A Philosopher's Blog

Is Trump’s Presidency Legitimate?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2017

Representative John Lewis, a man who was nearly killed fighting for civil rights, has claimed that Trump is not a legitimate president. While some dismiss this as mere sour grapes, it is certainly an interesting claim and one worth given some consideration.

The easy and obvious legal answer is that Trump’s presidency is legitimate: despite taking a trouncing in the popular vote, Trump won the electoral college. As such, he is the legitimate president by the rules of the system. It does not matter that Trump him denounced the electoral college as “a disaster for democracy”, what matters is the rules of the game. Since the voters have given tacit acceptance of the system by participating and not changing it, the system is legitimate and thus Trump is the legitimate president from this legal standpoint. From a purely practical standpoint, this can be regarded as the only standpoint that matters. However, there are other notions of legitimacy that are distinct from the legal acquisition of power.

In a democratic system of government, one standard of legitimacy is that the majority of the citizens vote for the leader. This can, of course, be amended to a majority vote by the citizens who bother to vote—assuming that voters are not unjustly disenfranchised and that there is not significant voter fraud or election tampering. On this ground, Hillary Clinton is the legitimate president since she received the majority of the votes. This can be countered by arguing that the majority of the citizens, as noted above, accepted the existing electoral system and hence are committed to the results. This does create an interesting debate about whether having the consent of the majority justifies the acceptance of an electoral system that can elect a president who does not win a majority of the votes. As would be suspected, people tend to think this system is just fine when their candidate wins and complain when their candidate loses. But, this is not a principled view of the matter.

Another standard of legitimacy is that the election process is free of fraud and tampering. To the degree the integrity of the electoral system is in question, the legitimacy of the elected president is in doubt. Since the 1990s the Republican party has consistently claimed that voter fraud occurs and is such a threat that it must be countered by such measures as imposing voter ID requirements. With each election, the narrative grows.  What is most striking is that although Trump won the electoral college, he and his team have argued that the integrity of the election was significantly compromised. Famously, Trump tweeted that millions had voted illegally. While the mainstream media could find no evidence of this, Trump’s team has claimed that they have evidence to support Trump’s accusation.

While it seems sensible to dismiss Trump’s claims as the deranged rantings of a delicate man whose fragile ego was wounded by Hillary crushing him in the popular vote, the fact that he is now president would seem to require that his claims be taken seriously. Otherwise, it must be inferred that he is a pathological liar with no credibility who has slandered those running the election and American voters and is thus unworthy of the respect of the American people. Alternatively, his claim must be taken seriously: millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election. This entails that the election’s integrity was grossly violated and hence illegitimate. Thus, by Trump’s own claims about the election, he is not the legitimate president and the election would need to be redone with proper safeguards to keep those millions from voting illegally. So, Trump would seem to be in a dilemma: either he is lying about the election and thus unfit or he is telling the truth and is not a legitimately elected president. Either way undermines him.

It could be countered that while the Republicans allege voter fraud and that Trump claimed millions voted illegally, the election was legitimate because the fraud and illegal voting was all for Hillary and she lost. That is, the electoral system’s integrity has been violated but it did not matter because Trump won. On the one hand, this does have some appeal. To use an analogy, think of a Tour de France in which the officials allow bikers to get away with doping, but the winner is drug free. In that case, the race would be a mess, but the winner would still be legitimate—all the cheating was done by others and they won despite the cheating. On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that if such widespread fraud and illegal voting occurred, then it might well have resulted in Trump’s electoral college victory. Going back to the Tour de France analogy, if the winner claimed that the competition was doping but they were clean and still won, despite the testing system being broken, then there would be some serious doubts about their claim. After all, if the system is broken and they were competing against cheaters, then it is worth considering that their victory was the result of cheating. But, perhaps Trump has proof that all (or most) of the fraud and illegal voting was for Hillary. In this case, he should certainly have evidence showing how all this occurred and evidence sufficient to convict individual voters. As such, arrests and significant alterations to the election system should occur soon. Unless, of course, Trump and the Republicans are simply lying about voter fraud and millions of illegals voting. In which case, they need to stop using the specter of voter fraud to justify their attempts to restrict access to voting. They cannot have it both ways: either voter fraud is real and Trump is illegitimate because the system lacks integrity or the claim of significant voting fraud is a lie.

 

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Consent of the Governed

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2016

English: A voter returns his vote-by-mail ball...

Plato, through the character of Socrates, advances a now classic argument against democracy. When it comes to a matter that requires knowledge and skill, such as a medical issue, it would be foolish to decide by having the ignorant vote on the matter. Those who have good sense turn to those who have the knowledge and skill needed to make a good decision.

Political matters, such as deciding what policies to adopt regarding immigration, require knowledge and skill. As such, it would be foolish to make decisions by having the ignorant and unskilled vote on such matters. Picking a competent leader also requires knowledge and skill and thus it would be foolish to leave it to those lacking these attributes.

In the abstract, this argument is compelling: as with all tasks that require competence, it would be best to have the competent make the decisions and the incompetent should remain on the sidelines. There are, however, various counters to this argument.

One appealing argument assumes people have a moral right to a role in decisions that impact them, even if they are not likely to make the best (or even good) choices.  Consider, for example, something as simple as choosing a meal. Most people will not select the most nutritious or even most delicious option, thus making a bad choice. However, compelling people against their will to eat a meal, even if it is the best for them, seems to be morally problematic. At least when it comes to adults. Naturally, an argument can be made that people who routinely make poor health choices would be better off being compelled to eat healthy foods—which is the heart of this dispute between democracy and being ruled by those with the knowledge and skills to make better decisions.

