A Return to the (Lack of) Evidence of Significant Fraud

Back in December, I wrote a post about electoral fraud (The Reality of Electoral Fraud) wherein I was highly critical of the Heritage Foundation’s Electoral Fraud database. In fact, that post led to a video chat with representatives from Heritage about my critiques. It was a friendly interchange, although no one much changed their mind insofar as I came away feeling like the database was quite problematic, and they did not agree with my concerns (save, perhaps, regarding some technical suggestions).

A major concern I had about the database (really, it is more a list of cases than a database) is that people would focus on the number of convictions noted in the database (1,130 as I write this) and not put those cases in context.

It is true that the list of cases (1,311) and convictions (1,130) in that list demonstrates that, yes, people do commit crimes linked to voting and elections. However, it does nothing to tell us much of anything else (even though people draw conclusions from just the numbers and, to be honest, so does Heritage’s description on the database’s homepage–more on that below).

For example, if I give crime statistics about your neighborhood and I say that there have been 1,130 criminal convictions in your neighborhood. You might find that alarming. Most people hear “crime” and they assume assault, robbery, murder, rape, etc. It makes them feel insecure. But if one finds out that those convictions were over an almost four-decade period and that the vast majority of them were things like speeding and parking tickets, minor possession of marijuana (the kid down the street was caught with a blunt), small-scale tax evasion, or other crimes unlikely to create threats to their families, persons, or property, it changes what the number means.

I would argue that is what Heritage’s database does, it correctly notes that election-related crime happens, but it provides no context that is useful for understanding those numbers and, in my view, creates a false impression.

Fundamentally, data need context to include the amount of time under discussion, the broader universe of overall actions, and clear definitions and categories in which to sort the information.

And, look, it is fair to note that a given list or database is just a collection of information. But what it is called matters for perceptions about what the information is and it likewise matters as to how the information is classified within the list itself. There is also the matter of scope, which needs to be clear.

When we speak of electoral fraud (broadly defined) in the USA, we aren’t talking about a neighborhood, but rather about a continental country that has had a large number of elections with millions upon millions of votes cast over the last four decades.

Beyond the number of convictions being quite small relative to the number of elections staged and votes cast over an almost 40 year period, there is the problem of definitions. The database treats the term “electoral fraud” (and sometimes “voter fraud”) very nebulously. It ignores the fact for most people fraud of either the electoral or voter type means a fraudulent ballot was cast and it suggests that the election results cannot be trusted. But, as I noted in my post in December, the Heritage list contains things like minor candidates being illegally given ballot access or minor bribery actions linked to petition-signing. Those are and should be, illegal, but they are not what most people think of when they hear the term “electoral/voter fraud.”

One reader of the December post tried to sort through the database to find types of crimes, and found, for example, 264 cases of ineligible voting and 11 cases of impersonation fraud. Those are truly minuscule numbers for one national election, let alone in multiple elections across time.

One of my concerns about the Heritage database (which I expressed in my chat with them) is that it is often used by people who want to make far broader (and unsubstantiated) claims about our elections, and I had (and have) specific concerns about people trying to use the list to bolster claims about 2020.

All of this brings me to true inspiration to this post, a speech by Deroy Murdock of the National Review at CPAC. Specifically, this clip (the second Tweet):

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The whole speech (or, at least, most of it, is here via FNC).

Murdock is in inveighing against the notion that electoral fraud is not that big of a problem. He provides the Heritage database as a foundational part of his argument and emphasizes that it shows 1,130 convictions for electoral fraud. Indeed, he verbally underscores that number and forthrightly proclaims “so don’t tell me that vote fraud is some right wing hallucination.”

However, in my math-based opinion that number (especially when broken down into different categories) is so small as to be near to nonexistent in terms of system-level critiques. It may not be a hallucination, but it is a mirage on the horizon, a mistaken perception shimmering beyond reach that is not real.

Any human endeavor will have imperfections, so no shock US elections have people violating the rules. The goal should be commensurate and proportional responses to those imperfections. Not, as seems to be the goal for Murdock and company, massive overreactions to the problem that will simply result in making voting harder (and not, by the way, addressing most of the crimes on the Heritage list).

