Friday, November 16, 2018

Spoilers undermining elections; Maine becomes especially vulnerable

Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, thought a lot about elections. 

A mathematician as well as a writer, he disliked plurality elections.  The candidate winning the most votes, but less than a majority, would have been rejected by most voters.  That could happen with three candidates or more.  Carroll, the penname of Charles Dodgson, failed to come up with a good solution.

Plurality elections produce minority winners.  The candidate finishing after the top two may be a “spoiler.”  Without races limited to two candidates, spoilers are inevitable.

A spoiler ruins the smooth running of elections, because that candidate may distort the will of the voters.  Why are there spoilers, people who have no realistic chance of winning but must understand they can affect the outcome?

Some spoilers are shams, and run to support one candidate by drawing votes away from another.  Some run to gain a wider audience for their views, even hoping their showing might lead to a new party.  Some seem to think that lightning will strike, and voters will suddenly rush toward them.

Here’s an example of the spoiler effect.  In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president as an independent, appealing to Republican voters more than to Democrats.  He drew so many votes from President George H.W. Bush in Maine that Democrat Bill Clinton carried the state and Bush, despite his Maine connections, finished third.

In 2000, Ralph Nader probably cost Al Gore the presidential election by siphoning off Gore votes in Florida and Oregon.  A classic spoiler was Eliot Cutler in the 2014 Maine governor’s race, who reneged on his promise to drop out if he trailed. 

This year, Alan Caron, independent candidate for governor, made the same promise and, in a classy move, kept it.  So did the potential spoiler in Arizona’s U.S. Senate contest.

Voters could see the possible impact of spoilers all across the country.  Maine is gaining the national spotlight, because it alone uses ranked choice voting to determine the winner in federal elections. 

Ranked choice voting has been called instant runoff voting, because second choice votes for a first round loser may be instantly reassigned to other candidates.  It lacks the second campaign that accompanies a real runoff.  Depending on your viewpoint, it either enshrines spoilers or neutralizes them.   

Gail Collins, a New York Times columnist, last week told the world about the Maine, writing, “Why didn’t anybody think of this before?”  Second District GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin, afraid of losing his seat thanks to ranked choice voting, launched a federal court challenge to it. 

The combined effect of Poliquin’s challenge and Collins’ column may bring the system onto the national stage.

In 2011, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco tipped its hat to Carroll and provided an excellent analysis of plurality, run-offs and ranked choice elections.  Each had defects.  Were ranked choice voting issues great enough to endanger the constitutional rights of voters?

If there were big problems, the Court said it would apply “strict scrutiny,” meaning it would have to order less harmful ways of accomplishing the same purpose.  But if the possible harm was relatively small, the Court need not go that far. 

While not weighing the relative effect of various election systems, the Appeals Court, the highest court yet to consider ranked choice voting, found any harm was small, meaning the new system could be used.  Poliquin’s appeal challenged this conclusion.

The Appeals Court’s impartial analysis of the system was thorough.  This week, the U.S. District Court denied Poliquin’s bid to stop the law.  A final federal court decision, if it sustains earlier findings, could lead to broader national adoption of ranked choice voting.

Ranked choice voting would not eliminate hopeful spoilers.  Unless the requirements for entering the race are raised, it might even encourage them.  This year, a nonresident ran third in the Second District election, needing only 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot.  Meanwhile, the in-district Democrat had to win a costly primary.

Major-party candidates mostly ignore potential spoilers, probably fearful of drawing more attention to them.  Campaigns are so busy bashing one another that they often miss the possible effect of also-rans.

Candidates should campaign more openly on the potential effect of spoilers.  Ignoring them hasn’t worked.  States should make it tougher for potential spoilers to run, because the process is now biased in their favor.  States might also consider adopting runoffs.

Carroll was wise.  He knew elections are not a whimsical wonderland, but a real battleground where the rules of political war can determine winners.  

Friday, November 9, 2018

Dems boost their 2020 outlook, but Trump owns GOP

Whatever else that can be said about the 2018 elections, they are a picnic for pundits.

