Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stress Fractures

In conversations with my friends, I've been very confident that Democrats will win the Presidency in 2008. Our candidates are far stronger, we're far more energized, the environment is too favorable, and the running disaster that has been the Bush administration marks 2008 as another perfect storm year for the Democratic Party. It's obviously too early to declare anything a lock or rest on my laurels, but things are looking very optimistic.

One thing that could derail a Democratic victory before the campaign season even starts is a faux-reform proposal by partisan Republican activists in California seeking to change the way the state allocates its electoral votes. Currently, like every state but Nebraska and Maine, California gives its 55 electoral votes in a winner-takes-all fashion. The ballot proposal would change that so the winner of each Congressional District gets one electoral vote. So, even though California is a pretty safe Democratic state, this shift would change its electoral vote allocation from 55-0 to something like 36-19--a free 19 electoral votes for the GOP. Since the effort (needless to say) isn't being pushed in red states like Texas or Indiana, it basically is an effort to rig the election playing field for Republicans (incidentally, even if the plan was adapted nationwide, it'd still be a bad idea--gerrymandering Congressional Districts is bad enough without it implicating Presidential politics). It's worth noting that a similar proposal was pushed in Colorado in 2004, but Democrats refused to support it and it didn't pass.

One thing that continues to amaze me about this country is just how little disorder there was in the wake of the disputed 2000 election. It can be difficult to remember just how raw emotions were then. Democrats genuinely felt cheated out of an election they won, fair and square. The Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore aroused some of the most bitter emotions that institution has ever seen--apparently, Justice Souter was ready to resign over it. And yet, aside from the "Brooks Brothers Riot," there was no real violence, and the concept of our democracy never truly felt threatened. Folks just regrouped and got ready to fight again. Many--most--other democratic nations would not have been able to accomplish that. And that is an incredible testament to the power of our constitutional covenant.

But 2000 was the year we cashed in our democratic credit, accrued over centuries of building representative institutions that, though sometimes flawed, were widely seen as fair, open, and most importantly, reflective of neutral procedures that produced the actual, legitimate winner. We drew on that credit to move past 2000. But if something like that happens again, in the form of this bogus and nakedly illegitimate California referendum, to swing the election away from the winner of the popular vote (and unlike in 2000, if the California proposal passes a Democrat could win a popular landslide and still lose the electoral college), I genuinely don't think our democracy will be able to handle the stress. There will be disorder, and protests, and potentially rioting.

The California proposal was deliberated placed on a June ballot where turn-out is expected to be low--the better to sneak it in under the noses of voters for whom it is made out to be an innocent election reform. It cannot pass. There have been a lot of political dirty tricks in the past couple of years; a tragic many of them done with the explicit or implicit support of the governing party. But none has the potential to threaten the very foundations of the republic the way this scam does. It cannot be allowed to pass. And while I applaud Governor Schwarzenegger for coming out against in, the national Republican Party needs to call its boys off and either get this thing off the ballot, or make sure it goes down in crushing defeat. This is their baby, and thus their responsibility.


PG said...

Could you fix the link on Souter's being ready to resign over Bush v. Gore? I hadn't heard that before and would like to get the story.

David Schraub said...

Fixed (I think)!

Joe said...

This is their baby, and thus their responsibility.

That's a pretty tall order to expect the GOP to fill. What Democrats need to do is launch a high-profile campaign against the proposal. Y'know, kind of like when the right comes screaming onto the 24 hour news shows about illegal aliens/gay marriage/take your pick.

As for 2008, I am a bit dubious on the Rove proposition of "energizing" vs. the capture of the center. One vote in the middle is equal to two on the fringe, as that's a vote the opposing party doesn't get. This doesn't mean Democrats need to cave in, quite the contrary. I'm very much a believer in the strength of the emotional appeal, and I agree with Drew Westen that Democrats do not grasp the tactic well. To me, Democrats have a leg up this time around, but they can very well shoot themselves in the foot.


Chris Meyer said...

David, I don't know if you were unaware or have selective memory, but the Democrats started this. We hold the trifecta in North Carolina and we passed, along partisan lines, a bill that would split the EVs by district just like this California plan. It would have handed us a guaranteed 3 EVs and probably more.

There are three red states where the Democrats hold the trifecta, the others are Arkansas and Louisiana. The Republicans do not have a trifecta in any blue state. So they thought they might get away with it.

But they were clever and they bypassed the legislatures altogether and threatened an initiative. The initiative will not pass, but it served its purpose. The Democrats were one-upped and they backed off.

We need to be better than the Republicans. We can't rewrite history as they have tried so many times. We have to acknowledge that this initiative in CA was provoked by our own power grab.

Tom said...

I wonder...what if all 50 states went to this proportional systems of allocating votes? Would that benefit the Repubs or the Dems? And would it be a more fair representation of the will of the people than what we have now?

Chris Meyer said...

It would benefit the Republicans by a significant margin. More house districts voted Bush in 2004 and also 2000, when we won the popular vote. Their supporters are more spread out, many of ours are heavily concentrated in urban districts.

PG said...

If we're not going to stick with winner-takes-the-state, which has strong administrability advantages, electoral votes should be proportional to the overall state voting; that is, if two-thirds of the state votes Democrat and one-third votes Republican, two-thirds of the EVs should go to the Democratic candidate and one-third to the Republican. I agree that doing it by House district will just increase gerrymandering pressures.

David Schraub said...

And surely you agree that it has to be done nationwide in that case--we can't just pick and choose the states based on partisan advantage.

Simon said...

David Schraub said...
"And surely you agree that it has to be done nationwide in that case--we can't just pick and choose the states based on partisan advantage."

But that's exactly what you are doing, David; you reject the plan in California because it places you at a partisan disadvantage. And since the only way this change can be conducted state-by-state, California's choice is limited to do this or not to do this; it can't choose to impose this on any other states. Neither can the federal government impose it. So what we're left with is the general question of whether states, acting independently, ought to adopt this change, and specifically, whether California should. And the length and breadth of your reasoning here seems to be purely partisan advantage.

PG said...


I hadn't noticed David endorsing the NC plan that Chris described. Thus I'm not clear on how one can claim that "the length and breadth of [his] reasoning here seems to be purely partisan advantage."

Gerrymandering is bad.
Reducing administrability is bad.

I think these claims hold up regardless of the party one favors. If one is going to endorse splitting up the electoral vote, e.g. for the praiseworthy goal of increasing voter participation, then one must address the above concerns. A proposal that is unlikely to increase gerrymandering, for example, is preferable on the gerrymandering-bad-metric to one that does increase gerrymandering, which the "assign EVs by House district" seems quite likely to do. However, there may be a tradeoff in administrability; if we can be quite certain for many districts as to which party they'd favor, administrability costs are less than they would be if we sincerely endeavored to count every vote in every precinct in order to work out what proportion of EVs should go to each party.