The Iowa Reboot

The electoral debacle in this year’s Iowa caucus has had one positive effect:  it has made other states carefully examine their election processes, in hopes that they won’t become “the next Iowa.”  In Nevada, for example, officials took a hard look at the 2020 Iowa caucus and made several changes to the planned Nevada caucus procedure, including getting rid of apps that were going to be used and going instead to paper ballots.  Even so, many people have concerns about the Nevada caucus, which starts in a few days.

states-with-same-day-registrationIn Ohio, where the primary won’t occur until next month, the concern isn’t about apps, caucus rules, or complicated vote-counting procedures.  Instead, some people are questioning whether the turnout in Ohio elections should cause Ohio to address a more fundamental issue:  the process for registering to vote and then voting.

This article from the Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio frames the issue.  It notes that the turnout in the 2018 mid-term elections in Ohio was about 50 percent of registered voters, placing the Buckeye State’s participation percentage at 29th out of the 50 states.  The turnout by voters in the 18 to 24 group was especially pathetic.

But, what causes low turnout?  The ACLU director rejects the possibility that some citizens simply lack interest, and instead contends that Ohio’s procedures discourage participation.  He advocates for abolishing the Ohio requirement that voters register at least 30 days before an election in favor of allowing “same day” registration and voting, and argues that would-be voters should be able to register at Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices.  He also supports making sure that early voting — a process that Ohio already follows — provides for ample evening and weekend hours and simple absentee procedures to allow people who work two jobs, live in remote areas, are homebound, or are serving in the armed forces overseas to cast their ballots without a hassle.

I’m in favor of taking a fresh look at Ohio’s procedures and auditing the elections in other states that have different procedures to see whether Ohio’s processes can be simplified and improved.  I have to admit, however, that I’m leery of same day registration and voting, which seems like a recipe for Election Day chaos and potential fraud — and therefore I’m particularly interested at an objective look at how that option has worked in other states.  I also wonder at the most fundamental premise in the ACLU director’s article:  if a voter can’t be bothered to register at least 30 days before an election, is it really the procedure that is keeping that voter from the polls, or is it good old-fashioned voter apathy, instead?

Confounding Ohio

I made a promise to myself to not post anything about politics until after the election is over next week, but I’m going to make an exception of sorts tonight.

3questionmarksI ran across this New York Times article about the Ohio Democratic Party’s efforts to try to get Ohio to flip from the Republican column — to my amazement, and the amazement of many, Ohio went heavily for Donald Trump in the election — to the Democratic column.  It’s an interesting treatment of how Ohio Democrats have tried to refine and revise their message to get Ohioans to vote Democratic this time.

What’s really of interest to me, however, isn’t the inside baseball talk about how the Democrats are tried to rebuild the winning coalition they used to have in Ohio, but the clear underlying message that resonates in virtually every paragraph of the piece:  none of the politicos really know exactly how Ohioans will react this year.  Whether Democrat or Republican, the political types will do their best and present what they hope is a winning message, but come Election Day they’ll hold their breath and keep their fingers crossed that they hit the target.  Until then, in Ohio, nobody really knows.

During my years of living in Ohio, we’ve had periods where Democrats dominated at the state levels, periods where Republicans dominated, and transitional periods between those two poles.  Whenever we reach one of the poles — Democrat or Republican — somebody declares that Ohio has now moved firmly and immutably into that camp, only to find Ohioans vote for the other party the next election.  In Ohio, conventional political wisdom often turns out to be conventional foolishness.

Call me a provocateur, but I think it’s great that Ohio’s unpredictability routinely confounds the political know-it-alls on both sides.  Maybe, just maybe, they don’t really know as much as they think.

“Off Year”

This year it’s what they call an “off year” election in Ohio. That means we’re not voting for President, or Governor, or Senator, or Members of Congress, or any statewide offices.

I hate that phrase, because it suggests that certain elections are more important than others. I don’t think that’s the case. This year, for example, Columbus residents voted for City Council, the school board, other city offices, and some state court judges. If you believe, as I do, that politics is local, those are some pretty important positions, and I’m glad I had the chance to vote for my choices. And the “off year” elections often are the ones where supporters of this or that try to sneak ballot initiatives past listless voters. That’s not going to happen on my watch!

Some people say “off year” elections are too expensive, but I disagree with that, too. Expecting citizens to go to the polls at least once a year in November to exercise the most important right of all isn’t asking much, and it’s worth a few bucks. If people can’t get off their butts and vote, shame on them.

Long Lines In Ohio

When I got to my voting place at the Schiller Park Rec Center today, I found the longest line I’ve ever seen at a voting place.  This is just the end of it — inside it winds around the corridors of the building like a line for an amusement park ride, where you find a new section of line just as you think you’re getting to the the end.  Total wait time is estimated at 45 minutes to an hour — but everyone is waiting patiently and with good humor.

This is my first presidential election at this voting place, so I can’t make a turnout comparison to past election.  I can say that it makes me feel good to see so many people exercising their franchise, even in an election like this one.  Democracy is a wonderful thing!

“Special” Elections (Part II)

Columbus Issue 1 went down to a ringing defeat yesterday, but the big story in my book remains the turnout, the cost of the special election, and the potential for manipulation.  According to the Columbus Dispatch, 49,009 Columbus residents voted in the election, a pathetic turnout of about 9 percent — which, amazingly, is nevertheless higher than many elected officials, and the Franklin County Board of Elections, expected.

The special election cost about $1 million.  That means we spent about $20 to get each of those 49,009 votes — money that could have gone to other civic improvements.

I thought Issue 1 was a bad idea and voted against it, but I think putting important topics like charter amendments on the ballot in special elections where turnout is forecast to be less than 10 percent of voters is ridiculous.  If an issue is important enough to be put on the ballot, put it on the ballot on the customary voting day, when a reasonable turnout is expected — and we don’t have to incur a special expenditure of  a million dollars of tax revenues to boot.

For Issue One

The marijuana legalization-related initiatives on the Ohio ballot this year are getting all of the attention, while Issue One is getting almost no press.  That’s too bad, because it’s the issue that is most likely to have a positive long-term impact on Ohio and Ohio politics.

Issue One would change the way Ohio draws legislative districts.  Its goal is to make the drawing of districts more bipartisan and more inclusive of minority views and to specify criteria to be applied in creating new legislative maps.  The underlying concept is to prevent “gerrymandering” that produces bizarrely configured districts, creates “safe seats” that can be counted on to go to the candidate of one party or the other at all costs, and seeks to lock in long-term political control by one party or the other.

Restraining run-amok gerrymandering would be a good thing for everybody, for two simple reasons.  First, politicians who actually have to pay attention to getting elected are much more likely to be attuned to constituent service and listening to the voters.  Second, the existence of jigsaw puzzle-shaped districts where voters of one party have overwhelming majorities makes the only real election the primary for that majority party, and tends to produce candidates who are farther to one end or the other of the political spectrum than the Ohio body politic as a whole.  We don’t need more polarizing politicians, we need representatives who know that they will have to appeal to swing voters to attain office.  If Issue One can achieve that, it will have done future Ohioans an enormous service.

Voters often urge politicians to be bipartisan and to work together to solve problems, and Issue One demonstrates that that goal is achievable.  It’s supported by the Ohio Democratic Party and the Ohio Republican Party, business and labor, and voting groups.  I’m supporting it, too.  I want to reward the politicos who managed to get together on this issue, and also try to bring some reasonableness and common sense to redistricting.

Voters tend to vote against ballot issues.  The initiatives typically are long and hard to read, and busy people tend to reason that if things are OK now, whatever that agate type means just might make things worse.  I hope Ohioans resist that tendency in this instance and vote yes on One.

A Modest Proposal From Ohio

An Ohioan’s vote is worth more than a Californian’s, or a Mississipian’s, or a Rhode Islander’s.  The objective facts prove it.  Every presidential election, the candidates visit daily and their campaigns spend like drunken sailors trying to win our vote.  In the Other America, the campaigns aren’t spending bupkis.

Ohio isn’t just the Mother of Presidents, it’s the Chooser of Presidents.  We’re the swingingest of the “Swing States” — the Don Draper on that blue field of 50 stars.  Every presidential election, we tip the balance.  We know it, you know it, and the candidates know it.

