Thursday, March 31, 2016

First Past the Post, Two-Party Rule, and the Artificial Support of Republicans and Trump

One aspect of political structural flaws that has not been widely discussed is how unfair our voting system is.

Right now, we follow something called first-past-the-post. Under this system, voters can only pick one choice per ballot, and the candidate with the plurality (not the majority) wins.

In his coverage of a cute animal kingdom, CGP Grey has detailed the flaws of this system in one of an excellent series of videos on different voting systems. Let’s examine the different flaws one by one and apply them in the context of US elections.

Minority Rule and Two-Party System

According to game theory, the inevitable result of first-past-the-post is two-party rule. This is an extremely bad problem in several major aspects.

First, few Americans would consider either the Democrats or the Republicans their first choice. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, self-identified Democrats accounted for 32 percent of the voting age population, 23 percent identify as Republicans, and a stunning 39 percent are either unaffiliated or identify as independents (while it’s unclear whether this represents likely voters or all voting age Americans is unclear, but more and more Americans have identified as independents over time). These results are echoed by Gallup data, which estimated that 43 percent of Americans identified as independents in 2014.

Perhaps even more troubling, a different Pew survey found that a record 24 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of both the Democrat and Republican Party in 2015. What’s clear from this data is that a plurality of Americans do not especially identify with either party.

However, thanks to a combination of strategic voting and the spoiler effect, there is an entrenched two-party system in the US. What’s been happening more and more often is that Americans vote for the party they dislike least rather than a party or candidate that truly aligns with their values.

It’s these people who list neither party as their first choice that are most likely to become disillusioned with the democratic process and drop out entirely. It might also help explain why the US has abysmal turnout rates compared to the rest of the developed world: we ranked 4th to last among OECD countries in turnout when comparing most recent presidential or parliamentary elections.

This two party system also has unsettling implications. It allows Republicans to drift ever farther to the right and Democrats to become increasingly corporatist with relative impunity. The modern Republican congressman must first be worried that he will face a far-right primary challenger if he does not sufficiently tow the line. What’s notable was that the decline in self-identified Republicans was much sharper than the drop in self-Democrats.

Democrats, meanwhile, have increasingly gotten in bed with corporate interests. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson note in Winner-Take-All Politics (2010), it has gotten to the point where Democrats’ “populist tradition more and more appeared like a costume—something to be donned from time to time when campaigning—rather than a basis for governing.” Robert McChensey quipped in Dollarocracy (2013) that the difference between Democrat or Republican control is “whether AT&T openly or covertly writes the laws.”

A side effect of a two-party system is that major issues are often portrayed as only having two sides. In 2013, Jon Stewart lambasted CNN for oversimplying nuanced concepts into whether it was a “good thing” or a “bad thing.” There are often multiple viewpoints and even solutions to any issue, and the creation of false dichotomies encourages polarization and close-mindedness towards potentially better alternatives.

On major issues that are popular with Americans of all ideologies – the public option, universal background checks on firearms, increasing the minimum wage, overturning Citizens United, the belief that a small elite has excessive influence in governance – you will find lukewarm support at best from Democrats and staunch opposition from Republicans. If representative governance is designed to the responsive to the will of the people, our current system is not one.

The Spoiler Effect

Because candidates only require pluralities rather than majorities to win a race, first-past-the-post makes it extremely difficult for third parties to gain traction. A third party will almost always draw support from a voter’s second choice, making it more likely that the party they dislike most will end up winning.

The most prominent example is happened in the 2000 presidential election, when Bush won Florida by a margin of only 0.0092 percent and where Ralph Nader won 1.63 percent of the vote in that state, arguably “spoiling” the election (the electoral college itself is extremely unfair, but should be the subject of a different post). Even in that election, Ralph Nader only won 2.74 percent of the popular vote. In order to qualify for federal funding, third parties must win at least 5 percent of the popular vote; that 5 percent can easily swing a close election.

Even in House races, the spoiler effect can lead to unintended results. Witness in 1988, when Bernie Sanders ran as US representative: he split the liberal vote, ultimately losing 41 percent to 38 percent (to be fair, the Democrat with a meager 19 percent of the vote was the spoiler, not Bernie). In a scenario of a runoff or even an instant runoff, there would be no spoiler effect.


The final major issue of the first-past-the-post system is its susceptibility to gerrymandering. Every 10 years, when the Census Bureau makes a comprehensive survey to collect demographic information of the American populace, state legislatures will redraw congressional districts. Because Republicans swept state races in 2010 (fueled by low turnout and the rise of the Tea Party), they redrew some bizarre looking lines.

