Posts Tagged ‘ voting ’

Houston’s Blackface Candidate and the Problems with How We Vote

Well this one is just too weird for words.

From the CBS-affiliated KHOU station in Houson, TX:

As a conservative white Republican running in a district whose voters are overwhelmingly black Democrats, the odds seemed overwhelmingly against [candidate Dave Wilson].

Then he came up with an idea, an advertising strategy that his opponent found “disgusting.” If a white guy didn’t have a chance in a mostly African-American district, Wilson would lead voters to think he’s black.

Houston CC, TXDave Wilson, according to the KHOU report, distributed fliers with black faces (downloaded for free from the internet) asking people to “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson” in the Houston Community College board elections.

He also claimed the endorsement of “Ron Wilson,” a popular African-American former state representative — and the name of Dave Wilson’s cousin from Iowa, who lent his “endorsement” to the scam.

The deception worked. Dave Wilson won a seat on the Houston Community College board by 26 votes.

So how did the Houston Community College come to this pass? Dave Wilson is an attention-seeking troll, and has been for a while. It’s kind of his schtick. If the man has any qualifications for, or indeed interest in, the local community college, he’s done a good job hiding it.

But let’s be fair. The same could be said for most elected school board members. Which sort of begs the question of why we elect them in the first place.

Because there’s plenty of room for criticism of the voters involved in Dave Wilson’s election here. As far as political sleight-of-hand goes, slapping fake faces next to your name on fliers isn’t exactly a Byzantine plot. It relies — as Wilson was clearly aware — on most people’s willingness to say “eh, he looks pretty much like the last guy we elected” and pull the lever.

The burden of guilt, in all deceptions, lies on the deceiver and not the deceived. No ruse is so transparent that we should feel comfortable saying “well, if you fell for something that stupid, you deserve the consequences.” That arrogant superiority lasts exactly until the people harboring it find themselves duped in some other matter, and then the got-what-you-deserved smugness evaporates with startling speed.

But if we are going to hold local, boring elections for local, boring positions, we have to figure out some way of either making more people interested — and invested enough to actually¬†read about the candidates before they pull the lever — or we have to put stricter rules in place governing the ways in which candidates can represent (and misrepresent) themselves to voters.

Because if Dave Wilson accomplished anything, it was to show that the system as it stands — at least in Houston — isn’t working.

And, I suppose, to get himself a six-year term on a local school board. Second prize is two six-year terms on a local school board?

We Could Probably Make Voting Suck Less If We Tried

The old joke goes that you get the democracy you pay for, and voting day is always a particularly literal example. A few aging machines and a volunteer staff tucked into a church basement somewhere can’t move a thousand-person line through smoothly? You don’t say.

This year there’s been concern that some of the inefficiency of voting is deliberate, and I think there’s probably some truth to that, but as with most problems the vast majority of the harms owe more to incompetence than malice. While there may be a few cynical operators out there in various state administrations trying to suppress votes for partisan reasons, I think it’s safe to say that there are a lot more administrators who are simply underfunded, apathetic, ignorant, or some combination of the three.

Seven-hour lines to vote are indeed a disgrace. So is America’s chronically pathetic voter turn-out rate (let’s not forget how awed pundits were by the turnout for the McCain/Obama 2008 race, which topped out at a little over 57%). But how do you fix those problems? Especially when fixing the latter only exacerbates the former?

Well, there’s no easy solution. But people have floated some ideas, and I have a few of my own:

Make Voting Day a National Holiday

This is a popular “well duh, it’s just so easy” solution, and like most of those has major flaws. National holidays mandate a day off for government workers, but not the private sector, meaning that you’re not actually giving most of the eligible voting population any advantage that they didn’t already have. And this usually gets pitched as a way to bring people who can’t get time off their job or can’t afford to take time off their job for an hours-long line to the poll, which ignores the fact that those people are unlikely to want a mandated, unpaid day off. You end up hurting the “marginal” voters more than you help them. And, of course, the people who work the polls and run the elections themselves are government workers, and you don’t exactly want them taking the day off…

Make Voting Day a Weekend

This one gets kicked around Congress every few years or so, and it never goes much of anywhere. Elected officials who got into office under one system tend to be leery of introducing random factors for their next time around, and increased voter turnout basically means more people that you have to actively target every campaign. That limits support for this idea to true idealists and lame-duck representatives with nothing to lose — not likely to ever add up to a voting majority. Which is too bad, since it actually has a lot of merit, increasing both the number of people who can make it to the polls and the number of people who can volunteer to help man said polls.