Murdock does not state, it is worth underscoring yet again, that the database stretches back to 1982. He does define what “voter fraud” or “electoral fraud” is. He provides no context on the relative number of votes case since 1982. No, instead be makes it sound that a) there is a real problem, and he just proved it by citing Heritage, and b) therefore Republicans are simply trying to protect the integrity of elections.

Side note: I am 100% in agreement that electoral integrity is important. And if Murdock and others who are concerned about things voter ID and voter registration rolls want to have free and universal ID cards and automatic registration of voters (the best ways to assure key elements of electoral integrity) I am there with them. Let’s do it.

But if “electoral integrity” is code for “making it harder for people to vote” then we have a problem especially when it is unclear that those measures really do much for security and integrity. Nothing being proposed by the GOP would cut down on bribing the homeless with cigarettes to sign ballot initiative petitions in CA, for example (several of the convictions on Heritage’s list are for this crime).

Worse, he asserts at around 4:42 in the linked video from FNC that “The Democrat Party is the part of vote fraud” (and yes, he repeatedly said “Democrat Party”). So, the degree to which this is purely about election integrity and not about partisan politics is more than a bit dubious, let’s say (and yes, partisan politics at CPAC is like gambling in Casablance, so I get that).

His “evidence” was as follows from 2020:

  1. Democrats promoted mass mail-outs of ballots to voters (which he suggests led to ballots being filled out by random persons and submitted).
  2. Democrats supported side-walks drop-off boxes for ballots (which he intimates led to fraud because of lack of supervision).
  3. Democrats sought to relax signature-verification processes (which he asserts led to forged ballots being counted).
  4. Democrats blocked GOP observers from counting rooms.

So, let me note again for emphasis: he took the convictions from the Heritage list of various election-related crimes sans context or definitions and then connected it directly to 2020. His discussion of 2020 was almost entirely innuendo. But, it was all put forth as being of a piece: that there is fraud (because Heritage proved it) and therefore there was fraud on a massive scale in 2020.

Never mind that there is nothing even close to what he alleged about 2020 in the Heritage database. He repeated, for example, the weird story of late-night “dumps” of votes (from cars with out-of-state license plates, of course) and made a number of assertions about what might have happened, but apart from noting affidavits, he cited nothing concrete.

And while it is no surprise, can I just note the utter irresponsibility of continuing to push unsubstantiated lies about the 2020 elections like this to a crowd of activists in light of the Capitol Insurrection?


All of this is to point out a few things.

First, my criticisms of the Heritage database have deepened the more I have thought about it. It presents itself as something that it isn’t (or, if one is going to be charitable, it presents itself in a way that it is far too easy for others to misinterpret what it is, as Murdock did).

The description of the database at the Heritage sites states:

And each and every one ended in a finding that the individual had engaged in wrongdoing in connection with an election hoping to affect its outcome — or that the results of an election were sufficiently in question and had to be overturned.

That sounds pretty serious. I would note that by the database’s own limited search function, of the 1,130 convictions, 21 (1.9%) involved overturned elections. Since this database covered any election at any level for almost 40 years, that strikes me as proof we don’t have a serious fraud problem, rather than the opposite. (We are talking thousands upon thousands of elections and hundreds of millions of votes, to be conservative in my estimates).

If you want the database to be a list for others to use as a research tool, don’t highlight the most egregious outcomes in your description. It creates a false impression since most people aren’t going to look and see what the relative occurrences of specific crimes in the list are (especially with such a clunky search tool).

Indeed, before I started looking at the list myself, I had assumed that the number of convictions was linked to actual cases of fraudulently cast ballots, so I would not surprised if others also make that assumption.

Second, it is dangerous for people like Murdock and organizations like CPAC to continue to fuel this myth about fraud, especially if they are going to do it using the anemic evidence in the Heritage list to bolster bold, yet utterly unsubstantiated claims about 2020.

Third, if we want to bolster electoral integrity, that is a worthy goal. But don’t use the phrase “electoral integrity” to mean “making voting harder.” And don’t point to supposed evidence in the past to prove assertions in the present just so that you can make it harder for American citizens to vote.

Fundamentally, if the concern is better security of electoral outcomes, then present solutions that would incorporate heighten security and ease of access to the ballot box. But if the net result of those “solutions” is to “bolster security” while correspondingly making it harder to vote (especially in ways that likely help your party and not the other) then it is rather obvious what the actual goal is.

