A Flathead Valley, Montana, based independent journal of observation, analysis, and opinion.

29 January 2007

Does switching to a mail ballot system boost turnout?

Vote by mail advocates claim that it does — in an oped piece in the New York Times, The Voting Booth at the Kitchen Table, published on 21 August 2001, the secretaries of state Bill Bradbury of Oregon and Sam Reed of Washington argued that “..vote-by-mail dramatically increases turnout in national elections during the off-Presidential years when voters’ interest tends to drop.”

That assertion is questionable, to put it kindly. Before taking a closer look at it, however, it’s necessary to decide which statistic — there are several — to use to measure turnout. Bradbury and Reed chose the percentage of registered voters who voted, but that statistic is best suited to election administration and get-out-the-vote efforts. A better statistic for measuring turnout is the percentage of the Voting Eligible Population that voted. VEP is the U.S. Census Bureau’s voting age (age 18 and older) population adjusted for not eligible to vote groups such as foreign nationals and disqualified felons. Academic researchers measure turnout using VEP — and so should legislators and public officials when considering changes in elections policy.

Using VEP data supplied by Dr. Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project at George Mason University, I looked at turnout rates for Oregon and Montana for elections from 1980 through 2006, summarizing my finding in the two graphs below.

Table 1. General Election Turnout, Oregon & Montana (PDF)

Turnout 1980-2006, Oregon and Montana

Discussion, Table 1. The turnout rates for both states are quite similar. Sometimes Oregon's turnout is a percentage point or two higher. Sometimes that honor goes to Montana. The differences are so slight, however, that they could be the result of any number of factors, among them local contests of great importance and interest.

Table 2. Ranges and Norms (PDF)

Turnout ranges and means

Discussion, Table 2. Oregon shows a bit more variation than Montana, but the distributions as displayed by the box plots are similar. Please note that the Y axis uses different limits than the Y axis for Table 1.

John Fortier of the Brookings-American Enterprise Institute joint Elections Reform Project published (October, 2006) a fascinating monograph, Absentee and Early Voting, in which he summarized academic findings on turnout and mail and absentee voting. He found that:

Montana already uses mail ballot for some local elections, in particular those spring school board and levy elections that always produce shamefully low turnouts, so going to a mail ballot for the general election is not likely to have an effect on turnout for school elections. There would be a dramatic upturn in turnout, of course, if the school elections were moved to the general election ballot.

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25 January 2007

County officials behind effort to end Election Day as we know it

Much of the push for voting by mail in Montana comes from the Montana Association of Counties (MACo). At its annual conference meeting in Bozeman, on 27 September 2006, MACo passed Resolution 2006-11, which has this punch line:

It is the intent of the Montana Association of Counties to seek authority for local governments to conduct all primary, special and general elections entirely by mail, amending Title 13-19-104.

According to a story in the 17 December 2006 Helena Independent Record, closing polling places is MACo’s top legislative priority for 2007.

MACo’s principal motivation is financial. It’s members think voting by mail will save money. (In the excerpts below, from the IR's story, the headings are mine.)

Dubious assertions

Murray and county Clerk and Recorder Paulette DeHart said county officials believe the proposal — which would give counties the option of holding elections through the mail or at traditional polling places — would save money and increase voter turnout.

* * * * *

Voters would have 28 days to return postage-paid ballots to election officials, Murray said. Similar laws have been enacted in Oregon and Washington, DeHart said.

The Montana Clerk and Recorders Association is leading the effort for change with MACo’s full support, Murray said.

[Lewis and Clark] County recently spent $19,000 to upgrade polling places to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and new voting machines for disabled people, supplied by the secretary of state, are counties’ responsibility to maintain and replace — DeHart said Lewis and Clark County will spend about $35,000 next year for that maintenance.

DeHart said she expects the county always will keep those machines at her office for disabled people, but said taxpayers will save thousands if commissioners exercise an option to close polling places and send ballots out through the mail.

Election judges growing older and more scarce

Another issue is peoplepower. DeHart said national statistics show the average election judge is 71, and it’s increasingly difficult to find people willing to commit to long hours with low pay.

Convenience touted

She thinks mail ballots are the “wave of the future” — people will be willing to vote from their kitchen tables instead of waiting in line at polling stations, she said.

“We are a generation of convenience, and our children are even more so,” DeHart said.

Fraud? Not to worry

Some have raised concerns that mail ballots could increase the risk of election fraud, Murray said, but DeHart said she’s got faith in the county’s signature-verification process.

Murray said the measure would create a new wrinkle for politicians trying to appeal to voters who would have the option of voting four weeks before election day.

