Friday, June 29, 2018

Ranked choice voting reveals weaknesses without promised benefits

Maine was fleetingly in the national political spotlight this year, because it held the first statewide election using ranked choice voting (RCV), the system allowing people to vote for several candidates in rank order.

After using the process in party primaries, Maine provided other states with a model to study.  An accompanying referendum suggested that RCV is here to stay.  The lessons from the process are worth examining, because Mainers will vote again on RCV and others may be tempted to try it.

The gubernatorial primary in both parties turned out to pit the favorite against the field.  Could using back-up votes change the outcome resulting from the traditional system in which the person with the most votes wins?

The RCV process changed nothing.  The two candidates, who would have been selected under the usual plurality voting, won under RCV.  The field could not gang up on the frontrunner. 

The GOP race avoided RCV and simply gave Shawn Moody, the frontrunner, an outright majority. 

On the Democratic side, Janet Mills, the ultimate nominee, led Adam Cote in the first round of vote counting by 54 percent to 46 percent, if only their votes are counted.  She obtained exactly the same result over him in the final round of ballot counting after all other candidates were eliminated.   

In short, RCV offered no improvement on the traditional system.  If the state had used the California open primary system in which the top two candidates win and then face one another in November, the result would also have been the same.

RCV also showed that, as in almost all major elections, money matters, probably more than the process.  The candidates who invested in the greatest TV presence also got the most votes. 

The other big spending campaign was waged in support of RCV itself, though it faced no organized campaign opposition.  The pro-RCV campaign was heavily funded by out-of-state millionaires who used Maine to test their political game.

The new process did not bring out more voters.  The last time there was an open governor’s seat was 2010, and there were five Republican primary candidates. They received 120,612 votes.  This time, using RCV, the four candidate GOP race drew 88,344 first round votes.  It’s questionable if RCV affects turnout.

The length of time it took to collect and count the ballots reveals some real and potential weaknesses in the RCV system.  It took days for the ballots to get to Augusta, but Moody, the Republican, could start campaigning immediately.  Alan Caron, an independent candidate, promptly launched his television ad campaign. 

Though Mills has a platform as Attorney-General, she could not begin competing with them for eight days while ballots were being processed. That’s more than five percent of the total campaign period, a handicap imposed by RCV.

The collection and counting process ran into technical problems.  It looks like the Secretary of State’s office handled RCV well and without any bias.  But much of what happened between casting ballots and coming up with a final result was complicated and unseen by the public. A laptop computer ran the final count.

That process increases the chances of something going wrong or, even worse, of somebody tampering with it in a future election.  With RCV, we trust the most important political choices to a complex process in which there is more room for cheating or computer error.

At a time when we demand more transparency, RCV gives us much less.  Also, processing the ballots costs more.

The Republican primary kept alive the rule of one person, one vote.  The Democratic primary did not.  Some voters’ first choices kept changing as the field narrowed from the original seven candidates.  Meanwhile, other voters, who backed lower ranked candidates, were eliminated as the counting continued.

The Maine primaries were not the last word on RCV.  The state constitution allows it in federal races, but not in state general elections.  After its use in party primaries for governor, the traditional plurality vote will be used in the November election of the new chief executive.

To use RCV for general state elections would require passage of a constitutional amendment.  In effect, Mainers will have to vote for a third time on the new process.  More out-of-state money will pour in, attempting to influence how Maine governs itself.

If RCV survives, a voter for a losing candidate could go to court – state or federal – challenging the lack of one person, one vote.

The rest of the country will again get to watch Maine’s electoral drama.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Trump prefers dictators to democrats

When European countries were ruled by kings, the monarchs often called one another by the name of their country.  For example, “Russia” might meet with “England,” in a session involving only the two rulers.

Kings were the same as their countries because they alone were sovereigns.  The people were their “subjects,” not “citizens.”

That practice disappeared as sovereignty came to be held by citizens, and the surviving kings or queens reigned but no longer ruled.  The United States rebelled against the British King and replaced George III with “We, the People.”

Just as kings represented their countries, so would the “President of the United States,” though presidents would not be sovereigns or rulers.

But here is a problem with President Trump.  He sometimes seems to believe that his unusual and unexpected election means that he should be respected as if he enjoyed what used to be called “the divine right of kings.”

He may see himself as embodying his country.  At his post G-7 press conference in Canada, he was asked why he “attacked the U.S. press,” especially when he was on “foreign soil.”

He replied that much of the American media is “very dishonest.”  Some reporters are “with the U.S.,” leaving some who are not.  They are responsible for “fake news,” which is how he labels news reports unfavorable to him.  Not being “with the U.S.” seems to mean not being “with Trump.”

In short, the president creates his version of the facts, and, if the media deviates from those facts, it is “dishonest” and, worse, disloyal to the country.

People around the president suggested last week that the White House should remove the credentials of journalists whose reports are not in line with the Trump administration.  Such an action would override the role of a free press that shines an independent light on government.

No president likes that spotlight. In what has been called perhaps the worst U.S. law ever passed, President John Adams used the Sedition Act in an attempt to crush media opposition.  He signed it in 1798 and lost re-election in 1800.  It expired in 1801, just before he left office.

Trump’s conduct in office, often more like a monarch than the leader of a democratic republic, reflects his sense of the powers he gained with election.  It goes far beyond his relationship with a free press.

At first, he seemed to expect that Congress should almost automatically approve his policies, mostly likely because he and the congressional majority were Republican.  Apparently, he did not see Congress as a co-equal branch of government.

Even more important, he stretched the discretion the law gives the president, taking actions obviously contrary to congressional intent. His decision to split the families of illegal immigrants, not done previously and not required by law, is a solid example of this approach.

He has felt himself liberated from adhering to the commitments and traditions that have developed throughout American political history.  From the pardoning power to his almost weekly travel to his Florida home at public expense to his personal attacks on opponents, he has ignored custom.

Trump did not serve in the military, but, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has become accustomed to returning salutes from soldiers.  As a result, he inadvertently saluted a uniformed North Korean general.  President Harry Truman, who had served in combat, did not salute.

Early in his term, Trump was reluctant to reaffirm the American obligation to join in mutual defense under NATO.  Allies who had lined up with the U.S. from the Korean conflict to Afghanistan suddenly began to worry if they would benefit from standing U.S. commitments.

This week he blasted German immigration policy, relying on false statistics about crime there.  Trump had no problem alienating a friendly nation and one of the world’s economic powers.

In foreign affairs, Trump openly attacks friendly democratic nations, while lavishing praise on repressive dictators.

North Korea’s Kim Jung Un kills dissidents without a trial by firing squads armed with artillery howitzers. He is “tough,” according to an admiring Trump.  Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who regretfully defends his country against U.S. tariff increases, is ‘weak.”

Given his view of the presidency, he appears to believe that, in face-to-face negotiations, he and leaders like Kim and Russia’s Putin can simply make a deal.

It is not difficult to understand that Trump’s governing style makes him more comfortable with Kim, Putin or China’s Xi than with Germany’s Merkel or Trudeau.  Authoritarian leaders – the current equivalent of kings – exercise power as if they were sovereigns. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Government not working as Constitution originally intended

President Trump asserts he has an “absolute right to pardon himself.” No president has ever pardoned himself, though the right of the president to issue pardons for federal crimes is found in the Constitution.

The Constitution is a broad statement of principles about the federal government and the separation of powers among the three branches – Congress, the president and the courts. It does not state who the president may pardon.

How can Trump claim he has such a right? He obviously knows that he has pardoning power and believes the Constitution does not limit who may be pardoned, so it must include him.

Here’s the answer. The document was written by a group of people who arrived at a common understanding of how the U.S. government would work. They assumed their successors would apply the document, sharing their assumptions. It turned out they were right for much of the nation’s history.

There was something else. In order to convince New York to ratify the Constitution, three people, led by Alexander Hamilton, wrote a series of articles called “The Federalist.” In them, they explained how they thought the government would work, trying to convince readers that it would not be a threat to them.

One of the articles discussed the presidential pardon power. Showing how careful the president would be in issuing pardons, Hamilton explained: “The reflection that the fate of a fellow-creature depended on his sole fiat, would naturally inspire scrupulousness and caution….”

This sentence leaves no doubt that a pardon is to be issued carefully by the president for “a fellow creature,” not to himself. That was the usual practice in other countries. But Trump has taken advantage of the lack of a specific statement in the Constitution to claim he could enjoy a right not originally meant to be his.

The Maine Constitution is similarly general, allowing a pardon by the governor “after conviction.” The Legislature may impose conditions on the pardoning power. That may also be possible under the U.S. Constitution, assuring that the right to pardon, like all other rights, is not “absolute.”

The point is that the Constitution is a general statement and its application was expected to observe certain widely known customs and understandings. In recent years, that approach has been worn away, allowing the wording to be interpreted in ways that were not intended.

U.S. military forces are deployed in combat abroad, sometimes with major loss of American lives. Yet Congress is not usually asked for a declaration of war nor does it seem eager to be asked, whatever the Constitution requires. Sometimes, it does not even know about deployments of American forces.

The Senate holds phony sessions, at which nothing happens, for the simple purpose of preventing there being any congressional recess during which the president could make temporary appointments to office, as allowed by the Constitution. Offices go unfilled.

The Senate is required by the Constitution to give its “advice and consent” to major presidential appointments. But, to block a nominee of President Obama, the Senate refused for a year even to allow consideration of the appointment. That was not the intent of the Constitution. If they didn’t like him, the senators could have rejected him.

