Friday, October 10, 2008

To Vote or Not To Vote: What If You Are Not Allowed?

On October 8th the New York Times ran an article that was the result of an investigation it had done regarding voter registration rolls (The article can be found by clicking on the title of this post). The article states that "tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law, according to a review of state records and Social Security data by The New York Times." The states in question are Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, and North Carolina and are all states in which Obama's performance is due in large part to the large advantage his campaign has had in registration new voters for this election. 

Before people start crying that partisan politics, cheating state election officials, and political operatives are to blame, it is important to note that the New York Times found that "the actions do not seem to be coordinated by one party or the the other, nor do they appear to be the result of election officials intentionally breaking rules, but are apparently the result of mistakes in the handling of the registrations and voter files as the the states tried to comply with a 2002 federal law, indented to overhaul the way elections are run." The 2002 federal law in question is the ironically named Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was designed to provide federal money to help states modernize their voting systems. However, buried in the bill was a relatively innocuous and highly vague subsection that required that if states received Federal money under this program they would also have to ensure that their registered voter rolls were accurate and modern and that states create statewide voter rolls. Previously, these voter lists were kept on a local level. It is the combining these local rolls up to the state level that is probably causing all the problems since it is a huge process and removes the local factor of knowing who lives in the area, who has similar names, etc.

In the past, state voter resignation rolls are notoriously out of date. In fact the organizations that have the most up to date valid voter registration lists are of course the two major parties. They use these lists to contact likely voters of their party to make sure they have ways to get to the polls, know who the party would like them to vote for, etc. and since they use these lists on a regular basis to figure out their parties position in a state, they regularly update them when they find people have moved out of the state, died, or been convicted of a felony. While only the state election rolls are valid in determining who can and cannot vote on election day, state election officials have none of the incentives that parties do to make sure that their voter registration rolls are up to date. As a result, in the past, registered voter rolls would regularly have voters listed who had moved out of the state or died. 

In 2002, the republicans were on a mission to end what they conceived as nation wide voting fraud. As a result, between 2002-2005 we saw lots of new voter identification laws crop up in many republican controlled states and as we have already said at the Federal level we had the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The key aspect of all of this is that with a few exceptions states are free to conduct elections and register voters how ever they want. So, when the conditions of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 are put into play, they have a slightly different effect in each state, based on how that states existing election law is set up. In some states it may require updating of lists in others that have electronic record keeping it may require no action. The net result is that since the Help America Vote Act of 2002 is so vague as to what exactly states have to do to their voter registration rolls to qualify for Federal aid, that many states have taken actions that are not required and in fact my actual violate existing federal election law by incorrectly disenfranchising  qualified voters. 

I will refer you to the New York Times article for details about what states are exactly doing that is illegal, but the key result is that the New York Times found that for every voter that has been added in some of these swing states, two have been removed from the rolls. Now, it is important to point out that such a ratio could reflect how out of date the rolls are and that there really are a large number of people who have left or have died and thus shouldn't be on the rolls. However, considering the advantage Obama has had in registering new voters, even if the purging was random of qualified voters, its effect is likely not to be since there are now so many newly registered democrats. The actions taken by these states has to be of concern and warrants an investigation by the FEC and state officials to ensure that all qualified voters are able to vote on Nov 4th. 

Beyond this election, even though I am a strong supporter of federalism as an important check on Federal power, we must consider nationalizing our election systems so that we have a common set of rules and procedures for how we vote in this nation. As long as we have 50 different systems with little oversight and transparency the risk for disenfranchising legal voters is too high. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debate Part II: Rumble in Tennessee

Last night featured the second debate between Obama and McCain and although there has been a recent sharpening of attacks in the last few days between these candidates, last night was quite civil. Overall, we saw a repeating of a lot of the same positions and attacks that we saw in the first debate. However, there were several things that I think are important to note as we evaluate this debate. 