They can find anything they want in the results.  Trump won or he lost.  There was no “blue wave” or the Democrats scored big gains in the House and governor’s seats.  The president has gained a Democratic House to target in campaign attacks or the Democrats now have the votes to impeach him.

Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is, as always, a matter of how one views it.  For many voters enough is enough, and they are ready to shift their focus to the holidays, their families and football.

Still, beyond the short-term effects, the elections may have provided some important markers about how politics in America is changing.

If people believed that the 2016 Trump election was a fluke, they have been corrected.  The make-up of the congressional GOP shows that the party belongs to him.  Traditional Republicans have lost control.  His hold on the Senate means he can worry less about moderates like Sen. Susan Collins.

In effect, the Republican Party has become more clearly conservative.  For Trump, it is a matter of “my way or the highway.”  It is time to stop talking about the Trump “base.”  He owns the GOP.

As for the House, Trump can see it as a normal midterm shift away from the party of the president and not as a swift rejection of his brand of politics.  If he is right, it may result from the fact that he never enjoyed majority popular support.

In 2016, he won 2.9 million votes less than Hillary Clinton, but her majority was so concentrated that he picked up the win in electoral votes.  It is possible this year that a popular majority voted for Democratic candidates, and, lacking the electoral vote effect, their party gained the House.

It is certain that Trump is running in 2020.  The question for the GOP is whether an anti-Trumper, like outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich or retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake can muster enough support to take a run at him in the Republican primaries.

Beyond the question of whether the elections were a referendum on Trump, they shed more light on how the political world is changing.

The Census classifies all municipalities as urban or non-urban.  The country is becoming more urban, and the election showed that the Democratic-Republican split is becoming even more clearly an urban-rural divide.

In Maine, the First District House contest, easily won by the Democratic incumbent, was much less heated than the Second District battle, where a GOP incumbent was challenged.  Yet it looks like the more urban First will have cast more ballots than were counted in the rural Second.

More women and minorities ran and, it is likely more of them voted, along with added young people.  They tilted toward the Democrats.  As they become an increasing share of the electorate, that could reduce the long-term prospects for the GOP.

The strong runs of an African-American woman for governor in Georgia and a Democrat for the Senate in Texas, both unimaginable a few years ago, are signs of dramatic demographic and political change in the Republican heartland.

While these changes may look promising for Democrats, the future is not guaranteed to belong to them.

The GOP majority in the Senate has increased if for no other reason than most seats in the elections were held by Democrats.  That flips in 2020, when many GOP seats are up.

Trump and the Senate majority have the power to reshape the federal courts during the next two years.  The Democrats cannot stop them.  Their only hope, however unlikely, would be to trade House support for GOP policies for some neutral judicial appointments.

The Democrats must also better define themselves in the face of a clearly Trump GOP.  Will they be seen as the progressive counterforce to Trump or as centrists?

While the Democratic Party has historically been able to accommodate a wide range of political views, the candidate it selects in 2020 will have to send a message on how the party should be seen.  Trump has shown that the candidate defines the party and not the reverse.

As for issues, the economy can be expected to dominate. The boom will end.  The government tax cut stimulus has been financed by debt.  Not only will the economy slow, but the bill will come due.

The pundits say the next election campaign has begun, but so perhaps has the next political era.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Washington, the president we need; Trump, the president we have

Each year, on his statutory birthday, this column pays tribute to George Washington.  Now, in light of the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews at worship and the role of President Trump in creating the atmosphere for such actions, it joins with others across the country in recalling one of his writings.

Rhode Island, fearful that is small size would lead to its being run over by the other states, refused to ratify the Constitution.  When President Washington toured the entire country, he intentionally skipped Rhode Island.  Only after the other states threatened a trade embargo did Rhode Island, by the narrowest of votes, ratify.

Washington then decided he must visit Rhode Island.  He traveled by boat from New York, then the capital city, to Newport, Rhode Island.  When he stepped off the boat, he was greeted by members of the Jewish congregation there, happy to be part of the United States and honored by the arrival of the president.

