Friday, September 30, 2016

Rank-choice voting revealed: costly, complicated, undemocratic

Supporters of ranked-choice voting have revealed two important facts about the proposal.

First, they believe that using it will change voter behavior and make us get along better politically with one another.

Second, they implicitly acknowledge it is complicated and unprecedented by running a series of mock elections to select people’s favorite beer.

But they have missed two important facts.  Ranked-choice voting is more expensive than either the current election system or any accepted alternative to plurality elections in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

And the proposed system is undemocratic and far more vulnerable to tampering than the current system.

Let's take a closer look.

In order to win a ranked-choice election, a candidate might need the second- and third-place votes from supporters of other candidates.  Supporters think that candidates will go easy on one another to pick up those votes.  That would bring a change in the political atmosphere, they say.

But today’s deep partisan divisions are not likely so easily to give way to political peace.  It may prove difficult for ideological candidates to gain back-up support.  Portland’s non-partisan mayoral race is a poor predictor of party politics.

In fact, if candidates line up deeply divided on the issues, it is far from sure that in critical elections voters will even cast second-choice votes.

The state needs a system that will produce compromises, but that won't happen because of what is essentially a vote-counting gimmick.  Forging compromises is a question of leadership.

The complexity of ranked-choice voting is obvious.  Instead of simply voting for the candidate you prefer, each voter must have an election strategy.  They have to guess at what will happen to their back-up votes.

For example, in a four-way race, a voter who had supported only the first two candidates eliminated would then be stripped of any role in the ultimate election.  To have their votes count in the last round, they would have had to vote for their first- and third-favorite choices, skipping the second.  Confusing?  Absolutely.

Proponents forecast a change in human behavior because of their system.  But using such forecasts as the main argument in favor of a proposal is risky.

Then, there's the higher cost of ranked-choice voting.  According to the Maine Secretary of State, the cost to the state of such an election would be about $910,000, compared with $248,000 under the current system.

If Maine allowed a run-off election between the two highest vote getters, the cost would be only twice the current amount.

Another solution would be to have all candidates run in a single primary with the top two running in the general election.  Used in California, that system would cost a bit less than today.

Though the focus is on the governor’s race, at any one election there could be as many as 190 ranked-choice races to count:  the governor, a U.S. senator, two U.S. House members, and 186 members of the Maine Legislature.  Any single voter could face a ballot with five ranked-choice votes.

One of the reasons for the higher cost of ranked-choice elections is the need to transport all ballots to a single counting location.  They would then be run through a computer.  Contrast that with more than 450 voting locations today, where the votes can be checked by direct viewing and the results easily totaled.

A single computer would be far more vulnerable to tampering.  And any foul play would be invisible and might not be discovered for months or years after the election.

Finally, there’s the matter of democracy itself.  In the current system, a run-off or a top-two primary, voters can understand the consequences of their choices.  In ranked-choice voting, voters cannot foresee the effect of their second- and third-choice votes.

Ranked-choice voting is not used in any federal or state election.  Plurality voting, as in Maine, is used in 39 states.  The rest use some form of run-off. 

The reason is simple.  In any currently used system, voters know the consequences of their votes.  By contrast, ranked-choice voting is a costly shot on the dark.

(Column in Portland Press-Herald 9/30/16)

Why many voters ignore Trump’s negatives

Donald Trump is an egomaniac, a racist, a liar, and a cheat, and he has no idea of public affairs or foreign policy.

So say his critics and opponents, some of them members of the party that has nominated him for president.  The media has uncovered his misdeeds, some of them possibly illegal.

If that's true, why do the numbers crunchers find that he has anywhere from a 14 to 44 percent chance of being elected?  Apparently, many people simply deny his negatives or they don’t matter to them.

There seems to be several, overlapping reasons for his unexpectedly good chances.

First, there are die-hard Republicans, who sound like the old “yellow dog Democrats.”  They were said to be willing to vote for a yellow dog on their party's ticket rather than any Republican.

These voters worry about the long-term survival of the party if it were wiped out in a national election.  They may not like Trump.  They only need him to do well enough not to ruin the GOP brand and harm its other candidates running this year.

Then, there are Americans who worry about the passing of the old order in which white men dominated government and the private sector.  They may think equal treatment of women and minorities is merely “politically correct.”  Even worse, they may be racists who believe they have at last found their public spokesman.

Trump may be a demagogue, but he sends these people signals that he would be a president who would listen to their concerns.  When says he will “make America great again,” they tell the BBC that they hear “make America white again.”  These are the voters Hillary Clinton ill advisedly called “deplorables.”

