That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
October 6, 2018

You are free to vote ...


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Permit me to say at the outset that this essay will not be rehearsing all the Sturm und Drang of the hearings, the investigations, or the protests surrounding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice. My interest is in the voting itself.

The Kavanaugh votes have underscored something I have written about before, but perhaps not in letters bold enough.

Let's see whether I can rectify that.

To understand the votes that confirmed Kavanaugh, it is important to keep in mind the undisputed fact that there are 51 Republicans in the Senate and 49 Democrats (counting as Democrats the so-called Independents — who are no more independent than the vines growing up a university building's wall). To win, it was necessary for Kavanaugh to get only 50 of those votes, resulting in a tie, which tie would be broken by the vote of the President of the Senate, who, you may have heard, is a Republican, and who is permitted to vote only when he can break a tie.

Here are our givens: All Republicans except three (Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) were certain votes for Kavanaugh; all Democrats except one (Joe Manchin of West Virginia) were certain votes against.

All the Republicans, except Flake, who does not intend to seek re-election, have a similar problem. If they vote against Kavanaugh, they incur the wrath of party bigwigs, which will mean the loss of funds for an eventual re-election campaign, and the possible funding of a primary challenge. Perhaps they will lose committee assignments and chairmanships as well.

Manchin faced a similar prospect. In 2016 his state went for Donald Trump by quite a lot. A vote against Trump's pick for the Supreme Court could well cost him re-election.

What to do? What to do?

Actually, the question for Murkowski and Manchin was solved conveniently — not by consideration of Kavanaugh's merits or shortcomings, and not even by consideration of future consequences.

It's almost a little lesson in Game Theory. All we need to assume is that none of the four knows in advance how the others will vote. The alphabet will do the rest for us.

Once Susan Collins and Jeff Flake (for whatever reasons) have voted "yes" on the procedural vote that preceded the final vote, Joe Manchin knows that the Republicans will have 51 votes if Murkowski toes the party line, and 50 votes if she does not (and therefore there will be a tie, and therefore a win for Kavanaugh). Therefore, it does his party no harm if he votes for Kavanaugh, and it does Kavanaugh no harm if he votes against him. Since a vote against Kavanaugh will damage his re-election prospects, Manchin decides to vote "yes."

It is worth mentioning at this point that it is not just that Manchin "decides" to vote "yes." He is permitted to vote "yes" by his party overlords, who will not punish him for his vote. They will be understanding of his predicament, and in any case, keeping that party's hold on the West Virginia Senate seat is even more important than the Kavanaugh vote.

Once Collins and Flake have voted "yes," Lisa Murkowski knows that her vote will not affect the outcome. And Manchin's vote seals the deal: there will be no need to bring in the President of the Senate after all. She is now free to look to her own interests in making her decision, and she can vote "no" (or "present"). Her vote will not affect the outcome, and her party overlords will also be understanding and will not punish her.

In other words, what made the two senators whose names come later in the alphabet free to vote according to their interests was the fact of arithmetic: their votes would not affect the outcome.

Any number of other writers and radio commentators have pointed out that the Murkowski vote was irrelevant, once the other three had been cast. But I flatter myself that they have not drawn the same lesson that I shall draw.

Before I make that explicit, however, permit me now to recall a column I wrote in 2013 concerning the presidential election of the previous year. In that election the Conventional Press had been authorized to report repeatedly their expectation that the outcome of that election would be very close. Much too close to predict in advance. In particular, Virginia and Florida would be "swing states," and the entire election might depend on what happened in those two states.

This sort of reporting often has the effect that people do not vote for a third-party candidate they might prefer to vote for. In fact, in the previous primaries, they might not even have voted for the major-party candidate they preferred. They vote for someone they believe — on the basis of what? — can win.

In the event, the results of the election were announced about 10:30 pm — a Luo had won re-election, in case you are wondering — and the results in Virginia and Florida had not yet even been calculated.

In other words, because of the Electoral College (now much maligned), every vote in Virginia (and every vote in Florida) could have been cast for the Luo's opponent, and it would have made no difference to the outcome. Every vote could have been cast for a third-party candidate. Or even been a "write-in." Or even a "none of the above" vote. And it would have made no difference whatever to whether the Luo continued to hold his seat on Air Force One.

Finally, let us look at the Electoral map for 2016.

To win the election, Donald Trump needed 270 votes. In fact he won 304. Most of us were startled when we saw that he had, against all expectations, won Wisconsin and Michigan, whose final numbers were calculated (or at least reported) quite late.

But note this arithmetical fact: By that time all votes had been cast. No calculation in any state would alter the results in any other state (discounting the possibility of Lyndon Johnson-style counting). And the numerical fact is stark: Trump did not need Wisconsin's 10 Electoral votes; and he did not need Michigan's 16 Electoral votes; and he did not need both of them. 304 minus 26 equals 278, still enough to win.

In other words, every vote in those two states could have gone, as they were expected largely to go, to Hillary Clinton, and she still would have lost. Every vote could have gone to Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, and Donald Trump would still be president today. The voters of those two states were free to vote for anyone they wished, and it would have made no difference to the outcome.

Let us delight in the similarities between the 2012 vote and the Senate's vote for Kavanaugh, and between the 2012 vote and the 2016 vote. The people who were freest to vote their interests or their beliefs — free from the fear of consequences of an undesirable outcome — were exactly those people whose votes had no effect on the outcome.

To be sure, the voters in 2012 and 2016 did not know in advance which states would matter and which would not. But we can see, can we not, that in most elections there will be states in which the outcome does not depend on what happens in them?

Let us learn, then, from this paradox, and savor it: Your vote is freest when it does not matter. Ω

October 6, 2018

Published in 2018 by WTM Enterprises.

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