Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Save the Constitution: Abolish the Senate

Maybe the first thing you think when you read, “Abolish the Senate,” is that this would be a radical change away from the government envisioned in the Constitution. Of course it would be a big change. But I think there's a more central and important Constitutional value that would be served by getting rid of it: the legislature makes the laws.

Ever notice how when the White House changes hands the strongest policy voices on the winning side of the aisle in Congress start looking for executive-branch positions? With the houses of Congress often set against each other it's hard for them to have any impact there. In charge of more unified executive agencies they can take the lead on policy and then, when they have to, get the issues they want before Congress. The people that stick around in Congress are the ones that specialize in whipping votes and using parlaimentary procedure for partisan advantage.

It's not only in line with Constitutional ideals that Congress should lead on policy, it would have good results. Congress holds a larger and fuller ideological gamut than any Presidential administration. We could get a wider range of ideas from there. An empowered and revitalized Congress might have a wider range of parties if alignment with Presidential politics wasn't so critical. We could see a broader range of compromises crafted to unite various factions that exist within and between parties. But we'd also get more stability. The makeup of Congress, even after a big swing election, doesn't change as much as the makeup of executive agencies after a Presidential election. Because it's made up of many little elections it represents all the people and interests in a fairly stable way.

So that's the body that should lead on policy: a strong Congress with one house. That means we need to get rid of a house. If we remove one of Congress' houses it should be the Senate. The one that's extremely unrepresentative and, honestly, truly obnoxious in its self-importance. I'm not going to go on about this — if you're not with me here you're not going to be with me on any of this :-).

One thing people seem to like about the Senate is that it gives a voice to concerns that would be drowned out in a representative body, where big cities would dominate. If we have a group that does this its powers should be more limited such that it doesn't blunt the legislative thrust of Congress too much. And it probably shouldn't be organized by state — really the power in the idea would be to raise up groups that cut across that relatively arbitrary geography. Maybe some seats could be reserved for proportional representation by party (as in many parlaiments), possibly with a formula that limits the number for the largest parties (which would be well represented in the more powerful House) to raise up smaller ones. Of course the smaller parties would have to get a bit more serious than they are today but they might rise to the challenge. Agricultural interests, which get strong but uneven representation in today's Senate, could be considered in a more balanced way. In any such body recognized tribes should certainly have seats, and so should any territory that isn't fully represented in Congress today. Maybe non-citizen residents could get some seats? Other racial and language groups might be worth considering, though the details would be hard to hammer out.

But the details aren't the most important thing. This isn't going to happen soon, and if it does eventually, I'm not going to lead it. Just trying to get all five of you that read this to think about the Senate. Its form and its power are written into the Constitution, but it might be eroding Constitutional values (at least the ones we value today). We should give a serious thought to abolishing it, to promote those values.

POSTSCRIPT: I tried to write this in a way that's neutral on current politics but it would be dishonest to ignore that abolishing the Senate and empowering the House would benefit my politics in the short-term. I think it's reasonable to believe this would be the case long-term. But my own politics aren't all I care about. It's very reasonable to disagree with my politics on many points, as well as my point of view on the Senate. I probably leaned harder into “Constitution Equals Good” thinking here than I really believe, but... hey, I'm American, I'm stuck with the rhetoric like all of us are. Oh, yeah, and anyone that actually knows about this stuff will clearly see that I don't. Because of that I tried to keep it short and sort of failed. Oh, well. At least I mostly stayed focused. There are many American political institutions that are bad and should be replaced with better ones for the good of democracy; this post is about one of them :-).

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Mail-in voting: what to expect as you watch

I'm writing this for people I know that might experience an election with widespread mail-in voting for the first time in a couple months. I've been living in Washington, where most of our voting is done by mail, for 10 years. Local officials and local news in your area will have the most relevant information specific to your situation, especially on how to vote yourself. But I'm worried that newsrooms that are used to covering normal elections won't prepare you for how a largely mail-in election will go. And if you aren't ready for it you could be succeptible to harmful propaganda. So here are some things to expect as you watch the election.

