Wednesday, 8 June 2005

Three parties good, two parties better

Nick Troester on the latest round of arguments about the potential success of third party presidential candidates:

Political parties, being more-or-less coalitional, actually need to take positions on a wide number of issues to be able to draw in people who are oriented towards things other than the party’s main issue—that is to say, one might think both parties are bad when it comes to good government issues, but one still probably lines up as a D or R when it comes to entitlement spending, the deficit, foreign policy, etc. A lot is needed to uproot people from where they are.

Or, to put it another way, there just aren’t enough people who care about politics who’d support the “not stupid or evil party” just because it’s not stupid or evil.

And, many observers suggest Roosevelt would have won the Republican nomination—and almost certainly the presidency—had the 1912 convention not been stacked with Taft patronage appointees from “rotten borough” delegations from the South. I don’t know that there’s a specific lesson for John McCain in there, but the route to power is much easier if you can take over a major party than starting your own… ask the Christian Coalition or the Deaniac crowd, who now effectively control the two major parties, if you don’t believe me.

Monday, 30 August 2004

Electoral College

Funnily enough, my American politics class decided to support the continued existence of the Electoral College by a margin of 13–7, with 1 abstention, after a 20-minute debate.

Perhaps more interestingly (and surprisingly), nobody put forward a partisan argument either for or against its abolition.

Sunday, 20 June 2004

The origins of the Electoral College

Dean Jens explicates the original purpose of the Electoral College:

[T]he electoral college as originally conceived was expected to elect George Washington as many times as he could be talked into it, and then to very rarely actually give a majority of the votes to any candidate. It was viewed largely as a nominating committee, giving the House of Representatives a short list of candidates from which to select a president. It didn’t work out the way they envisioned, and, if it had, it may not have worked out the way they envisioned; regularly having the legislative branch elect the chief executive may or may not have proved to be a good idea. But it’s my understanding that that was the idea.

Alexander Hamilton’s explanation of the selected procedure is in Federalist 68. Funnily enough, one of the changes to the procedure made in the 12th Amendment reduced the “short list” of candidates from an indecisive vote of the Electoral College from five to three.

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

Electoral college futures

There’s a petition drive is underway in Colorado to allocate the state’s electors in proportion to candidates’ popular vote. All I can find is the title as it will be presented to voters; I can’t find the actual text of the proposal (including any minumum threshold requirement or whether there will be “bonus” electors for the plurality winner), so it’s hard to judge what the impact of the plan will be.

I suspect the substantive effect of such provisions, if adopted in every state, would be minimal across the board; while candidates might arguably be more inclined to focus on the most populous states, I’m not sure that the actual benefit of such a strategy would be very large. Instead, the sensible strategy would be to focus on states where you’re close (say within 100,000 votes) to gaining an additional elector, and it’s not at all apparent that these states would be more likely to be large.

At the individual level, I suspect PR for the electoral college would somewhat increase turnout in relatively lopsided states like Massachusetts and Mississippi, and somewhat decrease it in perennial “swing states” like Florida and Ohio, but I think that would have more to do with campaign effects than any sort of utility calculus by voters.

Incidentally, there’s probably a good undergraduate or first-year graduate student paper in an analysis of the effects of various electoral college allocation systems (PR, bonus PR, congressional district, plurality), with particular focus on elections with relatively large third-party voting (1948, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, and 2000).

More from Daniel Geffen, James Joyner, DavidNYC, and Jane Galt.

Wednesday, 9 June 2004

Someone needs to read someone's dissertation

Will Baude:

Voting instrumentally (in presidential elections, at least) is quite irrational, except to the extent that voters enjoy doing it. The probability of any single voter changing the outcome of a presidential election is 0.

