Tag Archives: elections

Did Tim Burns voters come through for Rebecca Dallet?

Two liberal candidates, Rebecca Dallet and Tim Burns, combined for 54% of the vote in this February’s primary for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  Dallet and the conservative candidate Michael Screnock, who got 46% in the primary, moved on to the general election in April.

There was some worry among liberal political types that voters who went for Burns, the vocally left candidate, would sit out the general rather than show up for the more conventionally liberal Dallet.  Did that happen?  Here’s something cool:  Wisconsin offers full statewide ward-level election results, which helps us figure that out!

First of all, here’s a ward-by-ward picture of the primary:

Each circle is a ward and its position in the triangle shows the proportion of votes going to Screnock (top vertex), Burns (left vertex), and Dallet (right vertex.)  The size of the circle is the total number of votes in that ward.  You can see that there’s no visible clustering, and that Dallet did much better than Burns.

So what happened in the general?

Well, first of all, Dallet won, and won big:  56-44.  But that doesn’t mean Burns voters showed up.  We can’t really know!  But the ward-by-ward data at least helps us make some guesses.

Quick and dirty:  you can do a linear regression on Dallet’s share of the general in terms of Burns’s and Dallet’s share of the primary vote.  I stripped out wards with fewer than 100 general-election votes, which still left 1827 wards.  You get

Dallet general ~ 0.724*Burns primary + 0.892* Dallet primary + 0.112

with a pretty decent fit

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 3 May 7.27.AM

The Burns coefficient is a little bit lower but I don’t see strong evidence that a lot of Burns voters skipped the general election.

Here’s a test I like a little bit more.  There are 79 wards where Burns and Dallet together got between 54 and 56% of the vote in the primary.  Among these wards, Burns’s voteshare ranged from 6.5% (Milwaukee ward 211) to 35% (Town of Moscow wards 1-2, a bit on the nose, don’t you think?)  If Burns voters were skipping the general election, you might expect Dallet to do worse in April in those wards where Burns did better in February.  Here’s the scatter.  If there’s a downward trend here, it’s not very strong.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 2 May 7.59.PM

My conclusion:  liberals gonna liberal.

Update:  I got the last scatter wrong when I originally posted this; if you remember the post being a little different, you’re right!

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Scott Walker and the noncommutativity of Wisconsin statute, part II

Hey so remember last month, when the Walker administration didn’t want to fill two empty legislative seats, so they decided to treat the state law forbidding this as if it said something else?

Here, I’ll recap.  The law, statute 8.50 (4) (d), says:

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election.

The state has decided to pretend the law says, instead:

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat, before the 2nd Tuesday in May shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election.

In other words, the state’s claim is that a special election is required only if the vacancy occurs between January 1 and the 2nd Tuesday of May in an election year.  Whereas what the actual law says is that an election is to be called if there’s a vacancy any time before that 2nd Tuesday in May, i.e. as long as there’s enough time to call an election and have the new officeholder participate meaningfully in legislating.

Six voters in the affected districts have sued the governor.  There’s a hearing in the Dane County Circuit Court this week, on March 22.

The state has issued its response to the petition.

I’ve read the response.  It upset me.  It really upset me!  Not because I even care that much about whether we hold these elections!  But because the people whose job it is to uphold our state’s laws don’t care what those laws are.

The state’s leading argument is “mootness,” which goes like this: “we’ve now delayed this long enough that voters would not longer get any meaningful benefit from the state fulfilling the law’s requirements, so the claim that we have to fulfill the law’s requirements doesn’t stand.”

That might work!

Then it gets really interesting.  Here’s a passage from the response:

Under Wis. Stat. §8.50(4)(d), the Governor has a positive and plain duty to call a special election only when a vacancy occurs in the year of a general election from January 1 until the 2nd Tuesday in May.  Because the vacancies here did not occur in that year, Governor Walker has no positive and plain duties to call special elections.

See what they did?  They switched it!  They switched the order of the clauses in the statute to make it say what it does not, in fact, say!  Not satisfied with that, they added the language about January 1, which isn’t present in the law!

Won’t the judge ask them about this?  Won’t the judge want to know what possessed the state to “paraphrase” a law by moving words around and adding language, instead of quoting the language of the statute itself?

