Tyranny of the minority

Excellent, succinct post by G. Elliot Morris about the fundamentally undemocratic (and, yes, unrepublican) nature of American political institutions.

Tyranny of the Minority

Despite what the founders intended, the Supreme Court is now fully able to be controlled by a significant minority of the country’s voters. Of course, it is not a popularly-elected branch of government, but there are costs associated with minoritarian rule that transcend the original intent of the founders.

[Excerpted from the post at Moriss’s blog]


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).

Staggering–towards a typology

Offered as a public service, in response to a comment from JD, who observed:

To my knowledge, the following countries have partial renewal besides the US: Chile, Argentina, Czech Rep., France (indirect, of course).

I remember someone offering a detailed terminology for different types of staggered election. Does someone recall which thread that was?

I don’t think said terminology was offered here (or at least not by me), but it is an obvious F&V topic. So, let’s give it a try.

I plant this under “bicameralism” because, at least at the national level, the topic mainly concerns second chambers. However, it should be noted that Argentina continues to have staggered terms for its first chamber. At one time, so did Luxembourg, although they abandoned it decades ago.

By definition, staggering means that some members of a legislative chamber are elected at different times* than other members of the same chamber, generating “classes” of members according to when their seats are next up for election. It has entered the discussion due to the observation (by, for instance, my UC Davis colleague Ben Highton in February) that this year’s class of US Senate seats was especially unrepresentative of the partisan breakdown of the country as a whole.

Any typology of staggering would consider variables such as whether districts alternated in which were in play across elections or whether some fraction of each district’s seats came up at every election. I am sure there are other variables…

Please note the M-dash in the title of the post, as the meaning rather changes if it is omitted.

* Or for different term lengths, although as far as I know this variable is relevant only for a new chamber, or when the staggered schedule is being reset (as after a double dissolution in Australia.)

Would the House adopt the Senate’s health bill?

One way that the Democratic Party can prevent a loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat from stopping their healthcare program from becoming law, without either reopening negotiations (e.g. trying to get one of the Maine Republicans to vote with them) or using hardball tactics (e.g. finding a procedure to pass the bill without needing 60 votes), is for the House simply to adopt the Senate bill. Then it would not require another vote in the Senate.

Would the House do that?

More for the charge sheet: a pivotal special senate election

I can’t claim to know who will win the special election for the US Senate seat from Massachusetts formerly held by Ted Kennedy. However, I do know one thing: It is yet another item in the “charge sheet” against the American way of politics and policy-making that a government that, along with its legislative majorities, was endorsed by substantial majorities of the electorate could have its entire agenda pivot on the outcome of a special election for one seat in one house in one state just one year into its tenure.

It is worth noting that the current government is the first government in the USA to have popular majorities backing both it and its legislative majorities in quite some time (since 1976, I believe; no Republican Senate majority in at least five decades has been backed by a popular majority and Clinton never won over 50% of the vote). But that does not matter. One might think that elections should matter–that is, national elections–and that governments endorsed by majorities might be generally able to implement their programs. Well, at least that is what one might think if one were a committed small-d democrat.

That the Democratic Party is in such a fight for this seat–in Massachusetts!–is also a new item for the charge sheet against the party. How can it have missed the boat so badly with its policy agenda that it is struggling to hold a Senate seat in a state so reliably Democratic, till now, in Senate elections?

One item from the Globe and Mail suggests one reason why Republican Scott Brown is putting up such a challenge: He says that health care is a state issue. That is a defensible position–personally, I think it’s wrong, but it is defensible. The interesting twist is that various elements of the Democratic proposals resemble the healthcare policy put in place already in Massachusetts. That healthcare program was signed by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney, and that fact won’t help him with the national Republican primary electorate in 2012). So, in a sense, at least some swing voters in Massachusetts may be voting to protect what they already have from feared federal intrusion by a national policy. Ironically, that is how the Senate is supposed to work: as a forum for protecting state interests. Here we have a state that is seriously under-represented in terms of population per Senator, given that severe malapportionment of the institution. But in this one election, it will be seriously over-represented, as a relative few swing voters in one state essentially decide the fate of the governing party program, by bringing its majority below 60% in one house.