The same Republican leadership that permanently blocked the Obama appointment has unusually called the Senate back into regular session this summer on the grounds the Democrats are too slow in processing Trump nominees.

There’s another such issue that was in federal court this week. The “emoluments clause” of the Constitution bans federal officials from accepting “any present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever” from a foreign state.

Trump still receives income from his hotels, which are used by representatives of foreign states. Countries seeking favors from the federal government often lodge their representatives at Trump’s Washington hotel. Is he receiving an emolument? Who has the right to file a lawsuit, if they believe he is?

Previously, presidents simply gave up all commercial activity and avoided the question. The Constitution’s intent was observed. Now, a court will have to decide if it can apply this constitutional rule to Trump and, if so, how.

The Constitution offers so many opportunities for applying it differently from the original intent that it would be impossible to amend it to resolve all doubts. Attaching new meanings to it as a way to win partisan wars is both shortsighted and dangerous to the American system of government.

In the end, it’s up to Congress to make the Constitution work – fair to all and as intended.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Losing allies, higher prices possible with U.S. protectionism

Americans are beginning to pay more for what we buy, the result of high tariffs levied under a policy meant to protect jobs by making foreign goods more expensive. 

Even without this policy, unemployment is historically low. The U.S. already enjoys a favorable balance in services and receives hundreds of billions of dollars in investment from outside the country. 

But President Trump focuses only on the balance of trade in goods.  If the U.S. buys more from a country than it sells, he wants to even out the balance by reducing imports.  He has launched protectionism, an approach gradually and successfully abandoned by industrialized nations since World War II.

Protectionism has been used to help new countries develop some of their own production before facing competition with long-established economies.  After the American Revolution, the U.S. adopted protectionist policies, which were reduced over time.

In 1929, the U.S. returned to massive protectionism.  High tariffs were a major cause of the Great Depression.  " 'Make America Great Again' shouldn’t mean 'Make America 1929 Again,' " Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse said last week. About Trump’s policy, he said bluntly, “This is dumb.”

Mark Carney, the Canadian who is Governor of the Bank of England, argued, “This focus on goods trade … is not the right focus in a hyperconnected world where most of the economic activity, most people work … in the service sector.  In other words, Trump should look beyond trade in goods.

Perhaps the most important word Carney used to help understanding of why the 1929 approach won’t work was “hyperconnected.”  National economies are no longer isolated but are linked in thousands of ways.  People care more about the cost and quality of goods and services than about their country of origin.

If you are reading this column in the print edition of a newspaper, you may pay more or get less newspaper thanks to a tariff increase of as much as 32 percent, slapped on the paper from Canada on which it is printed.  U.S. newsprint production is in the West, so newspapers in the eastern U.S. must pay more to keep importing from Canada.

Of course, some trade is unfair.  China should be blocked from stealing trade secrets – called the theft of intellectual property – and using them to produce exports that will be sold in the very countries that were robbed.

Greater care is needed to prevent China from forcing companies to disclose their secrets before being allowed to do business there.  Similarly, Chinese researchers and “students” here must be more carefully monitored. 

Labor unions and environmentalists are justified in objecting to trade deals from countries keeping pay low and causing pollution from which Americans may suffer.  Such problems can be targeted without tossing out entire trade relationships, especially with close allies.

The U.S. is on less solid ground when it targets foreign government subsidies for some industries.  This country is now the world’s largest oil producer, and oil companies get vast government breaks.  Coal is supported, despite its related pollution.

Another problem in levying higher tariffs on trade is that such moves may harm broader American relationships with important allies.  The problem with steel is Chinese overproduction, but higher tariffs hit Canadian steel, because depending on that country supposedly threatens national security.  If that’s true, we are really alone.

Even worse, other countries are retaliating by increasing their tariffs on U.S. exports.  That leads to a trade war in which each round of retaliation leads to another.  American jobs are lost when exports are cut and also when handling imports is reduced.

There’s an alternative to imposing tariffs with the risk of a trade war with friends.  Instead of buying less, sell more. Carney suggested it would be better to lower barriers on trade in services instead of raising them on trade in goods.  And the U.S. could emphasize trade promotion more rather than focusing on tariffs.

At this week’s meeting of top finance officials from the major industrialized countries, other countries expressed their “unanimous concern and disappointment” with U.S. tariff increases on steel and aluminum.  The major decline in trade relations with allies could affect cooperation in other areas. 

American trade policy is pushing other countries into closer alliances and economic relationships with one another as their links to the U.S. decline.  Once that happens, it may be difficult to restore the leading American role, not only in trade.

Continuing current trade policy, like any other government action, will have costs.  The first will be higher prices, but it could cost the U.S. some allies.