Thursday, May 22, 2008

Count Every Vote

I believe in counting every vote, and that every vote counts. You wouldn't think that that would be that controversial a position, but these days it actually is. 

I. Choosing a Nominee: The Basics

Each party has as process for choosing their nominee for the presidency. They are a little different, and I am going to focus on Democratic Party's process. 

First, we have so-called pledged delegates. I say "so-called" because their pledges have no binding force, according to the DNC rules. When they were selected, they said (i.e. "pledged") that they would support a particular candidate, but they actually can do whatever they want. We all, especially the media, generally ignore that fact.

These pledged delegates are selected in two ways, caucuses and primaries. Technically, a primary is paid for by the state, and a caucus is paid for by the party. Generally, we ignore that, too. Instead, we talk about primaries as though they are like elections, but just with the candidates for the nomination of one party. We talk about caucuses as though they are more complicated affairs that take much longer, people do not have secret ballots and you can try to convince people to change their votes. All primaries are actually primaries, but some some caucuses actually work like primaries -- with the state party paying for them, of course,

Second, we have superdelegates. They are part of the rules, too. They add up to less than 1/5 of the total number of delegates. They, too, are selected democratically. Your senator is a superdelegate, and s/he was elected. Your congressman, too. Other superdelegates are elected by members of the party, both state and national. If you want to take part in that process, you have to be much more active in your party that you are. There are state conventions, to say nothing of local meeting and any other events I know virtually nothing about. You can be elected a member of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) that way. To be honest, these are not all direct elections. In the same way that you don't get to vote on federal laws, but instead the people you vote for get to vote on federal laws, some of the superdelegates are voted on with a representative system. There are also a very small number of unelected superdelegates, selected by elected leaders the state parties. 

There are over 4,000 delegates, total. The nominee needs to get over half of them.

II. Degrees of Democracy

Clearly, direct vote for candidates would be the most democratic system. But we don't have that for presidential elections -- instead we have the Electoral College -- and we don't have that for selecting nominees. I don't like it, but that's that way it is. 

Superdelegates are, generally, selected democratically, but not for this particular purpose. Whether or not this is a good idea or not does not matter in this discussion. They are a part of the process, but one might argue that they are the least democratic part of the process. 

Primaries, on the other hand, are probably the most democratic part of the process. They are the quickest way to vote, and therefore have higher turnout than caucuses. I can't even tell you how many times my mother took me with her to vote, counting primaries. We'd go down to the school and she'd take me into the booth with her. A parent with an infant could easily take him/her to vote, or a child of any age. Childcare responsibilities does not preclude participation. Because polls open all day, generally before and/or after working hours, having a job -- even on an odd shift -- does not preclude participation. I would certainly argue that higher turnout is more democratic, and therefore primaries (and primary-like caucuses) are the most democratic.

Traditional caucuses are somewhere in the middle. Delegates chosen this way are chosen directly for this purpose, but the inconvenience of these things (e.g. they take hours; they happen at a particular time) prevent many people from taking part. Less participation means less democratic, in my book. 

III. Choosing the Nominee: The Anti-Democratic Part

There are a few ways in which our system is actually anti-democratic. 

First, this is not a national system. By cutting the system up into states, there are some inefficiencies that can mess things up around the margins. Think about the Electoral College and the 2000 presidential election. No one questions that Gore had more votes nationally, but if without Florida, he lost in the Electoral College. 

Second, pledged delegates are not apportioned proportionally by total primary/caucus results in each state. Rather, the state is cut up into small pieces and the the delegates are won in each of those small pieces. This is like a little electoral college in each state. This principle is why we do not have third parties (e.g. Green, Libertarian) in the House of Representatives, even though they could win enough votes in the largest states to get a seat, were they allocated proportionally even by state. This does weird things to the math, so you actually have to look at each district to see how many delegates someone won in a state. This is why we need CNN on election nights. 

Third, delegates are assigned to the pieces not by population, registered democrats or turn out in the primary/caucus. Instead, they are assigned based on Democratic turnout last election. So, if your district was more turned off by Kerry/Bush than most, but is super-excited about Hillary/Obama, your old boredom prevents your greater turnout this time from having proportional weight. 

