Sunday, November 11, 2012

Election reform

It's not going to happen, but we could really use a reform process in this country with regard to how elections are conducted.

An obvious point is voting rights and the convenience of voting.  I gather that every genuinely democratic country in the world, except for us, has independent, respected, apolitical voting commissions that control registration, the allocation of voting machines, and everything else about the process to make sure that it is done fairly.

We don't, and, in consequence, we are just asking for huge problems.   Imagine if the election had been much closer, and if minorities had responded with less massive outrage to the organized national efforts to disenfranchise them, and if it had all come down to a few thousand contested ballots in Ohio and Florida against the background of huge lines of voters in Democratic areas who had gone home because their areas were under-served.

Early voting aside, there's no reason not to have at least a 24-hour long uniform national election time when voting is open everywhere.  I also think voting should be mandatory, with a fine for not voting or something like a refundable tax credit for having done so.

Republicans don't want voting to be easier, of course, but I'm not always convinced that the Democrats do either.  By definition, if you are an incumbent, things are working out OK for you, and risking change of some kind by dramatically expanding the effective franchise is potentially disruptive.

Another issue is gerrymandering.  The Democrats won more House votes than the Republicans, yet are well in the minority in the House of Representatives because the Republicans, by winning so many state houses in 2010, were able to lock themselves in (until 2020) so pervasively, wasting Democratic votes by giving the Dem districts overly large majorities.  Here again, of course, there is a tendency for incumbents on both sides to like the process.

I read extensively in the legal and political science literature on gerrymandering about 20 years ago.  At the time, the consensus seemed to be:

(a) it's not as bad a problem as people think, because doing it well is a bit tricky.  For example, if you try to win everywhere by 51-49, then you risk losing everywhere in a wave election,

(b) we can't just hand the problem to computers, because how to draw districts is an inherently and properly political question.  For example, might we want to keep true neighborhoods together?  Should we try to ensure some minority representation?  Etcetera.

While I'm no longer current on this literature, I gather that there's been a sea change in the intervening time, simply because the ability to engage in precision gerrymandering has grown so enormously for technological reasons.  So the wisdom I described above, especially (a), is no longer persuasive, if it ever was.  And so far as (b) is concerned, one can feed the computers loose criteria in designing congressional districts, without permitting them to be politically tailored as they are today.

Political reforms that address the voting process, people's ability to vote, and Congressional district design are too important not to get attention along with the question of campaign finance reform (on which the Supreme Court's current stance remains ludicrous and extremely dangerous even in the aftermath of 2012's big money misfires).


FuzzyFace said...

Actually, yes you can turn things over to a computer. Algorithms have been developed which keep neighborhoods together, try to respect municipal boundaries where possible, and optimize for compactness. In most cases, there is exactly one "best" solution. Voting patterns and ethnicity are explicitly not considered.

Note, please, that the main reason for the overwhelmingly Democratic districts is the insistence on majority-minority districts. That is, the Democrats insist on districts that are almost certain to elect blacks, or hispanics, and the GOP is happy to go along, since it maximizes the chances of more Republican winners. It's a collusion between the parties, each out for its own interests. Constituent interests are never a concern.

But you wind up taking away a lot of your credibility when you make statements like, "Republicans don't want voting to be easier, of course." Anytime you assume that the other side is dishonest, you wind up cutting off any kind of honest debate. In this past election, for example, there was an incident of dishonesty at the polls, but it was in Philadelphia, where the Democrats banned the Republicans from having poll watchers.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Absolutely right that majority-minority is a bipartisan thing. And yes, the "bipartisan incumbent conspiracy" is a large part of the story.

But I do think it's fair comment, after the last 4 years, to say that Republicans don't want voting to be easier. There was an organized national push to create impediments, hobble early voting, etc.

It's certainly true that, as a historical matter, the Democrats have probably stolen more, due to the urban political machines that cracked up in the 1960s.