Biden Win Solid, Not Spectacular

November 17, 2020

Previous | Next

My last post started with the FiveThirtyEight projection of a big win for Joe Biden, with 53% of the popular vote and 342 electoral votes. His actual totals were 50.9% of the popular vote and 306 electoral votes. This was still better than the win that Trump declared a “landslide” in 2016, since Biden not only matched Trump’s electoral vote total, but also won the popular vote that Trump has now lost twice. Biden won it by 5.6 million votes, twice as many as Hillary Clinton’s margin of 2.8 million.

Neither of the possible outcomes I previously described actually came to pass. Although Biden won five of the eight swing states I listed, he did not score a knockout blow on election night by winning one that Trump needed. The delay in counting mail-in ballots kept the race fairly close for a couple more days. The other scenario—that Trump could eke out a victory by means of some form of voter suppression—was, thankfully, averted. Biden won too many states by solid margins to be denied the victory. Considering the difficulties of voting during a pandemic, the continued threat of foreign interference, the divisions within the country, and the threats from one candidate to reject the results if he lost, the election itself went remarkably smoothly.

President-elect Biden’s victory, although solid, was not overwhelming enough to give him very much of a mandate to govern. The composition of the Senate is not entirely determined, but it has a good chance of remaining in Republican hands. I continue to be amazed that almost half the electorate voted for an incumbent who so thoroughly demonstrated his unfitness for the office. But as the Washington Post reported, Biden won the cities that have been thriving in the new economy, while Trump won the places that have been falling behind. Trump has tapped into the frustrations of many less-educated voters, but unfortunately, he’s done it less by advancing their interests as a class than by promoting traditional privileges of white supremacy, patriarchy and evangelical Christianity. Meanwhile, he has continued the standard Republican economic policies of tax cuts mainly for corporations and the wealthy and benefit cuts for the less well off.

That would seem to offer an opening for a president who actually cares about the working class. Biden should propose some measures that could unite working families across the board, like aid for early childhood education or vocational training opportunities, and then vigorously defend them. Senate Republicans can stonewall him, as they did President Obama, but hopefully not without political cost. Republicanism under Trump has become something of a con—see former Republican consultant Stuart Stevens’ book It Was All a Lie—but maybe the public is starting to want something more authentic.


Trump’s Narrow Path to Victory

October 28, 2020

Previous | Next

As of today, the FiveThirtyEight projections give Joe Biden an 88% chance of winning the presidential election. He is projected to win 53% of the popular vote and 342 electoral votes to Trump’s 196. If as many as 150 million people vote, Biden could win by a margin of 10 million votes, more than three times Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin.

If Biden wins Wisconsin and Michigan as expected, Donald Trump’s path to victory would probably require winning Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Arizona. His problem is that he does not have a comfortable lead in any of those states. One very plausible scenario is that Biden scores a knockout blow by winning one of these swing states on election night.

Unfortunately for Biden, another outcome remains possible. If Trump can win a number of the swing states, he may be able to make the election close enough that voter suppression of one kind or another determines the outcome, as I discussed in my previous post. Some combination of insufficient polling places and long lines in urban areas, insufficient drop boxes for mail-in ballots, late postal delivery of ballots, legal challenges to mailed ballots, or something else Republicans may think up, could create the kind of chaos that Trump is hoping for. The large Biden lead makes that more difficult, but hardly impossible. Be sure to vote!


A Perfect Storm for Democracy

September 25, 2020

Previous | Next

In my previous post, I expressed my concern that a deliberate slowdown of mail delivery by the US Postal Service could interfere with the integrity of our presidential election. Now that I’ve read “The Election That Could Break America,” Barton Gellman’s cover story in The Atlantic, I think I may have understated the problem. The shenanigans at the Post Office may only be the tip of the iceberg of efforts to thwart the will of the voters.

Consider how the following factors may come together:

  • a traditional pattern in which low turnout tends to favor Republicans
  • an ongoing Republican effort in many states to make it harder for people to vote
  • an autocratic president who will not accept an election result as valid unless he wins
  • a pandemic that discourages in-person voting, especially among voters who take the virus seriously
  • a clear preference for mail-in ballots among Democrats
  • an attack by the President and his Attorney General on mail-in ballots

This week, President Trump refused to commit himself to a peaceful transition of power, saying:

Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster…. Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very—we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.