Start with free, easy to obtain, universal IDs and create, along with them, universal registration that could be managed a lot better than our current mishmash of state rules and voter rolls. If the goal is accuracy, let’s make the whole system more accurate. If you want people to present IDs, give them all IDs. Put the money where your mouth is, and stop saying “electoral integrity” when your goals will result, instead, in voter suppresion.

Put another way: if you think that lesson from 2020 is that we need more election security, let’s address that. However, if you really think the lesson in 2020 is that too many of the wrong people voted, you are actually not interested in integrity, you are interested in damaging democracy.

The post A Return to the (Lack of) Evidence of Significant Fraud first appeared on Outside the Beltway.

The Equality Act

The Wall Street Journal has published a bizarre op-ed from Inez F. Stepman, a senior policy analyst at Independent Women’s Forum, titled “The Equality Act Makes Women Unequal.” The headline’s provocative claim piqued my interest since I’m skeptical Nancy Pelosi would let such a bill make it to the House floor.

All people are created equal, but Congress is considering a bill that would make some people more equal than others.

Disturbing, if true.

H.R. 5, styled the Equality Act, would redefine “sex” under federal civil-rights laws to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” overriding basic biology along with millennia of tradition.

While an incredibly loaded way of describing what the law would do, it’s technically true.

This isn’t only a question of semantics. Nor is it merely an attempt to prohibit employment discrimination against sexual minorities. A 2020 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court already does that.

The Equality Act would go much further by making it illegal to distinguish “identity” from biology and thereby prioritize transgender people over women. By erasing sex as a distinct legal category, the measure threatens to open up female-only spaces and opportunities designed to increase representation for girls to biological men, which can endanger the safety of women and girls.

So, despite the ridiculously charged language here, I’m actually sympathetic to some of the concerns around erasing distinctions between biological sex and sexual identity. (More on that in a bit.) But the charged language actually hurts the argument, in that it comes across as bigotry rather than pointing to areas where there are legitimate policy issues. And the claims about some people being made more equal than others are still not buttressed.

The Equality Act would threaten the existence of women’s prisons, public-school girls’ locker rooms, and women’s and girls’ sports teams.

Again, to the extent the Act does this, I think we need to tread carefully. There are real issues that we haven’t figured out how to deal with yet. And there are almost certainly areas where professionals have more-or-less solved the problem and the general public (myself quite possibly included) simply need to be educated.

It would limit freedom of speech, freedom of association, accurate data collection, and scientific inquiry. It would threaten the rights of physicians who doubt the wisdom of performing life-changing, reproduction-limiting procedures, and parents who seek to protect their minor children from such treatment.

I’m skeptical of the broadness of these claims. And, indeed, I see nothing in the text of the bill (at least the 2019 version passed by the House) that does anything like these things. The words “parent” and “minor” are completely absent from the law and “child” and its variants are included only with regard to child welfare agencies, human trafficking, and the foster care system.

This isn’t hyperbole. Similar state laws have already resulted in such harm. In California, Catholic hospitals have faced lawsuits for declining to perform life-altering “gender affirmation” surgery in September 2016. In Connecticut, two biologically male athletes won a combined 15 girls state championship races, allegedly taking opportunities for further competition and scholarships from female runners in June 2019. Alaska’s Equal Rights Commission opened an investigation into a women’s shelter after it turned away a biological male in September 2019. H.R. 5 would impose the most extreme form of these laws on the whole country.

It’s not obvious that it would, actually. It’s almost certainly true that women’s shelters would have to take in women, including those who are anatomically male. But it’s not clear that’s not already the case, given recent Supreme Court rulings.

I can’t imagine that all hospitals would be required to perform sexual reassignment surgery, given that specialization is an industry norm. But it is true that Catholic hospitals would lose any special protection since the law, as currently written, explicitly removes protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in cases of the now-broadly-defined discrimination on the basis of sex.

The remainder of Stepman’s article simply reiterates and reinforces concerns about athletic competition and prison segregation. Again, I’m actually sympathetic to those concerns—although I think the latter likely easier to solve.

NPR‘s explainer from yesterday morning, “House To Vote On Equality Act: Here’s What The Law Would Do,” is more balanced but doesn’t really address the more inflammatory charges. The RFRA exclusion is seen as a likely sticking point in the Senate—especially if the filibuster remains in place and thus it requires 60 votes to pass into law.