The response then goes on to explain why their interpretation of the law “makes sense.”  What they in fact do is explain why it makes sense that a special election isn’t required for vacancies taking place after May of the election year (the point on which their claim agrees with the law).  They are silent on why it makes sense that a special election isn’t required before January 1 of the election year.  Because that doesn’t make sense.

Maybe the screwiest part of all of this is that the statute in question uses language that appears again and again in Wisconsin code.  Look, here’s how 59.10(3)(e) authorizes special elections for vacancies on county boards:

The board may, if a vacancy occurs before June 1 in the year preceding expiration of the term of office, order a special election to fill the vacancy.

According to the state’s account, this means that special elections are authorized only if the vacancy occurs in the year preceding the election year.

If that’s the case, nobody told Sauk County, where a special election was ordered in August 2016 to fill a vacant seat on the county board.  It’s hard to doubt there are many such examples — all unauthorized by state law, according to the Walker administration’s current claim.

How could Brad Schimel have put his name to this?

(Update:  here’s the plaintiffs’ response to the state’s response.)

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Scott Walker and the Let’s Eat Grandma theory of legislative interpretation

How do you know when to call a special election for an empty legislative seat in Wisconsin?  It’s right there in the statutes, 8.50 (4) (d):

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election. However, any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring after the close of the last regular floorperiod of the legislature held during his or her term shall be filled only if a special session or extraordinary floorperiod of the legislature is called or a veto review period is scheduled during the remainder of the term. The special election to fill the vacancy shall be ordered, if possible, so the new member may participate in the special session or floorperiod.

Pretty clear, right?  If a Senate or Assembly seat comes open before May of election year,  the governor has to call a special election, unless the last legislative session has already taken place and no extra legislative business is scheduled before November.  You hold an election unless the duration of the vacancy would be so short as to make the election essentially meaningless.

There are two seats in the Capitol open as we speak, the Senate seat formerly held by Frank Lasee and the Assembly seat once occupied Keith Ripp; both of them left to take jobs in the Walker administration in January.  But the governor has asserted that no special election will be held, and residents of those districts will go unrepresented in the legislature for almost a full year.

What’s Walker’s excuse for ignoring the law?  Are you sitting down?  The state’s claim is that the phrase “in the year” does not refer to “May,” but rather “any vacancy.”  So a vacancy arising in March 2018 is required by law to be filled “as promptly as possible” by state law, despite the severely limited amount of lawmaking the new representative would be have a chance to undertake; but if an assembly rep drops dead on the second day of the legislative term, the governor can leave the seat empty for two whole years if he wants.

I kid you not! That is the claim!

Do you think that’s really what the law says?

As this long, well-researched WisContext article makes clear, Walker’s “interpretation” of the law is, well, a novelty.  For fifty years, Wisconsin has been filling legislative vacancies promptly by special elections.  Most of these elections, according to Scott Walker, were optional, some kind of gubernatorial whim.  And it’s definitely not the case that the governor is leaving the seats empty because he’s spooked by the current lust-to-vote of Wisconsin’s Democratic electorate, which has already cost Republicans a long-held seat in Senate District 10.

The Walker administration would like us to read the law as if the phrases came in the opposite order:

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat, before the 2nd Tuesday in May

But English is non-commutative; that sentence says one thing, and 8.50 (4)(d) says a different thing.

Even an extra comma would make Walker’s interpretation reasonable:

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May, in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat

Commas change meaning.  As the old T-shirt says:  let’s eat grandma!

I suppose we should count ourselves lucky.  Given the syntactic latitude Walker has granted himself, where a prepositional phrase can wander freely throughout a sentence modifying whatever catches its fancy, he might have claimed a special selection is required only if a legislative vacancy occurs in May of an election year!  That would make just as much sense as the interpretation Walker’s claiming now.  Which is to say:  none.

What’s the remedy here?  I’m not sure there is one.  Someone in one of the affected districts could sue the state, but I don’t think there’s any prospect a lawsuit would conclude in time to make any difference.  I can’t see a court ordering an emergency halt to a legislative session on the grounds that two seats were illegally unfilled.