The president was an exceptional man.  He had refused any offer of a royal title in the new country, even declining to be called “Your Excellency.”  A Virginian, he would order that his slaves would be freed at his death, and they were freed more than 60 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.  

He sought to be president of all Americans, though he faced opposition from Thomas Jefferson and his new political party.  Among the ranks of the Americans fighting the British, he included Roman Catholics and Jews, though both were the objects of discrimination.

He condemned only those who would rebel against the United States.  But he did not identify himself with the country and received heated criticism.  He understood that whatever he did set the tone for the entire country and its government.

Contrast what he wrote in his letter thanking the Newport Jewish congregation with what President Trump says.  The American people need a leader who will rise above partisanship and rabble rousing, just as Washington did.

It would be easy to say that the times are different, and the president can no longer be so civilized.  But a true leader must rise above the passions of the times.  He or she must remind Americans of their faith in the goodness of their country, not stimulate and exploit their distrust of one another. 

Washington is the true American president, not Trump.  When people vote, they should keep the difference in mind.  Herewith is the letter Washington wrote to the Newport Jewish congregation.

Gentlemen: While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.  If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.  It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity.  May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.  May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Friday, October 26, 2018

Climate change, tax cuts will boost national debt

“You can pay me now or you can pay me later.”

Many people know that famous auto repair slogan. 

When it comes to public policy, people prefer to pay later.

A U.N. Nobel Prize panel on climate change recently reported the earth’s temperature is climbing much faster than expected.  It forecast that we are close to the point of no return.

Tides are higher, glaciers melt and low-lying island nations and some major cities are now sure to lose out to rising waters.  Storms are becoming more severe, with a loss of life and property, because of climate change.

The Trump Administration accepts that the climate is growing warmer even faster than predicted.  Yet it has quit the Paris climate agreement, arguing that controlling the temperature increase will cut economic growth and undercut the coal industry, which President Trump supports.

Relatively few people maintain that there is no climate change.  Almost anybody in Maine engaged in fishing for lobsters can tell you the change is obvious and measurable.

Some question whether the change is caused by humans or nature, but little doubt remains that people contribute significantly to warming.

Trump’s policy amounts to saying that we want economic growth now and we cannot do anything meaningful about inevitable global warming.  We want money in our pockets and push worries about the costs of climate change out into the future.

So, we ignore the panel’s report, giving a threat to the entire world less attention on news broadcasts than the story of a single lost child.

How about taxes?  We are continually told that Washington and Augusta are taking money out of our pockets to support bloated government.  Politicians perennially promise tax cuts and scorn almost any policy that has a price tag.  Because people depend on some programs, spending cuts cannot equal tax cuts.

Congress passed a tax cut of about $1.5 trillion.  Republicans promised the cut would stimulate the economy and increase tax revenues.  It didn’t, and the federal deficit shot up 17 percent, which Trump’s Treasury Department concludes is the result of reduced revenue more than increased spending.

Now the GOP Senate leader proposes to reduce the deficit by cutting Social Security and Medicare.  In other words, we can have tax cuts now and slash essential programs in the future.

Trump on the campaign trail says he will propose an added ten percent tax cut for middle-income workers.  He offers no details on how it would be financed.

For the federal government to provide tax reductions it cannot afford even now, it must increase its borrowing.  Payments on the government debt last year passed the amount spent on national defense.   In short, the U.S. might be said to borrow just to defend itself.

In Maine, a candidate for governor now proposes to improve education and health care, but suggests that a tax cut is also possible.  Since the state must have a balanced budget, we need to know what will be cut.  Otherwise, the promises are empty.

Americans are not alone in ignoring the future effects of decisions that make today’s voters happily accept half-baked policies.

The British voted to leave the EU, because they dislike immigration from elsewhere in Europe and having to obey Europe’s rules instead of their own.  They said they preferred to go it alone.  The empire wanted to bask in its ancient glory for a few more years, but at a price.

With the departure of foreign-born hospital nurses and major financial institutions, the price of Brexit, which had never been fully disclosed, has begun to be paid.  It might have felt good to vote for Brexit, but paying the cost of that decision is likely to be high.