Tell that to a voter in Florida in 2000 (his probability was about .002, which isn’t great, but beats the heck out of the lottery). Because of the electoral college, the probability of any single voter changing the outcome of a presidential election varies from state to state, and is a function of the competitiveness of the election in that state. But you don’t have to believe me; instead, believe, er, Chris Lawrence:

For [supporters of third party candidates], the strategic/sincere choice rests on whether their vote is likely to be pivotal. Although Downs (1957) argues that casting a non-strategic vote is irrational, that is only the case if the vote has a non-negligible chance of affecting the outcome of the election. Sincere voting for minor candidates is irrational in the sense that elections are not normally thought of as a forum for expressing general preferences, but rather as a “selection process”; however, if political actors respond to election results as if they are referenda on particular policies espoused by candidates, sincere voting for minor candidates may be rational in certain circumstances. If a citizen’s vote is almost certainly not pivotal, it may be rational for voters to show their public policy preferences by supporting a minor candidate. ...

Thus, voters may be considered rational if they express a preference, rather than merely taking part in a “selection process,” in states where their vote is highly unlikely to make a difference in the outcome. For example, according to CNN (2000), only 20 of the 51 elections for electors in 2000 were in so-called “battleground” states that were expected to be close. Thus, a voter in one of the other 30 states or the District of Columbia could presumably vote for a third-party candidate and thus have virtually no expectation of affecting the presidential contest, as their vote would be highly unlikely to affect the disposition of their state’s electors. (103–04)

Unfortunately, the astounding finding that the variation in “pivotalness” of an individual’s vote varied in 2000 by a factor of nearly 1000 between the most competitive and least competitive state didn’t make it into then-Mr. Lawrence’s dissertation, although it has made it into at least one presentation of the findings of this chapter.

Tuesday, 20 April 2004

Technically untrue, but amusing nonetheless

Alex Knapp links a rather amusing parody site, which contains this rather incorrect view of American political development:

The American Democratic system works as well today as it did when the electoral structure was laid out by the founding fathers. In fact, Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams all ran as “Democratic-Republicans”, this party originating today’s Democratic and Republican parties. Not since Zachary Taylor in 1848 has the Electoral College voted a third-party (Whig, in this case) candidate into the White House.

That ain’t exactly how it happened. The “Democratic-Republicans” actually started out—even more confusingly—as the Francophile, agrarian “Republicans,” as in “not monarchists,” with the associated implication that the Federalists* (Anglophile, commercial, concentrated in New England) were. They then became the Democratic-Republicans and finally the Democrats circa 1828, well after the last gasp of the Federalists. Until the late 1850s, the primary opposition party were the Whigs, a party that lacked much of an ideology except, perhaps, being a tad less populist than the Democrats of the time.

The Republican Party, established circa 1854, had no real connection to the Democrats—beyond a membership of disaffected Whigs, Democrats, and assorted other parties who joined to support a fiercely abolitionist platform and the presidential candidacy of John Fremont in 1856.

Still, it’s a cute site…

Wednesday, 14 January 2004

Playing with the normal vote

VodkaPundit Stephen Green plays with Excel’s mapping feature to draw some electoral college maps on the (not unreasonable) presumption that the relative strength of the Republicans and Democrats in each state is unchanged since 2000. Fun stuff.

Tuesday, 30 December 2003

Explanation, not prediction

Dan Drezner, subbing for Andrew Sullivan, discusses problems with forecasting models and the media members who latch onto them. One notable oversight in forecasting: virtually all of the existing models predict the nationwide vote, rather than the outcomes of state elections to the electoral college—a particularly problematic consideration when dealing with close elections, like that in 2000. The ones that do make state-level predictions are rather dated.

More to the point, as Matt Yglesias points out, aggregate-level models are often inherently problematic. The problem that Yglesias calls “specification searching”—or what I’d call atheoretical modelling, with a healthy dose of stepwise regression to boot—is endemic to the whole class of forecasting models, because fundamentally they are inductive exercises, focused on finding the best combination of variables to predict the observed outcome. Most good social science (or science in general, for that matter), by contrast, is deductive: establish a truly explanatory theory, develop specific hypotheses, and operationalize and test them.