So . . . why not let us capitalize on it?  After all, capitalism is the American Way.  Our Ohio votes are like rich mineral rights or another valuable form of property.  We therefore propose that any Ohio citizen who wishes to do so be allowed to sell their suffrage.  The Ohio Secretary of State would establish an eBay-like website where willing Ohio voters would auction the ability to determine the presidential vote on their early voting ballot to the highest bidder during the bidding period.  Some voters won’t want to participate.  Others will want to sell early and get whatever they can for their previously inalienable right.  Still others will want to hold out until the end, taking the risk that their vote might be worth a lot more — or, if the election is by then in the bag for one candidate or another, worth nothing at all.  All sales would be final and the ballots completed according to the terms of the sale and certified as such by the Secretary of State.

Many strong public policy considerations support this modest proposal.

First, this proposal would teach every American that voting has value.  Americans who live in those boring states where the outcomes of elections are foregone conclusions can, for once, know the heady rush of participating in an election where their specially acquired vote will count and might actually be decisive.  We Ohioans are proud people, but we generously are willing to peddle our franchises and allow our fellow Americans to have that experience — for a price.

Second, this proposal would introduce more certainty in the process.  Ardent supporters of candidates who happen to live in other states will no longer need to fret about which way Ohio is heading, or try to make sense of competing polling data.  Instead, they can just visit the Secretary of State website, check out the “votes for sale” section, and get a running tabulation of the current sold vote totals.

Third, this proposal would eliminate the unseemly spectacle of candidates flipping burgers, bagging groceries, and engaging in other demeaning conduct to win votes.  It would end the inefficient, indirect route of enticing votes, through vicious attack ads, cloying TV commercials, and paid campaign staff, and allow for more direct transactions between motivated buyers and willing sellers.  And, in the process, the reduction in negative ads and harsh mischaracterization of opposing positions might actually increase the chance for productive compromise after the election is over.

Fourth, this proposal would increase the percentage of Americans who actually vote.  In Ohio, the percentage of voters likely would approach 100 percent as even politically disinterested people decide to cash in on their votes.  The increased percentages would please those foreign observers who are monitoring our elections and are accustomed to the free elections in their country, where prevailing candidates routinely receive more than 95% of the vote.

Fifth, this proposal would provide a needed stimulus for Battleground Buckeyes and thereby help our economy.  Why should automakers, “green energy” companies, and asphalt manufacturers hog all the money?  Ohio voters who receive thousands of dollars for their swing votes will put that money right back into the marketplace.

Finally, voters in other states will look at the Ohio experience, see how much their vote can be worth, and perhaps reconsider their hard and fast, down-the-ballot support for one party or another.  New Yorkers, Texans, and South Carolinians might decide that there is value to listening to other viewpoints and letting their votes swing, every once in a while.  That wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?

Let The Foreign Observers Watch, And Learn

There’s been a bit of a tempest in a teapot recently about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sending monitors to watch this year’s presidential election.  The Attorney General in Texas has said that the OSCE monitors will face prosecution if they interfere with the election.  That hasn’t gone down well with the OSCE, which says that the U.S. has an obligation to allow monitors to observe the election.

Interestingly, the NAACP sent a letter to the head of the monitoring team urging the OSCE to place monitors in states — including Ohio — where the NAACP believes that voting ID laws and early voting restrictions have been adopted.  The letter urged that “monitors should be particularly vigilant about requests for, and acceptance of, identification of those seeking to vote, particularly if certain groups, such as racial minorities and young voters, are being targeted.”  The NAACP thinks that “election observation helps to improve our citizens’ trust and confidence in election results.”

Apparently the OSCE has been monitoring U.S. elections since 2002.  Who knew?  I’m sure that, like the NAACP, all Americans now feel a tremendous sense of comfort that foreign observers from well-established democratic bastions like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are keeping an eye on those nefarious blue-haired ladies who staff our polling places.  Countries with such strong democratic traditions no doubt have a lot to teach the nation that is the oldest, and most successful, functioning democracy on Earth.

I don’t think we should threaten the OSCE observers with prosecution, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves:  representatives of other countries should be coming here to learn how free and fair elections are held, not to judge whether our processes stack up to whatever odd standards have been devised in the bureaucratic depths of an organization like the OSCE.  And, if the OSCE is one of those organizations that is largely funded by U.S. tax dollars, don’t expect us to pay for the useful education that the OSCE representatives will receive.

Referendum Fatigue

If you eat enough turkey over the holidays you can get a condition called “turkey fatigue.”  In Ohio, I’m working on a serious case of referendum fatigue.