Another approach is to use the context of the state of nature. This is a philosophical device developed by thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau in which one is asked to imagine a world without a political system in place, a world in which everyone is equal in social status. In this world, there are no kings, presidents, lawyers, police or other such socially constructed positions of hierarchy. It is also assumed there is nothing supernatural conferring a right to rule (such as the make-believe divine right of kings). In such a context, the obvious question is that of what would give a person the right to rule over others.

As a practical matter, the strongest might coerce others into submission, but the question is one of the right to rule and not a question of what people could do. Given these assumptions, it would seem that no one has the right to be the boss over anyone else—since everyone is equal in status. What would be required, and what has often been argued for, is that the consent of the governed would be needed to provide the ruler with the right to rule. This is, of course, the assumed justification for political legitimacy in the United States and other democratic countries.

If it is accepted that political legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed, then the usual method of determining this consent is by voting. For a country to continue as one country it must also be accepted that the numerical minority will go along with the vote of the numerical majority—otherwise, as Locke noted, the country would be torn asunder. This is, as has been shown in the United States, consistent with having certain things (such as rights) that are protected from the possible tyranny of the majority.

If voting is accepted in this role, then maintaining political legitimacy would seem to require two things. The first is that there must be reliable means of assuring that fraud does not occur in elections. The United States has done an excellent job at this. While there are some issues with the accuracy of voter lists (people who move or die often remain on lists for years), voter fraud is almost non-existent, despite unsupported assertions to the contrary.

The second is that every citizen who wishes to vote must have equal and easy access to the voting process. To the degree that citizens are denied this equal and easy access, political legitimacy is decreased. This is because those who are deterred or prevented from voting are denied the opportunity to provide their consent. This excludes them from falling under the legitimate authority of the government. It also impacts the legitimacy of the government in general. Since accepting a democratic system means accepting majority rule, excluding voters impacts this. After all, one does not know how the excluded voters would have voted, thus calling into question whether the majority is ruling or not.

Because of this, the usual attempts to deter voter participation are a direct attack on political legitimacy in the United States. These include such things as voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, unreasonable limits on polling hours, cutting back on polling places and so on.

In contrast, efforts to make voting easier and more accessible (consistent with maintaining the integrity of the vote) increase political legitimacy. These include such things as early voting, expanded voting hours, providing free transportation to polling stations, mail in voting, online voter registration and so on. One particularly interesting idea is automatic voter registration.

It could be argued that citizens have an obligation to overcome inconveniences and even obstacles to vote; otherwise they are lazy and unworthy. While it is reasonable to expect citizens to put in a degree of effort, the burden of access rests on the government. While it is the duty of a citizen to vote, it is the duty of the government to allow citizens to exercise this fundamental political right without undue effort. That is, the government needs to make it as easy and convenient as possible. This can be seen as somewhat analogous to the burden of proof: the citizen is not obligated to prove their innocence; the state must prove their guilt.

It could be objected that I only favor easy and equal access to the voting process because I am registered as a Democrat and Democrats are more likely to win when voter turnout is higher. If the opposite were true, then I would surely change my view. The easy and obvious reply to this objection is that it is irrelevant to the merit of the arguments advanced above. Another reply is that I actually do accept majority rule and even if Democrats were less likely to win with greater voter turnout, I would still support easy and equal access. And would do so for the reasons given above.

 

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Accepting Victory/Accepting Defeat

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2016

I am writing this on November 7, 2016. This is the day before the United States’ presidential election. While other matters are on the ballot, the main contest is between Hillary and Trump. While the evidence seems to show that Hillary will win, Trump has a chance that vastly exceeds his competence for the position. As such, the contest could go either way.

While I do regard Trump as morally and intellectually unfit for the office, I do not have a strong emotional commitment to Hillary. As such, a “victory” for me this election would be that Trump does not win. A defeat would be that Trump becomes president. While some might suspect that my negative view of Trump would cause me to spew “Trump is not my president”, this is not the case. If Trump is elected, he will be as much my president as Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and so on were. That is how democracy works. Since I am a philosopher, I do have a philosophical justification for my approach and certainly urge others to accept a similar view.

While democracy is ancient, more recent thinkers such as John Locke have worked out many of the key details in theory and practice. As Locke saw it, government is based on a social contract resulting from the consent of the governed. Since the political body must move in one direction, Locke argued for majority rule—the numerical minority is obligated to go along with the numerical majority. Or, in terms of the usual low voter turnout in the United States, the numerical minority of the voters must go along with the numerical majority of voters, even though the voters might be a numerical minority of the eligible voters.

His justification for this was fairly practical: if the numerical minority refused to go along, the society would be torn apart. Locke did recognize that there could be matters so serious that they would warrant a split, but he believed that these would be rather unusual. While I do believe that Trump would be the worst president in history, I do not regard this as a matter so serious that it would require sundering the nation. The possibility of disaster does, however, provide a potential justification for a sundering.

John Stuart Mill developed the notion of the tyranny of the majority—that the majority (or those passing as the majority) might wish to use their numerical advantage to oppress the numerical minority. In such cases, Mill rejected the idea of majority rule and argued that the restriction of liberty can only be justified on the grounds of preventing harm to others. Since Mill was a utilitarian, all this would be worked out morally on that basis. As such, if it were true that the presidency of Trump or Clinton would be worse than the sundering caused by the rejection of the election, then it could be justified. That said, while I do expect there to be many angry people on November 8, I do not anticipate large scale social disorder. In terms of the consequences, I believe that no matter how bad Hillary or Trump would be as president, their badness would not exceed the harm of rejecting the election. As president, Trump can only do so much damage—far less than a sundering would cause. Those who think that Hillary would be a disaster as a president should also take this same view: no matter how bad she is, she cannot be as bad as the consequences of a sundering. This all assumes, of course, that the election was a proper one.

In discussing obedience in the Crito, Socrates presents the argument that he is obligated to follow the laws of the state because he agreed to do so. He does allow for two exceptions: force or fraud. If the forced him into the agreement or if the agreement were a deceit, then he would not be obligated to stick to his agreement. This seems reasonable: agreements made under duress and agreements based on deception have no merit.

Despite having no evidence, Trump has been asserting that if he loses, then the election must have been rigged. If he wins, he has graciously promised to accept that result. While Trump’s approach is morally irresponsible, there is a philosophical foundation under his spew. Going back to Socrates, if the election is such that fraud or force is used to change the outcome, then this negates the obligation of citizens to accept the results. The question then is whether or not the election is being “rigged.”

While there are clear concerns about efforts at voter suppression, such suppression targets minorities who are far more likely to vote for Hillary than Trump—as such, this “rigging” is in Trump’s favor. If voter suppression impacts the outcome, then this would provide legitimate grounds for questioning the results.

Trump has embraced the Republican myth of voter fraud, but myths provide no foundation for claims of significant fraud. While Trump has made vague claims about rigging in general, informed and rational people have pointed out the obvious: elections are run by the states and direct operations are handled locally, so rigging the election would require a conspiracy across the states, counties and localities. While this is not impossible, it would be absurd to give this any credence—especially since Trump has provided no evidence at all. However, if it could be shown that fraud impacted the election, then there would be legitimate grounds for questioning the results.

While Trump has not (as of this writing) explicitly told his supporters to engage in voter intimidation, his critics have claimed that he is suggesting this. Given the attention being paid to the election, it is unlikely that voter intimidation will occur on a significant scale, but if it did, then there would be grounds for rejecting the results of the election.

Trump’s supporters have pointed to Al Gore’s legal challenge of the 2000 election to justify Trump’s claim he won’t accept the results (unless he wins). Gore, however, did not claim the election was rigged—his concern was with the accuracy of the count and similar procedural matters. There was also the fact that my adopted state of Florida created an electoral nightmare of hanging chads and similar disasters. As such, there was a real problem to sort out. If an analogous procedural disaster occurs, it would be reasonable to contest the disaster. But this would not be a rejection of the electoral process or the legitimacy of the election—it would be a matter of sorting out a mess. Such a situation could, of course, escalate—but I do hope that the election goes smoothly. Or, failing that, that I hope neither my home state of Maine nor my adopted state of Florida play a role in any electoral disasters.

Assuming the election is not rendered invalid by fraud or force, then the results will properly determine the next legitimate president of the United States, whether this be Hillary or Trump. As citizens, we are obligated to accept the results of a properly conducted election—that is what we have agreed to by being citizens. Trump, in his dangerous, self-serving buffoonery, has assaulted this foundation of our democracy. My hope is that if he is defeated and refuses to accept the results, his supporters will take their duty as citizens seriously. If he wins, I intend to do just that and accept him as the legitimate president. Again, this is how democracy works and I have agreed, by being a citizen, to accept the results of the election. Whether I am on the winning or losing side.

 

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Alabama & Voter ID

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2015

In 2011 Alabama passed a voter ID law that would go into effect in 2014. This sort of thing was usually subject to approval from the Justice Department, but the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Some regarded this as reasonable, since voting seemed to be going along reasonably well. This is the same sort of reasoning that indicates that a patient with diabetes should stop taking her insulin on the grounds that her disease is now under control.

Critics of voter ID laws, who are most often Democrats, contend that they are aimed at disenfranchising minorities and the poor. These are the people who generally tend to vote for Democrats. Proponents of voter ID laws, who are most often Republicans, contend that voter ID laws are critical for preventing voter fraud. Since I have written extensively on this matter before, I will simply note that the best evidence shows that voter ID laws do have a negative impact on poor and minority voters. I will also note that voter fraud does occur, but at an incredibly low rate.

Now that Alabama’s voter ID law is in effect, the state seems to have upped its game by stating that driver’s license examiners would no longer be working at thirty one offices in the state. As might be guessed, Alabama officials claim that this is the result of budget cuts and is not intended to make things harder for minority and poor voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) in upcoming elections. It is also most likely a coincidence that this is occurring prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In what must surely be another coincidence eight of the ten counties with the highest percentage of non-white voters will have the license offices closed. These eight include the five counties that voted most strongly for Democrats in 2012. John Merrill, Alabama’s Secretary of State, counters that the state is ensuring that voters can get IDs. All the counties still have Board of Registrars offices and they issue voter ID cards. The state also has a mobile ID office that is supposed to visit all the counties.

While these IDs are available, only 29 IDs have been issued by the mobile offices since the start of 2015 and only 1,442 have been issued in total from all sources.  In response to concerns about these low numbers, Merrill insists that the fault lies with the voters, noting that “you can lead a horse to water. But you can’t make him drink.” He points to the existence of an advertising campaign to inform voters and the availability of the above mentioned IDs.

On the one hand, it is certainly tempting to agree with Merrill. As he noted, voters can get an ID other than a driver’s license and can do so in each county. There as, as he claimed, been a public awareness campaign.

