Category Archives: political polarization

The Limits of Federal Voting Rights Reform

Voting rights are under attack, both by Republican state legislature and by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court. Given Congress’s rejection of voting reforms in January 2022, Didi Kuo and I argue, in our new article, that it is time to reconsider strategies for democracy reform. Our argument, however, is not just strategic. To suggest that reformers need to choose between legislative efforts to secure voting rights and political organizing through parties is obviously a false dichotomy. But it is also the case that too often federal voting rights legislation is presented as a panacea to our democratic ills without sufficient consideration of its limitations as a reform strategy.

First, it is not clear that the sweeping federal reforms that have been proposed would pass constitutional muster. The Supreme Court has reduced the scope of both federal voting rights and federal oversight over voting rights—and, thereby, the extent of voting rights violations by states. There is also a high likelihood that if pushed the Supreme Court would have extended its federalism concerns to its Elections Clause jurisprudence.

Second, reforms to election procedures are not a panacea. Voters should have easier access to the ballot. Redistricting should be less partisan, and there should be greater transparency in campaign financing. But creating uniform federal standards for election administration and increasing voting access would not necessarily reduce polarization or make it easier for congressional majorities to pass policies. Several procedural reforms (eliminating the filibuster or mandating rank-choice voting in party primaries) might have more traction restoring confidence in Congress, but those are rarely part of the package of election reforms and were not part of the package rejected in 2022.

By comparison, political participation as evident from recent high-turnout and civically engaged elections have yielded important policy results at the state and local levels. In 2020, Floridians passed a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars. Tellingly, more Floridians voted to raise the minimum wage than in the presidential election. The stories of ballot initiatives in 2018 and 2022 are similar. Bipartisan majorities have also led to the direct enactment of a variety of election reforms, from Kentucky (which made early in-person voting permanent) to Vermont (which mandated absentee ballots for all registered voters).

Our argument, however, is not that we should have more direct democracy. Our argument is that:

“Mass participation would be more consistently effective . . . if it were channeled through participatory party organizations. Associational parties, as we call them, can do even better than idiosyncratic mass partici­pation to promote the demands of voters and begin to restore the fraying trust between citizens and government in the United States.”

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“Associational Party-Building: A Path to Rebuilding Democracy”

Didi Kuo (Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford University) and I are excited to share our new article, Associational Party-Building: A Path to Rebuilding Democracy, which is out today in the Columbia Law Review Forum.

This Piece advances a fundamentally different orientation to democracy reform. It starts from the premise that the ultimate normative goals of democratic reform should be policy responsiveness and the restoration of confidence in government through its functionality. And it looks to ways to achieve those goals without legislative intervention. Voters should have easier access to the ballot. Legislatures must be un-gerrymandered, and economic elites, like hyper-partisan ideologues, should have less influence over politics. But, we argue, procedural reforms do little to ensure government responsiveness. Political parties, by contrast, if systematically strengthened as organizations with deeper ties to voters, have enormous potential to boost not just voter turnout, but democracy itself.

Political parties are the only civic associations with the capacity to organize at a scale that matters and the only intermediaries that both communicate with voters and govern. Yet it is no surprise that many Americans, including democracy reformers, are skeptical about political parties. They seem incapable of performing their basic representative functions. Further, pundits and scholars focus much more on parties as vehicles for funding elections, as policy-demanders, or as heuristic brands governed by political elites, rather than as intermediaries.

Our Piece argues that Americans need to shed their anti-partyism. We explain why Americans need strong parties, how we should conceive of them, and how we might get there. Distilling and further developing an argument I first made in 2019, we explain that reestablishing parties as strong intermediaries with linkages to civic groups and citizens is likely to be an effective strategy, in the long run, for rebuilding trust in democratic institutions overall. Parties with the commitment and capacity to engage in mobilization between election cycles, including through local civic groups, have the potential to bring about the responsiveness essential for democratic governance and public trust. The Piece both articulates the basis for these theoretical hypotheses and offers preliminary data to support them.

In all, we advance a fundamentally different conception of political parties in the hopes of setting a research agenda capable of more systematically testing the hypothesis. Over the next few days, I look forward to sharing more details about our argument.

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“Ticket-splitting voters were going extinct. Now they may decide 2022’s biggest races.”

