Jeff Fleischer on electability, voter suppression, electronic voting, and more

by Ashley Kuehl, executive editor

To celebrate the March release of the Zest Books YA nonfiction title Votes of Confidence, 2nd Edition: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections, I asked author and journalist Jeff Fleischer to explain some terms and trends we’re seeing in the news. Votes of Confidence gives young readers a clear, nonpartisan overview of how the American election system works, with plenty of real-world examples and a healthy dose of historical context. Every reader will learn something about American elections from this book.

We’re hearing a lot about “electability” these days. First, do you think this is a new phenomenon? Are some candidates more affected by the electability debate than others? And how do you think electability has been playing out in the past few years in our election cycles?

It’s not a new phenomenon. Back before primaries were important, when the parties picked the nominees at conventions without much input from voters, choosing a nominee was always partly about who could appeal to enough voters to win the general election.

What’s newer is the notion of primary voters talking about “electability” as one of their reasons for supporting a candidate who might not otherwise be their first choice. That’s often attributed to a couple of landslide elections. In 1964, the Republican convention chose the more extreme Barry Goldwater instead of the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller, and Goldwater won only six states in a blowout loss to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. In 1972, the first election in which rank-and-file voters selected the candidate through primaries, Democratic voters chose George McGovern, who was considered extremely liberal, and he lost forty-nine states to incumbent President Richard Nixon. Those elections are both cited a lot when people focus on electability.

Ever since then, it’s been a common talking point for campaigns to use against one another. The argument is usually framed as voting for a more moderate candidate who might appeal to non-party members. Other times, primary campaigns from all parts of the political spectrum use early polling to try proving one candidate will do better in November than another. This year, various campaigns have made contrasting electability arguments based on these different approaches.

The problem with focusing too much on electability is the voter is basically trying to guess what they think other voters will support. Of course, whether someone is electable usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people like a candidate, but don’t vote for them, they don’t win, which “proves” their lack of electability. The best way to support the person you actually want to win is just to vote for them.

Your chapter on voting discusses how to register and vote, as well as some historical and recent voter suppression tactics. Are you seeing anything new this cycle that we should be keeping an eye out for?

Most of the tactics aren’t new, but are classic examples of voter suppression. And they’re openly discriminatory, usually aimed at minority and young voters.

Texas, for example, closed a number of polling places in minority districts right before Super Tuesday. In Florida, there are already attempts to block restoring the voting rights of felons who already served their sentence, even though the state’s voters passed a referendum in 2018 to restore those votes. Just so far this year, several states have introduced laws to limit the kinds of ID voters can use for verification (including restrictions on university IDs, which obviously hits young voters more than others). Georgia has kicked more than 300,000 registered voters off the rolls since late 2019, after already wrongly purging hundreds of thousands of voters before its 2018 race for governor. A similar effort in Wisconsin to kick tens of thousands of voters off the rolls is currently being litigated, and voter suppression there was a big factor in 2016.

This kind of voter suppression is blatantly wrong. But sadly, there are still many examples of people trying to stop people from voting instead of trying to earn their votes.

One thing that is new is how the Republican Party has been canceling its primaries and caucuses in several states, which is disenfranchising GOP voters. That happened in Nevada and South Carolina — two of the first states to vote — plus Arizona, Kansas, Alaska, Virginia, Hawaii, etc.

It’s important to point out that this is not normal. Incumbent presidents often face primary challenges. Sometimes it’s a competitive race, like President Gerald Ford running against future President Ronald Reagan in 1976, or President Jimmy Carter running against Senator Ted Kennedy in 1980. The Democrats held a full primary schedule in 2012 even though President Barack Obama was probably going to sweep them without a serious opponent (and did). The Republicans canceled a few state primaries in 2004, when President George W. Bush was running without any real opposition, and received plenty of criticism for doing so.

By the time the GOP made the decision in 2019 to start canceling primaries, three former elected officials (former Governors William Weld and Mark Sanford and former US Representative Joe Walsh; Sanford and Walsh have since dropped out) had already announced runs against Donald Trump, and more were publicly considering a run. So this was the party trying to make sure its voters don’t have a choice other than Trump, and trying to stop other, potentially stronger candidates from getting into the race. Even if they support Trump, Republican voters should be angry at the party for taking that choice away from them; it should be the voters’ call. 

As you note in this book, news is traveling pretty fast these days, much faster than during elections hundreds of years ago. What other big changes to American elections are coming about as a result of modern technology?

Obviously, the spread of information (especially misinformation and propaganda) is one of the biggest impacts of technology on elections. Another troubling technological change is the number of states and municipalities opting for electronic voting. That’s not a bad idea in and of itself, but any electronic voting should require a paper receipt for recounts and verification. And any technology should be thoroughly tested and secure before it’s deployed.

We already know that voting machines are vulnerable. At the annual DefCon conference, “white hat” hackers have tried to get into various voting machines to identify their security flaws with the hope that they’ll be fixed. The hacking’s been effective, but election officials haven’t always addressed the problems the hackers found. Also, we know Russian operatives tried to hack voting systems, and had some success. It’s likely that other operators were trying the same thing. Having paper verification should be mandatory, in case systems go down, get hacked, or just glitch.

In this year’s Iowa caucuses, the Democratic Party used an app that hadn’t been tested correctly to tally votes, which caused all sorts of problems, including a long delay before knowing the outcome and partial results driving news coverage. That was another good example of not-ready technology causing problems.

Who or what are some of your favorite political news sources and why?

A lot of my favorite political news sources aren’t specifically political sources, but quality journalism endeavors that also cover politics. I tend to read wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters, newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, international papers like the Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald, and public broadcasting like NPR, PBS, and the BBC. (There’s a much longer list in the book.)  I usually avoid cable news, though CNN is clearly the best of the three cable outlets, and its website is better than its on-air component, especially for international news. I tend to watch things like debates and speeches uninterrupted online rather than just see clips (I should mention C-SPAN here as a great resource). Like a lot of people, I also watch political comedy and read a fair amount of analysis from different perspectives, but those are more for entertainment than as primary sources.

As far as advice, I’d tell people not to just read a headline or social media repost of a story; read the actual story, as it will give you a lot more context. Pay attention to the source on stories you see on social media. If it’s the Associated Press or New York Times, it’s probably worth clicking. Not so much if it’s Breitbart or The Palmer Report or some other disreputable blog. And pay attention to whether a piece being shared is news or opinion; not that you shouldn’t read opinion pieces, but you should know that’s what you’re reading. Generally, read a variety. And if something seems fishy, verify it before believing it (and especially before sharing it).

If you could give one piece of government- or voting-related advice to young adult readers, what would it be?

It’s tempting to focus on the presidential election, but your voice is just as (or even more) important in elections for the Senate, House, state government, and local government. And in the primaries for those offices. Youth turnout is a lot lower in non-presidential years, especially when compared to older voters, and that has long-term impacts.

Editor’s Note – Download a free teaching guide for Votes of Confidence, 2nd Edition here.

More posts by Ashley.

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