If someone wants to vote in Alabama, it can be argued, then that person should take the effort to learn what she needs to do and make sure that she has the requisite ID. To use an analogy, for each class with a paper, I have a detailed paper guide that shows step-by-step how to do the paper and how it will be graded. I also have three videos on the paper and spend about 45 minutes in a class going over the paper. Despite all that, I always get at least 10% of the class who make it clear (usually by asking things like “so, what is this paper you mentioned?”) they have no idea about the paper. As such, Merrill’s replies have some merit.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the efforts to inform voters are not adequate. People who voted before the new voter ID law went into effect and did not happen to see the advertising campaign are likely to have no idea of the existence of this requirement. Those who are aware of the requirement for an ID might believe that a driver’s license is required and might have no idea that there is even such a thing as a special voter ID available. Even those who are aware of the law and the special IDs might face difficulties in getting an ID. Transportation could be an issue as could making the time to go get the ID.

Some people counter these claims by referencing their own experience. They already have a driver’s license, so they find it hard to believe that others would not have them. They have TV and the internet and free time to watch shows in which the advertising appears. They have their own car and time to do things, so they assume the same is true of other people. This is a natural psychological tendency, but the beliefs based on it can easily be in error. For example, when I was in grad school, I found it easy to get by without a car. It was fairly easy to walk two miles to the grocery store and walk back with a week’s worth of groceries. It was easy to just run or bike to campus. It was easy to run or bike to stores, the bank and other places. So, it would be natural for me to think this would be easy for everyone based on my own experience. However, I was well-aware that what is easy for me could be very hard for someone else in different circumstances.

Some refute these claims by arguing that even if it is not easy or convenient to learn about the special IDs and acquire them, people who want to vote should take the effort to check before every election to make sure of what rule changes might have occurred. These people should then be willing to take the steps needed to be able to vote and then take the steps needed to actually vote—no matter how challenging or inconvenient these things might be.

A reasonable reply to this is that since voting the basic foundation of democracy, the process should be made as easy and accessible as possible.  To do otherwise is to disenfranchise people unjustly. As such, people should not need to keep up with rule changes nor should they have to have an ID to vote.

The usual counter to this takes us back to the start: the concern about voter fraud. It is, I certainly agree, right to take steps to prevent voter fraud. However, as has been established beyond all rational doubt, the amount of voter fraud in the United States is miniscule. The fraud that does occur is also of the sort that voter ID would not prevent. I also accept the principle that it is better to allow a voter to vote fraudulently than to disenfranchise a legitimate voter—especially given that even if a method of fraud prevention did work, it would be preventing an incredibly low number of cases of fraud while most likely disenfranchising a vastly larger number of people.

Since I do like to think well of people, I am willing to accept that the officials in Alabama are acting from the most noble of intentions and, despite the evidence to the contrary, are not trying to take steps to increase the chances of Republican victories. That said, the methods they have chosen will have no real impact on fraud—both because it barely exists and because the voter fraud that occurs is generally not the sort that can be prevented by IDs. These methods will, however, have a negative impact on voters and that is certainly wrong—at least if democracy is accepted as a good.

 

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Voter Fraud Prevention or Voter Suppression

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 15, 2014
English: map of voter ID laws in US

English: map of voter ID laws in US (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One essential aspect of a democracy is the right of each citizen to vote. This also includes the right to have her vote count. One aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter fraud does not occur. After all, voter fraud can rob legitimate voters of their right to properly decide the election. Another aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter suppression does not occur. This is because voter suppression can unjustly rob people of their votes.

Many Republicans have expressed concerns about voter fraud and have worked to enact laws aimed, they claim, at reducing such fraud. In response, many Democrats have countered that these laws are, they claim, aimed at voter suppression. Naturally, each side accuses the other of having wicked political motives. Many Democrats see the Republicans as trying to disenfranchise voters who tend to vote for Democrats (the young and minorities). The Republicans counter that the Democrats are supporting voter fraud because the fraud is in their favor. In many cases, these beliefs are no doubt quite sincere. However, the sincerity of a belief has no relevance to its truth. What matters are the reasons and evidence that support the belief. As such, I will look at the available evidence and endeavor to sort out the matter.

One point of contention is the extent of voter fraud. One Republican talking point is that voter fraud is widespread. For example, on April 7, 2014 Dick Morris claimed that over 1 million people voted twice in 2012. If this was true, then it would obviously be a serious matter: widespread voter fraud could change the results of elections and rob the legitimate voters of their right to decide. Democrats claim that voting fraud does occur, but occurs at such a miniscule level that it has no effect on election outcomes and thus does not warrant the measures favored by the Republicans.

Settling this matter requires looking at the available facts. In regards to Dick Morris’ claim (which made the rounds as a conservative talking point), the facts show that it is false. But the fact that Morris was astoundingly wrong does not prove that voter fraud is not widespread. However, the facts do. For example, in ten years Texas had 616 cases of allegations of voter fraud and only one conviction for double voting. In Kansas, 84 million voter records were analyzed for fraud. Of these, 14 cases were referred to prosecution with, as of this writing, zero convictions.

Republicans have argued for voter ID laws by contending that they will prevent fraud. However, investigation of voter fraud has shown only 31 credible cases out of one billion ballots. As such, this sort of fraud does occur—but only at an incredibly low rate.

In general, significant (let alone widespread) voter fraud does not occur although the myth is widespread. As such, the Republican claims about voter fraud are based on a myth and this would seem to remove the foundation for their claims and proposals regarding the matter.

It could be countered that while voter fraud is insignificant, it must still be countered by laws and policy changes, such as requiring voter IDs and eliminating early voting. This does have some appeal. To use an analogy, even if only a fraction of 1% of students cheated, then professors should still take steps to counter that cheating for the sake of academic integrity. Unless, of course, the measures used to counter that cheating did more damage than the cheating. The same would seem to apply to measures to counter voter fraud.