Estimates of the number of voters holding these views range from five to 25 percent.  Add them to the die-hard Republicans and Trump can starts counting votes from a good base.

And some voters dislike Clinton so strongly they will vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils.  Many of them can be found in the first two groups. 

She has not reduced the problem.  Clinton comes across to many as untrustworthy, mainly because she reveals so little of herself.  She is far too much a lawyer, using arguments and excuses that might work in court but don't convince voters.  Trump tries to make Clinton’s greater experience work against her.

The Democrat might be more open about herself, her specific actions when in office, and her mistakes.  A more revealing and humble candidate, giving off less of an aura of superiority to the rest of us, could reverse some mistrust of her.

She has a problem with the media.  As Trump's faults pile up, the media seems determined to match them with her errors.  That kind of reporting is what passes for being fair and objective.  Some voters accept the supposed equality of error as true.

Lacking much positive to say about Trump, the media says little positive about Clinton's record in helping youth and serving in public office.  That kind of reporting balance is inadequate and unfair.  The debates may force change in how s is covered.

Finally, frustration with the failures of the federal government to free itself from total partisanship and to find compromises has led to many believing that only radical change would work.  With Sen. Bernie Sanders gone from the race, only Trump offers the prospect of such change.  The news that no Fortune 100 CEO supports Trump is probably a plus for him.

Trump has no clear policy to bring about change and end gridlock.  He seems not to understand that he cannot use his negotiation practices and bravado to overrule Congress or to get other countries to acquiesce in his foreign policy.

Still, the political situation seems so desperate to many voters that they are willing to give Trump a blank check.  They don't know what he would do, but they see it as a certainty that he would end Washington's business as usual.

If Trump can avoid offending some of these voters by racist outbursts, they could add significantly to his support.  With them, the polls show he closes the gap in the popular vote.  Plus Trump believes that some voters will not divulge their support for him to pollsters.

Trump’s shortcomings may not matter to his supporters, and hammering on them won’t change their view.  The result is this is turning out to be an election that Clinton is trying to save, but could be Trump's to win.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Economic recovery good, but spread unevenly across country

Last week, there was good economic news.  Maybe.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that household income had risen during 2015 by 5.7 percent.  That was the first increase since 2007, the last year before the Great Recession.  Women employed full-time gained somewhat more than men.  Unemployment was down and millions more had health insurance.

That’s the good news.  The not-so-good news was that, even with the increase, household income was still below what it had been in 2007 and even further behind the 1999 level.

Income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor, stabilized and did not increase last year, but it was still high and well above what it had been in the 1990s.

For some doubters about the economic improvement, there would be no positive news until people who had quit looking for a job and were no longer counted as unemployed came back into the labor force.  For other critics, improvement would depend on reducing the income gap.

Recovery from the recession has been imperfect partly because of imperfect government policy.  President Obama managed to push through one stimulus boost, but Congress denied him any more jump-start spending. 

Because of the inability to use fiscal measures – government spending and tax tools – all anti-recession efforts have been left to monetary policy run by the Federal Reserve.  It drastically lowered interest rates and added more money to the economy. 

At some point, Federal Reserve policy lost strength.  It has weakened interest rates as a tool by keeping them below one percent even as the economy recovered.  Small increases will not return normal interest rates, with their greater flexibility as a tool, for years. 

But the problem seems to go well beyond simply recovering to the 2007 level.  Many well-paid, relatively less skilled jobs have migrated out of the country.  Now, lower paid workers elsewhere produce competitively priced imports.  That’s one cause of complaints about trade policy. 

The exported jobs won’t come back home.  And technology makes production here possible with fewer workers.  The U.S. needs to provide better training and retraining, so people can add skills and adjust to more advanced needs. 

Workers must now be paid in line with the value of their labor to products or services.  The way to create jobs that pay well is to keep the country ahead of others in developing leading edge products and services.  That requires government help, now lacking.

There’s another reason the good economic news may not feel so positive.  In the U.S., with the third largest population in the world, people spread across a continent are not likely to have the same experience as the national average. 

The American national economy is composed of many smaller economies.  Broad economic policies, as proposed by presidential candidates, have uneven effects across the country.  That should prompt states to take on bigger roles in developing economic growth. 

Traditionally, that has meant offering tax breaks to companies willing to locate in a state.  Such policies do not promote national economy growth.  They are simply aimed at luring jobs away from other states. 

Tax incentives will not do the job by themselves.  They are not targeted and, in light of interstate competition, they are not likely to be notably better that what’s available elsewhere.  They amount to a passive economic development effort.