Some commentators have wondered if Trump might refuse to leave the White House even if he loses. Gellman believes that’s the wrong question, and I agree. The much more likely scenario is that Republicans prevent a clear Biden victory by interfering with the voting process or the counting of mail-in ballots. Gellman describes what’s been going on already:

Republicans and their allies have litigated scores of cases in the name of preventing fraud in this year’s election. State by state, they have sought—with some success—to purge voter rolls, tighten rules on provisional votes, uphold voter-­identification requirements, ban the use of ballot drop boxes, reduce eligibility to vote by mail, discard mail-in ballots with technical flaws, and outlaw the counting of ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but arrive afterward. The intent and effect is to throw away votes in large numbers.

And that’s just the beginning. Gellman also describes the plan to resume and expand election-day activities that a court ruled improper after the gubernatorial election of 1981.

According to the district court’s opinion in Democratic National Committee v. Republican National Committee, the RNC allegedly tried to intimidate voters by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers as members of a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” some of them armed and carrying two-way radios. According to the plaintiffs, they stopped and questioned voters in minority neighborhoods, blocked voters from entering the polls, forcibly restrained poll workers, challenged people’s eligibility to vote, warned of criminal charges for casting an illegal ballot, and generally did their best to frighten voters away from the polls.

Since then, the RNC has been under a consent decree requiring them to get advance approval for any such operations, but that has now expired. Trump’s deputy campaign manager, Justin Clark, has been recorded as hailing that expiration as a “huge, huge, huge, huge deal,” and promising a much larger operation with 50,000 poll monitors in 15 contested states.

If the election is close, any delay in counting mail-in votes could produce the appearance of a Trump victory on election night—a so-called “red mirage”—followed by a very slow movement toward Biden in the following days—a “blue shift.” We already saw something like that in Florida in 2018, when Republican candidates Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott saw their election-night leads shrink over the following days. Trump tweeted that the mail-in ballots were fraudulent and should be disregarded. Gellman quotes a legal advisor to the Trump campaign promising a similar situation on a national scale this time: “There will be a count on election night; that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent—pick your word.”

Unfortunately, there are many ways of making your mail-in ballot vulnerable to rejection: You have moved recently; you used a slightly different version of your name; your signature doesn’t match closely enough; you signed on the wrong line; or you failed to use the inner security envelope. Challenges and lawsuits, legitimate or frivolous, could affect what votes get counted. If the process in a swing state is dragging on as December 14 approaches—the day the Electoral College votes—the outcome could be settled by a court ruling as it was in 2000, or by a state legislature. If the mail-in ballot becomes the “hanging chad” of 2020, the voters may not have the final say.

Trump has already said that he expects mail-in voter fraud (of which there is hardly any evidence) to force the Supreme Court to intervene, which is one reason he wants to fill the vacancy on the court before the election. And under the Constitution, states can select electors any way they want, so a state legislature could use claims of fraud—or just electoral confusion—as an excuse to legislate their preferred outcome. Republicans control the legislatures in the crucial battleground states of Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Republican leaders in Pennsylvania are already discussing that strategy.

Another possible scenario is that a state ends up with two rival slates of electors, one believed to be elected and the other selected by the legislature. The Constitution says that the President of the US Senate, that is, Vice President Pence, counts the ballots of the Electoral College, so he would get a large role in deciding his own re-election. Another scenario is that neither candidate wins 270 electoral votes, and the House of Representatives chooses the President. But since each state delegation only gets one vote, a small red state like Wyoming would count as much as a big blue state like California, another advantage for Trump. In some scenarios even Congress could not determine who the real president is, in which case Trump might win again because of the Supreme Court.

We have never had a president so openly contemptuous of our democratic institutions and norms. That makes this election especially crucial for preserving them, but it also makes this election especially vulnerable to their violation. That is all the more true because the Republican Party is now the party of Trump, enabling his undemocratic impulses for their own gain. They are using each other, and they deserve each other. But the rest of us deserve better.

In the end, elections come down to numbers. The larger the vote margin for the majority’s choice, the harder it will be for a minority to thwart the will of the people by getting votes discounted. We must all do our best to make ours count.


Trump Goes Postal

August 14, 2020

Previous | Next

The dispute over funding for the US Postal Service is not one of your garden variety budget battles. It has a surprising relevance to our democratic election process, in a year when the outcome is especially crucial to the future of our democracy. That may sound overly dramatic, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.

Consider the following facts, and then tell me I shouldn’t be alarmed.

This year most states are allowing widespread voting by mail, either for any reason at all or because a voter feels that the coronavirus makes in-person voting too dangerous. Only Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, and New York have failed to widen the voting so far.

