The NY Primary Punditry Shows How Yet Again Nobody Cares About Process

The story is supposed to be that Republicans like to suppress the vote and Democrats don’t. I’ve long suspected this story to be false. The real story is that basically everyone likes to suppress the votes of people they don’t like and abhors suppressing the votes of people they do like. This is not to say that everyone would endorse literally any measure to suppress disfavored voters, including explicit laws categorically suppressing entire groups from voting. It’s just to say that most would endorse measures that reduce the voter turnout of their opponents, provided those measures have at least some kind of halfway plausible-sounding justification.

I have long suspected this to be the reality, given that I don’t believe anyone is significantly motivated by abstract procedural fairness. The New York primary provided an excellent natural experiment to test this theory and, at least among the pundit class I follow, the theory has been majorly confirmed. New York has party registration primary rules that are believed to have made it so that many people who wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders couldn’t. If you wanted to create a model for predicting which pundits thought the rules were OK and which didn’t, your best bet would have been to base the model entirely on whether a pundit supports Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Almost to a person, the pro-Hillary pundits thought the rules were OK and the pro-Bernie pundits did not.

Some see this as hypocritical, especially since some of the pundits bending over backwards to justify the New York primary rules also, in other contexts, have been scandalized by similar rules that also suppress votes. But it’s not actually hypocritical. At all times, their views follow the consistent principle that it’s bad when voters they like are suppressed but not so bad when voters they don’t like are suppressed. A supporter of the GOP likes voter ID because of who they think it obstructs from participating. A supporter of Hillary Clinton likes New York’s primary rules because of who they think it obstructs from participating. That’s just how things go.

With that said, it is worth noting how truly stupid most of the arguments on this topic were last night. My favorite stupid argument took the form of saying “that’s not voter suppression, this is” followed by pointing to some example that the interlocutor believes is worse, such as voter ID. This sort of argument was outrageously idiotic for the obvious reason that anyone could take any modern-day example of so-called voter suppression, such as voter ID, and say “that’s not voter suppression, this is” while pointing to many examples in our recent history, including the categorical denial of the vote to women and the nearly categorical denial of the vote to black people during Jim Crow. Indeed, I have seen Republicans do just that when justifying their various voting reform efforts.

But what’s even more moronic about these kinds of arguments is that they fixate on trying to define whether voter suppression or disenfranchisement is or isn’t present, as if it’s a binary thing. In reality you can’t group things into “disenfranchisement” and “not disenfranchisement” because voter restrictions operate on a sliding scale.

Requiring no registration (or having automatic registration) will lead to more participation than requiring same-day registration, which will lead to more participation than requiring registration two weeks before, which will lead to more participation than requiring registration 6 months before, which will lead to more participation than requiring registration only in the month of February in odd-numbered years.

No voter ID will lead to more participation than weak voter ID, which will lead to more participation than moderate voter ID, which will lead to more participation than strong voter ID.

A month of early voting will lead to more participation than 2 weeks of early voting, which will lead to more participation than 3 days of early voting, which will lead to more participation than no days of early voting.

Polls being open for 24 hours on election day will lead to more participation than polls being open 12 hours, which will lead to more participation than polls being open for 6 hours, which will lead to more participation than polls being open 3 hours, which will lead to more participation than polls being open for 1 hour between 2pm and 3pm.

A poll station on every block will lead to more participation than a poll station on every other block, which will lead to more participation than a poll station in every square mile, which will lead to more participation than a poll station in every 50 square miles.

And so on and so on. There is no magical moment where the dial clicks from “not suppression” to “suppression.” Rather each particular procedural hurdle drags on voter participation at the margin.

The tricky thing about it is that for any procedural rule that drags on voter participation, there is always some kind of plausible explanation for it. Party registration is plausibly important in order to prevent would-be saboteurs (though there is not much evidence of bad-faith sabotage and committed saboteurs could still sabotage). Voter ID is plausibly important in order to prevent fraud and in fact most countries have voter ID as it is (though there is not much evidence of voter fraud and committed fraudsters could probably create fake IDs to defraud). Early voting is costly and how much early voting you allow is always arbitrary (why 10 days and not 11?). The same is true of how long polls stay open and how many polling stations you use: there are associated costs to using more and cut offs are always somewhat arbitrary.

Naturally, whether you find a plausible enough justification for a procedural rule personally persuasive will turn on whether you think that rule advantages or disadvantages your side. If you think it will help you, then that justification will ring true to your ears. If you think it won’t, then that justification will ring as hollow and pretextual. Which is fine I guess. But just know that the way you feel about the plausible explanations for procedural rules that happen to dampen the participation of voters you don’t like is also how others feel about the plausible explanations for procedural rules that happen to dampen the participation of voters you do like. The neurons are triggering in the same way.

  • Ideally I would like to see mandatory open voting by mail. Which is essentially what Washington and California do for all offices except the Presidency (or at least two out of three).

    Let voter’s vote for which ever candidate they won’t. The state parties can decide which voters they award delegates too. This year the Democrats could base their proportions on percent of the Sanders-Clinton two party vote and the GOP could sort through their messy primary.

  • Commish of hangin’

    The one silver lining to this is that now all of America knows about New York State’s asinine voting process. Well, except for the fact that federal primaries and state/local primaries are months apart, when in other states they’re all on the same day.

  • I genuinely wouldn’t suppress any votes. The whole point of voting is to smooth out idiocy with averages. I see zero harm in 100% universal suffrage. http://underlore.com/the-final-underclass/

  • johnshaplin

    Voter suppression goes so far back its practically the sina qua non of the Republic. Every State got two Senators no matter how larger or small, and they also included property and gender qualifications. Counting slaves as 3/5ths was a way to give those states who had them more members of Congress. the Electoral College functions to repress direct representation. Back in 1820 N.Y.State disenfranchised 30,000 free blacks to secure the dominance of one Party. Then we had literacy tests and the poll taxes,and gerrymandering. In places like Chicago,in a close race, you always have dead voters and missing ballots. Of course, theorists like DeTocqueville and many many others have argued that the fewer people who vote,the better the outcome because Tom ,Dick and Harry are just going to get upset and the social peace threatened if people get to involved in deciding how they should vote. Furthermore,the practical rule in campaigns is never develop a platform or give a speech that directly addresses the real and practical matters of government or gives people clear choices in anything but purely symbolic discourse. Frankly,its kind of ingenious the way they do it. It’s amazing that they can go to other countries to monitor elections to ‘certify’ that they are on the up and up. But the same rules apply: if they guy they don’t like win,its rigged and unfair. If the one they like wins, its an example of ‘true democracy”in action.Ba-Ha-Ha Ha!