Monday’s Mtg: Voting Wars – Protecting Americans’ Right to Vote

Suppressing the other side’s votes is as American as apple pie.  Rigging the rules and fooling or intimidating  voters happened all over the country for much of our history – not just in the South.  In the 21st century, however, we all thought that was largely behind us.

Then came Bush v. Gore.  Florida in 2000 reminded both sides that, in a sharply divided country in which the differences between the two parties are greater than they have ever been, just a few votes can make a huge difference in which direction the country takes.  Discouraging the other side’s voters from casting their ballot counts just as much as encouraging one’s own side.   So, since then, Democrats have tried to make it easier for people to vote, maybe out of the goodness of their hearts, but also because when more people vote, they win.  Democrats have tried to:

  • Make registering to vote easier, including through same day and on-line registration;,
  • Expand early voting opportunities, including by mail; and
  • Extend election day voting hours.

Most of all, Democrats have focused on fighting the GOP’s highly coordinated and dedicated attempts to make voting harder for some people.  Republican efforts (intensified since the 2010 tea party triumphs at the state level) have included:

  • Severe limits on voter-registration drives;
  • Closing early-voting windows;
  • Further limiting voting rights for ex-felons;
  • Strict new limits on absentee ballots;
  • Restrictive voter ID laws that many young, poor, and minority Democratic voters lack; and
  • Trying to prevent Democrats from extending voting hours on election day, even when there are long lines.

This was all done allegedly to prevent voter fraud and improve election integrity.  Almost every GOP-controlled state government put in place some of these tools in time of the 2012 election.   This whole effort largely failed in 2012, in part because courts threw out most of the voter ID laws, but also because Democrats probably were exaggerating their potential to discourage voters in the first place.

I know most of you know all this, so what’s to talk about?  First, this is not over.  As long as bigger turnouts favor one party over the other, the incentives for this kind of thing will remain.  I believe that the voting wars are now a major feature of our political landscape and will be here for a while.  Democrats have to find ways to fight back.  Yet, many Americans support these laws out of common sense:  Why shouldn’t people have to show IDs at the voting booth just like they have to at the grocery store?  Why shouldn’t we try really hard to prevent voter fraud at the polls, since one side says it’s a massive problem?  If SCOTUS overturns the Voting Rights Act, GOP incentives will get even worse.

Second, I think this is about way more than partisan advantage.  To me, the voting wars reveal a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives on the value of a broad-based electorate.  One side believes democracy works best when elections are as widely representative of the general public as possible, and therefore every effort should be made to make it as easy for new and irregular voters to cast their ballots.  Conservatives, I think, believe that it’s up to the individual to take responsibility to vote and that we should not make it particularly easy to vote because then low-information voters will determine the outcome and we should not make it easy for them to do that.  I can’t think of any worse division  in a democracy than one like this.

Lecture:  Since you guys know most of this, I won’t give the full Monty lecture on voter suppression.  Instead, I’ll just:

  1. Remind us all of the full range of tactics that both sides are using – the Democrats to expand voting, the Republicans to restrict it; and
  2. Preview what’s probably coming in the future from both sides (see the links for more on this).

Then, I hope we can talk about the difference in philosophy – and not just bemoan the naked partisanship – that I think undergirds this whole issue.



  1. What tactics is each side using to (a) expand and (2) shrink the electorate?  Why did they not make much difference in 2012?
  2. What’s coming in the future of voting wars, from both sides?  What would happen if the Supreme Court strikes down the Voting Rights Act (as we discussed a few months ago)?
  3. Is this really just cynical, naked partisanship, or is something else at work philosophically? (See fourth link, below)
  4. Why do many regular people support voter restrictions?  What could persuade them otherwise?
  5. Could there really a problem with election integrity?  Are there ways to both expand/protect the right to vote AND ensure integrity?




Vote with your feet and I’ll see you there!


12 responses

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    You omitted the Republican plans to gerrymander the electoral college.
    Their House “majority” is entirely due to that gerrymander now.
    And they seem to resent any reminder that their President was “elected” in 2000 against the expressed wishes of the voters, although this is a fact.

    In short, the Republican party is desperate. They seem to realize that their only chance to win elections is to restrict the electorate.

