2004-09-30

I Don't Like To Watch

Part of me thinks I should apologize for preferring not to watch or listen to political speeches, but few of my acquaintances watch them, either.  I occasionally read transcripts, and I always read post-speech analysis and spin because, for better or worse, I am much more interested in how a speech is received and spun than the actual content.  Even acquaintances who do watch political speeches and share their opinions with me cannot help setting their review in the context of "how it will play;" no one I know expects political oratory to effect themselves.

Nevertheless, while I am ultimately more interested in the debates’ effect upon the electorate, I expect to (record and) watch the debates over the next few weeks.  Like many Democrats, I am dreading another rendition of Goofus and Gallant.  During the negotiations on the debate ground rules, I secretly half-wished the two campaigns would fail to agree and there would be no debates at all.  Bush is unabashedly incurious, anti-intellectual, and inarticulate, but by highlighting these...attributes (I wish I could call them shortcomings), the Kerry campaign has fatally lowered expectations for Bush.  Given that The Narrative has been established, there’s no reason for anyone who’s not paid to do so to watch the debates, right?  I mean, no one’s going to change their vote just because Bush claims to have captured "Osama bin Hussein" or because Kerry challenges a moderator’s definition of "war," are they?

Yet I have to watch.  This has been the most disastrous administration since Harding’s, and if it is somehow permitted to endure beyond 20 January 2005, I will be compelled to seek an explanation in whatever minutiae of political discourse and theater as are available to me.  If Kerry is able to persuade enough voters that George W. Bush poses a generational threat (in multiple senses) to the Republic, I will need to know how he managed it.  One way or another, to one end or another, it will be inspirational.

2004-09-20

Instant Democracy

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I’ve gotten some feedback regarding my call to support Initiative 872 because I believe it will provoke the parties to withdraw from state-funded primary elections altogether.  Bob Koerner writes:

I saw your blog entry, where you say you're supporting I-872 because you think it will get the parties out of the primary election business, and I’d like to encourage you to reconsider.  The "Top Two" deal is really bad for voters, not for the parties.  All of the independent and minor party candidates will get eliminated in the Primary, and they'll never show up on the November ballot at all.  If the parties hold some kind of nominating convention to pick the candidates before the September Primary, to make sure they have their act together and don't split their voters, that will mean the two candidates who advance to the General Election will have been chosen by even fewer people than get involved now. I don't see how that's a better deal for voters—it seems like a better deal for Party Power-Brokers.

A much better choice is Instant Runoff Voting.  On that plan, everyone who wants to run can fill out a petition and get on the General Election ballot in November, just like they do now.  We get to pick our first choice, second choice, third choice, and so forth.  When they count the votes, if no candidate gets half of the votes, you eliminate the lowest vote-getter and redistribute his votes to those voters' second choice.  If no candidate has half of the votes now, you cut the next-lowest vote-getter and move their ballots to their second choice.  And so forth until one of the candidates has 50% of the votes cast.  It's like holding the Primary and General Elections all at once, we get to choose between all the options without "wasting a vote" if we pick someone kind of radical as our first choice, and we can eliminate the expense of the primaries altogether.

There are some moves underway to get a proposal out for IRV in Washington, but they're too late for this election.  I'm afraid if we pass I-872 this fall, we'll be stuck with the really terrible "Top Two" plan because everybody will be tired of talking about the Primaries.  If we shoot down I-872, it will send a clear message to the legislature that we don't like that ugly plan, and we need a better solution.  These decisions really are important—once it's settled, we'll have to deal with it for a very long time.  I see a vote against I-872 as a vote for taking the time to do it right.

A wise man observed that in our society there are three primary elements for influencing government: political parties, special interest groups, and the media.  Weakening any one of these elements necessarily strengthens the others.  I don’’t want any one of these elements dominating access to politicians, but I think the parties are currently the weakest of the three.  As someone who more-or-less identifies as a partisan, I want the parties to stand for something, and retaining control over the nomination of candidates is both appropriate and effective to this purpose.  When it comes to nominating candidates, I’’ll take "Party Power-Brokers" over voters any day; the voters may express their disapproval when they’’re supposed to, at the general election.  (Incidentally, "Party Power-Brokers" isn’t nearly as frightening to me as "Tim Eyman" or "Frank Blethen.")

I share Bob’’s support for Instant Runoff Voting; it’s clever, it permits greater expression of relative preference (I contend voting in a representative democracy is a species of Expressionism), and it rewards adepts in marginal decision-making.  I would vote for IRV, on its merits.  I would also support IRV because it would require more effort than many Americans would be willing to expend on something they regard as ephemeral as voting, with the result that apathetic voters would be even more discouraged from voting than they are now, which I consider a good thing. (For more in this vein, read Larry David).