In November, Ohioans will vote on three “issues.”  I’ve written about Issue 2; UJ has discussed his position on the issues here.  Ohio Democrats, miffed about how majority Republicans drew congressional districts, also want a referendum on that law.  An anti-abortion group wants to amend the Ohio Constitution to define “personhood.”  In recent elections, the Constitution has been amended on several occasions, including to allow casino gambling.  It’s getting so that you can’t walk to the library without someone asking you to sign a petition for another statewide vote.

In Ohio, it’s not hard to get an issue on the ballot.  For a referendum — an action to challenge a new law — you need an initial petition signed by 1,000 registered voters and then a petition signed by six percent of the total vote cast for governor in the last election, with signatures obtained from 44 of the 88 Ohio counties that equal three percent of the votes cast for governor from those counties.  The Columbus Dispatch, in a story about the “Personhood Amendment,” said 385,000 signatures would be needed to put it on the ballot.   That sounds like a lot, but it is only a small fraction of the 11.5 million people who live in the Buckeye State, and is not a huge challenge for a well-funded, single-issue organization.

That’s exactly why the increasing resort to referendums is a bad thing.  In Ohio, government is not decided by direct votes of citizens; we elect representatives who are supposed to study the issues, take testimony, and reach considered decisions.  The referendum process means that the losing side on any legislative battle need only convince a small percentage of Ohioans to sign a petition, and the duly enacted law will be delayed until the election is held.

That result raises issues for both Republicans and Democrats, because Ohio is a swing state.  If Democrats use the referendum process now, Republicans surely will do so when they are out of power.   The elections impose costs and lead to the kind of over-the-top dialogue we are seeing now with Issue 2.  On the complex issues confronting a diverse state like Ohio — where multiple constituencies and repercussions must be weighed — having decisions made by voters who are informed primarily by alarmist 30-second TV ads just isn’t good policy.

A Living Civics Lesson

We all remember high school civics, that dreaded class taught by an earnest yet numbingly boring guy who probably was the assistant wrestling coach.  He spoke of the balance of powers, the three branches of government, and how a bill becomes a law.  And, most of all, he talked about how important it is for each citizen to exercise their franchise.  “Every vote counts” and “every vote is meaningful” he would say, as most students rolled their eyes and some audibly snickered.

Well, yesterday voters in the primary election to select the Republican candidate for Congress in Michigan’s First Congressional District got a real-life civics lesson.  More than 99,000 voters cast their ballots in a multiple-candidate runoff, and according to the preliminary results on the Michigan Secretary of State website, top vote-getter Dan Benishek leads Jason Allen by exactly one vote.

No doubt there are ardent Jason Allen supporters in the District who, for whatever reason, just didn’t get around to voting, and now they are kicking themselves because they are personally responsible for their candidate’s loss.  And it is equally probable that somewhere a civics teacher is smiling, knocking together their chalk-covered hands, and saying:  “See?  I told you so!”

Rich And Running (Cont.)

I’ve written recently about wealthy individuals running for office.  The voters had their say on two of the fabulously rich candidates yesterday.  In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $100 million of his fortune and eked out an unexpectedly narrow win over his Democratic challenger.  In New Jersey, where Governor Jon Corzine spent a measly $30 million on his re-election bid, voters turned thumbs down and he lost to the Republican candidate.

So, personal riches don’t guarantee success; indeed, there is every indication that some New York City voters rejected Bloomberg precisely because he spent such ridiculous sums of money on his campaign.  And, in a time of economic hardship when we are looking for every bit of “stimulus spending” we can find, shelling out $130 million on two election campaigns ain’t chicken feed.  Bloomberg’s and Corzine’s millions were injected into the struggling economy and no doubt helped “save” the jobs of printers, robo-call recorders, TV commercial writers, caterers, and other workers who performed campaign-related services.  Maybe the way out of the current recession is to force big-money Americans — say, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffett, for starters — to run for office and spend their own fortunes as part of the process.

Youth At The Booth

When I went to vote this morning I was delighted to see a number of younger people manning the voting station. Normally our poll workers are senior citizens, but today there were some decidedly younger participants. It turns out that they are part of a program called Youth at the Booth, a program sponsored by Kids Voting Central Ohio which encourages high school seniors to work at the polls. The “Youth at the Booth” volunteer who showed me to my touch screen machine and gave me my “I voted today” sticker did a fine job, too.

