Nov 17 2013

TNYRB

Many years ago my best friend gave me a subscription to the New York Review of Books for my birthday. He said that he thought I would like the articles because they were well written, well argued and thorough. In the intervening more than a decade, I have carted piles of unread issues from apartment to apartment and from room to room in unsuccessful attempts to ‘organize,’ but I have never let my subscription lapse.

It can be difficult to set aside the time (measured in hours) to read and digest the minority of articles in each issue that I find intriguing, but I abhor recycling a single issue without at least flipping through it to make sure there’s nothing I need to read.

The current stack has 6 or 7 issues in it going back several months. In a fit of “this room must be cleaned now” last week I grabbed the stack and headed for the recycling bin. Sitting in the kitchen by the recycling bin, stack on my lap, I thumbed through the oldest issue (July 11, 2013). The cover bears an image of a motorcycle (and rider) shooting out of a fiery explosion, with all the subtlety of an 80s action movie. I thought “well this one should go quickly” and started flipping through the pages. There was an article on ‘American foreign policy in retreat’ that I read the beginning of and decided wasn’t for me. An article on Susan Sontag, flip, one on Sylvia Plath, flip, hmm, maybe I should read this article on “How Austerity Has Failed.” Twenty minutes later, I redouble my efforts to put the first issue into the bin.

Although ostensibly a ‘review’ containing book reviews of newly (and not so newly) published works, the NYRB is much more than a compendium of book reports. The authors (many of whom are well-known figures themselves) do an excellent job curating a number of different works on a similar topic and use their own expertise to tease more from the book(s) than I sometimes get from reading the original work. Each issue also leans towards items of current importance, be that scientific discoveries, legal decisions, social phenomena, etc.

I decided to skip a number of interesting looking articles on fine art and artists and was closing in on the rear cover when I opened the page to David Cole’s article Should We Discard the Constitution (probably behind a paywall). Now I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time reading an article on the importance and relevance of the constitution to the modern world from a hard wooden chair in the middle of the sterile white kitchen. So I retired stack in hand back to the comforts of the living room easy chair and put my feet up.

The article is a review of an academic work (On Constitutional Disobedience by Louis Michael Seidman), which argues that the constitution (or at least some parts of it) is anachronistic and out of phase with the modern world. My favorite Seidman quote in the article is this thought experiment:

Imagine that after careful study a government official—say, the president or one of the party leaders in Congress—reaches a considered judgment that a particular course of action is best for the country. Suddenly, someone bursts into the room with new information: a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves might have disagreed with this course of action. Is it even remotely rational that the official should change his or her mind because of this divination?

The quote reminded me of something that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito of all people said. In oral arguments about violent video games Justice Alito quipped to the lawyer ‘what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games and if he enjoyed them.’ I assure you that I’m not going to often quote one of the current Supreme Courts most despicable members, but I think it’s important to see that even the most conservative legal minds must recognize that our country is fundamentally different than it was at conception and that those differences translate into a need for new ideas and new solutions. We can see this easily in the 27 amendments that we’ve made to the Constitution since it was originally drafted.

The article did an excellent job teasing out the principles that we should use in defining a government. Cole discussed the protections afforded by the constitution to those who might be oppressed if we made our decision solely on the basis of majority rule. Forty-five minutes later when I finished the article, I was engaged and glad that I hadn’t just chucked the issue without reading it.

And that’s exactly why I have have the stack!

The stack!

The stack!


May 28 2012

Bonus job

For the last few years I have been keenly interested in the mechanisms of democracy. I am also interested in the underpinning philosophy of democracy (and government in general), but I’ve been more focused lately on the particulars. From the electoral systems that are used to the minutia of what happens when a ballot is cast, I want to know what the best practices are and push to get them adopted.

In the vein, last year I hosted a tour of the Multnomah County Elections Office through the City Club of Portland (well, the Director, Tim Scott, was gracious enough to do the hosting but you know what I mean). Due to it being a very small special election (Oregon’s first Congressional District), we were able to see the whole process as it was actually happening. It was really great and I was so into it that I asked if I could volunteer in the future. Tim let me know that the Elections Office doesn’t take volunteers, however he instructed that I check back in March when they’d be hiring for the elections season.

So I watched the Multnomah County website and made sure to apply when the posting came up. I received a callback for an interview and then got the job. Sweet! I had let them know that I was really only able to work evenings and weekends and the election day itself due to my (more than) full time job. They only needed me for the elections day, so I showed up at 8am on Tuesday morning.

I suppose I should back up and provide the groundwork that Oregon has used (an awesome!) vote by mail system since 1998 (history here). So election day is less like what you may be used to with lines of voters and everyone scrambling to have the right ID or be in the right precinct. It’s more like tax day, with everyone having an envelope and frantically trying to get it in before 8pm.

