Dean's Discussion logo.Dean Doug Elmendorf introduced the spring term series of Dean’s Discussions—“Democracy, Dialogue, and Division”—by acknowledging the invasion of Ukraine and how it is on top of everyone’s mind. “This is a chance to address the pressing issues of the world through the lens of our own institutions with experts from our midst,” he said. Sarah Wald, chief of staff to the dean and moderator for the discussion, introduced the faculty panel noting each added a unique perspective to the way we look at our current state of politics and that panelist Latanya Sweeney had observed the Ukraine situation “is an example of how voting and elections really matter”. Matthew Baum spoke to political polarization and how it affects our ability even to discuss these issues. Alex Keyssar looked at who gets to vote in our current electoral system. Ben Schneer reviewed how redistricting for political advantage has come into play. And Latanya Sweeney talked about how technology has disempowered voters.

Voting as an uncivil institution 

Baum, Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications, framed his discussion by identifying what he calls “affective polarization.” He explained, “Most people have relatively vague policy preferences. They tend to care more about outcomes than they do about specific policies.” Baum said, “that gives politicians a great deal of leeway in terms of what policies they support or oppose, or whether they take very many stands on public policy at all.” What people end up doing at the ballot box, he said, is voting against the other party, rather than in favor of a policy. 

To illustrate how this polarization affects us personally, he referred to studies showing how parents feel about their children marrying someone from another political party. “Now parents say that marrying someone from the other party would be worse than someone from outside their religion, their economic status, their race or ethnicity,” he said. "So, Americans do disagree on policy, but not nearly as much or as deeply as they dislike each other.”

How this divide affects us, he says, is evident as we become segregated by parties within communities. “Another issue that political scientists like to talk about is geographic polarization,” he said. “In many places, Democrats and Republicans used to live within the same communities. That's much less true today.  They don't interact with each other as much on a daily basis. And that makes it easier for candidates to primarily run for office by stereotyping and demonizing the other party, leading to more polarized leadership.”

Marshall Ganz, Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society, offered an alternative perspective in a comment from the audience. “What seems to be happening is a radical polarization within the Republican party, a shift toward real authoritarianism.” he said. He offered that working toward intraparty unity would be more useful than viewing the two parties as equally polarized. Baum agreed. “Republicans have moved considerably farther to the right than the Democrats have moved toward the left,” he said. “The gap has more to do with emotional antipathy than with public policies. Both are true. I do think though, that the average voter doesn’t disagree as broadly with the other side as much as they think they do.”

Politicizing our democratic systems 

Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy, picked up the conversation noting the relevance of current events to the discussion. “What is happening in Ukraine, in American politics since 2016, and even the COVID pandemic has shaken our basic assumptions of how the world works,” he said. “Nobody thought that the institutions of American democracy were as fragile as they seem or could be tested so severely.” 

Keyssar picked up on Baum’s points on polarization. He noted that voting battles have been present throughout the history of the United States, and have escalated recently. “One dimension of the polarization that we're seeing now is a set of battles over the exercise of the right to vote,” he said. “It's been going on since 2000, but we're also seeing it more now with the weakening of the legal protections of the right to vote. Numerous states have been passing laws that put obstacles in the path of voters.” He said these laws having been making voting harder: “Voter suppression is what you do when you'd like to disenfranchise a block of voters but can’t.” Protesting these efforts and mobilizing communities to vote have been successful, he said, so it is not clear how effective suppressive measures will be—yet they remain a serious concern. 

But Keyssar has other worries. “What concerns me is that the legal climate is more precarious. The Voting Rights Act is more dead now than it was a year and a half ago,” he said. What that means, he said, is that federal protections that limit what the state laws can do are weakened. “At the same time, there's been an emergence of a bizarre notion of independent legislature power, which basically says that state legislatures have the power in presidential and congressional races to do whatever they want with respect to electoral procedures,” he said. “The implication is that not only are they not bound by federal law, but they’re also not bound by their own state constitutions. And it is in state constitutions that the right to vote often resides.”  Further, Keyssar said, Republicans are pushing the idea that state legislatures aren’t even bound by that. “Four justices of the Supreme court have expressed some serious interest in that theory,” he added.

“So, Americans do disagree on policy across party lines, but not nearly as much or as deeply as they dislike each other.”

