Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Michigan Democratic Caucuses: It's the Duration, Stupid

I will vote over the Internet in today's Michigan Democratic Caucuses. The US and international media are agog over the fact that people can vote in Michigan over the Internet. They're missing a huge point that will influence the results in this race -- the DURATION of the caucus polling. Voting in the Michigan Caucuses began when Dean was the front runner.

My Internet voting instructions arrived over 4 weeks ago. I could've voted immediately. But after a millisecond's thought, I held off, knowing that circumstances could change.

You wouldn't bet on horses in the Preakness before they run the Kentucky Derby, would you? Of course not! A favorite horse might lose badly -- or become injured and retire from racing.

That's exactly what happened here. Dean was heavily favored before the Iowa caucuses, when Michigan's polling had already begun. Thousands of people cast votes as soon as they received their instructions. By Friday, 50,000 had voted online or by mail -- a large fraction of the total likely vote.

The earlier you voted in the caucus, the more likely you were to vote for Dean -- or Gephardt, Mosely Brown, Clark, Lieberman, or Edwards. (I suspect that Sharpton or Kucinich supporters are less susceptible to the bandwagon effect.) Whoever you voted for, you can't take your vote back.

If everyone votes on the same day, all voters have the same information. A Dean voter on January 15 might have chosen differently on February 7, given the very different political landscape those few weeks later. But because this is not a winner-take-all election, those early votes for Dean still matter.

Dean has pulled all his resources from Michigan as he struggles to win Wisconsin. But Dean has Michigan votes in the bag that were cast weeks ago, and that may well translate into Dean delegates. If today you're a Kerry supporter you may say "What the heck, why vote? Kerry's sewed up the race." So you don't bother voting, Dean's proportion goes up, and you just helped Dean win more delegates.

Now that Kerry is overwhelmingly favored, turnout for in-person voting is expected to plummet. Think of the paradox: because Kerry is annointed as prohibitive favorite, his proportion of votes will go down!

If you voted early for Gephardt, who dropped out of the race, you probably feel you wasted your vote. If you voted early for Dean, you may feel you wasted your vote -- but maybe you didn't. It's the Ebay Effect -- don't bid until 15 minutes before the auction closes.

Now imagine what happens if every state allowed 30 days of voting in primaries and caucuses. Imagine if you could change your vote up until the closing of the polls. Each state would have its own electoral stock market.

The bottom line: concerns about Internet vote fraud in the Michigan Democratic Caucuses are de minimis compared to the effects of allowing balloting for weeks.

Other points the press is fuzzy on:

-- It's not "Internet caucuses;" people can also vote by mail or in person.

-- It's not a secret ballot. If there were allegations of fraud, the party could conduct an audit. Each vote is tagged with the voter's ID.

-- This is NOT a state-run election. It's a party caucus. The State of Michigan has nothing at all to do with this; this is entirely a production of the Michigan Democratic Party. A party caucus is a VERY different thing than a primary or a general election. This caucuses will draw only 150,000 voters in a state with 7 million registered voters. Dawson Bell presciently observed in the Detroit Free Press last December that turnout would be relatively low unless the Michigan race was hotly contested:

-- Here's the party's procedures: