As Democrats Push Vote-By-Mail Measures, Local Governments Are Leading The Charge on Safe Voting

Originally published in The Intercept on April 20, 2020.
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ON TUESDAY NIGHT, jurisdictions in two pivotal swing states are set to approve new vote-by-mail measures to help ensure citizens can safely cast ballots amid the global coronavirus pandemic. The initiatives — which come in spite of the Republican-held state legislatures in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that have refused to cancel in-person voting — can serve as a road map for other progressive cities and counties looking to take quick action as the November election nears.

Ensuring  people don’t have to choose between their health and voting has become a top priority for leaders seeking to reduce the spread of Covid-19. From a political standpoint, Democrats also see the expansion of vote-by-mail as necessary to beat Donald Trump, where they believe higher voter turnout will redound to their benefit. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, along with Michigan, are key to that strategy, as those are the states that delivered the 2016 election to Trump. The president, too, seems to understand the potency of vote-by-mail, as he has recently been spreading lies about it, despite himself having voted absentee this past March and in the 2018 midterms.

“It is critical and time-sensitive that localities and states implement vote-by-mail in advance of upcoming elections and they must get adequate federal funds to do so,” said Sarah Johnson, director of Local Progress, a national network of progressive municipal elected officials.

In Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, nearly 19,000 people voted in-person in the state’s infamous April 7 primary, with some having to wait hours in line to do so, a situation that was all but guaranteed to contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Now, a winner of that election is leading the charge for safe voting in the city during primary elections in August, as well as the November general election.

Marina Dimitrijevic, a former county supervisor and the former state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, was elected as an alderman on Milwaukee’s Common Council. On Tuesday night, at the first meeting of the council’s new term, Dimitrijevic will be introducing legislation to mail absentee ballot applications to the city’s roughly 300,000 registered voters, along with a prepaid postage envelope to mail the applications back in. The legislation, which is already supported by 13 of Milwaukee’s 15 aldermen, also has the endorsement of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Tony Evers, whose efforts to postpone the April primary were blocked by the Republican legislature and the courts.

Dimitrijevic’s idea is modeled off a successful program deployed by two small and wealthier Milwaukee suburbs, Whitefish Bay and Bayside, which mailed absentee voter applications to all their registered voters ahead of the April 7 primary. According to state data, roughly 60 percent of Whitefish Bay voters cast absentee ballots for that election, more than any other city in the state.

While Milwaukee voters will have to pay for postage for their actual ballots, Dimitrijevic plans to push for an expansion of secure lockboxes around the city where voters could drop off ballots if they didn’t have stamps, a number of which were already in place for the April 7 election. (The bill gives city leaders 30 days to hash out details for the program.)

According to Dimitrijevic, the safe-voting measure will cost Milwaukee between $100,000 and $150,000 — primarily the cost of postage — which the aldermen and mayor hope federal stimulus money could help cover.

“This will protect the lives of the 300,000 registered voters in Milwaukee and undercuts the Republican assault on Wisconsin’s democracy,” Dimitrijevic, who started working on the bill within 24 hours of her April 13 victory, told The Intercept.

Priscilla Bort, a Wisconsin Working Families Party organizer, said she expects to see other localities follow suit throughout the state, pointing to Madison as one city that already is planning similar legislation. “We see this as a critical pathway to win in November,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, council members in Allegheny County, the second most populous county in the state, are also set to vote Tuesday night to send absentee ballot applications and prepaid postage to all registered voters.

The applications would be to vote in Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary on June 2. The legislation would require all mail-in ballot applications to be sent to registered voters by May 8, and would have a deadline to return them by May 26. Voters who return the applications would receive ballots in the mail along with prepaid postage.

The ordinance, drafted by Allegheny County Councilperson Bethany Hallam, has the support of Allegheny’s influential County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The council is composed of 12 Democrats and three Republicans, and the Democratic majority almost always passes measures that have Fitzgerald’s backing.

Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state legislature recently rejected a provision, proposed by a Democratic state representative from Philadelphia, to mail all registered voters absentee ballot applications. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by a 5-4 margin, and Trump won the state narrowly by 0.72 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has been mailing Pennsylvania Republican voters absentee ballot applications, and despite Trump’s denouncements, has been calling vote-by-mail “easy, convenient, and secure.”

While Hallam’s ordinance would only apply to the primary on June 2, she told The Intercept her hope is that it will eventually be extended to the general election, and that it would become  a permanent fixture for Allegheny County.

“I think it’s on us as elected officials to make it as easy as possible and I think this is something we need to do every single election,” she said.

There are roughly 894,000 registered voters in Allegheny County, and Hallam said about 360,000 voted in the 2016 primary. In terms of ballpark cost, she said they’re estimating bulk mail rates of 30-33 cents a person. With prepaid postage, she noted, the government only pays the cost if the application or ballot is actually sent back in.

THERE ARE SIGNS similar measures will expand across the United States. In Broward County, the second-most populous county in Florida, officials have also recently committed to sending vote-by-mail request forms with prepaid postage to registered voters who haven’t already asked for them. Like Wisconsin, Florida held its presidential primary in-person on March 17, over the objections of public health officials who urged state officials to postpone it; two poll workers in Broward County later tested positive for coronavirus. The Broward County absentee request forms would be for Florida’s August primary, which includes school board and judicial races, and the November presidential election. According to the Sun Sentinel, other Florida counties like Palm Beach and Miami-Dade are considering similar measures.

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, said his group is talking to leaders all over the country about expanding vote-by-mail initiatives. “From a national standpoint we’re attempting to ensure that Congress put aside at least $4 billion in a new stimulus package for a robust vote-from-home program,” he said. “But where we’re able to pull those levers like in Milwaukee, we will.”

The political pressure is so high that even in New Hampshire — a state that has both downplayed the risks of coronavirus and long fought efforts to make voting easier — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu recently announced that voters would be able to do mail-in voting for November’s election.

Last year Sununu vetoed a bill that would have allowed no-excuse absentee voting in New Hampshire, something permitted in two-thirds of all states. New Hampshire election officials have agreed to allow concerns about Covid-19 to qualify as a “disability” under the state’s authorized excuses this year. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire by a margin of just 0.4 percentage points.

Liberal Governor, Divided Government

This article appeared in the summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect.

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In February, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, first-term Democratic Governor Tom Wolf readied himself for his second budget address. These were not normal times for Pennsylvania politics: The state had been operating without a budget for eight months, an unprecedented crisis as the Republican-controlled General Assembly fought with the governor’s office over issues of taxation, spending, and pension reform. As the impasse dragged on, school districts and nonprofit organizations across the state were forced to borrow money, lay off employees, and reduce social services.

“My fellow Pennsylvanians: Our Commonwealth is in crisis. A crisis that threatens our future,” Wolf declared from the podium. “This crisis is not about politics at all. This is about math.”

Wolf went on to outline the dramatic consequences he foresaw if state legislators failed to pass a budget that included sufficient spending increases. Thousands of teachers and guidance counselors would lose their jobs, he said. Classroom sizes would grow, and tens of thousands of children would lose access to early childhood education. The state would lose nearly $200 million in services for Pennsylvania’s seniors, and $180 million for those with mental illness and learning disabilities. From slashed funds for child care to shuttered domestic-violence shelters, the negative outcomes went on and on.

“This is not a threat. This is not political posturing. This is simply what the math tells us will happen if this crisis is not resolved,” Wolf stressed. “I didn’t run for this office to be party to the corner-cutting and budget gimmickry that got us into this mess. We can’t afford to play political games.”

Wolf’s speech aside, the problem facing Pennsylvania is most certainly about politics—and particularly the challenges of democratic governance in an era of deepening party polarization. While Republicans and Democrats have long staked out different positions on issues of public policy, political scientists are finding that the parties are even further apart than they’ve been in at least 50 years; this polarization has extended to the general public, too, resulting in increasingly partisan communal institutions and news media.

The story of Tom Wolf is the story of how a progressive, liberal Democrat attempts to govern in such an era, at a time when split government means something quite different than it did even a decade ago. The challenges Wolf wrestles with in Harrisburg, with the state’s most conservative legislature in modern history, in one of the most ideologically divided states in the union, are growing increasingly common across the country. They also mirror the challenges President Barack Obama faces in Washington, D.C., as he navigates a Republican-controlled Congress whose leadership has shown unprecedented determination in obstructing Obama’s initiatives and any attempts to broker compromises.

Wolf’s dilemma, then, is both a product of polarized times, and intensely personal: How can he advance a progressive agenda given the political landscape he inherited? What tools are at his disposal? What blame, if any, does he shoulder for a failure to get things done?


IN 2014, WOLF WAS ELECTED
 governor with a margin large enough to claim a mandate. Not only was he the first person in four decades to defeat a sitting Pennsylvania governor, ousting Republican incumbent Tom Corbett, but he won by ten percentage points. And while the budget impasse has largely defined Wolf’s time in office—dragging on for nine months between July 2015 and March 2016—he also found ways to promote progressive policies amidst the stalemate.

The 67-year-old businessman from south-central Pennsylvania had never before held elected office. The way he emphasized “math” and deemphasized politics in his budget address reflected the way he often describes his vision and responsibilities—for better or for worse. On the campaign trail, Tom Wolf ran on a platform to restore cuts to education, and to do so by passing an extraction tax on natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Though angering many environmentalists and progressives, Wolf opted to embrace the booming fracking industry in his state.