Results will roll in for weeks

We're used to watching election results come in over the course of a few hours. With mail-in voting they'll come in over the course of a few weeks. Some places count early-arriving mail ballots before election day, so by election night a large fraction of votes will already be counted. Other places won't start counting until the day. In either case many ballots that were mailed and postmarked on time will be working their way through the mail for days after election day, and the full count might not be ready for a few weeks. That's normal, it's what you should expect. The count might be slowed down by COVID-related workplace issues, both within USPS and the election system. It might be slowed down by legal challenges or even political wrangling over which ballots should be counted (remember 2000?). It doesn't mean your local election officials or workers are malicious or incompetent.

I mean, your local election officials might be incompetent or even malicious! We have too many election officials trying to suppress votes in this country! But vote counts trickling up through mid-November isn't evidence of a problem, it's just how this kind of election works.

Oh, yeah, I said, “political wrangling over which ballots are counted.” That's going to happen in lots of places, especially places that aren't used to widespread mail-in voting. It won't be over on election night. Be ready to fight for your ballot, and your neighbors' ballots, to be counted, for weeks.

Results may swing dramatically after election day

Alright, so you know all about voter turnout. Every person decides whether and how to vote for their own reasons but in aggregate there are fairly predictable patterns for the voting and turnout patterns for different groups of people. Groups of voters whose turnout varies most from election to election tend to correlate with groups that swing left, so low-turnout elections tend to swing right and high-turnout elections tend to swing left (at least for recent US elections).

Similarly, in aggregate, different groups of people tend to vote at different times. Mail-in voting takes place over a very large time window, so these tendencies are exaggerated. So it's pretty common here in Washington for one candidate to hold a substantial lead on election night, only for their opponent to win resoundingly when all the ballots are counted. This kind of movement is normal. It is not evidence of a conspiracy. Anyone that says so is either ignorant or a liar, and in either case isn't worth listening to.

In Washington late-voters tend to swing left, and left-wing candidates often see large post-election-day increases. If I had to guess, I'd expect that the same pattern would occur nationally. However, that expectation comes with some caveats:

  • Donald Trump and his supporters broke a lot of pollsters' turnout models in 2016 (as did Brexit). Washington, and the Seattle area in particular, has some of the lowest levels of Trump support in the US. It wouldn't shock me to see more late-arriving right-wing votes elsewhere because Trump supporters break the timing model, too.
  • Washington voters, and Seattle voters in particular, tend to be pretty tuned-in and ideological, and our top-2 “jungle primary” system forces voters to decide on their overall top choice in most elections months in advance of the general. So I think we have fewer true “swing voters”, by the time of a general election, than a lot of other places, even in close elections. And I suspect true swing voters would tend to vote late. So there's another late-voting group that might be bigger nationally than in Washington.
  • If you have widespread mail-in and widespread in-person voting all bets are off. I don't know which groups of people will tend to vote in-person, nor whether in-person or mail-in ballots will suffer bigger delays. In fact I'd bet both those things will vary a lot place to place. Washington is almost all mail-in so I don't even have a baseline to go from here.

Exit polling is out the window

Up here we're used to pollsters not bothering with us because we're not a swing state. At the local level we're used to being in the dark until the results come in. The whole thing with staying up and watching exit polls to try to get a jump on official results... it's not going to be a thing this year. Go to bed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

hey pheidippides f-f-f-friend?

with a whole forty-eight hours' perspective on running a marathon alone in my neighborhood i'm still conflicted about it

on one hand whatever gladness i have in having run the last lap if you can even call that running with all the stopping to stretch my cramping calf every couple blocks feels wrong since i didn't enjoy it and it didn't help anyone and it didn't make me better

on the other hand in training i focused on different things than usual and that made my long runs more fun and less painful than usual which at least made me a little smarter and better

did i have to do the bad thing to do the good thing

the bad thing came later so maybe not but would i have done the good thing if i hadn't committed myself to the bad thing enough to actually do it even though i didn't want to