On the contest itself, Republicans chose for themselves about as good a candidate as they could have: Brown is very liberal for a Republican–even in the context of Massachusetts, where Republicans are in general about as liberal as they can be and still be Republicans. (Both points are made by Boris Shor, in a graph posted by Andrew Gelman at 538.)

On the other hand, evidently Democrat Martha Coakley is no exactly an exciting candidate, or one in touch with her voters–she evidently does not even know that Curt Schiling is something of a Massachusetts legend, suggesting he was a Yankees fan. If Coakley loses, there will be debate about how much candidate effects mattered and how much it really was a referendum on Obama’s policies, especially healthcare. But there is little doubting the impact. And, whatever one’s opinion of the policies or the current government, that just shows what an odd way we run this system known as American democracy.

Lieberman’s right-wing shift (and other data points from the Senate rankings)

Robert Farley (building on Peter Beinart) makes the entirely plausible claim that Sen. Joe Lieberman has shifted to the right since 2006 out of some mix of personal animosity towards the progressive base of the Democratic Party (which ousted him as Democratic candidate in the 2006 primary only to see him win reelection as an independent) and responsiveness to his new electoral coalition (which leaned well to the right given that Ned Lamont was the left-leaning Democrat in the general election race).

There is only one thing wrong with this analysis: It is false.

According to the scaling of roll-call votes for each Senate at Keith Poole’s Vote View, here is where Lieberman has ranked so far in the 111th Senate, and going back in time to the 107th (2002, before the Iraq invasion and also before Lieberman’s presidential bid). The lower the rank, the farther the Senator is to the left within that Senate.

111: 28
110: 34.5
109: 30.5
108: 33
107: 32

Not much movement there. But what movement there is, has been to the left, particularly since Barack Obama became President.

Additionally, Keith asked the question some years ago about which Senator had moved more in his voting from the 105th to 107th Senates, Lieberman or John McCain.

Senator McCain shifted 14 (out of a total of 126 ranks [from 85 to 71]) ranks to the left during 2000 – 2002 while Senator Lieberman shifted 16 ranks [from 56 to 40]. In contrast, Senator Jeffords shifted 48 ranks — from rank 65 to rank 17 after he switched to being an independent.

So, Joe Lieberman used to be a relatively conservative Democratic Senator. But for many years now he has been just a bit to the left of his party’s median.

How about that shift by Jeffords? Far more dramatic than a more recent party-switcher, Arlen Specter:

111 (since switch): 45
111 (before switch): 62
110: 56
109: 50
108: 52
107: 54

While we are looking at ranks, it is also noteworthy that Kirsten Gillibrand, the Blue Dog House member whom progressives disdained as too conservative when she was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacated seat, has been the 12th most liberal Senator in the 111th.* Now, that is shifting to represent one’s new electoral coalition.

Back to Lieberman: he may not be especially liberal and he may take personal enjoyment from occasionally annoying progressives, but there is no evidence that he has made any shift towards the right-leaning electoral coalition that returned him to the Senate in 2006.

A final aside: The 108th was the last Senate in which there was a D amidst the Rs (or vice versa): Zel Miller was 59th, to the right of 11 Republicans!

* Clinton had been 18th in the 110th.

More on Specter’s switch

At The Monkey Cage, John Sides notes, “All in all, I am quite impressed by how much political science research speaks to Specter’s switch, and how well it helps us understand his decision and what may result from it.”

The upshot is that political science would appear generally to suggest that Specter will change his voting behavior towards substantial consistency with his new party. That would be quite contrary to what I heard a reporter for Roll Call say on WHYY radio earlier today (that he would not change “a single vote”, Arlen will still be Arlen, etc.).

Parties matter to politicians, and so they tend to switch to parties that are compatible with their goals, including ideological preferences. And, yes, parties matter in these (and other) ways even in the US Senate. (For that matter, even in Brazil, where switching for consistency in policy voting might be even more unexpected by conventional wisdom, and where party switching is notoriously common.)

Some pundits have already suggested an “ah hah” moment over Specter’s almost immediate post-switch vote against the budget resolution.* But it was a freebie for him. Budget resolutions can’t be filibustered and the measure had a clear majority without Specter. It was a perfect–and for Specter, perfectly timed–opportunity to demonstrate that he remains “independent.” But that vote should not be taken as predictive of how he will behave between now and the 2010 elections, or beyond.