One rather important matter is the moral issue of whether it is more important to prevent fraud or to prevent disenfranchisement. This is analogous to the moral concern about guilt in the legal system. In the United States, there is a presumption of innocence on the moral grounds that it is better that a guilty person goes free than an innocent person is unjustly punished. In the case of voting, should it be accepted that it is better that a legitimate voter be denied her vote rather than an illegitimate voter be allowed to get away with fraud? Or is it better that an illegitimate voter gets away with fraud then for a legitimate voter to be denied her right to vote?

My own moral conviction is that it is more important to prevent disenfranchisement. Obviously I am against fraud and favor safeguards against fraud. However, given the minuscule rates of fraud if attempts to reduce it result in disenfranchisement, then I would oppose such attempts on moral grounds. Naturally, another person might take a different view and contend that it is worth disenfranchising voters in an attempt to reduce the minuscule rates of fraud to even more miniscule levels.

Returning to the matter of facts, one rather important concern is whether or not the laws and policies in question actually result in voter suppression. If they do not, even if they do nothing to counter voter fraud, then they would be tolerable (assuming they do not come with other costs).

Unfortunately, the evidence is that the laws that are allegedly aimed at preventing voter fraud actually serve as voter suppression measures, mostly aimed at minority voters. Keith Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien published a study entitled “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” Based on their analysis of the data, they concluded “the Republican Party has engaged in strategic demobilization efforts in response to changing demographics, shifting electoral fortunes, and an internal rightward ideological drift among the party faithful.” The full study, from the journal Perspectives on Politics, is available here. Since this is a factual matter, those who disagree with these findings can counter this by providing an analysis of equal or greater credibility based on supported facts.

Interestingly, it is a common talking point among Republicans that professors are tools of the Democrats and that academic experts should not be trusted. While this is a marvelous ad homimen, what is needed is actual evidence and arguments countering the claims. If professors are tools of the Democrats and academic experts are not to be trusted, then it should be rather easy to provide credible, objective evidence and analysis showing that they are in error. In terms of specifics regarding voter suppression, I offer the following evidence based discussion.

One of the best-known methods proposed to counter voter fraud is the voter ID law. While, as shown above, the sort of fraud that would be prevented by these laws seems to occur 31 times per 1 billion ballots, it serves to disenfranchise voters. In Texas 600,000-800,000 registered voters lack such IDs with Hispanics being 40-120% more likely to lack an ID than whites. In North Carolina 318,000 registered voters lack the required ID and one third of them are African-American (African-Americans make up about 13% of the US population).

Another approach is to make it harder for citizens to register. One example is restrictions on voter registration drives—Hispanics and African-Americans register to vote at twice the rate of whites via drives. It is not clear how these methods would reduce fraud. The restrictions mostly do not seem to be aimed at making it harder for people to register fraudulently—just to make it more inconvenient to register.

A third tactic is to reduce the available early voting times and eliminate weekend and evening voting. This would seem to have no effect whatsoever on fraud, but seems aimed at minority voting patterns. In 2008 70% of African-American voters in North Carolina cast their ballots early. Minority voters are more likely than white voters to vote on weekends and in the evening. For example, 56% of the 2008 weekend voters in Cuyahoga County in Ohio were black.

A fourth tactic is to make it harder for people with past convictions to regain their voting rights. This impacts African Americans the most: 7.7% of African-Americans and 1.8% of the rest of the population have lost their right to vote in this manner. This tactic does not prevent fraud—it merely denies people the right to vote.

It would seem that the laws and policies allegedly aimed at voter fraud would not reduced the existing fraud (which is already miniscule) and would have the effect of suppressing voters. As such, these laws and proposals fail to protect the rights of voters and instead are a violation of that basic right. In short, they are either a misguided and failed effort to prevent fraud or a wicked and potentially successful effort to suppress minority voters. Either way, these laws and policies are a violation of a fundamental right of the American democracy.

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The Phantom Menace in Florida

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2013
English: The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My state of Florida has become well known as something of an electoral embarrassment. While most of this shame dates from the chad strewn 2000 election, there was also the more recent concern about voter suppression in Florida. As noted in earlier posts, the folks who were pushing for changes in the voting procedures in Florida claimed that they were engaged in a noble battle against voter fraud rather than a shameful attempt at disenfranchisement. One of the stock responses to the concern over voter fraud is that the solutions proposed were addressing a problem that could be, at best, be barely said to even exist. Critics of the proposals, including myself, pointed out that the methods proposed to combat fraud (such as limiting early voting and requiring voters to show identification) noted that these would not address the sort of fraud that raised the alleged concerns.

Interestingly, there is a somewhat new election fraud story, one involving phantom requests for absentee ballots. In this case, a phantom request is one made by someone other than a person who can legitimately make the request for the voter in question.  During the August 14 primaries in Florida, 2,552 fraudulent absentee ballot requests were made, flagged and denied.

Interestingly, this attempt at election fraud seemed to be bipartisan in nature: according to the Miami Herald the requests were aimed at Democratic voters in one district and and Republican voters in two other districts.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (sound...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some might be tempted to trumpet this as a vindication of the dire warnings about voter fraud and proposals to protect election integrity from certain Republicans. However, while this matter raises legitimate concerns, there is little in the way of vindication for these folks. First, there is a meaningful distinction between voter fraud and election fraud. However, I will let this slide so as to avoid bickering about semantics and definitions. Second, there is the fact that the attempts were caught and prevented by existing means. Interesting, the main proposals made by certain Republicans such as voter ID laws, restricting early voting and so on would not have prevented these requests (which were thwarted by the existing system). Thus, I stand by my view that the specter of voter fraud has generally been used to “justify” attempts to suppress voting rather than motivating legitimate reform of actual problems.

