Fixing The Election … Process (Part 2)

In my previous post, I offered five ways to fix our election process that will probably never happen because they depend on Congress taking positive action. Today I’m writing about something that we can all do, individually, to make our elections better.

As a decidedly amateur photographer, I know that the easiest thing in the world is to take a bad picture of someone. I can take a dozen shots of a person, and even if we’re both trying to make the best portrait possible, half of the shots are going to turn out with the subject’s eyes looking away, their mouth contorted in some momentary grimace, or whatever.

This being election season, we all are reminded dozens of times an hour of how everyone can be ugly, even if it’s just for the instant of a shutter click. There’s probably a whole industry, these days, of finding crappy pictures of political candidates, so their opponents can use them in ads and make fun of them.

Because that’s where our political system is now. It’s less about building your own candidate up than tearing the other candidate down. And that’s never more true than this year, when both major-party presidential candidates have sported record-low likability ratings.

And of course I know you’ve read this many times before, but please bear with me; I’ll try to be brief. (And don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for.)

Because here’s the thing. We always—and especially this year—hear people saying they’re voting for “the lesser of two evils.” It’s one of the biggest political cliches in America. But I’m here to tell you that in my lifetime, I’ve never had to choose between “two evils.” And I’ll go even further and state that very seldom is there even one “evil” on the ballot.

Politicians are not inherently bad people. I firmly believe that almost all of them got into politics for good reasons: to serve the country, to improve the way government works, to help people, etc. Maybe their ideas are different from mine, but that doesn’t make them bad people.

But like the portrait photographer who ends up with some bad shots, it’s child’s play to take a political opponent’s decisions and micro-analyze them, and frame them so that the opponent looks like the devil’s lieutenant. (Candidate X opposed that anti poverty program: he loathes people like you and me. OR: Candidate X supported that anti-poverty program: he wants to take your money and hand it to lazy freeloaders.) Throw that together with some of those unflattering portraits into a 30-second commercial, and you’ve made your case that Candidate X is evil.

Easy work if you can get it, and a lot of people make a awful lot of money in election years making ads just like that.

All I’m saying is, don’t buy into it. Try not to pay attention to the negativity. Use the mute button. Pause and fast-forward the DVR. Change the channel, if necessary.

I know it’s hard, if you’re leaning toward a particular candidate, not to cheer for the negative ads against the opponent. But you have to keep in mind that those ads are just as dishonest as the ones slamming your own favored candidate.

Even if you really, really hate the other candidate, when you cast your ballot, try to think of your vote as being for your candidate, and not just against the other person. Try not to dwell on the negative.

It does require a little investment on your part—a willingness to actually get yourself behind a political candidate and support what they stand for. Politics and government do matter in our society, but only if people, all of us, are willing to collectively make that investment.

Don’t just vote to keep someone out of office; find candidates who you agree with, and vote to hire them to make the kind of change you want to see.

Thanks, as always, for reading … and happy voting!


Fixing The Election … Process


Ever since I fixed baseball a few years back, the public has been clamoring for me to fix our political system. Well, I’m not sure I can fix everything, but we can start with the process of running elections.

Here are my top five recommendations, to start:

1) Dump the electoral college. This one is obvious. People vote for presidents; states don’t vote for presidents. I’m not sure there was ever a good reason for the electoral college, but there certainly isn’t one now, in a country of 300 million people and just 50 states. People in about 47 of those 50 states cast essentially meaningless votes, because their states are tilted red or blue enough that the outcome for that state isn’t really in doubt. But if you live in Ohio, Florida or Pennsylvania, and occasionally a few other states, you get to decide who will be president for the rest of us.

And another thing: we all grow up learning the principle of one person-one vote. And yet in our most important election, we leave it up to “electors,” who are bound to vote for whoever wins their state, but don’t always do so.

2) Reduce the binary nature of our politics. 

The two major parties have a stranglehold on our system, and that situation has never been less popular than it is this year. One might think that it would be a great year for an alternate party to rise, but it’s just not going to happen. Reasonable voters’ hatred of The Other Party keeps them from considering anyone else, because they know if they vote for someone besides their own party, then the Others get into power. Democrats have to look back only to 2000 for an example of how a third-party candidate can screw up their election; Republicans, possibly, to 1992.