For Brexit or tax cuts, voters may still change course and cut the cost.  Reversing climate change would be more difficult.  These moves would take some political courage and a willingness to be called “socialist.”  

Not all government policies are about short-term job creation or seeing how far taxes can be cut. Public purposes for which there is broad need must be supported financially. 

Essential spending on national defense, Social Security and environmental protection does not produce a bloated or socialist government.  If that spending is coupled with tax cuts, the result is a bloated national debt.  If spending then is slashed, the result could be major economic and social harm to the country.
We can pay now for an oil change and new tires or we are sure to own a clunker later, costing a lot more to repair.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Trump, big money 'nationalize' political campaigns

This weeks’ political quiz.  One the following is true and one is false. 

(a) “All politics is local.”  

(b) Money is the lifeblood of politics.

The correct answer is (b).  It makes (a) false. 

The reverse was once true, with election campaigns conducted on a “retail” face-to-face basis on issues that were matters of state or local concern.  Now, many campaigns are national and rely heavily on outside funds and support.

This year, the U.S. House of Representatives is forecast to flip from Republican to Democratic and that there is even a slim chance that GOP could also lose control of the Senate.

The Democrats need to pick up at least 23 seats to gain House control, usually too great a challenge in any election.  Incumbents traditionally hold onto their seats.  This year, a great many House Republicans have chosen not to run, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

What has clearly turned this year’s House elections into a national contest is President Trump.  With both houses of Congress in Republican control, he is able to pursue his policies virtually unchecked.  His popularity remains relatively low, and voters may favor giving Democrats control of the House to block him.

Aside from party loyalty, voters in House races are likely to be more influenced by their view of Trump than of their local candidate.  This may also be true in Senate races, but most seats there up for election this year are held by Democrats, making their challenge to Trump more difficult.

Once most financial support for candidates came from within his or her home state, and much of it came in small amounts.  A big change took place in 2010 when the Democrats persisted in treating House races as local while the GOP launched a national campaign based on opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

This year, a billionaire, who made his fortune running casinos, is contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates across the country, almost entirely because of Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  Local issues don’t matter.

The political mantra seems to be, “All politics is money.”  We have reached the point where there is virtually no limit on big money contributions to elections.  Unless you read the fine print at the bottom of television campaign commercials, you miss the extent of out-of-state campaign funding. 

“SuperPACS” receive huge, unlimited sums, their sources kept secret.  They can spend freely, so long as they claim they are independent of the candidates they support.  Their outlays dwarf labor union contributions, despite their effort to make it seem they are merely striking a balance.

Let’s look at the campaign of a House incumbent from Maine to see the role of outside money.

One commercial for Second District candidate Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent, is funded by the NRCC, which states that it is not affiliated with his campaign.  But the NRCC is the National Republican Congressional Campaign, the party’s main organization for supporting House candidates.

The largest contributors to it are major finance and insurance companies plus the campaign funds raised by GOP House hopefuls for party leader who want members’ votes when the new Congress assembles in January. 

Poliquin’s campaign website notes: “He earned success helping manage pensions, including at Bath Iron Works.”  That understates his success.  He has been rated as the 17th wealthiest member of the 435 member House on the strength of what he made as an investment manager.

Among his largest contributors are financial firms like Citigroup and UBS.  They may not be seeking his support for their issues but simply ensuring that a like-minded congressman, with experience in the world of finance, remains in office.  Either way, this support has little to do with Maine.

Whether it is Poliquin or other candidates, voters can easily be left with the false impression that the candidates are locally supported.  The trail of the big money behind congressional campaigns reveals that many candidates are dependent on national interests beyond their claimed local focus.

Most of the money goes to buy television commercials and to send mailings in which candidates make their case or, more often, their opponents are attacked.  Backers know that voters are influenced by negative spots, short on solid information and often wildly inaccurate.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that spending money is part of free speech, making it virtually impossible to limit campaign cash.  Now, in politics, big money talks loudly. 

Congress should seek ways to limit money in campaigns, forcing a new Court review, if necessary.