if an individual or group were crazy enough to attempt this, they would have to reproduce this fraud on an almost impossibly massive scale – the thousands of votes generally needed to swing an election.

This is not to make light of voter fraud. Undermining democracy is surely an egregious offense. But this bill provides an excessively harsh solution to an already-rare problem.

Under current law, voters must provide identification the first time they vote in a district. Photo identification is the norm, though accommodations are made for those without one (such as a showing a bill or paycheck instead).

Metcalfe’s bill would force all citizens to provide a government-issued photo ID at the polls every year, despite their inherent right to participate in representative government. Student and employee IDs, currently acceptable, would be disallowed.

For many, this may not seem too extreme. But consider for a moment that about 11 percent of all Americans would not be allowed to vote under this law, and that the majority of that 11 percent are poor and minority voters.

Then consider that implementing the bill will cost about $11 million (providing identification to those who need it, educating the public about the changes, etc.).

The costs of this bill – in both dollars and depressed voter participation – outweigh the extremely small benefits it might yield. Simply enforcing current law saves both time and money while also safeguarding our elections.

The great irony of Metcalfe’s bill is that it seeks to capitalize on the fear that shadowy forces are subverting our democracy – and then it goes ahead and proposes just such a subversion.