So there’s not much to stop the governor from breaking state law in this way.  Except natural human embarrassment.  A government that has lost the capacity to be embarrassed can be very difficult to constrain.

Update, Feb 26:  Looks like I was wrong to say nobody was going to do anything about this!  A group of voters in the affected districts, represented by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, sued Governor Walker today.  Good for them.

Update:  I’ve learned from lawyer friends that the principle that a phrase like “in the year” is understood to modify the thing it’s close to, not some other clause floating elsewhere across the sentence, has a name:  it is “the rule of the last antecedent.”




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More is less: Ted Olson on Citizens United

I saw Ted Olson and David Boies talk about the Citizens United decision at the Aspen Ideas Festival a couple of months ago.  Olson likes the decision, and he was passionate and funny in its defense.  “The more speech we have, the better,” he said.  And who can disagree?  The antidote to bad speech is good speech, marketplace of ideas, etc.

It wasn’t until I was on my way home, esprit de l’airplane, that it occurred to me to think about the followup case, Arizona Free Enterprise Club vs. Bennettdecided a year after Citizens United with the same five justices in the majority.  In that case, the Court found unconstitutional an Arizona law that provided government funds to publicly funded candidates allowing them to match any spending by a self-funded candidate exceeding a specified cap.  Here the Court managed to reason that adding more speech, funded by the state, added up to less speech.  They argued that a wealthy candidate whose every ad was matched by an equally well-funded opposition ad would refrain from campaigning at all — the self-funded candidates so inconfident in the strength of their ideas, apparently, as to prefer silence to both camps getting equal time.

It’s pretty starkly different from Olson’s let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom philosophy.  The Court called the Arizona law a “burden” on free speech, though of course it in no way prevented self-funded candidates from spending and speaking.  Unless you take the view that free speech responded to is effectively cancelled or suppressed, precisely the opposite of Olson’s attitude.  I wonder what he thinks about this decision?  Is the right to free speech a right to be heard, or a right to drown out?

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Is the two-Burke ballot the new butterfly ballot?

Scott Walker’s opponent takes on the WEDC:

BURKE:  One other area outside of that that people really should take a look at is the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which was a nonprofit, public-private corporation created in 2011 which Governor Walker used to make himself the chair of. What’s most interesting is that Governor Walker’s experience in private business is in selling warranties for IBM and doing blood drives and fund-raising for the American Red Cross. While these are both worthy positions and individuals who do them obviously are working to build a life, that doesn’t give someone the experience necessary to make themselves a chair of a venture capital firm. Because that’s what it is. They’re giving away private taxpayer dollars to public businesses. We would end that practice.

Except that’s not Mary Burke; it’s Robert Burke, a lifelong Republican from Hudson who switched to the Libertarian party to run for governor.  Burke talks in the interview about how he hopes the “name recognition” — misrecognition? — he draws from the Mary Burke campaign will help him get votes.  The question is:  will he get votes from people who like libertarianism, or miscast votes that are actually meant for her?

Are you wondering whether Burke the Libertarian is running precisely in order to siphon votes from Burke the Democrat in this way?  I was, too, but I have to admit that the linked interview really does make him sound like a sincere libertarian dude who just found out Republicans dig market distortions as much as Democrats do.

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Who does Public Polling Policy think is challenging Scott Walker?

We got a PPP robopoll today.  First of all, I want to note that the recorded voice on the phone was a middle-aged man with the worst case of vocal fry I’ve ever heard.


Much of the poll was of the form “If Republican Scott Walker runs for re-election against Democrat X, who would you support?”  And here are the Democrats they listed:

  • Peter Barca
  • Jon Erpenbach
  • Russ Feingold
  • Steve Kagen
  • Ron Kind
  • Mahlon Mitchell

Are these really the main Democratic contenders?

The poll went on to ask whether I had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of each of the following strange foursome:

  • Sen. Joseph McCarthy
  • Bret Bielema
  • Hilary Clinton
  • Paul Ryan

I’d kind of like to see the crosstabs on that, actually!

