Fishkin: “Arguing with Nihilists as the House Burns” (Balkinization Symposium on Election Meltdown)

Joey Fishkin:

One oddity of writing a book like Election Meltdown is that the worse things get, the better it is for the book. That is, the more conspicuously our election system actually does melt down, the more Rick Hasen’s book feels relevant, urgent, even prescient. Rick is a good small-d democrat and an altogether decent human being, so I’m certain he was not especially tempted to hope for anything like the Iowa Caucus meltdown. But good lord. As it happens, I had just started reading his book while the caucus was collapsing under the weight of its own incompetence and I felt like I was reading a field guide.

Election Meltdown is a story of four sources of problems in election administration: voter suppression, pockets of incompetence in administration, dirty tricks, and incendiary rhetoric about stolen or rigged elections. The book argues convincingly that these interact with and fuel one another in various ways. The sobering thing about watching the Iowa caucus meltdown through Rick’s lens was that two of his four elements were not even present (voter suppression or dirty tricks, so far as I am aware), and yet one pocket of incompetence was enough by itself to lead to a material delay in the results, a significant loss of public confidence in their accuracy, and inevitably, some eagerly “incendiary” (to use Rick’s word) cries of a “rigged” caucus, oddly but totally unsurprisingly coming not from prominent Democrats but from prominent Trumps. This raised an obvious question: in November, when we will almost certainly have all four elements of Rick’s story in play at the same time instead of two, how much worse is it going to get? If the election is close, most likely a lot worse.

Election Meltdown reads like Rick’s shorter writing in Slate and on his indispensable Election Law Blog (the book draws on some of the Slate pieces). Like those writings, the book does a good job of avoiding unnecessary complication, showing rather than telling, and generally keeping the story sharp and swift. The book also has to confront the same two paradoxes that so much of Rick’s writing on these matters must confront. The two paradoxes, as I see them, are as follows….

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