It’s wild how much people procrastinate. 3 weeks before the election a voter pamphlet is mailed to every registered voter in the state (no more than one per household though, so you do have to share with your housemates), then 18 days before the election every registered voter is sent a ballot with a secrecy envelope and a return envelope. You have to pay postage if you mail it, but you can also drop it off at many drop sites in the area. I say all of that to help understand that people have their ballots two and a half weeks before the election, yet about one third of ballots come in on election day (one third the week before election day, and the last third before that). So there are hundreds of thousands of individual pieces of paper that need to be verified, sorted, opened and counted before results can be released all on the night of the election.

The process is awe-inspiring. In my regular job, where I supervise, among other things, our document intake and processing department, I estimate that we lose (which really means, misplace, mis-scan, or attach to the wrong person) probably one document every 3 weeks or so. We process about a hundred thousand documents a year. In contrast, at the elections office, they process several hundred thousand documents in a single night and there’s not one document lost. I won’t get into too much of the paper-management details here, because I doubt other people are as into the process engineering, color coding and task segmentation as I am, but needless to say it’s very streamlined.

So what happens when you cast a ballot in Oregon?

When it’s received the ballot goes to the Blue room (yes all rooms are color coded) to be sorted into precinct.

Blue Room

When it’s run through the big machine it also takes a picture of the signature on the envelope. This signature image is then sent electronically to a group of trained workers who get a headsup display with the ballot signature and the signature from the voter’s registration card. If they don’t match then it’s reviewed a second time and if it’s unacceptable, then the ballot is set aside (voter is contacted to update their signature). The vast majority match and are sent on to “the boards.”

The boards are groups of 4 or 5 people of different political party registration who open the ballots and remove them from the secrecy envelope and review them to establish voter intent. This means they look for things that may confuse the machine such as stray marks, over voting, or marks that may be too light to read. If there are potential problems with the ballot (in that the machine might not read it correctly), then all the members of the boards must agree and then corrective highlighter marks are made on the ballot to instruct the machine which marks to count.

After the boards have reviewed it, the ballot goes to the Red Room where it’s fed through one of several machines that performs the actual count. At each stage the number of ballots is compared to the known total for that batch to make sure that everything is accounted for and counted correctly.

Ballots being loaded (and turned into votes) in the Red Room

Cameras capture everything going on in the Red Room

At the most basic level that’s the flow that a ballot goes through when it’s received. Other than the process itself, another commendable aspect of the whole operation is the complete dedication to transparency. Every stage of the process is open to members of the public to observe.

Which brings me to my assignment for the day. I was working within a team of four as an “observer monitor” meaning that we accompanied any members of the public (or more accurately members of political parties, political campaigns and the media) around each area to answer any questions they had and to make sure that they were following the guidelines. For the most part though, the observers were much more knowledgable about the process than I was (after all many of them do this every time and for me it was my first day).

Also, since it was a somewhat small election, there weren’t too many observers (especially not at 8am when I got there), so I spent a lot of my day in the front office waiting for people to come in. It’s unfortunate that there’s not really much cross-training, so while parts of the office were working furiously, I was standing around and smiling waiting for observers to come. Here was my view:

The Multnomah County Elections Office circa 7:45pm, all the cars are voters who are swinging by to drop off their ballots before the cutoff at 8pm

Overall it was a great day. Long (I worked from 8am to 12:15 am and there were many people who worked longer), but really fulfilling being a part of such a great system. I’m really excited for November!

Update: I found this cool video that shows the whole process (I didn’t even need to type it all up).


Mar 27 2012

I did that!

A few weeks ago I participated in Sunshine Week (a semi-coordinated national event aimed at bringing transparency to all aspects of government) by visiting a local TV station and reviewing their public records. Wow, writing that makes it sound very boring. I guess the work itself was actually somewhat dry, but it was cool to be a part of a larger organized effort to unmask shadowy SuperPACs and pull back some of the layers of obfuscation between citizens and the methods of democracy.

I was reminded of it today because FreePress gave a shout-out to it here (the star labeled KOIN, was all me!!).


Mar 20 2012

Portland Plan Update

Yes! After years of work, the Portland Plan is finally being passed to the City Council.

Here’s the recommended version (not final because the City Council will likely make some changes): Recommended Draft.

Also, here’s a cool video that they made to highlight the proposals.

I will definitely be going on 4/18, if you’re in Portland you should come!


Feb 6 2011

Letter to the Editor: Corporate Personhood

For the one year anniversary of the Citizens United v FEC decision. I wrote my first Letter-to-the-Editor and sent it to several local and national papers.

I found it very difficult to make a cogent and insightful point in 150-200 words which is what the majority of papers dictated. In the end, even though I wasn’t completely happy with my efforts, I thought it was still worth sending (to add my voice to the others that editors are hopefully receiving). Since I didn’t hear back from any of the papers I assumed that it just hadn’t been selected, but I noticed today that at least a few did print it. So you can see my freshman attempt at letter to the editor writing here:

Statesman Journal (Salem, OR)
http://www.statesmanjournal.com/article/20110204/OPINION/102040305/1046

The Columbian (Vancouver, WA)
http://www.columbian.com/news/2011/jan/29/letter-to-editor-jan-29/