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It’s a recall, not an omen

Already time to take back, or at least complicate, the nice things I said about the Times’s Wisconsin coverage.  Today above the fold:

Broadly, the results will be held up as an omen for the presidential race in the fall, specifically for President Obama’s chances of capturing this Midwestern battleground — one that he easily won in 2008 but that Republicans nearly swept in the midterm elections of 2010…

A Marquette Law School telephone poll of 600 likely voters, conducted last week, found Mr. Walker leading 52 percent to 45 percent; the poll’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for each candidate.

I suppose I can’t deny that the results “will be held up as” an omen for November’s election by some people.  But those people will be wrong, and the Times should say so.  At the very least they should avoid giving the impression that the recall vote is likely to be predictive of the presidential vote, an assertion for which they give no evidence, not even a quote in support.

I’m just going to repeat what I said in the last post.  Wisconsin is split half and half between Republicans and Democrats.  In nationally favorable Democratic environments (2008) the state votes Democratic.  In nationally favorable Republican environments (2010) the state votes Republican.  At this moment, there’s no national partisan wave, and you can expect Wisconsin elections to be close.  But incumbency is an advantage.  So Walker is winning, and so is Obama. As the Times reports, the Marquette poll has him up 7.  What the Times doesn’t report is that the very same poll has Obama beating Romney by 8.

I guess the recall might be an omen after all — if Walker actually wins by 7, it means there’s no massive shift to the GOP going on in this state, and you’re a broadly popular incumbent President whose hometown is within a half-day’s drive of most of Wisconsin’s population, your prospects here are pretty good.

Arguing against myself:  2006 was also a great year for Democrats nationally, and incumbent Democratic governor Jim Doyle beat Mark Green by only 7.

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Should confidence intervals take interpoll variation into account?

An interesting fact I learned from Charles Franklin’s talk is that the variance among polls taken on the same day concerning the same election is about 50% greater than what you’d expect from sampling error alone; that’s because different poles use different sampling methodologies, different question phrasings, different likely-voter weightings, etc.

But when polls report a margin of error, they’re using a 95% confidence interval based on the sampling variance alone.  Should they instead be reporting larger error bars, based on what we know empirically about the extent to which poll results vary from the ground truth?

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Raw polling data as playground

This is a picture of the American electorate!

More precisely; this is a scatterplot I just made using the dataset recently released by PPP, a major political polling firm.  (They’re the outfit that did the “is your state hot or not” poll I blogged about last week.)  PPP has made available the raw responses from 46 polls with 1000 responses each, conducted more or less weekly over the course of 2011.  Here’s the whole thing as a .zip file.

Analyzing data sets like this is in some sense not hard.  But there’s a learning curve.  Little things, like:  you have to know that the .csv format is beautifully portable and universal — it’s the ASCII of data.  You have to know how to get your .csv file into your math package of choice (in my case, python, but I think I could easily have done this in r or MatLab as well) and you have to know where to get a PCA package, if it’s not already installed.  And you have to know how to output a new .csv file and make a graphic from it when you’re done.  (As you can see, I haven’t quite mastered this last part, and have presented you with a cruddy Excel scatterplot.)  In total, this probably took me about three hours to do, and now that I have a data-to-picture path I understand how to use, I think I could do it again in about 30 minutes.  It’s fun and I highly recommend it.  There’s a lot of data out there.

So what is this picture?  The scatterplot has 1000 points, one for each person polled in the December 15, 2011 PPP survey.  The respondents answered a bunch of questions, mostly about politics:

Q1: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Barack Obama?
Q2: Do you approve or disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance?
Q3: Do you think Barack Obama is too liberal, too conservative, or about right?
Q4: Do you approve or disapprove of the job Harry Reid is doing?
Q5: Do you approve or disapprove of the job Mitch McConnell is doing?
Q6: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party?
Q7: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party?
Q8: Generally speaking, if there was an election today, would you vote to reelect Barack Obama, or would you vote for his Republican opponent?
Q9: Are you very excited, somewhat excited, or not at all excited about voting in the 2012 elections?
Q10: If passed into law one version of immigration reform that people have discussed would secure the border and crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. It would also require illegal immigrants to register for legal immigration status, pay back taxes, and learn English in order to be eligible for U.S. citizenship. Do you favor or oppose Congress passing this version of immigration reform?
Q11: Have you heard about the $10,000 bet Mitt Romney challenged Rick Perry to in last week’s Republican Presidential debate?
Q12: (Asked only of those who say ‘yes’ to Q11:) Did Romney‚Äôs bet make you more or less likely to vote for him next year, or did it not make a difference either way?
Q13: Do you believe that there’s a “War on Christmas” or not?
Q14: Do you consider yourself to be a liberal, moderate, or conservative?
Q15: Do you consider yourself to be a supporter of the Tea Party or not?
Q16: Are you or is anyone in your household a member of a labor union?
Q17: If you are a woman, press 1. If a man, press 2.
Q18: If you are a Democrat, press 1. If a Republican, press 2. If you are an independent or a member of another party, press 3.
Q19: If you are Hispanic, press 1. If white, press 2. If African American, press 3. If Asian, press 4. If you are an American Indian, press 5. If other, press 6.
Q20: (Asked only of people who say American Indian on Q19:) Are you enrolled in a federally recognized tribe?
Q21: If you are 18 to 29 years old, press 1. If 30 to 45, press 2. If 46 to 65, press 3. If you are older than 65, press 4.
Q22: What part of the country do you live in NOW – the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, or the West?
Q23: What is your household’s annual income?

The answers to these questions, which are coded as integers, now give us 1000 points in R^{23}.  Our eyes are not good at looking at point clouds in 23-dimensional space.  So it’s useful to project down to R^2, that mos bloggable of Euclidean spaces.  But how?  We could just look at two coordinates and see what we get.  But this requires careful choice.  Suppose I map the voters onto the plane via their answers to Q1 and Q2.  The problem is, almost everyone who has a favorable opinion of Barack Obama approves of his job performance, and vice versa.  Considering these two features is hardly better than considering only one feature.  Better would be to look at Q8 and Q21; these two variables are surely less correlated, and studying both together would give us good information on how support for Obama varies with age.  But still, we’re throwing out a lot.  Principal component analysis is a very popular quick-n-dirty method of dimension reduction; it finds the projection onto R^2 (or a Euclidean space of any desired dimension) which best captures the variance in the original dataset.  In particular, the two axes in the PCA projection have correlation zero with each other.

A projection from R^23 to R^2 can be expressed by two vectors, each one of which is some linear combination of the original 23 variables.  The hope is always that, when you stare at the entries of these vectors, the corresponding axis has some “meaning” that jumps out at you.  And that’s just what happens here.

The horizontal axis is “left vs. right.”  It assigns positive weight to approving of Obama, identifying as a liberal, and approving of the Democratic Party, and negative weight to supporting the Tea Party and believing in a “War on Christmas.”  It would be very weird if any analysis of this kind of polling data didn’t pull out political affiliation as the dominant determinant of poll answers.

The second axis is “low-information voter vs. high-information voter,” I think.  It assigns a negative value to all answers of the form “don’t know / won’t answer,” and positive value to saying you are “very excited to vote” and having heard about Mitt Romney’s $10,000 bet.  (Remember that?)

And now the picture already tells you something interesting.  These two variables are uncorrelated, by definition, but they are not unrelated.  The voters split roughly into two clusters, the Democrats and the Republicans.  But the plot is “heart-shaped” — the farther you go into the low-information voters, the less polarization there is between the two parties, until in the lower third of the graph it is hard to tell there are two parties at all.  This phenomenon is not surprising — but I think it’s pretty cool that it pops right out of a completely automatic process.

(I am less sure about the third-strongest axis, which I didn’t include in the plot.  High scorers here, like low scorers on axis 2, tend to give a lot of “don’t know” answers, except when asked about Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, whom they dislike.  They are more likely to say they’re “not at all excited to vote” and more likely to be independents.  So I think one might call this the “to hell with all those crooks” axis.)

A few technical notes:  I removed questions, like “region of residence,” that didn’t really map on a linear scale, and others, like “income,” that not everyone answered.  I normalized all the columns to have equal variance.  I made new 0-1-valued columns to record “don’t know” answers.  Yes, I know that many people consider it bad news to run PCA on binary variables, but I decided that since I was just trying to draw pictures and not infer anything, it would be OK.

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Long on Romney

Lord knows I am no political forecaster.  But surely there’s a better than two-thirds chance that Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee for President?  Good time to buy his shares on InTrade?

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