Category Archives: Elections

Election Update

May and June were significant months for elections, both in the United States and Europe.  While the news media tends to overhype some elections and ignore others, there are some conclusions that can be drawn from those elections.

Starting with the United States, the big news has been a series of special elections — focusing mostly on three Congressional seats held by the Republicans.  Neither party can be particularly happy with the results at the Congressional level, but certain things need to be noted.

First, except when caused by death or sudden resignation due to scandal, most vacancies occur in what the parties consider to be “safe” seats.  With the exception of the upcoming special election in Utah, the special elections for the House are all the results of an executive of their own party “promoting” the member of Congress to an executive office.  In California, you have to go back to 2012 to see the last time that a Republican even ran in the 34th district.  The four Republican seats were solid wins for the Republican incumbents in 2016 with the closest margin being 16% in Montana.  All five of these districts were double-digit wins for their party’s candidate in 2012.  The only district that was arguably winnable by the “out” party was Georgia 6 and that is only if you looked solely at the 2016 presidential election.  By the partisan vote index, Georgia 6 is still R+8, meaning that the Democrats would need to get around 58% nationally to win that seat.

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A June to Remember/Fear?

There are times when, through the normal cycle, and discretionary decisions, events start to come in rapid procession.  June is shaping up to be one of those month between elections (both in the U.S. and abroad), the end of the Supreme Court term, and the matters currently on the plate of Congress.  We have already had the first major event of June — the decision by the Trump Administration to make America weaker by playing to his misinformed base on climate change and withdrawing from the Paris Accords.  It’s almost impossible to count the reasons why this decision is wrong,  here are a few:  1) the agreement was non-binding; 2) being a signator gave us a seat at the table in future discussions; 3) withdrawing makes China and the European Union more powerful; 4) state laws requiring an increasing percent of energy to come from renewal sources are still in effect and will contribute to the U.S. meeting its pledge anyway; 5) the federal courts have held that greenhouse gases are a pollutant requiring federal action under the Clean Air Act (even though the precise terms of the regulations to reduce greenhouse gases are not yet final) which means that we may have to meet or exceed the pledge anyway.

Moving to the Supreme Court, June is looking like immigration month.  May ended with a decision in the first of four immigration cases heard this term.  The case involved what types of sexual offenses against a child trigger deportation hearings for authorized immigrants (e.g., permanent residents).  The Supreme Court narrowly interpreted the statute, meaning that — for some sexual offenses (those that can be committed against a 16 or 17-year old — the first offense will not trigger deportation.  Two of the other three also directly or indirectly concern deportation.  In addition, with the lower courts having barred enforcement of the travel ban, the Trump Administration is asking the Supreme Court to stay those injunctions.  (The real issue is the enforcement of the restrictions on visas and entry.  It is likely that the Supreme Court will grant relief to some overbroad language in those bars that could be read as suggesting that the Trump Administration can’t begin work on revisions to the vetting process.)  There are 22 other cases to be decided this month, so immigration will not be the only big news this month.  And, even aside from the decisions in cases already argued, the Supreme Court will be deciding what cases to take next term and there are some potentially major issues that could be on the agenda for 2017-18.

Moving to U.S. elections, there are still three special elections — all of which will occur this month.  Two — in Georgia and South Carolina — involve vacancies created by the Trump cabinet appointment.  The other — California — arose from a vacancy created by filling the vacancy in the California Attorney General position created when the former AG won the U.S. Senate election last fall.  Because California uses a “jungle primary” (i.e.  one in which all candidates from all parties run in one primary with the top two advancing to the general election), we already know that the Democrats will keep this seat and the only question on Tuesday is which Democrat will be elected.  For the most part, both parties in choosing members of Congress to fill vacancies have followed the rule of only choosing people from “safe” seats.  As such, while the Democrats have so far — in the first round in California and in Montana and Kansas — run around 10% ahead of 2018, this success has not changed the winner of any seat.

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Redistricting Advanced Course

We are four years away from the next full round of redistricting.  The redistricting process is a combination of federal law, state law, and local politics.  The fact that there are legal rules governing the process means that individuals who do not like one of the many maps (congressional, state senate, state house, county commission, city council) can bring a court challenge to that map.  When discussing federal law, there are two crucial provisions — the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  (Additionally, there is some suggestion that the First Amendment may have an impact on certain types of gerrymanders.)  This week the Supreme Court issued an opinion on North Carolina’s congressional districts that attempted to reconcile the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Acts.

The background of this case is that, two decades ago, the Supreme Court (in a case involving North Carolina) held that a racial gerrymander — one in which race played a significant role in the drawing of the lines — would be subject to strict scrutiny (the most state unfriendly form of review — requiring showing of both a “compelling interest” justifying the use of race and that the use of race was “narrowly tailored” to meet that compelling interest).  Over the years, the Supreme Court has clarified that, to trigger state scrutiny, race must be the predominate factor in drawing the lines.  The Supreme Court has also clarified that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act can be a compelling interest.