Source: Govtrack

Seriously, what the hell is that? Despite Austin and the greater Travis County’s reputation as liberal areas, five of the six districts within the Austin area are currently held by Republicans.

In the 2012 election, Democrats actually won the overall popular vote in the House by 1.17 million votes, with 50.59 percent voting for a Democrat congressman. Nonetheless, the Republican Party had 234 seats to 201 for Democrats, a substantial 33 seat advantage and 18 seats above the number needed for a majority. That represents a 4.38 percent error in representation.

To be fair, gerrymandering is not limited to Republicans: where state houses and governorships are under Democrat control, you see gerrymandering favoring Democrats as well. However, current gerrymandering behavior is disproportionately Republican, and it is incredibly unfair regardless of who perpetrates it.

Artificially reinforcing presidential candidates

Here’s where things get scary. In recent presidential elections, a presidential nominee from either major party can expect to get a minimum of 37 percent of the popular vote (even in landslides such as the election of 1964, the election of 1972, the election of 1980, the election of 1984). Since 1980, any Democrat or Republican nominee has gotten a minimum of 40 percent of the popular vote.

So what does that mean for an extremist like Trump? Recall earlier that only about 25 percent of Americans identify as Republicans. Of those, maybe 40 percent support him. That translates to an overall support of just 10 percent who would plausibly support him as the first choice.

Yet that number will be amplified to a minimum of 35-40 percent should Trump get the nomination. Under any remotely inclusive system that embraces independents and uses instant-runoff, the Republican nominee would be far more moderate than the far-right, awful, awful choices we have gotten in recent years.

A hypothetical scenario of Clinton vs. Trump would be extremely unique in that both candidates have an overwhelmingly negative net favorability rating. Right now, Hillary’s net favorability rating is negative 14.4 percent. Trump’s is an astounding negative 31.9 percent. However, the combination of a two-party system, electoral college rules, and spoiler effects discouraging voting third party would mean that there is actually a plausible scenario where Trump’s support among working-class whites would win him the presidency.

That is terrifying. It is something I would not fathom happening in a different voting system.


Other Voting Systems

So we have painstakingly shown how first-past-the-post system makes a complete mockery of American politics all by itself. What are some ways to combat this distortion?

CGP Grey outlines two good solutions, each with its distinct pros and cons. The first option is the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The second option is the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. Either system would make it easier for alternative parties to become real forces by eliminating the spoiler effect and maximizing representation. Both would ensure that both Republicans and Democrats are held accountable to voters. Both systems have inherent defenses against gerrymandering. Meanwhile, instant runoff in presidential elections would reward centrist and charismatic presidential candidates over partisan hacks or dishonest flip-floppers.

Which system is better? Ultimately, I think that is up to preference. MMP would institutionalize parties as part of the electoral process. I think STV is slightly more susceptible to gerrymandering. Nonetheless, if well designed, you really can’t go wrong with either.

Here is a table summarizing the different alternatives.

 Blanket “Non-Partisan” Primaries

Here’s another interesting system that can be implemented regardless of the voting system. Instead of having a different primary for each party, have a single blanket primary with ranked choice voting where liberals, independents, and conservatives alike can cast votes. Candidates can still identify their partisan affiliations, but all candidates regardless of affiliation will be part of this initial primary process. From here, reallocate votes above a certain threshold (say 20 percent), then start eliminating candidates with the weakest support, redistributing their second choices among those remaining. From here, you can choose to have a runoff with the 2-4 candidates who got the biggest share of the initial vote.

One major advantage of a blanket primary is that if a given district is heavily liberal or heavily conservative, they can have multiple liberal or conservative candidates in the subsequent general election. Moreover, in general, centrist-minded incumbents need not worry about being challenged by extremist fringes: rather, they should worry about challenges moderately from the left, moderately from the left, or even from the center.

Generating wholesale political reform

Hopefully this post convinces you that first-past-the-post voting is extremely anti-democratic and produces multiple distortions that harm political discourse. Unfortunately, reform will probably not go anywhere because both Democrats and Republicans benefit tremendously from the current system (Republicans disproportionately so).

To the extent a constitutional convention can be held in the future, hopefully first-past-the-post come to the forefront as a target of institutional reform that would improve representative governance and restore health to our troubled democracy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Why I will not be settling for Hillary if she gets the nomination

In this election cycle, there is only one major presidential candidate who has meaningful goals towards curbing the immense concentration of economic and political power of billionaires and corporate interests and redistributing it back to the people: Senator Bernie Sanders.

