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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

Some days are very heavy on questions about history, or recent news. This one is about as heavy on civics questions as any Q&A has ever been.

Q: I don't get it. Don't Donald Trump and his supporters know how to count? Even if you "give" Trump Arizona and Georgia and change nothing else, he still loses the Electoral College to President Biden (279-259). How does that square with Trump's assertion that once the Arizona and Georgia "audits" finish and "find" that he "won" that he'll suddenly be president? Doesn't that suggest that your "cheese-slipping-off-the-cracker" (or perhaps, "cheese-and-cracker-both-on-the-floor-being-eaten-by-the-dog") theory is the correct one? What am I missing here? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: Keep in mind that Trump (apparently) and some portion of his supporters are already living in an "alternate facts" world that is unmoored from the realities of American law and governance.

Inasmuch as we are both academics trained to follow facts and evidence, and inasmuch as we are both (hopefully) rational, it is not so easy for us to climb into the heads of these folks. That said, we do know a little something about how gaslighting works. And so, we suspect that once Arizona and Georgia are "overturned," then Trump & Co. will jump to asserting that if two states got it horribly wrong, then surely the others did as well, and ipso facto, he's president again.

This is why the Republicans who support Trump really need Cyber Ninjas to return with a finding that Trump not only won Arizona, he won bigly. Arizona and Georgia are far and away the two closest Biden states (10,457-vote margin in the former, 12,670-vote margin in the latter). If the finding is that Trump actually won Arizona by 5,000 votes, which would be a swing of about 16,000 votes, that would still fall short of his margins of defeat in other key states, including Wisconsin (20,682), Nevada (33,596), Pennsylvania (81,660), and Michigan (154,188). But if the finding is that Trump actually won Arizona by 200,000 votes, then he and his partisans can say "When errors like that are being made, then the 20,682 votes in Wisconsin are a drop in the bucket."

Q: Cyber Ninjas is being paid by their clients (the Republicans of the Arizona state Senate) to either "find" additional ballots for Donald Trump, or to discredit ballots for Joe Biden or both. What would be the legal standing of this "audit" if their "results" show a (the intended result?) change in the count in favor of Trump? Just how binding would such a finding be?

We know that there are questions about their procedure regarding security and chain of custody and the like. Has this process tainted the ballots to the extent that a fair and accurate recount will no longer be possible?
D.R., Omaha, NE

A: Forgive us, but we're going to start with a sports analogy here. There are some sports where, if illegal behavior is discovered after a winner is declared, the results can and will be revised. This is common with individual sports and events, like the Olympics, cycling (remember Lance Armstrong's vacating all of his Tour de France victories), and horse racing (for example, this year's Kentucky Derby winner is about to have his title overturned).

In nearly all team sports, by contrast, once a result is final, it's final. Everybody knows, for example, that the Houston Astros were cheating when they won the 2017 World Series (they were stealing the catcher's signs and using special equipment to relay them to batters, so that batters knew which pitches were coming; the stealing signs part of that is legal but the special equipment/relaying is not). And while Astros players are still being booed for their illegal and unsportsmanlike conduct, the team will nonetheless be the 2017 World Series champion forever.

Joe Biden's presidential victory is like a win in team sports—the moment he was certified as the victor, it was all over. There is nothing that can change that fact, regardless of what one or one hundred audits find. And that is before we talk about the fact that the Cyber Ninjas audit is a laughable parade of amateurism, with the result that—even if conducted by a professional firm with actual integrity—it is no longer possible to do a reliable audit of those ballots. The chain of custody has grown too murky.

If a consensus developed that a president's election was somehow illegitimate, the only remedy provided for in the Constitution is impeachment and conviction. However, it is implausible that, even if grave errors were discovered, or massive corruption was found in relation to last year's election, it would be enough to justify this course of action. Recall that, to be impeached, a president must be found guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors." And so, to be impeached and convicted (an extremely unlikely outcome), it would surely have to be proven that Biden himself was a party to fraudulent behavior. Even then, all that would happen is that Kamala Harris would become president. And if she was also party to the fraudulent behavior, and was impeached and convicted, then it would be Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), then President Pro Tempore of the Senate Pat Leahy (D-VT), then Secretary of State Antony Blinken, etc., until someone who was not demonstrably connected to the fraudulent behavior was elevated to the presidency.

There is also one other scenario, but it's even less probable than the wildly improbable scenario described in the previous paragraph. If a president was somehow persuaded that their election was so badly compromised that it would be unethical or implausible for them to remain in power, then they could ask their VP to resign, appoint the losing candidate to fill the vacant spot, and then resign themselves. Assuming all of the key players (the VP, Congress, the losing candidate) agreed to the scheme, that would legally transfer the presidency from one party to the other. Woodrow Wilson was prepared to do exactly this if he had lost in 1916, not because of any possible irregularities, but to avoid the U.S. having a lame-duck president for four months while on the cusp of a world war. There is zero chance the current iteration of the Republican Party would willingly yield up the presidency under any circumstances, however, and not much more of a chance that the Democrats would do so, either. Certainly, the Democrats would never voluntarily hand the presidency over to Donald Trump.

Q: All the efforts to "overturn" the election of 2020 have, naturally, focused on Republican efforts to negate votes in states Joe Biden won. Has there been any activity focused on any (assuming there were any) states that Trump won by a narrow total? Have local Democratic organizations called for recounts ("audit" sounds like a financial crime thing) in any Trump-won counties, cities, or states? T.I., Oceanside, CA

A: No, at least not with the purpose of examining Trump's margin of victory (there have been recounts in a few, very close local races, like in the decided-by-six-votes race to represent IA-02 in the House).

What you must understand is that recounts rarely discover some grave mathematical error, or some large, uncounted box of ballots. Almost invariably, a recount boils down to reexamining ambiguous ballots, and sometimes reaching a different conclusion from the first time around. For example, when the first hand recount was done in Georgia, a bunch of human beings looked at ballots that had already been processed by machines. And in that circumstance, a human might regard a mark as legible, even if the machine didn't. Or, a human might regard a mark as too imprecise, even if the machine accepted it.

Only a small percentage of ballots are ever ambiguous like this and then, on top of that, these sorts of judgment calls tend to be randomly distributed, such that they are unlikely to substantially favor one candidate over the other. Candidate A might gain a vote when one ballot is re-examined and then lose a vote when another is re-examined. Think of it like flipping a coin. If there are 1,000 ambiguous ballots (i.e., 1,000 coin flips) out of 200,000, then they might come up heads 25 or 50 or 100 times more than they come up tails. Or they might come up tails 25 or 50 or 100 times more than they come up heads. But it is unlikely that 1,000 ambiguous ballots, or 1,000 coin flips, will end up 800-200 or 900-100. And even if that does happen, it's still a fairly small fraction of the overall total. So, a recount can shift things a little bit—potentially enough to change an outcome like the one in IA-02. But recounts never result in dramatic shifts, never more than a fraction of a percent of the vote. And there is no value for Democrats in announcing that—after careful review—Donald Trump actually won North Carolina by just 73,971 votes, and not 74,483 votes.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of downsides to a recount. The first is that they cost money, and someone has to cover that. The second is that it would de facto legitimize Trump's argument that you can't really rely on the numbers that were announced on election night.

Now, if you are talking about searching for large-scale fraud, there probably are some Democratic operatives (and some professional academics) looking at that. However, an audit is not the way that fraud is generally discovered. Usually, it is discovered if (1) some party to the fraud gets caught, and spills the beans, or (2) a mathematical analysis of the results reveals anomalies. It's actually quite difficult to fake numbers and make them pass all the various mathematical smell tests.

Q: You covered Donald Trump's strange behavior regarding reinstatement in August very well, as per usual. My question is: In 2024, if his mental condition continues to worsen and is even more obviously deteriorated, how does that affect his qualifications to run for president? J.D.M., Cottonwood Shores, TX

A: The Constitution spells out exactly three qualifications for the presidency, namely (1) you must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, (2) you must be 35 years of age, and (3) you must have resided in the U.S. for at least 14 years of your life. There is nothing there that says "oh, and you can't be half a dozen bricks short of a full load."

The only possibility—and, as with the Biden removal scenario described above, this is very, very remote—is if Trump continues to command his base's loyalty enough to win election, but everyone else knows that the elevator no longer goes to the top, there could be some sort of tacit understanding that he will be immediately removed from office under the terms of the 25th Amendment upon his inauguration, and that his running-mate is the de facto Republican presidential candidate.

Q: Given the false pretenses that Trump is using to raise money (i.e., raising cash to pay for legal and PR expertise to overturn already certified elections based on "The Big Lie"), how long before a class action is aimed at his slush fund (a.k.a. super PAC)? Could any criminal proceedings for fraudulent business practices be instituted, or do politicians/PACs get a free pass? P.C., Yandina Creek, Queensland, Australia

A: A lawsuit is unlikely. First of all, the folks donating to Trump's PACs remain, on the whole, true believers. Second, as you guessed, the rules for PACs are pretty loose, and there are a wide variety of expenses that are acceptable for them to cover. Third, Trump is very good (or, more likely, the lawyers who work for him are very good) at approaching the line without crossing it. If a PAC promises a specific outcome—Donald Trump will be president again by August 1!—then fails to deliver, and never really had any intention of delivering, then that PAC and its officers might have some legal exposure. But Trump is never that specific; he says things like, "Donate in support of my quest to reclaim my rightful position as president." That's not a specific promise, it's merely a statement of purpose.

Q: The federal investigations of figures like Rudy Guiliani, the Trump Organization and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) are incredibly public. How and why does such information drip its way out? I don't think we heard anything about ongoing federal investigations concerning Rod Blagojevich, Jerry Sandusky, or Jeffrey Epstein until they were arrested, even though they were also fairly notable public figures. Blago was a sitting governor, but we knew nothing until the feds broke his door down. Isn't it in the best interest of the DoJ to keep this completely vaulted until it's time to put the hammer down? These men could easily grift/borrow enough money to get a flight and a rather nice penthouse condo in Dubai, Moscow, or Manama (all of which lack extradition treaties with the U.S.). Isn't it extremely careless to let so much information slip out before you absolutely have to? P.S., Marion, IA

A: First of all, let us point out that some of these investigations (like the one of the Trump Organization) are not federal, they are state level. Also, some of the cases you name actually got attention well before any arrest was made. In particular, there were stories and rumors about Blagojevich for quite a while before he was actually popped.

In any event, there are three ways that information about current investigations leaks out. The first is that the investigators choose to reveal the information because they think there is some good reason for doing so. James Comey, for example, revealed in October 2016 that Hillary Clinton was being investigated (again) because he wanted to seem fair, like he wasn't playing favorites. He did not have to do that; he chose to.

The second is that someone with knowledge of the investigation, but who is not part of the investigative team, leaks the information. That could be a witness, but more commonly it's the person being investigated (or someone who is speaking on their behalf, like an attorney). The reason that a would-be defendant might leak info is in order to get ahead of the story and to try to control the narrative as best they can. Much of what we know about Matt Gaetz came from his camp, because he wanted to get his spin in before the feds put their version of events out there.

The third, and most common way, is that the investigators have to go to court and get an order of some sort from a judge. This could be a subpoena for evidence, or a warrant to search someone's house, or a request to grant immunity, or a bunch of other things. While such requests can be sealed if the situation warrants it, there has to be a very good reason. Otherwise, they are public records.

In short, prosecutors generally do prefer to keep things under wraps as much as is possible, but there are things beyond their control. This is not carelessness, except on rare occasions; it's just the way the system works.

Q: It seems that the American right is home to both antisemites (Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-GA, white supremacists, etc.) and also home to the strongest advocates for Israel. Is this a case of "politics makes for strange bedfellows," or are advocacy for Israel and antisemitism not mutually exclusive or something else? Any insight into this dynamic and political history of views of Jewish people and Israel would be appreciated. P.N., Wilmington, NC

A: There are certainly some strongly pro-Israel people, particularly right-leaning Jews, who have decided that the Republican Party is much stronger on Israel issues, and so have thrown their support to the GOP. The late Sheldon Adelson is probably the best-known of those folks. However, much of the pro-Israel sentiment in the Republican Party comes from evangelical Christians, and is not pro-Israel or pro-Jewish sentiment as much as it is anti-Muslim sentiment. Many of these folks view Israel broadly as a hedge against Muslim domination of the region and, more specifically, as a better custodian of the most important and sacred sites of the Abrahamic religions (like the Temple Mount).

There is also a theological issue here. In the end, Islam is a critique of Christianity; the Quran frames Christians as godly, but adhering to a corrupted version of his message. By contrast, for many evangelicals, Jewish control of Israel is a key step in the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, and movement toward end times and the second coming of Jesus.

Q: You wrote: "The challenge for Republican leadership is that they don't have all that many tools available to rein [Marjorie Taylor] Greene in." You bring up (and reject) the possibility that "The GOP could join with the Democrats to expel her from the House," but you don't even mention that it could expel her from its congressional caucus. Why not? In any other democratic country, that would be a completely normal and expected action for a political party to deal with a parliamentarian who has strayed too far off-message. P.M., Albany, CA

A: Any time party leaders think about doing something like this, they must weigh the pros and cons. So, what are the pros of expelling her from the caucus? We don't see any. She doesn't care about governance, or being collegial, or rising through the ranks of House leadership. So, this "punishment" would bother her not at all. However, there would be cons, namely that she would have even more fuel for her martyr complex, and would spend even more time telling anyone and everyone how she's being persecuted. It's when she's in the midst of her pity parties that she tends to say the most outrageous things, the sorts of things that could come back to haunt the Party. See, everyone knows she's a Republican, even if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces to the world that, technically, she isn't anymore.

In other words, it would be like poking a hornet's nest. You won't get anything out of it, and you will probably get stung.

Q: So far, Joe Biden seems to be dealing with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in a friendly way, trying to win his support by strengthening the personal relationship, allowing him to win some concessions, etc. The rationale is that only Manchin can win the West Virginia U.S. Senate seat, and that Manchin knows best how to behave in order to hold his job.

Just as a thought exercise: Would it be possible and would it make sense to take the opposite approach and apply pressure? What about: "You either support the damned bill or you won't get any support from the DNC in the next election?" Would that be a useful threat?
A.C., Aachen, Germany

A: First, while the party would certainly like to retain that seat for another decade, the fact is that by 2024 it is unlikely to be as important as it is now, because it's only really, really important in a 50/50 Senate. Maybe the Democrats grow their majority, and maybe they lose it, but either way, a 50/50 Senate in 3-4 years is not probable. Plus, he might retire anyhow. So, his main importance to them is that he's the 50th vote (or the 49th, depending on where you rank him and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-AZ).

Threatening to withhold funds is not especially useful. First of all, he knows they are not likely to follow through, because then the DSCC would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. Second, he doesn't really need money from the Party; he's a good fundraiser and West Virginia is a cheap place to mount a campaign.

There is no need to play hardball with Manchin until such point that the Democrats get desperate, and feel they have no other choice. And should it come to that, we can see only two ways to hold his feet to the fire. The first is to make him an offer in terms of pork, tell him that's the best and final offer, and warn that it will be reduced by 1% for every week that goes by.

The second, and considerably more unlikely, possibility would be to find some Republican senator who might switch parties, and to use that as leverage. "Either you get the pork or she does," would be the basic idea. To make this work, the Democrats would have to find someone who is reasonably centrist, and for whom they can just back up the Brinks truck, pork-wise. $5 billion won't go that far in, say, Texas, but it would be a big deal in Alaska or Maine. Alternatively, they might recruit a retiring GOP senator—Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is the obvious option—and promise the moon in exchange for six or nine months of apostasy. Either they could offer a golden pork parachute, so he can leave his constituents with one final parting gift, or they could give him some sort of sweet post-Senate job, like ambassador to Italy, or both.

That said, Manchin keeps signaling that he's not open to doing what the Democrats want...yet. That's far different from "I'll never, ever, ever vote to cut back the filibuster." So, it is far from certain that his intransigence will last. Indeed, he may have already told Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) how long he feels he needs to hold out in order for it to look OK to the folks back home. So, they may have a much fuller picture of where he really stands than we do.

Q: I haven't seen much anywhere, but given the "bargaining position" that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has with the Senate Democrats, has it been made clear what he is looking for with the infrastructure package, particularly for West Virginia? I presume he is looking to bring some goodies to his state, but what exactly might that be? R.M., Pensacola, FL

A: Well, he certainly wants a big piece of that rural broadband money. And he knows full well that coal is on its way out, so he'd like money to clean up dead coal mines, to retrain coal miners to do some other job, and to build the foundation of some other industry upon which the state can base its economy.

Q: Now that Representative-elect Melanie Stansbury (D-NM) has won the election in New Mexico's first congressional district, do you know when she will actually be seated? I can't seem to find this information anywhere. M.A., West Springfield, MA

A: Like most states, New Mexico uses a one-size-fits-all approach to elections, which means that the special election for NM-01 plays by the same rules as a presidential election or any other major, statewide election. Consequently, by the terms of state law, the Secretary of State must wait three weeks in case there are any issues or challenges that arise. Then, on June 22, assuming there are no pending matters, the State Canvass Board will meet and will certify the results. Stansbury will get her certification paperwork the next day, which is a Thursday. She might travel to Washington immediately and present her paperwork to the Secretary of the House, in which case she would be seated on Friday, June 24. More likely is that she'll wait until the weekend to travel, and will present her paperwork and be seated on Monday, June 27. Either way, she'll work for about a week, and then she'll get her very first congressional vacation, since both chambers adjourn for the week of July 4.

Q: I have searched the Internet for an answer to this question: "Why was the filibuster changed from a 'talking' filibuster to a 'just say you are filibustering' filibuster?" What was the thinking behind the change? It was as if a home-builder no longer had to build houses, but could just say he/she was building houses—and still get paid! C.T.P., Lancaster, PA

A: The confusion here stems from the fact that the non-talking filibuster, while a foreseeable consequence, was not actually the goal of the rule change that made non-talking filibusters possible. During the Civil Rights era, Southern senators really abused the filibuster as they tried to derail the various pieces of civil rights legislation (sometimes successfully, usually not). At that time, the Senate was only allowed to have one item of business before it at a time, and so as these Southern senators were bloviating, they were not only stopping civil rights legislation from being passed, they were also stopping the Senate from getting anything else done (approving judges, passing budgets, etc.).

The rule was changed in 1970, so that the Senate was allowed to have two or more items of business before it at a time. That meant that filibustering a single bill no longer shut the whole Senate down. However, it also meant that a filibuster had to become an abstraction, rather than a concrete act, since if bill X is being filibustered by Sen. T.C., and the Senate moves on to consideration of bill Y, then Sen. T.C. has to be available to discuss and vote on bill Y. Since people can't be in two places at once, Sen. T.C.'s filibuster must be executable without him actually having to physically do anything.

Q: Scenario: Several Republican senators are out of town, for whatever reason. Chuck Schumer brings up a piece of legislation for a vote, a Republican senator invokes the filibuster, and the Democrats request cloture, which is voted down. A Democratic senator raises a point of order, and the majority of Democrats vote to change or abolish the cloture rule. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema can vote with the Republicans against, while the remaining Democratic majority has more votes and adopts the change to the rules.

Is there any reason this couldn't work? Granted, it's kind of a dirty trick, but considering what they're up against...
M.W.W., Port Orchard, WA

A: We will begin by pointing out that this might be difficult to pull off, logistically. A request to invoke cloture does not take effect immediately; by Senate rules, it has to wait for one full day in which the Senate is sitting before it can be considered. So, if the Democrats appeared to be up to shenanigans, there would be time for absent Republicans to get back to town.

That said, let us imagine that Schumer manages to arrange things such that the Democrats are able to legally raise a point of order about the filibuster at a time when the 50 Democrats and independents, VP Kamala Harris, and 46 or fewer Republicans are present. Would it be possible to carry this point of order under those circumstances, allowing the Democrats to "win" without votes from Manchin and Sinema? That's a tough question, as it turns out.

There are lots of generally accurate sites on the Internet that will tell you that a point of order cannot be carried without 51 votes (i.e., all the Democrats plus Harris). Some of these sites even allude to Senate Rule XX, which is the rule that governs points of order. It is also the case that no point of order has been carried in the last 35 years with fewer than 51 votes (statistics before that are hard to come by). So maybe it really does require 51 votes to pull it off.

However, we looked pretty carefully at the rules of the Senate, and we're not so sure. Consider these four facts:

  1. Senate Rule VI says "A quorum shall consist of a majority of the Senators duly chosen and sworn." In other words, under normal circumstances (no vacant seats), it takes just 51 senators to have a quorum and to be able to conduct business.

  2. As we pointed out last week, Senate Rule XXII specifies that to invoke cloture requires "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn." In other words, it takes a minimum of 60 votes under normal circumstances, regardless of how many members are actually present.

  3. Meanwhile, Senate Rule XX—again, the rule that governs points of order—says "The Presiding Officer may submit any question of order for the decision of the Senate." Note that unlike Rule XXII, it does not specify a minimum number of senators that must be present in order for that decision to be legal. And in the absence of that specific instruction, the default is that quorum is all that is needed. In other words, if 51 senators are present, and 26 vote in favor of the point of order, that should be enough.

  4. A 2017 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), whose literal job it is to look into questions like this, says: "Sustaining [a] submitted point of order requires an affirmative vote of a majority of Senators voting, assuming a quorum is present." So, the CRS also thinks that all it takes is a majority of senators who are voting, and not a majority of Senators duly chosen and sworn.

If Schumer could line things up just right, then, we believe this would indeed be possible. Of course, it would also start a race to the bottom that ends with the majority showing up at 2:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve to call the Senate to order so that they might sneak things past. The Majority Leader probably doesn't want to set things on that path.

Q: Does the Senate have select committees like the House? If so, could the Senate organize their own 1/6 committee as a complement to the House, then offer membership to the Republicans who supported the Commission? Further, would anything prevent the two select committees from working in tandem? P.F., Fairbanks, AK

A: The Senate does have select committees; five of them at the moment. None are "Class A" committees (most important). Two of them are "Class B" committees (medium importance): the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Special Committee on Aging. Three of them are "Class C" committees (lowest importance): the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, the Select Committee on Ethics, and the Permanent Caucus on International Narcotics Control. The different names don't really mean anything; "special committee," "select committee," and "permanent caucus" are the same basic thing. And you would not be wrong if you observed that the senators have prioritized the concerns of those who are aging (again, Class B) over ethics (again, Class C). Wonder why the senators might have their priorities in that order? Hmmmmm...very hard to say. In a completely and totally unrelated fact, meanwhile, the average age of a U.S. Senator right now is 66.4 years, the highest number in U.S. history.

So, the Senate could appoint a special/select committee on 1/6, but for one problem: it would require a resolution, and that resolution would be filibusterable. So, that would be no more likely to pass than the bill that got shot down last week.

Q: It seems that most readers, including you, misunderstood my question. So, I'll try to clarify.

Almost all the countries I've lived in (USSR, Israel, Austria, Switzerland, USA and Germany) issue a national photo ID card to every citizen and resident above a certain age (usually 16). Typically it is a card somewhat smaller and thinner than a credit card, and it lists your name, date and place of birth, address, country of citizenship, and maybe some other data (eye color, height etc.). It is, in a way, a social equalizer: everybody has one, and everybody is required to produce one in certain situations, like opening a bank account, getting a driver's license, registering as a student, and a myriad of others where proof of identity is needed.

This is the card that is required and sufficient when you go to vote. If you have it, you can vote; if you don't, you can't, and no other document is valid, not even your passport (which doesn't list your address), not your driver's license, not your birth certificate, and certainly not some bill that supposedly proves your address.