Soon after taking office, Wolf expanded Medicaid, transitioning away from the complicated alternative system his Republican predecessor had implemented. Five hundred thousand beneficiaries were enrolled within his first year—in a far more streamlined and straightforward program than had existed before.

Pennsylvania is not a state that you would think of as being at the forefront of health-care issues, but now with Wolf, it is,” says Drew Altman, the president and CEO of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and a longtime friend of Wolf. “He stands out among governors when it comes to making health and health access top priorities.”

Wolf also signed a series of executive orders for political appointees and state workers, banning gifts to state officials and requiring that all state contracts with private-sector providers go through a bidding process. He declared a moratorium on the death penalty, granting temporary reprieves to 180 inmates on death row as a state task force formally reviews the policy. He also raised the minimum wage—mostly for state janitorial workers and part-time clerical staff—increasing their pay from $7.25 to $10.15 per hour. And in the wake of North Carolina’s passing a law that stripped rights from gay and transgender people, Wolf issued a pair of executive orders that expanded protections against discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He wanted “to show the world that Pennsylvania is a welcoming place for everyone.”

But as G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, points out, Wolf simply “can’t make change for 12 million Pennsylvanians on his own.” His executive actions carry symbolic power, no doubt, but in practice they yield only limited impact. “For really big change,” Madonna says, “Wolf needs the legislature.”

And that’s where he runs into problems.


SHORTLY AFTER ENTERING
 office, Wolf introduced his budget proposal, which called for more than $1 billion in new education spending, a 5 percent natural gas extraction tax, property tax relief, and an increase to the state’s sales and personal income tax.

While widely seen as “ambitious,” this type of budget proposal, Madonna says, was not actually that unusual. “Governors don’t just put out their first-year agenda, they really try to put out a four-year-agenda,” he explains. “They’re laying out what they’re really trying to do now, and that could change by the end of the first year—you might have new issues, you could have a recession in the middle of your term, any number of things. But what he did was not unusual.”

The Republicans didn’t bite. When the GOP-controlled General Assembly sent Wolf its $30.2 billion budget bill late last June, they included no new taxes, and none of Wolf’s other stated priorities. Wolf struck it down—the first time a Pennsylvania governor vetoed an entire budget in modern history.

What followed were months of debates between lawmakers and the governor’s office over reforming the state’s pension system, the future of the state’s liquor system, tax redistribution, and education spending. As the impasse dragged on, school districts were forced to borrow roughly $900 million, and nonprofits across the state had to scale back.

“People were completely stressed out, and impact on morale was severe,” says Anne Gingerich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations. “You had organizations with longtime staff that quit and went on to get other jobs because they couldn’t handle that instability.”

“Everyone has concerns about the state and health of our pension system—short- and long-term,” says Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Council member and strong public schools advocate. “But that’s not an excuse. … If it weren’t pensions, honestly, it would be something else. The legislature is evading a central responsibility, and they hold our kids hostage as they fail to deliver required dollars to schools.”

Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, he’s been criticized for being aloof, for not investing enough in interpersonal relationships with members of Congress. If Obama would just invite Republicans out to golf, to grab a beer, or to dine a few evenings at the White House, the thinking went, then maybe the toxic political atmosphere that seems to derail political compromise could change.

But a lack of schmoozing is certainly not Tom Wolf’s problem. From the very start of his time in office, he began hosting policy breakfasts and lunches with members of the legislature from both parties. He regularly brought people into his office, and dropped by theirs, unannounced, throughout the week.

“I’ve never seen a governor who did so much reaching out to all the members of the legislature,” says State Representative Dan Frankel, the Democratic Caucus chair in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

T.J. Rooney, the former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a former member of the Pennsylvania House, says that Wolf and Obama are similar in that they are both progressive intellectuals. “But Governor Wolf’s approach with the legislature—and I say this in an endearing way—Tom’s approach was much more aggressive than the president’s approach,” he says. “I mean, literally, he spent weeks upon his inauguration walking from office to office to rank-and-file legislators to introduce himself and get to know them.” While Rooney acknowledges these entreaties have not yet “paid off in a big way,” he thinks that, over time, such gestures are not lost and forgotten.

But Stephen Miskin, the spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, views Wolf’s outreach as “absolutely insincere engagement.” While he admits that Wolf has gone and met with Republican and Democratic legislators more than Miskin has ever seen since he started in state politics in 1984, he argues that the governor’s courteousness and kindness just does not make up for doing “everything he can to undermine” Republicans.

As the stalemate stretched on, some pundits criticized Wolf, saying he was too beholden to unions and other progressive constituencies that helped elect him to office. Wolf certainly was no fan of the GOP’s proposals for pension reform. But by November, Wolf made clear that he would sign a pension-reform bill that included a traditional defined benefit plan for future state and public school employees combined with a 401(k)-style plan. The compromise framework also included large increases in education funding and made headway on restoring prior cuts to social services. The Senate passed this framework budget deal in December.