If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, I will not #SettleWithHillary. Honestly, if she ran a clean campaign as a proud moderate and did not have all the baggage she has, I might have reluctantly voted for her. Instead, having already been effectively disenfranchised by the electoral college in Texas, I will be voting Green instead in the hopes that they can gain 5 percent of the vote and get access to federal funding.

My staunch opposition to Hillary comes from four areas:

First, Hillary has no real plan for addressing the institutional corruption of American governance via the campaign finance system.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, Congress is severely paralyzed and unlikely to pass anything meaningful unless there is comprehensive campaign finance reform. None of the issues we care most deeply about – climate change, health care, progressive taxation, financial reform, decriminalized drug policy, or education reform – can be substantially changed without addressing the immense power special interests groups have on the election of congressmen and the way they govern.

While Hillary has proposed a modest publicly financed campaign system in the form of matching small donations, she hasn’t done much to address the problem of big donors in politics. Here’s her specific proposal:

Hillary will establish a small-donor matching system for presidential and congressional elections to incentivize small donors to participate in elections.

As the costs of running a campaign continue to skyrocket, congressmen will inevitably become more dependent on big donors over time. Campaigns are unlikely to meaningfully track the issues small donors care about; however, for bigger donors who give close to the legal limit of $2,700, their concerns are taken seriously. And this still gives lobbyists a lot of power, for they could multiply their influence by bundling multiple donors who max out, or threatening to raise large sums of money for opponents if a congressman demurs on their concerns.

In addition, this system can potentially support speech we fundamentally oppose. Just imagine your taxpayer money going to fund the campaign of Ted Cruz. Or Donald Trump. Or Mitch McConnell. Yeah.

What’s worse, the way Hillary has campaigned so far inspires little confidence in her willingness to push even her modest proposal. She has raised close to $190 million in Super PAC money. 77 percent of the $130 million she has raised for her campaign committee have come from large donors, those who donated more than $200; close to $60 million came from those who donated the maximum amount. She regularly holds fundraisers with Wall Street and other powerful corporate interest groups. She has taken millions from corporate lobbyists, Super PACs, Wall Street, the health care industry, and even private prisons. While I realize there is some use in using the system to help destroy it, there is serious risk in becoming dependent on the very system you are trying to change.

I think Hillary and the Democratic Party stand to lose far too much to be able to mount a serious commitment to change the way campaigns are financed. When a similar proposal, the Fair Elections Now Act, was proposed in the House in 2010 while Democrats had strong majorities in both houses of Congress, it didn’t even come up for a full vote. And good luck getting anything through a Republican majority.

While Bernie would also face an uphill battle in passing sweeping reform, he is more likely to attract progressive congressional coattails who are committed to reform, and he can more effectively use the bully pulpit to urge people to flood their congressmen with messages and pressure them to follow suit. His initial tenure as mayor of Burlington serves as a useful guide: when the city council shut him out, he governed via alternative means, embracing grassroots activism. I just don’t think Hillary is quite capable of doing the same thing, particularly when large numbers of Americans distrust her (even less than Donald Trump!) and her net favorability rating is negative.

Second, even without the aforementioned institutional barriers, Hillary is far too moderate to effect the magnitude of change we need.

Even assuming all of Hillary’s plans pass overnight, we would still not have done enough (and I have serious doubt she will follow through with her platform given her solicitation of campaign contributions from opposing special interest groups).

Let’s go through some of her core proposals:

Minimum wage. Hillary supports a $12 federal minimum wage. Assuming a 40 hour workweek and 50 weeks of working a year, that translates to an annual rate of $24,000. It’s certainly better than the current level, but a $15 wage would translate to $30,000 a year, a $6,000 or 20 percent increase. Under a $12 wage, if a single person were supporting a family of four, that household would be below the poverty line. Looking elsewhere, Denmark has an effective minimum wage of $18, and the world hasn’t fallen apart. People there could afford a reasonably comfortable lifestyle even with minimum wage work.

Health Care. Hillary has belatedly added the public option back onto the table, albeit with an emphasis on setting it up for individual states. This could provide a path towards universal coverage, and there are estimates that a public option could offer lower premiums by as much as 30 percent.

