Author Archives: gronke

Elections, Representation, and Accountability

Doug Chapin says I am just an old crotchety guy.   I’m old and I’m crotchety, but I don’t think I’m being unfair. I just get worried when something is oversold.

Here’s what TurboVote promises:

If voting were easier, more people would do it. And if more people voted, we could reinvigorate local and primary elections, politicians would be held more accountable, our leadership would be more representative, and our democracy would work better.

Making voting easier helps, but it’s only one link in the chain of accountability.  Przeworski, Stokes, and Manin write in the introduction to Democracy, Accountability, and Representation, when describing the difficulty in disentangling competing notions of representation, accountability, and democracy:

Yet, there are some things we have learned.  Perhaps foremost is the importance of information.  The main difficulty in instructing governments in what to do and in judging what they have done is that we, citizens, just do not know enough.

Vastly increasing votes without simultaneously improving the quality of the vote could easily do more damage than good, particularly in an age where we can be micro-targeted down to our underwear size.

I am not trying to be crotchety; I hope I am instead constructively critical.  My worry is buyer’s regret. Transforming the American political system will take place in decades, not in months.  Once we make voting easier, it’s time to make politics easier.  Then we may witness a true sea change.

P.S. The link above lists a great sounding job for someone interested in election data (although there are 3810 counties, not election jurisdictions. The latter number exceeds 10,000 when you take into account townships and municipalities).


The Internet Isn’t All About Awesomeness

Doug Chapin pointed me to this event at SXSW:  I’m sure my fellow commentators can chime in here, and they are not all dinosaurs like me and Charles (by the way my friend, your MIT page is way more awesome than your personal page!).

The event, featuring two of the founders of TurboVote,  asks “Why hasn’t the Internet made voting awesome?”

Any one of us could give a long lecture on this, not least Michael and Thad who still show some old scars from previous attempts to implement Internet voting among military members (Google “SERVE military voting”).  The panel description unintentionally mentions some of the ways that the Internet is not completely awesome.

Sure, you can “download any song you want,” and millions do it illegally.

You can “get shoes delivered the next day” but as long as Internet giants like Amazon successfully lobby to refuse to pay local sales taxes, they undermine local governments and compete unfairly against local businesses.

The Internet works well in some arenas and not as well in others.  In politics, it have revolutionized some areas, such as information gathering and campaign finance (though it is not clear that the impact on the latter has been all good).

But I suspect that most political scientists start these conversations the same way: the main barrier to participation in the United States is not technological, its attitudinal.  As long as most Americans don’t find politics and elections central to their daily lives, then even the simplest, most innovative, most socially networked elections system will not result in that much of a boost in participation.

Just look at the other nations to which we compare unfavorably: newly emerging democracies like Cambodia (turnout has averaged over 80% since 1993) or established democracies like Germany (turnout ranges from 70-85%)?  It’s not the Internet that distinguishes us from these nations.  It’s something else.They have far fewer elections (less voter fatigue); they have a centralized and highly decentralized elections system (far less variation in rules and procedures); they have election formulas which translate votes into seats with much higher fidelity.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m thrilled to see new entrepreneurs enter the elections field and try to modernize and transform the way our elections are conducted.  I am not a Luddite.  Technology can improve many parts of our system.  Some might suggest that the desire to make voting “fit the way we live today” is precisely the problem–citizenship is about obligations as well as convenience.

And I’d like to see some of these folks wrestle with the fact that technology isn’t the cure to everything.  Two decades of research by Don Green and his colleagues has shown that good old shoe leather politics–combined with sophisticated targeting–is what really makes a difference in turnout

I’d like to see some of these folks dedicate some of their brilliance–and resources–to some of the more fundamental barriers in our system: historically high levels of inequality, geographically based districts, a highly disproportional election formula, a broken campaign finance system, and the two party duopoly.

Election Day vs. Early Votes in the Ohio Presidential Primary

Rob Richie and I have been arguing for the use of ranked choice ballots for overseas voters, and potentially all absentee voters, in the presidential primary process.  Our concern is that candidates who have withdrawn from the race remain on those absentee ballots, and overseas voters in particular have to mail their ballots back without realizing that some candidates have withdrawn.

The recent Ohio primary provides only mixed support.  While we don’t have information on when the absentee ballot were returned, it does appear that Perry and Huntsman received a larger percentage of their votes on absentee ballots.  Still, there are obviously a lot of election day voters who cast a ballot for one of these two candidates.

It might be interesting to observe “non running” candidates as a measure of voter dissatisfaction with the current crop of candidates.  Nice dissertation topic?  I’ve never seen anyone do this analysis before.


What would ranked choice voting have meant for Ohio?

Would ranked choice absentee ballots have allowed Santorum to win the Ohio primary? The gap between Romney and Santorum was less than 8000 votes, and Perry and Huntsman combined received 13,000 votes. It’s a very interesting intellectual exercise to wonder how many of those ballots were cast absentee, and how many of those voters would have chosen Santorum (Perry voter?) and Romney (Huntsman voters?) as their second choice.

Updates on everything early voting

Apologies to our regular readers for my absence for a few weeks.  I’m back to update you on all things early voting.

Some of you may have seen an editorial in Roll Call that Rob Richie and I authored, arguing for ranked choice voting in presidential primaries for overseas absentee ballots.  If anyone has reactions, I’d love to hear them. I think this is a great idea, and I’m pondering whether I should work with Rich to push this more systematically in a few states for 2016.

Voting reform is pushing ahead in Connecticut.  It looks like online voting registration–an initiative of the Pew Center on the States--will be put in place.  The legislature may also relax no-excuse absentee voting requirements.  This means my standing comment in powerpoint presentations about the Northeast may need to be amended!

Early voting rates in Ohio seem to be lagging behind 2008. Some local officials speculate that it may because of a fear that candidates will drop out, but I don’t find that particularly convincing.  None of the leading four candidates is showing any signs of withdrawing at this point.  As Mike Alvarez has argued in his book, it is probably because voters remain uncertain and candidate support is fluid in the Buckeye State.

Another Ohio controversy is brewing over changes to the period for early voting.

A new one for my friend Thad: Early votes “determine” outcome

Thad Hall, my fellow blogger, regularly pillories this election-line lede: “Election outcome will be decided by turnout.” What matters, Thad delights in pointing out, is not IF citizens turn out to vote but WHO they vote for.

I have a new annoyance for my good friend: elections that are “won” or “lost” by the early and absentee votes. Today’s story from the Bradenton County, FL Patch has the provocative title: “Early and Absentee Voting Could Determine Bradenton Results”.

Early votes are, perhaps, distinct from Election Day votes because of the day the ballots are cast. They may, perhaps, provide some insight into last minute campaign effects. But early voters are also traditionally more resistant to campaigns.

Early votes no more “determine” the outcome than does turnout. Early and absentee votes are just slices of the same electoral pie.