Sunday, June 1, 2008

Election Follies, and Lots Of Other Good Stuff From My Doppelganger

Ok, so May wasn't so good of a blogging month for this blogger. Prior to May I'd been managing pretty close to one post a day, with a couple of time-off days each month. But with creeping writers' block, and with the sense that "No, I've already blogged about that, I can't do that again," and just general ennui, it had been getting harder and harder to figure out what to write about--or to gin up the energy to sit down at the keyboard and just type. So I only managed 18 posts in the month of May.

And I know that several of you fellow bloggers are sitting out there thinking, "18 posts in a month! That's just downright obsessive. Where do you get the time to do all that--let alone the energy or the ideas?" And you'd probably be right. Nevertheless, my self-assigned benchmark is one post per day, and in the month of May I seriously blew it.

Perhaps out of psychic sympathy, my Georgia-based Doppelganger decided to pick up the slack, with a whole bunch of meaty posts this last week. He posted a very amusing account of his family's recent appliance-replacement capers (in which they had to replace a refrigerator and a stove, because the old ones gave up the ghost at the same time).

Then there's this post, in which he muses about the different rates at which his (homeschooled) children are learning their lessons. Here's Chris's theory: It appears that his oldest kid is the "trailblazer;" it takes her the longest to learn things, not because she isn't smart, but because the parents are doing everything for the first time with her; her siblings, on the other hand, are picking up the lessons by osmosis--just by hanging around while the eldest is learning them--and this advantage helps them to learn new skills just that much faster. (The eldest kid, of course, thinks this is entirely unfair.) Anyway, Chris asks his readers to sound off on whether his theory sounds right. I responded in his comments, saying that his theory is probably pretty close, and adding a few other ideas--including a reference to yesterday's post about my eldest kid teaching her younger sibling how to read.


And then there's this post.

Like my Doppelganger, I don't do a whole lot of political blogging. It's not that I don't have strong political views--and anyone who follows this blog regularly can probably figure them out. Rather, it's that I think that politics has become so poisonous in this country lately that I hesitate to start blogging about it, for my and my family's sanity and safety.

I will occasionally write about political philosophy, for example; there are those times where politics isn't just a spectator sport, times when stuff that goes on in the capitols has real effects on real people. I wrote a fair amount about the recent California court ruling that appeared to outlaw homeschooling--because my rights, and the rights of a whole lot of people I know, were (are) on the line.

Chris writes about the rules change that was just effected by the Democratic party, intended to give a solution to the Florida/Michigan delagate-seating debacle. He points out, quite correctly, that this will make absolutely no one happy--except for those people who enjoy seeing chaos on the left side of the political aisle.

So here's a little bit of game theory that I've been mulling over since the 2000 Florida election, which has ramifications in the political world. I think we would all be a whole lot better off if we would all take this to heart:

Any time there is a close election, the determination of the winner in that election often depends on exactly what the rules of the election are, and exactly how those rules are interpreted and applied.

For example: consider an election where Candidate A, a liberal, gets 40% of the vote; Candidate B, a mainstream conservative, gets 35% of the vote; and Candidate C, a disgruntled conservative spoiler candidate, gets the other 25%. Who wins the election?

Depends on the rules. If the rules say the candidate with the most votes wins, then Candidate A is elected. But if the rules say that a candidate must have a majority of votes to win, then no one wins this round; in a two-candidate runoff, A and B will run against each other, and it's likely that B will pick up enough of C's vote to become the winner.

And the results could be totally different if the vote is tabulated by district instead of by popular vote. Suppose that all of Candidate C's vote comes from the forty-nine percent of the districts where he was on the ballot--and that he won 50% + 1 in each of these districts; then he won forty-nine percent of the districts, and is most likely the winner!

Now given all this, it should be obvious that any rule change, after the contest has begun, is a political act. Given that, in a close election, the exact reading of the rules can determine the winner, it is not possible to change the rules after an election is begun, without selecting the winner thereby. If the votes are already cast, anyone who says, "I think we should use this set of rules instead of that set," is for all intents and purposes telling you who he or she wants to win.

Because of this fact, the very integrity of the (small-d) democratic process depends on the election rules being absolutely immutable, from the moment a campaign begins until the moment the eventual victor takes the oath of office. And this is true even if there is some pre-existing, acknowledged flaw in the election rules. Any change to the rules during the process is an attempt to change the outcome of the election--or at the very least, will be interpreted as such by the supporters of one or the other of the candidates. In close elections, this is guaranteed to undermine confidence in the democratic system.

Of course, the most eminent example of this dynamic in action was the Bush v. Gore mess in Florida in 2000. At the time this was going on, I took the time to read through the Florida state election law, because I wanted to know for myself what it said. The law established a set of escalations that a candidate could use when disputing the result of an election--he could file a protest, which would grant a recount; but there was a deadline by which this had to be completed. After the count (and recount) was made, if the candidate was unhappy with the results, he could contest the entire election--but the onus was on the candidate filing the contest to prove why the previous count should be thrown out. Anyway, this entire process--as outlined in Florida electoral law--had deadlines for all these counts to be finished, and deadlines for the protests and contests to be filed. It had deadlines for the Secretary of State to certify the numbers. It had deadlines for just about everything. And so far as I could tell from watching the news, the administration of the State of Florida was trying to follow these laws as written.

But then the courts got involved. And simply by exploring the mere possibility that they might be persuaded to throw out the counting/certifying process outlined in the law and replace it with one of their own, they delegitimized whatever results would eventually be arrived at, in the eyes of one half of the population or the other. Of course, they then went ahead and did exactly that--they scrapped all those legislatively-established deadlines and processes, and established an entire new counting/certifying regime that had no basis in the law. The result was chaotic, producing recount after recount, each with different numbers. All of these recounts showed Bush in the lead, but each with a smaller margin than the previous. And all the time, everyone was thinking, "If they'd just count under this set of rules, my guy would win." The Gore supporters believed they were being robbed; the Bush supporters believed the Gore supporters were trying to rob them.

And this mess was guaranteed to hurt the credibility and legitimacy of any court unfortunate enough to have to rule on it. When the US Supreme Court finally stepped in and put a halt to it, it left a very bad taste in the mouths of half the population. Had they ruled the opposite way, it would have left a very bad taste in the mouths of the other half of the population. No matter which way they ruled, the Supreme Court would find itself diminished.

After the fact, all kinds of retroactive counts were done to see who "really" won Florida, counting under every scenario that could be imagined--manually interpreting undervotes, overvotes, hanging chads, dimpled chads, and so forth. If my memory serves me, Bush came out ahead in every scenario except one--the one in which overvotes were interpreted manually instead of rejected outright. It seems that enough people had voted Gore/Lieberman, and then voted Gore/Lieberman again as write-in candidates, that this could have put them over the top--had this not technically counted as an overvote and thus voided the ballot.

But again, this comes back to the point that started this discussion: the exact set of rules under which the election is conducted often has an effect, in close races, on the determination of the winner. If you count these overvotes (since the "intent of the voter" is clear), one side wins; if you reject them (since they are technically invalid), the other wins. After you know what the count of votes is, by that point it is not possible to argue what the rules should be without arguing who you want to win.

And the only way this mess could have been avoided, is if the State of Florida--and especially the courts therein--had allowed the process to continue exactly as written in the law, without any possibility that either side could get the process retroactively changed.


So this brings us back to the conundrum the Democratic Party Rules Committee found itself in. The problem was that two of the states broke the rules, and moved their primaries up prior to the earliest acceptable date. The Republicans had this problem too, but they decided to solve it early on by declaring that each state that broke the rules would lose half its delegates, and they stuck by the rule. (It also helped that the Republican candidate was decided fairly early on.) The Democrats, on the other hand, made the terrible, draconian decision to eliminate all the delegates from both states.

And then, the Democratic candidates adapted their campaign strategies to these new rules. They didn't campaign in either state (not like in the other states), and Obama didn't even have his name on the ballot in Michigan. And many of the potential Democratic voters in these states, deciding that their votes would be wasted in the Democratic primaries, crossed over to vote in the Republican primaries, which at least would be selecting some delegates.

And now that the primary season is nearly done, and the Democratic candidates are running very close by most measures, the Democratic Party Rules Committee has changed the rules ostensibly to fix the problems caused by the disenfranchising of two major swing states. But in changing the rules now, they have inherently cast a vote of their own--and it's almost guaranteed to deligitimize the elections in the eyes of half the Democratic electorate.

After all, under the proportional delegate award system that the Democrats use, Obama is ahead by over a hundred delegates. But had the primaries been conducted under the same winner-take-all rules that the Republicans use in most places, Hillary would long since have been their nominee; and my understanding is that with Puerto Rico's recent primary, Hillary has actually received more popular votes so far than Obama has. So who wins? It comes down entirely to the set of rules under which the election is run. And now the Rules Committee is changing the rules! And even if they had chosen to leave the rules alone, that would have had political ramifications, as it would have had an impact on the status of the race.

Going forward, the only way to prevent this kind of problem that I can see, is for people to reject any change to any election rule as utterly illegitimate, during any election season. No change by any rules committee, legislature, or court should be countenanced, from the time before the first vote is cast (and preferably earlier), until the moment the victor takes the oath of office.


It's wrong, it's unfair, and it undermines public faith in the democratic process.


Anyway, it's been good to see Chris back doing his thing online. Dude, when you get going, you really rock.


Arby said...

You are a braver blogger than I. I won't touch the political stuff on my blog. Nicely written. Fair analysis. I like your writing style. I will have to come back and read often.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that the rules that were announced were not the rules as written. What was in the by-laws was half votes. That is the penalty that has been put into effect for Florida. In Michigan there is a bigger problem, as they didn't seat the delegation as elected. If they had, they'd have seated 73 Clinton delegates and 55 uncommitted delegates (who could have voted for whichever they pleased). Since Obama wasn't on the ballot, by his own choice, nobody voted for him. He was awarded 59 delegates, as a compromise. His argument for delegates was based on exit polls.

The option of appealing the decision to the Convention remains. I suspect it will happen. That means another fight in the Credentials Committee, and possibly a Floor Fight.

There exists nothing in the by-laws that gives the committee the right to change the make-up of a delegation and award votes to a candidate that didn't run in that state. Not seating a delegation was technically a thing the party had the right to do, but it wasn't the penalty specified in the by-laws.

Chris said...

Brother Tim,

Wow! I'm honored. Your post about my post generated ideas for new posts to be pondered and posted, hence validating the circularity of the blogosphere yet again.

Thanks for the kind words. Really.