The card is issued by different agencies in different countries, sometimes national (Israel), sometimes local (Germany), but it is valid statewide and has the same form nationally. This is the situation in most western democracies and some autocracies too. Exception: the United States. Now obviously the debate for and against such an ID has raged everywhere, and before World War I only countries like Russia had obligatory identification papers, even for traveling. So that was my actual question: Why was the outcome of this debate so different in the U.S.? I might add that everywhere else, the simplicity and convenience of a national ID card have won over its disadvantages, and the American resistance to it is seen as rather ridiculous, on a par with your resistance to the metric system, or to the idea that uncontrolled sales of personal weapons are dangerous for a society.
H.M., Berlin, Germany

A: There are two primary issues here, we would say. First, the United States is a country literally born out of suspicion of centralized authority. A national ID system would grant the federal government enormous power over individual lives, would significantly impinge on Americans' privacy, and would also constitute a security nightmare.

These concerns are not purely theoretical. The U.S. government has abused its power over its citizens many times, from jailing people who opposed the Quasi-War in the 1790s, to more than a century's worth of medical and scientific experiments on citizens without their knowledge, to eavesdropping and monitoring of electronic communications today. And that's just the white, native-born Americans; let's not even get started on what's been done to people of color and to non-citizens.

And, of course, other nations' governments have done the same, often even more egregiously. There's a somewhat famous story about how, during a Reagan cabinet meeting, Attorney General William French Smith proposed the creation of a national ID. Most of the attendees, including the president, were enthusiastic about the idea. Then, presidential assistant Martin Anderson, whose wife was a German immigrant, weighed in:

Mr. President, I would like to suggest another way that I think is a lot better. It's a lot cheaper. It can't be counterfeited. It's very lightweight, and impossible to lose. It's even waterproof. All we have to do is tattoo an identification number on the inside of everybody's arm.

That was the end of that idea.

So, it's a risky idea, very open to abuse. And that leads us to the second issue. The benefit that would come with accepting that risk is...what? Though the United States' system of identification may not be as efficient or as one-size-fits-all as those of other countries, it works just fine. People identify themselves every day, and in every context where that is necessary. Elections are run with the barest of bare minimums of fraud and of identity theft. Why fix what isn't broken?

Q: I'm firmly on the side that considers voter ID a solution looking for a problem. However, when explaining that it's onerous to low-income folks to take unpaid time off work to get an ID, I have trouble responding to the counter-argument: "If they don't have an ID, how did they get that job (legally) in the first place?" After all, one needs a photo ID and social security card, or equivalent, for their employment to be legal for tax purposes. S.K., Sunnyvale, CA

A: First of all, if you review the list of documents that are acceptable for purposes of employment (it's on page 3), you will see that a lot of them are not actually sufficient for purposes of voter ID. You can use a school ID card, something that voter ID laws almost always prohibit (because students skew Democratic). You can use a voter registration card, a draft record, or if you are under 18, a report card. Heck, you can even use a Canadian driver's license. So, it is entirely plausible to be legally employed and yet not have ID that will allow you to vote.

Further, people often stay at one job for years, or even decades. Just because they had the necessary documents on the day they were hired doesn't mean they have them right now. Maybe the documents got lost. Maybe the person moved, so the documents no longer have the correct address on them. Maybe the person's name changed because they got married or came out as trans. Maybe the documents expired.

Q: Noting your point that the Texas legislation "makes it a crime for election workers to stop partisan poll watchers from walking freely about the polls," what is to stop Democrats sending some rather large, male, Black partisan poll watchers in large groups to walk freely among Republican voting strongholds—suitably armed of course, as I understand there is a right to carry firearms in Texas? G.M., Sydney, Australia

A: That would not be wise. Beyond the fact that this would give Republicans 10 years' worth of "violent, Black, Antifa, BLM, rioting city-burners" propaganda fodder, this is the American South we are talking about. There is a good chance local law enforcement would show up and arrest those large, male, Black gentlemen, finding some sort of Trumped up reason for doing so. There is a non-zero chance that some sort of riot breaks out, and that one or more of the poll watchers ends up dead.

Q: What is your best guess as to how the many efforts/types of voter suppression ultimately play out? In other words, what is the ultimate remedy for voter suppression efforts in the states? M.O., Arlington, VA

A: The Republicans are going to win some, and they are going to lose some. And since you are asking, we'll say that they are likely to lose more than they think.

There are at least five "X-factors" here that we can see:

  1. Federal judges: It is true that federal judges, particularly Republican-appointed ones, have not generally been champions of voting rights in the last 20 or so years. It is also true that some of them—Neomi Rao, Trevor McFadden, Reed O'Connor, etc.—are so fully in the bag for the GOP that they might as well glue a picture of an elephant to their benches. However, the dismal record of the Donald Trump campaign in challenging election results, including cases before judges that Trump himself appointed, reminds us that most federal judges have integrity. And the laws being passed by Texas, et al. are so over-the-top that the judges may say "enough is enough."

  2. Will it matter?: There have already been a number of studies of turnout in the 2020 election, and whether things like the greater availability of absentee ballots, or the reduced availability of dropboxes, affected turnout. And the basic conclusion is that when people want to vote, they generally find a way to make it happen, and how easy or difficult it is doesn't matter very much.

  3. Who is hurt?: Meanwhile, the Republicans are trying their best to tailor the voter-ID laws to hurt Democrats. But the fact is that the country appears to be in the midst of a realignment, and a lot of poor and lower-education people are shifting rightward. At the same time, well-educated, affluent suburbanites, who are not affected much by these new laws, are becoming Democrats. Laws that make it harder for poor, working-class people to vote could actually end up hurting Republicans, particularly in overwhelmingly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

  4. Who is encouraged?: There is a cognitive tendency called mimetic desire. Basically, when Person A learns that Person B wants Thing C, then that increases Person A's desire for Thing C. Economists also have this concept; they would refer to Thing C as a positional good. Anyhow, we can't find anyone who has studied this—and it wouldn't be easy to do so—but it's at least possible that people who would not otherwise vote will be motivated to make it to the polls just because someone tried to take their vote away. In other words, "Texas Republicans want to steal my vote, so now I want to use it much more than I previously did."

  5. H.R. 1 and H.R. 4: The Democrats' voting rights bills are not dead yet, not by a longshot, and we continue to believe that eventually Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will get on board, with a lot of encouragement (i.e., pork) and much public wailing about how "they made me do it."