Fourth, all the little state things. In Nevada, some votes count more than other, as much as 20x more. That is how Obama got 6 more deletes, despite Hillary getting 600 more votes. In Texas, they have a primary and a caucus, which is how Obama got 5 more delegates despite Hillary getting 95,000 more votes. 

All of these issues hamper the system's ability to respond to the will of the people, as expressed by the simple idea of that the candidate with the most votes should win the nomination. 

IV. Who Set the Rules

Each state sets its own rules. If the state wants a primary, it has a primary. If it wants a caucus, it has a caucus. 

However, states are concepts, right? States don't make decisions; people make decisions. Which people? Well, the state government. So, the legislators and their governors. It's fairly democratic, as democratic as superdelegates.

But there is a problem. You see, some states governments are controlled by Democrats, and some Republicans. For example, Florida is controlled by Republicans. They set the rules of the primary. They set the date. They set the rules and the date of the Democratic primary. And this time, that caused a problem. The Republican controlled government set a date that the DNC did not approve of. But why should Republicans care? What can the DNC do them? 

Usually, this is not a problem, but it is a problem this year.

V. The Schedule

The DNC announced a schedule for this year's primaries and caucuses. First Iowa (1/14), as always. Then Nevada (1/19), to give the Southwest and Hispanics more a voice. Third was to be New Hampshire (1/22), as always the first primary. Fourth was to be the South Carolina primary (1/29), to give the South and African-Americans and early voice.

Then, other states could go, but only after February 5. The two caucuses in the first week. Then a week just for New Hampshire and a week just for South Carolina. And then everybody else. 

But Florida decided to go early. They didn't leap ahead of any of the four early states, but they wanted to go the same day as South Carolina. The Florida Republicans made this decision. Not the Democrats in the legislature. Not the Democratic voters. Not even the Republican voters. And once Florida went early, Michigan did not see a reason why it couldn't go early, too. Michigan was willing to respect the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire going first, but it had no respect for Nevada or South Carolina.

And once Michigan went early, Iowa and New Hampshire decided to go even earlier. And New Hampshire even jumped ahead in line, ahead of Nevada. 

VI. Meting Out Punishments

Iowa was not punished. They were alway supposed to the first and they stayed first. They went even earlier, but who cares, right? New Hampshire, on the other hand, they skipped ahead in line. But they weren't punished, either. 

Florida and Michigan were punished, however. The Republican Party cut half the delegate count for the primaries that moved their dates before 2/5, including New Hampshire. But the DNC did not punish the New Hampshire for its convention. 

Just focusing on Florida here, think about who was punished for what. It was the state Republicans who scheduled the primary, but it is the Democratic voters who are being punished here. The party stripped Florida of all of its delegates to the convention. The DNC disenfranchised every single potential Florida Democratic primary voter. They did this last August, in an effort to get the state to moved its primary back. But why would the Republicans in charge care? No delegates to the Democratic National Convention? That's no skin off their backs. 

The Republicans violated the principal of "One man, one vote," going to "One man, half vote" for some states. But the Democratic Party violated the principal of "Every Vote Counts."

VII. Good Idea or Bad Idea?

There are rules, and I understand this. There is a Rules committee that makes and tries to enforce the rules. Sometimes they make good decisions, and sometimes they make bad decisions. 

This is a bad decision. 

First, they are punishing the voters, not the people who made the decisions. 

Second, if their decision ends up affecting the outcome of the nominating process, that would mean that they are leading to the selection of a candidate who is less appealing to Florida and Michigan voters. I can see why the GOP would want that. But why would that be good for the party? Doesn't it hurt the party's chance's of winning the White House?

Third, in a close race, it makes Obama look weak. Whether or not it actually makes a difference, it looks like Obama could not win the nomination outright, and that he needed to resort to technicalities to secure it. With blowout losses in late states, its puts his own legitimacy into question. And I believe that in order to win a nominee has to look like he deserves to win it. People want strong winners. If he can win it, even counting Florida and Michigan -- and he can -- he looks stronger. If he can only win it if the DNC does not count Michigan and Florida...?

VII. Pledged Delegates or Total Votes

The superdelegates are part of the rules. People who claim that they are not part of the rules are deluded. Furthermore, people who say that the superdelegates are deciding this for themselves are also deluded. The superdelegates are deciding it along with the pledged delegates. 

