Jenny Wolochow studied Philosophy and Religious Studies at Stanford University (MA ‘11), taught elementary school in California through Teach for America, and now works as a Product Marketing Manager for Partners at Coursera. She is passionate about civic engagement and explains why in this post, which also touts voting by mail and links to a great guide she developed to help California voters navigate this year’s ballot. Views expressed here are her own.
I know some of you are disenchanted with American politics – especially this year. But the craziness of this presidential election shouldn’t stop you from participating in our democracy.
Voting is a right that not everyone has, and our ancestors fought hard to earn us that right. It’s a chance to have our voices heard – and it can make a difference. For those reasons, it’s an important responsibility for us to take advantage of that opportunity and to use it well and wisely.
Outside of just the presidential election, there are many local candidates who deserve your attention. In fact, one could argue that state and local races matter considerably more than federal ones. If you live in 35states, specific policy issues will be on the ballot and should also be on your radar. I live in one of those states and have created a ballot guide to help my fellow Californians navigate this year’s voluminous and confusing set of propositions. The guide includes information on the San Francisco ballot measures as well.
Knowing your options for how to vote (i.e., by what method you should vote) is also important. Most states have three voting methods: (1) in person on election day, (2) in person early, or (3) by mail. You can use the resources at vote.org to check with your local elections office to see the available methods and key deadlines this year.
My recommendation: If you want to get the biggest return on investment for your vote, you can get the same “benefit” with a very low “cost” by choosing to vote by mail. As I’ve learned firsthand from being a native Oregonian (voting by mail is the default for everyone in the state), voting by mail has three important advantages over in-person voting:
1) It’s convenient. When you vote by mail, you can vote whenever you have time; you don’t have to worry about your schedule. Traveling out of town on election day? No problem. Too busy at work to get time off for voting in person? No big deal. Not sure where your polling place is? Doesn’t matter. You don’t even have to fill out the ballot all at once; you can space it out and fill in parts of it whenever you have the time. You can choose to return your completed vote-by-mail ballot either in person or by mail to a county elections office. Just remember that your ballot must be turned in before the polls close on election day.
2) It helps you make thoughtful, informed choices. When you get your ballot in advance, you have plenty of time to review it, consider your options, and research issues.
3) It’s more private than in-person voting. You decide when and where to fill out a vote-by-mail ballot and put it in a sealed envelope, instead of having to carry your ballot around in a public place with a thin divider.
Voting is not perfect. Our democratic system is not perfect. But there are still good reasons to participate in it, and it’s often easier and more productive to vote than many people think.
Journalists have been cautioning Bernie Sanders against “suggesting the entire political process is unfair,” insisting that doing so could have “negative and destabilizing consequences.” They contend that he must “argue to his supporters that the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” so that he can convince them to vote for Hillary Clinton. According to several recentarticles, this argument should be easy to make because “The Democratic Primary Wasn’t Rigged” and “Bernie Sanders lost this thing fair and square.”
The problem, however, is that the Democratic primary was anything but “fair and square.” It may not have been “rigged” in the narrow sense in which some of these writers have interpreted that word (to mean that there were illegal efforts to mess with vote counts), but it certainly wasn’t democratic. That’s why only 31 percent of Democrats express “a great deal of confidence” that the Democratic primary process is fair and is likely why the election conspiracy theories these journalists decry have gained traction.
Defenders of the Democratic primary results make several legitimate points. Clinton secured more votes and more pledged delegates than Sanders. When voting rules were less restrictive, she still won a greater number of open primaries than he did. Caucuses, which are very undemocratic, likely benefited Sanders. There isn’t evidence that the Clinton campaign coordinated efforts to purge voters from the rolls, inaccurately tabulate votes, or mislead Sanders’ California supporters into registering for the American Independent Party. While “the American election system is a disaster” and “should be reformed,” it’s not clear that the numerous and alarming voting rights issues that surfaced during the primary (from Arizona to New York to Puerto Rico) systematically disadvantaged Sanders. And discrepancies between exit polls and final voting results can happen for a number of reasons; they aren’t necessarily indicative of foul play.
Yet at the same time, these points skirt the very real ways in which the primary process was “rigged;” as Matt Yglesias and Jeff Stein have acknowledged, “the media, the party, and other elected officials [were] virtually uniformly…loaded against” Sanders from the get-go. The thumbs on the scale from these groups mattered a lot, more even than Yglesias and Stein surmise.
