Tuesday, June 25, 2013


After today's Voting Rights Act decision, Chuck Todd says:
Voting in general is a mess. A functional Washington would see today's decision as an opportunity to do a big voting fix. But... Well...
I think this is almost completely the wrong way to look at it.

I talk a fair amount about what I see as a dysfunctional Republican Party. But I don't think that "Washington" is dysfunctional in general. And to the extent that it is (e.g. the executive branch nominations process), that's not the problem with voting.

Dysfunctional, to me, is about...well, it's about not being able to function. So things such as the majority party in the House repeatedly bringing things to the floor and failing to pass them. That fits. More generally, an inability to make choices that achieve one's goals. For example, I don't think most House Republicans really wanted the series of deadline crises they forced in the last Congress; they just couldn't find a way to avoid it. It's dysfunctional, too, to believe things that are not true -- to the extent that Republicans really believed the "unskewed polling" idea in 2012, or believe now that IRS targeting of Tea Party groups was responsible for the 2012 election results, that's dysfunction.

But not every disagreement is a sign of "dysfunction." In particular, on voting what we have isn't dysfunction; it's radically different preferences. Voting is a "mess" because the parties disagree about how easy voting should be, and there's no obvious compromise available -- that is, voting will either be easy or difficult, and what will determine it will mainly be partisan strength.

The one part of this where Todd may be correct is on tabulation -- neither party has a general preference for slow counts, and I don't think either party has a preference for or interest in inaccurate counts. So to the extent that's a problem, he's right about it. But one party very plainly does want long lines in the polling places in some precincts; does want registration to be cumbersome; does want additional hurdles at polling places; does, in short, want to make voting difficult. As far as I'm concerned, that's unfortunate, but please don't blame it on "Washington" not being "functional."


  1. It seems to me that it's a case of *American* politics being dysfunctional in places other than Washington, in that too many important decisions on voting are in the hands of partisan officials, and that the good-governance incentives to do the right thing aren't very strong, which leads to bad-faith shenanigans involving disenfranchisement, which it's not crazy to say should be in a separate category from, say, a defense bill because it's a meta-issue that affects governance itself.

    It also happens that Washington is pretty dysfunctional in ways that are historically unique and would also fit your definition of the word. Todd's comment is in a gray area, because he may be referring to dysfunctions revolving around majority rule in Congress and filibusters and so forth. Even if that's not the main problem here, it's close enough, I think.

  2. I think I have a problem with this. It should not be one of two major party's preference to make voting as difficult as possible and to discourage target groups from doing it; if those are their preferences, the political system should not empower them. Voting is more representational and more technologically sound and uniform in most wealthy democracies than in the U.S. If our system is "functioning" as it's designed to, and producing these results, including the constant risk in presidential elections that the electoral vote winner will not be the popular vote winner, there's something wrong with the design.

    1. No time for more now, but:

      Note that the possibility of the plurality candidate/party failing to be the winning candidate/party is common to many systems (UK, most PR systems) - not just to US and electoral college.

    2. ASP,

      I understand what you are saying. Here is the problem: If you have a democracy, what do you do about people with destructive ideals and poisonous inclinations (however one defines those things)? What do you do when there are a LOT of people like that? Or at least when a LOT of people support politicians who pursue such poisonous goals -- which is, politically, the same as having those goals themselves?

      Let's be honest. There are an awful lot of racist people out there who 1) don't like minorities and don't want them voting on general principle and, 2) rationally see it in there own political interest to discourage minorities from voting. These out and out racists get great support from people who agree with factor 2 if not factor 1. How do you propose, in a democratic system, keeping such people from gaining power, especially when the country's political geography means they are in the majority in many states and districts? Once again, a point many liberals have a hard time facing is that we aren't talking about a tiny group. In some areas, yes particularly large parts of the South but not just there, this is a clear majority of the American electorate.

      I don't have any easy answers. It may well be that in America in the early 21st century you can have democracy or you can have greater social justice but not both. How do you deal with the fact that poisonous opinions are widespread and often very popular?
      One of my acquaintances was complaining to me lately, in regard to some professional relationships, that "people just don't like each other and I just don't know what to do!" It may be going too far to say that large parts of America don't like other large parts, in fact I think it is going too far. But people VOTE as if that is the case, which means that politicians act as if that is the case, which means we are flirting with the consequences of that being the case. What can you do?

    3. I will just add, harking back to a thread from last week, that the particular history of the GOP over the last 40 years or so has, gradually but dramatically, driven them to a point where many both inside and outside the party see there future as intimately entangled with such ... Unfortunate ... policies and messages. But that has been their history, and it's hard to argue it hasn't played well for them. Given that, it's hard to see what will stop them from continuing, short of catastrophic political setbacks.

  3. It seems that when Democrats and Republicans disagree, and Congress can't pass anything, you call it healthy politics -- but when some House Republicans disagree with others, so the majority party there can't pass anything, you call that dysfunction. Why the difference?

  4. I think "unfortunate" is not a nearly strong enough word for the GOP's embrace of voter suppression. I also suspect you'd get less pushback, and make your point more clearly, if you displayed even a bit more outrage.

  5. Here's my answer that ties in with your post on campaign financing (which is above, and therefore in the future, except that I'm reading this later...you know what I mean.)


    It's all about raising money, even when it's not. So I disagree that the Republicans don't want all those crises--I believe they do, because they can raise money on the attention. It's why there is so much "polarization"--it's how different sides raise their money from their sources.

    It's all about money even when it's not. On the day of President Obama's speech on climate change I got a half dozen emails about it, mostly from supporters of those efforts (cause those are the lists I'm on.) They all sincerely support efforts to address the climate crisis, but all of their emails end with ways I can show support and influence decisions, which turns out to be by sending them money (or signing petitions etc which will send me to a page where I'll be asked to give them money, along with the email address they will use for endless future solicitations.)

    When John Banal announced that these proposals are "crazy," I doubt that he thinks they are actually crazy, but calling them crazy raises the temperatures of those he's going to hit up for money.

    Call me crazy but right now in American politics, money rules to a decisive extent. And no, I don't have a solution, except that somehow people used to get elected without so much of it.


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