What’s In A Name? Sometimes Electoral Victory

Greg posted yesterday about the puzzling victory of Alvin Greene in the Democratic primary for Senate in South Carolina.  Greene, an unemployed military veteran with no campaign staff, no funds, no advertising, no speeches, etc… soundly beat an experienced Democratic state legislator who had plenty of staff, money, etc…  How did that happen?

Several prominent Democrats are claiming that there must have been fraud in Greene’s victory.  U.S. Representative James Clyburn thinks there must have been tampering with the election computers.  According to Fox News: “Without citing evidence, Clyburn said the voting machines could have been compromised. ‘I believe there was some hacking done into that computer,’ Clyburn told Fox News, suggesting that somebody at the state could have deliberately bought those machines so that the system would be vulnerable. South Carolina uses a machine called the iVotronic. ‘Maybe somebody wanted the machines that were easily hacked into … We had no business with those machines in South Carolina,’ he said.”

It’s amazing to me that people immediately jump to grand conspiracy theories rather than accept the less exciting but far more likely scenario that democracy is a messy business where voters have low information and can easily make collective mistakes.

I know this from personal (and embarrassing) experience.  The very first time I voted was in the 1986 Democratic primary in Illinois.  Keep in mind that I was a political junky as a kid.  I prided myself on being a well-informed voter.  But even with my high level of motivation, it was impossible to follow every election contest, know every candidate, and make informed voting decisions, especially in a primary election where there are no party labels offering cognitive shortcuts.

At the time the Democratic Party of Illinois, in its infinite wisdom, separately chose gubernatorial and lt. governor candidates in the primary, even though they had to run together as a ticket in the general election.  Adlai Stevenson III was the favorite for the party nomination for governor and he was polling ahead of the incumbent Republican, big Jim Thompson, in the general election.

I was all excited about Stevenson and enthusiastically voted for him, but when it came to lower contests I found myself standing in the polling booth not knowing everyone and having to make guesses about how to vote.  For Illinois Secretary of State the candidates were Aurelia Pucinski and Janice Hart.  I (correctly) guessed that Aurelia Pucinski was the daughter of Roman Pucisnki, a powerful figure in the Cook Country Democratic political machine.  At the time, I hated the machine and so I decided that I would vote against Aurelia Pucinski.  Janice Hart had a nice sounding name and she was running against the machine candidate, so I figured she had to be good.

I made an enormous mistake.   Janice Hart was actually affiliated with the crazy Lyndon LaRouche movement.  The LaRouchies have a political view that is so conspiratorial and convoluted that I don’t think I can explain what they actually stand for — other than that they think there is some malicious plot involving the Queen of England, the IMF, the pentavarite, and some other crazy stuff.

I couldn’t believe it.  I had actually voted for a LaRouchie.  But I wasn’t the only one.  Janice Hart actually won the primary vote.  And Mark Fairchild, the LaRouche candidate for the Lt. Governor Democratic nomination also won.  Rather than being forced to run with a LaRouchie on the ticket, Stevenson left the Democratic Party and quickly formed the Solidarity Party.  The disruption and lack of Democratic Party resources ended up costing Stevenson the general election, which he probably would have otherwise won.

Back in 1986 no one went to the news claiming that some conspiracy foisted Hart and Fairchild on the party.  We just accepted that democracy is messy and that we had made a collective mistake.  Stevenson paid the price, but we moved on, having a better understanding of how imperfect voting is as a measure of true popular will — even though it is better than all other imperfect methods for ascertaining the popular will.

In 2010, however, we have Democratic party officials accusing Greene or others of engaging in some sort of voter fraud, with no evidence whatsoever to support their claims.  Back in 1986 the electorate made a mistake in nominating a few conspiracy theorists and Democratic Party officials disassociated from those conspiracy theorists by temporarily jumping to a newly formed party.  In 2010 the conspiracy theorists are the Democratic Party officials.

6 Responses to What’s In A Name? Sometimes Electoral Victory

  1. Patrick says:

    There were several Republican primary races in Nevada for state office where people who did next to nothing beat people who spent 1500% more money. Nobody cried foul here.

  2. Gerald Baker says:

    Washington Post feature writer Manuel Roig-Francia had an online program today, about “Why Alvin Greene won the election.” Roig-Francia, himself, raised the innuendo that Greene didn’t like to discuss the reason he left the military, tacitly implying that it involved some crime or other bad behavior.

    Actually, if Roig-Francia had read the Wikipedia article about Greene, he’d have learned that Greene was “honorably but involuntarily” discharged, for “failure to maintain bodily weight standards.” It seems that Greene just had a tendency to get a little overweight.

  3. Hi Gerald,

    I have no idea who Alvin Greene is and whether he is sincere, crazy, competent, scandal-ridden, or not. My point is that he appears to have been duly elected as the Democratic Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate in S.C.. Even if he is not who he claims to be or is other-wise crazy, he was selected by the voters in S.C. through a collective accident but they are stuck with him.

  4. allen says:

    Let’s not overlook the possibility that, given the current political climate, being a “experienced Democratic state legislator who had plenty of staff, money, etc…” might more of a disadvantage then advantage.

    I remember the ’94 election and knew the guy who came ridiculously close to unseating John Dingell. It was most definitely not due to his stupendous political acumen.

  5. Hal says:

    Great post with a story I remember well. It seems that voting by name-appeal-only is common for judges, and it would be interesting if there was some research on the percentage of voters who use aids (e.g. bar association recommendations) for those elections.

  6. […] the “I voted for the Larouchies in 1986 Illinois” camp in explaining the situation in South Carolina. And, I probably shouldn’t note but […]

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