Aside from being reluctant on practical grounds to require identical treatment for biological females and those with male anatomies who identify as female until we have more experience figuring out how to address the obvious problems, I am troubled on semantic grounds with the bill’s routine insertion of ”sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity)” into current law. It seems rather clear that those are three separate categories, each with their own set of issues and concerns, and should simply be listed as separate bases on which discrimination is prohibited absent compelling public interest.

Mostly, though, the law seems to simply codify what is already federal law in practice into statute, making enforcement more uniform across the land. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Equality Act modifies various pieces of existing legislation, most notably the 1964 Civil Rights Act, rather than serving as a standalone Act. But, like those laws, it will serve as the basis for lawsuits for decades to come. Which means that, whatever the people passing this law think it does, it could well have unintended consequences that won’t be revealed until well after they’re dead.

The post The Equality Act first appeared on Outside the Beltway.

The Social Psychology of Email

Author and computer science professor Cal Newport takes to the pages of the New Yorker to argue “Email is making us miserable.” He begins with more-or-less familiar-to-me matters:

To study the effects of e-mail, a team led by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, hooked up forty office workers to wireless heart-rate monitors for around twelve days. They recorded the subjects’ heart-rate variability, a common technique for measuring mental stress. They also monitored the employees’ computer use, which allowed them to correlate e-mail checks with stress levels. What they found would not surprise the French. “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour,” the authors noted. In another study, researchers placed thermal cameras below each subject’s computer monitor, allowing them to measure the tell-tale “heat blooms” on a person’s face that indicate psychological distress. They discovered that batching in-box checks—a commonly suggested “solution” to improving one’s experience with e-mail—is not necessarily a panacea. For those people who scored highly in the trait of neuroticism, batching e-mails actually made them more stressed, perhaps because of worry about all of the urgent messages they were ignoring. The researchers also found that people answered e-mails more quickly when under stress but with less care—a text-analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count revealed that these anxious e-mails were more likely to contain words that expressed anger. “While email use certainly saves people time effort in communicating, it also comes at a cost, the authors of the two studies concluded. Their recommendation? To “suggest that organizations make a concerted effort to cut down on email traffic.”

While I don’t find email per se stressful, I do find unnecessary work emails, and spam generally, frustrating. My workplace, unlike any other employer I’ve had in the email era, has somehow managed a culture where evening, weekend, and holiday emails are incredibly rare despite multiple directors in my seven-plus years. But our immediate higher headquarters has not and, worse, allows any yahoo who feels like it to send emails on subjects that are likely to interest a very small and knowable subset of the population to every single person in the huge larger organization.

Other researchers have found similar connections between e-mail and unhappiness. A study, published in 2019, looked at long-term trends in the health of a group of nearly five thousand Swedish workers. They found that repeated exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” (translation: a need to be constantly connected) were associated with “suboptimal” health outcomes. This trend persisted even after they adjusted the statistics for potential complicating factors such as age, sex, socioeconomic status, health behavior, body-mass index, job strain, and social support. Of course, we don’t really need data to capture something that so many of us feel intuitively. I recently surveyed the readers of my blog about e-mail. “It’s slow and very frustrating. . . . I often feel like email is impersonal and a waste of time,” one respondent said. “I’m frazzled—just keeping up,” another admitted. Some went further. “I feel an almost uncontrollable need to stop what I’m doing to check email,” one person reported. “It makes me very depressed, anxious and frustrated.”

Again, I’m not wired in quite that way but do have a much shorter attention span than I once did. And, even with the aforementioned work culture in place, I nonetheless check work email multiple times a day even on weekends—or, indeed, even when I was on a six-month sabbatical.

When employees are miserable, they perform worse. They’re also more likely, as the French labor minister warned, to burn out, leading to increased health-care costs and expensive employee turnover. A Harvard Business School professor found that giving a group of management consultants predictable time off from e-mail increased the percentage of them who planned to stay at the firm “for the long term” from forty per cent to fifty-eight per cent.

I suspect my relative immunity from stress over this is a function of what I do for a living. Hell, I’m writing this blog post to procrastinate from revising a long professional journal article. It’s the job/career paradox Chris Rock cautioned us about years ago.

