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 Campaign About Nothing?

Talk about “vapid.”

On “Morning Joe” today (click for link), the panelists sat around and complained about how little substance there is in this year’s presidential campaign.

“Am I the only one depressed here?” asks Joe. Then the other panelists groan and say yes, they, too, are depressed by this state of affairs. They of course have video clips to illustrate this sad state of affairs.  At about 4:08 in this segment, they show a half minute or so from Mitt Romney’s, and then Barack Obama’s stump speeches. Romney mocks Obama for defending Sesame Street characters, and Obama outlines the symptoms of “Romnesia.” Basically, they’re just sniping at each other with petty taunts. Pretty much standard fare in any political campaign, this year or any year.

From there, for the next 15 minutes or so, the “Morning Joe” panel talks about how unsubstantial the campaign is.

But those two clips are all they showed of the candidates talking. Now, I didn’t see the speeches in question, but I think we can be fairly sure that both men spent a great deal of time talking about matters of a great deal more importance than Big Bird.

And this kind of stuff goes on all the time, particularly on the cable news networks that have a lot of time to fill up during the day. They sit and complain about the lack of substance in the campaigns, but all they seem to talk about is the minutia. Tagg Romney wants to punch the president! Binders full of women! Donald Trump!

In fact, I think this has been one of the more substantive campaigns that we’ve seen in recent years. We’ve had four debates that have covered an awful lot of ground and delineated many differences between the candidates, and even if we think one candidate was better or more honest or more presidential than the other, we can at least agree they talked about a lot of important stuff.

But if you’re going to cherry-pick a minute of video to show the candidates at their worst, and then use that to push your “vapid campaign” talking point for the day, all I can say is, Joe, you’re missing a great story.

My Favorite Year

Today is “Leap Day,” that day in which we celebrate the failure of the earth to adequately synchronize its rotation and revolution cycles. Because if this, it takes us just a little more than a five hours more than exactly 365 days to get around the sun. This schedule sloppiness means that we have an extra day on the calendar every four years.

Cause for celebration, right? Think again. If you’re like me, you’re working today. And technically, since today would be a Wednesday whether it was February 29 or March 1, the extra day we have in 2012 is really the last day of the year—our December 31 this year would have been January 1 of next year, if it weren’t for the above-mentioned rotation/revolution snafu. And December 31, 2012? It’s a Monday. We get an extra Monday for our troubles this year.

But I do always look forward to Leap Years, for two reasons, which won’t surprise anyone who knows me: the Summer Olympics and the presidential election. Both quadrennial events are eminently fascinating, full of drama, and they’ll dominate the “News” and “Sports” sections of the newspaper. (OK, the Olympics become almost invisible outside of their three-week window, but oh, what a great three weeks that is.)

Both, of course, bring their share of angst. The Olympics have become commercialized almost beyond recognition, and network-television hype can be pukeworthy at times. But still, you know that over the course of that three weeks, you’re going to see some unforgettable moments of sheer beauty: a breathtaking 200m dash; an intense back-and-forth duel in a 1,500-meter run; a gritty nothing-held-back decathlon … and that’s just in the track and field events.

Likewise, there will be some dark days when the political negativity will be overwhelming between now and election day in November. Still, it’s fascinating, and there’s no denying that this stuff is important. Even though, at this point, it looks like this won’t be a particularly close election, you just know that the results will be at least somewhat in doubt until the polls close and the votes are counted.

So fasten your seatbelts; it may or may not be a great year, but we know it will be an interesting one.

One Vote

In 1998, I ran for alderman in my town of Rock Hill, Mo. Surprised the heck out of myself, because it’s not really something I ever imagined I’d do. But our neighborhood had had some issues with the city government, and although the particular issues were mostly cleared up, the process had exposed some flaws in the leadership of the city. I was actually somewhat familiar with how city government works, having covered numerous municipal meetings as a stringer for the Webster-Kirkwood Times and the Suburban Journals. So when filing opened for the April aldermanic election and none of my neighbors seemed particularly interested in running, I decided to throw my hat in.

I had my own ideas about running for local office: I worked hard to write a create a good, well-written campaign brochure, and then …Keep reading