Monday, December 29, 2008

This Just In - New Hampshire Was an Upset. Not.

This morning Politico has a story, which has blurbed on its site, about the ten biggest upsets in the 2008 election cycle, of which the second one on the list is Hillary Clinton's victory in the New Hampshire primary. Many of the rest of the upsets on the list really are upsets (Huckabee in the Iowa caucus, Hagen in the NC senate race, and Obama taking Indiana's electoral votes, to pick three random but illustrative examples), but to call the New Hampshire primary result an "upset win" for Mrs. Clinton is an act of punditorial malpractice that is wholly unbecoming of the normally sharp cookies at Politico. Clinton's win in New Hampshire should have been predicted by nearly everyone who saw those Obama +6 polls, and there's a very simple explanation for that win, and it's potentially troublesome for progressives like your intrepid columnist to ponder.

Despite all the very impressive, color-coded trend analysis suggesting a relatively easy Obama victory, the reason Clinton won the New Hampshire primary is that, by the time of Obama's big win in Iowa, many swing-Democrats in New Hampshire had already voted. Simple as that. No upset to it:
She won by fewer than 8,000 of over 200,000 votes cast, a margin that would have left her desperately explaining-away an unexpectedly close finish, had she not already lost in Iowa, and by the time Obama won in Iowa Clinton had already amassed that winning margin in New Hampshire from absentee ballots--cast at a time during which this accomplishment didn't count as an upset because she was still the frontrunner.

The difficulty this poses for progressives comes in the form of implications for future electoral scenarios in which a bad-guy (like McCain) carries an early lead into the last few days before an election, and then stumbles in his handling of a crisis (like the Lehman meltdown) after it's already too late for persuadable voters to change their minds about him. Our love affair with early voting, in other words, carries an enormous sting in its tail: the potential to disenfranchise people who cast their ballots before a crucial piece of information is made known.

All of us writing and reading this column love early voting because it reduces the likelihood of Republican funnybusiness on election day; Democrats by the very nature of their ideology tend to be found in more densely populated areas with comparatively few polling places, comparatively understaffed by comparatively undertrained and undercompetent poll workers. This makes Democratic voters a much easier target for the fat-white-guys, mostly off-duty cops and firemen, to cage through intimidation at the precinct level, combined with stalling tactics accomplished through under-populating these precincts with machines, at the state level. In case you missed it, there's no great mystery in the story of how John Kerry lost Ohio in 2004: It was stolen from him by a Republican secretary of state.

But for all its high ethics of increased voter participation and decreased likelihood of shenanigans, the consequences of early voting have not been fully considered by the left--and indeed probably won't be until a scenario unfolds in which the "wrong" candidate wins due to insurmountable early momentum. When that happens (but almost certainly not until), it will occur to rather a great many more people than it has so far that early voting is, by its very nature, unconstitutional. Don't get me wrong, it was great for us in 2008--but at the end of the day it's still unconstitutional. And when the day comes that it goes badly for us, we'll have only ourselves to blame for failing to recognize it in advance.

As an example of just how badly things can go, consider the most recent election for City Commission in the sleepy little community of Lake Wales, Florida, wherein a certain John Paul Rogers enlisted the support of a prominent member of the African-American community to canvass that area of town for absentee ballots--only to have it emerge later that he was a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Kulx Klan. Mr. Rogers' election is presently being challenged in court by a local resident, but his resources are limited, and without conclusive evidence of massive administrative malfeasance by the city it is unlikely that a court packed with judicial conservatives will side in favor of the appellant.

The Help America Vote Act, passed shortly after the 2000 Presidential election cycle, was (in the manner of so many ostensibly beneficial changes to the law in this country's recent past) a boon to the manufacturers of a handful of esoteric products or services--in this case touch-screen voting machines. And the passages in that legislation that spoke to streamlining the processes by which a state may allow early voting were, as it happens, just enough to engender Democratic support for what was in point of fact a pretty lousy piece of law. As with so many other examples of legislative bait-and-switch from the political right, the benefit to the middle class was front-loaded and obvious, while the benefit to the wealthiest among us was far less evident and far more substantial. I get to drive 100 or so people to the polls in 2008; the CEO of Diebold gets a blank check with which to black-box any close election in a Republican-governed state, forever.

But the real tragedy of early voting is that it has so efficiently placated the political left in this country into ignoring the far greater outrage in how we conduct our elections: the fact that election day itself is not a national holiday, and that, as such, not everyone can vote because not everyone can get enough time off to do so. Early voting is an effective treatment of this problem, but not a cure. The cure is to hold national elections on Veteran's Day--a recommendation explicitly called for by former Presidents Carter and Ford as part of their comprehensive review of American voting procedures, carried out after the debacle in 2000.

Representative democracy always moves slowly, and always doubly so in a country as big and self-divided as ours. It took a fiasco like Florida'00 to bring our Senators and Congressmen to the point of assessing how easy or hard it was for ordinary people to register their preferences for candidates, and to try to fix it. Now, sadly, it will take a scandal of Lehman/Paulson proportions--timed for just the perfect moment in late October--for those same Senators and Congressmen to get it right.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


Anonymous said...

It wouldn't be a bad idea to examine the Australian electoral system to see how it's done. As voting is compulsory downunder, the system is designed to be voter-friendly, with simple voter registration, Saturday voting, early voting, out-of-state absentee voting, postal voting, clear and uniform procedures for vote counting, dispute settlement etc. (with the added bonus of instant runoffs too).

Sure, Australia has only 20 million people, but with a land area just a bit smaller than the continental US, population densities in the cities close to those in the US, plus a robust political culture that is remarkably similar in many respects, I would argue that the Aussies face similar challenges in running their elections.

No system is perfect, but I suggest it's about time Americans looked at what the rest of the industrialized world is doing to see if there isn't something we could learn.

Dave O'Gorman said...

There's much we could learn from Australia, I agree. Our nominating system could easily be switched to "preference voting," by which a person can indicate his first, second, third, etc., choices for the office, as they do in Australia.

I'd also like to see a few home-grown changes, too, chief among them that all polls should close at the same exact universal time. Eleven PM on the east coast = eight PM on the west coast, and HI and AK could vote by mail.

How about poll workers are paid and not volunteers, with paid training? Oh, and here's a wacky thought: Each voter gets a receipt showing who they voted for, which they can contest at the front desk of the polling place if they intended something else.

Anonymous said...

Loved the article, but must correct an error in the comment section: in Florida and probably other states, poll workers are paid handsomely for the training and the day. The Clerk is the most responsible job, requiring more training, and he makes about $200 per election. The others make about $150.
Other points in the article are very well taken, but ponder this: it took the stolen elections of 2000 and 2004 for a sweep of such magnitude that we have finally elected a Black man president. What do you think?