Of course, there’s nothing about IRV that requires it to apply to primary elections, so Bob’’s line, "it’’s like holding the Primary and General Elections all at once," isn’’t very helpful.  Clearly, my support for IRV is restricted to the general election; I would prefer it if the parties nominated their candidates on their own dime.  IRV adoption, therefore, isn’’t necessarily linked to primary reform (although I’m sure its advocates are relying on discontent with the end of the blanket primary to mobilize support).

Unfortunately for supporters of IRV, I don’t think it has much chance of passing on its own, even if I-872 had never made it onto the ballot.  I am therefore shedding no tears over Bob’’s concern that I-872 will steal IRV’s thunder; it wasn’t very loud to start with.

2004-09-15

It's Not My Party

Mark writes in with concern that my condemnation of Washington’s late blanket primary implies an endorsement of state-funding of private elections.  Mark’s point is well-taken; one interpretation of the lamentations over the demise of the blanket primary is that since the public pays for primary elections, the public ought to decide how they’re run.  Unfortunately for proponents of this argument, primaries are a seller’s market, and the parties form a cartel.

What do the parties get out of primary elections?  The parties have determined (correctly or not) that the polling data gained through publicly-funded primaries is worth the damage inflicted by non-registered voters interfering with the nomination.  If it weren’t for the polling data—the "trial run"—the parties would much prefer to handle nominations internally, at party conventions where only active party members would have a voice.

What do voters get out of primary elections?  Well, under the rules of yesterday’s primary, Washington voters got to choose among candidates for a single party, and (unlike in other states) they did so anonymously and they can effortlessly change parties in the next election.  Did you get your money’s worth?

The bottom line regarding primary elections, in Washington and elsewhere, is that they are indulgences voluntarily extended to the public by the parties on the parties’ terms and subject to withdrawal at any time.  Washington’s blanket primary was a local anomaly that voters came to regard as an entitlement, but the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (and Article I of the Washington Constitution, by the way) guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, and that includes the freedom of parties to control how their candidates get nominated.

A mature electorate would refuse to pay for primary elections on the grounds that they are private affairs.  For better or worse, we seem to enjoy the conceit of participation too much to renounce it.  As little as I think of the blanket primary, it might seem surprising that I am encouraging everyone to vote for Initiative 872, which would establish a "top-two" primary in which the top two finishers, regardless of party, would advance to the general election.  I support I-872 because I believe the parties when they threaten to pull out of primary elections altogether if I-872 passes.

2004-09-13

Well I'll Be A ...

Doug referred me to the blog of David Goldstein, who seems to have come to prominence by pursuing and heckling Tim Eyman with the tenacity of a Gila monster, but now takes on other malefactors on the Washington (state) political scene as well.

2004-09-03

This Is Your Captain

Even before I read about Zell Miller’’s N├╝rnberg rally keynote address, I had been feeling uneasy with my recent dismissal of the effectiveness of political activism on my part.  I have long understood that most political activists are less worried about "being effective" than serving issues of personal fulfillment ("I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.").  What I have been slow to appreciate is that I could use a little of that fulfillment myself (that I’m currently "between opportunities" has made this more apparent).

So when my Precinct Committee Officer called and asked if I would be willing to be a block captain, I said sure.  My weighty responsibilities include knocking on the doors of the 14 addresses on my list, making sure the registered voter(s) residing there understand the new-fangled primary ballot, and offering a ride (on my PCO’s behalf) to anyone who needs a ride to the polling place on Primary Election Day.  Oh, and because the list of addresses is the product of proprietary demographic research, I have to destroy it after I’’ve contacted everyone on it.

As amusing as the confusion over the new ballot is, I am more exercised over the childish indignation over the demise of Washington’s blanket primary.  Despite their undeniable compromising by corporate contributions, political parties are ultimately private organizations with the First-Amendment-guaranteed right to free assembly, including the right to control membership and candidates.  The parties accept a public subsidy in the form of state-funded primaries, but there’s no reason they have to; Washington’s parties were quite sincere when they said in their suit to ban the blanket primary that they would sooner nominate delegates and candidates via caucuses and conventions than submit to an uncontrolled primary.  In other states, voters must register as members of a particular party months before the primary election, and it is not trivial to switch registrations.  The current Washington primary rules require no such registration; partisan declaration is as anonymous as the vote itself.  Washingtonians who complain of their "freedom being taken away" should consider that—unlike voting in a general election—nominating a party’s candidate is a privilege, not a right.