Where is the real America?

A while back, my nephew posted a piece from FiveThirtyEight “”Normal America” is Not a Smal Town of White People” with a lament that Vermont, where he grew up and I live now, is not normal America.  The piece begins

Earlier this week, Jim VandeHei, a former executive editor of Politico, wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal accusing the Washington political establishment of being out of touch with “normal America.”

“Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption,” he wrote, citing his regular visits to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Maine, as his credentials of normality.

Jed Kolko, the author of the piece for FiveThirtyEight, responded by looking at demographics.

I calculated how demographically similar each U.S. metropolitan area is to the U.S. overall, based on age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity.1 The index equals 100 if a metro’s demographic mix were identical to that of the U.S. overall.2

By this measure, the metropolitan area that looks most like the U.S. is New Haven, Connecticut, followed by Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. All of the 10 large metros that are demographically most similar to the U.S. overall are in the Northeast, Midwest or center of the country, with the exception of Tampa. Two of them — New Haven and Philadelphia — are even on Amtrak’s Acela (that’s “uh-SELL-ah”) line. None is in the West, though Sacramento, California, comes close at No. 12.

The precise location of Normal America.

The precise location of Normal America.

But do demographics really show us the “normal” America?  According to the 2010 Census, 80.7% of American live in urban areas.  And we are creating new urban areas.  According to a Reuter’s analysis of the 2010 data

As a result of the growth in population and geography, the Census identified 36 new urbanized areas, which it defines as “densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas” with populations of 50,000 or more.

The Midwest dominated the birth of new major cities, with Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Grand Island, Nebraska; Manhattan, Kansas, and Midland, Michigan, all joining the ranks. Arizona’s Lake Havasu City and Sierra Vista are also now considered urbanized areas.

But are the urban places where most of the population lives “normal America?”  If we mean typical America, then, yes, the urban dweller is the typical American and when you add in demographics you get New Haven.

But in the past few years, my husband and I have spent a good deal of time driving back roads largely in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and Vermont.  We have eaten at diners and stayed in some small and medium sized towns many with well-known colleges and universities.  We have found a rich culture, interesting people and things to do, and fresh air.  Driving across New York on U.S. 20 yesterday made me think about more about Kolko’s piece.   Of course, he was writing about politics and arguing that Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn’t have such a large influence because they – and by implication other places that don’t have the urban area racial and ethnic diversity – are not normal America.  But I’m not sure that those states, at least on the Democratic side, vote much differently than the rest of the country.  Yesterday, I saw a handful of Bernie bumperstickers and yard signs along with one Trump yard sign.  I saw no sign of any other candidates.  Kolko writes

We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America.

I guess I am arguing that Kolko may be the one taking too narrow a view.  He concludes with what the 20% that don’t live in urban areas would consider an insult.

There are lots of reasons to care deeply about places that are demographically different from today’s America: Some of those places may turn out to be bellwethers for a future America that will be older, more educated and more racially and ethnically diverse than today; and some of those places are especially deserving of public attention and investment because they worse off than most other places.

But if you’re trying to get outside of your bubble and get in touch with “normal America,” skip the small towns of your actual or imagined past and instead start with New Haven or Tampa.

But I think he needs to take a ride on US 20 or US 40 or even the Western part of MA 2 and visit a place like Lincoln, Maine and get out of his own bubble.

Illustration by Getty Images and FiveThirtyEight

Can we cure Congressional dysfunction?

The pundits are dissecting the results of the local and state elections and speculating on what, if any, effect they will have on the 2014 mid-terms and the 2016 Presidential election.  There is plenty of time for that.  I want to talk about the current dysfunction in Congress.

George Packer posted an interesting comment in the New Yorker yesterday.  His Daily Comment began

Going to cast a vote Tuesday, less than three weeks after the government shutdown and the near-default, put me in a sour mood. Usually, I exercise the franchise in a state of embarrassing, heart-swelling affection for the imperfect republic, my under-informed fellow-citizens, confused poll workers, even the dubious names on the ballot. But yesterday, with the gross malpractice of elected officials in Washington still fresh in mind, I walked to the local polling place thinking about some of the stupidities of our democracy, grouping them into two categories: necessary and unnecessary.

His list of unnecessary traditions includes the filibuster.  While the Senate is slightly more functional than the House, the idea that every piece of legislations needs 60 votes to pass needs to be changed before that morphs into a new “tradition”.

The filibuster is an unnecessary stupidity. Senators speak reverently of the filibuster as if it were inscribed in the Preamble to the Constitution, but it’s nowhere in our founding documents. The Senate created the rule almost by accident, in 1806, and for around the next hundred and seventy years used it sparingly, until self-restraint began to disappear from the upper chamber. It has almost no positive effect—try to think of the last time a truly terrible bill was prevented from being stampeded into law by the Senate’s failure to pass a cloture vote. Rampant abuse has exposed the filibuster as an anti-democratic tool of the defeated minority to thwart the will of the elected majority.