Some states, like California or Texas, have complex economies virtually the same as that of an independent nation.  But many others, including Maine, must develop and exploit a more limited range of sectors.

With the oldest median age population in the country and as a popular place for retirement, Maine could create a focus on innovative ways of providing living space and health care to seniors.  State educational institutions could increase training of health care personnel.

Such targeted development depends on better marketing of what the state does well.  Let retirees know they are invited and health care professionals know they are needed.

If public funds spent through tax incentives were replaced by targeted spending on sectors in which Maine can specialize, the results could produce more and better employment.  In short, active development effort should replace passive and sometimes questionable tax cuts.

A divided federal government will likely remain unable to produce a consistent growth policy and possibly much else.  Even if Republicans succeed in cutting regulations or taxes, that won’t necessarily boost the Maine economy or that of many other states.

The absence of federal action should lead to greater state action in economic development.  Otherwise, recovery, however good, could pass by some states and workers.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Ranked-choice voting: the alternatives

This is the final part of a three-part series opposing ranked-choice voting, Question 5 on the November state ballot.

Suppose you regret the election of Gov. Paul LePage, the result of his opposition vote being split between two other candidates.

One solution, you think, might be ranked-choice voting, believing that way another candidate would have defeated LePage, despite his having the most first-place votes.

There are at least four other ways of dealing with plurality election winners.  They are less unusual, less complicated and more transparent.  And they are less dangerous to real democracy.

1.  The run-off election.  The most obvious is the run-off, a second round election between the two top vote getters when nobody wins a majority.  Unlike ranked-choice voting, run-offs exist in several other states.

The run-off allows for a second round of campaigning, giving voters a close look at the finalists, and a real choice.

In 2015, the Lewiston mayoral race failed to produce a majority winner, so the city held a run-off between the top two vote getters.  The second-place finisher in the first round was elected after a fresh discussion of the issues.

Critics say second-round run-offs have lower voter turnouts and impose an added cost on taxpayers.  In Lewiston, the turnout for the second vote was about the same as the first. 

As for cost, run-offs are not expensive and what voters buy is a real chance to vote, the most important role most people play in a democracy.  Is a real election worth the cost of a candy bar?  Remember, there are added costs for ranked-choice as well.

2.  Top-two primaries.  All candidates run against each other in the primary, and the top two finishers go onto the election ballot.

There are no party primaries.  The result may even be that two candidates of the same party or with similar views face each other in the election.  In contrast, run-off elections are usually between candidates of different parties.

This system has real advantages.  It can save money by replacing two political party primaries.  It prevents split voting from affecting the result.  It’s used in California and a few other states.

In Maine, that system could have yielded an election between LePage and independent Eliot Cutler in 2010 and between LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud in 2014.

3.  “Plural nomination.”  A candidate may appear more than once on the ballot.  That could allow a candidate to run as both a party nominee and an independent.

In closely contested elections in recent decades, the candidates for governor were a Republican, a Democrat and a former Democrat running as an independent.  These independents were Jim Longley, the 1974 winner, Angus King, who won in 1994 and 1998, and Cutler in the two LePage elections. 

King looks like he could run as a Democrat in 2018, but he might remain an independent.  The Democrats will want to have a Senate candidate on the ballot, because a failure to field a candidate for statewide office could affect the rest of the ticket.  Right now in Maine, a candidate can only appear once on the ballot.

This solution, also called “electoral fusion,” would require only minor legislative changes and could prove a viable alternative to ranked-choice voting.  A candidate like King could run on two different lines on the ballot, say Democrat and independent, avoiding a split that LePage might try to exploit. 

This procedure is authorized in nine states and has been frequently used in New York.  Earl Warren was elected this way as governor of California and went on to be U.S. chief justice.

What all these voting methods have in common is they are used in other states and are part of the American political tradition, while ranked-choice voting is not used in any American statewide election.  They all accomplish the same purpose sought by ranked-choice advocates.

4.  Status quo.  The best solution is probably to stick with the current use of plurality elections, also used by the overwhelming majority of states.  The person with the most votes is elected.  Of course, a candidate lacking a majority may win, but that’s also true in ranked-choice voting.

The system imposes an obligation on voters to be aware of the risks of divided opposition.  The media and civic groups must do a better job of educating and informing voters on those risks. 

In the current system, the voters must inform themselves and then decide.  While there are workable alternative methods, untested ranked-choice voting is an unsatisfactory substitute for widely accepted ways of providing real voter choice.