Regardless, Newport takes an unexpected twist:

Many in the business community tend to dismiss the psychological toll from e-mail as an incidental side effect caused by bad in-box habits or a weak constitution. I’ve come to believe, however, that much deeper forces are at play in generating our mismatch with this tool, including some that get at the very core of what drives us as humans.

The need to interact with each other is one of the strongest motivational forces that humans experience. As the psychologist Matthew Lieberman explains in his book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,” the social networks encoded in our neurons are linked to our pain systems, creating the intense feelings of heartbreak that we feel when someone close to us dies, or the total desolation that we might experience when we are isolated from other people for too long. “These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth,” Lieberman writes.

The flip side of an evolutionary obsession with social interaction is a corresponding feeling of distress when it’s thwarted. Much in the same way that our attraction to food is coupled with the gnawing sensation of hunger in its absence, our instinct to connect is accompanied by an anxious unease when we neglect these interactions. This matters in the office, because an unfortunate side effect of overwhelming e-mail communication is that it constantly exposes you to exactly this form of social distress. A frenetic approach to professional collaboration generates messages faster than you can keep up—you finish one response only to find that three more have arrived in the interim, and, while you are at home at night, or over the weekend, or when you are on vacation, you cannot escape the awareness that the missives in your in-box are piling up ever thicker in your absence.

As a general rule, I much prefer email and other asynchronous communication methods to phone calls and office drive-bys. Indeed, I tend to be annoyed when people call or drop in unexpectedly in that they’re interrupting whatever I was doing, whereas I can choose when to check texts (I generally leave the volume off) or emails.

But, apparently, FOMO is really hard-wired. Newport describes in some great detail an obviously-artificial experiment in which people were prevented from taking calls on their cell phones

Rationally speaking, the subjects in this experiment knew that missing a call was not a crisis, as people miss calls all the time, and they were clearly engaged in something more important in the moment. Indeed, in many cases, the subject’s phone had already been set to silence mode, which the researchers surreptitiously turned off as they moved the phone across the room. This means that the subjects had already planned on missing any calls or messages that arrived during the experiment. But this rational understanding was no match for the underlying evolutionary pressures that have ingrained the idea that ignoring a potential connection is a really bad idea. The subjects were bathed in anxiety while their rational minds, if they had been asked, would have likely responded that there was nothing going on in the laboratory worth worrying about.

Newport argues,

The missed connections in an ever-filling e-mail in-box sound these same Paleolithic alarm bells—regardless of our best attempts to convince ourselves that this unanswered communication isn’t critical.

He describes a real-world experiment designed to alleviate this stress:

This effect is so strong that when Arianna Huffington’s company, Thrive Global, explored how to free its employees from this anxiety while they were on vacation (when the knowledge of accumulating messages becomes particularly acute), it ended up experimenting with an extreme solution, called Thrive Away. If a Thrive employee sends an e-mail to a colleague who is on vacation, the sender receives a note that the colleague is away and the message is automatically deleted. In theory, a simple vacation auto-responder should be sufficient—as it tells people sending a message not to expect a reply until the recipient returns—but logic is subservient in this situation. No matter what the expectations, the awareness that there are messages waiting somewhere triggers anxiety, ruining the potential relaxation of a person’s time off. The only cure is to prevent the messages from arriving altogether. Huffington said, “The key is not just that the tool is creating a wall between you and your email; it’s that it frees you from the mounting anxiety of having a mounting pile of emails waiting for you on your return—the stress of which mitigates the benefits of disconnecting in the first place.”

But Newport argues,

A tool like Thrive Away might temporarily alleviate the social stress of the way that we work, but we cannot ignore the fifty or so weeks a year when we’re not on vacation. As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, improvised messaging, we will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety. To return to our motivating question, there are many reasons why e-mail makes us miserable. It creates, for example, a tortuous cycle that increases the amount of work on our plate while simultaneously thwarting, through constant distraction, our ability to accomplish it effectively.

Moreover, he makes a point that any regular OTB commenter can appreciate:

We’re also, it turns out, really bad at communicating clearly through a purely written medium—all kinds of nuances are lost, especially sarcasm, which leads to frustrating misunderstandings and confused exchanges.