North Carolina currently has three Democratic representatives in Congress — from the 1st district, the 4th district, and the 12th district.  Before the last round of redistricting, African-Americans represented around 48% of the voting age population (BVAP in election law jargon) of the 1st district and 43% of voting age population of the 12th.  That BVAP was enough to make African-Americans into a very significant segment of the Democratic primary vote in those districts and there are enough white Democrats in those districts that — even in bad years nationally, the Democratic candidate gets well over 60% of the vote in those districts.  In short, African-Americans could get their preferred candidate selected in those districts even though they did not have 50% of the vote.  In the trial court, North Carolina conceded that they did take race into account in drawing the 1st district but claimed that they did so to meet Section 2 (that is by making the 1st district into a majority-minority district),  On the 12th district, North Carolina claimed that they did not draw that district to pack it with African-Americans but rather to pack it with Democrats.  However, there was some evidence that — at least for one county in the district — they did expressly consider race and, also, that they used race as a proxy for partisanship.  Additionally, the 12th was already compliant with “one man, one vote” even if North Carolina had kept the old district lines and the changes added mostly African-Americans while removing mostly whites.

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Foreign Elections — French Edition

On Sunday, French voters will go to the polls in the first round of their presidential election.  There are several key differences between the U.S. and France.  First, the French have more than two main political parties.  Out of the eleven candidates running, at least five represent significant political groupings.  Second, the French president is elected by popular vote.  Third, if no candidate gets a majority of the popular vote (likely based on current polls), there will be a run-off.  Fourth, the center of French politics is significantly further to the left than U.S. politics.  While folks try to put things in U.S. terms, the best way to view it is that the top five is like Donald Trump, John Kasich,  Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and someone to the left of Bernie Sanders, and even the Donald Trump candidate is more liberal on fiscal issues than President Trump.

Of course, what is the same is the existence of the National Front — an organization that Donald Trump loves.  As it’s name implies, the National Front is a xenophobic party opposed to French membership in the European Union and the Islamic influence in France.  It is also pro-Putin.  The National Front typically polls somewhere in the teens.  While this has historically been enough for the National Front to contend for run-off slots (both in Presidential and Parliamentary elections), the National Front is so far out of the mainstream of French politics that it normally loses most of those run-off elections (it only holds two seats in the outgoing French Parliament.)  In this election, the National Front is (again) running Marine Le Pen — daughter of the founder of the National Front and its leader since dear old dad retired.

There are some signs that the far right nationalist views of the National Front are making gains in France.  There is a symbiotic relationship between ultranationalist candidates like Le Pen and Trump on the one side and Islamic fundamentalist terror groups like ISIS.  Each terror attack make the law and order and anti-Islam messages of the ultranationalist sound like the only option that voters have if they want security.  However, that very anti-Islam message feeds into discrimination against Muslims who are native-born citizens.  Young Muslims feeling rejected by their own country then turn to leaders who call for a return to an era when Islam was dominant and promote violence as a means to that end.  When these young people follow through on that call and engage in acts of terror, the cycle begins again.   Given a spate of terror incidents on the eve of the election, the National Front may pick up an extra couple of percent in the first round of the election.

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Why Vote? Seven Reasons

Why vote? I get asked this a lot.

Especially in an odd year like 2017.

Where to start?

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Special Elections — Kansas Edition

As I write this post, the results are coming in for the special election in the Fourth District of Kansas.  While the election has been close all night, it now appears that, by a very narrow majority, the Republicans will keep this seat.   This seat is the first of four special elections to fill vacancies in seats formally held by Republicans who are now serving in the Trump Administration.  (There is also a special election to fill a Democratic seat formerly held by the new Attorney General of California — who was appointed to that office after the previous A.G. won the U.S. Senate seat last fall.  The primary for that seat was held earlier and two Democrats advanced to the runoff.)

It is hard to tell whether this seat was close because of the unpopularity of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback — a stellar example of why the Freedom Caucus’s plan for government is a roadmap for a complete disaster — or the unpopularity of President Trump.  The Republican candidate is the current State Treasurer and as such is unable to avoid association with Governor Brownback’s reckless scheme to bankrupt Kansas.  And Donald Trump will probably claim that his assistance via a last minute robocall saved this seat.

The bigger question is what this close race means going forward.  In the last two elections, the Republicans won this seat by 30%.  This race looks like a final margin between 4-8%.  That type of swing if replicated across the country would lead to a Democratic majority in the next Congress.  In the shorter term, the question is whether this result can be replicated in next week’s special election in Georgia or the upcoming elections in May and June in South Carolina and Montana.  With the exception of the Georgia seat, even if a Democrat wins the special election, these seats are going to be difficult for a Democrat to hold in 2018.  Having a Democratic incumbent in these seats would, however, require the Republicans to devote a significant level of resources to get them back, making it easier for us to pick up seats elsewhere.  More importantly, if the Democrats can keep these races close and even win some, it is going to increase the jitters of Republicans in lean Republican seats.  During the Obama Administration, it was easy for Republicans to just say no and not have to accept responsibility for the gridlock in D.C.  The Republicans are now fully in charge and are responsible for getting things done.  The problem for Republicans in Congress is that the American people do not want what the Republican Party wants — even the voters in Republican seats do not want what the Republican Party wants.  That puts Republican Representatives on the hot seat.  They can either tell their Republican colleagues to slow down and take a second look at things or they can follow Speaker Ryan and President Trump like lemmings to their downfall in the 2018 election.  My hunch is that, like most politicians, the Republican members of Congress are tuned into their own survival.  The warning signs from the 4th district of Kansas this week and the 6th district of Georgia next week is going to make it very difficult for President Trump and Speaker Ryan to get their plans through Congress.

