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In recent decades, the United States has gone through a vast experiment in crime and punishment to answer the question: “What would happen if you began phasing out the death penalty?” We have an answer, not that the Trump administration cares.

At Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, you could see people in T-shirts with the message: “Trump 2016. F—- your feelings.” But when it comes to capital punishment, the president and his supporters put their visceral impulses above real-world experience.

In July, Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government would resume executing inmates who have been given death sentences, something it hasn’t done since 2003. The Justice Department says this will serve the purpose of “bringing justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.”

In Barr’s mind and many others, that may be true. But while the thirst for vengeance may be understandable, it is a weak basis for criminal justice. It offers no more protection for society at large than a sentence of life without parole.

Death sentences are handed out in an unpredictable and arbitrary manner. Among the factors are the preference of the prosecuting office, the location of the crime, the race of the killer and the race of the victim.

When it comes to whether the death penalty will be sought, says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, “the biggest factor is not what you did, but who the prosecutor is who makes the decision.”

A murder that might be deemed to warrant the death penalty in one county might not be in the adjacent one, and likewise with one state versus another. In the case of the federal death penalty, the key may be whether it takes place on federal land. The border between life and death can be a literal border.

Race takes a leading role. Studies of different states have found that those who kill white people are far more likely to get death sentences than those who kill African Americans. Dunham says the data indicate that in the capital punishment process, “black lives don’t matter as much.”

The Supreme Court struck down all death penalty laws in 1972 and established standards for restoring them. Most states rushed to make the needed changes, and executions became increasingly frequent, rising from one in 1981 to 23 in 1990. But the murder rate barely budged over that period.

During the 1990s, supporters could claim a turnaround. As the number of executions rose to a peak in 1999, the murder rate dropped by more than a third. But the improvement can’t be attributed to capital punishment, because it was part of a broad drop in crime. Aggravated assaults, which aren’t subject to the death penalty, declined even more than murders.

As dozens of death row inmates were exonerated and public support for capital punishment ebbed, the number of death sentences carried out has plunged by 74 percent, from 98 at the peak to 25 last year. Today, reports the DPIC, 21 states have abolished it, and four others have moratoria declared by their governors.

Barr said in 1991, “We need a death penalty to deter and punish the most heinous federal crimes such as terrorist killings.” Oh? Where is the evidence that it deters anyone? As executions became far less common after 1999, the national murder rate didn’t climb, as you might expect. It declined slightly.

The idea that al-Qaida confederates would be scared straight is especially ludicrous. People who contemplate terrorism are not the sort who buy annuities to provide for their old age.

The 9/11 hijackers were at no risk of a lethal injection, because their own deaths were part of the plan. Suicide bombers don’t worry about prosecution. Mass shooters face a higher risk of dying at the scene than in a prison execution chamber.

The administration’s insistence on pursuing the death penalty makes anger a higher priority than fiscal economy. Seeking and imposing it is far more expensive than settling for life imprisonment for killers.

A study found that Louisiana spent $200 million over the past 15 years on the death penalty system that yielded one execution. In 2008, a California commission figured the state could save about $125 million a year by abandoning capital punishment.

The Trump administration and its supporters, however, don’t care that the death penalty wastes money and fails to deter crime. All that matters is how it makes them feel.

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Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at