There’s gotta be a a way around this. One idea that seems to have a lot of promise is instant runoff voting: you vote for your favorite candidate, as usual, but you also get to say who your second choice would be; if nobody gets a majority of the first choices, the second-choice votes are factored into the result. That way, at least in theory, you can cast a ballot for your favorite third-party candidate, but also vote to ensure that your least-favorite candidate doesn’t win. Instant runoff voting, or some other form of ranked voting, or even runoff elections if no candidate gets a majority: all of those would help to raise the viability of third parties, and make our political system more vibrant and hopefully more effective.

3) Require—and make it easy to get—voter IDs. I have always presented a driver’s license when I’ve voted. I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked for it, but I’ve just done it. It has always seemed perfectly reasonable that you should be able to prove who you are when you cast a vote.

On the other hand, I think the suspicions of widespread “voter fraud” that have led to all kinds of voter-ID requirements recently are extremely overblown; in my opinion, they are just a naked excuse for those on the right to restrict voting to as few lower-income people as possible. The thinking, of course, is that people of means have no difficulty in getting the necessary ID, but it’s a lot tougher if you are poor and can’t afford to get a copy of your birth certificate or whatever documentation is needed.

The solution is that everyone, automatically, gets a national ID card, for free. If people have difficulties getting them, then the government provides no-cost assistance in recovering the necessary documentation, whatever it may be. Sure, the government will incur some expense. But if people are using the integrity of our election system as an excuse to deny other people the right to vote, then it’s worth whatever it costs to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote is also able to.

4) Improve and standardize voting machines, with voter-verifiability. This should be ridiculously easy to do in the second decade of the 21st century. Here’s how it should work:

  1. The voter makes the choices on a touch screen.
  2. After all contests have been voted on, the voter hits “confirm,” and the votes are put in the system.
  3. At the same time, the machine prints out a paper “receipt” that shows all of the choices the voter made.
  4. The voter verifies that what shows on the receipt is what he/she actually chose. (if not, the previous entry can be canceled and the process started over again).
  5. After having verified that the choices are correctly printed, the voter places the receipt in a secure ballot box.
  6. The votes are counted on the computer at the end of the day. But also…
  7. A certain percentage of the precincts (1 percent? 5 percent? whatever) are selected at random to have the printed receipts counted, to verify the counts on the computer.
  8. In case a recount is required, all of the receipts are available to be counted.

Where I vote, the machine prints a piece of paper, but the paper stays inside the machine, so the voter-verifiability part of the equation is somewhat in question.The ridiculously easy and obvious solution outlined here allows the voter to actually verify that his/her choices are correct, and trust that the proper votes are going into the ballot box. Bonus: no hanging chads!

5) Make Election Day a national holiday. The day of the presidential election is the biggest voting day we have in this country, so many voters end up having to wait in long lines to cast their ballots either before or after work. This is particularly true for those of us who live in states that don’t have early voting. It would be a lot easier if the day were a national holiday, and we could vote whenever in the day is most convenient for us.

And while we’re at it, it would be nice if we could nationalize other aspects of the election as well—like having uniform voting hours, standardized rules for early voting, etc. Right now it’s all up to the states, so we have a patchwork of different voting rules across the country.


So those are my recommendations. They all focus on the actual voting process, not touching on the really tough stuff, like campaign finance reform or the challenge of getting accurate information to the voters. Even so, all of these recommendations require extensive legislative action at the very least, and in some cases constitutional amendments. Which, almost by definition, means they probably won’t happen.

In my next post, though, I’ll offer another solution that requires only individual action—OK, collective individual action—and will improve the quality of elections for everybody.


A Few More Santa Fe Pictures

img_8684The church above is the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church structure in the United States. The original adobe walls and altar were built around 1610, and although it was partially destroyed several times during its existence, those walls still stand. There are more beautiful churches in Santa Fe, but none shine under that beautiful blue New Mexican sky like this one.

This is our last morning in Santa Fe; in a couple of hours we’ll be on a plane heading back to the real world. I have a few more pictures (last bunch, I promise), that didn’t really fit in with the other groups I posted. These range from raw nature to deep-fried kitsch, but that’s how things are here. There are lots of tourists and plenty of gimcrack to feed them, but it doesn’t take long to get away from all of that into some awe-inspiring natural beauty.

So, so long Santa Fe, until next time.



img_8598With just three days left in his term, the first President Clinton declared seven new “National Monuments” by executive order, setting aside large areas of environmentally sensitive land and ensuring that they would  receive federal protection from commercial development. (The move wasn’t popular with some western politicians, who didn’t want to see their states’ land being put under federal control. “What the president seems to be doing is creating an environmental legacy for himself,” said Rep. Dennis Rehberg R-Mont.—as if that’s a bad thing.)

One of the monuments was Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in northern New Mexico, about 25 miles west of Santa Fe. Kasha-Katuwe—which means “White Cliffs” in the native Pueblo language—is an area of bizarre conical rock formations, created from massive volcanic eruptions in the Jemez Mountains some 6-7 million years ago. The eruptions left layered pumice, ash and tuff deposits up to 1,000 feet deep, which gradually eroded over time to form the tent rocks and canyons.

The U.S Bureau of Land Management maintains the site, which has recreational trails that wind through the formations and through a narrow “slot canyon”—with emphasis on the narrow. We visited yesterday on a beautiful New Mexico morning (and to be honest, I’ve spent a dozen mornings in New Mexico over three trips here, and every single one of them has been beautiful). The photos below are some of what we saw.

El Santuario de Chimayo

img_8366Near the small town of Chimayo in Northern New Mexico is a chapel called el Santuario de Chimayo. Built in about 1816, the chapel is a National Historic Landmark, and is well-known for the supposedly curative powers of the dirt that visitors can dig from a hole in the chapel floor.

The chapel is a destination for many pilgrimages, particularly during Holy Week, when the faithful walk long distances to Chimayo—some from as far away as Albuquerque—to offer prayers. (Such a walk would be difficult, but beautiful. The scenery along the roads to Chimayo is spectacular, particularly the last 10 miles or so, which are part of the High Road To Taos.)

The Santuario is much more than the chapel, though. In the gardens around the chapel are countless pieces of religious art, including many representations of the Virgin Mary from different cultures. Even for the non-Catholics like me, it’s impressive.

About that dirt: visitors can dig the “holy dirt” and take it with them, and rub it on their bodies in hopes that it will cure their ailments. According to Wikipedia, the church replaces the dirt with dirt from the surrounding hillsides, “for a total of about 25 or 30 tons a year.”

Photos are not allowed inside the chapel, but check out the interactive panorama on this page to get an idea of what it’s like inside. As for what’s outside, though, see below.

Cafe Pasqual’s

img_2412img_2407At 8:30 on a Sunday morning, you go out for breakfast, and there are already people standing outside your chosen restaurant, and there’s a half-hour waiting list? That’s how it is with Cafe Pasqual’s, our favorite restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M. We’re in Santa Fe this week for the third time, and like each of the other times, Pasqual’s was our first breakfast.

It’s a tiny place, with a maximum occupancy of 49—hence the long wait, I guess. But the food is amazing, and the atmosphere is utterly unique.The walls and ceiling are adorned with all kinds of wild creations from local artists, including some crazy pieces that hang from the ceiling. (More artwork is in an upstairs gallery, although we haven’t made it up there yet.) There are tables crammed around the perimeter of the restaurant, and in the middle is a large oblong table—the “community table,” where you ask to be seated if you’re in the mood to converse with strangers. If we go back there on this trip, I want to give the community table a try.

The food, though, that’s the main thing. Pasqual’s is dedicated to using organic, naturally raised foods, and the menu is full of inventive and unusual dishes. Check out the breakfast menu; I’ll bet there are dishes on there that are unlike anything you’ve seen at any other restaurant. Oh, and a recommendation; if you go, try the Mexican hot chocolate. Yesterday when we were there, Jean ordered the cheese omelette with chorizo, and I got the Durango omelette with, of course, green chiles, a dish I’d gotten before. Both were excellent; one bite of mine and I remembered why I loved Pasqual’s, why I love New Mexico.