    1. Not entirely. The GOP has more House seats also because their voters are more “efficiently” distributed among districts. This is a natural result of residential sorting. The Republicans control the House seats that comprise 80% (!) of the geographical area of the U.S., although only 55% or so of the House seats. This is why red/blue map of America look so red. Democrats are more tightly packed together in where they live. More ruthless gerrymandering has magnified this a bit, but the main reason, political scientists say, is the sorting.

      1. Whether red states go ahead with the electoral college rigging, or whether they step back, as they have in recent months, will tell us for sure if they have abandoned trying to get a national majority forever.

  2. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    The “gerrymandering” may have taken advantage of natural population distribution patterns, of course.
    Nonetheless, it still remains true that the Republicans lost the House by about a million votes nationally. No?

    Yes, the Democratic voters are concentrated in urban areas.

  3. I disagree that the majority of the district formations is simply due to “natural” population distributions. Back in 2010, when I did a fairly complete analysis of the previous decade’s congressional elections, I concluded that for a given party to design districts to get the maximum number of their delegates elected, what they should do is make as many districts as possible to be about 58%-42% in their favor. This is the point at which a congressional race becomes essentially incontestable. Any margin beyond this would be wasted. Opposing districts, on the other hand, should be overwhelmingly in the other party’s favor so as many votes as possible are wasted. Looking at Republican-controlled states showed just this sort of distribution, with very few Republican districts being more than 60%-40%. Democrat-controlled states, on the other hand, did not show nearly as carefully controlled organization. My spot checks after the last election showed much the same sort of thing.

    Another contrary bit of data is that between the 2010 election and the 2012 election, the number of districts which in my estimation were extremely difficult to contest (55%-45%) went from 70% to 80% nationally (and in California). I really do not think that there was sufficient population movement to account for this change: it was essentially improvements in gerrymandering methods. Which is interesting since there actually was a decrease in the number of people registered as Democrats or Republicans, making gerrymandering more difficult.

  4. If you’re talking about California only, I think (but don’t know) that gerrymandering helps keep districts safe. But, if you’re talking about the House as a whole, the evidence is much more mixed. Here are some political scientists” views on the evidence. Note how the first one lists many reasons why a district can be a safe seat, only one of which is the deliberate effort by politicians to shape it to their advantage.:




  5. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    The first link does not work.
    The second would seem to make some valid points, indicating that factors such as incumbency are important–we know that incumbents are overwhelmingly re-elected.
    But how are incumbents elected in the first place? In gerrymandered districts, it would seem.
    We should not forget another gerrymandered institution–the Senate. Why it is not a Republican bastion is beyond me (perhaps David knows). It is certainly not one man one vote, and we have no way to change it (without agreement of 50 states, which would be impossible.)

    And now even the courts are to be “gerrymandered”–the Republicans are calling Obama’s filling of three vacant seats on the DC Circuit court-packing!

  6. First link corrected.

  7. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    A related issue here is how easy it is to get rid of a member disliked by party elders, through redistricting. An example from the sixties is Bella Abzug, and later Stephen Solarz.
    More recently there is Dennis Kucinich.

  8. Actually, California’s redistricting created fewer contestable districts, but did not favor the controlling party (Democrats). If anything, I think the Republicans got a couple extra seats. Texas districts are more like the sort of party-favoring redistricting I mentioned earlier.

    But one problem I ran into when looking at this is that the representatives of closely-contested districts seemed to be little or no more inclined to do what their constituents wanted than those from safe districts. This is not what I was expecting. Possibly it is because there are so few competitive districts that it is easy for the big $ guys to target those districts? Like the group of Democrats from contestable districts who recently voted against gun applicant background checks. They did not admit to it, but I suspect it was because of the threat of NRA money flooding in to support the opposition. In any case redistricting alone does not appear to be a significant factor in getting the government more responsive to the people. Which is why I stopped spending much time looking at it.

  9. Tom, interesting. Is your work published? Regarding the relationship between safe seats and following constituent preferences, I’ve never seen anything on that. The classis work on who politicians listen to (the one that I know of, at any rate) was done a few years ago. It showed that, for US senators, their votes corresponded to what the public wanted (measured via contemporaneous polling) for only the top 1/3 of constituents by income. The correlation between votes and voter opinion preference was strong for the upper third of voters by income, weak for the middle third, and zero for the bottom third.

    I.e., they only were reflecting what the top 1/3 by income of us wanted them to do.

  10. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    But isn’t it mostly that upper one-third which is involved in politics in the first place? The others tend to be apathetic, or even completely disengaged.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: