The Big Hypothesis motivating this blog is that we can better understand several important institutions by seeing them as regulated contests in which participants who are playing to win will also benefit the public. And sometimes we might get a better sense of what exactly is wrong about some obviously dodgy activity or tactic by looking at the institution in question through this lens.
Case in point: what is wrong with politicians in power changing the rules for elections? And in particular, what is wrong with them changing the rules in ways that will reliably increase their chance of winning the next electoral contest?
Obviously, this strikes us as unfair. But why, especially when this electoral-rule-changing follows all of the legal procedures? Now this blog is non-partisan. We are interested in how best to think about institutional design and ethics across a broad range of institutions. But in America we are gearing up for a long series of electoral contests, and as it turns out, most of the accusations about “tampering” with electoral rules are being directed at Republican lawmakers. My only interest here is to see whether we get a better handle on these debates by focusing on the deliberately adversarial nature of constitutional democratic politics. A couple of weeks ago the editorial page of the New York Times was once again thundering about wide-spread Republican tampering with electoral laws. Their analysis in “The Myth of Voter Fraud” allows us to highlight two rather different rationales for rules in deliberately adversarial institutions. The thunder begins with the following claim (including a link to a recent study):
It has been a record year for new legislation designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote — 19 laws and two executive actions in 14 states dominated by Republicans, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice. As a result, more than five million eligible voters will have a harder time participating in the 2012 election.
Very broadly speaking (– this is a crude working-hypothesis), the various rules that regulate adversarial institutions are justified in two ways: some of them are justified because of the way they “shape” the contest, or motivate the contestants, so that it will produce better overall results in the long run; and some of the rules are justified for reasons that, in some sense, are prior to, or beyond, the contest — say, because they protect fundamental rights. And some rules may be justified on both grounds.
We worry whenever the “players” who are supposed to be regulated by a set of rules also get to set the rules. We shouldn’t be surprised that they will try to justify the rule-changes by appealing to the latter type of principles: the ones that apply “intrinsically” — in this case the proposed rules are supposed to minimize voter fraud, something that would obviously be wrong in any electoral system. But we have to be suspicious if the players changing the rules for such “intrinsic” reasons will also systematically benefit from those changes. The burden of proof for demonstrating that the intrinsic principles really do apply in the particular case must be a heavy one indeed.
The Times is unswayed in these recent cases:
There is almost no voting fraud in America. And none of the lawmakers who claim there is have ever been able to document any but the most isolated cases. The only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes.
Plenty of jurisdictions (countries, federal subunits, etc) simply don’t allow the players to write the rules for their own electoral contests: they establish non-partisan commissions for electoral law and redistricting. I’d welcome a recommendation for a good comparative study of such things.