Will all of these things break the Democrats' way? No. Will some of them? Yes. A majority? Possibly. That is why we would guess that Republican legislatures are in for some disappointments.

Q: I read your item on the debut of ranked-choice voting in NYC, and particularly how it might result in "ballot exhaustion." I have to think that I'm a bit more civic-minded than the average voter, but I must admit, even I find the scant details being provided about ranked-choice voting in New York to be rather problematic. I believe that when we go to the polls later this month, we will only be allowed to rank up to five candidates for each office. There are certainly more than five candidates running for most offices, so my questions then are: What might happen in terms of ballot exhaustion? Might we wind up with a mayor that was elected by the votes of only, say, a quarter of voters? What strategies might someone employ at the polls to maximize the chance that their ballot will not be "exhausted?" V.S., New York, NY

A: First of all, you are right that New Yorkers are only going to be able to make five choices. Here is a page that confirms that, and also addresses a bunch of other questions.

As to strategy, we would begin by observing that the primary is 17 days away, and only five candidates are polling at or above 10%: Kathryn Garcia, Eric Adams, Andrew Yang, Scott Stringer, and Maya Wiley. The nominee is going to be one of that quintet, and is most likely going to be one of the first three, since Garcia, Adams, and Yang are the only three candidates consistently above 15%. So, if we were you, we would spend the first spot on your ballot on your favorite candidate. Then spend the second spot on your second favorite candidate. Then spend the remaining three spots on your three favorite candidates from the list of five whom you haven't already cast a vote for, giving your third-place vote to your very favorite remaining candidate, your fourth-place vote to your next favorite remaining candidate, and your fifth-place vote to your next favorite remaining candidate. This means that you will have voted your conscience and sent a message about your priorities, but also that your vote will likely shape the ultimate result.

And yes, it is mathematically possible that someone could be nominated (though not elected mayor) with a quarter of the vote, but it's not likely when the polling is this top-heavy.

Q: Why do presidential candidates spend so much time and effort courting Iowa voters for a non-binding caucus that, if memory serves, is not even a good harbinger of future success? Does the data back up my gut feeling? J.E., West Hollywood, CA

A: It is true that the winner of the Iowa caucuses sometimes does not go on to win the nomination. That is particularly the case on the Republican side in recent years, as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz have all notched first-place finishes since 2004. However, it is also the case that candidates who finish outside the top four are basically dead in the water, so the caucuses do serve to separate the wheat from the chaff. Further, in addition to competing for those grossly-exaggerated-in-importance delegates, canvassing Iowa also allows aspiring candidates to practice their stump speeches and their messaging, and to start connecting with donors and with influencers within the Party. So, it's not entirely irrational for a would-be president to spend a lot of time in the Hawkeye State.

Q: I was recently sitting in some of that koresh-awful traffic the D.C. region is known for, and seeing a WVU sticker on a car, I started thinking: If West Virginia had not split from Virginia during the Civil War, and if Virginia currently existed as it did in the antebellum days, what would the current political landscape of that Virginia look like? Would the Democratic Party advantages in Northern Virginia/Richmond/Hampton Roads have been enough to keep it blue, or would crackpot and all-around knuckledragger Corey Stewart (R) be finishing up his term as governor? R.M., Port Matilda, PA

A: It is very hard to know how things might have turned out differently if the two states had remained joined for the last 150 years. Most obviously, the economy of West Virginia might have modernized more aggressively if it was connected to a larger, richer state.

But let us assume, for purposes of argument, that the development and evolution of political allegiances would have been about the same whether or not the two states were joined. Here is the combined presidential vote in the last five elections:

Year Democratic Votes Republican Votes
2020 2,649,552 2,507,812
2016 2,170,267 2,258,814
2012 2,210,089 2,240,177
2008 2,263,389 2,122,471
2004 1,781,283 2,140,737

As you can see, Virginia Prime would be a true swing state, with Wisconsin probably being the most similar state (no state has matched this exact pattern in the last five elections). You could also make a case for Arizona. And the former did elect Scott Walker (R) as governor twice, while the latter did the same with Gov. Doug Ducey (R), so it's not impossible that Corey Stewart might have had a long and successful career.

Q: How much of racial prejudice is due to visceral feelings rather than cultural traditions? And how can we deal with that? To take an example, my high school girlfriend, who was a very intelligent and kind person, couldn't eat in a restaurant if she saw a Black person in the kitchen. She would feel sick. (She got over that and became very liberal in her associations and opinions.) Is there any scientific evidence relevant to this? D.K, Iowa City, IA

A: We can't break it down into percentages, but humans are programmed, at a very deep and very visceral level, to gravitate toward the in-group (often identifiable by the fact that they look the same, because they are kin) and to be leery of the out-group (often identifiable by the fact that they look different, because they are not kin). This is one of the key questions of interest in the field of evolutionary psychology.

At the same time, for nearly 400 years, powerful forces in the United States have consciously worked to focus this tendency on racial and ethnic differences. As we've pointed out a couple of times, rich white folks figured out pretty early on that it was much better if poor white folks saw themselves as allies of others who were white rather than others who were poor. If poor white and poor Black people had joined together in colonial America, and aligned themselves against rich white people, that would not have ended well for the rich white people.

It is indeed possible for someone to correct themselves, as your former girlfriend did. And the basic strategy is, at risk of being facile, mindfulness. As the song goes, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" (because of the cognitive biases described above). And as (Z) has told 200 classrooms full of students, racism is comparable to cancer: it's not going to go away because we wish it would, or because all the people who are afflicted die off. What you have to do is keep an eye out for it, and try to nip it in the bud whenever it begins to show itself.

Q: I have the Spanish editions of these three books: André Maurois's Miracle of America, Carl Degler's The Democratic Experience, A Short American History, and Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. I use them to teach at a local university but I'd like updated texts covering at least until the 2008 mortgage crisis. Can you recommend any options? S.C., Caracas, Venezuela

Q: In last week's Q&A, you mentioned Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which I bought and read years ago. While that book presumably fills the holes in "conventional" history books, it does not cover many fundamental events of U.S. history. I assume most people in the U.S. study its history in high school, but, as someone who immigrated to the U.S. in his adulthood, my high school history mostly focused on Europe. And while I have picked up quite a bit by living here for almost 20 years, studying for the citizenship exam, and reading your site, I would love to have a reasonably comprehensive, reasonably unbiased (by current standards) textbook about U.S. history I could refer to. Is there one (or a few) that Z would recommend? G.B., Buffalo, NY

A: (Z) will start by observing that he's not a fan of textbooks, and he has never, ever used one in any class. That said, he's read all the biggies, and the best one out there is Eric Foner's Give Me Liberty!: An American History. Foner is the preeminent historian working today, and he manages to keep the narrative compelling while also advancing several useful arguments. The book was last updated in 2019, so it not only includes the events of 2008, it actually includes Donald Trump's presidency, and a discussion of how his movement compares to earlier historical movements like the Populists.

You might also consider looking at a collection of primary documents (this is what Z uses in place of a textbook, though he put his own collection together, rather than relying on a published collection). Anyhow, the Foner text actually has a companion document reader called Voices of Freedom: A Documentary Reader. There's also an excellent series from Cengage called Major Problems in American History, which now runs to something like 120 different entries. They have general document collections, but also collections focused on specific eras (Gilded Age, Colonial, 1940s, etc.) and themes (business history, Asian-American history, sports history, military history, borderlands, etc.). The documents are organized by theme, have introductions written by the professional historian who edited the collection, and also contain brief analytical essays from prominent scholars.

Q: You wrote: "Finally, as regards Greene's laughable claim that one can mention the yellow stars without invoking the Holocaust, that's like saying ... you can wear an Andrew Jackson shirt without consideration for the Trail of Tears. [T]he two things are inseparable."

I am ashamed to confess that when heading into a situation that may require cash payment, I usually carry a few twenty dollar bills. I guess it would be less offensive for me to stick to ten dollar bills, right? Or is President Jackson an unacceptable clothing decoration but a reasonable currency choice?
S.Z., New Haven, CT

A: As we've discussed in this space (and in the mailbag) before, there are indeed people who avoid using $20 bills for that reason. That said, when you purchase and then don a shirt, you're making a very conscious choice about how you choose to represent yourself. You have considerably less influence over which denominations of currency end up in your possession, especially since most ATMs only dispense twenties.

Q: What would the outcomes of the American Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis have been if Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and JFK had acted like Donald Trump during the COVID-19 crisis? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: Let's take them in chronological order:

  1. Civil War: The union would have collapsed, as simple as that. In winning the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln not only had to grasp an abstraction (that the future of democracy was at stake), but he had to spend four grueling years constantly persuading the citizenry that abstraction was worth fighting (and often dying) for. His primary opposition, besides the Confederacy of course, was Northern conservatives, who didn't see the value in the sacrifices that Lincoln asked them to make.

    Donald Trump does not do abstractions. He does not grasp them himself, and he certainly has no ability to sell them to others. He also has not the slightest interest in tasks that take four grueling years. Were he elected president in 1860, Trump would have immediately set about looking for the quickest and easiest solution to the secession crisis. And that solution was letting the South go their own way. So, that is what he would have done, and then he would have sat back, basked in the praise that conservatives showered upon him, and then wondered when his Nobel Peace Prize would be arriving, not realizing that the Nobels were still 40 years in the future.

  2. World War I: Of the four cataclysmic events you listed, this is the one that would have changed least, we think, if there was a presidential swap. One of the very few political positions that Trump has been pretty consistent about is that he's surprisingly dovish. So, he would presumably have maintained a policy of non-intervention for as long as was possible, as Wilson did, before being given no choice by the promulgation of the Zimmermann telegram in early 1917.

    Trump might not have done quite as good a job with mobilization as Wilson did, but the key decision there was also the obvious one, namely to put Black Jack Pershing in charge of everything. So, Trump presumably would have done that, just as Wilson did. Further, America's advantages in manpower and financial heft were so great, not having been drained by three years of war as was the case for the other powers, that it would have made up for a lot of mistakes on the part of the president, whoever he might be.

    Once the war was over, Woodrow Wilson personally handled the treaty negotiations on behalf of the United States. And since Wilson wasn't a very able negotiator, he botched them. Trump isn't an able negotiator either, so he wouldn't improve on Wilson, but he probably wouldn't do worse. Plus, given that it rains in France in the winter, and that Trump doesn't like hard work, he might have sent someone to Versailles in his stead. It probably would have been someone lousy, like Jared Kushner or Mike Pompeo, though maybe he would have stumbled on someone decent. But probably not. So, we think the odds are that things don't change all that much if Trump tags in for Wilson circa 1915 or so.

  3. World War II: This one would have been an utter train wreck if Trump was in charge. FDR worked so hard he killed himself. He found and promoted able subordinates. He managed many difficult egos with great aplomb, not the least of which was Winston Churchill. He managed to keep the Russians in check. He showed great discretion, and made sure to keep critical information to himself, like the existence and progress of the Manhattan Project. He rallied the American people and inspired them by his example. All of these things were important to American success in that conflict. Now read this whole paragraph again. Is there a single thing here that sounds Trump-like?

  4. The Cuban Missile Crisis: During the infamous "Thirteen Days," it seemed as if the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were on the verge of a thermonuclear World War III. It was undoubtedly very stressful for all involved, particularly John F. Kennedy, who had good reason to believe that his choices were between ordering the deaths of the first 50 million people or ordering the deaths of the second 50 million people.

    Today, we know things that Kennedy and his team could not know. Most importantly, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev was not willing to push the button (nor was Kennedy), and his real goals were (1) posturing, and (2) getting the U.S. to pull its missiles out of Turkey. Khrushchev got what he wanted, but because JFK stood firm, the President also got a key concession, namely the removal of Russia's missiles from Cuba.

    If you swapped Trump in for Kennedy then, first of all, Marilyn Monroe and Mimi Alford, among others, would instantly end up about $200,000 richer. Beyond that, Trump would likely have been able to avoid World War III because, again, Khrushchev wasn't willing to go there (nor would the dovish Trump have been willing). On the other hand, Kennedy stood firm, whereas Trump tends to fold like a cheap suit when challenged by a Russian leader. So a Cuban Missile Crisis with The Donald in charge probably ends with peace intact, but with the Russian nukes still in Cuba.