* The linked item ends by noting that Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who brifly considered joining Obama’s Cabinet, said “”When you join a caucus, you have to vote with them most of the time.”

Party switch

Senator Arlen Specter apparently is the newest Democratic member of the US Senate.

As The Fix notes:

Because of the shrinking Republican vote in the state [of Pennsylvania], Specter was seen as a dead man walking politically in the primary with polling showing him trailing [Republican primary challenger Pat] Toomey by ten or more points. The bar for Specter to run as an independent was also extremely high due to the rules governing such a third party candidacy.

That left a Democratic candidacy as Specter’s best option if he wanted to remain in the Senate beyond 2010.

And Specter himself justified his decision by saying “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”

Now, one might say that was a convenient “finding.”

But should we see this as “agency loss” (he was elected as a Republican, after all) or as “agent responsiveness” (his principal–the electorate of Pennsylvania–has shifted its preferences in the last five years)?

Whatever our answer may be in the case of the current US Senate and Pennsylvania, would it vary if the electoral system or constitutional context were different?

High speed stimulus

In a bicameral system, when one chamber proposes to spend two billion on some line item and the other proposes to spend zero, what do you expect the inter-cameral conference to propose?

One billion?

Good guess, but when it comes to high-speed rail in the recent US “stimulus” bill, that answer is a bit off.

The final bill authorized $8b.

In case that was too subtle, let me make it a bit more clear:


We can thank the third, uni-personal, legislative chamber for this: It was something Obama wanted. (Thanks, Barack!)

See National Corridors Initiative for details (including chamber comparisons on other rail and transit items, and a nifty map of approved corridors).

A tip of the engineer’s (or, rather, the Superintendent’s) cap to Sephen Karlson, whose post on rail in the stimulus has many other good links on this topic).

Combined with California voters’ passage of Prop 1A in November, this makes modern train service more real than it has been in a long time.

(I know eight billion is not really all that much. But you have to start somewhere!)

Finally, to those who would cry ‘pork’ upon knowing of spending on this, or other “pet,” projects advocated by specific lawmakers for their regions, the Washington Post notes that a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (who wants a maglev train between Las Vegas and Anaheim or Los Angeles) claims that the transportation secretary “will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds.” While the delegation of such authority to the transportation department does not guarantee the use of technical (merit) rather than political criteria, it makes it much more likely. In any case, if the bill does not allocate money to specific projects, or require congress or the executive to do so, it is not pork. At least not at this stage.

Appointed Senators

At one time, as is well known, US Senators were elected by their state legislatures. This is what the US Constitution says:

Section 3. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.

Then, in 1913, Amendment XVII, was ratified, superseding the above. The amendment says, in part:

When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

I know nothing of the drafting history here, but one might surmise that it was assumed that such executive-appointed Senators would serve for very short times, until a special election could be called by “writs of election” issued by the executive. In fact, I believe–and hope someone can confirm or correct–that most states allow the executive-appointed interim to serve until the next general election. Naturally, when a vacancy occurs immediately following one general election, the next general election is nearly two years away.

Currently, we have what might be an unprecedented number of Senate vacancies, owing to the election to President and Vice President of two sitting US Senators, and the announced nomination of several more sitting Senators for cabinet posts.

If the intention of the Democratic Party and its President-Elect has been to clean house Senate, then they can certainly say the mission has been accomplished. But here is hoping that the occasion of all these vacancies–particularly the high-profile case of Illinois where the scandal-plagued Governor now says he will go ahead and appoint a replacement for Barack Obama’s seat–will lead to reform of the process of filling Senate vacancies.

Not all states allow their governor to make a unilateral appointment for up to almost two years, but many do.1 And Illinois is one of them. In the likely absence of a correction to this process in all the states that currently allow unilateral executive appointment–action by the legislature of a state to dis-empower the executive in this area–a further federal constitutional amendment would seem to be in order. It would be sensible for the US Constitution to require election by the state legislature of an interim appointee, and/or clarify that any executive appointee must serve for only a few months at most and/or be subject to confirmation of the state legislature.