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Health Care 2019

Barring something unexpected, as discussed in Doc Jess’s post, the major action for the rest of this Congress on health care is likely to be at the administrative level with Tom Price doing his best to undermine the Affordable Care Act.  However, there have been some unanticipated holes that have developed over the past seven years that do need to be fixed.  As such, if Democrats regain control of the House and Senate in 2019 what issues should they be looking to address.

At the top of my list is the Medicaid expansion hole.  Back in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that states did not have to participate in the Medicaid expansion.  The Affordable Care Act assumed that every state was going to participate in the expansion and only provided for subsidies for those who did not qualify for Medicaid.   When a significant number of states opted to not expand Medicaid coverage, this created a group who earned to much to sign up for Medicaid, but too little to get subsidies to purchase insurance.  The obvious fix is to expand the subsidies to cover this gap group.

The second issue concerns the exchanges.  Again, the Affordable Care Act assumed that most (if not all) states would opt to set up exchanges just on principles of state autonomy.  (Why would Republicans who complain about the feds taking over the insurance market let the feds take over the insurance market in their states?)  It turned out that Republicans in the state wanted the symbolism of resisting more than actual local control.  This problem offers a chance to offer the Republicans a two-edged sword.  The Republicans complain that one of the problems with health insurance is that companies are unable to offer policies that cross state lines.  (Placing the blame on regulations is not accurate, and the biggest restraint on such policies is the need of insurance companies to have deals with the local hospitals.)  So I would offer up for discussion an exemption for policies offered on the federal exchange.  If a state does not have its own exchange, policies on the federal exchange will be exempt from state regulations and will only be subject to federal regulations.   If a state wants to regulate those policies, it can take over the exchange.  If not, a state will not be permitted to sues state regulations to obstruct the federal exchange.  My hunch says that the states will not opt to set up their own exchanges and that the exemption of insurance companies from state regulations will not increase the number of policies that cross state lines.

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Hate in America

Last night, we in Philly heard that hundreds of headstones were turned over Saturday night at a Jewish cemetery, a week after similar vandalism in St. Louis. Many people are saddened, appalled and surprised. They should be sad and appalled, but not surprised. This is Trump’s America.

I have been working with Indivisible locally, and I am heartened by the number of people completely new to politics who are suddenly aware, and ready to take action to both resist the Trump agenda, and help elect people who will serve America, and not what is actually the Bannon administration.

I keep hearing two themes through my work with Indivisible. First, people are concerned about what they can do to stop hate. And by “hate” I mean not just the vandalism, but the verbal abuse people see foisted upon innocent people, just for the colour of their skin,  The ICE roundups are another form of hate: people question what they can do to help those who will be caught up in the dragnets. Hate also in the form of the administration’s moves against sick people (“repeal Obamacare” and dismantle Medicaid), Hate in the form of transgender bathroom rights. I’m a doctor, and I’m telling you, the only thing that matters is that you wash your hands. (If you’re a long-term reader, you remember back to SARS and fingers, nails, fingers, fingers, fingers.) And let’s not forget the hate of literacy in terms of claiming the media is the “enemy of the people”.  The hate is creeping down from the Cheeto Team, and up from the GOP state legislatures.

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The End

This year’s elections saw a lot of unusual, unexpected, and unprecedented developments.  So nobody should be shocked at any unexpected developments when the electoral college meets on Monday.  Having said that, Democratic activists have been barking up the wrong tree by emphasizing the national popular vote.  The reason why this strategy was guaranteed to backfire is the nature of the electoral college.

The electors are not randomly chosen people.  They are local politicians and activists who are nominated by their state party.  In short, they are not the people who are likely to surrender control of the White House to the other party.  By the rules that are currently in place, the Republicans have won the White House.  So while, the Constitution, theoretically, allows these electors to vote for Hillary, practically these electors will not vote for Hillary.

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Audit vs. Recount

Over the last two weeks, there has been much discussion of the recounts requested by the Green Party in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.   Some of this request is based on discrepancies in results depending upon the type of voting technology use, but others think that those discrepancies can be explained by the demographics of the counties.  Historically, the gap in the states in which the recounts are being requested is larger than the typical swing from a recount.

What these requests do demonstrate is the need for a regular and public audit process for the election.  Many states do have an audit or verification process, but it needs to be public.  (One of the few states that do have such a process is Arizona which not only does an audit but requires the counties to submit the results to the state and the state publishes that information on-line.)   Saying that there should be an audit does not however define what a proper audit should do.

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