Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Why Are We Even Having This Discussion?

Content after the jump due to the public policy nature of the post.

Here we go again.

Every four years we go into the partisan spasms of a heat-not-light [dis]enfranchisement "debate". What's perpetually lost is any coherent discussion of the causes of the debate. As with gerrymandering, the causes are structural and neither party feels it would serve them to effectively deal with the situation at it's roots. Not because solving the problem wouldn't be better for everyone (in both cases, it objectively would), but because it would change the game, and our 2-party system is nothing if not over-specialized to the current rules of the game. In this sense, both redistricting reform (killing gerrymandering dead) and automatic voter registration systems cause the old rules to lose their hold, instantly changing the calculus of holding on to power. Automatic registration via so-called "motor-voter" laws, registration with passport applications, automatic updates with change-of-address on US mail, and other sensible policies are opposed by partisans of both parties because they have the potential to allow discontent to cause large swings in electorate behavior. Today, between the systematic disenfranchisement caused by requiring citizens to register to vote and the effective gerrymandering-based dampening of popular will, enormous changes in likely voter feelings about the direction of the country (or, less often, a locality/district) are required to break an incumbent's grip on power. As an example, the "right-track/wrong-track" polling numbers in 2006 said that nearly 70% of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track. That feeling swept the Democrats into a razor-thin congressional majority (which the Republicans have been filibustering to death ever since), but in a 2:1 year, wouldn't you expect a similar landslide in Congress? Perhaps not in the Senate where fewer seats are up for a vote as a structural hedge against change, but certainly we should have collectively turned enough of the bums out to make the remaining ones fear for their jobs. As it happened, in a race with 33 seats up for discussion (15 held by Republicans), only 5 of the bums lost their seats. Now compare that to the most recent pre-Bush period of comparable "right-track/wrong-track" numbers: the Republican revolution" of '94. On that basis it becomes evident that a shift in power half-again as large – based on the same "market fundamentals" – was at least justified. 8 seats changed hands in '94 vs. 5 in '06. The difference? A census and therefore a chance for many states to The calcifying power worked its magic 2 years ago and the Senate is deadlocked as a result.

All of these effects cause fewer parts of the country to be competitive. If you support competition in markets (as I do), then there's no higher calling than supporting a competitive marketplace for ideas, and both parties are doing their best to stifle the pricing function of our public policy market. No wonder then that Republicans think they can steal (or at least dispute) an election by challenging voters in Ohio, despite many discredited attempts in the past to find large-scale vote fraud. Eight years of intense Republican scrutiny into the non-issue has utterly failed to turn up any massive conspiracy or even credible small-scale fraud. Remember, pressuring US AG's to prosecute thin or non-existent voter fraud cases – then firing them when they couldn't find any and/or wouldn't make them up – is what got Alberto Gonzalez hauled before congress for months on end, eventually leading to his disgraced resignation and continuing questions as to the impartiality of the DOJ. This isn't a winner of an issue for the GOP, but it sure is an effective way to try to keep the under-informed from coming to the polls and having their votes counted. And they know it. Scare-tactics and fear-mongering as [keep|get]-out-the-vote strategy. Democrats, naturally, feel that their on-the-ground vote registration in targeted areas can be an effective weapon in distorting the outcome.

Either way, it's shameful.

The Democratic approach is perhaps less reprehensible since the folks who are registered can vote however they please, but there's no denying the attempt at demographic distortion. But why should citizens need to register as a separate process from establishing residency, getting mail, or a driver's license anyway? And why isn't same-day registration the law of the land? If Wyoming can do it, why not New York and California?

Fundamentally, all the objections to broad enfranchisement end in a large-scale IT problem...but not a particularly hard one. What I'm not hearing from nearly anyone is a recognition that this shouldn't be a debate that happens in a functioning democracy. That we have it on a quadrennial basis is simply an embarrassing acknowledgment that our democracy is not functioning.

If McCain really wants to put "country first" and be a maverick, he'd be bringing this up as an urgent topic of national debate. It would certainly be better than the sleazy robo-call effort his campaign is now investing in. And if Obama wanted to build real credibility with Americans about his willingness to effect real change, shouldn't he start here? Certainly it's a better use of the national discourse than helping McCain draw unwarranted (and likely un-wanted) attention to a plumber. And where the hell is the 4th Estate when we need them?

Oh, right. Camped out on some plumber's lawn.

Luckily, I happen to live in California where the Governor (who I disagree with more than not) has put redistricting reform on the ballot in the form of Prop. 11. I'll be voting "yes" on 11, if only to make it that less likely that 4 years from now we'll have to have this "discussion" again.