Down with the State of the Union

Transplanted here from 2012 (and perviously from 2008 and originally from 2006, with many comments from the the original and subsequent years; links may suffer from linkrot after all these years.)

Something over at PoliBlog reminded me of why I pay no attention to the State of the Union address: It’s a worst-of-both-worlds form of political communication: All the pomp of a Speech from the Throne without any of the give-and-take of Question Period.

Steven takes issue with Lewis Gould’s characterization, from an essay called Ban the Bombast!:

More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation’s situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne.

Steven suggests that Gould’s “throne” characterization implies the president always get what he wants. Rather, for me, the reference reminds me precisely of what is wrong with the State of the Union address: It is not like a real throne speech at all.

“Speech from the throne” is the term used (with certain variations) in Westminister parliamentary systems. The head of state reads a statement about what “my government…” will do in the coming year. Then once it, and the dignity of the Queen (or her representative in Canada and other Commonwealth Realms) pretending that the government speaks for everyone, is over, things go back to normal. And that normal involves the head of government being hissed and booed and subjected to harsh questions in parliament.

In this respect, the State of the Union is really the worst of both worlds. The head of state stands before the people’s representatives (oh, and the senators, too) and delivers something allegedly about the nation as a whole. But then, as head of government–and therefore a partisan leader–he (i.e. the same person, unlike in Westminster systems) never sticks around to answer tough questions and subject himself to ridicule for the absurdities he has just mouthed. Instead, the opposition has to send someone to a TV/radio studio to give an equally absurd speech that hardly anyone listens to, and thus an opportunity for the sides to engage each other when people actually are paying attention is squandered.

I say dump the whole thing and in its place:

    • (1) go back to the head of state being kept off the floor of the separate legislative body and instead have him send a written message to congress


(2) have the head of government stick around after presenting his plans and spin and make him take questions–preferably weekly, as in Canada and the UK.

That is, keep true to the separation of powers by dumping the image of dignity and superiority that its one-way communication from the “throne” of Congress implies, or make the President jostle and spar with the very same representatives of the people he’s speaking before.

A reaction to “no separation of powers without divided government”

Vox published quite an incisive article today by Lee Drutman. The title almost speaks for itself, though I would have put ‘checks and balances’ where he put ‘separation of powers’, since the point is that the latter has proven insufficient for the former to be meaningful or effective. Though the issues involved should be very familiar to most of our readers, it is worth a read, and is not long. The article’s diagnosis is very accurate, and the solutions it points to are spot on (refreshingly, confidence votes are mentioned in addition to proportional representation). Its analysis of the founders’ constitutional design intentions is, however, flawed.

First of all, the founders probably did not think the Constitution would prevent parties from forming. The authors of the Federalist Papers certainly didn’t think so. In Federalist no. 10, Madison argues that parties arise from “the nature of man”, and quite clearly states that as long as we maintain liberty, faction is inevitable: “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests… The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.”

To Madison, therefore, the purpose of constitutional design is not to prevent faction or extinguish it, but to “control its effects”. In Federalist no. 10 he proposes to achieve this end through the large republic, whose size and combination of so many people with so many different interests would make it hard for a majority to materialize. In Federalist no. 51, he repeats this argument, saying “the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” But to this he adds another mechanism: “each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.” This is the separation of powers, giving the different branches institutional independence and their own separate interests.

As Drutman rightly says, experience has shown, especially lately, that this system of incentives has proven insufficient (especially to checking the executive) when the presidency and both houses of Congress are controlled by the same party. It is hard to argue the framers did not attempt to guard against just that, especially in making the House and Senate so different from each other. The passage which Drutman himself quotes from Schattschneider is probably correct, and as Drutman himself writes, “[dividing] up power across so many competing institutions that it would be impossible for partisan majorities to form” meaning majorities of the same party in both houses along with the presidency – unified government. I don’t think the framers were so optimistic as to think their design made unified government impossible, only that it made it significantly less likely – not an unreasonable expectation. But unified government was not an unknown danger, but one of the main dangers they set out to avoid. And, as I said before, they clearly did not think their institutions would actually prevent parties, only prevent them from forming majorities.

