Mdog Rides Again
The Natural Cost of Clean Money

By now, most folks in the tech world have learned about the controversy surrounding a donation to an anti-gay-marriage organization by Mozilla’s new CEO.  The controversy around that is being robustly discussed elsewhere, but it’s made me think hard about the issue of “clean money” and the conflict between transparency and anonymity.

I may down on this by the end of this post, but let me start from the a position of individual liberty:  It’s a violation of a person’s rights to have the government surveil and record acts of political speech, which includes donating money to chosen political causes.  If I purchased $1000 worth of paper, markers and sticks, and made a pile of yard signs to support a cause or candidate and then gave those to passers by, should I be required to register this act with  a government agency?  What if I paid my out-of-work friend to help me?  What if I gave $1000 to a like-minded campaigner to do it for me?

At the other end of this spectrum is the corrupt situation we’re in today:  Money that supports political campaigns comes in no small part from corporate special interests, and it’s not easy for a voter to understand where politicians get their money, and thus who is going to have influence about how our government functions.

Maybe the solution is to draw a hard line between corporation and individuals…or so the thinking goes.  I question this rationale for several reasons.  If I want to open a issue-oriented hot dog stand and put my profits towards a political candidate, what right does anybody have to tell me that I can’t do that?  Large corporations may not be hot dog stands, but they are by definition good at acting in their own financial best interests, and even if you could convince me that there’s a moral way to disallow corporate speech, I don’t think that there’s a practical way to do it:  Money finds a way of getting whether it “needs” to go despite rules to the contrary.  If corporations can’t speak, the money will find a way to things that can…I think it’s a hopeless game of cat and mouse, and frankly I’m glad the game was lost more quickly with the Citizens United decision because it means we might be able to work on a real solution more quickly instead of just band-aids.

This is a classic battle between a real-world problem that desperately needs to be fixed and a natural right that is at risk of being violated if you try.

I’m inclined to think that honoring the rights of individuals to anonymously speak is worth going to great lengths to protect, and I therefore think that the right thing for our country to do is to adopt public financing of elections…not because it’s going to result in a radical change of who’s in office in the short term, but because it means that those who do hold office don’t have the same incentives they would otherwise have to please their campaign funders.

And let’s not forget to mention changing our voting system.

 

I Went a Little Nuts When I Saw this Situation at the Passport Office

Short version:  The passport office near where I live is so understaffed, people are expected to line up outside on Saturday morning at 7AM so they can take a number when it opens hours later.  I was so stunned I created a petition on Whitehouse.gov about it.

Long version:  I also wrote to my representatives (Lofgren in the house, Feinstein and Boxer in the Senate):

Thank you X,Y,Z for your service to our country.  I was stunned by what I saw at the Willow Glen passport office (1750 Meridian Ave, San Jose, CA) this past Saturday (March 15, 2014), and I’m writing to make sure my representatives are aware of the situation and hoping that this awareness will spur them to act.

I went to mail a package on Saturday morning about 10:15 with my two daughters.  We walked by the passport office (a separate entrance, but part of the same building the post office is in), and I saw that there were signs on the door…I figured that perhaps someone was out due to illness or something.  When I went in to mail my package, I asked the postal employee what was happening over at the passport office.  They said there had been “cutbacks” that reduced the number of clerks to only 1, and that all passport appointments were consumed for the day.  She went on to say that if I ever needed something from the passport office, I should plan to arrive at 7 in the morning and stand in line for hours until the office opened.

Passport offices are an important resource for all Americans, and it’s a mark against our country that it would be so overwhelmed with customers that it would take hours and hours for a family to perform a routine task.  I’m especially saddened at how this harms working people who cannot necessarily take time off work during the week.
This lack of appropriate staffing hurts not only employees and customers, but it also damages the standing of the United States abroad by making it more difficult for US citizens to travel and positively represent the American people to the world community.

I would appreciate any efforts you could make, especially in partnership with your colleagues from across the isle, to study and remedy this situation hastily.  Thank you again for your service to our country and best wishes.

4gifs:

Next level sagging. [vid]

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Next level sagging. [vid]

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Cat vs T-rex. [video]

Rarrrr

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Cat vs T-rex. [video]

Rarrrr

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Smack Cam fail. [video]

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Smack Cam fail. [video]

Are Open Primaries the Way to Get Past the Two-Party System?