Obama is ahead in pledged delegates, superdelegates and the popular vote total, even if you count Michigan and Florida. He will remain ahead in pledged delegates, no matter what. However, nearly 200 superdelegates have yet to announce anything, and the others can easily change their minds.

And then we get to the popular vote, which is all I really care about. It is possible that Hillary will win the total popular vote.

(Explanation: Four caucus states don't actually count individual votes, so you have to impute those results a little bit. Obama and Edwards took their names off the ballot in Michigan, so you have to split the "uncommitted" vote there somehow. If you do both of those things, the popular vote total is very close right now, with Obama up maybe 0.33%, with Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana still to vote.)

What happens to Obama's legitimacy if he goes into the convention with more pledged delegates, even counting Florida and Michigan, but fewer popular votes. How should the superdelegates respond to that.

I entirely grant that Barack Obama deserves the nomination more than Hillary Clinton. He ran from behind, he out-raised her, out-organized her, understood the rules better and actually has won more pledged delegates.

But what do the voters deserve? Isn't that what this should be about? Isn't that what a democracy should be about?

There is a lot of complicated mess in this system. I would hope that at the end of the day it can find a way to give the voters what they deserve. The superdelegates can do that. They can fix an obviously mistaken outcome without breaking any rules. I have said all along that superdelegates should support the candidate with the most votes. If that is Barack Obama, then they should support him. If it is Hillary Clinton, they should support her.

Not because Obama or Clinton deserve it. But because the voters do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gay marriage

First, let me say that I am in favor of gay marriage. But it is more complicated than that, and I think that most of the arguments about it more conclusion driven and honest and sharp thinking. So, here's my take on them, in no particular order.

I. The Word "Marriage" Matters

Obviously, the word itself matters. The very fact that giving same-sex couples all the legal rights and privileges of marriage, but calling the institution "civil unions," is such a popular option proves that the word matter. Those who who argue that the label doesn't matter, but it shouldn't apply to same-sex unions are contradicting themselves. If you don't want to call it marriage, then clearly the word matters. 

How does it matter? Well, even if we ignore the countless the tiny legal issues that would be easily handled by calling it "marriage," there are social associations with the word. There are links to the long history of marriage. There's the fact that we have all grown up having a sense of what marriage is. The majority in the California Supreme Court is right. The word matters. Anything less than the the whole shabang, including the label itself, is less than equality.

II. There Might Not Be Discrimination Against Individuals

I am straight and so long as I am unmarried, I can marry any member of the opposite sex. The same is true of homosexuals. Neither of us are entitled to marry members of the same sex. It is not clear to me that anyone is being discriminated against.

I understand that a gay man is not going to be interested in marrying the same people that I am. I understand that we each have a right that I want and he doesn't care for. I understand that there is a parallel right that he would want and I don't care but, one that neither of us has. But, in fact, we each have the same rights.

Rather, I think that it is same-sex couples that are discriminated against. Opposite-sex couples can marry, and same-sex couple cannot. But gay men and women have been allowed to marry all along. They could even marry each other. Gay men could marry straight women. Gay women could marry straight men. Gay men could marry gay women. Gay men and women were treated exactly like straight men and women. Straight men have been no more able to marry each other than gay men. 

Should couples have rights? I think so, in some fashion. I think so, in this fashion. But we should acknowledge that this is about couples, not about individuals. 

III. Marriage Has Been About Men and Women, Historically

Marriage has existed for a very long time. But over its history, it has changed quite a bit. It has been about property. It has been about cementing unions of larger families/clans. It has been about having children. It has been about economic units. It has been about love.

We no longer talk about arranged marriages to cement unions between families or clans, at least not in this country. We no longer demand that people marry in order to have children, nor must married couples have children, at least not in this country. We don't expect families to work business as a unit, either a farm, or a shop or anything else. The institution of marriage has changed over the centuries. We don't even demand that a church be involved, at least not in this country. However, we do now demand that the state be involved. We certainly do not demand that couples be in love, though we might expect it. 

Almost everything about marriage has changed over the centuries. Except one thing about marriage has been constant until very very recently; marriage has been about joining men and women. Sometimes is been about multiple men and women, but it has always been about at least one men and at least one women. That was the only constant. 