Fascinating new NBC report on polling: “In battleground states from Georgia to New Hampshire to Ohio, a potentially decisive slice of voters tell pollsters they’re supporting a Democrat for one high-profile office and a Republican for another. Nowhere is the dynamic clearer than in Pennsylvania.” Most interesting of all, police unions in Pennsylvania seem to be splitting their endorsements.

“Within the past two weeks, an Oz campaign co-chair was spotted at a Shapiro fundraiser while two major police unions, one representing Philadelphia officers and the other Pennsylvania state troopers, offered endorsements of Oz and Shapiro.”

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“Forget ‘polarization.’ The problem is right-wing extremism.”

Jennifer Rubin makes a key point in this Opinion piece in the Washington Post, arguing that the problem in American politics today is not polarization but “right-wing extremism”: Democrats are not selecting extreme candidates. For example, as of July, in “the 22 primaries in safe Democratic seats in which a progressive candidate challenged a more moderate one, the moderate candidate won 14 — or about two-thirds — of the races.”

“It’s not polarization when one party recognizes the results of a democratic election and the other does not. That’s radicalization of the GOP. Nor is it polarization when the GOP reverts to positions it has not held for decades (e.g., banning abortion nationwide, ending the protected status of entitlements) while the Democratic Party accommodates its most conservative members as it crafts popular legislation (e.g., paring back proposals to allow the government to negotiate prices for pharmaceutical drugs).”

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With or without what kind of parties? And at what cost?

Today was the 10th Anniversary of the Mischief of Faction Blog, which started from the premise that “on balance, a nation is better off with parties than without them.” Seth Masket and Julie Azari took the opportunity to reflect on the state of American political parties. As Masket notes, “The past decade has taught us a lot about the dark side of parties.” Ultimately, Masket, like many in this field, points to the party primary as the problem. Azari, by contrast, urges political scientists to consider whether the traditional goals and assumptions of the field match political realities and institutions. The former is a more comfortable space for election law reformers. And yet, as Azari recognizes, institutions matter. And for the foreseeable future, the Supreme Court (an institution) and its doctrine (part of that institution) significantly constrain the feasibility of many of the most promising ideas for reforming party primaries.

The question then is what options remain for encouraging democratically functional parties. One idea that appears to be gaining ground in public discourse is fusion politics. Just today, Andy Craig published a short but clear argument in favor of fusion politics for Cato. It offers a particularly nice history of efforts to ban fusion candidacies and posits fusion politics as an answer to polarization, one that will bring more independents into politics–and presumably by expanding the electorate increase democratic accountability and responsiveness. While I generally agree with those goals (the latter in particular), I do think we should all pause to reflect on Azari’s most provocative question, what if polarization is “the result of progress on race and gender issues”? Viewed in this light, should we worry that a return to moderation and compromise (even if possible) would be backsliding?

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Pildes: “It’s not just us. Western democracies are fragmenting.”

Rick Pildes, in the Wash Post:

Three major elections on the same Sunday in June — in France, Colombia and Spain — tell the fundamental story of democracy in our era: the continuous disaffection with government, the collapse of traditionally dominant parties and figures, and the constant search for alternatives — which is quickly followed by yet more disaffection and the search for yet other alternatives. This is no longer a narrative of dysfunction distinctive to one country, if it ever was. The Conservative Party in Britain is now scrambling to find a new prime minister; the government in Italy is near collapse. The nature of political authority has fundamentally changed. Political power has become fragmented, as voters abandon traditional parties and turn to upstart, insurgent parties or independent, free agent politicians from across the political spectrum.

In multiparty democracies, such as the three that held elections last month, the fragmentation of political power makes it more difficult to form governments, causes those governments to be fragile and prone to collapse, and weakens their capacity to deliver effective policies. Politics in the United States, with our well-entrenched two-party system, are nonetheless being shaped by similar forces — although here fragmentation means the Democratic and Republican parties are torn by internal factional conflicts that party leaders struggle to surmount. 

