The Old Bait And Switch

West Virginia voters have just been made the victims of a fraud — we were sold one thing by Jim Justice and he has now delivered another. It did not take him long to reveal the fraud, suggesting that it was intended from the beginning.  In Huntington with Donald Trump on August 3, 2017, Justice announced that he was switching parties from Democrat to Republican. Recall that this is a man who switched party affiliations from Republican to Democrat in February 2015 so he could run for Governor on the Democrat ticket. He was elected in November 2016, a mere nine months before switching back to Republican again. In front of a cheering crowd who had booed him just moments before, Justice explained that “I just can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor.” This bait and switch had far less to do with Justice’s desire to be an effective governor than with his lack of character.

It’s easy to dispose of Justice’s claim that being a Democrat governor limited his effectiveness during the recent budget fiasco. When his proposed budgets were first introduced to the Legislature they involved generating new revenues and preserving the spending necessary to retain the state’s social fabric. He got wide support for this from the Democrats but little support from the Republicans. As the debate wore on, however, Justice abandoned the progressive aspects of his budget and began caucusing with the far-right Senate Republicans in their effort to cut income taxes.

These income tax cuts were not only opposed by Democrats, but also by House Republicans. Since Republicans control the House of Delegates, it was Justice’s inability to deal with them that ultimately frustrated him. But actually being a registered Republican would not have improved his effectiveness.  He had already taken up with the right fringe in the Senate and begun to act like a Republican. Instead it was his poor policy choices, frequent course reversals and shallowness that caused his ineffectiveness. He has poor political instincts and is simply not a leader.

There is no question, however, that Justice’s switch of party affiliation has damaged the already lame Democrat party. That party has been able to elect only one Democrat out of five Congressional representatives and now all in the state’s elected leadership are Republican. Sen. Joe Manchin, who is reputed to have recruited Justice to switch parties to Democrat and run for governor, looks like a fool. So does current State Democrat Party Chair Belinda Biafore, who claims that Justice duped her, not to mention former Democrat Party Chair Nick Casey, who is Justice’s Chief of Staff. Calls for a shake-up of Democrat party leadership have already begun. Former West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler, a respected Democrat who lost to Justice in the 2016 primary, said “It’s time for a change at the top . . . They need some new leadership at the Democrat chair.”

Nobody looks good in this. The Republicans have their own problems welcoming back to their party a governor they were happy to lampoon just days ago. The Republican Governor’s Association said in November 2015 that Justice was “a selfish businessman who consistently put his interests before anyone else’s, especially taxpayers.” The West Virginia Republican Party said in July 2017 that “Jim Justice embarrasses our state every single day.” These statements were catalogued by the Democratic Governor’s Association, who are now firing their own invective at Justice when formerly they embraced him. The hypocrisy on both sides of this sad event makes you want to take a shower.

Not all politicians lack character.  One thinks immediately of Sen. John McCain on the Republican side and former President Obama on the Democrat side. But if character is the trait of steadfastness to principle when the going gets tough, Jim Justice has failed us miserably. It is hard even to see what he hopes to gain from this switch of party affiliations. Perhaps he expects larger campaign contributions from Republicans than he raked in from the Democrats whom he deceived in 2016. Maybe he wants to bask in the Mar-A-Lago sun. One thing is certain, though. The question of what he has to gain is the right question to ask.

Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity

One thing that rankles President Donald Trump is that he was not the most popular candidate in the 2016 Presidential election. In fact, he lost the popular vote to Hilary Clinton by approximately 3,000,000 votes, 2.1% of the total votes cast for President. Trump’s explanation is that Clinton’s vote total was the result of widespread voter fraud. In a tweet on November 27, 2016, Trump asserted “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Although he has produced no evidence of fraudulent voting, Trump has continued to make this claim and threatened an investigation. The truth is that voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

On May 11, 2017, the President issued Executive Order 13799, which created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The ostensible purpose of this Commission is to study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections. Vice President Pence chairs the Commission and has appointed as Vice Chair Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. An early supporter of President Trump, Kobach has been a key architect of anti-immigrant policies and voter suppression rules around the country. In one of his first Commission duties, Kobach issued a letter to all state Secretaries of State requesting the production of sensitive voter registration and voting history information.

The letter requested only publicly available information and suggested that the responsive information could be submitted electronically. Here is the specific information requested:

The publicly available voter roll data for [your state], including, if publicly available under the laws of your state, the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.

As of this writing 44 states have declined to provide some or all the information requested, often because some of it is deemed unavailable to the public or is not collected by the state. But some states such as California and Virginia refuse to cooperate in any way. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner has not yet responded.

It may be unnecessary for West Virginia to decide how to respond. On July 3, 2017, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed an Emergency Motion for Temporary Restraining Order in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia alleging that the Commission had begun collecting and aggregating sensitive personal information of voters without any procedures in place to protect voter privacy or the security of the state voter data. In particular, EPIC alleged that the Commission failed to comply with the Privacy Impact Assessment requirements of the federal E-Government Act of 2002. A hearing on the motion will be held on Friday, July 7.

Assuming that collection of state voter information is not enjoined, what response can we expect from the West Virginia Secretary of State? State law already permits the Secretary of State to sell state voter lists and data files containing some of the information the Commission has requested. WV Code 3-2-30. However, this information may not contain the voter’s telephone number, email address, Social Security number or driver’s license number. In addition, no lists or voter data files may be used for commercial or charitable solicitations, sold or reproduced for resale. The Secretary of State is authorized to share data files across state lines with state or local election officials, but there is no express authority to share data with federal officials.