Which brings me back to the Federalists’ first argument – that in a large republic interests would be too numerous and diverse to allow one party to form a legislative majority. This has clearly proven wrong – but the reason for this, crucially, is the electoral system. With single-seat districts, a party can win an assembly majority even in a democracy as large and diverse as India, the result of the mechanical effect of the system on seat shares. Under proportional representation, however, even very small countries rarely witness single-party legislative majorities. Whether or not increased numbers and diversity in the population also brings with it a lower chance of this occurring, in accordance with Madison’s logic, is unclear. What seems certain, however, is that under proportional representation, Congress and the system as a whole would function much more in line with the framers’ original predictions.

Alabama scenarios

If it is possible, under Alabama election law, for Luther Strange or another Republican to run as an independent, I do not know which of the following is the likelier scenario.

Note: the winner is decided by plurality (most votes, not requiring more than half).

(1) Moore’s support bleeds away to the write-in, who wins a majority (or nearly so) in the deep-red state.

(2) The write-in splits the Republican vote, and Moore has sufficient dead-end support that won’t defect, letting Jones (the Democrat) win with ~40%.

(3) The write-in attracts lots of voters away from Jones who were only considering voting for him as the not-Moore, as well as from Moore himself, such that the write-in wins, but it is a close three-way contest.

One additional consideration: it is pretty late to organize a write-in campaign, and scenarios 1 & 3 both assume that it is possible to get it off the ground, and get voters aware of what they have to do.

I still think the most likely scenario is Moore wins, and sits in the Senate (until such time as the Senate, by 2/3, might vote to expel him).

The US Supreme Court gerrymandering case

I do not have time to dissect the arguments before the US Supreme Court in the case concerning the permissibility of the partisan gerrymander in Wisconsin. It clearly is a case of great importance to issues we care about at this blog. So, feel free to discuss here.

I highly recommend two pieces by Michael Latner:

Sociological Gobbledygook or Scientific Standard? Why Judging Gerrymandering is Hard (4 OCt.)

Can Science (and The Supreme Court) End Partisan Gerrymandering and Save the Republic? Three Scenarios (2 Oct.)



PR for the electoral college? No thanks

The following is a guest post by Nathan Batto

One of the proposals sometimes mooted (by disaffected Democrats) is that electoral votes should be allotted proportionally within each state according to the popular vote. Obviously, since Clinton won the popular vote, she would then win the election!

Not so fast. Let’s run the numbers. There are several different formulae to calculate proportional representation. D’Hondt is quite favorable to big parties; Ste. Laguë is quite favorable to small parties.

Ste. Laguë: Clinton 264, Trump 262, Johnson 10, Stein 1, McMullin 1.
D’Hondt: Clinton 267, Trump 267, Johnson 2, Stein 1, McMullin 1.

In both cases, no one gets a majority. The race would then be thrown into the House, where each state delegation would get one vote. Since Republicans hold majorities in 31 state delegations, Trump would almost certainly be elected president.

Of course, this assumes that no voters changed their votes, but of course small parties would almost certainly get more votes under this system. What that would do is make it very, very hard for either big party to get 270 EVs. Almost every election would be thrown into the House, where the Republicans hold a structural advantage in state delegations due to their popularity in rural America (read: small states). In other words, this reform would make it much harder for the Democrats to win the presidency.

[Nathan notes that the exact numbers could change based on updated vote totals. See comments for a point regarding possible thresholds. –MSS]

Voter choice or partisan interest? The case of ranked-choice voting in Maine

Galvanized by the first ever ranked-choice-voting (RCV) win in a U.S. state, reformers just hours ago held a conference call to build their movement. Ranked-choice voting is a set of voting rules more kind to “outsiders” than our ubiquitous plurality system. Given the unusual strength of America’s two-party system, why do outsider-friendly electoral reforms ever win?

My answer is: a replacement institutional template, losing-party self-interest, and ruling-party disunity. In a recently published paper, I show how this logic can explain the spread of “multi-winner ranked-choice voting” (i.e., proportional representation or PR) in the first part of the 20th century. Losing parties and disgruntled ruling-party factions promote voting-system change in a bid for policy-making influence. Voting reform organizations supply the replacement template.

Does my answer also explain the RCV win in Maine? Is that enough to buy my argument? If the answers are “yes,” reformers would concentrate on jurisdictions with sizable out-parties and fractious ruling parties.