That isn’t to say, however, that unemployment doesn’t belong in the model at all; it may, for example, be the best available indicator of a theoretical construct like “voters’ perceptions of the national economy.” But as someone whose research interests are more centered on individual-level explanations of behavior, rather than attempting to explain aggregate outcomes, I sometimes wonder if aggregate-level models trade too much scientific value for their parsimony.

See also James Joyner, who points out that small sample sizes aren’t necessarily problematic when the universe is also small. However, in a small sample the good social scientist will be particularly attentive to the potential issue of outliers—atypical observations that can lead one to make conclusions that aren’t justified on the basis of the data as a whole.

Sunday, 9 November 2003

Dean and the South

Matthew Stinson links to a Jonathan Chait TNR piece that takes Howard Dean to task for his vague Southern strategy. As Chait points out, it’s Southern Politics 101 all over again:

So Dean’s plan is to get poor Southern whites to vote their economic interests rather than their cultural predilections. How simple! Why hasn’t somebody else thought of that idea? Oh wait, that’s right: Everybody has thought of that idea.

The notion that the Southern economic elite try to divide the populace along racial rather than economic lines goes back around 400 years. Even though most southern whites didn’t own slaves, a majority of them supported the institution. ...

As it turns out, forging that economic coalition is a good deal more difficult than it sounds. The only success liberals have enjoyed has come when they’ve found candidates like Bill Clinton, who distanced himself from cultural liberalism (on issues like crime and welfare, for instance) to convince Southern whites that he was more conservative than the national Democratic Party.

Actually, before the 1960s maybe-realignment, southern Democrats regularly ran on economic issues—and won. The most infamous example is Huey Long, but national Democrats running for the presidency were winning electoral college votes across the South into the 1960s. What’s changed?

  1. Since the Great Society programs of LBJ, and their consolidation under Nixon, there’s a sufficient national “safety net” that Republicans are not going to dismantle—no matter what rhetoric you hear from the far left. This has diminished the economic interest of poor whites in supporting Democratic candidates.
  2. The national Democratic party has moved away from the conservative values shared by southern whites, most infamously in its blanket support for Roe v. Wade. This makes Republicans relatively more appealing.

Can national Democrats recapture the South? Unless they can neutralize Republicans’ natural advantage on “race, guns, God and gays,” or can come up with an economic program that is overwhelmingly appealing to both poor whites and blacks (perhaps like Dean’s idea of “affirmitive action” on the basis of economic status, rather than race), that seems exceedingly unlikely.

Thursday, 21 August 2003

Recalls as votes of no confidence

A number of people, including a healthy chunk on the right (most notably political commentator and Washington Post columnist George Will), don’t particularly care for the California recall election, considering it (variously) anti-democratic, unfair, or inconsistent with the will of the Founders. (Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry has rescinded his previous opposition in this particular instance due to Gray Davis’ general pissiness.)

The last point is fairly easily dealt with; unlike in gubernatorial elections, the president is indirectly elected via the Electoral College. The Electoral College was originally designed as sort of a half-way house between parliamentary democracy and direct election: like in a parliamentary system, the executive (in the parliamentary case, usually the prime minister) would be indirectly elected by the electorate. However, the Electoral College only does two things—electing the president and vice president—and then they go home; in a parliamentary system, the same body remains in office to approve, amend, or reject legislation proposed by the executive, and possibly—eventually—to remove the executive from office if it no longer reflects the preferences of the legislature. This removal, common to all parliamentary systems, is known as a vote of no confidence; if it succeeds, the executive must resign and be replaced, or new elections for a new legislature (and thence a new executive) are called.

