Election Bric-a-Brac

By Mike Koetting September 24, 2020

Today’s post is comprised of three shorter thoughts about the election. I couldn’t think of an easy way to connect them, but they each seemed worth consideration.

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If someone asked you how many days to the election, you’d probably say 40 days. I don’t think that’s the right answer. Voting is already taking place in most states. My conclusion from studying a compilation of the voting practices in the six most critical swing states is that 50% of all votes in those states will be cast by mid-October, maybe more. It is widely believed the majority of votes will be cast before election day. In other words, the election is now.

And the more “now” the better. I don’t think anyone could be sanguine that any vote cast by mail after October 15 would be delivered or counted on time. I am not getting into the issue of whether the Post Office is deliberately sabotaging vote by mail. I think not, but who can rule out anything in these strange times? Nevertheless, whether it’s deliberate or circumstantial, it seems to me that everyone who wants to be certain their vote is delivered on time should either get the ballot in the mail early—or, better yet, switch to a more secure delivery system such as ballot drop-off or early voting in person while it not so crowded.

There is clearly a danger that over-reliance on the mail could result in material numbers of votes not being counted. For instance, an article in The American Prospect constructs a simple simulation that shows if voters take full advantage of the apparent voting window in their state, those submitting in the last week could be at significant risk of not having votes delivered in time. If that is the case, a “vote-by-mail” becomes a trap for Democrats and all Trump’s rantings might be seen as an “anything but the briar patch” strategy. 

The Prospect article recommends a complete pivot in messaging from voting by mail to voting in person. I think that is overkill. I think the correct messaging needs to get more complicated, which is itself dangerous. Something like this.

  • Voters need to know that if their ballots can’t be mailed at least two weeks before the end of the voting window, they should be not be mailed.
  • They need to know with specific clarity the other options relevant to each state/locality (e.g. drop off boxes, return to county clerk, etc.).
  • If they want to vote in person—which  has advantages—they need to be prepared as it may well be constrained, particularly on election day. (And remind them how to be safe.)

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I was very struck by a David Frum piece calling attention to the fact the Republicans declined to publish a platform. I think Frum was making fun of the Republicans for being afraid to make their platform explicit, since, it is so obviously at odds with the underlying realities.

Three days later it occurred to me that, whatever Frum’s intentions, this actually offered the clearest explanation I’ve seen of why the Republican Party maintains traction.

Several of the key “platform” planks did not actually deny the problems that are the core of the Democrats’ critique of America. Rather, the issues were acknowledged, but in a back-handed, diminishing way. The Covid pandemic is over-hyped, environmental issues will be taken care of with emerging technology, BLM is about overblown issues, women have already achieved most forms of equality, and so forth. The appeal of this approach is that it removes the need for any action or sacrifice without having to overtly deny realities that are hard to refute. It’s sitting in a comfortable sofa in the basement that doesn’t require you actually do any exercise.

Second, by not specifically acknowledging these positions, it is harder for Democrats to argue with them—even though, as Frum explicitly states, they are widely accepted among people who are or who lean Republican. Moreover, by leaving it all unsaid, it creates room for the middle-right (who may not want to think that they are part of the deplorables) without denying space to the deplorables, who can fill in the blanks however they want.

I think this is the scariest argument for the Republicans I have encountered.

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I no longer know what to make of polls. Current polls show 5% to 8% of voters nationwide undecided. I am puzzled how at this late date people could find themselves undecided. I fully get that not everyone lives and breathes politics the way I do.  But unless you are living in a cave with no internet connection, you have been making all kinds of choices that will impact your voting.  Are you watching Fox or CNN?  What social media feeds do you follow? Who are your friends voting for? While none of these are 100% predictive, it is hard to imagine that you are not so heavily exposed to arguments from one side or the other, that, no matter what you tell a pollster, in your heart you know which way you would throw the switch.

At least among people who are actually going to vote. Remember, in 2016 more than 40% of the eligible population didn’t vote. My own guess is a relatively high percentage of people who say they are undecided are, in fact, not going to vote. I have no idea how those individuals affect the polls because I doubt the eventual non-voters advertise that fact. As the Pew Research Foundation notes, it is “notoriously difficult to figure out which survey respondents will actual turn out to vote.”

This creates a problem for the media. On the one hand, perhaps more than everyone else, they pretend that the election is on November 3. But, in today’s world, the election is actually a slow motion drip over 6 or so weeks, “election season” as Slate calls it. To fill the vacuum, they talk a lot about polls and, in particular, the “battle for the undecided”. But the real battle for the undecided is rarely the one they are talking about. People have made up their mind about whom they would vote for. The battle is who will decide to actually vote.

Indeed, this may be the critical—issue, particularly in swing states. Romney got more votes in Wisconsin than Trump did, but Democratic turnout was materially lower. The Washington Post has a simulation that gives some notions of how even relatively small changes in turnout among various groups can change outcomes. If I am right that virtually everyone who is likely to vote has made up their minds by October 1, the advertising is mostly about trying to get “your side” to in fact vote.  But to make a difference at this stage, the advertising needs to be increasingly dramatic. Which contributes to the polarization in the country.

Related, I wonder how much difference the debates make. Are they anything more than campaign events for those sufficiently invested in one or the other candidate to watch? The first debate is still a week away, but votes are already coming in. The last debate is October 22. By my guess, a major portion of the votes will already be cast. Even those not actually voting early will find their minds made up by that voting schedule. (Relatives will ask, the media will hype the need to decide, etc.) I don’t think many people who have not made up their mind whether to vote watch the debates. Perhaps the overall opinion of what happened at the debates makes a difference by leaking into the atmosphere, but I suspect questions about whether to vote or not are predominately influenced by totally different dynamics.

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In short, this election is creating an entirely new set of rules. Maybe it will turn out to create useful precedents for new ways of conducting elections. Or maybe we are steaming straight for a giant iceberg.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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