While the actual incidents of voter fraud do seem to be minuscule in number, there are legitimate concerns about absentee ballots that are worth considering. After all, while the attempts in the case at hand seem to been thwarted, there is certainly the possibility that other attempts have succeeded. There is also the general concern about absentee voting in general-after all, it would certainly seem to one of the easier avenues for attempts at fraud. Addressing these concerns would seem to involve enhancing existing methods of security (which caught the fraud attempts in this incident) and perhaps developing some new methods to ensure the integrity of the election. Naturally, these methods would need to be designed to avoid disenfranchising or discouraging legitimate voters.

Given the closeness of some recent elections, it is not unreasonable to be concerned that some sort of fraud played a role in the results. It is, of course, the possibility that even a small amount of fraud could decide an election that gives merit to concerns about even the minuscule amount of voter fraud that does occur. Perhaps of even greater concern is the use of gerrymandering by incumbents of both parties to redraw the political landscape with the sole intent of staying in office. That seems to be a rather serious threat to proper elections, but that is a matter for another time.

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Stealing the Vote

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2012
English: Rep. James Moran's (D-VA 8th)Congress...

English: Rep. James Moran’s (D-VA 8th)Congressional Portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Patrick Moran, the son of Democratic Representative Jim Moran, was “stung” by a Project Veritas “operative.” The “operative” attempted to talk Moran into a scheme that would amount to voter fraud. Moran eventually said he would “look into it.” As might be imagined, this is being trumpeted as evidence of a conspiracy on the part of Democrats to commit voter fraud. Moran claims that he thought the “operative” was mentally unstable and was just humoring him. However, Moran resigned from his position in his father’s organization.

While Moran should have simply rejected the offer, it is understandable that he would humor someone. After all, people often try to be agreeable-especially when they think the person they are interacting with is unstable.  In my own case, I have spoken with unstable people who have suggested odd things (such as using philosophy to defend the earth against aliens) and I have sometimes actually said “I’ll look into that” when, of course, I was merely humoring someone who might suffer emotional damage from any other response.

While the police are investigating the matter, there is a rather reasonable question as to whether or not he actually did anything wrong (or illegal). In terms of wrong doing, the main question is whether or not Moran was seriously considering the plan and intended to engage in such a wrongful act.   As such, one important question is whether or not there is any evidence that Moran was in the process of acting on his alleged agreement to engage in this action. If he was merely humoring someone he regarded as unstable, then such an “agreement” would hardly constitute a moral misdeed (except insofar as he did not put a stop to someone else suggesting wrongdoing).

Moran was right to resign. After all, politics is a harsh business and anyone who gets caught on tape saying something this bad should remove themselves from the political realm until they can either learn to remain silent or spin things better. Naturally, if Moran actually intended to engage in this wrongful activity, then he should be punished appropriately. Attacking the integrity of the vote is an assault on the foundation of the democratic state.

Continuing with the subject of attacking the integrity of the vote, Doug brought to my attention the fact that hoax letters are being sent to white, registered Republicans who are regular voters in my adopted state of Florida. These letters question the citizenship of the recipient and also ask for personal information such as social security number and drivers license number. While the citizenship questioning part does smell of voter intimidation (or retaliation against the official letters sent out by the state questioning peoples’ citizenship), the fact that the letters also ask for such information suggests that it might also be an identity theft scam. It could, of course, be both.

Given that I have consistently opposed attacks on voters from the right, I also condemn this attempt which might be an attack from the left (or just a identity theft scam or some sort of retaliation against Rick Scott). My position is that any attacks on the integrity of the voting process is wrong-regardless of whether it comes from left, right or center.  I am not going to play the usual game of “well, the other side does it too” or “the other side does it more.” After all, that is just a fallacious appeal to common practice or two wrongs   make a right.  I will simply condemn all such attacks and urge that efforts be taken to address them-whether they are in the form of a hoax letter or in the form of trying to suppress voters using the power of the state.

 

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Voter Suppression in Florida

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 18, 2012
English: The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Governor Scott has gained considerable notoriety in his tenure as governor. Most recently he set out to purge Florida’s voter lists of non-citizens. While I agree with the stated objective (to ensure that only those eligible to vote are allowed to vote) I have serious concerns regarding the methodology. Not surprisingly, I am not alone in this. In fact, Florida’s election supervisors have declined to resume the purging of voters.

One of my main concerns with the method is that the list that was used seems to be inaccurate. If people are to be purged from the roll of eligible voters, it is obvious that the list used for the purging must be accurate. If it was simply a matter of a defective list, then my concern would be mainly limited to ensuring that the checking process is accurate. However, there seem to be other factors involved here.

One key point of concern is whether or not the purge is actually aimed at voter fraud. After all, the existing proper studies of this matter have shown that the incidence of voter fraud is microscopic. Given the penalties for fraud, the ease with which non-citizens would be caught, the fact that illegals would probably not put themselves on a government list that is likely to be checked, and the fact that voter turnout is generally low it seems reasonable to infer that the the percentage of non-citizen voters would be very low.

In the case of Florida, the original list was 182,000 suspects. This was narrowed down to 2,70o and the governor recently claimed that there were almost 100 non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls and that over 50 of them voted. The list of 2,700 suspects turned out to have 500 U.S. citizens.  It is certainly good that the list was checked-after all, if the list had simply been applied without a thorough review (and the numbers are assumed to be accurate), then about 5 citizens would have been impacted for every non-citizen.  More interestingly, even if it is assumed that the numbers are correct, then out of 182,000 original suspects only 100 non-citizens were registered. This is 0.055%. Assuming that about 50 of them voted, then this would be 0.027%. Applying Scott’s findings to the entire population of voters, the incidence of illegal voters is, not surprisingly, microscopic.