The vote of no confidence is one way in which proponents of parliamentary democracy believe it leads to more stable government (the mirror image of no confidence is the power of the executive to dissolve parliament and call for new elections). So, how would we bring this benefit into a presidential system* without undermining the separation of powers? Obviously, a traditional vote of no confidence is out, as it would allow the legislature to remove the executive at will, and allowing the executive to dissolve the legislature would have similar problems.

The obvious solution is to allow the people who elected the executive and the legislature a “vote of no confidence” of their own. And, essentially, this is what the recall is: it allows the electorate to remove an executive or member of the legislature who is no longer acting consistently with their preferences. Since there is no continuous assembly of the electorate, and we don’t schedule election days on a regular basis with no expectation of some election taking place, the recall petition procedure allows the electorate to schedule a recall election if one is needed. And, since presidential systems don’t work well when there is no executive, there is a simultaneous election of a replacement executive (in parliamentary terms, it is a constructive vote of no-confidence). This system allows the electorate to work around deadlock between the legislature and executive, while at the same time not hurting the formal separation of powers between the executive and legislature (which would be a problem if we gave similar powers to either branch).

Perhaps most importantly, though, the recall provision substantially mitigates the problem of “lame duck” politicians who are subject to term limits. While the empirical evidence of “shirking” is decidedly mixed, the threat of a recall election may motivate term-limited single-minded seekers of reelection to behave more consistently with the preferences of the people who elected them, which is surely an outcome favored by proponents of the “delegate” model of representative democracy (as opposed to the Burkean “trustee” model).

To be sure, there is some fiddling at the margins that may be worthwhile. Some have suggested that the signature requirement for both setting a recall election and qualification for the ballot is too low, although at least in the former case it seems like getting a million registered voters to actually sign a petition is a rather daunting task to begin with; few, if any, organized interests in the state can claim that many members. And it might be reasonable to require some sort of run-off if the plurality winner doesn’t have a clear margin above the second-placed challenger (majority runoff is one possibility, but a threshold of 45% has also been suggested in the political science literature, and Shugart and Carey suggest the use of what they describe as the “double-complement rule” in Presidents and Assemblies), or to use an alternate balloting system like approval or Condorcet voting. But generally speaking, the recall provision is sound and there is no good reason why it should not be adopted elsewhere—it’s one of the few “progressivist” reforms that actually is good for democracy.

Monday, 30 June 2003

Sabato, clueless, you know the drill

Steven Jens is the latest to discover the general cluelessness of the man who is “probably the most quoted college professor in the land,” according to his press clippings. (And what’s with “probably”? The Wall Street Journal has Lexis-Nexis; use it!)

Now, he might be right that some states are already locks. Assuming the Republicans don’t nominate Howard Dean, they’ll win Mississippi, and assuming the Democrats don’t nominate Pat Buchanan, they’ll win the District of Columbia. Since neither of those nominations are happening, those are probably safe bets. But, for example, I don’t buy that states like Virginia and Ohio are Bush locks—and adjacent Michigan is a Democrat lock—in a “highly competitive contest.”

More fundamentally, I think the “red state–blue state” dichotomy is highly flawed, although it may be convenient shorthand. Voters are highly heterogeneous in all but the least populous states. To the extent it is meaningful, it only reflects the artifacts of the disproportionality of the “winner-takes-all” nature of the electoral college (in 48 of the 50 states) and the current unwillingness of the national Democratic party to compete for the median voter in the South.

Monday, 28 April 2003

Why haven't they seceded already?

Ottawa’s ignoring one of Canada’s most important provinces, yet there’s not much of a succession movement there, at least not yet. More on Alberta’s perpetual screwing by Her Majesty’s Government is at Colby Cosh’s place, which links to this rather interesting article in The Hill Times (Roll Call à la Canadienne) by a Clinton-era diplomat from the U.S. to Canada. Here’s just a sampling:

From a U.S. perspective, one puzzles over the durability of Canadian unity in the West, and more specifically its attraction for Alberta. A Canadian political maxim has emphasized the patriotic commitment of Western Canadians to Canada, but it appears to be more based in residual sentiment of history than in 21st century logic. Just what is in it for Alberta? What does “Canada” supply that Alberta does not already have or could not supply for itself?