The Commission’s request for voter data is troubling for a number of reasons. The data will reside in the White House with no legal restriction on how it can be used. It is not clear how the Commission will use it in the first place, because each state collects and stores its information in unique ways making state to state comparisons difficult. There is no structure for ensuring that the information, aggregated for the first time on a national basis, would be secure from hackers. And as the plaintiffs in the EPIC lawsuit argued,

It does not matter that a particular state might disclose its voter data to some other requester under some other circumstances: this requester — the Commission — is barred by law from gathering this data without sufficient constitutional and statutory privacy safeguards.

The safest thing for Secretary of State Warner to do is to respond with questions of his own about how the information will be used and how it will be safeguarded. The Commission has no subpoena power, and Warner should not rush to comply with some artificial deadline before he is certain that our voter information will be safe and properly used. Second, he should not disclose the last four digits of a West Virginia voter’s Social Security number under any circumstances. That is prohibited by state law. Third, if he decides to provide the information he should sell it to the Commission on the same terms as he would sell it to research groups and political parties. State law does not authorize him to release the data for free to anyone. And no doubt there are provisions in the form contract of sale used by the Secretary of State’s office when this type of data is sold that bind the purchaser not to use the data for commercial purposes.

But here is an even better strategy. Responding to requests for voter information from federal officials is not among the statutorily enumerated powers of the Secretary of State. WV Code 3-1A-6. This suggests that the decision whether to provide the information belongs to the Governor, who holds the state’s executive power. Governor Justice should simply direct Warner to decline the request to provide voter information, or respond in that fashion himself. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe took this approach, saying “I have no intention of honoring this request. Virginia conducts fair, honest, and democratic elections, and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Virginia. . . At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump’s alternative election facts, and at worst is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression.”

Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t

After the 2016 election results we are struggling to understand what hit us. One common view is that Democrats have become tone deaf to the working class, advancing policies that cater to other key constituencies of the party but failing to do much about bettering the economic lives of those in the middle and lower middle. Why, we ask, did Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania forsake Hillary Clinton in favor of a bombastic outsider who made huge promises, but apparently hasn’t a clue how to govern to deliver on them?

Several thoughtful books can help us find the answer. The best of these is Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t, a sociological study written by Jennifer Sherman in 2009. Sherman sought out a small town in rural America where industry and jobs had been decimated and widespread poverty made the normal social pecking order collapse. This should sound familiar in West Virginia. She wanted to learn what factors provided status and capital in a community where economic distinctions were no longer possible. What she learned is an eye-opener.

Sherman’s town is located in the rural Northern California forest area. She gave it the fictitious name Golden Valley. Golden Valley’s economy was wrecked by the environmental decision to protect the spotted owl at the expense of local industry. All logging activity and most sawmilling in the area ceased and many layoffs occurred. Golden Valley residents viewed this economic devastation as the handiwork of bi-coastal liberals who cared nothing about working class people. But they also recognized that Rebublicans cater to big corporate interests and were not concerned about their plight either.

In Golden Valley nearly everyone was poor. In the absence of economic wealth and distinctions, moral capital was the source of self-esteem and community standing. Those who had moral capital were often able to exchange it for economic capital in the form of job opportunities and assistance from other community members in time of need.

There were two main sources of moral capital. The first was connection to work. Work ethics were highly valued. Those who had a steady full time job were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by those with part time jobs, those on unemployment compensation, and those with a work-related disability. Receiving state or federal benefits because of unemployment or disability was not a negative because these benefits had a connection to past work. Even those who worked to support their families by hunting, cutting wood for fuel or gardening had moral capital from these activities.

Those who did not work, but instead received government welfare assistance, had negative moral capital and lost standing in the community. This effect was felt powerfully by those in that category. Many drove forty miles to the nearest town to use food stamps for fear that they would be recognized by their neighbors. At the bottom were those who were addicted to drugs or abused alcohol, and those who survived through illegal activity. These people were shunned as having no work ethic and were effectively shut out of job opportunities.

The second source of moral capital was “family values.” A person high on the family values scale was usually in a stable marriage, and was a parent or foster parent. But as in most poor communities the traditional family didn’t exist. Children were often raised by grandparents, distant relatives or complete strangers. An individual or couple could gain moral capital if they provided a safe home for any child in the community who needed one. Parents in Golden Valley did not behave as middle class parents frequently do by planning for and becoming involved in the child’s future. Instead parents gained self-esteem and community standing merely by sheltering children in an environment free from abuse that allowed them to develop in their own manner and direction.

What can those interested in regaining the votes of working class people learn from all this?

  • Working class people value hard work, so policies that are designed to provide jobs will be supported by working class voters;
  • working class people are not lazy, do not want public assistance, and will mostly avoid using even well-intentioned benefits that do not somehow recognize recipients as having been connected to the working economy;
  • working class people believe that their moral values of hard work and family are the true American values. Republican rhetoric about morality and values resonates with them;
  • guns, particularly those associated with hunting and providing food, are a strong tradition in rural America and are sometimes essential for family survival; and
  • working class people will reward politicians and political parties that speak to them in a sympathetic, understanding manner and couple this with policies that attempt to deal with the hardships in their lives.

Working class people do not vote against their “interests” when they vote for the Republican agenda, even if that agenda worsens their economic plight. In fact, it is condescending to suggest this. Instead they vote in line with their values. It’s just that Republicans have been more successful addressing those values. But there is nothing inevitable about working class support for the Republican agenda. A progressive agenda that seeks to level the economic playing field through tax reform and job creation can reverse this trend.