The obvious reply is that even a microscopic percentage of voter fraud is unacceptable and that the voter rolls need to be accurate. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious concern of whether addressing such a microscopic problem is actually worth the cost-both in terms of the expense and the harms done by legitimate voters being hassled and intimidated. Given the microscopic nature of the problem, it might be suspected that there is another factor (or factors) driving the purge.

If the purge was motivated solely by the desire for an accurate voter list, it should have impacted all voters roughly equally. However, an analysis of the data by the Miami Herald revealed that “Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are the most likely to be targeted…” Republicans and whites were largely given a pass in this purge.

One obvious reply is that Hispanics are more likely to be illegally in the United States than other ethnic groups. However, one concern is that while Hispanics are about 13% of the 11.3 million registered voters in Florida they were about 58% of those flagged as potential non-citizens. As such, it would seem that Hispanics were dis proportionally targeted by the purge. Since Hispanics tend to vote somewhat more for Democrats (and Obama enjoyed considerable Hispanic support in 2008) this suggests that the purge is not aimed so much at ensuring that illegals do not vote but to suppress the Hispanic vote.

In the case of Democratic and independent minded voters being most likely to be targeted, there cannot even be the pretense of an argument that they would be more likely to be n0n-citizens. As such, the targeting of these voters would strongly suggest a political motivation to the purge.

It could be countered that the Miami Herald’s analysis is in error or that the results were unintended. While this would be a rather implausible counter, Scott has also pushed other policies that seem to be clearly aimed at voters who are somewhat more likely to vote Republican that Democrat.

In addition to the purge, Scott has also established a new policy that prevents early voting on the Sunday before election day. While one might wonder how this would address voter fraud, it is an established fact that African-American voters turn out to vote early after the Sunday church services. As such, it seems reasonable to believe that this policy is aimed directly at lowering the African-American turnout. Given that African-Americans tend to support Obama and vote Democrat, it certainly makes sense to consider that the intent of this policy is voter suppression.

It might be replied that this early Sunday voting must be prevented so as to reduce voter fraud. This is, obviously enough, and absurd reply. It would be rather odd to claim that early Sunday voting is the venue of choice for voter fraud.

A more plausible reply is that this policy would not prevent African-Americans from voting-after all, they can still vote. They just could not vote when many of them have been accustomed to vote. While this would, no doubt, have a negative impact on voter turnout this would presumably be a matter of choice-after all, the voters could simply vote on another day.

The obvious counter to this is that there is no acceptable justification for eliminating early Sunday voting. After all, it would have no impact on fraud and the sole plausible explanation for the policy is to reduce African-American turnout.  In fact, it has a certain Jim Crow feel to it.  As such, this policy should not be tolerated.

A third matter of concern is that Scott also decided to impose a policy under which voter registration organizations that failed to turn in the registaration forms within 48 hours would be subject to stiff fines. While 48 hours might seem to be a reasonable amount of time, the policy caused the League of Women Voters to suspend their voter drives. When this policy was stopped by a federal injunction, they resumed their voter drive.  Without such drives, new voter registration would be reduced (some estimate by 20%).

The justification for this policy is, of course, that it supposedly will reduce voter fraud. However, it is not clear that it would have any such effect.  After all, if the fraud occurs at the potential voter’s end (that is, the form is completed fraudulently), then the time limit will have no effect on this. If the fraud is being conducted by the voter registration group, presumably they would have no qualms about faking the dates on the forms as well, thus rendering the 48 hour limit pointless.  Presumably this policy would prevent any fraudulent activity that would require over 48 hours to complete-but it is not at all clear what this might be.

There is also the obvious concern that the 48 hour policy is a solution in search of a problem. After all, groups such as the League of Women Voters do not appear to be hotbeds of fraud. Rather, they have performed important community service by encouraging and assisting citizens in regards to this basic right.

Given that in the last presidential election newly registered voters tended to vote more for Obama than McCain it might be suspected that this policy was aimed at suppressing these new voters. If so, this policy is certainly wrong.

It might, of course, be the case that Scott was actually only concerned about eliminating voter fraud and simply ended up handling matters in an inept way that created the appearance of a concerted and systematic effort at voter suppression. If so, his actions could be attributed to ignorance and incompetence rather than to being motivated by malice. However, either option is rather bad.

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Voter Purging in Florida

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 8, 2012
Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott

Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks to the 2000 presidential election, Florida became the butt of many electoral jokes. However, what is happening in Florida now is no laughing matter.

Governor Rick Scott recently ordered that all alleged non-citizens be purged from the Florida voting lists. While there seems to be no actual evidence of significant voter fraud, up to 182,000 people have been identified as possible non-citizens. 3,000 of these were recently sent letters that demanded proof of citizenship. As might be imagined, I disagree with the actions of Governor Scott.

I do agree that only citizens should be allowed to vote, however I am rather concerned that the methods used to attempt to achieve this goal to not disenfranchise citizens. I am also concerned that the methods used do not discourage or intimidate legitimate voters. The current approach seems to violate both of these reasonable concerns.

First, the list used to determine who is an alleged non-citizen is not accurate. In fact, “many voters identified by the state as suspected non-citizens are legal immigrants.” One rather unfortunate example is the case of Bill Internicola, a decorated war hero who has been legally voting for years. While this is but one example, it  and other cases do certainly raise questions about the accuracy of the list.

Obviously enough, the lists used to purge people from the voting lists should be accurate. Naturally, perfect accuracy is not possible, but the current list seems to be woefully inaccurate.

It could be replied that the inaccuracy is not a big deal. After all, the suspected non-citizens get a letter threatening removal from the polls if they cannot provide proof of citizenship within 30 days and informing them that voting when illegible is a felony.

