Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Revamping the Electoral College

I remember having discussions with friends during the last election/travesty in 2004. My main sticking point with the process by which we choose our leaders (besides the ludicrously petty and unethical atmosphere of campaigning that has become the norm....swift boat vets for truth, I'm looking at you...) is the way the electoral college is set up.

N.B. This is NOT an argument for getting rid of the electoral college. Read on.

Now don't get me wrong, I support the electoral college. It's an important embodiment of the federal nature of the government, representing that states as entities, etc etc etc. I understand why a straight direct vote doesn't work. However, I think the "winner takes all" method of dividing electoral votes is neither necessary, nor in line with the fundamental principles the college and its architects envisioned for this great democracy.

The current system gives the whole of a state's electoral votes to the candidate with the greatest percent of the popular vote. That means a 51%/49% split gets represented as a 100% win. This is a perennial gripe in states like my native NY, who are largely red outside of the NYC area and select other cities. In fact, a look at the final returns from the last election shows that few if any states are all or nothing for one candidate, and the overwhleming majority are very close to 50/50 splits, with a point or two making the difference.

( is a great non-partisan resource for straight data without spin/influence.)

So we wind up with a situation where a state is "red" or "blue" based on a couple percentage points, rather than an overwhelming mandate from its citizens.

The inherent problem is not the college itself, which ensures that states are not completely overshadowed by spatial distribution of population by region, etc. This is a worthwhile and necessary thing. however, the "winner takes all" way of dividing the electoral votes IS NOT NECESSARY TO SERVE THIS PURPOSE.

The assumption I hold to be false is that a state can only vote one way or the an individual. I cannot split my vote, so the traditional thinking is, that as a state is an entity under the federal system, either can it. I completely disagree, because that concept runs smack dab upside the head of the more fundamental concepts of the man, one vote, et al. A state is an entity as far as interaction with the national government over spheres of influence, but I would hold that it is not a voting entity. Even under the current system, the "state" as an entity is not deciding a vote, it is merely reporting the result of the outcome of the REAL voting entities, the people. If the political subdivision as entity theory was sound, then each successive level of government would in effect represent its own voting entity. Each municipality, each county, each senatorial district, and so on, each with their own electoral college, etc. This is not the case. Certainly the state as an entity in our federal system is unique from these poltiical subdivisions, but not, I would argue, in the sense that it represents a voting entity. Its uniqueness derives from the general division of regulatory powers. As the election is for a national office, and as the standard unit of voting is "one man", the state's unique status in the federal system in terms of regulatory powers does not impart on it a presumptive right to supercede the individual citizen's expressed right to exercise their vote. In essence, under the US federal system, I would argue that the true division of government is among three parties, the national/federal government, the state governments, and the individual. This is the trinity, as it were, or centuries of legal precedent in other realms. For some reason, however, when it comes to the electoral college, the state usurps to some degree the rights held by the individual.

So we are left with two competing interests:

1) the states' interest in the original intent of the electoral college, i.e., to ensure that the non-uniform nature of population distribution is mitigated to some degree by ensuring that every state has at least SOME (though NOT equal) say in the electoral process, as is also mirrored in the setup of the Senate to a more pronounced degree, and;

2) the indivudal's interest in exercising their vote on the national level without impedance by the state, i.e. to have their vote count at the national level, and not be lost in the winner takes all decision made on the state level.

While this would seem to represent an either/or argument for the existence of the electoral college in general, I would argue that the two aims are ONLY incompatible under the current "winner takes all" system. I would also go further to argue that that system is not necessary to meet the interest of the states, and is the antithesis of meeting the interests of the individual.

So what to do?

Proportionate Representation (the Purple State Solution)
My idea, which has undoubtedly been thrown about for centuries before it popped into my humble head, is for states to divide their electoral votes based on the outcome of the total vote in that state. Any remainder would go to the "winning" party of that state.

Example: California's total vote comes out as 58% democrat, 42% republican. California has 55 EVs. Ordinarily that would mean the Dems pocket all 55 EVs. However, under a proportional representation setup, the electoral votes would be split up as Dems 31.68 (58 % of the 55 EVs) and Republicans 23.31 % (42% of the 55 EVs). To stick with whole votes, the sum of the remainders is given to the higher percentage. The Dems got a higher percentage, so they would recieve 32 votes, and the Reps, 23.

Under this system, the actual "voice" of the voters in any given state, and at the national level, is more truthfully represented. Because the NUMBER of EVs a state gets doesn't change, the states' interest regarding representation is still entact. Essentially, California still casts the electoral votes, it just doesn't have to cast them all for one person. The substantial chunk of republicans in california whose voice rarely is heard becomes important.

I believe this system is vastly superior to the current system because of the following benefits:

1) The one man, one vote concept is held true at all levels, while at the same time keeping the original intent of the EC intact.

2) many states (like NY, CA, TX, etc) are perenially won by the same party, leaving the voters of the other party with what essentially amounts to no say in a national election, contrary to the individual voter being the essential unit of said national election. Republican voters in NY don't often get the chance to influence a national election, as the state almost invariably goes blue.

3) The national election and campaigns truly become national, with each candidate having to fight for votes in every state, not just "battleground states". To be truly successful, a candidate now has to appeal not just to one select set of demographic categories or regions, but to all of them.

4) related to #4, the venemous and increasingly polarized partisanship of a winner takes all system in which "red and blue" states is the determining factor is diminshed in effectiveness. In a sea of purple states (red AND blue) a more moderate/centrist approach becomes more viable.

5) As per the original intent of the EC to mitigate some degree of the spatial disparity of population distribution on the national level, a proportional system would help ensure that the same mitigation takes places on the state level. States seldom have uniform population distribution, and party affiliation in most states closely mirrors spatial distribution. Therefore, the same fear the states/regions had about representation on the national level at the outset is valid for individuals within a state. A republican farmer in upstate NY suffers the same isolation from the decision-making process on the state level (in terms of the national election) as some states feared they would. While the electoral college serves to partially mitigate that, and the Senate allocation continues to do so, there is no such protection for the individual within a state, under the winner takes all system. There is greater protection under proportional representation, because it essentially renders spatial distribtion moot.

6) a Two-party system has lead to a considerable entrenchment and polarization of the platforms of the two parties and the nation. The ability to gain EVs without winning a state will open the doors for greater participation by third parties, and thus greater participation for the constituents who support them.

In essence, proportional representation offers a more valid accounting of the will of both the states and the nation. Since states by defintion in our federal system, are separated by their regulatory spheres, not a status as a voting entity, and as they are already represented in that capacity in the Senate, the states' interests are not diminshed. If anything, proportional represnetation serves the same goal on the state level that the EC in general serves on the national level.

I realize this is a mental exercise, and not much else. We are firmly entrenched in our current system, and greater minds than I can probably tear my argument to shreds. However, to me there is an underlying spirit to the great American experiment in democracy. That spirit is one of equality under the law, and the unalienable status of each indivudal in relation to his government. Even against a sea of rhetoric and semantics in support of "winner takes all", I cannot help but feel it is wholly unable to be reconciled with this fundamental American spirit.

Cliffs notes: I think the "winner takes all" system of allcoating electoral votes from states (in which all votes go to the winning party regardless of what % they won by) is antithetical to the fundamental concepts the country was founded on, and am arguing that electoral votes should be divied up by the % a party won in a given state, with any remainder (less than full electoral vote) going to the "winning" party of that state. I argue that this supports both the fundamental prupose of the EC as well as the fundamental role of the individual in the national election. In the spirit of transparency, I am an independent, consider myself fairly moderate, and will be voting for Obama this election. However, what I have suggested here is not for the benefit of a political party (in fact, this system would favor the republicans currently), but for the nation as a whole.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I (don't) Like Ike.

For all three of you who might actually see this, we're getting ready for a hit from an actual storm. Prayers, good thoughts, etc welcome.

This is my timeline.


8 AM - assigned to the Emergency Operations Center. Ike is looking like it's hooking our way. We got complacent after the last couple misses, and Ike had originally looked to hit further down the coast. No such luck. I have a friend flying in from Germany tonight. Poor fellow. Kate has a half day, and the day off tomorrow. Again, no such luck here. I'm "essential personnel".

11 AM - staffing the emergence command center. Not half as exciting as it sounds. The tracking models show us getting a direct hit. Tomorrow starts a series of 12 hour shifts. There's soemthing to look forward to. Apparently all the local stores are wiped clean. So I'll have maybe 5 hours to completely get our apt. ready before being at work for an indefinite amount of time. There's a stack of resumes I've been meaning to send out. Right now they are laughing cruelly at me.

12:30 PM - Storm growing more menacing, but free lunch. Universe is in balance for the moment.

4 PM - Still manning the emergency operations center...imagine a smaller version of the NASA ground control room..rows of monitors and computers, very impressive...just on a much smaller scale. Itching to get home and start boarding things up.

10 PM - A long day work done, apartment as storm prepared as it will be. Very anxious. Looking to be a direct hit without hope of reprieve. We've had a lot of close calls, and they're a bit of a "it could have been" thrill. But this one just feels bad all around. May be a sleepless night.


8 AM - We wake up to what sounds like continual rain, but on inspection, it's just the air conditioner outside kicking over on high. It's actually a beautiful morning. Small wispy clouds and bright sunshine. We're still planning on sheltering in place. Emails from friends are pouring in. Concerns are being drowned in a large breakfast.

10:45 AM - Looks like we'll be on the "clean /west side of the storm, but still pretty close to the eye. This will definitely be an e-ticket ride. Lots of friends sending well wishes and invites. We set up three potential evacuation targets, at three other friends houses, and are well stocked for food, water, and beer. I have been taking pictures of our view from the apt. every few hours , and will post them when I get a chance.

1 PM - We make the decision to stay at the apartment. We have several options, including two houses. However, given considerations of distance (and ability to get back) and large trees in the area (we just have tiny crepe myrtles here). We took a drive around our apartment complex...everyone still seems to be here, and only a couple windows are boarded up. The massive supermarket in the shopping center across the street is still pretty hopping. The sun came out for a little, although clouds are now starting to be prevalent. There is a light breeze.

3 PM - I'd say the waiting is the worst part, but I'll save that judgment for the aftermath. We have filled up a bathtub with water and have supplies ready to go if we need to run at any point.

5:45 - We are starting to get preparation can only prepare and worry for so long before it becomes pretty tiring. We actually went out for a walk on a greenway trail nearby. The wind is kicking up a bit, with a few more clouds, but nothing drastic. There is something ...wrong in the air. Nothing you could put your finger on it, just a harbinger of unraveling of the social fabric. Something not quite right, just a bit off. Something wicked this way comes... But for now we're really a bit bored. I feel horrible that I have a friend visiting this weekend...what a way to guarantee someone never comes back:) Lunch was almost surreal...we had a very nice sit down lunch, it just seemed so civilized in a chaotic time. Dinner will probably be the same...might even go out..there are still neighborhood restaurants open...bizarre. My friend and I go for a walk, even in the gathernig wind, at the local park. To add to the oddness, we are caught in a police raid around a house we have parked by, and are required to stay in our car while the pd question us. They eventually ascertain we have nothing to do with whatever's going on, and let us go after some questions. We go for our walk anyway.

7:30 PM - We eat dinner. It's so odd that something so banal seems so extraordinary. It was quite a nice simple dinner. With cookies. The wind has picked up fairly significantly. The sunset was fantastic tonight. Like clouds torn to shreds, moving at different speeds, a million little facets reflecting the setting sun. Large, horizon-long dark cloud arms are spiraling along the curve of the earth. Impressive, but cowing at the same time. There are a lot of people still out and about at the complex.

9:30 PM - The storm is still heading for us dead on. We'll be slightly on the clean side, but still under the large eye area. We're somewhat heartened that the prevailing winds seem to be coming from the north (as air is sucked into the counterclockwise flow from the upper left quadrant of the storm.) our exposed windows are to the south, so our balcony seems fairly sheltered. On looking across the parking lot, we can see trees whipping back and forth, but on the proch there is no air disturbance. It's a magical porch/alcove. I feel slightly better about the windows. I feel even better realizing we have two bags of cookies and plenty of milk. We can hear the howling of the wind in the fireplace, but also the howling of neighbors drinking their way through the storm. As long as the sounds compete I think we're doing well.

Saturday Morning

12:30 AM - The storm is howling, but not horribly so. We still have the magic balcony effect, which baffles me to this day. Around this point we're all up, all bored, and I decide to get an hour or two of sleep before the storm "really" hits.

~3-4 AM - The storm hits. I wish I could relate to you the intensity of the winds but I cannot. I was asleep.

5:30 AM - I finally wake up. My wife and friend let me sleep through the storm. So in the middle of a roaring hurricane, I slept like a baby. We have a small breakfast and watch the storm outside. It continues to rage, but it seems we're not getting the worst of it. Occasionally there are somewhat disturning sounds outside of things falling off roofs, or ripping sounds. However, our building seems to be standing.

6-10 AM - With the power out, there's not that much to do. We read a bit, watch the storm, and sleep on and off. Sometime after the storm begins to subside in the late morning, I go out to survey the damage. We make out pretty well...our building loses a few shingles, little siding. Our apartment is a-OK. Some of the other buildings are a little worse for wear, with large gaping holes where the siding has ripped off. Only a few of the trees are down. We have no power or water, but things are going pretty well, all considering. I pick up a small piece of siding as a souveneir, and plan to mount a picture of the storm on it and label it appropriately.

Late Morning/Early Afternoon - We venture out in blatant disregard to check out a friend's house down the street. A big tree portion is down, but they made out ok too. Lots of trees down all over, but very little structural damage outside of roof shingles/siding. We spend the rest of the morning and afternoon walking about our complex and surveying the damage and hanging about. I have to work that night, so I get prepped for what could be an extended shift.

6:00 PM - We get power back. This is nothing short of divine intervention, given that some 2 million people are without power. We are in an area that is a large commerical hub for many major oil companies (the offices, not the refineries:)) so apparently we get lucky and get power back asap. We didn't even realize we had power until the ice maker in the freezer kicked on. We had apparently turned off all the lights by accident as we were flicking switched on and off by force of habit during the outtage. We flick them on and off again, enjoying the incredible basking glow of electric coolness. I am tempted to plug in and turn on every major appliance in blatant symbolic defiance of the outtage, but decide against it.

6:30 PM - I leave to go down to Sugar Land for my shift in emergency operations. I will be working the 7pm to 7am shift in the command bunker which is far less exciting than it sounds. I realize it does not sound exciting to begin with. The highway is torn up pretty badly, with billboards shredded and pretty much every light out. Traffic is horrendous.

7:00 PM - I start my shift. I and seven or 8 other departmental representatives hunker down for night, as we begin to coordinate the picking up of the multitude of pieces. Our water system is untouched. Our sewer system...not so much.

Sunday morning

12:30 AM - With little going on in the emergency center outside of the occasional phone call, we watch the news coverage nonstop. This leads to weariness. Weariness leads to hunger. Hunger leads to the dark side. Luckily, someone discovers a stash of donated quarter-pounders. Goodness and mirth are restored. Many important people dash about now and again, holding important meetings and issuing important statements. I pretty much take phone calls and make phone calls. My lack of importance remains assuaged by my bounty of quarter pounders.

7:00 AM - I go off shift after a morning briefing. Things are bad, but not terrible. The City is back on its feet and moving toward normalcy. On the west side, we get the least of things, even though the hurricane was a direct hit on our area. It has begun to rain hard, though. While the storm brought wind and rain, we were on the "clean side" so the wind was prominent. However, the sheer size and speed of Ike managed to suck OTHER storms into its wake and drag them behind it. So after the primary storm passed, we get hit with a pretty intense deluge.

8:00 AM - I arrive home, in the midst of rain so hard my wipers can't keep up. The streets of our complex that drained the hurricane rain away just fine are now almost full to the top of the curb with water. I park at the front and wade my way home.

Sunday day - We continue to lounge about, not doing much of anything. I only end up sleeping 2 or 3 hours after I get home, but don't feel too bad. of all the things damaged by the storm, the big honking sattelite hookup for the complex came through just fine. Amazingly enough, my friend's flight goes out close to on time the next day. That night we go out and find a restaurant already open (although we don't have water at that point). We actually have a choice. While we're eating, we pass the time the City curfew is set for. We are not expectionally worried since there are actually police officers eating one table away from us. They depart about a half hour after the curfew is over, saying nothing to the patrons or owner. However, no more than five minutes afterward, a DIFFERENT cop shows up, and closes the place down and threatens us all with fines. Of course, as he's doing this, traffic is whizzing by on the street behind us. We are about finsihed anyway, so just decide to go home. o

Monday - My friend leaves to go to NYC, and I go to work. Our offices got flooded so we are a nomad unit for the moment, set up temporarily in a spare conference room. Cleanup and restoration is well under way, with debris being the main issue, not counting the general lack of power in the area. I begin to realize how lucky I was regarding electricity. We get our water back too, leaving us pretty well off.

Monday through Thursday - I spend the week rushing here and there at various emergency related duties. I assess infrastructure damage, make reports, smell more lift stations (sewer) than I ever care to again, and work 12 hour shifts.

Friday - A week after the storm hit, my part in it is over. Friday is my day off, and I finally geta chance to start cleaning up the apartment and getting back to normalcy.

It wasn't the Hollywood disaster movie we feared, but nor was it the tame pass from Rita several years ago. We have survived our first (Cat 2) hurricane, none the worse for wear. we turn our eye to the next forming systems in the Gulf...