The Electric Commentary

Friday, August 19, 2005

Krugman misses the point.

Pauly K accuses Republicans of vote fraud in the past two elections in today's column:

In his recent book "Steal This Vote" - a very judicious work, despite its title - Andrew Gumbel, a U.S. correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, provides the best overview I've seen of the 2000 Florida vote. And he documents the simple truth: "Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election."

Two different news media consortiums reviewed Florida's ballots; both found that a full manual recount would have given the election to Mr. Gore. This was true despite a host of efforts by state and local officials to suppress likely Gore votes, most notably Ms. Harris's "felon purge," which disenfranchised large numbers of valid voters.

First of all, that's simply not "a simple truth." In fact, even if you grant everything else asserted by Gumbel and Krugman as fact, it is still not true that Gore won. Gore's problem was never a lack of people who intended to vote for him. Gore's problem was having voters too stupid to read the instructions (I cut some slack for the elderly. They are not stupid, just elderly). The battle was all about interpreting ballots, and, while the Supreme Court may have overstepped a bit by taking the case, the substance of their decision was correct. Having the intention of voting is fine, but it's not enough. You are responsible for actually casting a valid ballot as well.

But Krugman is not all wet here. He's probably right about some of the funny business in Florida. Krugman's problem is that he blames Republicans, instead of blaming power (or gerrymandering, a much larger and bi-partisan problem). Take a look at this paragraph:

But few Americans have heard these facts. Perhaps journalists have felt that it would be divisive to cast doubt on the Bush administration's legitimacy. If so, their tender concern for the nation's feelings has gone for naught: Cindy Sheehan's supporters are camped in Crawford, and America is more bitterly divided than ever.

This assumes that Americans would not be divided if Al Gore were president. That is, of course, a ridiculous notion. Simply having a Democratic president does not unite the country. Also, Cindy Sheehan doesn't have anything to do with this.

Meanwhile, the whitewash of what happened in Florida in 2000 showed that election-tampering carries no penalty, and political operatives have acted accordingly. For example, in 2002 the Republican Party in New Hampshire hired a company to jam Democratic and union phone banks on Election Day.

Everyone in Milwaukee already knows that election-tampering carries little or no penalty. For a refresher click here, here, here, and here. It is at least possible that Bush won Wisconsin in both 2000 and, more likely, in 2004, but lost out due to fraud. For every dirty trick played by a Republican, the Democrats tend to answer in kind. And that is why simply laying the blame on the morals of a particular party is such a waste of time (as well as space in the NYT).

Let's skip ahead a bit:

The D.N.C. report is very cautious: "The purpose of this investigation," it declares, "was not to challenge or question the results of the election in any way." It says there is no evidence that votes were transferred away from John Kerry - but it does suggest that many potential Kerry votes were suppressed. Although the Conyers report is less cautious, it stops far short of claiming that the wrong candidate got Ohio's electoral votes.

But both reports show that votes were suppressed by long lines at polling places - lines caused by inadequate numbers of voting machines - and that these lines occurred disproportionately in areas likely to vote Democratic. Both reports also point to problems involving voters who were improperly forced to cast provisional votes, many of which were discarded.

I have no doubt that this is true, but it's tough to blame Republicans for long lines and a lack of voting machines in highly Democratic areas. The fact is that for all practical purposes you are responsible for providing adequate voting resources to your party, not the other guy's party. This is pretty obvious, because if you govern a district that voted for you, (and really, where else would you govern?) you have an incentive to increase turnout in your district and supply voting resources, especially during a national election. You only want to discourage voting if you're unpopular.

This is where gerrymandering enters the picture. For most officeholders it doesn't matter if 10% of the vote gets screwed up or lost or walks away because the line is too long, because most officeholders in the US have safe seats. They have safe seats because they get to draw their own districts, and they can do so in such a way to create segregated districts: Almost all Republican or almost all Democrat. Job security is concern numero uno.