But Republican House leaders did not even let the bill come up for a vote. Mike Turzai, the House speaker—the same man who said that voter-ID laws would “allow” Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in 2012—canceled sessions twice before Christmas, and sent everyone home.

“We have legislation waiting for us to vote on. Yet, the House speaker decided not to hold session,” State Representative Ed Gainey, a Democrat, told thePittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. “It’s bewildering to me, especially when the impasse is wreaking havoc on social services, and schools are considering keeping their doors closed after the holidays. This is the height of irresponsibility.”

The unions had signaled that they would back the Senate budget framework, despite its pension-reform provisions. “SEIU members supported the overall budget framework reached by the governor and legislative leaders last year … despite strong reservations about some aspects of it, because it included significant investments in education and other priorities that are vital for our state’s future,” says Neal Bisno, the president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

Turzai and his allies claimed they didn’t bring the budget up for a vote because it wasn’t clear how the spending bill would be funded. In fact, the leaders generally understood where the revenues would come from; they just didn’t like it. Still, with no final bill to sign, Wolf was forced to pass a stop-gap budget, as the talks dragged on.

Meeting with the governor in April, I asked him what has most surprised him about his time in office so far. “I was surprised when I thought we had a deal back in December,” Wolf told me. “I understood that when I wrote my first budget, … it was very ‘ambitious’—as the Republicans kept reminding me. I understood I wasn’t going to get all that. But when I got to the fall and I had gotten what I thought was a good compromise—I had made concessions and they had made some good concessions themselves—and it passed the Senate 43–7, I was surprised when the leadership pulled the plug and said, ‘We’re going to go home.’ Yeah, that was a surprise.”

The nine-month impasse finally ended in March, when Wolf allowed a budget to pass into law without his signature—a budget he said that adds to the deficit, and underfunds key programs throughout the state. “I cannot in good conscience attach my name to a budget that simply does not add up,” Wolf said at a press conference. “But to allow us to move on to face budget challenges of 2016-17, I am going to allow [it] to become law.”

Wolf’s problem is not only that he’s dealing with large Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but also with legislators who are markedly more conservative than the Republicans who preceded them. 

“Wolf can work with the Senate, there’s still sanity there—but the inability to deliver in the House is the biggest impediment that he faces,” says Rooney.

“I’m becoming particularly pessimistic that we’re going to get a budget that deals with the structural deficit,” says Frankel, the House Democratic Caucus chair. “I just don’t see Republicans cooperating to get a sustainable fix. I think we’ll get a smoke and mirrors budget.”

Indeed, while the General Assembly ultimately avoided another long budget impasse—House and Senate leaders came together to pass a budget that Wolf signed into law earlier this month—many of the state’s long-term fiscal issues remain unaddressed. While Wolf had initially proposed a $2.7 billion budget that would have reduced the state’s structural deficit, lawmakers ultimately approved a budget of just $1.3 billion, though it did include a new $1-per-pack cigarette tax, something few had expected to pass in an election year.

 

BORN AND RAISED IN York County, Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf grew up in a world of comfort. His wealthy family was well known locally: They ran a successful kitchen-cabinet business, regularly fundraised for political candidates, and donated often to charitable causes.

Wolf has a reputation for being an avid reader and a serious intellectual (when I met him, he was finishing up Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). He sees himself as a “curious human being” and believes books help him ask better questions.

He went to Dartmouth for his undergraduate education, though he took some time off to volunteer with the Peace Corps in Orissa, India. He went to the University of London for his master’s, where he met Frances, his wife of 40 years. Next, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a doctorate in political science, where he wrote a national-award-winning dissertation on the structural change in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite his love for learning, friends say it would be a mistake to think he just holed himself up in the library. “Tom was a revered graduate student, such a wonderful human, and so nice,” says Drew Altman, a fellow grad student from MIT who played intramural sports with Wolf. “He just had such a winning personality. It was sometimes even a little bit annoying to people.”

After graduate school, to the surprise of many of his academic colleagues, Wolf headed back to York to help run his family’s business. Seven years after his return, he and two cousins bought the company, WOLF, from Wolf’s retiring father, and over the next two decades the profitable business continued to expand—employing some 600 workers, who, as a consequence of the company’s unusually conscientious profit-sharing program, reaped between 20 percent and 30 percent of its profits. The company grew to become the largest supplier of kitchen and bath cabinets in the United States, and on the campaign trail, Wolf cited his successful business record and his generous management style as proof of his leadership credentials.

“Although he’s a very wealthy fellow, he really does not bring to the table some of the far-right-wing positions that wealthy Pennsylvanians and wealthy Americans tend to,” says David Fillman, the executive director of AFS-CME Council 13. “Governor Wolf is very labor-friendly, and it’s just been very refreshing.”

