Minnesota 2020 Journal: When Distractions Distract
If you think that public policy distractions have little impact on elections, think again. The current Minnesota election cycle is a perfect example. We’re not discussing education, healthcare, transportation, job growth or tax fairness, the issues that matter to Minnesotans. Instead, we’re furiously debating two state constitutional amendments.
It’s not a mistake; it’s a deliberate conservative strategy. And, it’s working.
In 2011, state legislative conservative leaders passed a proposed constitutional amendment limiting the state’s legal definition of marriage. The act did not require nor even permit Governor Dayton’s participation. Holding majorities in the State House of Representatives and the State Senate, conservative policymakers easily passed the bill, placing it before Minnesota voters in the November election.
Once was not enough.
Earlier this year, during the 2012 session, the same conservative legislative leaders rammed through a second constitutional amendment. Once again, they by-passed Governor Dayton. This amendment would require future voters to present a state-issued, photo identification document before being allowed to register and cast a ballot.
In both cases, the constitutional amendments present solutions to nonexistent problems. They are, quite literally, solutions in search of problems. In Minnesota, it is illegal and has been for quite some time for persons of the same gender to marry. The proposed constitutional amendment will make an illegal act, um, illegal-er.
Minnesota has an extremely low incidence of voter fraud. Between 2006-2011, 123 cases were prosecuted. 114 were convicted. That’s less than 20 cases per year. In 2010, 3.1 million Minnesotans were registered to vote. About 2.1 million voted in the Governor’s race. Even if all 114 voter fraud convictions occurred in 2010, statistically speaking, there were so few that they didn’t happen.
Let’s use a higher figure, arguing that five percent of 2010 gubernatorial voters committed voter fraud. That would be about 104,000 people. Anoka County, in 2010, had 193,000 registered voters although, in keeping with state voting patterns, about a third of those didn’t actually vote. To reach the mythic five percent statewide voter fraud level, that would be like more than half of Anoka County’s registered voters conspiring to rig an election. Someone would notice because people can’t keep their mouths shut; conspiracies fall apart when a second person gets involved. And, as the data bear out, public election officials are pretty good at spotting voter fraud.
If we don’t have an election fraud problem, why do we suddenly need a restrictive state constitutional amendment that makes voting more difficult? Because conservative policymakers need a distraction. And, two distractions are better than one.
Conservative policymakers aren’t keen on deep, extended public discussions of current circumstance. Minnesota’s road and bridge infrastructure is crumbling. We’re using its capacity faster than were replacing it. The same goes with wastewater treatment and similar public safety/health facilities. Minnesota is spending less money on education at every level. And, don’t forget that dodgy accounting trick that yanked back over $2 billion in K12 school funds just to balance Minnesota’s state books. We’re shifting the funding burden from progressive, efficient state taxes to regressive, inefficient property taxes. As a result, class size is skyrocketing and educational options are dwindling as schools cope with funding decline’s slow bleed.
Don’t forget that Minnesota’s highest income earners still pay a smaller percentage of their income in state and local taxes than Minnesota’s middle class pays. It’s disturbing that a family earning $60,000 a year is paying a greater share to support Minnesota’s services than a family earning $260,000 a year.
Healthcare costs, while checked by the recession and slow recovery, continue to rise. Federal healthcare reform, which looks remarkably similar to health insurance and care systems already operating in Minnesota, is an important step forward which explains why conservatives want to roll it back.
So, yeah, if I were a conservative policy advocate seeking elected public office, I wouldn’t want to talk about schools, healthcare, roads, tax fairness or slow job growth either. Enter the distraction.
A distraction’s single purpose is to distract people’s attention from the real issues. In rhetorical terms, its called a fallacy, usually the red herring variety. In a fallacious argument, a red herring distraction seeks to draw the observer away from the true, logical path. A rotting red herring creates quite a stink, making it easy to follow even as it misleads. Which, is the point. Distractions distract.
The solution? Don’t fall for it. Talk openly about Minnesota’s pressing problems. Talk to your neighbors and co-workers. They may not agree with you. That’s fine but keep talking. When the amendments come up in conversation, note your position and then pivot into schools, jobs and healthcare. Don’t take the distraction bait. When we focus on what really matters, Minnesota moves forward.