Anyone who claims otherwise is either being disingenuous or dishonest with his/herself. I don't say this to end the debate. I only say this to make the debate clear. 

IV. The Legal Debate Is Not About Anyone's Church

I think that the dumbed argument that anyone brings forth in this debate is that this will force your church to marry gay people. That is just untrue. It is a simply a lie.

The Catholic Church has rules about who it will marry and what they have to do before being married. Many religious officials won't marry anyone outside of their faith (i.e. mixed marriages). A church can refuse to marry people of different races. 

We have a separation of church and state in this country. The state (i.e. state and the federal government) cannot tell churches who to marry. Your church will never be told by the state that it must marry gay couples. 

Ever. Never ever ever. 

No one is talking about your religion. Get over it.

V. Is Marriage Legal or Religious?

I think that the real argument, the real discussion, should be about the dual nature of marriage. Historically, marriage was more a religious institution than a legal one. Priests would marry couples, and marriages did not have to registered with the state. In more recent centuries, the state got more involved, but it is only in the most recent times that the church's role became optional.

In some other countries, especially those with official state religions, the church maintains a huge role. For example, in Israel -- and I think France as well -- the church has complete control of marriage. And, as I said, it is only relatively recently that the marriage without a church or religious official entered the mainstream. 

And yet, at the same time, marriage is also a legal institution. There are legal rights and privileges that are associated with marriage, only the most obvious of which are inheritance right and tax files status. And these have nothing to do with the religious institution.

And so, people on both side of the debate should recognize the other side is not entirely incorrect. Those who decry same-sex marriage because marriage is a religious institution are not entirely incorrect. Those who clamor for same-sex marriage because it is a legal institution are not entirely incorrect. 

Of course, it is also a social institution. But that aspect of marriage has been the most fluid. That's where the change has occurred over the years, decades and centuries. But those who want to defend their religious institution do have a point. And those who want equivalent access to the legal institution do have a point. 

VI. Is Same-Sex Marriage a Threat to "Traditional" Marriage?

Frankly, I don't even understand this argument. If you and your spouse are both heterosexual and/or in love with each other and/or committed to each other, how does legalization of same-sex marriage threaten your marriage? There are many things that may be viewed as a threat to existing marriages, but same-sex marriage?

Of course, there is some small fraction of men and women who are in opposite-sex marriages, but would rather be in a same-sex marriage. Yes, legal recognition of such unions would be a threat their their marriages, but I don't think that that is what people are referring to.

So, that means those who put forth this argument are not referring to existing marriages, but rather the appeal of marriage to non-married people. Somehow, allowing same-sex couples to marry would prevent or dissuade opposite couples from getting married. Moreover, those dissuaded would outnumber the same-sex couple who did get married. I guess that they mean that if same-sex couples are allowed to get married, it would take some of the luster or exclusivity of marriage away, making it less attractive. I would think that allowed mixed-race marriages would have had the exact same impact, but I've never heard them mention that. 

But here is why I really don't understand the argument. Let us accept this premise for a moment, that for some people, allowing same-sex marriage makes opposite-sex marriage a little less attractive. Obviously, this wouldn't be true for everyone. Those godless heathens and/or liberals who clamor for same-sex marriage already have distorted views of marriage. It is obviously only those who have a proper and biblical reverence for the institution who will really feel this attack on "traditional" marriage. Right? O.K.

But those who have the "proper respect" for marriage would not let this hit on the dignity of marriage hold them back. They have so much respect for marriage that they still would have enough left to get married, anyway. And the godless heathens and/or liberals -- those who purportedly already lack the "proper respect" for marriage and therefore sometimes don't even bother to get married anyway -- they won't notice the hit. So, the only ones who might notice are those whom the hit is not great enough to dissuade them. 

Really, I ask who has a view of marriage that would have them believe that marriage is so tarnished by allowing same-sex marriage that they no longer would want to partake in the institution. I don't mean people who project that onto unidentified others. I mean identified people who are in the sweet spot? Show me a single survey that identifies any of them. Show me a single non-satirical interview with a single one.

Until then, either the argument is deluded, or I am simply not understanding it. 

VII. Separation of Church and State?

Unfortunately, I don't see a great answer here. I don't see us getting to a a solution that honors the valid arguments of people on both sides of the issue. 