Friends and colleagues talk about Wolf’s “strong moral compass.” Raised in a household that taught him that his privilege obligates him to give back and work for the greater good, Wolf donates his entire government salary to charity. He speaks excitedly about democracy, and calls public servants “stewards of a grand democratic tradition.” He prioritizes ethics reforms like gift bans, increased government transparency, and campaign-finance overhauls. While he won every county in the Democratic primary, Wolf acknowledges that turnout of eligible voters was extremely low. His ultimate goal, he says, is to restore trust in government so more people will exercise their fundamental responsibility of citizenship.

In 2015, InsideGov, a government research organization, ranked Tom Wolf as the most liberal governor in America, based on a review of his public statements, press releases, campaign platforms, and voting records. But if you talk to Wolf, he doesn’t see himself as very ideological at all. He insists that his progressive values are just outgrowths of his pragmatic character, shaped by his years at MIT and in the private sector. Being a progressive, he says, is really just about doing the “smart” thing.

He cites his recent nondiscrimination executive order as an example. “That’s not a dogmatic thing; that’s just something that makes common sense,” he tells me. “When I’m in business and I want good talent in my company, why would I want to limit the talent pool by saying I’m only going to look at people who, say, look like me? You don’t do that. You want the best possible people you can [get]. If they work hard, they’re willing to take risks, you want that person.”

There’s a political logic to Wolf’s attempts to position himself as non-ideological, rather than as a liberal progressive. While Pennsylvania leans slightly Democratic, the western part of the state tends to be more culturally Midwestern and politically conservative. And, as Madonna explains, there are also a handful of Democrats in the southwestern region of Pennsylvania who represent districts that have been trending Republican over the past decade. These Democrats are not just conservative on social issues like guns and abortion, but increasingly on fiscal issues as well. Many of these constituents would have been in an uproar if their leaders backed the general tax hikes that Wolf put forth.

But sometimes Wolf’s claims of being above partisanship and ideology have felt grating, even insensitive. He regularly uses phrases like “let’s be honest with ourselves” and urges legislators to do the “right thing”—meaning the thing he thinks needs to be done. He describes his job as “helping people understand” the mathematical issues at hand. He tells me his international hero is Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, because he really “took that idea of pragmatism, of goodness.”

“We have a governor who literally believes he is an emperor,” says Miskin, the GOP spokesperson. “He issues decrees and gets upset when people don’t agree with him.”

WHEN I ASKED WOLF if there were things he’d like to get done while in office in order to feel like his time there was a success, he said yes, but “done the right way.” For him, “transactional politics”—which he defines as the day-to-day work of being in office—are less important to him. “I care more about making lives better, making my home state a lot better, and taking advantage of all the great things we have here, than I do about whether this moves bills forward at this pace. I care more about making sure we do it right, and the math adds up.”

He looks at his margin of victory as evidence that the voters also want him to lead in this way. “It’s liberating. I can do what I think is right, and I think people voted for me because they thought that’s the kind of person I am,” Wolf says. “I’m not as concerned with what people think about me as I’m concerned if I’m doing the right thing—whether my daughters and my wife respect me after I make a decision. Those things are a lot more important to me.”

But not everyone is so pleased with Wolf’s confidence to move at his own pace. Cynthia Figueroa, the president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia, a multi-service organization located in the poorest ZIP code in the state, witnessed firsthand how difficult it was to provide social services during the budget impasse. Figueroa’s organization had to furlough staff, reduce programming, and delay the start of other initiatives that normally would have been funded at the start of the fiscal cycle. Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia has been around for nearly 40 years, and Figueroa says that while she spoke out and pushed state leaders to take action, a lot of other organizations “were suffering in silence” because they didn’t want to scare off their individual donor base, and worried their government contracts might be transferred to other people if they made an outcry.

When I asked her if she felt like leaders in Harrisburg really understood the ramifications of their failure to pass a budget, she said absolutely not. “It was a lot of men digging their heels in, a lot of ego,” she says. “It really felt like it was playing poker with poor people’s lives.”

Samantha Balbier, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, a coalition of 420 nonprofits in Southwestern Pennsylvania, says that they found that nonprofits that were not Medicaid-reimbursable, with budgets less than $10 million, were hit particularly hard by the impasse—organizations such as senior-care service providers, domestic-violence shelters, and some drug and alcohol facilities. While Balbier’s organization is encouraged that Wolf recognizes both the importance of restoring human-services funding and how the impasse cost nonprofits money, she says there’s still a lot of concern that “there could be a precedent set where the budget is just never passed on time, and where Pennsylvania politics emulate what happens on the federal level.”

IN HIS FINAL STATE OF the Union address, President Obama issued a call to end gerrymandering. “We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he declared.