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Pildes on Ranked Choice Voting

Fredreka Schouten of CNN interviews Rick Pildes. Here’s a highlight:

RCV … encourages the election of candidates with the broadest electoral appeal. It also makes it likely that candidates who win will have the support of a majority of voters. A factional candidate might get 30% of the vote, but if that candidate doesn’t attract wider support, they won’t succeed in an RCV system. The system encourages candidates to reach out to voters who might not prefer that candidate as their first choice, but whom the candidate still wants to persuade to rank them second or third. In that way, it also encourages less hostile forms of campaigning. I do not want to brutally tear down an opposing candidate, because I want their supporters still to think well enough of me to rank me second or third.

RCV also reduces the risk of spoiler candidates and so does not force voters into artificial choices. Suppose a moderate and a progressive (or staunch conservative) are running. I might prefer the progressive, but worry about whether that candidate is electable, and I have to decide whether to vote my sincere preference or vote for the more electable candidate. But with RCV, I can rank the progressive first and if they do not have enough votes, my vote will transfer to the moderate candidate….

There has definitely been an upsurge in adoptions of RCV even in the last few years. I think that’s a reflection of frustrations with how polarized our politics and choices have become. Whether it continues to spread elsewhere will probably be a function of how it’s perceived to go in high-profile races and places, such as in Alaska or Maine.

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University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation

NYT has this story on the University of Maryland School of Public Policy’s Program for Public Consultation, which has issued this report entitled “The Demand for Public Consultation.” Here’s the NYT’s summary of the program’s work:

In simulations conducted with House members from both parties, representative samples of citizens are solicited and given extensive information on a topic such as immigration or campaign finance and then meet with lawmakers to discuss solutions. The effort also includes a broader poll to assess sentiment in the member’s particular district.

Participants said it was striking, particularly in an era of intense congressional polarization and rampant misinformation, how much agreement they could find on issues that have bedeviled Congress for years….

Under the center’s vision, interested lawmakers would take a formal pledge committing to public communication….

Through polling and other research, a special “citizens cabinet” of several hundred representative constituents would be established. Using online tools, the panels would be briefed on major policy questions, given pro and con arguments and asked to make recommendations. Lawmakers would not be obligated to vote in line with the majority recommendations but would be expected to explain their rationale if they did not.

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“How the Proud Boys Gripped the Miami-Dade Republican Party”

The N.Y. Times is reporting on the Proud Boys’s successful efforts to join the leadership of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, once the locus of Jeb. Bush’s power. “[A]t least a half-dozen current and former Proud Boys who have secured seats on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee, seeking to influence local politics from the inside.” A few are running for local offices. “For now, longtime party stalwarts remain in control amid an internal power struggle, but the influx of Proud Boys and the radicalization of other members have created considerable upheaval.” And this appears to be a nationwide strategy.

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GOP Plans to Contest Swing-State Elections, on Tape

Politico’s Special Report describes the GOP plan for Michigan, which centers on recruiting activists primed to believe election fraud lies as poll workers and connecting them directly to movement lawyers. This appears to be the party’s playbook for other swing states as well.

“Being a poll worker, you just have so many more rights and things you can do to stop something than [as] a poll challenger,” said Matthew Seifried, the RNC’s election integrity director for Michigan, stressing the importance of obtaining official designations as poll workers in a meeting with GOP activists in Wayne County last Nov. 6. 

. . . .

Seifried also said the RNC will hold “workshops” and equip poll workers with a hotline and website developed by Zendesk, a software support company used by online retailers, which will allow them to live-chat with party attorneys on Election Day. In a May, 2022 training session, he said he’d achieved a goal set last winter: More than 5,600 individuals had signed up to be poll workers and, several days ago, he submitted an initial list of more than 850 names to the Detroit clerk.

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Intraparty Fights Taken to Court

Just a few days before Idaho’s May 17 primaries, Republicans took their internal fights to court.

“In the virtual hearing [last] Friday afternoon, Fourth District Court Judge Jason Scott heard arguments from intertwined Republican organizations — one suing the other, days before a primary election that pits establishment Republicans against ultra-conservative Republicans.

Scott ruled at the end of the two-hour hearing that the Bonneville County GOP had indeed overstepped its bounds by endorsing candidates in state-level primary, . . . saying it had determined those candidates were true Republicans.”

The county GOP’s actions violated party rules and election laws.