And how do Alberta’s elected leaders get treated by Ottawa?

In Ralph Klein, Ottawa has the most Canada-centric premier Alberta is ever likely to elect. And Ottawa treats him as if he is some inebriated oaf with oil-stained jeans.

The root of the problem?

As long as the Canadian political structure provides only for “rep by pop,” the West would have to have population levels equivalent to Ontario and Quebec to modify the current socio-economic agenda. If, as some Liberals have tongue-in-cheek suggested, Alberta should elect more Liberals, it would still be meaningless. Alberta’s delegation could be 100 per cent Liberals—and still its interests would take a back seat to those of Ontario and Quebec.

I suspect there’s a lesson in here for those Americans who want to abolish the Senate and get rid of the Electoral College. I’ll leave figuring that out as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, 25 April 2003

The Santorum Fury

Dan Drezner has caught up with the Santorum debacle today; as usual, he has good points, pithily stated.

TV punditry, on the other hand, seems rather disconnected from what IMHO is the real issue here. Now, granted, as CalPundit says, “virtually every single paragraph has something to shake your head at.” But it’s odd that much of the head-shaking is still directed at the statement produced with the reporter’s inserted (gay) in the most famous quote in the interview, which reads in the transcript as follows:

We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, [sodomy] undermine[s] the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.

(I’ve cleaned up the second sentence because it’s fairly clear he’s talking about the act of sodomy, even though the original quote reads “they undermine”—a less charitable interpretation might read it as “[homosexuals] undermine,” but I don’t think a reading in context supports that interpretation; the word “homosexuals” only appears in the reporter’s question, and isn’t even mentioned in this paragraph of his response. But as Glenn Reynolds points out, the quote’s very incoherent.)

He’s clearly talking about “the right to consensual sex” here, not just between homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, or what-have-you, but everyone. Most Americans—whether the Supreme Court thinks so or not—almost certainly think they have such a right. (Of course, most Americans also think they have the right to choose the members of the Electoral College, despite the plain text of the Constitution indicating the contrary, so maybe we should take this argument with a grain of salt.)

Now some of Santorum’s defenders, including those on Special Report with Brit Hume today, have trotted out Justice White’s 5-4 majority opinion in the unfortunately-named Bowers v. Hardwick (478 U.S. 186, 1986), which is the Supreme Court’s controlling precedent in Lawrence v. Texas (no relation). Justice White writes:

And if respondent’s submission is limited to the voluntary sexual conduct between consenting adults, it would be difficult, except by fiat, to limit the claimed right to homosexual conduct while leaving exposed to prosecution adultery, incest, and other sexual crimes even though they are committed in the home. We are unwilling to start down that road. (195-96)

The statute at issue in Lawrence, unlike that in Bowers, only applies to “deviate sexual intercourse” between individuals of the same gender. It is distinctly possible that the Supreme Court will overturn it on equal protection grounds, as the current justices did in another gay rights case by a 6-3 margin in Romer v. Evans (517 U.S. 620, 1996), without even reaching the “right to consensual sex” question; however, that would not strike down existing state laws like Mississippi’s that do not restrict the statute to a particular gender. But how far-reaching would a “right to consensual sex” be?

  1. Adultery and pre-marital sex would almost certainly have to be legalized. However, statutes against these acts, like those against heterosexual and homosexual sodomy, are basically unenforced, so the practical impact of this right on legislative authority would be minimal.

  2. Incest among sterile adults would probably be protected by the right. However, incest involving minors would almost certainly not be (a law prof would have the citations to cases); the same goes for statutory rape laws. Forbidding incest involving the possibility of procreation among adults would be more problematic with a “right to consensual sex,” but I’d imagine it’s doable as a public health issue.