First, McCain clearly was doing well early on. The first two questions he hit out of the park. Even though his idea of having the government buy and renegotiate mortgages is already in the current bailout plan that passed last week, his presentation of it was well timed and delivered well. Also, it is interesting that if you had asked an alien to pick which party McCain was from based on those comments, I don't think you would have heard republican in response. This is important because it implies to win, McCain has to, in essence, have anti-republican proposals. 

However, that is where the good performance stopped for McCain. For the rest of the debate Obama consistently provided better answers to questions and rebuttals to attacks. The basic problem McCain faces is that even though he is not your typical republican, he is still tied to that party which, rightly or wrongly, is at the moment being held responsible for causing the current recession. 

Beyond what they said, McCain did three things during last night's debate that struck me as odd, and will probably be what most people will remember from this debate. First, when McCain was speaking Obama sat on his chair and appeared to be listening intently to what McCain had to say. He showed him respect and courtesy. But when Obama was speaking, McCain was walking around and was almost never facing Obama when he was speaking. His moving around was constantly picked up by the cameras. While I do not think McCain intended to be seen, his moving around appeared disrespectful. The tacit feeling that came across was that Obama was someone who listened to ideas, even ones he doesn't agree with, while McCain is only interested in giving his opinion and not what others have to say. I don't think this is actually true, but their nonspeaking actions seemed to communicate this last night.

Second, during Obama's follow up to McCain's attack of him on Afghanistan, McCain interrupted him to say "thanks" in response to a nice comment Obama was making about McCain, but this backfired in two ways. First, Obama was making a serious comment while McCain's interruption looked like he was looking for a laugh. His interruption made Obama look presidential since Obama ignored the interruption and continued in the same tone. Second, Obama was doing a very normal debate technique where you turn a complement into an attack. The result here was that McCain actually said "thanks" right as Obama was delivering the attack. So beyond the fact that McCain appeared rude for interrupting Obama, the timing of the events made it appear as if McCain was saying thanks and agreeing with Obama's attack. 

Third, during one of McCain's attacks on Obama he said that voters should just compare their records in deciding who to vote for. McCain said you have me or (and, then pointing at Obama) "that one". I am not sure what he was going for here, but that was about as close to a gaff as we we had last night. It was a very derisive attack that did not play well with voters in the room and probably not at home either. If you watch the playback of the debate when McCain makes that comment you seen some very uncomfortable shifting and body language by many of the voters in the town hall room. 

Overall, last night was a pretty clear victory for Obama in terms of both the information he spoke as well as how he carried himself throughout the debate. As a final example of how McCain misfired last night was after the debate. Typically at town hall debate candidates go around and talk to the uncommitted votes there, pose for pictures, etc. McCain did this for about 5 min and then left the room. Obama continued to chat with voters and pose for pictures. All of this was captured on TV before the commentators started their analysis. McCain yield a room of uncommitted voters to Obama and the public got to watch how they all responded to Obama, while McCain was no where to be found. This was the icing on the cake and spoke volumes regarding how the campaign is going.  

Friday, October 3, 2008

Why a Credit Market Bailout (Now a "Rescue") is Needed

Many Americans are furious at the prospect of spending nearly a trillion taxpayer dollars to help bailout the mistakes and greed of Wall Street firms and other financial institutions.  Their ire is justified, and I count myself as someone who is furious at the excess and greed that has taken place, but I also understand the necessity of assisting the credit markets. 

Years of minimal accountability allowed those on Wall Street to profit from risky investments, while a lack of regulation and clever financial schemes hid the true folly of this system.  Now this arrogance and greed has led to a meltdown that has consumed many Wall Street firms, some of which had existed for over a century.  A person’s first instinct is likely to be to let them suffer for the mess they created (read this article for a look at how this situation exposes a natural desire for retribution in humans) to teach them, and those in charge of such institutions in the future, a lesson. 

But this desire for retribution will likely not serve the average American very well if it blocks a bailout package (now its a "rescue" package).  There will be time for tackling the excess and greed on Wall Street and the financial industry, but at the moment their screw-ups have placed our entire economy in jeopardy.  Americans have only started to realize this in the wake of the failed first attempt to pass a bailout in the House of Representatives. 

While the securities backed by mortgages (sub-prime or not) seem like bad debt, most of them are not; it is just that the market cannot value them right now.  No investor wants to touch them and these financial institutions cannot unload them, and so they appear as giant anchors on balance sheets because under accounting rules, some sort of present value has to be assigned to them.  The problem is that when no one wants to touch them, their value has no where to go but down.  These institutions now either have trouble both giving loans and getting them, and this difficulty has spread into the rest of the credit market around the globe as everyone starts to tighten their lending practices and none of the mortgage backed securities can be offloaded quickly.   Additionally, companies need to get rid of the securities soon because their inability to get loans and the unwillingness of others to give them in the immediate future is at the core of this crisis. 

To be sure, this is completely unfair. The reckless Wall Street firms screws up, and yet they benefit because no American can afford to let them fail (this is moral hazard everyone keeps talking about).  Also, those with a mortgage who could otherwise afford to pay it and now can't because of a decline in the market, increased interest rates, or inability to get a loan/credit (due primarily because of the bad lending practices) do not have much to gain from this bailout. 

There is some tax relief for homeowners, but this is paltry.  However, relief for those with a mortgage is a dicey political issue that would likely not get passed by the current Congress.  It does look increasingly likely that Democrats will gain even greater control of Congress as well as the White House, and helping homeowners directly is a top priority on their agenda (Republicans too wish to help homeowners, but they continue to insist on more indirect market oriented methods of helping them so I am making an assumption that more immediate and direct assistance would be more forthcoming under a Democratic Congress and President). 

This deal seems to get worse and worse for average taxpayers, Wall Street gets a bailout, and if there is any help for the homeowners (some of which the lender should not have even lent to in the first place), it will not be until at least next year.  But the biggest concern that should be on every American’s mind is the failure of the credit market.  Why is the credit market so important? 

The credit market allows individuals to get loans for homes, education, cars, consumer goods and everything else they need to get by on a day-to-day basis.  Stories are starting to trickle in of people being denied a loan (credit), but whether this will continue is unknown; it does, however seem to indicate a probable consequence of a collapsing credit market.  But consumers are not the only ones who need credit. Businesses need credit to expand, buy inventory, or even just pay their employees.  Without credit, business will start to contract.  Local governments are also having trouble getting credit, which they need to keep state services going and pay employees.  It also makes it more difficult to finance the sale of state bonds, further contracting state coffers. 

The conundrum of an diversified and integrated financial system that touches every aspect of our economy (and the global economy as well) is that we are completely dependent on it continuing to maintain our own personal economic well being.  The Free Market does allow greater growth and efficiency, but not always and it will inevitably fail at some point without proper regulation.  The current failure is extraordinary, and because the financial system is integrated into all the other aspects of our economy (and Americans are extremely dependent on credit), it is bringing down the whole house of cards.

A bailout may not stave off a recession, which is another downside to this deal, but it may be necessary to avert an even greater economic disaster.  This deal is unfair for sure, and it is ironic that there is more political outrage and pushback over such a bailout when compared to issues such as going to war, but it is currently the only game in town for immediate aide (I wouldn't call it a fix, its more like putting a Band-Aid on a wound—hopefully the Band-Aid is big enough).  In the best-case scenario, the government can sit on the assets (which still have value, and once the market recovers will gain value again) and eventually make money on the bailout.  The worst-case scenario is that the bailout is not enough, or is too late to stop an economic disaster, and it won't matter if Congress forces Wall Street to pay for the losses the taxpayer absorbed because of their incompetence.  The choice is a chance at stopping a disaster or just letting it happen, hopefully Americans will recognize the need to do something, the government will make money, and Wall Street will be regulated enough to prevent the need for future bailouts.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

VPs: Bring it On

Tonight's VP debate was very interesting in many ways. I will admit to screaming a few times at the tv screen when ridiculous things were said and for those interested in the score: ridiculous things said by Biden two, ridiculous things said by Palin six. But taking the debate as a whole, there were three aspects that stand out to me and will probably be what most people and media remember from this debate. 