Regardless, he contends,

But lurking beneath these surface depredations is a more fundamental concern. The sheer volume of communication generated by modern professional e-mail directly conflicts with our ancient social circuits. We’re miserable, in other words, because we’ve accidentally deployed a literally inhumane way to collaborate.

Understanding these forces provides more than just catharsis, as these efforts can also help us to better understand what is needed to improve our professional culture. In recent years, I’ve been advocating for wider use of shared project-management systems that simplify the task of identifying who is working on what and how it is going. If you combine these systems with regular, short status meetings, you can significantly reduce the number of back-and-forth messages required to organize a team. When viewed abstractly, the overhead of implementing such a system might seem wasteful, given that tools like e-mail are much simpler and more flexible. But when this structured approach is considered in the context of how communication overload induces misery, it suddenly makes more sense.

More generally, once you move past just optimizing for speed or convenience, and begin instead to look for ways to minimize unstructured communication, numerous potential innovations emerge. The software-development company Basecamp, for example, makes use of regularly scheduled office hours: if someone has a technical question for a given expert, he or she can’t just shoot an e-mail but has to wait until the expert’s next office hours to make a query. In a book about Basecamp’s workplace culture, published in 2018, the co-founders admitted that, at first, they were worried that their employees wouldn’t put up with having to wait to talk to an expert, instead of just “pinging” the person in the moment. Their concerns were unfounded. “It turns out that waiting is no big deal most of the time,” they write. “But the time and control regained by our experts is a huge deal.”

Another innovation that I’ve seen have been successful experiments in moving past the paradigm of associating e-mail addresses with individuals. When an address is instead assigned to a specific client, or to a specific type of request, and monitored by multiple different employees, it can go a long way to relieving the deeply-ingrained anxiety that we are ignoring those who need us.

It’s fascinating stuff, although I’m skeptical we’ll move past email any time soon. Slack, Basecamp, and other tools have definitely proliferated in some industries—but I honestly don’t know to what extent they’ve simply been piled on top of email and other forms of communication.

The post The Social Psychology of Email first appeared on Outside the Beltway.

Vaccine Hesitancy

The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson points to surveys showing roughly a third of Americans are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine despite half a million dead from the disease and strong evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective. This is obviously problematic:

[This hesitancy] remains disconcertingly high among Republicans, young people, and certain minority populations. In pockets of vaccine hesitancy, the coronavirus could continue to spread, kill, mutate, and escape. That puts all of us at risk.

Alas, the causes of that are complicated.

Last week, I called several doctors and researchers to ask how we could reverse vaccine hesitancy among the groups in which it was highest. They all told me that my initial question was too simplistic. “Vaccine hesitancy” isn’t one thing, they said. It is a constellation of motivations, insecurities, reasonable fears, and less reasonable conspiracy theories.

“I call it vaccine dissent,” Kolina Koltai, who studies online conspiracy theories at the University of Washington, told me. “And it’s way more complicated than being anti-vaccine. It goes from highly educated parents who are interested in holistic, naturalistic child-rearing to conspiracy theorists who want to abolish vaccines entirely.”

“I call it vaccine deliberation,” said Giselle Corbie-Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina and the director of the UNC Center for Health Equity Research. “For Black and Brown people, this is a time of watchful waiting. It’s a skepticism of a system that has consistently demonstrated that their health is not a priority.”

“It’s not vaccine hesitancy among American Indians, but rather hesitancy and distrust regarding the entire government,” said Margaret Moss, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing and an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota. “After decades of distrust, on top of centuries of genocide, now they appear and say, ‘Here, you have to take this!’”

Let’s not forget vaccine indifference. Two-thirds of Republicans under 30 without a college degree say that they are “not concerned at all” about COVID-19 in their area, according to polling from Civiqs. The same percentage of this group says that they won’t take the vaccine, making them the most vaccine-resistant cohort among all of those surveyed.

Dissent. Deliberation. Distrust. Indifference. Vaccine hesitancy is not one thing. It’s a portfolio. And we’re going to need a portfolio of strategies to solve it.

The rest of the piece is about misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the complications presented by the modern information environment. But here’s a key takeaway:

“You shouldn’t say that people are idiots for believing false or misleading information, because they’re not idiots,” [Koltai] said. “That’s part of what makes this such a hard problem to solve.”

