A Perfect Storm for Democracy

September 25, 2020

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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

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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

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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.

Pandemic Mortality—A Selective Resurgence

July 12, 2020

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As we feared when many states lifted restrictions before seeing their Covid-19 caseloads decline enough, death rates are starting to accelerate in many places. I have been tracking deaths by state, using the weekly percentage increase in cumulative deaths as a measure. For example, total deaths attributed to the virus in Texas were 2,608 one week ago, but they are 3,112 now, an increase of 19%. Since the numbers are cumulative, these percentages never go down, but if they approach zero that means that deaths are coming to a halt and the pandemic is under control for now.

Texas reached a low of only an 8% increase for the week ending June 14, but mortality has accelerated since then. Other states in a similar situation are Arizona, Florida and South Carolina. Here I give the lowest weekly percentage increase and when it was reported, followed by the percentage increase for the most recent week.

Arizona: 13% on June 21, now 19%
Florida: 7% on June 21, now 13%
South Carolina: 8% on June 21, now 17%

Other states to watch:

California: 7% on July 5, now 10%
South Dakota: 5% on June 7, now 12%
Tennessee: 9% on July 5, now 16%
Utah: 8% on July 5, now 17%

Georgia’s increase has only been from a low of 3% for the week ending July 5 to 5% this past week, but the rapidly rising caseload suggests further increases in mortality to come.

The good news is that many states that already had serious outbreaks of the disease have brought their deaths practically to a halt. This week’s increases in cumulative deaths were near 0% in New York and Connecticut. They were around 2% in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and 4% in Louisiana.

In just a couple of months, the epicenter of the pandemic has shifted, mainly from the Northeast to the South. No law says it can’t shift again. The main lesson to be learned is that no state can afford to be complacent, and many are paying a steep price for their past complacency. The relentless campaign by the White House to understate the threat and resist national measures to deal with it is not helping.

Time to Get Real

June 30, 2020

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Well, it looks like Donald Trump’s term in office may end very much as it began, with our intelligence community reporting hostile actions by the Russians and the President covering up for them as best he can. Apparently, strong evidence that the Russians put a bounty on the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan became available several months ago. Not only did the President do nothing about it, but he continued to support his friend Putin in other areas of his agenda, such as joining the G7 nations. Now he claims that he was never briefed. Perhaps not, considering that telling truth to power has never been encouraged in this administration.

Does this story sound familiar? Even before Trump took office, our intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia was interfering in our election process. His response was to dismiss the finding as fake news, accept Putin’s denial, and do his best to obstruct the investigation. He also concocted his own story of election malfeasance, attributing his failure to win the popular vote to fraudulent voting by undocumented immigrants. More recently, when he was caught trying to blackmail Ukraine into discrediting Joe Biden, he dismissed that reporting as fake news too, and once again obstructed the investigation.

When we look back on Trump’s years in office, what we see is a president whose ability to create convenient fantasies is only exceeded by his inability to tackle real problems. He is consistently long on denial and short on leadership.

Do too many Americans lack affordable health insurance? No, the problem in Trump’s mind is the Affordable Care Act itself, which his administration is still trying to get the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional. He claims to have a better and cheaper plan, which he has never revealed.

Do too many communities still suffer from systemic racism, over-aggressive policing and mass incarceration? No, the problem in his mind is the people who are protesting those things.

Have new technologies destroyed too many good jobs, requiring new investments in education and training? No, the problem in his mind is just foreign competition and immigration, which can be dealt with by trade tariffs and a wall.

Does climate change threaten the future of the planet? No, the problem in his mind is environmental regulation, which interferes with the fossil fuel industry’s aim of producing as much fossil fuel as quickly as possible.

Does the coronavirus pandemic call for strong federal leadership to increase testing, track the infections, equip our health care providers, and promote safe behaviors? No, the problem in his mind is that testing is turning up too many cases, and safety restrictions are depriving Americans of their liberties.

Now that Trump is in real danger of losing the presidency, does voter suppression or further help from the Russians threaten the 2020 election too? No, the problem in his mind is that mail-in ballots—the most sensible way of voting during a pandemic—will fraudulently elect Joe Biden.

In all of his denials and phony claims, Trump has been aided and abetted by Congressional Republicans. He can rely on them to block any serious attempts to deal with the country’s problems, while covering for him when he commits corrupt acts. Senate Republicans acquitted him in his impeachment trial, although many admitted privately or publicly that he had probably done what he was accused of doing. The party in general has evolved to the point where Republicans focus far more of their efforts on retaining control of government than on actually governing. A sweeping generalization, I realize, but I stand by it.

Many of our social problems are ticking time bombs that have great destructive potential. We cannot afford four more years of fantasy.