In the wake of the victory, Idaho GOP Chairman, is reported to have said, “‘While we’re pleased with the court’s decision, it’s regrettable that we were forced to take this action through the judiciary[.]’ . . . ‘At the end of the day, this is about party unity. The Republican Party needs to speak with one unified voice and the state party rules were put in place to ensure that happens. Rules and laws exist to help us navigate when we disagree.’”

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“America Has Split, and It’s Now in ‘Very Dangerous Territory’”

Tom Edsall NYT column:

Why did the national emergency brought about by the Covid pandemic not only fail to unite the country but instead provoke the exact opposite development, further polarization?

I posed this question to Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton. McCarty emailed me back:

With the benefit of hindsight, Covid seems to be the almost ideal polarizing crisis. It was conducive to creating strong identities and mapping onto existing ones. That these identities corresponded to compliance with public health measures literally increased “riskiness” of intergroup interaction. The financial crisis was also polarizing for similar reasons — it was too easy for different groups to blame each other for the problems.

McCarty went on:

Any depolarizing event would need to be one where the causes are transparently external in a way that makes it hard for social groups to blame each other. It is increasingly hard to see what sort of event has that feature these days.

Polarization has become a force that feeds on itself, gaining strength from the hostility it generates, finding sustenance on both the left and the right. A series of recent analyses reveals the destructive power of polarization across the American political system.

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How to tell if an election result is valid?

In advance of the 2020 election, I devoted a significant portion of my scholarship to this issue: given an official announcement (or certification) of an election’s result, how are citizens, journalists, judges–all of us–to determine whether the result should be accepted as valid?

I considered this question especially important in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election because I thought that public discourse on this topic had become dangerously muddy, with many individuals characterizing Donald Trump’s victory as somehow invalid because of Russian interference. To me, this discourse seemed extremely problematic because I had no doubt that the vote tallies that produced Trump’s win were a sufficiently accurate count of ballots entitled to be counted and that there was no basis for considering that the wrong candidate had been declared the winner of the election. To characterize Trump’s victory as somehow invalid confused public discourse on this important topic, hindering the ability to distinguish the circumstance in which an election is truly invalid because the wrong candidate has been declared the winner.

As a consequence of this concern, I wrote a law review article on this topic: Assessing the Validity of an Election’s Result: History, Theory, and Present Threats. I also wrote a shorter essay on the same topic aimed at a more general audience: How to Know if the Election Is Actually ‘Rigged’. (If I’m capable of assessing my own work, this latter essay might be the most significant piece I wrote in 2020.)

Continue reading How to tell if an election result is valid?
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“Democracy is on the brink of disaster. For voters, it’s politics as usual.”

Rick P, in the previous blog post, was right to highlight Karen Tumulty’s column. The Washington Post today also has a piece presenting a rather depressing counterargument, by Colgate political scientist Sam Rosenfeld. The conclusion (although it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing):

“It would be helpful if more Republicans recognized that normal politics still gives them a perfectly good shot at victory — and that they don’t need to burn the house down to win power. But the party’s recent illiberal turn has deep roots, drawing on currents of extremism and procedural ruthlessness on the American right that stretch back many decades — and the very fact that the electoral punishment for transgressing democratic norms is so slight means Republicans have no need to grapple with the trade-off if they don’t wish to. And this is how electoral politics as usual might doom democracy itself.”

Accepting this as the reality, I see the potential solution only being the kind of structural reform of electoral systems that prevents anti-democracy Republicans from being the dominant force on the political right. For at least as long as “burn the house down” Republicans are not the majority preference among general-election voters in most states, it’s worth pursuing ways that the electoral process can be reformed so that “burn the house down” Republicans are not the only right-of-center options on November general-election ballots in states (and districts) that lean right-of-center. That way right-of-center voters can pursue their “normal politics” preferences with a candidate who, allied with with enough “left-of-center” preferences against burning the house down, can secure a Condorcet-majority victory.

Given the gravity of the threat, I’m eager to hear of other remedies for this disease. But as I tweeted on Thursday, Peter Baker accurately diagnoses the current pathology: “Those who speak against [Trump] are purged, and his endorsement is the most coveted asset in almost any Republican primary.” Consequently, in the second part of the two-tweet thread, if this is an accurate diagnosis, the cure must be structural reform that prevents an authoritarian like Trump from controlling which right-of-center candidates are on the November general-election ballot.

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