Pennsylvania is considered one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the union. After the 2010 elections, Keystone State Republicans helped redraw the lines around competitive areas to make them swing more easily in their favor. In 2012, Republicans took nearly 75 percent of the state’s congressional seats—13 out of 18—though more than half of all votes cast in the state during that election for the U.S. House were for Democrats.

“Due to gerrymandering, our districts are not competitive, and so the legislatures are unaccountable—especially the leadership,” says Barry Kauffman, the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. “They don’t feel the voters anymore. They know they will get re-elected, and they can be as ideologically pure as they want and refuse to negotiate.”

Common Cause Pennsylvania is part of a statewide coalition of civic groups advocating for redistricting reform. Their long-term goal is to establish an independent redistricting commission, which will prevent sitting legislators from drawing district lines for political gain. “We want it to be people who don’t have a specific dog in the fight, and who will ensure the districts are equal in population, compact, and contiguous,” says Kauffman. Creating more-competitive elections, advocates say, will lead to greater accountability.

The two states with model independent commissions are Arizona and California, and in both cases, voters won this reform through statewide initiatives. Since Pennsylvania has no such process, advocates anticipate a much longer, and tougher, fight.

Still, there is reason to think that Pennsylvania’s new era of polarization is rooted in factors that extend beyond gerrymandering. Democratic legislators in the southwestern part of the state, after all, have grown more conservative because their constituents have grown more conservative. Political scientists have measured the ideological position of congressional members and found that representatives in gerrymandered districts are not more extreme than those in others.

Today, there are 19 other states like Pennsylvania where control of the governorship, state Senate, and state House is split between the two parties. Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches in 23 states, compared with just seven Democratic-controlled states. The states that are entirely GOP-controlled have moved their policies sharply rightward; states like California and Oregon, which are controlled by Democrats, have grown far more liberal.

“Redistricting couldn’t hurt, creating more moderate districts would help, but I think more political scientists see this as a problem of where the voters in the two parties are geographically located,” says Paul Pierson, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Even if districts were redrawn, there’s reason to assume that many districts would still lean heavily Democratic and heavily Republican given where these voters tend to live.

So what is to be done? The challenges facing Wolf in Pennsylvania look a lot like the challenges facing the president in Washington, D.C. And on the federal level, there are various tools at legislators’ disposal, like the filibuster, that can make gridlock even more likely. Where possible, Obama has effectively opted to work without Congress during his second term, issuing presidential orders and letting the courts weigh in on whether his actions were appropriate uses of executive power.

“I’ve learned a lot from Obama,” Wolf tells me. “I think the executive order is something that I have the right to do, and I can exercise my veto pen.” Unlike the president, the governor can also use his line-item veto power to pick and choose which parts of the budget he likes. “The governor is not afraid to avail himself of the constitutional provisions of his office,” says Rooney.

Historically, American political parties were more ideologically diverse and diffuse; it was not uncommon to find more conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in their ranks. “Now, the parties act much more like coherent teams, and they all take the same positions and back the same people and oppose the other side,” says Pierson. “It’s really hard to figure out how you get this process to go in reverse. A lot of political scientists are asking what would shift this and I haven’t heard a lot of good ideas.”

In January, seven months into the budget impasse, a Franklin & Marshall College poll found that two out of three Pennsylvania voters felt their state was on the wrong track. According to an analysis conducted by a local newspaper, this marked the highest voter dissatisfaction rate in the 21 years that F&M had conducted this poll. Poll respondents placed more blame on the state House and Senate for failing to pass a budget, rather than the governor. The legislature received a 15 percent voter approval rate, compared with Wolf’s 33 percent.

But a Quinnipiac University poll released in April found Wolf earning his worst approval ratings since he first took office. Among Republicans, 75 percent said they disapproved of Wolf’s job performance, and so did 49 percent of independents. Among Democrats, 59 percent approved of his performance. Whether the gridlock will weaken him to the point that he will face a serious challenge in 2018 remains to be seen.

Overall, these broad political dynamics do not bode well for liberals. The more that citizens think the system is rigged—either that their votes don’t really count because of gerrymandering or that nothing will ever get done because of gridlock—the greater is the likelihood that voters will disengage entirely, creating a downward spiral of popular engagement.

The effect of “this kind of dysfunction is not neutral between the parties,” says Pierson. “If I become alienated and think government is not working, on balance, I think that would be more advantageous to the anti-government party.”

Tom Wolf is caught in a hard place, in a tough moment for national, state, and local politics. But he says he’s enjoyed every minute of the time he’s been in office. It’s important to do more than “make the trains run on time,” he tells me, in a reference to Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. “You’ve got to make the trains run on times in the democratic context. You’ve got to do it right. I think we politicians today lose sight of that second dimension. We’re stewards of a grand democratic tradition.”