However, even if the public option is able to gain substantial leverage on pricing, private insurers will still struggle to keep prices down. As Steven Brill notes in A Bitter Pill:

Insurers with the most leverage, because they have the most customers to offer a hospital that needs patients, will try to negotiate prices 30% to 50% above the Medicare rates rather than discounts off the sky-high chargemaster rates. But insurers are increasingly losing leverage because hospitals are consolidating by buying doctors’ practices and even rival hospitals. In that situation — in which the insurer needs the hospital more than the hospital needs the insurer — the pricing negotiation will be over discounts that work down from the chargemaster prices rather than up from what Medicare would pay. Getting a 50% or even 60% discount off the chargemaster price of an item that costs $13 and lists for $199.50 is still no bargain. “We hate to negotiate off of the chargemaster, but we have to do it a lot now,” says Edward Wardell, a lawyer for the giant health-insurance provider Aetna Inc.

So under the public option, health care costs overall can go down, perhaps even by upwards of 15 percent (best case scenario). Even after that, the US will still be spending 15 percent more per capita than the next highest country, and 50 percent more than the OECD average.

On top of that, Americans will still be paying substantial costs in premiums, deductibles, and copays. A major illness may cost considerably less, but it will still cost dearly – and the public option probably won’t make a sizable dent to the prevalence of medical bankruptcy in the US.

By contrast, Bernie’s single payer plan would place immense downward pressure on prices, decreasing current private insurance reimbursement rates to hospitals by as much as 40 percent. It would also only feature premiums in the form of increased payroll taxes; without deductibles or copays, any major illness would no longer devastate a family’s finances.

Higher Education. In addition to lower interest rates, Hillary’s plan involves a $2,500 tuition tax credit every year. Given the average tuition rate at a public university was $9,410 this year and will only go up, this only covers a little more than a quarter of tuition costs at best (and that’s before costs in housing, food, textbooks, etc.) Should a student choose to enroll in an out-of-state public university, this would be even worse. In addition, this tax credit is unlikely to expand access to college for working class families: tuition is paid at the start of the school year and the credit cannot be claimed until April, so it is unlikely to materially influence spending decisions. While this tax credit could be used for private non-profit universities, they can also potentially be used on for-profit colleges, which provide subpar education, saddle students in the highest debt load compared to public or private non-profit universities, and give them few employment prospects after graduation.

More troubling, such tax expenditures only expands the presence of the submerged state. It has the effect of hiding the true role of government, causing Americans to underestimate the role of government in shaping social policy and believe that they want a smaller government than they actually prefer. This makes them deeply hostile to future expansions in government policy, even where they can get the job done far more effectively than the private sector. If Americans also don’t realize the government is benefiting them, it reduces motivation for civic participation as well.

Bernie’s higher education plan would instead provide free tuition at all 4-year public universities, which would cost $62.6 billion a year. It would make college far more affordable and accessible to the working class and even the middle class. And if wealthy parents choose to send their kids to public universities, chances are they will have more than paid for it via the Wall Street speculation tax Bernie proposes to finance his proposal.

Wall Street. It appears Hillary has copied some of Bernie’s platform since the last time I checked (because nothing says leader like following someone else). There are some decent ideas, such as taking on the shadow banking system.

However, Hillary doesn’t really address the fundamental issue that banks are too big to fail. They have actually gotten more consolidated than before the financial crisis: the top 5 banks in the US collectively own nearly 45 percent of the industry’s total assets. If any of these banks were to go under, the result would be so catastrophic that the US would have no choice but to bail them out. Consequently, the underlying moral hazard of excessive risk taking, knowing the government will pick up the tab if things go south, remains.

Bernie, on the other hand, has been unambiguous in his stance on breaking up the big banks. While that alone is not quite enough, Hillary has also taken at least $6 million in donations from Wall Street, translating to about 7.2 percent of all of her funding. I wouldn’t trust her to enact any meaningful reform because she is so beholden to them.

Third, Hillary has a neoconservative foreign policy that will lead to disastrous military adventurism abroad.

While Secretary of State, Hillary consistently expressed more hawkish views than the rest of the Obama administration. She voted for the war in Iraq, which has resulted in close to 150,000 civilian casualties and more than 4,600 US military deaths. It has also been a crucial catalyst for the rise of ISIS and cost the US an estimated $2 trillion.

Hillary played a substantial role in the 2009 coup in Honduras, a move that caused deterioration of diplomatic relations with Latin America. The subsequent weak and corrupt government coincided with an escalation in drug-related violence in the following years as the war on drugs displaced traditional supply lines via the Caribbean and cartels rerouted them through Central America. For better or worse, the coup likely exacerbated the migrant crisis from Central America in mid-2014 – which Hillary responded to by unapologetically stating that they should be sent back to “send a clear message.”

Hillary also supported intervention in Libya, where the diffusion of arms after the fall of Qaddafi triggered severe unrest in neighboring African countries such as Mali and where 20 months of civil war have given ISIS an opportunity to establish a front there.