That wrinkle is the same wrinkle the Montana’s reprehensible “no excuses” absentee ballot system introduces into the election. It’s the functional equivalent of letting jurors decide a case before the trial is over. Why that doesn’t seem to concern Murray, DeHart, and their colleagues both troubles and puzzles me.

Equally mystifying is the MACo resolution’s initial whereas, which states in part:

…The law recognizes that sound public policy concerning the conduct of elections often requires the balancing of various elements of the public interest that are sometimes in conflict. Among these factors are the public’s interest in fair and accurate elections, the election of those who will govern or represent and cost-effective administration of all functions of government, including the conduct of elections; and…

First, is “the public’s interest in a fair and accurate election” a clumsy way of saying “the public has a right to fair and accurate elections?” I certainly hope so. Second, does MACo think that the “election of those who will govern” is in conflict with “the public’s interest in fair and accurate elections?” If so, it’s time to call for the fraud squad. If not, it’s high time to fire the person who drafted the resolution.

My interpretation of the first whereas is that MACo and Montana’s Clerk and Recorders are parsimonious souls who dread the cost and effort of elections. They approach elections not as a labor of love, but as ordeals that take all of the fun out of their jobs. Voting by mail promises to lower costs and make their jobs easier, so they support it.

Now, I fully agree that conducting an election as a one-day decision-making event is a lot of work and costs money. But nothing is as expensive as an election that is not fair and accurate, and therefore I think that the time, effort, and cost of conducting an election in the traditional manner is an investment that returns itself many times over.

If, as DeHart alleges, “it’s increasingly difficult to find people willing to commit to long hours with low pay,” and I have no reason to doubt her, there are solutions other than voting by mail. The easiest would be making Election Day a county and school holiday and staffing the polls with teachers and other county employees.

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22 January 2007

Missoula legislator wants vote by mail system in Montana

Rep. Diane SandsWant to avoid standing by your neighbor as you wait to vote? Rep. Diane Sands (D-Missoula) is riding to your rescue. Sometime soon, probably later this week, the text of LC1503, Sands’ “County option for mail ballot elections,” (update, 23 January; the title now is “Require specified elections be conducted by mail”) will be released and a bill number assigned. Right now, the drafters are still putting her ideas into standard legislative language.

But we already know what she wants. Sands spent a year in Oregon, which has a mail ballot system, and liked voting in the sanctity of her kitchen instead of in the hurly-burly of a polling place. According to a story, Election reflux — Sands thinks it’s time for mail ballots, in the 4 December 2006 Missoulian:

When she received her first Oregon ballot in the mail that included some 30 or so ballot measures Sands found it particularly helpful to have time to sit down and really think about what or who she was voting for or against.

“(I spent) an entire afternoon going through all of the issues and taking several hours to vote that ballot,” she recalled, noting that the four-page Missoula County ballot this time around solidified her memory of that Oregon voting experience.

I simply study the sample ballot and the issues before going to my polling place, so I’m not impressed by that argument.

Nor am I impressed by her argument that voting by mail increases voter turnout:

Sands said Oregon now has voter participation topping 80 percent on average. While it’s still not 100 percent it’s a far cry higher than what Montana and many other states normally achieve.

That voter participation figure is the percentage of registered voters who cast votes, not the much more meaningful statistic of voting age residents who cast votes. Oregon, like Montana, does not publish that statistic (Washington, which also has a vote by mail ballot system, does), probably because the percentage of voting age residents who cast votes is much lower than the percentage of registered voters who cast votes.

Curtis Gans, at the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, has published several reports on turnout. According to Gans, in the general election of 2002, the percentage of eligible voters (see the excerpts below) casting votes was 48.02 in Montana, 50.53 in Oregon, and 40.96 in Washington. The difference between Montana and Oregon could be due to local factors other than voting systems.

Eligible Voters v. Registered Voters

Turnout is NOT the percentage of those registered who voted. There are three basic reasons for this: a. Using registration as a denominator does not account for the whole of the electorate, including those who are not registered. Thus, it gives a false picture of true citizen engagement. b. Changes in registration law can dramatically affect the figures. If the nation adopts, as it did, a registration law that provides for national mail registration, registration at motor vehicle bureaus and at social service agencies, registration will go up but turnout of those registered will decline artificially by a greater amount than it does when using the entire eligible electorate as a denominator. c. Registration figures are subject to the fluctuations of election administration. If a state conducts a thorough purge of its registration lists close to election, its registration figures will be lower and thus its percentage of registered voting will be higher. But if registration lists are not so purged, as they are not in many states, the figures for registration will be higher and the turnout based on these inflated registration figures will be lower. Consider how distorted a turnout percentage using registration as a base would be in a state such as Alaska, which because of lack of regular list cleaning and potential flaws with the Census Bureau’s estimates of the state’s eligible population, registration figures are regularly in excess of 100 percent of the eligible vote.

* * * * *

The Eligible Vote – The Denominator for Determining Turnout: The eligible vote in this report is the number of people residing in the United States who are 18 years of age or over minus the number of non-citizens residing in the United States who are 18 years of age and over as of April 1. It is an interpolated figure from the 2000 Census, based on the methodology outlined below.

For years, CSAE and every other reputable organization working in this field had used the Census Bureau’s estimates of November age-eligible population (VAP) to determine turnout. That figure came under legitimate criticism because it included non-citizens; convicted felons (in most states) and, in some states, ex-felons; and people deemed mentally incompetent in institutions who could not vote and did not include citizens residing in other countries, citizens naturalized during the election year and the citizen portion of the Census’ undercount, all of whom could vote but were not part of the VAP estimate. The Census Bureau has ceased providing its VAP estimates.

For years also, Dr. Walter Dean Burnham, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, has been producing a denominator of age-eligible citizens (age-eligible population minus age-eligible non-citizens, interpolated by state and nation from and between decennial Censuses). After some study of this matter, CSAE has come to believe that this denominator is the best for determining turnout…

There are other compelling arguments against both voting by mail and unrestricted absentee voting, and I'll present these after Sands' bill is introduced.

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19 January 2007

Leadfoot Barkus wants faster traffic on Highway 93

When I wrote Question 4 of yesterday’s Highway 93 Safety Quiz, which asked how one would handle news that the legislature was considering a bill to raise the speed limit on the highway, I invented the character of Rep. Harry “Road Hog” Hayes to carry the bill.

Road Hog Hayes, it turns out, was unnecessary. Greg Barkus, a Republican state senator from Kalispell, has introduced SB 302, which, if passed, will raise the speed limit on Highway 93 to 70 mph for all vehicles (the current speed limit is 65 for automobiles, 60 for large trucks). Barkus is moving this bill, which has been referred to the Highways and Transportation Committee, very quietly in the hope that it will sneak through without opposition.

Those who follow such issues will remember that former state senator Arnie Mohl agreed to the 65 mph speed limit on Highway 93 as the price for securing support from Western Montana for a 70 mph speed limit on all other highways except interstate highways. It was a politically astute move, and an unintended minor victory for safety — but it was hated by the lead-footed highway bullies who still long for the days when Montana did not have a numerical day time speed limit.

Now Barkus is trying to undo Mohl’s deal. If he succeeds, Highway 93 will grow more dangerous.

When a hearing is set, I’ll let you know.

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18 January 2007

Highway 93 safety quiz

Ready for a Highway 93 safety quiz?

Question 1. As you drive north from Kalispell, the fog thickens. Visibility decreases to less than 100 feet. Quick, now, what should you do?

(a) turn on your headlights, slow down, and exercise great caution;

(b) hold your course and speed; or

(c) turn off your headlights to conserve energy and speed up to reduce your time in the danger zone.

If “a” or “b” was your answer, you’re one of those new to the Flathead wussies who cause rear end collisions. But if “c” was your answer, you’re a genuine Flatheader, a person of courage who owns a pickup or SUV with dirty headlights and who really does drive Highway 93.

Question 2. You’re making good time heading for Whitefish (or Kalispell), but the 4-lane ends in a few hundred feet and slower vehicles ahead could beat you to the 2-lane. How do you avoid a 4-mile stretch of below the speed limit agony?

(a) slow down, merge safely, and remind yourself that it’s better to be alive at 55 mph than dead from speeding;

(b) merge safely, then ride the tails of the slowpokes to nudge them to a speed with which you are comfortable; or

(c) hit the horn, put the pedal to the metal, and win the race to the 2-lane.

If “a” was your answer, either you’re using too much Valium or you took what you learned in drivers education too seriously. If “b” was your answer, you’re learning to drive in Montana. If you answered “c,” you drive 93 every day and lobby the legislature to cut the highway patrol’s budget.

Question 3. You’re approaching a construction zone, where you will encounter maddeningly low speed limits and delays longer than eternity. How best to stay sane until you escape to free and open pavement?

(a) observe the speed limit, obey the flagmen, stay alert, and remind yourself that today’s construction is the price of tomorrow’s 4-lane speedways;

(b) light another cigarette, break out your cell phone, take a surrepitious swig from that silver flask you keep stashed behind the dash, drum your fingers on the steering wheel, and make plans to take a different route tomorrow; or

(c) place a rotating yellow flasher on your roof, don a phard hat and polycarbonate glasses, screw a look of urgency and importance on your face, and drive through the zone at what you consider a reasonable speed.