Honestly, I think that the best answer -- and one that the California Supreme Court said is a legal one -- would be for the state to get out of the marriage business. Give marriage back to the church and let the state have all the legal stuff. The state could call it "civil unions" for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Or, the state could call it larriage (i.e. legal marriage). More specifically, the state could get out of the marriage game, and leave individuals and couples to decide whether or not they want to call their unions marriage, leave to them the basis on which they might make such a decision. 

I understand that were the state to get out of the marriage game, many on the right would feel that that was itself an assault on marriage. They would not see it as a move to protect their conceptions of marriage from the actions of the state. Rather, they likely would see it as another attack on their faith, an attempt to exclude faith from the public square. Of course, these are people are want more of their faith and religious beliefs reflected in government policy, people who do not understand that the separation of church and state is about protecting each from the other. These are people who might not support the Bill of Rights, were it to come up for a vote today.

VIII. My Answer

As much as I think that it should, the state is not going to get out of the marriage business. But I don't buy tradition as being a good enough reason to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. The institution has changed over the years, and it is now about building a loving and/or stable family, with or without children. Gay men and women can adopt and can have their own children, and they can even bring children they already have into a marriage, just as my mother and her husband have. Other traditional institutions have gone the way of history, from slavery to segregated water fountains, from small children working in factories alongside their parents to the one room schoolhouse. 

So, that means that we have to get to legal recognition for same-sex marriage, not just "civil unions." The nation's most populous state decided democratically, by a vote of legislature and a signing of the governor, to give same-sex unions all of the legal rights of opposite-sex unions, but for the word marriage. That is an enormously popular position throughout the nation. All that that leaves is the word marriage, and the arguments for denying that word quickly fall apart under any fair examination. You simply cannot say that you want to treat them equally, and yet at the same times make sure that they don't get access to the word that means so much to you. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dear Hillary,

I've favored Hillary throughout the Democratic Primary race. It's not that I don't like Barack Obama, because I think that he is a very strong candidate with the potential to be a transformative president. Given two differently appealing candidates, I've leaned towards you, Hillary. But it's time to gracefully withdraw.

My wife and I had a long discussion on Super Tuesday about superdelegates and how they should make their decisions. I tried to lay out all the legitimate lines of argument that I could think of.
  • Because they are selected by their constituents, whomever their constituents (i.e. district or state, as appropriate) supported in the primaries/caucuses. 
  • Because they have special responsibility to the party as a whole, whomever wins the national popular vote.
  • Because they have been entrusted by their constituents to use their best judgement, whomever they believe will make the best president for the country.
  • Because they are specially responsible for their constituents' interests, whomever they think will be the best president for their district. 
  • Because they have been entrusted by their constituents to use their best judgement and it is critical that the Dems win the general election, whomever they believe has the best chance of winning in November.  
I respect that their are different arguments. I only asked that they declare their preferred argument and make their thinking transparent. Of course, they'll make some decision or other, and cite whatever logic they think will hurt them the least and perhaps help them the most. But I hate it when people change their argument to suit their pre-ordained conclusion . Hate it!

However, I don't respect the argument that the superdelegates must automatically reinforce the so-called "pledged delegate" count. Were that the case, they would not need to exist. If they exist, they must have some sort of purpose. They are part of the rules. If race is tight enough for a margin in superdelegates to overwhelm a margin in pledged delegates, so be it. That's how the rules were set up. Keep in mind that superdelegates are the elected representatives of the party. Democratic senators, congressmen, governors and former presidents were elected by the people. DNC members were elected by the party members who chose to show up and state party meetings and conventions. Yes, there is a small number of "unpledged add-ons," but the majority of them are elected by state party leadership -- who was elected by state party members.

So, my wife pressed me for which argument I thought was the strongest, which I would use. That wasn't hard for me to answer. I think that the Democratic Party should always nominate the candidate preferred by the members of the party, by which I mean primary voters and caucus-goers. There are lots of rules in each state, inconsistent across states, rules that distort the will of the people. Obama got more delegates out of Texas and Nevada, even though he lost the popular votes in each state. In my view, superdelegates should correct that kind of mistake.