To quickly recap what those thumbs looked like, the Democratic party threw so much institutional support behind Clinton so long before she even declared her candidacy that political scientist David Karol asserted, in December of2014, that “Hillary has basically almost been nominated.” The Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule was “obviously intended” to insulate Clinton from challengers and scrutiny. The DNC, in response to inappropriate behavior from a Sanders staffer who DNC staff had recommended and the campaign had already fired, suspended Sanders’ access to important voter data in violation of its contract with his campaign. While Clinton was dinging Sanders on his ostensible disregard for party fundraising, the “so-called joint fundraising committee comprised of Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees” was exploiting loopholes in campaign finance laws to funnel the bulk of its resources to Clinton and Clinton alone. Even into late May, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was leaning heavily into biased, anti-Sanders messaging, and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign. In addition, leaders of numerous groups traditionally affiliated with the Democratic party – unions and organizations generally more aligned with Sanders than Clinton on campaign issues – endorsed Clinton without polling their members (the groups that did open the endorsement process up to members typically endorsed Sanders).
Mainstream pundits and analysts were hardly any better than the Democratic party. From the moment Sanders entered the race, the mediainsisted – when they covered him at all, which was not very often – that he had “no chance of winning.” They continued to write off the possibility of a Sanders victory even as his popularity skyrocketed and he took an early lead in the popular vote, inappropriately including superdelegates in their reporting to make it look like Clinton was winning big. They asserted that the hundreds of policy wonks in support of Sanders’ ideas didn’t exist, subjecting Sanders’ proposals to far more scrutiny than Clinton’s, getting their analysis of some of Sanders’ plans flat-out wrong, and attempting to “boot anyone not preaching from the incrementalist gospel out of the serious club.” They began to pressure Sanders to drop out well before even half of all primaries and caucuses had been completed. They helped advance the false narrative that angry, sexist, illiberal White men fueled Sanders’ rise when his supporters were typically more power-balancing than Clinton’s and he was actually mostpopular among young women, young people of color, and poor Americans. They also helped the Clinton campaign propagate numerous misleading and/or untrueattacks on Sanders.
In general, as often happens when political and media establishments are threatened, they progressed from “polite condescension” towards the Sanders campaign to “innuendos” to “right-wing attacks” to “grave and hysterical warnings” to something close to a “[f]ull-scale and unrestrained meltdown.” It’s not clear exactly how much of that progression was coordinated, but it takes minimal effort to dismantle theclaim that the Democratic party and mainstream media outlets were mostly neutral. Whether Clinton surrogates were praising her on TV without disclosing their ties to her campaign or technicallyunaffiliated newspaper outlets were blasting Sanders in headlines and post-publication edits to their articles, media sources consistently parroted misleading Clinton campaign talking points. Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride.
It is true that Clinton faced a large amount of negative media coverage herself – much of it in the summer of 2015 and by some metrics the most out of any presidential candidate – and it is also true that the Sanders campaign had its issues, especially when it came to reaching out to and addressing the concerns of older Black voters. But that doesn’t change the fact that Clinton got way more coverage at a critical juncture of the race, a huge asset because “[n]ame recognition is a key asset in the early going [and,] even as late as August of 2015, two in five registered Democrats nationally said they’d never heard of Sanders or had heard so little they didn’t have an opinion.” It also doesn’t change the fact that Clinton was considered the de facto nominee even when media coverage was otherwise unfavorable, a dynamic that surely benefited her among Democrats who prioritize uniting the party in the general election above all else. Though Sanders’ popularity increased as voters became more familiar with him, the initial lack of media coverage of his campaign, Democratic party opposition to his candidacy, and the idea that a Clinton win was inevitable all hamstrung him greatly. If the media coverage he received had been more equitable and accurate, it is easy to show that he might have been the Democratic nominee.
That’s why, when writers argue that superdelegates did not “decide the nomination for Clinton,” they’re only half-right. Clinton certainly won the popular vote under Democratic primary rules, but the superdelegates’ early allegiances and the media’s reporting on those allegiances also certainly influenced that popular vote. Roadblocks from Democratic party elites and misleading or downright untrue attacks from the Clinton campaign, itsmanyhigh-profilesurrogates, and the mainstream media were ubiquitous throughout the primary process and certainly influenced the vote as well.
As Glenn Greenwald summarized, premature media reports that Clinton had won the election on June 6, besides depressing turnout in the next day’s primaries, constituted “the perfect symbolic ending to the Democratic Party primary: The nomination [was] consecrated by a media organization, on a day when nobody voted, based on secret discussions with anonymous establishment insiders and donors…[T]he party’s governing rules are deliberately undemocratic; unfair and even corrupt decisions were repeatedly made by party officials to benefit Clinton; and the ostensibly neutral Democratic National Committee…constantly put not just its thumb but its entire body on the scale to ensure she won.” Combine many Democrats’ staunch denial of these problems with undemocratic voting practices that have favored Clinton and that her supporters have too oftendownplayed, and it’s little wonder that some people believe the election was a sham.
Journalists who disagree should absolutely make their case. They should also, however, more seriously consider where voters’ concerns come from and stop insisting the system isn’t “rigged.” People think “the entire political process is unfair” because it is. And many doubt that “the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” for good reason.
It’s not Sanders’ responsibility to convince people that the primary was something it wasn’t. It’s our collective responsibility to fix our democracy in the months and years ahead.
Sanders has some ideas for how to go about doing that, and they’re a good start, but there’s still much more to offer in this area. Stay tuned.
Update (7/23/16): The following sentence fragment was added to this piece after a Wikileaks release of DNC emails: “and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.” In addition, an earlier version of this piece contained a sentence that read “New evidence suggests that the DNC was along for the ride,” but that sentence was updated to read “Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride” due to corroborating evidence in the Wikileaks release.
Update (10/8/16): Another email leak provides further confirmation that the DNC “anointed [Clinton] the presumed nominee even before the campaign formally began,” as Michael Tracey notes.
Update (10/16/16): Thomas Frank, in a qualitative analysis of Washington Post coverage of Sanders during the primary, finds that clearly negative stories about Sanders outnumbered clearly positive ones by a “roughly five to one” margin, whereas the ratio for Clinton coverage “came much closer to a fifty-fifty split.”
Update (11/2/17): Donna Brazile, who was Vice-Chair of the DNC during the primary, publishes a piece describing how the Clinton campaign “rigged the nomination process” in 2016. Brazile wrote that the joint fundraising agreement between the Clinton camp and the DNC allowed the Clinton team to “control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.”
In Pennsylvania, the biggest delegate prize on Tuesday, April 26, 11 percent of Democratic primary voters indicated in exit polls that “electability” was the “candidate quality” they cared about most. Of those voters, 83 percent cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.
The results were similar in Connecticut and Maryland and have been pretty consistent throughout the entire country; the 8 to 21 percent of voters who value electability more than anything else have overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in every state in which exit polling is available except Vermont (where Clinton got “only” 50 percent of the votes based on this criterion). The strongly held belief among Democratic primary voters – at least, those Democratic primary voters who care most about the electability criterion – seems to be that Clinton is more likely than Bernie Sanders to win a head-to-head general election matchup.
This belief, however, is completely at odds with the evidence. Polling data and voting results clearly imply that Sanders would match up better against any of the Republican candidates than Clinton would. If voters who cared about electability had been aware of this evidence when voting, Sanders could very well be on his way to wrapping up the Democratic nomination (rather than facing a very narrow, though not impossible, path to victory).
I don’t personally value perceived electability very much: I care more about candidate records and values, electability often ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and, given that it requires speculation about numerous unknown factors, electability cannot be gauged with certainty. But I’ve written about it during this election cycle both because there are people who do care and because a fact-free media narrative about electability has been sowing misinformation among Democratic primary voters.
Head-to-head polling matchups against potential Republican candidates are the most direct evidence we have on the question of electability. As the graph below illustrates, those polls clearly favor Sanders, and they’ve done so since before voters in the first primary state (Iowa) headed to their caucus locations.
Pundits continue to insist, as they have for months, that these poll results are “meaningless” (or, at best, that they “overstate [Sanders’] general-election prospects”). They argue that Sanders “hasn’t been attacked” yet by Republicans and that, if attacks began to air, “his advantage over [Clinton] would disappear.” Yet Sanders has been attacked by the GOP; Donald Trump has been calling Sanders a “maniac” and “communist” for the last six months, Right-wingmediaoutlets have been telling people that, under Sanders, “your paycheck will feel the Bern,” and Future 45, a Republican Super PAC, launched an ad campaign back in February intended “to start educating Americans about [Sanders’] out-of-touch record.” In fact, the “glaring [general election] vulnerabilities” one columnist described Sanders as having back in February – being old, being labeled a “socialist,” and wanting to raise taxes – are all things that Hillary Clinton and/or her surrogates have already attacked him for during the primary season.