If you answered “a,” you need to register for assertiveness training. If “b” was your answer, you believe that Montana has an open bottle law, not an open flask law. If you answered “c,” you may have a future as a private investigator for HP.

Question 4. Your morning newspaper reports that Rep. Harry “Road Hog” Hayes just introduced a bill to increase Highway 93’s speed limit to 70 mph. What do you do?

(a) send email opposing the increase to your local legislators;

(b) drive to Helena at breakneck speed to testify in favor of the legislation;

(c) nothing.

If you answered “a,” you used the speed of light to transmit a message that you prefer the pace of a snail (a safe snail, to be sure). If you answered “b,” I’m glad I don’t have to worry about you for a day. If you answered “c,” you are secure in the native born Montanan’s knowledge that speed limits are floors, not ceilings, and that your four-by-four has more than enough horsepower to tool along above 70 mph.

Scoring your quiz. Now, let’s see how well you did. Add up your answers, giving yourself five points for each “a,” three points for each “b,” and one point for each “c.” If you scored 8 or less, it’s time to sell your vehicle, turn in your drivers license, and start riding the bus. If you scored 10-14, there’s a reasonable probability that you can be rehabilitated. If you scored 16-20, you’re almost as good a driver as I am.

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16 January 2007

A problem solved — but how did the author know?

The sectarian lynching otherwise known as the hanging of Saddam Hussein may also go down in history as the occasion on which a technology was improved. According to the Wikipedia, Hussein’s ingenious executioners solved a problem that has bedeviled hangmen for centuries: getting the noose to tighten smoothly and freely.

One of the problems with the hangman’s knot is that it is quite frictionous and does not necessarily tighten quickly enough to press the arteries close on neck and to break the neck of the condemned, leading into asphyxia and slow strangulation. Therefore the rope is usually lubricated to allow it run freely. This problem was finally solved in Iraq on hanging Saddam Hussein; a small piece of plastic piping was inserted inside the coilng, (sic) allowing the rope to run and noose tighten freely. The result was immediate breaking of the neck of the condemned. Wikipedia, hangman’s knot.

Ingenious indeed. Now, how did the author of the entry in the Wikipedia know how the Iraqi hangmen solved the problem?

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15 January 2007

Update, Kalispell merit diploma

Kalispell’s school board retreated from the abyss of class warfare last week, rejecting a proposal to adopt a two tier diploma system. Instead of a merit diploma for super students, and a standard diploma for the rest, the high school will award a single class of diplomas, but affix a “merit distinction” to the diplomas of those who meet the criteria proposed for the dead for now merit diploma.

This is a political compromise of dubious educational value. This passage from the InterLake’s report on the meeting gets to the heart of the matter:

Board member Bill Sutton was concerned that the Flathead merit distinction has no meaning outside the valley; colleges look at transcripts, not diplomas, and recognize AP and IB classes.

But the distinction will be something students can list on college applications, [Callie] Langohr [designee for principal of Glacier High School] said. It will help them compete for the few positions available to incoming students.

“It’s so competitive out there,” she said. “Our kids are in a tough, tough place.”

No college admissions officer will be fooled by the merit distinction. Sutton is right about that.

But Langohr is on to something. The merit distinction can be cited as a claim to superiority in other venues. Graduates can list it on job applications, resumes, the social register, and tout it during campaigns for political office. It has no practical academic value, but it does have some snob value, at least until other school districts retaliate by equipping their graduates with tarted-up diplomas, thereby devaluing the honor.

Here’s a question for the trustees: is a person who wants to enhance the snob value of a high school diploma a good choice to serve as principal of Glacier High School?

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9 January 2007

A merit diploma for the best, a second class diploma for the rest

With that proposal, presented at the December meeting of Kalispell’s board of education, a subset of the trustees, reportedly aided and abetted by some within the educational community, touched off an explosive debate over the wisdom of creating certified elites, and a two class system of students, in Kalispell’s high schools.

The proposal was not well received and was not approved, but it will be back and thus merits some discussion in advance of its return. There are broader issues as well, and I’ll turn to some of them after providing a brief description of the proposal. First, however, a disclosure: neither I nor any member of my family has a child in the school system, or a child who will be in the school system. Neither I, nor any member of my family, works for the school system or the government. Moreover, my high school diploma is from a midwestern school, as is my college degree. My interest in the issue is purely one of public policy.

Now, to the merit diploma.

In essence, merit diplomas would be awarded, according to the Daily InterLake, to:

…students who pass six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes during high school and compile at least 24 credits would earn a merit diploma.

