Home » Uncategorized » Gentle Criticism of the Day: Has Everybody Come Down With a Case of the Stupids?

Gentle Criticism of the Day: Has Everybody Come Down With a Case of the Stupids?

Hmm. That may have come across as a little harsh. There are three topics in particular that seem to have distracted a number of otherwise-intelligent political correspondents. To say that they have all gotten a case of the stupids is not particularly fair, but what can I say? I’m feeling a little crabby lately.

1. The Ivory Tower Comes To Perry’s Defense! Or With Enemies Like These, Who Needs Friends?

Okay, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall as Governor Perry’s criminal defense attorneys negotiated with various parties to put together their bipartisan dream team of constitutional law scholars who jointly wrote to decry Perry’s criminal indictment for misuse of his office.

The secret ingredient for assembling this coalition was convincing a bunch of law professors that the Travis County District Attorney’s Office was indicting Perry because he had exercised his authority to veto legislation; that effort was likely aided by the flurry of national news stories all reporting that Perry was being indicted because he had vetoed a budget item.

“Mon dieu!” the professors all said, absolutely aghast that anyone would be so, … so, … barbaric as to actually criminalize a gubernatorial veto. “That’s terrible! What an abuse of the criminal process, to dare to criminalize the very instruments of government! To inform a sitting Governor that the mere act of vetoing legislation is illegal! Outrage! Despair! Ennui!”

Sigh. If these towering geniuses of constitutional law had actually bothered to do the class readings, they would have discovered that the criminal charges against Perry are not based on the fact that he vetoed state funds for the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

The criminal charges against Perry are based on the fact that Perry used threats in an effort to intimidate the Travis County D.A. and suborn a number of criminal investigations, including pending investigations of Perry’s own government. That the threats were actually followed up by a veto is more or less irrelevant to the criminal act itself. In fact, if Perry had just quietly vetoed the funding without having engaged in snaky bits of quid-pro-quo threats, no charges would have been filed.

See the difference?

It’s subtle, I know, but I’m confident that with the help of careful tutoring and some time hitting the books, even the slowest constitutional law expert can be guided to the correct answer.

But really, people. Don’t raise your hand in class if you haven’t bothered to brief the case.

2. Dark Money Isn’t That Bad, Right? Right?

Sometimes, statistical analysis can be used to justify genuinely odd theories. In particular, Alan Abramowitz, a clever, clever analyst for “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” blog at the Center for Politics website did a regression analysis of the correlation between the disparity in dark money for U.S. Senate races with the outcome of those races in support of the argument that campaign spending didn’t “buy” the election for the Republicans. Except …, the study’s author forget that when you add two apples and three oranges, the answer is not five apples.

The gist of the argument is that differential spending levels, in and of themselves, could only be seen to predict or track election outcomes with a correlation of .23 (i.e., if one were predicting outcomes solely based on campaign spending differentials, one would get the right answer only one time out of five), while incumbency of a Democratic Party candidate was an accurate predictor with a correlation of .76 (i.e., if one were predicting outcomes solely based on whether an election involved a Democratic incumbent running against a non-incumbent challenger, one would get the right answer nearly three times out of four).

Can you spot the error?

The error is one of false equivalency, and of a failure to control for hidden correlations between dark money spending and the encouragement of conservative challengers to Democratic incumbents. In other words, the clever, clever study has proceeded on the assumption that the victories against Democratic Party incumbent candidates were not in any way the result of dark money donations that roused otherwise restive conservative challengers to those Democratic Party candidates.

What was the mistake? The error lay in failing to identify a control sample wherein Democratic Party candidates lost their elections when no dark money whatsoever had influenced competition for the office. Instead, we could just as validly conclude from this superficial analysis that a tidal wave of conservative dark money swept all liberals before it.

The study ultimately only confirms a tautology, that all other things being equal, Democratic Party incumbents got absolutely shellacked in the November 2014 election. Well, duh.

The only interesting result of the study is that it suggests that conservative dark money might have been spent more efficiently than liberal dark money (i.e., that in terms of absolute spending levels, conservative candidates with smaller war chests than their liberal opponents did comparatively better than one would predict, based solely on the proportionate difference in funding between any two candidates, and that the size of the war chests wasn’t what determined victory).

What I want to know is the answer to a simpler question. In particular races, did the existence of a dark money source (of any amount) sway the outcome of the election? But that’s a harder question to answer, because the person creating such a study actually has to go out and discover not only how much money a campaign raised, but also the specific tactical uses to which that money was put.

Therefore, I don’t think my assertion that the election was bought and paid for by conservative dark money has been refuted, at least not by this study.

3. Aw, Picture I.D. Laws Ain’t That Bad, Right?

I’m a little troubled that Professor Hasen seems to have been involuntarily enlisted by the right in support of this argument. Among certain writers who are striving to appear thoughtful and even-handed about the 2014 election, there is a trend to argue that (1) restrictive new voting laws energized turnout among minorities, and that (2) ultimately, one cannot show that the historically poor turnout in the 2014 election had anything to do with voter I.D. laws, so therefore it must be the case that the new laws aren’t as bad as everyone has made them out to be.

Note that Professor Hasen wasn’t saying that voters weren’t suppressed, but merely that Wendy Weiser’s off-the-cuff remarks about the North Carolina races in 2014 didn’t offer clear evidence of voter suppression. His call for greater rigor in statistical analysis isn’t the same thing as an endorsement of the view that voter I.D. laws are hunky-dory.

Such displays of intellectual gymnastics are truly thrilling. To leap and bend and twist in such a way as to refute all meaning, and then wait for the thunderous applause of a grateful nation. “Oh thank you! We thought these new laws were not only bad, but damaging. You’ve shown us that they are merely bad, but that they haven’t caused any harm. What were we worried about?”

Sigh. Again. Sigh.

Okay, here’s some intellectual subtlety to wrap your noggin around, geniuses. A bad voter I.D. law (such as the bad voter I.D. law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011) can simultaneously do two things in an election. It can (1) terrify politically aware and savvy minority voters and drive those voters to the polls, (2) actually function to effectively bar eligible voters from casting a valid vote, and (3) suppress turnout by discouraging voters from participating in the election.

Um. How can someone simultaneously acknowledge that turnout in the 2014 election was the lowest in any national election in living memory, while also asserting that the effects of voter suppression (including new voter I.D. laws) had no measurable effect on voter participation? C’mon, people.

I’ll grant you that the “science” of “political science” is a bit grandiose, given the inability to test certain causal hypotheses about historical events. But isn’t it just a tiny bit possible that improvements in relative minority turnout (i.e., that among a shrunken number of November 2014 voters, a relatively larger percentage of those voters were minority voters than in prior elections) could go hand in hand with successful large-scale vote suppressions that curbed turnout?

Until someone comes up with an argument based on actual scholarship, rather than just a “gut feeling” that the Brennan Center’s own studies of the suppressive effects of voting restrictions on the poor, the elderly, the young, and minority voters are somehow flawed, I’ll trust in the argument that laws designed to make it harder to vote can actually accomplish their intended goal, and make it harder to vote. I’ll further assume that because it was harder to vote in the November 2014 election, fewer people cast votes in the November 2014 election than would otherwise have done so in the absence of laws making it harder to vote.

I mean, people, please. Use your god-given brains for a second.

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2 Comments

  1. […] Texas Election Law Blog gently criticizes three less-than-stellar arguments from the week’s […]

  2. […] Texas Election Law Blog gently criticizes three less-than-stellar arguments from the week’s […]

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