  3. Polygamy (including bigamy), as distinguished from polyamory, involves more than a “right to consensual sex.”

Of course, the scope of this “right” largely depends on how broadly the Supreme Court decides to draw it and what sort of scrutiny they want to employ. My gut feeling is that the Griswold and Stanley lines will be augmented with Romer to produce a fairly narrowly-drawn decision that focuses on the 4th Amendment interest in personal privacy in one’s home, while arguing that the strict scrutiny standard applies as much to that 4th Amendment interest as it did to the 1st, 14th, and 15th Amendment interests at stake in Romer. It may open the door for challenges against laws like those Santorum cites, but I doubt the Court will go beyond the Texas statute in the case at hand.

Radley Balko has a spirited defense of the 9th Amendment that basically reflects my own views on the matter. And Pieter at Peaktalk points out the sticky position George Bush is in:

The GOP has to maneuver very carefully here in order to ensure that as many people as possible stay under the Republican umbrella and going out to bat for gay Americans just does not make electoral sense at this point in time. Yet, Bush may have lost some valuable voters over this issue and he will need to mend some fences over the next few months otherwise this issue will come back to haunt him during the campaign trail. By not disapproving Santorum’s comments, Bush will open himself to criticism that he believes that the government does have a role to play in people’s private lives and that may cost him more than just a few gay votes.

Monday, 16 December 2002

Reforming Britain's second chamber (updated)

One of the world's oldest legislative bodies — the British House of Lords — is on a slow, but sure course to extinction. Its importance has been diminishing for centuries; the importance of the Commons was greatly increased by the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the 1911 Parliament Act stripped the Lords of most of their powers. In 1999, the House of Lords Act removed the voting rights of all hereditary peers (excluding 92 who retain their voting rights until the reform is complete).

Since 1999, the effort to reform the Lords has stalled. Some have speculated that current Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair likes the Lords the way it is — emasculated and without any democratic legitimacy. Its current composition is most similar among democracies to that of the Canadian Senate: dominated by the “life peers” who are appointed by the prime minister of the day with the assent of the monarch.

In the past week, the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform issued its First Report. The report recommends a chamber of 600 members serving 12-year terms, most likely with some proportion of the membership appointed and the remainder elected (there are also options for a fully-elected and fully-appointed chamber). The report does not envision giving any additional powers to the chamber; it would still be limited to delaying “money bills” no longer than one month and other legislation (except that extending the duration of a government more than five years) no more than one year.

The lack of additional powers for a more representative upper chamber is troubling; the reason the Lords lost most of its powers in the first place is due to its lack of democratic legitimacy. If the upper chamber is to be more legtimate, it ought to have powers commensurate with that legitimacy. At the very least, the reformed upper chamber ought to have power to indefinitely block any legislation that amends the “constitution” — whatever that may be. More importantly, it ought to have oversight powers over the executive, similar to the investigative powers of the U.S. Congress over the bureaucracy and presidency.

As to the upper chamber's composition, I believe a smaller, fully-elected chamber is appropriate. The Commons functions with over 600 members mainly because (a) the Commons largely functions as an electoral college for the executive and a ratifier for its decisions and (b) the business of the Commons is largely orchestrated by the government of the day. The upper chamber would neither choose the prime minister nor would it largely operate in the interests of the prime minister. An upper chamber of 160–240 members seems appropriate.

The chamber should also be fully elected. Assuming a twelve-year term, my recommendation would be to elect a quarter of the membership every three years via party list proportional representation (as Britain already uses for “top-up” seats in the Welsh and Scottish parliaments and for elections to the European Parliament). Vacancies arising through death or resignation could be filled by appointment by the prime minister, or by nomination of the departed member's party.

An upper chamber reformed in this way would be an effective bulwark against overreach by the government of the day while still retaining the prerogatives of the Commons as the primary legislative chamber.

Iain Murray has also discussed Lords reform in his blog.