Are we as smart as Tasmanians?


My last post mentioned some unfortunate voter turnout numbers, and I’ve written before about the need to act like a citizen, if only minimally, but there recently came to me a blinding revelation about why some people are so intractable in their insistence NOT to vote.

Yeah, yeah, there’s that great Emma Goldman quote,

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

but if you accept her hypothesis, recent attempts to supress voting in some states are strong evidence that voting DOES accomplish something.

Then there’s the fear that registering to vote will make one subject to jury duty.  MYTH EXPLODED:  If you’re a U.S. citizen, they can get your name from any number of places for jury duty.  In California, they use DMV records, among other things.  I’ve known non-citizens who got jury summonses (and easily got out of them, of course).

No, I think it’s the lameness with which voting gets promoted in some circles.  Some people really give voting a bad name.

Most of you know by now that I do a lot of random surfing, just to see what’s out there.
My browser has a large collection of bookmarks about politics, language, personal blogs, all kinds of crap that I look through every so often.  Yes, much of it is stupid. Once in a while, the stupid is so dazzling and intense, so deep and unfathomable, that one must step back a bit, lest the abyss look back into you.This is from an Orange County fundie who seems to fancy herself a political blogger.  She is encouraging her readers to register and vote:

“In this world, there are few nations that allow their
people to vote as we are privileged to do so in this
blessed Republic of ours.”

Would I be taking a great leap to conclude that she’s homeschooled?

If the only encouragement to vote that I got were from someone who thought “few nations” in the world allowed people to vote, yes, that would work to discredit the idea to me, too.

Now, about the Tasmanians in the title…

We Mercans have some things to be proud of in our history, but most of it is long ago.  200 years ago, letting ordinary people vote to elect their nominal rulers was a pretty radical idea for most of the world.  No more.  Nearly every country has some kind of elections from time to time, and in most of them, they have about as much meaning and effectiveness as they do here, which is not saying much.

But SOME of them have better ideas.

I bugged you all recently about reading up on the situation in Anaheim,
and it really ties in with this.  Very closely.  Anaheim holds City Council elections in the usual way for most cities in the U.S.:  at-large, first-past-the-post.  It means that if there are five seats on the Council and 30 candidates, the top five get seated, even if those five might get a tiny percentage of the votes overall.  It lends itself very well to vote-splitting.  “Conservative” interests, for instance, can put up extra fake “liberal” candidates to split the vote, making a majority “liberal” city elect all “conservative” Council members.  Easiest thing in the world, if one has a good political machine.  (The old “spoiler” possibility that Greens are often accused of.)

If you read much about the current troubles in Anaheim, you’ll notice that people tie the lack of police accountability to the fact that Anaheim elects most of its City Council members from the wealthy hill country, far from the bulk of the city.

The only solution to this that’s been put forward (by an ACLU lawsuit and a possible charter amendment) is to elect them by district, rather than at-large.

Is that really the best anyone can come up with, if you’re going to go through all the trouble of amending the city charter?

Yes, it might make some improvement in the system, but it would be no less subject to the vote-splitting described above.  No one seems to be talking about anything better than first-past-the-post.

While election by district might assure that someone from a given district gets elected, there is no assurance that it would be someone with opinions representative of a majority of the people in that district.  Even if residency in a district coincides with opinion today, it
might not tomorrow.  And districts can be gerrymandered.  And even if they’re not, there’s no way you can draw a district such that there won’t be someone who THINKS it’s gerrymandered.  And what of points of view that represent a substantial, but non-majority fraction of the people, if those people are spread evenly across several districts?  Shouldn’t there be ONE seat out of five, six, or eight for someone representing that point of view?

Oh yeah, the Tasmanians…

Greens in California have prescribed a different system for electing their county councils (what other parties call “central committees”), called “single transferable vote” (STV).  It’s a way of getting something like proportional representation without regard to party affiliation in a multi-seat election.   It’s written into our bylaws, but the Secretary of State has exercised her option to ignore our bylaws.  I don’t know the excuse that was given, but the usual excuse for not implementing any electoral reform is that it’s “too complicated”.  (The software for counting STV votes is already written, free and open-source, downloadable here:  http://www.openstv.org)

Here’s the text to which our bylaws refer, taken from the International IDEA Handbook of Electoral Design:  https://kitchenmudge.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/stv.pdf
and here’s the basic Wikipedia page about STV:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transferable_vote

Yes, hard reading for some of you, isn’t it?  I’ve often found it a chore to explain to people, but it can be done.  I once prepared a 20-minute lecture with visual aids to do it, which I won’t duplicate here, but the salient points are:

– Votes for losing candidates are not wasted much, since they will be transferred to the second or third choice on a voter’s ballot, and are more likely to ultimately count for a winning candidate.

– Excess votes are not wasted, since they are also transferred to lower-ranked choices.

– The result is a pretty good representative cross-section of preferences among the whole ….electorate.

Now, how many of you even knew where Tasmania is before reading those descriptions of STV?  The Tasmanian House of Assembly has used this method for its elections since 1896.

Are we proud to be dumber than Tasmanians?

For a little history of STV in the U.S., see:  http://archive.fairvote.org/?page=647
The short version:  Quite a few cities in the U.S. adopted it in the early 20th century, with good results.  It was abandoned later when the political machines mounted major offensives to regain the monopolies it broke up.

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4 Responses to Are we as smart as Tasmanians?

  1. I love your posts–always so filled with information and passion! Where did Americans ever get the idea we were better and smarter than any other people in the whole world? The Romans thought they were pretty hot stuff and wanted to conquer a lot of territory; so did the British and Hitler. I suppose there are several other examples of megalomaniac rulers, but a whole nation of people who think we’re better than everyone else? That’s just wrong on so many levels…

  2. Nurse Ruth says:

    For an example of how well the election-by-district system works, take a look at the Athens of the West: Boston, Massachusetts. The word “gerrymander” was invented right here in The City on the Hill. Only two recent City Councillors are currently in the pokey. And we are proud that our last three Speakers of The Commonwealth’s House of Representatives have been convicted of corruption. Some are even doing time for their crimes. I think the current speaker hasn’t been indited yet, but just wait a few weeks.

  3. Stimpson says:

    Seems to me that a ward or district system, for all its faults, would be an improvement over all the council being at-large.

    re: U.S. system generally, one improvement would be by making it easier for people to register to vote. In Canada, you can renew your place on the federal voters’ list by simply checking a box on your income tax return. Simple as that. Nearly every Canadian citizen is on the list of electors, and Canadian voter turnout (while not great) is better than in the US.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Even in a district system, it would be pretty important, if the districts are single-seat, to have a runoff provided for. Simple first-past-the-post is left over from the most primitive days of elections, when even basic arithmetic was a specialty left to the clerics.

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