GOP operatives would surely intensify their attacks on Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee. But the fact of the matter is that head-to-head polling in April is often predictive of general election outcomes and that, in spite of numerous attacks leveled against him over the past few months, Sanders’ popularity has continued to rise steadily. Clinton’s popularity, as the chart below shows, has been consistently headed in the opposite direction.
In addition, young voters, who “arguably won both the 2008 and 2012 elections for Barack Obama,” prefer Sanders to Clinton by very large margins. So do Independents. If the Democrats want to secure these critical voting blocs in November, the next two graphs strongly suggest that they’d be best off with Bernie Sanders as their nominee.
In short, the electability evidence overwhelmingly favors Sanders, and most voters who have seen it, as I’ve been unsurprised to discover while phone banking and canvassing on Sanders’ behalf, find it convincing. The problem is that most people haven’t seen it and/or have been told, erroneously, that it doesn’t matter; that’s the most likely explanation for the exit poll results we’ve seen thus far.
Just for fun, I decided to see what the election would look like in an alternate universe, one in which this evidence was widely available to all voters. Those who prioritized electability would at the very least split evenly between the two candidates, but would more likely vote for Sanders in margins as large as those by which, in the actual results, they’ve broken for Clinton.
Holding every other voter’s preferences constant, these scenarios would have drastically shifted election outcomes. If voters prioritizing electability had been equally as likely to break for Sanders, Sanders would have won Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Nevada. Clinton’s pledged delegate lead would have fallen from 287 to 129, a total that would have been viewed as surmountable. And if Sanders dominated among these voters, he would have won New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well. As the graph below shows, increased awareness of electability evidence could very well have put Sanders ahead of Clinton by 83 pledged delegates.
In other words, if the facts on electability had been publicized and everything else had remained constant, Sanders might today be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
That’s obviously a huge “if” and it doesn’t in any way change reality: Clinton is winning big and time is running out. But electability hypotheticals provide some insight into how the 2016 Democratic primary process, like far too many of our public debates, has been driven more by misleading media narratives than by the facts.
I know, I know – as Sanders likes to remind us, “telling the truth” is considered a “radical idea” in American politics. But as his candidacy has also underscored, that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
Update (6/5/16): Adam Johnson has thoroughly debunked “The Myth That Sanders Hasn’t Been Criticized.”
Jesse Koklas, a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign with a B.A. in Politics and French & Francophone Studies from Brandeis University, recently asked her senator, Elizabeth Warren, to endorse Sanders in the Democratic Primary. A version of the letter she sent is below.
Dear Senator Warren,
Please endorse Senator Bernie Sanders in his campaign for President. He represents the antithesis to the 1%, one of the only other voices besides yours that remains unflinching in the face of corporate self-interest.
When I moved to Waltham to attend Brandeis University, I registered in Massachusetts so I could vote for you. We met at a rally you held with Rep. Markey a few years ago. Thank you for your talk then and your work since!
I admire you and Senator Sanders for the same reason: you both boldly speak the truth. And as Senator Sanders himself has asserted and I’m sure you agree, the truth is that it will take a lot more than just Bernie Sanders to make real dramatic change to our unequal system, controlled as it is by the purse strings of those far removed from the struggles of the average citizen.
People don’t engage in our political process because they don’t feel like they can make a difference. That is a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy, and one we will never escape if we don’t start truly mobilizing the electorate.
In order to win the vote from the well-funded, politically elite candidates, we need all of the people I’m talking to in the street, in my kitchen, and at the local watering hole to come out and vote. Bernie Sanders’ message can speak to them. If these people show up and stay engaged, it will allow someone to take the conversation about our broken system to the oval office, someone who will not back down when confronted by those who still refuse to listen.
This campaign can make a statement about how our current political system has failed to represent our citizens. I think you can help people hear this statement. You could help excite voters to come to the polls for Bernie.
Ms. Warren: if these people come out and vote and become active in the political process, think about the potential: we could change laws that our entire system is based on. Citizens United could be overturned. That’s the type of thing that the Bernie Sanders campaign is all about.
I respect your decision not to endorse anyone until now, but you have an intelligent and dedicated group of constituents who trust your judgment. We know that your compass needle is perpetually pointing north and we need you to endorse Bernie Sanders. You know how to make people pay attention, and I think it’s time America paid attention to Bernie.