Americanist political scientists would also change the way they think about election “reform.” The dominant trend for more than a century has been to see party and reform as exclusive. Fifty years ago, we would have read about conflict between “machine politics” and “good government.” Now we read about “activists” versus “compromisers,” legacies of Progressivism, and reformer “process-obsession.” What if party itself were a critical reform ingredient? As Jessica Trounstine reminds us in her excellent book, Democratic boss Thomas Pendergast was more than happy to turn the model city charter (without PR) to his own “machine” ends in Kansas City.

Let’s see if my template-loser-faction model explains what just happened in Maine.

The template

“Maine has not elected a governor to a first term with majority support since 1966,” said Jill Ward, President of the League of Women Voters of Maine. “Ranked Choice Voting restores majority rule and puts more power in the hands of voters.” – quoted from

Efforts to enact RCV began in 2001.

The losing party

Circumstantial evidence suggests that, from 2001 until the 2014 re-election of Gov. Paul LePage (R), the Democratic Party either:

1) controlled a policy veto point via the governorship, or

2) did not expect “independent” voters’ ballot transfers under single-winner RCV to help elect its candidates.

How is 2014 different for Democratic Party expectations? If the rhetoric of the current governor is any indication, the Maine Republican Party has become more socially conservative. Perhaps it is now so socially conservative (in Democrats’ minds) that the Democratic Party thinks “independent” voters would rank its candidates over Republicans. Maybe Democrats are thinking: “If we had RCV, we wouldn’t be the losing party.”

The disgruntled, ruling-party faction

My hunch is that this is a group of fiscal conservatives, no longer at home in either state party. That doesn’t make them a disgruntled, ruling-party faction, but it might have made them willing to consider Republicans in earlier years. Consider:

  • Proponent of record for Question 5: An Act to Establish Ranked-choice Voting. Liberal on some economic issues, but supports consumption taxes and income-tax reduction.
  • Two-time independent candidate for governor. Liberal on the environment, ambiguous on economics, but not a conventional Democrat of yore. Endorsed independent candidate Angus King (over the Democrat) to replace outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe, a famed “moderate” Republican.
  • One-time independent candidate for governor. Quits Democratic Party to run. Wanted Maine “to be the Free Enterprise State.”

Predictions and evidence

Last month I predicted that a coalition of regular Democrats and “the independents” would put RCV over the top. Republicans threw me a curve ball by endorsing RCV the very next day, but, as the proprietor of this blog has written, such endorsements can be strategic.

If I was right, Democrats and “the independents” should have voted for RCV, but the Republicans should not have.

Below I give a rough test of these hypotheses. Here are precinct-level results of the vote in favor of RCV by the vote for each major-party presidential candidate. (Vote shares are overall, not of the two-party vote.) This is preliminary. I only have data so far for 87 percent of precincts, the state has not released official results, and I have not looked at the correlation of RCV support with partisanship in other offices. I don’t yet have a way to get at behavior by “the independents.” Finally, I have not yet run an ecological inference analysis, but I plan to remedy all this later.

As you can see, Democrats seemed to like RCV, and Republicans did not, at least as revealed by presidential voting.

The role of uncertainty

Why don’t “the independents” simply join the Democratic Party if they dislike current Republican positions as much as the Democrats? This is what’s really interesting about the adoption and use of RCV. I argue that groups in reformist alliances do not plan to cooperate on all pieces of legislation. Let’s say Maine ends up with an “independent” governor or a sizable contingent of “independents” in its state legislature. I would not be surprised if we see them working with Democrats on some legislation (e.g., “social”), then with Republicans on other bills (e.g., taxes).

Why don’t Democrats foresee this possibility? Perhaps they recognize that single-winner RCV is not the same as PR. Consequently they may reason that “independents” will not become a bargaining force. Rather, “independent” ballots will bolster the position of Democrats in government.

Then why are “independents” going along with a reform that’s good for Democrats? Perhaps they disagree with Democrats on who’s likely to benefit from strategic voting. As Gary Cox reminds us, strategic voting depends in the end on voter expectations, shaped by elite messaging about precisely which party or candidate is “hopeless” under a given electoral system. The perception that RCV has made elections kinder to outsiders is important. If there really are many sincerely “independent” voters, “independent” candidates may get a toehold in government.

And that’s when things get interesting.