Democrats and Republicans are seriously divided in their interest in and support for mail-in voting. In a Monmouth poll released several days ago, 72% of Democrats but only 22% of Republicans said that they are very or somewhat likely to vote by mail. Partly that is because the virus has hit Democratic areas and constituencies harder, such as Black and Latino voters in large cities. But it is also because President Trump has played down fears of the virus and played up fears of fraudulent voting. The facts, of course, do not support his position on either point.

Knowing that voting by mail is more important to Democrats, Republicans have been busy filing lawsuits in multiple states to resist its expansion.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service has suffered a loss in revenue as a result of the pandemic, but they have received much less assistance from federal relief efforts than private companies. Trump threatened to veto an earlier aid package if it contained Postal Service funding, so a $13 billion grant was replaced with a $10 billion loan. Apparently, that loan came with strings attached, so that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin could have more authority over the agency, pressing them to initiate cost-cutting measures.

In an interview with Maria Bartiromo yesterday, Trump acknowledged that the Postal Service needs additional funding in order to implement mail voting:

Now, they need that money in order to make the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in-voting, they just can’t have it.

Nevertheless, he continues to oppose the spending requested by the Postal Service and passed by the House of Representatives. Mnuchin is representing the White House in the negotiations, and he explained his own opposition to postal funding by saying that “voting rights is not our game.”

Our recently appointed Postmaster General was one of the top fundraisers for the Republican National Committee, and also named chief fundraiser for the Republican National Convention that was to be held in Charlotte. He was rewarded with the Postal Service position despite his lack of postal experience. He has “unveiled a wholesale reorganization of agency’s executive ranks, restructured operations and instituted a hiring freeze, building on other cost-cutting measures already being blamed for significant mail backups” (The Washington Post).

The USPS General Counsel has already sent letters to almost all states notifying them that the Postal Service may not be able to deliver ballots in time to meet state deadlines, especially if they are not mailed first class at 55 cents apiece. In the past, ballots were sent at bulk mail rates but still given priority.

I see three impending scenarios here, all disturbing.

First, Trump agrees to sign off on the USPS funding, but only if Democrats agree to reduce funding for other forms of stimulus, such as unemployment benefits or assistance to save state and municipal jobs.

Second, the Trump administration succeeds in messing up the mails enough to tip the election in his favor.

Third, Trump loses the election but declares the result invalid due to mail-in voting “irregularities”. He then uses the Justice Department under William Barr–who also opposes general mail balloting–and the courts, to try and overturn the election. And lest we forget, the Republicans have a Supreme Court majority because Mitch McConnell blocked the Senate from even considering President Obama’s last nominee.

We can imagine even more sinister outcomes, where Trump uses his personal Homeland Security forces to “secure” the election by arresting the apparent winner, but let’s stop there.

Now tell me I’m imagining things.


Measuring Mortality in Lost Time

July 19, 2020

Previous | Next

This much is obvious: Anyone who dies a preventable death from the pandemic is robbed of a part of their lifetime.  What may not be so obvious is that time and mortality are related in a more collective way. Any time that states lose in getting the virus under control can be measured in additional deaths.

Exhibit A here is the state of Florida, which was making some progress in slowing their covid-19 mortality rate between mid-May and mid-June. But since the recent resurgence, the state’s rate of increase in total deaths is 16% for this past week (4301 to 5002), which is back to about where it was two months ago. Think of that as lost time, time spent spinning one’s wheels getting nowhere, while people die. How many people? 3,038 in those two months alone. To use a military analogy, it’s as if an army lost that many soldiers while it sat in camp, accomplishing nothing.

It’s a similar story in Texas, Arizona, South Carolina and Alabama—brief progress followed by a reversion to a rate of mortality growth not seen in two months. Total lives lost in these four states in the meantime—6,093. And the toll in unnecessary deaths may well rise higher, since death is a lagging indicator of infections—and missed opportunities.

For the sake of comparison, consider the state of Massachusetts, which over the same two-month period brought its weekly increase down from 18% to 1%.  If it had stayed at 18% per week, the state’s total death toll would be 25,304 by now, instead of the actual 8,419. The other states with the worst spring outbreaks also got them under control during that period, saving many thousands of lives. New York and New Jersey moved especially fast, experiencing precipitous drops in new deaths even in early May.

The more effective states have emulated what many countries of the world have accomplished, while the less effective states have contributed to the conspicuously high death rate in the United States as a whole. Also contributing is the lack of federal leadership, which includes the President’s encouragement of states to lift preventive measures prematurely.

Back in March, I titled my earliest post on this topic “No Time to Lose.” That remains as true as ever.