Rather obviously, the politicization of the issue by former President Trump and Republican governors—and aided and abetted by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the right-wing infotainment complex are a major part of the problem. But so is anti-government conspiracy theories in traditionally Democratic constituencies.

Because in-residence military education is considered essential, I’m actually scheduled to get my shots through the Defense Department next week—well ahead of when it would otherwise by my turn locally. So far as I know, none of my colleagues, military or civilian, are balking. But some one-third of American military personnel—roughly the same percentage as the nationwide polling cited by Thompson—is refusing to get the shot. (Because it’s considered “experimental,” it’s optional right now even though a plethora of other vaccinations are not.)

Even among my Trump-supporting friends on Facebook, I’m not seeing a resistance to getting the shot. And these are people who think mask mandates and government shutdowns of restaurants and the like are outrageous restrictions on our freedoms. Indeed, they’re mostly skeptical of the “the restrictions will still apply even after you’re vaccinated” message.

One presumes that, as the number of Americans getting their shots and suffering only mild reactions increases, much of this reluctance will fade. But significant pockets will surely remain.

One wonders, then, at what point vaccination becomes mandatory? Or, at least, mandatory for those who wish to send their children to school, work in public-facing jobs, and the like.

The post Vaccine Hesitancy first appeared on Outside the Beltway.

How Much Longer for Cuomo?

Via the NYT: Cuomo Accused of Unwanted Advance at a Wedding: ‘Can I Kiss You?’

The governor was working the room after toasting the newlyweds, and when he came upon Ms. Ruch, now 33, she thanked him for his kind words about her friends. But what happened next instantly unsettled her: Mr. Cuomo put his hand on Ms. Ruch’s bare lower back, she said in an interview on Monday.

When she removed his hand with her own, Ms. Ruch recalled, the governor remarked that she seemed “aggressive” and placed his hands on her cheeks. He asked if he could kiss her, loudly enough for a friend standing nearby to hear. Ms. Ruch was bewildered by the entreaty, she said, and pulled away as the governor drew closer.

“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” said Ms. Ruch, whose recollection was corroborated by the friend, contemporaneous text messages and photographs from the event.

Indeed, in regards to the photo:

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That photo is worth a 1,000 words, at a minimum.

This is the third allegation of this type of behavior to emerge in recent weeks (and one suspects that more will come).

Given his problems with Covid cases and nursing homes in New York in addition to all of this, one does wonder if resignation pressures won’t start, and soon.

His current term expires in 2022.

This is, as they say, developing.

The post How Much Longer for Cuomo? first appeared on Outside the Beltway.

Our Unrepresentative Government (Yet Again)

An oft-made observation here at OTB is that the US Senate does not represent the citizens of the US very well due to the fact that it allocates two seats per state regardless of the population of that state. Given the fact that the Senate has co-equal legislative powers to the House of Representatives means, by definition, that it is more than possible for laws to be passed that do not have national majority support. And, perhaps more importantly, this means that a lot of legislation has majority support never sees the light of day. At a fundamental level that is an affront to representative democracy.*

If we pile on top of the inequities of representation as they apply to control over the confirmation of judges (and executive appointees in general) we get a situation in which the minority of citizens has an outsized, and frankly unjust, influence over government. This is made all the worse when we consider the enduring nature of this situation (and the reality that it is likely to grow more unjust over time given disparities in populations of states).

In other words, if the representational disjuncture inherent to the Senate’s design was only an occasional reality, then that would be one thing. But the reality is that it is long-standing, and has been a constant since 1996. Stephen Wolf at Daily Kos provides the following:

In simple terms: the last time the Republicans represented over half the population in the Senate was 1996. And yet, they have controlled the chamber seven times since 1998, to the Democrat’s five.

Note that currently the Democrats only control 50% of the seats, but represent 56.5% of the population. Meanwhile, the Republicans control the same number of seats, but represent only 43.5% of the population. That is a substantial difference and is a clear example of minority rule (made all the worse by the filibuster).

I would place the 1994-onward period as the relevant one for this conservation. As I noted a few weeks ago, the 1994 election was a serious partisan re-alignment that meant clearer ideological sorting of the parties and the rise of Republican dominance in the former Confederate states.

Let’s throw this problem of Senate representation on top of the fact that since 1996 the following are also true (all thing I have said multiple times before):

  • In 1996 and in 2012, the Democrats won the most votes nationally, but the Republicans won a majority of seats in the US House of Representatives.
  • Since 1996 the Republican party has won the national popular vote for president once (2004) but it has won the presidency three times out of seven in the same timeframe.
  • The confluence of these variables means that all the GOP nominees to the bench since 1996 have been by a president who did not win his first term by also winning the popular vote (George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, and won re-election in 2004 and won the popular vote so-doing).
  • Senate representativeness is even worse than the table suggests because the filibuster and other internal mechanisms of the chamber mean that the minority can block legislation.

I would argue that all of this helps to sum to a lot of political restlessness in the United States of America. There is a clear disconnect between popular preferences and governmental outcomes. People don’t always understand this fact, but they can feel it and see it, even if they don’t understand it.

If you are promised, your whole life, that we have “government of, by, and for the people” and yet it seems not to work that way, a combination of apathy and frustration will build.

I think this applies, by the way, across the political spectrum. A lot of Trump’s appeal (being a supposed outsider who would run government like a business, drain the swamp, speak for people like me, and who fights like hell) is a direct link to people who feel like government doesn’t work.

Populist demagogues like Trump often emerge and mobilize voters because some segments of the population feel unheard. In the US context with Trump and the Republicans, we end up with the populist demagogue winning the presidency because he is able to a) capture the nomination due to a porous nominating process, b) a status quo party wherein the monied supporters of the party are happy if little governing takes place, save for tax cuts, regulation cuts, and status quo maintenance, and c) a rigid party duopoly in which most voters are going to vote their partisan ID.

Another clear manifestation of frustration with the inability of government to address major national problems was the BLM/anti-police violence protests last year.

I would note that I am not asserting moral equivalence to everything that different people or groups want. Nor am I addressing this issue in a comprehensive manner.** I am saying that our government does an especially poor job of a) representing the population, and b) making policy in accordance with the preferences and needs of that population. The system is highly biased towards the status quo, and it looks to the courts for remedies that should be handled by legislators (not to mention heavily relies on executive action).

There is a discussion to be had about the value of a system that is slow and deliberate (which bicameralism with equal chambers creates by definition, even with a just representation scheme), but a system that does not adequately represent the population and that, in fact, empowers a status quo-preferring minority, is a recipe for crisis and breakdown.

I will note again, my goal here is not Democratic Party dominance nor the triumph of a particular set of policy outcomes.*** My preference is a system that a) creates real competition in elections between varying factions of the society and b) allows the winners to govern and then to be held accountable to the voters again after their term in office.

A fundamental part of my point is that a system that actually allowed parties to govern if they win office would actually force those who make the laws to have to be held accountable for outcomes. At the moment the parties just blame each other for nothing getting done. This just reinforces polarization, since the problem, as far as most people are concerned, is the other side, not the system itself. There is also a profound lack of competition linked to outcomes that a healthy representational feedback loop needs.

The main way to get better parties and policy is to have real competition for power. Right now a lot of our political competition is over identity, not outcomes (with a bias towards status quo power structures and, ultimately, ossification).

That likely doesn’t end well.


*For any new (or, for that matter, old) reader who wants to raise “but we have a republic, not a democracy” please see this: The “A Republic, not a Democracy”Library” Also: this post is already too long for me to go into the inherent flaws of the Senate’s structure. I will simply note that it is not some genius-level representational design, but rather it was the result of a political compromise. I would add that James Madison himself wanted the Senate allocated by population, and to be chosen by the House, not state legislatures.

**There is a lot more than could be said about this, clearly. And I am not saying that MAGA rallies and BLM protests are morally the same. I am saying that frustration over political representation and the responsiveness of government can lead to any number of manifestations. It is also the case that many people who are frustrated will act against their own interests because they believe cues from leaders. The best way to convince people in small towns, for example, that their problems are not the fault of giving Black people welfare, or because of immigration, is to have better policies for those poor small towns. But as long as policy is not happening, leaders can blow dog whistles. Keep in mind: there was a time in the rural South that FDR was revered by many.

***Do I have personal policy preferences? Of course, but that’s not the point. Further, I harp on the lack of adequate representation of Democrats in government (relative to the votes they win) because it is democratically and representationally unjust and will lead in my professional opinion, to ongoing and deeper political crises. That’s not going to be good for the country.

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