In Syria, Hillary has pushed for a no-fly zone and advocated arming “moderate” rebels more aggressively than President Obama did. The issue is that there is little real information on the ground, and the so-called “moderates” we are arming may very well be more barbaric than Assad and his Russian allies.

Even if the US succeeds in dislodging Assad, we will probably see a repeat of the scenario in Iraq – in the ensuing power vacuum, we will see heightened sectarian warfare between the majority Sunni population and minorities such as Alawites, massive civilian deaths, continued proxy warfare from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia, and an environment of chaos where ISIS and other militant groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra can thrive.

Time and time again, Hillary has demonstrated exceptionally poor judgment on foreign policy. It’s striking that Hillary takes cues from Henry Kissinger, who among other things contributed to a genocide in Camodia killing 3 million by bombing the entire country. Hillary has drawn support from other neocons as well, such as Robert Kagan. A Clinton administration will result in disastrous militarist adventurism, damaging America’s reputation abroad and directly feeding international instability.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Hillary has a serious lack of integrity and comes off as dishonest, untrustworthy, and inconsistent.

Like her husband Bill, Hillary is a triangulating politician who has picked up a number of inconsistent views over the years. She has flip-flopped on many issues: Gay marriage, TPP, Wall Street, Keystone, and Iraq, just to name a few examples. In conjunction with taking so much money from special interests, it is hard to tell what Hillary stands for, and what she will actually support if she becomes president.

She and her surrogates have also pulled a number of dirty campaign tactics. They have engaged in the use of push polling, which are essentially character assassinations masquerading as polling. On the day of the Massachusetts primary, Bill Clinton made stops outside and even inside polling locations, which may have broken electoral laws blocking the solicitation of votes within 150 feet of a polling location and, more importantly, effectively stopped voting for several hours as voters could not bypass his phalanx of security.

Hillary and friends have also attempted to swiftboat Bernie’s record on multiple occasions (see here, here, and here), trying to smear him with accusations that are misleading or even downright false. Just recently at the Flint debate and Michigan town hall, Hillary has attempted to equate her moderate plans with Bernie’s far more sweeping ones. When it comes to attacks on transcripts or the 1994 crime bill, her first defense is “Bernie did it too.” Throughout the primaries, Hillary and the DNC have actively worked to effectively depress voter turnout, which will come to hurt Democrats in the general election.

Moreover, there are serious ethical questions with the 91 paid speeches Hillary has made from 2013 to April 2015, making a total of $21.7 million, adding to her already immense wealth. These include $1.6 million to Canadian pro-Keystone groups (which she now “opposes”), and talks to Goldman Sachs, which was reportedly “rah-rah” and where “she sounded more like a Goldman Sachs managing director.” More alarmingly, she continued to make 50 speeches netting more than $10 million even when she seriously considered running for president by 2014. At this point, even The New York Times, which has endorsed Hillary, has called for the release of the transcripts. At best, these speeches represent a serious error in judgment. At worst, they are ethical violations that should make us question whose interests she really serves.

Finally, there’s the trump card: a serious ongoing FBI investigation on Hillary’s use of private servers while she was Secretary of State. 30,000 pages of emails were deleted from the server; there’s been reports that the emails were insecure for 2 months, and multiple foreign groups (such as Russians) have attempted to gain access to the server; former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reckons they may very well have succeeded. Among other things, these emails have revealed that Hillary secretly lobbied for the Columbia free trade deal – at the same time she publicly pledged to oppose it. The investigation may be concluded as early as May, and may or may not lead to an indictment.

As with the transcripts, at best, this entire investigation has demonstrated a serious error of judgment on Hillary’s part. At worst, this may result in an indictment and prison time. No other presidential candidate in history has had an active federal investigation before – and none would have been expected to survive the fallout.


Despite all this, there is still some reason to respect the policies Hillary supposedly stands for. There is a material difference in her policy positions compared to whoever emerges as the Republican nominee. If you live in a swing state, I encourage voting for her anyway, for Supreme Court nominees and the ability to veto bad legislation or pass good ones are at stake.

However, if you live in an uncompetitive state like I do, should the worst happen and Hillary ends up being the nominee, I strongly urge looking towards a third party option. Jill Stein has very similar positions to Bernie, and in some cases takes even stronger stances. Whoever becomes the Libertarian nominee will probably provide a nice combination of fiscal conservatism and socially liberalism. If a third party gets 5 or more percent of the popular vote, then they will qualify for federal funding, which could substantially improve their outreach and make them a contending force, starting the process of breaking up the two-party duopoly.