Bring Back Entertainment at the Polls

Huge, beer-soaked festivals at polling places were a standard of machine politics for years. We got rid of them when we got rid of machine politics, and I can agree that letting, say, the Democratic Party hand out beer right outside the voting booths is maybe a bad idea. But what it it were non-partisan beer? Or something more wholesome, even — just a free sandwich or a cup of coffee goes a long way to getting people to show up for any event. Surely we can find some state funds for a little refreshment and entertainment at the polls, so that people at least get something for their wait in line. Hire some local jugglers, buskers, street musicians, whatever happens to be handy…

Allow Voting at Any “Polling Place” in Each City

Let’s face it, in this day and age it’s a little absurd that our rolls can only keep track of my ballot if I cast it at one specific polling place. Are we really incapable of letting a voter walk into any registered polling place in the city and cast his or her ballot, and getting it checked off in the city’s database fast enough that we don’t have to worry about the voter dashing to the next polling place and voting again? Yes, it would mean letting go of those big binders filled with names and stickers, and maybe springing for some laptops, but come on now.

But, of course, all of these would cost money. So for now democracy limps along, and your government gets picked by dilettantes like me who can afford to take a couple hours out of their afternoon and read a paperback in line while waiting to vote.

And as long as I’m bitching, could we get rid of the straight party ticket, and maybe even the little (R) and (D) after everyone’s name? I mean, if you don’t know, you really shouldn’t be voting for the candidate anyway…

Ah well. Go vote!

Primaries & Locals Matter: Go Vote

Today is election day in Wisconsin, and I think — think — that puts us up to five this year. Maybe only four. But we’ll be up to six or seven by the end of the presidential election in November, I know that much.

Wisconsin might be the votingest state in the Union this year, in fact! Things to look up for cocktail party small talk.

This promises to be a particularly confusing one, since August 14 is also the day that most low-priced yearly rents, especially the ones in the University area, end in Madison. I know more people that are moving today than people who aren’t, at least in the 20-29 age bracket. Happily, those leases do usually run through August 14, so for the most part everyone should be eligible to vote at their usual polling place.

(If you’re not sure where yours is, check here. If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, go anyway, bring some ID and if possible some proof of residence like a lease agreement or utility bill, and worst-case scenario cast a provisional ballot.)

This one isn’t a big marquee election but it is an important one. There’s primaries for Senate and House races, and this is Wisconsin, so you can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary for each race (but not both at the same time). Since most of the races this year are only contested on one party’s side, that means you can impact just about every final match-up.

I’m shamelessly partisan in the race for Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District, which is probably the most interesting one on the ballot for Madison residents today — I had the good fortune to work for candidate Kelda Helen Roys in her Assembly office last winter, and I certainly think she’s the lady for the job. But even if you disagree I’d rather have you out there voting than staying home.

Primaries matter a lot. When people complain about how “there’s no good candidates” or “you’re voting for the lesser of two evils,” it’s because not enough people bothered to do some research and vote in the primaries.

Don’t vote blindly. The same website I linked above (here again for you) will also give you a sample ballot. That gives you the names of every candidate for every position you can vote in. Take five minutes to Google them. The websites all need to be taken with a grain of salt, to be sure, but they give you a decent idea where each candidate’s priorities lie.

Democracy, like any statistical sampling method, works better when you sample the largest possible portion of the population. You’re unlikely to get a representative democracy that’s actually representative of any common consensus with less than half the eligible voters casting ballots.

So go vote. I’ll wait here.

Get Out and (Don’t) Vote

Election Day here in Wisconsin — we’re going to have a few of those this year.

I’m a big fan of participating in elections, mostly because my polling place is a block from a really good waffle place and I love me some waffles. (Whatever happened to the days of political parties throwing big, beer-soaked festivals near the voting booths, anyway? Some moral reform or other, no doubt, ruining it for the rest of us.)

But quite frankly, local school board elections? I am all for being an informed voter but that is just not something that affects me very much. So it was with a serious pat on the back for myself that, this time around, I decided to buckle down and learn the issues and the candidates’ positions at even the most local levels, rather than just leaving those boring parts of the ballot blank.

Turns out I was right the first time.

Oh, not that local elections don’t matter — they do, ultimately, even if you’re voting on something like Parks Commissioner and you don’t go to parks much. It’s still going to affect the character of your municipality, which will affect business and residency, and so on.

The problem is that the candidates don’t matter much. At least not this time around in our local school board elections. No one really has much of a web presence (seriously, guys, you’re running for office in 2012 and you couldn’t even throw up a free WordPress blog or something?), which pretty much leaves the League of Women Voters survey responses as the only information out there on each candidate. And those responses are so formulaic as to be basically interchangeable. (You’re running for school board because you want what’s best for our children? Well thank God! Here I was worried it was only going to be pro-child-slavery candidates again this year.)

So a few hours after deciding to do my research and vote like a good citizen rather than leaving the local elections blank on the ballot, my research pointed me in one conclusive direction: waffles are still delicious.

So I voted. Democracy in action.


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