There you go; our best guesses. OK, really (Z)'s best guesses.

Q: Do you believe that the rule of law will continue to have a future in the United States? As far as I can see (as a U.S. citizen who emigrated elsewhere a decade ago from being fed up), impunity is the name of the game, and that should be plainly obvious to any observer now—even the most milquetoast moderate. And for that matter, do you really see the United States continuing long-term as a liberal democracy? M.P., Zurich, Switzerland

A: The United States has proven to be a remarkably resilient country over the past two-centuries plus. It's not common that a major national party and its leader have so fully committed to anti-Democratic principles, but it did happen once before with the Southern Democrats, while the John Adams-era Federalists weren't far behind the Confederates or the Trumpers along this particular dimension. Meanwhile, there have been oodles of corrupt and anti-democratic behavior at the state, county, and municipal levels. William M. Tweed, Richard J. Daley, Tom Pendergast, James G. Blaine, and Huey Long, among others, did things that might even make Donald Trump's hair stand on end (which would be quite a sight).

The country will continue to bounce back from these road bumps, right up until the time it doesn't. Could this be that occasion? Is Donald Trump the modern-day Odoacer, who will destroy the empire from within? Could be, but the odds do not favor that possibility.

Q: My wife and I, natural born US citizens living and working in the US, were recently awarded skill-based permanent residency with another western democracy. If and when to move is a personal decision for us, which will depend on many factors (job market, family, etc.). However our circumstances provoked a more general thought. Based on (V's) status as an expat and (Z's) role as a historian, with all else being equal, if you were asked to provide a generalized response to someone in my position who is considering leaving the US and has the ability to do so, what would that recommendation be? Do you see the current threats to voting rights, the January 6 insurrection, and the current state of the Republican Party as warning signs that the human experience of living in the United States will materially change in the next five years? N.M., Chicago, IL

A: Obviously, it depends on your circumstances. If you are closely tied to some location and/or to people in the U.S., don't move for political reasons. Maybe the Democrats will be able to salvage voting rights, but they are not going to magically make 74 million angry Republicans suddenly become sweet as babies. The polarization will only get worse, at least in the short term, as demographic change will make the Republicans an increasingly small group desperate to hang onto power any way they can.

But there is another factor to consider. In quality of life rankings, the U.S. typically comes in about 20th.

Americans think they have the best of everything, but that is simply because they don't know what things are like elsewhere. Income taxes are higher in most of the developed world (although property taxes are lower), but you get much more for your money. For example, in much of Europe, if you get seriously sick, you go to the hospital, show the receptionist your health insurance card, and they bill the insurance company directly. You never even see the bill. University tuition is generally under $2,000/year. You can travel from city center to city center in fast, comfortable trains with WiFi and there is good public transit in all big cities. There are no mass shootings on a weekly basis. Citizens are well educated. Many Europeans know more about U.S. politics than many Americans. There is much less political polarization. The only real issue, where it exists, is over immigration.

Before making a permanent move, we would suggest going to your preferred country, renting an apartment for a month, and trying to live like a resident rather than a tourist (e.g., buy food in a supermarket and cook at home). Although English is widely spoken, especially among young people, you should count on having to learn the local language eventually.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jun04 What Is Going on with Donald Trump?
Jun04 What Is Going on with the DoJ?
Jun04 There Will Be No Presidential Commission on the Insurrection
Jun04 I Fought the Law, Part I: Louis DeJoy
Jun04 I Fought the Law, Part II: Matt Gaetz
Jun04 I Fought the Law, Part III: Mo Brooks
Jun04 Texas Backs Down, a Little
Jun04 West Virginia Ups Its Vaccination Game
Jun04 COVID Diaries: The U.S. vs. the World
Jun03 MacDonough Rules That Democrats Get Only One More Reconciliation Bill This Year
Jun03 Biden Calls for a National Month of Vaccinations
Jun03 Trump Shuts Down His Blog
Jun03 Tampa Man Pleads Guilty to Storming the Capitol
Jun03 Katie Hobbs Is Running for Governor of Arizona
Jun03 National Enquirer Settles with FEC over Helping Trump in 2016
Jun03 Liberty University Is at a Crossroads
Jun03 Bye-Bye, Bibi
Jun02 Biden Speaks in Tulsa
Jun02 Democracy in Danger
Jun02 To Trump or Not to Trump: The Democrats
Jun02 To Trump or Not to Trump: The Republicans
Jun02 RNC Is Already Whining about 2024 Debates
Jun02 Limbaugh's Empire Splinters
Jun02 Stansbury Elected to Succeed Haaland
Jun01 3-D Chess, Texas-Style
Jun01 Voter ID, by the Numbers
Jun01 Bipartisanship, Huh, Yeah--What Is it Good For? (Absolutely Nothing...)
Jun01 This Is Not Fake News...Or Is It?
Jun01 Corporate America Gets Woke
Jun01 GOP Has a Greene-Sized Headache
Jun01 Flynn Appears to Be All-in on Military Coup
May31 Texas Senate Approves Draconian New Voting Bill
May31 Alaska Gives the Texas Law a Dress Rehearsal
May31 New Hampshire Republicans Are Working on Getting Around H.R. 1
May31 Time to Fish or Cut Bait
May31 Biden's Budget
May31 Check Your Calendar: It's 2024 already
May31 Will We Ever Know?
May31 Exhausted Voters, Exhausted Ballots
May30 Sunday Mailbag
May29 The Republicans' Line Holds on 1/6 Commission
May29 Saturday Q&A
May28 As the Senate Turns
May28 Many Republicans Would Like to Move On from Trump
May28 Trump Legal Blotter
May28 Something Else for Trump to Worry About
May28 Today's 2022 Candidacy News
May28 Vaxxpots Are Working
May28 COVID Diaries: The Numbers Are Dropping, in Spite of All the Things We Are Doing Wrong
May27 Schumer to Republicans: The Train is Leaving in July