Maybe I live in a bubble, but it seems like almost everybody would love to ditch America’s two-party political system.  If it weren’t so impossible due to our institutions, it’s be a sure bet….

Let me begin with an off-the-cuff history of elections in the US.  In the bad-old days, political parties picked who their candidates were behind closed doors.  The electorate got tired of the smoke-filled room stuff and insisted that party primaries be open to voters.  For the most part, that’s where election reform has stood for the past 100 years:  Open primaries, and then a general election where the party candidates compete.

Fast forward to California (and several other states) circa mid-2000s.  Primaries in California are now “open”:  All the candidates are lumped together for the primary, and the “top two” advance to the general election, irrespective of their political party.

At first glance, this seems like a major blow against the two-party system, since they now have no role in constraining who voters select.  But in the real-world, the results can be very troubling.  Take this example from 2012:

In the 31st Congressional District down in Southern California, it’s a majority Latino district, but there were so many Latino Democrats running in the primary that they split the vote. And the two Republicans - only two Republicans […] ended up getting the most votes. So now, you have this majority Latino district being represented by a Caucasian Republican.

—Steve Chessin, President, Californians for Electoral Reform (CfER)

That’s just one scenario, but there are countless other scenarios that either put an unpopular candidate into office.

Instant Runoff Voting (also known as Ranked Choice Voting) accomplishes what the supporters of open primaries intended without falling prey to the problems above.  IRV allows voters to vote only once and rank their choices, with votes being tallied by eliminating the least favored candidate and transferring those ballots to the next preference until a winner emerges.

In the case of the 31st Congressional District, Democratic voters would likely have ranked their preferred Democratic first, followed by the other three Democrats, and only then would they have ranked Republicans.  The tallying process would have resulted in Democratic candidates being successively eliminated and having the associated ballots transferred to the next-most-preferred Democratic candidate, until a Democratic candidate had over 50% of the votes and was declared the winner.  It’s also possible to structure an election so that there are still two rounds, but the candidates that advance to the general election are chosen by IRV tallying until two candidates remain.  This too would have corrected the problem of Democratic candidates splitting the vote.

Open primaries play to the electorate’s strong desire to move past two-party politics, but the evidence just doesn’t show that it is a viable answer.  Skip the open primaries snake oil and hold out for real electoral reform!

Wat

Wat

Vote!*

I’ve been pretty religious about voting in every election since I turned 19 or 20.  I can remember flaming a good friend of mine who shall remain nameless when I found out he wasn’t planning to vote in an upcoming election.  Our conversation when something like this:

"Yeah, I’m not informed enough about the issues so I don’t think I should vote."

"That’s crap, you could take one hour and be informed about things enough to vote.  Stop being lazy."

And he voted and we all lived happily ever after.

Fast forward about 7 years and I’m still voting religiously, or at least I thought I was.  I’m a (minor) shareholder in a company that shall remain nameless.  I received a ballot in the mail asking me to participate in a shareholder election to elect the board of the company.  I put the ballot in my backpack and resolved that I’d maybe look at it some time in the next few weeks.  Naturally I forgot about it and opened it a while later and found the deadline had passed.  Meh, no big deal, I threw it away.

Some number of weeks after that, it hit me square in the face:  This is the way a lot of people feel about real elections!

I walked through my catalog of feelings about why I didn’t really care about the shareholder election:

  • The result of the election won’t impact my life
  • The system is rigged such that it’s Tweedle Dee vs. Tweedle Dum; there’s no difference between the people I might vote for
  • I don’t really care how well the company is governed (short-term gains aren’t on the table, long-term gains are too distant to worry about)

And there I was, feeling exactly the same feelings that people who don’t vote feel!

I haven’t figured out whether I ought to care more about voting in shareholder elections, but I have thought about why I do care more about governmental elections:  For whatever reason, I spend a lot of my attention on things like worrying about US foreign policy and how to improve our society at home, and therefore there is a big impact on me.  But what if I were living a different life where those things didn’t weigh on me?  For the “rigged” feeling, that’s the reason I spend my energy working on electoral reform, because I want to see our election system changed to allow for real choice and representation.

I feel like I ought to have a home run last paragraph, but I don’t…I still have mixed feelings about my apathy toward the shareholder election.  As for apathy towards real elections, I guess the key is to make people feel connected to the outcome, i.e., to the governance of our country or state or city.