First, Palin was relatively good and much better than she has been in the media interviews. This was hands down the best she has done since her speech at the republican national convention. She, for the most part, was able to answer questions without going into long stories that led to nowhere and she spoke in simple terms. More importantly, she showed herself to be a Washington outsider, which is clearly how the McCain campaign wants her seen. 

Second, don't like the question? Its cool, just answer the question you made up in your head. At two points in the debate Palin either did not understand the question or misheard it because she provided speech that never approached an answer to the question posed. The first time was when the moderator asked her whether she believed there should ever be an instance in which the United States should use nuclear weapons. Rather than answer this question, Palin instead talked about how we should stop nuclear proliferation. I agree with her. Nuclear proliferation is an important issue and we should stop it, but the question was asking about when she thought the United States should use nuclear weapons. The goal of these types of questions is to try to establish how risk adverse a candidate is in foreign affairs. If you say never, then you are very risk adverse, if you say only if attacked by nuclear weapons, you are considered rational, and if you say always, you are nuts. Clearly, this is an oversimplification, but the basic idea is that your answer to this question is supposed to be a kind of bellwether to how you approach crises. Do you panic? Do you over-react? Do you under-react? Are you decisive? Do you Plan? etc. Palin completely avoided this softball question and missed another opportunity to show that she might actually be competent in some foreign affairs issues. 

The second question that Palin completely disregarded is the standard job interview question: What is your greatest weakness? Instead of saying that she might have a weakness, she instead talked about all her strengths. From someone who used to do a lot of job interviewing, when I have a job candidate not answer a direct question like that it immediately tells me one or both of the following about the person. One, this person has a real weakness that he doesn't want me to know or two this person is unable to analyze himself, which means that he will be very difficult to work with because he will believe he is always right. Either way, whenever I had a candidate not answer that question it usually ended the chance that person had of getting the job. Unlike Palin, Biden made sure he answered this question and I think it will payoff because beyond my own feelings about this question, most people get annoyed when people pretend they have no weaknesses. 

The third memorable aspect of the debate were two responses delivered by Biden. The first was his comparison of McCain's health care tax credit as the ultimate bridge to nowhere. It was such a well timed response that even the audience and the moderator could not help but laugh. I think it spoke volumes to what people think about that particular policy proposal by the McCain-Palin ticket. The second aspect was Biden's response on the kitchen table issues. His response here was incredible and possibly one of the best moments in recent debate history. After being accused of being out of touch by Palin in a very gimmicky and winking manner, Biden told a story about his family that was deep, sincere, emotional, intense and real. I don't think he actually cried, but he came across as really understanding what people are going through. This, I think more than anything else this is what will be remembered from this debate. He took her attack and made her look small and childish, while he displayed deep empathy for being in tough positions. 

Overall, I think the debate went slightly to Biden, but in the end nothing happened tonight that should shift voters. While this last note may be lost on most voters Palin's closing statement was probably the sign that the McCain-Palin ticket is in trouble. She attempted to present voters with a clear division of which ticket to choose in Novemeber. The key aspect of this type of tacit is that you never say which ticket you are discribing. The key is to have the voter associate everything postive you are saying with your ticket and everything negative with the opponents. The problem that she had though is all of the McCain-Palin ticket's ideas that resonate with voters are issues they borrowed from Obama. Thus, when she listed the choices, it sounded like she was saying you can vote for the change ticket (Obama-Biden) or more failed policies and half baked ideas (McCain-Palin). It could just be me, but her closing statment seemed to confirm to me, who is winning control of the messages of this campaign.