In subsequent years, students who focus their electives in a specific career area and complete senior projects, internships and a career-field communications course could add a career-field distinction designation to either of those diplomas. The committee had not finished its work on that point before presenting its recommendation at a school board work session last week.

In some regards, this might be called an extra credit diploma. Only a few percent of the students, college bound academic high achievers, would receive a merit diploma. All other graduates, including some also bound for college, would receive a standard diploma. The system is similar to one imposed on California’s school system by that state’s legislature, and may well be modeled on it.

In the jargon of the educational community, this is called a “two tier”diploma system. It’s origins are in an educational philosophy that early in a student’s career, he should, based on his ability as measured by tests and evidenced by grades, be placed either into a vocational career path, such as automobile mechanics, or an academic path leading to college and perhaps a career in a profession. Some states (map) have two tier systems, a few three, a few four, but the most common system, especially in the west and midwest, is a single diploma system. I regard the multi-tier system as an European artifact that has no place in our society.

Several trustees defended the proposal by likening it to the recognition of academic honors, but that comparison is misleading. Academic honors can be conferred within a single diploma system, as can recognition for accomplishments in other areas such as music, debate, and sports.

Trustee Mark Lalum put his finger on the real issue:

“When you start creating a tiered diploma, I can’t support that,” trustee Mark Lalum told his fellow trustees.

“It creates a hierarchy. It tells the band student” — and others who pursue interests outside the courses recognized by the tiered diploma — “ ‘Your diploma is not as good.’ It’s against my philosophy,” Lalum said.

The egalitarian ideal

What does — should — a high school diploma certify? To me, it should certify that a student has successfully completed a course of study that equips him with the knowledge and reasoning skills he needs to be a successful, productive adult, and does not foreclose the option of higher education. It should be neither a credential for asserting that he is better than his fellow students, nor a certificate of proof that only the lowest common denominator has been met. Above all, it should not be a passport to special privileges; that’s not the American way.

A conflict of interest?

So what generated the push for the merit diploma? According to the InterLake, “the committee’s work was prompted by the school board’s October decision to shift from a six-period to a seven-period class day, beginning next fall.” Depending on to whom you talk, the committee either ran amok, exceeding its charge and authority, or took the initiative and was maligned for going above and beyond the call of duty. Two things are clear, however: it neither asked for permission, nor begged for forgiveness. It was a case study in hubris, not humility.

I’ll accept a good idea no matter where it comes from, although I prefer that it comes out of a thoughtful, sanctioned process instead of a rump caucus. So whether the committee ran amok or not is an internal matter, not a question of policy

But the members need to explain how the merit diploma would affect their children or family. There are persistant reports that the beneficaries of the special diplomas would include the children of the committee members. We don’t know because trustees are not required to disclose that conflict of interest, but raising the bar for everyone, thus obviating any justification for a merit diploma, was not the option that the committee members chose. They need to explain that.

A need for disclosure

There is no requirement that a trustee disclose how his vote on a matter, at either the committee or board level, would affect his child or the child of a close member of his family. Not having such a sunshine requirement is bad public policy. Most people who serve as trustees do so because they’re deeply concerned about the quality of the education that their children are receiving. Ideally, trustees look at the greater good, representing the community, but as a practical matter, they care about their children and therefore also serve as advocates for their children. Indeed, we would question their fitness as parents if they did not. Nevertheless, this inherent conflict of interest is potentially destructive — and therefore, the legislature should require its disclosure.

There’s also a good case for electing trustees — call them independent trustees, or even gadflys — who are not employees of the school system, or have relatives who are, and who do not have children in the system. I think boards of education have too many members — educators (retired as well as working), parents, school system staff — who have a personal interest in the system. This leads not only to conflicts of interest but to an unhealthy isolation from the community at large. Boards prefer colleagues who work collegially, but boards benefit immensely from members who bring to the meetings an outsider’s perspective and the ability and willingness to point out when the majority’s relationship with reality and the community becomes too distant.

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2 January 2007

Flathead from Space & North Fork Coal archives added

I’m beginning the new year by adding two archives to Flathead Memo, my Flathead from Space page of images of the Flathead taken from the space shuttles and the space station, and my North Fork Coal pages and maps, some of which date from 1998. The latter pages remain useful, but for more up to date information, I recommend the websites of the Flathead Coalition, the North Fork Preservation Association, the Flathead Basin Commission, and the Flathead Lakers.

Later this week I’ll offer my personal thoughts on the 30-year battle to prevent coal mines from being dug in the Canadian headwaters of the North Fork Flathead.

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