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Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Fantasy is the last resort of the powerless, and as a consequence, I spend a good deal of my time day-dreaming about possessing the power to change the world.  One of my persistent fantasies is rooted in the peculiar structure of American politics, and since the realization of this fantasy only requires the cooperation of a progressive billionaire, and not the magical acquisition of superhuman capabilities, I am able for long periods of time to sustain the hope that a pair of lefty Koch brothers will come along, to whom I can play Karl Rove.

Last night, I spent a good deal of time tossing and turning -- a consequence, I think, of my distress over the Trayvon Martin travesty -- and at about three a.m., I found some solace by rehearsing the following fantasy.  Since this is a serious blog, I must preface my fantasy with a brief discussion of the structure of American politics.

There are five well-known facts about American politics that offer an opening for a seriously committed left-wing billionaire.

First, the American electoral system is geographically based.  Senators are elected from states, Members of the House from Congressional districts, local officials from wards or precincts, and even presidents are elected state by state, not by popular vote.  Not all political systems are organized this way, although it is easy for unreflective Americans to suppose that they are.  In South Africa, for example, a party -- the ANC, say -- is allowed to put forward a ranked list of enough candidates to fill the entire legislature.  When the votes are counted, each party gets a share of the representatives equal to its percentage of the total national vote [with a threshold for winning any seats at all.]   The candidates elected by a party are chosen in the order in which the party has listed them on the ballot, regardless of where they live.  During the first free elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela was of course listed first on the ANC ranked ordering.  This system has the virtue of giving minor parties some representation, and the defect that citizens do not have  an identifiable member of the legislature who is their representative.

Second, the American electoral system is winner-take-all within districts, with the consequence that, as Lani Guinier argued in a well-known series of journal articles, there are a great many "wasted" votes.  [See The Tyranny of the Majority, 1995]  A vote can be described as wasted if it makes no difference in the outcome of the election.  It has no effect on the outcome of a Congressional district if the winner gains 70% of the vote instead of 51%.

Third, a startlingly large proportion of the eligible electorate does not vote -- 45% in presidential elections, 65% in off-year elections.   Here is a link to a table showing voter turnout every two years going back to 1960.  It is remarkably stable.

Fourth, American society is very highly, albeit for the most part informally, residentially segregated.  Housing costs of course impose economic segregation on the population, and that segregation coincides pretty closely with the lines that are drawn around electoral districts -- wards, precincts, parishes [in Louisiana].  But Americans are also residentially segregated racially, ethnically, religiously, culturally, and by political leanings.  There are African-American communities and Asian communities and Hispanic communities and Catholic communities and Jewish communities and Russian communities and Haitian communities and yuppie communities and fundamentalist Protestant communities and progressive communities and conservative communities.  There are even a handful of anarchist communities and vegetarian communities and biker communities and survivalist communities.

Finally, a large and rapidly growing segment of the American electorate speaks Spanish either as a first language or else as the family tongue, and these Spanish speakers, although very widely distributed geographically across American society, are concentrated in identifiable areas.

I am going to make one large assumption, supported, I believe, by some polling data, but certainly not necessarily true -- namely, that those in a district who do not vote would, if they voted, cast their votes in roughly the proportions of those who actually vote.  It is easy enough to see why that might not be true.  Conservatives in a liberal district, or liberals in a conservative district, might get discouraged by their awareness that they were in the minority and just not turn out.  But I am going to make that assumption, and follow out its implications.

Suppose we were to gather detailed data on the numbers of eligible voters, the proportion who actually voted, and the results in elections going back several cycles for every voting district in America, right down to the smallest unit for which data are recorded -- the ward, precinct, or parish.  You might imagine that these data are readily available, but you would be wrong.  Although the demographic data can be gathered or inferred from the decennial Federal census, voting is controlled by state governments, and it turns out to be extremely tedious to collect those numbers, but they are public, and it can of course be done.

Once we have all the data entered in an appropriate computer program [assembling the data and having a good program written are among the things for which we need the help of the sympathetic billionaire], we can then ask the computer the following sort of question:

In Republican Congressional districts that are close enough to be possibly competitive, are there local electoral districts [towns, individual precincts, etc.] that are both heavily Democratic and also have sizeable numbers of eligible non-voters, whether registered or not registered?  If a concentrated strictly non-partisan registration and get-out-the-vote campaign were conducted in those districts, could such a campaign generate an increase in voter turnout large enough to produce a net gain of Democratic votes sufficient to tilt the Congressional seat Blue?

For example, in a heavily Democratic town nestled in a Republican district, there might be 20,000 non-voters.  If a campaign could turn out 10,000 of them, and if the town was 70% Democratic, that ought to produce a net gain of 4000 Democratic votes, if my assumption is correct that those who do not vote would volte like those who do vote.

The point of the stipulation that the campaign be non-partisan is to get around the campaign financing laws.  It appears to me that a strictly non-partisan campaign constructed along the lines I have outlined to produce a net Democratic party gain would be legal, so long as it did nothing resembling in any way campaigning for a particular party.  The fact that the districts were chosen in the manner outlined above would not cause a problem under the existing law, I think.

And this is the point of appealing to the left-wing billionaire.  He or she would be forbidden to donate vast sums to a political party, and probably would be forbidden from conducting a partisan registration and get out the vote campaign.  But a targeted non-partisan campaign would, I think, be highly effective and legal.

Notice that such a campaign could not make use of television ads [save in one special case, to be discussed below.]  There is no way that television, or even radio and print, can target precisely defined geographic electoral divisions.  Any ad that reaches those in our heavily Democratic undervoting district will also reach voters in heavily Republican districts, and have the counterproductive effect of increasing turnout in the wrong segments of the population.  The campaign would have to be an intensive ground game with paid full time workers recruited in the district and working over a long period of time [six months or more] in that district.  This, of course, is why we need a leftwing billionaire and not just some lefty yuppies willing to toss a thousand dollars apiece in the pot.

There is one very important exception to the stipulation that the campaign must be an on-the-ground district based operation:  Hispanic voters.  Because they are Spanish speaking and the rest of the population, by and large, is not, and because they are a very heavily Democratic-voting subset of the population, they would be a natural target for this sort of registration and get out the vote campaign, and in this case broadcast media could play a valuable role, because it would be heard or seen by only the population we were targeting.

The campaign could still target districts -- the state of Texas would be the big prize in any such effort.   But there are a number of sizeable Hispanic communities in states so Red that there is no chance of flipping them.

Well, there it is, the product of a fevered imagination in chewing on itself at three a.m.

Does anyone know a sympathetic billionaire?

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