Matthew Baum

Redistricting and the danger of losing voters 

Schneer, assistant professor of public policy, addressed how much a vote counts and how voting districts matter. He focused on redistricting, the process of redrawing congressional and legislative district maps, which happens every 10 years after the census. “It's important because it determines who's politically represented and who isn't,” he said. “It also has implications for which party controls government.” He viewed the current redistricting cycle through three lenses: process, fairness, and competitiveness. “In terms of process, what factors have been used to draw the maps? In terms of fairness, are the maps treating each party equally? In terms of competitiveness, does either party have a chance to win?”

But just as Baum noted that political polarization can create segmented voting communities, Schneer said that redistricting can as well. “Where I think things look a little more dire is in terms of the competitiveness of the seats,” he stated. He pointed to Texas, where the percentage of competitive congressional districts will drop from about 40% to about 10%.  “That’s a dramatic reduction in competition in a state with a lot of congressional districts,” he said. 

Schneer also said courts would play an important role. “A lot of these state maps are under litigation right now. This redistricting cycle is the first one since Section Five of the Voting Rights Act was repealed,” he said. “And since the Supreme Court essentially said they wouldn't step in to stop partisan gerrymanders, the challenges to unfair maps are either going to be based on state constitutions with provisions against gerrymandering or on Section Two of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority groups against racial gerrymanders.” But Schneer cautioned that minority protection was likely to come under attack in the courts.

Using technology to empower voters 

Sweeney, Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology, asked whether technology has failed to deliver on its promise and instead disempowered voters. “As a graduate student at MIT in 1996, we believed that technology was the great equalizer,” she explained. "I hadn’t even finished my PhD when the problems of data privacy became clear.” During the 2016 election, Sweeney and her students looked at how technology could change the election process. “Right away we got into problems with polling places, the internet sending people to the wrong place,” she said.  Another problem was the vulnerability of voter registration websites. “Anyone can purchase your demographics from a data broker,” she said. “You could shave off about 1% of election results by just going online in an automated way and changing people’s voter registrations.”

“And then we found the bots on social media platforms spitting out misinformation, not only resharing garbage but creating original posts,” she said. Sweeney and her team were able to show that while the bots had small followings, almost everyone following them was human. Trusting the bots enabled the sharing of misinformation. 

Through their Public Interest Lab at HKS, Sweeney and her team are working to make leaked internal Facebook documents public. “Discussions are so dominant on Facebook, that every single debate, every major incident around the world has been touched by misinformation,” Sweeney said. It is the model of those platforms, she notes, to keep users engaged to benefit their advertisers. “What you see online is a real push to give you more of what they think will move you to an excited position. And what makes us stay there longer is constantly getting sensational news.”

How to move forward 

Elmendorf asked if we could look to the past for help in moving forward: “Do you have a sense of what worked in past decades that can help us create better policy today?” Keyssar noted several historical dynamics: prosperity, democratic unity following World War II, shared social values. One way to move forward now, he said, is through election reforms. “Even if you don’t get rid of the Electoral College, get rid of the winner-take-all system and make it a proportional election system. This would eliminate the life-and-death battles in swing states. Other reforms, such as revising the Electoral Count Act in front of Congress now can avoid potential chaos around presidential elections.” 

Baum sees local journalism as key. “I think we need a significant public investment in having a newspaper in every state capital,” he said. “We need a renaissance in local journalism, covering local politics and policies in a serious way, not purely in a sensational sense. It gives people the ability to refocus on local issues rather than the national partisan war.”

Schneer pointed to the power of technology for future redistricting efforts. “It's extraordinary how easy it is for anyone to go online and look at all the detail of a congressional or legislative map, analyze it, and even submit their own map to independent commissions,” he noted. “In future years, technology can change how redistricting happens and who has a hand in making it happen.”

Sweeney mentioned a specific tech tool that she and her students launched this year called VoteFlare. “It is like credit monitoring, but for your voter registration,” she explained. “Anyone can sign up for free and the system will monitor your registration and your voting ballot and alert you when something is amiss.” She then added, “The students here will impact our future in a positive way, and that is an exciting prospect.”

Two more Dean’s Discussions are scheduled for the term. Difficult Conversations: From Classrooms to Congress is on April 13, 4:15-5:30 p.m. and will include faculty members Arthur Brooks, Cornell Brooks, Archon Fung, and Julia Minson.  Shoring Up Democratic Institutions Around the Globe will be on April 21, 4:15-5:30 p.m., featuring faculty members Erica Chenoweth, Tarek Masoud, and Pippa Norris.

Banner image: Divided American flag in window. Photo by Matt Champlin / Getty Images.

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