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Trump Continues Assault on Voting by Mail

TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Postal Service Warns that Voters May Be Disenfranchised by Mail Delays
      •  Saturday Q&A
      •  Today's Presidential Polls

Postal Service Warns that Voters May Be Disenfranchised by Mail Delays

Up until now, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major donor to Republicans in general and Donald Trump in particular, has maintained that his efforts to make the USPS more efficient would not interfere with the election. Now reporters have discovered letters sent by the USPS to the various secretaries of state warning that state election laws in 46 states and D.C. are not compatible with the USPS capacity to deliver mail in a timely way. As a consequence, many voters may be disenfranchised because their ballots may arrive at election offices too late to be counted. This is the first time that the USPS has admitted that it won't be able to deliver ballots in time. Having formally admitted that it can't do its job is a sea change from denying that there is a problem.

Here, for example, is the letter sent to North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D). The letter is dated July 30. It appears that the secretary's office stamps incoming letters with a date using some kind of rubber stamp and the date stamped on the letter is Aug. 13, suggesting that the letter itself may have taken 2 weeks to be delivered. The other letters are similar. The cartogram on the left below shows which states got heightened warnings, which got narrow warnings, and which got no warning:

USPS warnings to states and where sorting machines have been decommissioned

The USPS is facing many challenges right now. On account of the coronavirus, many people have decided to vote by absentee ballot this year. We saw a huge spike in absentee voting during the primaries and it will almost certainly be much greater in the general election. In addition, many states have changed their laws to allow anyone to request an absentee ballot without giving a reason. Other states have expanded their definition of a valid reason for getting an absentee ballot to include "fear of dying if I vote in person." Finally, New Jersey has just become the ninth state that will mail every registered voter an absentee ballot in the fall, so voters don't even have to request them, and more may follow. All in all, the percentage of people trying to mail in their ballots may by ten times higher this year than in 2016.

So, in the face of a massive flood of mail-in ballots the USPS has increased its handling capacity, right? Well, er, no. Actually, it has taken many measures to decrease delivery capacity, which will slow down delivery. These changes have ostensibly been made to make the USPS more efficient and stop losing money. DeJoy spoke with Trump in the Oval Office last week. He is also in frequent contact with top Republican officials. It is not known what they discussed.

Among the various measures DeJoy has taken in the past few weeks are:

  • Forbidding letter carriers from making a second round to make sure today's mail is delivered today
  • Banning overtime for postal workers
  • Replacing 23 top executives with decades of postal experience with newbies who will take orders from him
  • Decommissioning 10% of the sorting machines to free up space for packages
  • Removing mailboxes from street corners in at least four states
  • Reducing opening times at post offices
  • Telling states he wants to raise the postage on ballots from 20 cents to 55 cents

The 671 sorting machines that are being decommissioned and removed have the capacity to sort 21 million letters/hour. They are mostly located in big cities. The map above-right shows where they are. The key swing states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will all lose some sorting capacity.

On top of that, the USPS has two core problems only Congress can solve. First, it is required by law to deliver mail anywhere in the country for the same price. A letter from an office in Midtown Manhattan to an address in Midtown Manhattan costs 55 cents. A letter from Bedford, WY (pop. 201) to McMullen, AL (pop. 9) also costs 55 cents. Guess which delivery actually costs more. This law may be good public policy, but it is not fair to blame the USPS for losing money with this constraint imposed on it. Second, under a 2006 law, the USPS must pre-fund retiree health benefits. Every year it must deposit about $5 billion in the retiree fund to pay for health care 50 years in advance. No other public or private organization has such a requirement.

The changes the USPS has made and the likelihood that they will disenfranchise millions of voters have not gone unnoticed. Celina Stewart, an official at the League of Women Voters, said: "We do think this is a voter-suppression tactic." Vanita Gupta, a former DoJ official, said she viewed the situation as "the weaponization of the U.S. Postal Service for the president's electoral purposes." Also, it has occurred to top Democrats that the attacks on the Postal Service, which has a 91% approval rating, might itself become a campaign issue and are starting to run ads about it.