1. It is my recollection that in the one or two times in recent decades when California has had a vacant US Senate seat, the governor merely nominates a replacement, subject to legislative confirmation. A few states mandate a quick call of a special election. But it seems as if all the states with current or expected vacancies–Illinois, Delaware, New York, among them–allow unilateral action by the governor, and also allow the interim Senator to serve until the next general election.

Filling Senate vacancies

Nate Silver has a valuable rundown on the record of interim appointed US Senators. A data summary:

    * 13 of the 49 (27%) ran for office, but were defeated in the general election;
    * 7 of the 49 (14%) ran for office, but were defeated in the primary;
    * 10 of the 49 (20%) chose not to seek a permanent term (including one who was prohibited by state law from doing so).

(It occurs to me that the parenthetical case there actually did not choose not to run.)

From that record, including some of the specific cases discussed by Nate, it seems clear that the poor reelection record of these interim Senators would be expected from the common practice of Governors choosing objectively weak candidates. Apparently, many of them have had no prior electoral experience or other record of achievement. Of course, that may be deliberate, either as deference to the party or electorate or as a simple short-term patronage exchange (with the current Illinois scandal being an extreme case of the latter).

Nate also notes the institutional variation among states in filling vacancies:

states can move to solve the problem themselves by passing a “fast” special elections law, as states like Oregon, Wisconsin and Massachusetts now have (and Illinois soon will). Other states have evolved other checks and balances; Utah and Wyoming require that the candidate be selected from among a list prepared by the state party apparatus, while Alaska, Hawaii and Arizona require appointees to be from the same party as the departing senator. Arkansas provides for gubernatorial appointments, but does not allow the appointee to run for re-election.

Clearly, the process of gubernatorial appointment* needs reform. But it is clear to me that the answer is not what one commenter suggests: that every elected official should have a “vice” (meaning a stand-by replacement, not the other meaning it might more accurately imply!). Many Latin American countries have such a suplente system, and it is much abused–a cure worse than the disease.

* Something that is not clear to me is whether Illinois or any other state allows for outright appointment by the Governor, or if the actual process is nomination by the Governor, followed by appointment upon conformation by the state legislature. It is my recollection that California, at least, has an “advise and consent” provision. The media coverage on Illinois leaves the impression that the Governor chooses unilaterally. I do not know if that is so. Maybe politically it does not matter in the current Illinois case: anyone with appointment–even if confirmed by elected representatives of the state’s electorate–would be branded, rightly or wrongly, as Blagojevich’s man or woman. But it certainly means that a wounded governor would have to defer to a representative body’s preference.

Electoral rules and filibuster-proofing

Far more tense for election-night return-watchers than the presidential race is likely to be the Democratic Party’s quest for 60 seats in the Senate. Sixty seats would allow the caucus, when cohesive, to override a filibuster–that is, to prevent the minority’s veto of the majority’s mandate on policy changes and court appointments. ((And unlike past Republican Senate majorities, this Democratic majority actually is based on an electoral majority.)) There are two races where the electoral rules may be almost as decisive as the voting itself, given multicandidate contests. ((If the caucus has exactly 60, it will remain dependent on two independents who caucus with the big-D Democrats. One of those is Bernie Sanders, a reliable vote. The other is Joe Lieberman, less reliable, but more so than activist Democrats give him credit for. Even at 58 or 59, some filibusters could not be sustained, as one or more of the moderate Maine Republicans (among others) would be likely to work with the Democrats on an issue-specific basis.))

In Minnesota, as in most states, a Senate race is decided by plurality (first past the post). In addition to incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, there is a strong third candidate in the race, Dean Barkley of the Independence Party. ((This was Jesse the Body’s party, at least some of the time. In fact, Barkley previously served as an interim Senator, appointed by then-Governor Ventura.)) Barkley stands at just under 15% in the latest Pollster.com polling aggregate. His support has been slipping after flirting with the 20% mark in mid-October.