 

The Politics of Pre-K in the Pennsylvania Governor Race

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 22, 2014.
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In Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, education has emerged as one of the most heated issues. A Quinnipiac University poll released this month found education ranked as the most important issue for voters, after jobs and the economy. Despite contentious politics surrounding reform of public education from kindergarten through twelfth grade, Republican incumbent Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf have discovered that plugging expansion of pre-kindergarten programs wins them political points without treading into treacherous waters. That is, as long as they don’t mention the mothers who will inevitably benefit, too.

The governor’s record is haunted by his 2011 budget, from which he cut nearly $900 million in public education funds—a decrease of more than 10 percent. The severe cuts have garnered national attention, particularly for Philadelphia—the state’s largest school district—which wrestled with a $304 million cut this past school year. Last year, a GOP research firm conducted a secret poll and found 69 percent of Pennsylvanians felt the state’s public education system is on the “wrong track;” 64 percent blamed Corbett.

Corbett, in turn, is trying to blame his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, who infused temporary economic stimulus money into the education budget. But many voters don’t have patience for these defenses: They understand that class sizes have increased, that art, music and advanced placement offerings have been reduced, and that thousands of teachers—not to mention many counselors, nurses, librarians, and administrative staffers—have lost their jobs on Corbett’s watch.

Given education’s importance to Pennsylvania voters, the Corbett campaign has released ads lauding the governor for having “increased spending in the education department by $1.5 billion.” But this increase really came about because Pennsylvania is now paying more toward employee retirement plans, an obligationset by the state legislature.

While education debates typically center on polarizing issues such as charter schools, standardized tests and teacher unions, both candidates have found modest political respite by promoting a seemingly innocuous preschool agenda. Each campaign has created TV ads and sent direct mailings to voters about its candidate’s commitment to early-childhood education. Wolf’s platform includes the creation of a universal program, and Corbett has advertised the $10 million budget increase he oversaw to expand pre-K access.

None of this would have been possible without the launch of the Pre-K for PA campaign, a well-organized nonpartisan effort designed to educate the Pennsylvania public, policymakers, and those running for public office about the benefits of early-childhood education. According to Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, none of the candidates running in the gubernatorial primaries were taking up this issue at all until the Pre-K for PA campaign started to organize at campaign stops and hold their own public events in areas of high voter concentration.

“By the time we reached the Democratic primaries, [the candidates] all started falling all over each other in support of pre-K,” said Cooper. “And then Corbett did it, too, because it was seen as a safe issue.”

Although President Barack Obama has called for the creation of a universal pre-K program, the influx of business groups that support early childhood education on the grounds of workforce preparation has turned it into a relatively bipartisan aim. Some of the most highly regarded models of quality preschool in the nation, in fact, are in two red states: Oklahoma and Alabama. In April, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama came to Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which Alabama’s business community worked to develop his state’s pre-K system.

Although President Barack Obama has called for the creation of a universal pre-K program, the influx of business groups that support early childhood education on the grounds of workforce preparation has turned it into a relatively bipartisan aim. Some of the most highly regarded models of quality preschool in the nation, in fact, are in two red states: Oklahoma and Alabama. In April, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama came to Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which Alabama’s business community worked to develop his state’s pre-K system.

Pre-K for PA has also employed economic rhetoric. In an open letter sent to both candidates in May, the campaign stressed:

Pre-K for PA has the support of many business leaders throughout the commonwealth. Among those leaders we are proud that [Comcast Executive Vice President] David L. Cohen penned an op-ed published last month in The Philadelphia Inquirer that stated: “Early-childhood education is not just a ‘nice to have’—it is an educational, moral and societal imperative essential to building the workforce of the future.”

But advocates know that early childhood education would impact far more than just our future labor market. While studies have documented the role pre-K can play in aiding the intellectual development of children, research has also shown how a pre-K expansion would significantly benefit low-income families, particularly poor women.

Mothers who have regular childcare are far more likely to stay employed. Moreover, a continuous work history correlates with better pay and benefits, but women often have to interrupt their careers because of a lack of steady childcare. An expansion of high quality pre-K would mean women would not only be more likely to keep their jobs, but also advance their careers.

Yet the candidates generally avoid these talking points. Even Wolf, with a 24-point lead, is quick to tell audiences that pre-K is “not just about social welfare.” In policy papers, leaders of the Pre-K for PA campaign have acknowledged that early childhood education is a boon to needier families, but they, too, seek to frame their public messaging to encompass all families, not just those that are low-income or headed by single parents.

“We don’t want to create a class conflict around this,” said Cooper, who points out that it’s a “broad coalition” that goes to the polls. Citing the pre-K model of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, which aimed to make pre-K available to everyone, Cooper said that universal pre-K “makes every family a stakeholder.”