One counter to this is that it is a matter of concern. After all, those who receive such a letter and can legally vote will need to go through the inconvenience of proving that they are eligible to vote and that seem unfair-especially when the list is known to be rather inaccurate. A second counter is that such letters can deter legitimate voters by confusing them or intimidating them into not voting.

It might be replied that these are but small inconveniences and that these purges are needed to address a serious problem regarding voter fraud. For example, it has been claimed that theDemocrats  are intentionally allowing illegal immigrants to vote in the hopes of getting Obama re-elected in 2012. As such, the fact that some citizens might be unjustly disenfranchised is a small price to pay in order to ensure that fraudulent voting does not occur.

There are two obvious counters to this. First, actual investigations of voter fraud have shown that while it does occur, its occurrence rate is minuscule. As such, it seems unwarranted to employ severe measures to address what amounts to a non-problem. Second, going with the spirit of  the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” it seems preferable to tolerate a microscopic amount of voter fraud rather than harassing a significant number of citizens and wrongly disenfranchising some.

In a counter to the claim that the Democrats are encouraging illegals to vote, the Democrats claim that the purge is aimed primarily at Latino and minority voters-voters who are likely to support Obama. Given that voter fraud is minute and the list being used is inaccurate, this claim does have some credence.

To preempt a likely attack on me, I believe that the voter rolls should be accurate and that people should not be permitted to vote illegally. However, this must be done in a way that ensures a high degree of accuracy and that does not inconvenience legitimate voters unduly.

Naturally, if voter fraud was widespread and damaging the democratic process, I would support more severe measures to address such a crime wave. However, the current approach to the alleged voter fraud is unjust and seems primarily calculated to disenfranchise and discourage those who are more likely to vote for Democrats. As an American citizen, I am opposed to what appears to be a concerted attack on voting rights and thus an attack on the very core of democracy.

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Suppressing Voters

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2012
Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin

Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the 2012 election coming up, it is only a matter of time before we start seeing the ads encouraging people to vote. Given that voting is an essential part of a proper democracy, this sort of encouragement is quite reasonable and even laudable. What is far less laudable are the attempts to suppress voters.

As might be imagined, politicians will not come out and state that they are attempting to suppress voters via legislation. Rather, they present these attempts under the guise of preventing voter fraud. The main problem with this justification is that these are solutions in search of  a problem. That is, voter fraud is simply not a significant problem. To present two examples, the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State revealed a fraud rate of 0.0009% and the Ohio election that same year had a fraud rate of 0.00004%. As such, an individual voter is more likely to be struck by lightning while going to vote than s/he is to commit voter fraud. While people do present anecdotes and alleged evidence of fraud, these generally turn out to be mistaken.

Naturally, if countering even this microscopic problem could be done with no cost or inconvenience, then it would be worth doing. However, this is not the case. Rather, the attempts to “prevent” this extremely unlikely voter fraud impose costs and inconvenience on the voters far out of proportion to the significance of the problem. Even worse, these “anti-fraud” measures actually seem calculated to suppress people who tend to historically vote for Democrats, such as the poor and students. As such, it is hardly a shock that these laws have been presented by Republicans. While it might be the case that they are acting from good intentions, the fact that the problem they are addressing barely even exists and the fact that those most impacted by the methods are those who tend to vote for Democrats gives rational grounds for suspicions regarding the motivation behind said laws. If, in fact, these laws are aimed at suppressing voters, they are wicked laws because they strike at a fundamental right of citizens, namely that of being a participating citizen. As such, these laws certainly seem to be immoral. While it might be claimed that my view is unfounded, due consideration of the facts should reveal the plausibility of my view.

Under the rule of Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin passed the Voter Photo ID law which requires citizens to show an official photo ID (such as a driver’s license) in order to be able to vote. Some other Republican dominated states have passed similar laws. On the face of it, this might seem like no big deal. After all, most people already have such IDs and those who do not can simply get them. In fact, Wisconsin offers voters the necessary ID for free. However, there are some points worth considering. First, some DMV offices have been closed or have had their hours changed. This makes it harder for people to get the needed IDs. Second, there is the challenge in getting the documentation needed to get the ID. For example, if a resident’s utility bills are included in the rental fee, they will not have that proof of residence. There is also the matter of the certified birth certificate. Most people do not have these and they cost $20. While most people will see $2o as no big deal, this can be a problem fro people who are very poor and there is also the hassle of getting the document. Adding to the hassle is that women voters will sometimes need to buy copies of their marriage license or divorce papers to prove their identity so they can vote.

It might be replied that this is still no big deal. After all, the worst case estimate seems to be that about 5 million voters will have a tougher time voting in 2012 and, of course, people need to go through all that documentation hell to get a driver’s license (I went through it myself-fortunately I had the foresight and the money to get my passport before the laws went into effect). While it is surely tempting to some to dismiss this as not a problem, it certainly seems to be a problem for a country that purports to be a democracy and one that is supposed to value voting.

One point worth considering is that voter turnout is already rather low, with less than 2/3 of eligible voters turning out for presidential elections. Adding in extra obstacles to voting will no doubt lower this turnout, which would be contrary to the values of a democracy. If we believe that voting is important, then we should be focusing our efforts on improving participation rather than impeding it under the deceitful guise of eliminating almost non-existent voting fraud.

Once again, if voter fraud was a serious problem, I would support steps to prevent it from occurring. Of course, what is going on now can be seen as a type of voter fraud: one in which certain Republicans are using fraud to try to keep American citizens away from the voting booths. This is, of course, an attack on the core values of a democracy, yet is being pushed by the self-proclaimed champions of America.

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