Franken leads in the polling aggregate, but precariously, 39.5–37.6. If Coleman pulls out a narrow 40% win, it will be literally legitimate (as in within the law), given the use of plurality rule. However, it would be a subpotimal outcome if an incumbent were reelected so narrowly. ((It would also be suboptimal if a challenger were so elected, but less so, inasmuch as an incumbent is the more known quantity, and if he can’t either obtain close to 50%+1 or win by a wide margin, he arguably did not “earn” a renewed mandate.)) But plurality rule may allow it to happen. We do not know which candidate would win a runoff if there were one, because pollsters do not ask about second choices.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Democratic challenger Jim Martin has closed a once formidable gap on incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss. The Pollster.com aggregate shows the race at 46.7–43.9 Chambliss. However, Georgia requires a Senator to be elected by a majority of votes cast. Thus if neither Chambliss nor Martin clears 50% in tonight’s count, there will be a runoff between the two on December 2. The main third-party candidate is Libertarian Allen Buckley, who is at 7% in the most recent poll shown at Pollster.com (Rasmussen). Other polls in recent weeks have shown him as low as 2% or, oddly enough, have not asked.

Even if Martin takes the lead and holds a plurality on election night, he has not been elected.

The last time Georgia had a US Senate runoff was in 1992, when Republican Paul Coverdell defeated Democrat Wyche Fowler. ((Subsequently, Democrats in the state legislature changed the rule to plurality, but in 2005 Republicans changed it back to majority runoff.)) In that election, Fowler won 49.23% in the first round to Coverdell’s 47.67%. In the runoff, on November 24, Coverdell won, 50.65% to 49.35%.

If Georgia and Minnesota used the Double Complement Rule that I often recommend, there would have been no need for a runoff in Georgia in 1992, but there would almost certainly need to be one this year in Minnesota. The Double Complement Rule allows a sub-majority win if, and only if, the second-place candidate’s shortfall from 50% is more than double that of the leading candidate. Fowler’s 0.77 percentage point shortfall in 1992 would have been “good enough”; the only way Coverdell could have defeated him would have been to convince Libertarians in the same, larger electorate–as we’ll see below, the inter-round turnout differential was substantial–to desert their party’s candidate and give him the plurality.

The approximate 40–38 result that we may see in Minnesota, on the other hand, would necessitate a runoff under the Double Complement Rule. In fact, the only way we would see a one-round result, if the leading candidate failed to break 40%, would be if the trailer fell below 30%–something that obviously would not happen without a doubling of Barkley’s support creating a close race for second place, rather than for the plurality.

As for this year’s Georgia race, we would have a squeaker on our hands: the current polling aggregate is just over the runoff-triggering margin by about half a percentage point.

In 1992 in Georgia it was likewise a Libertarian candidate whose support in the first round resulted in the need for a runoff. Did most of the Libertarian voters in 1992 vote Republican in the runoff, given that it was the Republican who won? More likely, they simply stayed home.

In fact, the turnout in the runoff in 1992 was very low–barely half what it had been in the first round. ((1,253,991 vs. 2,251,576.)) One might imagine it will be a bit higher this year–especially if the Democrats have won 59 seats after Tuesday night.

House and Senate

So, the two chambers of the US Congress are different. How about that?

In contrast to the vote in the House of Representatives on the ‘rescue’ package earlier in the week, in the Senate those Republicans in the more competitive races were somewhat more likely to vote for the package.

Of course, any focus on the institutional differences between the chambers ((And such a focus is instinctive for me.)) has to acknowledge that these were not actually the same bills. And that there was more information from the stock market about just how some folks felt about the defeat in the House.

Nonetheless, what is striking about the inter-cameral comparison is that in the House, the most vulnerable members regardless of party ((And how can there be so many vulnerable Dems this year? Swing State Project, cited at the House link above (which goes to FiveThirtyEight), shows 18 “vulnerable” members in each party.)) were much more likely to vote against the bill.

Overall, in the House, of course, Democrats were much more likely to vote for the bill than were Republicans (though neither party put on an impressive display of unity).

The upshot is that the House “vulnerables” tended to vote less with the party that has the greatest wind at its back as we head into the election. ((That would be the Democrats for those scoring at home.)) In the Senate it was the reverse, albeit less significantly so.

Essentially, Senators in both parties and regardless of vulnerability were more likely to vote for the bill (which passed 74–25). The institutional explanation would point to Senators’ more diverse constituencies making them more insulated from apparent public opposition (even a month before an election!). Yet the tendency of vulnerable Representatives to vote against the majority position of the party riding higher in the polls remains puzzling (to me; maybe readers have a hypothesis, “institutional” or otherwise).