No doubt, given the Keystone State’s education budget crisis, enacting a major pre-K plan would be politically challenging. One could reasonably argue that ignoring mothers on the campaign trail, in a state with a large conservative contingent, is perhaps the only way to build critical support for early childhood education.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value; the terms in which pre-K is framed, and the justifications provided for it, will inevitably affect the substance of the policy. Early childhood education has garnered tremendous political momentum, but it may have come at a price.

“I wish candidates would make that connection between women’s need to work and families’ need to have access to quality early childhood education, because it’s critical,” said Tam St. Claire, the president of the Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition, a Pennsylvania coalition of non-profits and individuals that serve women and girls. “If we are expecting women to be economically self-sufficient, then we have to have systems and institutions that support the demands women have on themselves now.”

Debasri Ghosh, the director of education and communications at Women’s Way, a Philadelphia-based women’s and girls’ advocacy organization, points out that not only is pre-K important for children but “it’s also an incredibly stabilizing force for women and their families.” And a lack of accessible and affordable childcare, Ghosh explains, “can perpetuate the existing wage gap between men and women.”

Looking beyond Corbett and Wolf, the Pre-K for PA campaign is working to move big political donors, as well as candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives in Pennsylvania and nearby states. And a new survey reveals that 64 percent of voters support increased funding for pre-K programs in Pennsylvania. The stakes are high: In a state where only 18 percent of three- and four-year-olds currently have access to high quality early-childhood education—and where 13.6 percent of single mothers with minor children are unemployed—the campaign’s outcome could dramatically impact not only those in Pennsylvania, but children, families and women across the country.

In Response to a Defense of Voter ID Laws

Originally published 9/23/12 in the JHU Politik.

I write this piece in response to Christopher Winer’s opinion featured in last week’s issue entitled, “Making Your Vote Count Through Voter ID Laws.” Winer argues that Voter ID laws are “common sense”, that they would work to “inspire public confidence” in our electoral system, and that the laws really pose only a “minor problem” to voters who lack proper identification.

I beg to differ.

I am from Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in this upcoming election; Pennsylvania is also currently the state with the strictest Voter ID law in the country. While not all states with Voter ID laws have the same requirements, I will focus on Pennsylvania here because it’s often at the center of this national debate.

Winer insists that although these laws might at the most be a “minor infringement of freedom,” overall they are ultimately worth it.

First it is worth considering, why would they be hypothetically “worth it?” One might answer: these laws work to prevent in-person voter fraud. However Pennsylvania has already ruled in court proceedings that there has been no evidence of an issue with in-person voting fraud in the state. So these laws are quite a risky “preventative solution” to a non-existent problem.

For many, obtaining an ID is truly difficult. This summer I worked at home as an Organizing Fellow on the Obama re-election campaign; the confusing and continually revised Voter ID law was a key concern for voters and organizers on almost a daily basis. I recall one instance where a frustrated middle-aged man came into the Obama office, identified himself as a high school English teacher, and asked in exasperation, “Where can I find a DMV that actually issues these IDs? I moved here recently and I’ve driven to four different DMV centers today and none of them offer photo ID services!” This anecdote was extremely telling. This man, who had the money, time, and means to travel to at least five different DMVs, still struggled greatly to obtain an ID. A majority of individuals who lack proper identification have none of these three things.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, nine rural counties have no DMV centers at all. In an additional 20 counties containing 1.5 million people, Driver’s License centers are open three or fewer days a week. (13 counties have DMVs only open one day per week.) Also, only seven out of 67 total counties have more than one DMV center.

In the Pennsylvania lower-court decision on this issue, Judge Simpson wrote that the number of registered voters without valid voter ID falls “somewhat more than 1 percent and significantly less than 9 percent”, or in other words, anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 registered Pennsylvanian voters.

I agree with Winer that we should clean up the voter registration rolls, among other things. We should be working to enforce laws for problems we have, not problems we don’t have. Stephanie Singer, chair of the Philadelphia City Commission (which runs elections in the city) argues that the voter ID law specifically creates more problems than it fixes. “If this legislature were serious about [voter fraud], they would be funding poll worker training, data forensics, [and] aggressive investigation of the voter registration lists,” Singer tells KYW Newsradio.

What I find most ironic about Winer’s piece was his suggestion that in order for the government to reimburse travel costs to the DMV, individuals should present a utility bill or a bank statement to prove they are who they say they are. Or in other words, the forms of identification that used to be acceptable and legitimate enough to vote now are only good enough to get reimbursed.

You know what would inspire public confidence in our electoral system for me? If we advocated for a system where registered American citizens were easily able to exercise their right to vote—ensuring that we really have moved past the dark days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and unabashed disenfranchisement of women and minorities. If people think we need Voter IDs in order to instill confidence, then over the next few election cycles let us work to phase that process in responsibly. But if we want to ensure that all registered citizens will be able to cast their ballot in the upcoming election, we must admit that there is no way this nation will be ready to handle the proposed ID laws by November 6th. It is simply logistically infeasible.