What a great idea! That kind of experience is bound to make young adults more likely to vote themselves, and also to engage in civic activities.

Rich And Running

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is on track to set a new record for spending his own money in pursuit of political office.  He is projected to spend between $110 million and $140 million by election day.  It is a lot of money to us working stiffs, but just a drop in the bucket to Bloomberg, who is estimated to be worth about $16 billion.  His challenger, in contrast, has raised about $6 million.

So what?  Why should we care about this kind of spending disparity?  Bloomberg has been a pretty good mayor by most accounts.  Some other wealthy candidates, like Steve Forbes, spent millions of their personal fortunes without winning an election, which suggests that voters are savvy enough to independently determine who will get their vote without being swayed by an endless parade of the candidate’s self-financed TV commercials.  There may be advantages to wealthy candidates, too.  Presumably the independently wealthy are less likely to be tempted by bribery and can concentrate on governing, rather than constantly engaging in  fund-raising, with its attendant, inherent corruption.  And maybe successful entrepreneurs who have made millions in the business world are better suited to managing the governmental bureaucracies in large cities and states or have a more sophisticated understanding of the capitalistic system that will help them to develop economic policy.

Nevertheless, there is something galling about wealthy people buying their way into political office.  It just seems unfair, particularly when the personal wealth being spent is inherited wealth.  Under our current system, however, it also seems almost inevitable.  Election campaigns start too early and run on too long, and any candidate with a hope of success in any significant race has to have millions in the bank to pay for the commercials, and polls, and advisors, and campaign organizations.  Moreover, right now there aren’t many alternatives.  As the last presidential election indicated, the public financing system is a bit of a joke.  Both candidates promised to use it, but when President Obama took off to a huge fundraising advantage he declined public funds and used his considerable war chest to help ensure victory.  The only way to avoid that kind of scenario is to mandate public financing or strictly limit all spending — two scenarios that have free speech implications — or to make campaigns so brief that less money is needed to run them.

No plausible solutions to this predicament are on the horizon, and with all of the other issues our country is facing financing elections is not a top priority.  For now, we’ll just have to endure the reality of millionaire politicians and hope that voters continue to judge them on their merits and not on their pocketbooks.

Buckeye State Bulls-Eye

Unlike Virginia and New Jersey, which are electing governors this November, Ohio doesn’t have off-year elections for statewide offices.  Our election in November will include a few state-wide ballot issues (like Issue 3, the gambling initiative), but most of the ballot will be devoted to local elections for school boards, city council, and township trustee positions.

That won’t keep the national media from targeting Ohio for attention and considering what the 2010 state-wide elections might look like, and here is the first article I have seen along those lines.  There will be a full slate of significant races.  Every state-wide office, from Governor to Auditor, will be up for grabs, as well as the U.S. Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator George Voinovich and every congressional seat.  The politicking for the races is already underway.  Our firm has been visited by candidates, and I regularly get e-mails and mailings from the various candidates looking for contributions.

Still, I think it is very early to say much of anything meaningful about what might happen in Ohio in 2010.  A year is a very long time in politics — just ask Marc Dann — and the election no doubt will be influenced, as every Ohio election seems to be, by the state of the economy, unemployment figures, and scandals that have not yet hit the front pages.  I think most people like Governor Strickland and think he has been a good, moderating influence on Ohio politics, but that perception could change if, say, the state’s unemployment rate continues to climb and the Governor and the General Assembly continue to have to deal with budget shortfalls by considering politically unpopular actions like tax increases.  Any predictions now about what might happen in the Buckeye State in November 2010 would be pure speculation, and almost certain to be wrong.

Yard Signs In The Neighborhood

They say all politics is local, and the current condition of our neighborhood reflects that reality.  Brightly colored political yard signs dot the landscape, and fliers are frequently found on our doorstep.  In this off-year election in New Albany, Ohio, we will be choosing among candidates for school board, village council, and trustee, as well as voting on statewide issues.

The issues in these local elections are basic and gut-level.  Do we like the performance of our schools or think that we need to change course?  Are our taxes too high?  Are we happy with our neighborhoods and local development plans?  The population which decides this issue is limited, and if you can convince enough of your neighbors to vote as you want you can effect real changes in policy.  The election handouts reflect the intensity of the candidates’ positions, with lots of boldfaced statements and exclamation points.  And, as you learn something about the candidates, you also learn something about your neighbors who display their yard signs.