In principle, states can fight back, though. Among other things, they can:

  • Mail out absentee ballots automatically (like Colorado, Oregon, Utah, etc.)
  • Move up the date that all absentee ballots are sent out to September
  • Enclose a note with each absentee ballot telling voters to return their ballot by early October if possible
  • Change state law to accept all ballots received up to a week after Election Day
  • Place hundreds of ballot drop boxes all over the state
  • Engage in a public relations campaign to tell people how slow the USPS is and how to deal with it
  • Count ballots arriving up to a week after Election Day and deal with the legal and political fallout later

Needless to say, only states that the Democrats control are going to do most of these things.

Yesterday, Donald Trump joined the fray. He incorrectly believes that the USPS is losing money because it delivers packages for Amazon below cost. Actually, it makes money on packages; it loses money on the Bedford to McMullen route. He announced that he is willing to approve billions of dollars for the USPS in the next relief bill if the Democrats will approve some of his priorities. Since the USPS is established by law, demanding concessions to keep it functioning is not that far from demanding "favors" from a foreign leader in return for disbursing military help that Congress had already appropriated. Just imagine how Senate Republicans might react if a hypothetical Democratic president were to announce that he could continue to honor the Hyde Amendment (which bans using federal funds to pay for abortions) in return for some changes to a pending bill he was interested in. In short, this story is not going away any time soon. We'll keep you posted. (V)

Saturday Q&A

If you'd asked us a week ago, we wouldn't have thought it possible there could be well over a hundred questions about the nuances and intricacies of the USPS.

Q: Through all of the post office-related chaos going on the past few weeks, I've been trying to find a good explanation on how the post office management works, specifically related to how Louis DeJoy got his job. I feel like the news hasn't been too good at explaining that. J.H., Studio City, CA

A: When the Postmaster General was a Cabinet-level position, he (there was never a female PG during that time) was nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Since 1971, filling the job has been the responsibility of the USPS Board of Governors. In their press release announcing DeJoy's hiring, the Board laid out its process in great detail:

DeJoy's appointment comes upon the retirement of Megan Brennan, the nation's 74th Postmaster General, who announced her intent to step down in October 2019. The Board of Governors then began an extensive nationwide search, employing a national executive search firm to conduct the search with additional advisory services from Chelsea Partners. In the ensuing months, the Governors reviewed the records of more than two hundred candidates for the position before narrowing the list to more than fifty candidates to undergo substantial vetting. Subsequently, the Governors interviewed more than a dozen candidates in first round interviews, and invited seven candidates for follow-up interviews. A narrow list of finalists then underwent a final vetting process before the Governors made their decision.

There is no reason to think they are lying, but every single one of the six current governors is a Trump appointee, so the odds they would end up with a very Trumpy PG were very high.

Incidentally, the PG earns the second-highest salary in the federal government, behind only the president, at $291,650 per annum.

Q: Does the House have the power to impeach the Postmaster General? If so, must it be for something undeniably criminal, like ordering shredding ballots from districts that skew Democratic, or can it be for deliberately slowing the mail attempting to bias the result of the election? I realize there isn't time to get it done before the election and the Senate would surely acquit, so this is an academic question. G.W., Oxnard, CA

A: Let us turn to Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The second part of your question is the easier part to answer: the basis for any and all impeachments is "high crimes and misdemeanors," which means that DeJoy can theoretically be popped for any reason Congress sees fit, and he need not commit a criminal offense. The answer to the first part of your question depends on whether or not the Postmaster General is considered a "civil officer." Inasmuch as the USPS is a quasi-public entity, he probably is, but the question has not been put to the test by either the Congress or the courts. Of the 20 impeachments in American history, 3 involved presidents, 15 involved federal judges, and the other two involved a U.S. Senator and a cabinet secretary. None of these positions is really comparable to the postmaster generalship, as currently constituted.

Q: Is Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, calling on him to "reverse the assault on the postal service," a 3D-chess move? Could she be setting him up for possible charges of deliberate tampering with election outcomes, which is a felony? A letter like this is unlikely to have much of a direct effect on DeJoy unless he feels it could put him in legal jeopardy. M.W., St. Paul, MN

A: We must admit that we have no idea what Pelosi's strategy is right now. Her caucus isn't even in town, and won't be until September, so holding DeJoy's feet to the fire (he's scheduled to appear shortly after they resume) won't even happen until the middle of next month. It's possible that the Speaker believes there is little she can do, and that the only option available to her is to generate as many "DeJoy is corrupt" headlines as is possible. It's also possible that she has a plan, and it involves waiting to turn the screws until there is less time for DeJoy to counter-move.

Q: If Donald Trump and his allies create problems with mail-in ballots, isn't it likely that it will have little effect since, there are only 4 States where Democrats have a small lead that they could lose due to problems with mail in ballots (TX, GA, MN, NV), that have among them only 70 EVs out of the 373 you project Biden will win? In the other States, the voting isn't likely to be close enough for problems with mail-in ballots to have any significant effect. D.K., Iowa City, IA

A: It depends an awful lot on how successful they are. If the USPS hijinks end up derailing, say, 100,000 votes, then you're right that is not likely to be decisive. If the total is 8 million votes, 70% of them Democratic, then that is probably enough to swing the election.

Q: As you have noted, the Democrats want to give $3.5 billion to the USPS so that they can facilitate voting by mail. I'm utterly puzzled why increased voting by mail should be a problem, even for a minimally functioning organization. In Ohio, the Board of Elections sends me a ballot application; I return that; they send me a ballot; I return that. That is four pieces of mail over the course of a month. Notably, all of it is pre-addressed and pre-printed with simple bar coding so it can be sorted easily. Is averaging one piece of additional mail each week for a month really so onerous that it would require over $20 per voter in extra support for the post office? Why is this a problem of such magnitude? M.B., Cleveland, OH

A: The issue is that the ballots aren't going to ebb and flow in a regular pattern. No, there is likely to be a tidal wave in the week or so before the election, and all of those ballots have to be handled, postmarked, and delivered fairly quickly. In that way, Oct. 31 will be somewhat like Dec. 21. We assume that the Congressional Budget Office has data on how much extra staffing it takes to handle the Christmas-time crush, and they have used that to guess what it will take to handle the Election-time crush.

Q: There's been a lot of coverage of deadlines to register and return a mail ballot but not much about how soon voters can receive and return their mail ballots. In California, ballots will be mailed to voters beginning Oct. 5. When will critical states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida begin mailing ballots to voters? Related to that, voters need to be aware of when to expect results in each state. For the states listed, when can they start counting mail-in ballots? A.R., Los Angeles, CA

A: These are the sorts of questions where the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is doing the Lord's work. Here is the list of when ballots go out, and here is the list of when processing can begin. For the states you mentioned:

State Ballots Sent Counting Begins
Pennsylvania 45 to 50 days before the election At 7 a.m. on Election Day
Wisconsin 47 days before the election After the polls open on Election Day
Michigan 45 days before the election On Election Day
North Carolina 60 days before the election Two weeks prior to Election Day
Florida 33 to 40 days before the election After the polls close on Election Day

As you can see, voters in all five states will have their ballots in hand before the folks in California will, which means that USPS delays should be nullified if people mail their responses in a timely manner.

Q: Is it legal for UPS or FedEx to deliver ballots to the election authorities, along with the USPS? If so, those companies and others (DHL, Amazon, etc.) should volunteer to do it for free, even to pick ballots up at the home. Great publicity, and a kick in the head of you-know-who. D.S., Palo Alto, CA

A: Again we turn to the NCSL. Their state-by-state breakdown of the rules is here.

As you will see, if you examine that list, there are really three kinds of states. Some of them, like Alaska, specifically limit it to the USPS. Others, like Louisiana, specifically say that commercial carriers are acceptable. For most, the rules are vague or nonexistent (although some states require a USPS postmark, which de facto rules out the commercial carriers). What it amounts to is that, unless you are comfortable rolling the dice, UPS/FedEx/DHL/etc. are generally not a great solution to the problem, which is why both the commercial carriers and the USPS have issued warnings on the subject this week (see above for more).

Q: Do states have to count or report in-person votes first? Are there any laws preventing, say, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) from issuing an executive order stating that ballots in Michigan must be counted in the order they are received? Or can Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) issue an order saying that Pennsylvania counties and cities can only release results once all votes are counted? J.C., New York, NY

A: It would be difficult to impose a specific counting order, though it would probably be legal if Whitmer (or anyone else) could figure out the logistics. It is entirely legal to withhold results until all ballots are counted—that's already happened some places during this cycle, most obviously Kentucky's two most populous counties. Good luck getting a state legislature controlled by the other party to agree, though.

Q: I applaud the choice of Kamala Harris as running mate by Joe Biden. Personally, she was my choice for president, and this pairing seemed pretty obvious. Which begs the question: if Hillary Clinton had been a little less calculating 4 years ago, and picked someone like Cory Booker or Julián Castro as running mate instead of the uber-boring Tim Kaine (shades of the disastrous Joe Lieberman pick by Al Gore), don't you think she would be running for re-election right now? J.P., Montréal, Canada

A: No. VP candidates rarely help much; they either do harm or they have no real impact. We see no reason to believe that Castro or Booker would have helped in the Rust Belt states, which were the ones that decided the election. If Clinton had picked a Midwesterner as her running mate, like Tom Vilsack? Maaaayyybe, but still doubtful.

Q: Willie Brown suggested that Kamala Harris turn down the #2 slot as he thought she was better suited to be AG. That got me wondering if a VP could also be appointed to a cabinet position. There are clearly some practical hurdles to overcome, but is there any legal reason it couldn't be done? J.I., San Francisco, CA

A: There are relatively few limits on who may serve as a Cabinet secretary. Nepotism is a potential barrier (or maybe not), but obviously that does not apply to Harris, since she's not related to Biden.

There is a prohibition in the Constitution about serving in multiple branches of the federal government at the same time, but the Ineligibility Clause applies only to sitting members of Congress. Further, as a functionary of both the Senate and the executive branch, the VP already serves in multiple branches of government.

Federal law generally forbids employees from drawing paychecks for two different government jobs (with some exceptions), but Harris could just decline payment for her service as AG.

Someone might try to argue that it's unconstitutional to occupy two spots in the order of succession. However, James Monroe did it when he served as both Secretary of State and Secretary of War during the War of 1812, so clearly the fellows who wrote the Constitution did not find this arrangement to be unconstitutional.

In short, we can't find anything that clearly makes that arrangement verboten. So, it's probably legal, even if it's extremely unlikely the Senate would sign off on it.

Q: Now that we know the VP pick is Kamala Harris, who is of Indian descent, do we know or have any statistics on how Indian Americans typically vote? Do they lean Democratic or Republican? Could her background help with this demographic? D.S., Nashville, TN

A: There was a pretty widely reported poll of Indian Americans back in 2016 that revealed that the majority of them have a favorable view of the Democratic Party (65%) and an unfavorable view of the Republican Party (58%). There is some evidence that support for the Trump-like Narendra Modi was pulling some Indian-American voters rightward, which is why the Trump campaign did some outreach with that community, but we're talking about a fairly small number of voters scattered across a dozen states.

In other words, the Biden ticket was going to win the majority of Indian-American voters regardless of who else was on the ticket. Harris may pull back a few of the Modi fans, but her primary effect, such as it is, will be to motivate some number of Indian Americans who would otherwise have skipped the election to make a point of voting. Given that there were several states in 2016 decided by less than 30,000 votes, it's certainly possible this could pull a state or two across the finish line, but it's not terribly likely.

Q: Now that Joe Biden finally has a running mate, let us get to the important matter that's really been dogging us every night. Namely, do Joe and Jill Biden have a dog? B.L., Hudson, NY

A: The Bidens like German Shepherds, and have two of them. Champ, on the left, is about to turn 12 years old. Major, on the right, is 2: If Biden wins, expect Republicans to start demanding he trade in his German shepherds for an American breed. Democrats will want to promote Major to Lt. Colonel. Politics pervades everything nowadays.

Champ is a fairly standard looking German 
Shepherd; mostly light brown with black highlights. Major is black with a light tan chest

Q: BBC news reported last night that Joe Biden has already indicated he will not seek a second term. Did I miss something? It would be extremely foolish for him to announce such a intention at this point. R.K.P., Chicago, IL

A: There has been much speculation and whispering about this, but he has made no such announcement. It's doubtful he's even made a decision at this point, because there's no reason not to keep his options open.

Q: The U.S. Constitution states that Congress "chuses" the date that the Electoral College meets to cast their votes for President and VP. It was last changed in 1936, and so the date this year is Mon., Dec. 14, which is less than six weeks from Election Day on Nov. 3rd. Do you think Congress would change the date this year if one or several states is still counting ballots, or is mired in lawsuits? K.A., Miami Beach, FL

A: Not likely. Americans are a tradition-loving people, and leery of changes like this. Further, it would presumably be clear at that point which candidate was benefiting from the uncertainty, with the result that either the Democratic-controlled House or the Republican-controlled Senate would have no interest in passing such a bill.

Q: Why is Inauguration Day so long after Election Day? I understand the 18th Century rationale, and the electoral flow of the Electoral College being ratified by Congress and communicated all at the pace of the Pony Express, but when the original March date was amended, why did they end up with late January and not November? As a citizen of two parliamentary democracies, where a government is dissolved prior to an election; and given election results (even in 2020) are usually known in hours or days; the lame duck session of Congress and traditions like the eleventh hour (thirteenth hour?) Presidential pardons just seem...undemocratic. J.A., Virginia, Australia

A: Let's start with the situation when the Constitution was written. They put four months between the election and the inauguration for four main reasons:

  1. Time was needed for the candidate to build an administration, and for the Electoral College to do its job
  2. Long-distance communication (of results, of invitations to join the Cabinet, etc.) took a long time
  3. Travel in winter was very difficult
  4. The Congress has to be up and running first, so it can perform its electoral functions

By the time the date was switched in the 1930s, the communication issue had been resolved. However, the others largely remained (including travel, since airplanes were not yet in wide use). Today, travel isn't an issue anymore, but building an administration is much harder than it was 100 years ago, since there are so many jobs to be filled, and since there is need for very thorough vetting. It is plausible they might shave a few weeks off the current inauguration date, but that would require that lots of significant things be taking place during the Christmas season, which would not make the thousands of people involved very happy.

Aussies, Brits, etc. can switch over quickly because the major parties all have a complete government in place, in the form of the Cabinet (majority party) or the Shadow Cabinet (largest minority party). Even if a surprise takes place, all of the government officials are going to be drawn from the MPs of the ruling party/coalition, and so can be identified and promoted quickly with minimal vetting. The members of a presidential administration, by contrast, might come from anywhere. It's a little easier to select Cabinet ministers from among a couple hundred candidates (if that many) than it is to select Cabinet secretaries from among a couple hundred million candidates.

Q: I'm very sorry, but I found your response to the question of if the Senate could pick Joe Biden as the VP to be confusing. Your answer and my reading of the Constitution seem to say that if the House can't decide, the Senate can pick Biden to be the VP, who will then automatically go on to be President. What am I missing? J.C., Binan, Laguna, Philippines

A: What you appear to be missing is that when the electors gather, each of them casts two ballots, one for president and then one for vice president. The Senate may only select a VP from the top two vote-getters from the second vote, when all (or nearly all) of the votes will be for Kamala Harris or Mike Pence.

Q: You keep writing that Nancy Pelosi will be the Speaker for the House's next term, assuming the Democrats win the majority in the house, but didn't she cut a deal in 2018 stating that she would resign the speakership after this congress? Who has moved into a prime position in the House to replace her? P.C., Schaumburg, IL

A: She actually agreed to a four-year limit on her term, not a two-year limit, which means the timer does not run out until 2023. And while it's not likely, it's not impossible that her caucus will conclude the limit was ill-advised, and give her an extension.

When she does step down, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) is an obvious possibility as successor, thanks to his performance during the impeachment. If the members of the Democratic caucus decide they need some diversity in their Speakers or, at very least, someone from a state other than California, then Reps. Yvette Clark (D-NY), Val Demings (D-FL), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Lucy McBath (D-GA), Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM), and Joaquin Castro (D-TX) stand out as possibilities. One might be tempted to add Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) to the list, but we would guess she's a bit too young and a bit too lefty to get promoted so quickly. She'll eventually have her chance if she sticks around in the House.

Q: What is the criteria in each chamber for refusing to sit an elected member? For example, can the House refuse to seat QAnon believer Marjorie Taylor Greene and call a new election? And in the last 50 years, how many elected members of the House and Senate have been denied their seats? J.C., Honolulu, HI

A: The Congress used to give itself wide latitude in refusing to seat members, as with the 30 Southern Democrats they turned down between 1865 and 1900. However, in Powell v. McCormack (1969), the Supreme Court ruled that the only basis for refusing to seat a member is if they do not meet the constitutional requirements for their office (e.g., they aren't old enough). So, "Greene is a whack job" is not enough to keep her from taking the seat she is going to win in November.

Since the McCormack decision came down 51 years ago, only two members of Congress, both of them senators, have had issues being seated. In 1974, Louis C. Wyman (R-NH) was initially declared the winner of a very close Senate election, but every recount flipped the result between him and his Democratic opponent, John A. Durkin (D-NH). On the theory that possession is nine-tenths of the law, Wyman showed up in Washington and tried to claim "his" seat without success. Eventually, a second election was held and Durkin won.

The only other case came in 2009, when Roland Burris was named to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama under questionable circumstances (i.e., he may have paid a bribe to get the seat). As a consequence of this, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White (D) refused to give Burris the proper credentials, and Burris was not seated when he first presented himself in Washington. Eventually, after a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court, Burris got the right paperwork, and was allowed to take his seat.

There is one other possibility that you did not mention. If Greene commits a crime, the House is allowed to expel her. That outcome is also very rare, however. Only two members of Congress, both of them Representatives, have been expelled in the last half century. One was Rep. Michael Myers (D-PA), who was caught up in the infamous Abscam scandal, and the other was Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH), who was convicted of 10 different felonies.

Q: I can get my head around how Joe Biden might not be carried to a win in Montana by Steve Bullock's coattails, even if Bullock wins. What I can't quite reconcile is the cognitive dissonance behind the possibility of South Carolina electing a Black Democrat to the Senate, but still giving its electoral votes to Donald Trump. J.P.R., Westminster, CO

A: We would guess there are two kinds of voters driving this (potential) divide. The first are folks who plan to vote third-party in the Presidential race, but who will vote major-party in the Senate race. The second are folks who like Trump because they feel he's not a phony, and he "tells it like it is." Graham may end up on the same political positions as Trump does in the end, but he comes off faker than Piltdown Man while he does it. That clearly angers some South Carolinians.

Q: Suppose a Supreme Court justice were to be told by their doctors they were terminally ill and unlikely to live to see the Inauguration Day 2021. Could that justice tell the world they wanted to spend some time convalescing and should not be disturbed under any circumstances, and tell their next of kin to publicly announce their passing after noon on Jan. 20, 2021? C.L., Durham, UK

A: This is certainly possible in theory. Recall that when someone disappears/dies and there is no body or other clear proof of their demise, it takes years (plus the involvement of a court) for them to be officially declared dead. So, if this hypothetical Supreme Court justice were to get on a plane to Brazil and disappear into the jungle with only one trusted family member or friend at their side, it would be easy enough for that family member/friend to keep news of the Justice's demise under their hat until the appointed time.

The question is how far this hypothetical justice is willing to take this. If they were to pass in a hospital, the hospital would have a duty to report it. If they were to pass at home, or in a hotel room, there is the pragmatic issue of combating decomposition. Religious convictions could also come into play. For example, many observant Jews don't approve of embalming and other preservation techniques, and favor rapid burial. None of the three Jews currently on the Court appears to be particularly observant, but that doesn't necessarily mean they don't want to adhere to the religion's end-of-life customs.

Another possible scenario is for a justice who got such a message from a doctor to give a medical power of attorney to an (adult) child and privately tell that child that heroic measures involving multiple beeping machines are welcome up until Jan. 21, 2021.

Q: Billionaire investor Jeffrey Gundlach recently predicted that Donald Trump will win this November because Trump's voters are misleading pollsters en masse. He claims to have seen "data suggesting that about 'two-thirds of conservatives or moderate conservatives say that they have lied about their support for Donald Trump either directly or by omission.'"

I've heard this theory before, but never from anyone outside the Trump campaign. Is it really possible that so many people could deliberately lie to pollsters to skew the results? Wouldn't it be hard for respondents to "outsmart" experienced pollsters? And what kind of "data" do you think Gundlach could have seen?
M.G., Springfield, PA

A: Until he reveals what this data is, assuming it exists, it's hard to evaluate it in any serious way. Was it a legit poll conducted by a real pollster? An academic study? A Drudge Report insta-poll? A conversation with three of Gundlach's closest friends? There is a wide range of possibilities here. And don't forget that the hypothetical respondents are, by their own admission, prone to lying.

Note also that Gundlach's description is very vague. He implies that some enormous portion of Trump supporters have lied to pollsters, but what he actually says is that they've lied or misled under some circumstance. That covers a lot of ground, from "lied to a pollster" to "kept my politics to myself at a cocktail party to avoid getting into arguments." Indeed, when considering things in such broad terms, we'd be willing to bet that some enormous percentage of Trump opponents have also lied about their feelings, either directly or by omission. If a close friend, or co-worker, or relative is a fanatical Trump supporter and you aren't, it's often easier just to say nothing, which is a lie of omission.