It is this practice which really bit Democrats in the ass for two consecutive elections. The punch-card butterfly voting machines in Florida probably were faulty and inaccurate, but until 2000, did anyone care? Presidential elections were usually blowouts and thanks to gerrymandering most of the lower state and federal officeholders were safe enough.

Too, Wisconsin's obscenely permissive voting laws (no photo ID required, and you can register at the polls) were never a problem for most Wisconsin politicians. Milwaukee and Madison have been solidly Democratic for a long time, and much of the rest of the state is solidly Republican. There are some contested areas, of course, but for the most part having permissive voting laws probably didn't hurt anyone.

However, when everyone finally experienced an incredibly close Presidential race, the inefficiencies in everyone's voting laws were magnified, and instead of enacting reforms, many have simply chosen to exploit these inefficiencies. As maddening as that is, it should not be surprising.

Pauly then makes a related point:

The Conyers report goes further, highlighting the blatant partisanship of election officials. In particular, the behavior of Ohio's secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell - who supervised the election while serving as co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio - makes Ms. Harris's actions in 2000 seem mild by comparison.

And then there are the election night stories. Warren County locked down its administration building and barred public observers from the vote-counting, citing an F.B.I. warning of a terrorist threat. But the F.B.I. later denied issuing any such warning. Miami County reported that voter turnout was an improbable 98.55 percent of registered voters. And so on.

These are real problems, and to Pauly's credit, they are very specific problems, but they are, again, hardly unique to Republicans. Along with Wisconsin, the Dakota's also experienced irregularities (especially South Dakota in the 2002 race between John Thune and Tim Johnson. Wall Street Journal reporter John Fund covered that race here.). The real problem here is the ability of one party to enforce or not enforce the rules on the actual day of an election. This can also be tied to gerrymandering. A one party district will necessarily lack the oversight and accountability provided by competition.

As it turns out, Krugman basically agrees with me, he just doesn't realize it:

Our current political leaders would suffer greatly if either house of Congress changed hands in 2006, or if the presidency changed hands in 2008. The lids would come off all the simmering scandals, from the selling of the Iraq war to profiteering by politically connected companies. The Republicans will be strongly tempted to make sure that they win those elections by any means necessary. And everything we've seen suggests that they will give in to that temptation.

Krugman is still and economist, first and foremost. And if economists know one thing it is that people respond to incentives. He makes the case that Republicans may cheat in the future because they have a lot on the line. Fair enough. But the fact that Republicans have so much on the line means that Democrats have just as much, if not more on the line, and with it comes the same temptation. Everything I've seen suggests that they will give in to that temptation. I do, after all, live in Chicago.

Here's a quote from Jim Glass (at, via Tim Worstall) that nicely sums up Krugman:

Here's a simple irony Paul Krugman will never understand:

Milton Friedman and the small-government types on the right take Paul Krugman's complaints about the character of government much more seriously than Paul Krugman does.

(They take Brad DeLong's complaints more seriously than DeLong does, too.)

That's why they want small government.

Heck, I take Krugman's complaints about government more seriously than Krugman does. Politicians operate by consolidating power, rewarding friends, granting favors for favors received ... Yup, that's what they do! That's why I don't want to give them 11 points more of GDP (65% more) to play with.

But Krugman, while lecturing us ceaselessly about the evils and incompetence of the politicians in Washington, does want to give it to them. Go figure that out.


  • Agreed, whichever party can exert control over the mechanisms, some members of that party will. Gerrymandering worsens this by having continuous control by encouraging entrenchment.

    One point I will take contention with is your arrogance in blaming Gore for having voters too stupid to read the instructions. I got to use a punch card the last time I voted in Chicago and the instructions did not perfectly explain the process and the punches did not all come out easily (resulting in holes in the chad instead of removing it). While I figured it out and knew to be very thorough, I can easily see an impatient person who waited in line forever or is elderly messing it up by figuring that their card pretty obviously shows they intended to vote for that person.

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 3:36 PM  

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