We are the Democratic Party. We should stand for democracy. Especially after the 2000 election. Whomever gets the most votes should win, regardless of which states they came from. Regardless of when they came. More votes is more votes. 

Now, I understand that this argument diminishes the role of caucus states because turnout is lower in caucus states. That does not bother me. I don't care about states; I care about people. Caucus states can adopt primaries or run their caucuses like primaries. A state should have a bigger voice only if it has more people turning out for this election. 

Obviously, a tight three-way race could lead to one candidate having more first place votes, but the other being preferred in a two-way race. Yes, I can foresee that. But that it not what we have today, and I hope we do not have to deal with it. Though, to be honest, computerized voting makes any number of solutions to that problem easy to implement.

So, I've been favoring you, Hillary, all year. And though it has been clear for quite some time that you could not catch Obama in the pledged delegate count, I did not think that you should drop out of the race. If you could pull ahead in the popular vote count, I thought that you should stay in the race. But after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, it is now clear that you cannot. And without that, you don't have a strong enough argument to sway enough superdelegates to overwhelm your pledged delegate deficit. 

If you could say to John Kerry, "Look, the Democratic voters of your state favor me, the Democratic voters of the nation favor me and I am the party's best matchup again John McCain," you would have an argument. But the matchup argument is not clear, and you don't have the national vote argument. I even buy the the matchup argument. That is, based on exit poll data over the course of the last three months, I don't think that Obama has appealed to swing voters as much as I thought he would and I don't trust the young to turn out. I honestly think that you have a better chance of winning swing voters and base voters with Barack campaigning his heart out for you than he does with you campaigning you heart out for him. 

But you have lost the popular vote. Even with Michigan and Florida, which I believe do count, you cannot win the popular vote. 

And that means that it is time to drop out.

My wife has been a fervent  Obama supporter, but she had not given any money to his campaign. You see, we did not think that it made a lot of sense for us to give offsetting contributions. Moreover, we knew that the winning candidate would need primary money after s/he had the nomination locked up. So, we've been waiting. Well, last time, at 1am, we gave $250 to the Obama campaign. 

I am sorry. I am sorry for the party and the country that my preferred candidate, the one that I think the country needs most at this time, has not won the nomination. However, I am glad that the Democratic Party has an exciting, brilliant and inspiring candidate to lead us to victory in November. I look forward to your campaigning for him. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Oh, whatever will we do?

Salon's Farhad Manjoo wrote today about a story I read about many months ago -- a 27 year old prospective teacher who was denied her teaching degree for posting a picture of herself drinking on MySpace. I think it ties in with the current wringing about Roger Clemens. In both cases, there has been a huge over-reaction to entirely typical behavior.

The prospective teacher, Stacy Snyder, was of legal drinking age. She is not giving alcohol to minors. She is not doing anything the least bit risque. She is just wearing a pirate hat and drinking out a cheap plastic cup; she's labeled the pic "drunken pirate."

Obviously, this is shocking result. Teacher preparation programs are charged with ensuring the appropriate "dispositions" in their graduates, and I suppose that that is what the dean was thinking about when he denied her the teaching degree. But it is not as though teachers don't drink. The New York Times wrote a story last summer about teacher drinking and teacher bars last summer. Young workers in every industry go out for drinks after work, especially on Fridays, and teachers are no different. 

So, what's the problem? That someone took a picture? That students could find out that their teacher drinks? Perhaps it was the cheap plastic cup? Maybe, if she looked more poised, and had a wine glass in her hand, it would have been viewed differently. But so what?

27 year olds drink after work and on weekends. 

It has come out in the past week that Roger Clemens might have cheated on his wife. A baseball player has cheated on his wife! Stop the presses! 

What was the last baseball movie that did not allude to, mention or even depict ballplayers hooking up with groupies, even married ballplayers? What is your best guess as to the fraction of players in the Hall of Fame who did not cheat on their wives? 

Do you think that it resembles the percentage of 27 year old teachers who don't drink? 

And yet, in both of these cases, each of the the individual engaging in these expected behaviors was selectively vilified. 

This garbage happens all too often. Barak Obama has been vilified for not wearing a flag-pin, even though neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain wear flag-pins. 

I've got to admit, I don't get it. I don't understand what prompts this kind of selective outrage.