Anyhow, it would be pretty hard to lie to pollsters, who have various ways of checking responses for internal consistency. It would also be tough for this phenomenon to take place systematically, such that it affected all polls roughly equally without producing obviously wonky results in some.

Oh, and one more thing. Here's a quote from Gundlach from September of last year: "There's no way Joe Biden is going to be the nominee, there's just no way. I've been asking people, 'Do you know anybody that really supports Joe Biden?' and I haven't met a single person that says they know anybody that truly supports Joe Biden." So, perhaps Gundlach's political predictions, and his information sources, should be taken with a few grains of salt.

Q: My Republican father-in-law, who has followed his party into its gutter and who constantly reaches for any shred of evidence to justify his unjustifiable allegiance to it, recently gave my 15-year-old daughter 7 Tipping Points that Saved The World; The Miracle of Freedom, by Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart.

A quick search for reviews yielded mostly positive variants of the same stuff, but from outlets I didn't recognize. However, Glenn Beck popped up with a strong recommendation, which alerted my spidey sense as does the feel of what I've read so far. I'll have to read it of course (if she does) but am curious if you have an opinion on it.
D.C., Portland, OR

A: We have not read the book, nor would we, because it's just white-Christians-congratulating-themselves porn.

To start, here is the list of seven events:

  1. The defeat of the Assyrians in their quest to destroy the kingdom of Judah
  2. The victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Thermopylae and Salamis
  3. Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity
  4. The defeat of the armies of Islam at Poitiers
  5. The failure of the Mongols in their effort to conquer Europe
  6. The discovery of the New World
  7. The Battle of Britain in World War II

Immediately, some recurrent themes are evident. The "heroes" for all of these turning points were the antecedent of modern-day white people, or modern-day Christians, or both. Meanwhile, the "villains," in nearly all cases, were non-white, or adherents of non Judeo-Christian religions, or both.

The book also has an overarching argument that only 5% of people in the history of the world have lived under "freedom," and that "freedom" would not exist today if each of these seven events had not happened exactly as they did, so as to advance the cause of "freedom." We would hope that it is obvious that the authors have a very particular definition of the word freedom, one that, say, the natives who greeted Columbus, or the Muslims who were attacked during the Crusades, would not share. Nor, for that matter, would some of the 5% who ostensibly live in "freedom" today, like BLM protesters, the desperately poor, the victims of homophobia and transphobia, women who are losing/have lost bodily autonomy, and so forth.

Beyond that, it is among the most amateur of errors in historical analysis to conclude that, but for one link in the chain, the whole rest of the chain would have collapsed. Sure, there are key figures and turning points in the past, but to suppose that our entire world today rests on one ruler bowing to the dominant trend in his empire (Constantine), or a minor military raid from 1200 years ago (Poitiers), or a single engagement from World War II, even if it was a biggie (the Battle of Britain) is just ahistorical hogwash. Actually, it sounds like an episode of "Star Trek," like the one where they accidentally left a copy of a book about Al Capone on a planet and then returned 100 years later to discover that the whole world rebuilt itself around mafiosi, Tommy guns, and loose women.

Q: Why was universal health care not included in the reforms of the New Deal era and the reforms of the Great Society? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: Even FDR had only so much political capital, and he decided that things like Social Security and keeping banks stable were his priorities. In the late 1930s, he turned his attention to health care, declaring in 1939 that "a comprehensive health program (is) required as an essential link in our national defenses against individual and social insecurity." However, as you may recall, events not long thereafter directed his, and the nation's, attention elsewhere.

As to the Great Society, LBJ did secure passage of Medicare and Medicaid, which was quite a lot, even with a Democratic-controlled Congress. He pushed a bit for more, but decided that his remaining political capital was best invested in things like civil rights protections and, unfortunately, the war in Vietnam.

Today's Presidential Polls

Apparently, California and Massachusetts are competing with each other to see who can hand Donald Trump the worse defeat. Of course, they are rank amateurs compared to what's going to happen in Washington, D.C. (Z)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
California 61% 25% Aug 09 Aug 09 Redfield and Wilton Strategies
Massachusetts 61% 28% Jul 31 Aug 07 YouGov

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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