Some senators keep making noises about reforming, if not abolishing, the filibuster—most recently last month, when two Obama Administration nominees were blocked by Senate Republicans. But it never happens, and I don’t think it ever will happen, which only shows the profound conservatism of our democratic system. We’re stuck with necessary stupidities because trying to eliminate them would do more damage than it’s worth, but why are we stuck with so many unnecessary stupidities?

While we are talking about traditions, what about the tradition that an president’s nominees get approved absent clear evidence of criminal past, lack of qualifications, or some moral issue.  The putting a “hold” on a nominee, sometimes almost at random, because the Senator wants something else to happen, is an other tradition we don’t need.  At least the Senate has managed to pass Immigration Reform, a non-sequester budget, and the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA).  There seems to be little hope for ENDA or Immigration Reform in the House.

IVoted

Packer goes on to cite the New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera on what we might do to fix some of the dysfunction.  Nocera’s suggestions include moving election day to the weekend, term limits for the Supreme Court, and an end to gerrymandering.

Move elections to the weekend. Do you know why elections fall on a Tuesday in early November? I didn’t either. According to a group called Why Tuesday?, it goes back to the 1840s, when “farmers needed a day to get to the county seat, a day to vote, and a day to get back, without interfering with the three days of worship.” Today, of course, casting your ballot on a Tuesday is an impediment: lines in urban areas are long, people have to get to work, etc. It is especially difficult for blue-collar workers — a k a Democratic voters — who don’t have the same wiggle room as white-collar employees.

Chris Rock — yes, Chris Rock — has been quoted as saying that this is the reason Election Day remains on Tuesday. “They don’t want you to vote,” he said in 2008. “If they did, they wouldn’t have it on a Tuesday.” Even if you aren’t conspiratorially minded, you have to admit that moving elections to the weekend makes a ridiculous amount of sense.

Moving election day is a solution, but we could also expand early voting and explore voting by computer and mail.  Most of all we need to do away with the absurd new ID laws where there is no evidence of widespread fraud which so far no one in Florida, Texas, North Carolina and other states has produced.  Why have ID laws when we could just prosecute anyone who tries to vote illegally?

Nocera also proposes terms limits for the Supreme Court.

 Somewhat to my surprise, most of the experts I spoke to were against Congressional term limits. Norman Ornstein, the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that the unintended consequences of term limits would outweigh the benefits. (He cited, among other things, the likelihood that “they come to office thinking about their next job.”)

Instead, Ornstein proposes term limits for Supreme Court justices. If he could wave his magic wand, he would give the justices one 18-year term, and he would stagger them, so that a new justice joined the court — while another departed — every two years. Ornstein likes this idea, in part, because presidents would be willing to nominate older justices; now, the emphasis is on younger nominees who can remain on the court, and influence American society, for decades. I like the idea because nothing fuels partisan politics like a Supreme Court nomination. If the parties knew there would be a new nominee every two years, it might lessen the stakes just a bit, and bleed some of the anger out of politics.

I’m not sure about this, but it is interesting to contemplate.

The next suggestion, open primaries, is something we have in Boston for municipal elections.  I should note that very few candidates here identify as Republicans (I think there was one running for Mayor), but that shouldn’t hold true for most places.

Why are so many extremist Republicans being elected to Congress? A large part of the reason is that highly motivated, extremist voters dominate the current Republican primary system. Mickey Edwards, the former congressman who is now at the Aspen Institute, wrote a book last year called “The Parties Versus The People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.” At the top of his list of reforms is open primaries — which would allow anybody to vote for any candidate. Indeed, California has already adopted an open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters run against each other in the general election — even if they are from the same party. As Adam Nagourney wrote in The Times a few weeks ago, this reform is one of the reasons California’s Legislature has become less partisan and more productive. Chances are good that the same reform at the federal level would produce the same result.

California also provides an example that could reduce, if not end, gerrymandering.

As a tool to entrench the party in power, few maneuvers can beat gerrymandering. It’s another reason that the Tea Party Republicans can pursue an agenda that most citizens disagree with: thanks to gerrymandering, their districts could not be safer. Here, again, California offers a better model. It has a 14-person commission made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four people unaffiliated with either party. In 2011, the new commission redrew lines in a way that broadened the diversity of many districts. That is exactly what should happen everywhere.

Nocera talks about bringing back small donors.  I think this will take a Congressional change to modify or repeal Citizens United.

Many of these suggestions have to be implemented on the state/local level, but we should start talking about them now.  Change comes slowly because of “tradition” and people wanting to retain power, but unless something changes we are going to sink further and further into dysfunction.

Voting in America

We all saw the lines on television last November. A lot of us stood in them.  In Florida, in Ohio.  I saw at least a 20 minute wait on election morning as I timed a friend who went into vote while I was outside handing out Warren/Obama literature.  This was much longer than usual at my precinct.  It turns out that these are only the outward manifestations of larger problems.  President Obama has said fixing the problems is one of his priorities.  Now he can look at a couple of studies to see exactly what needs to be fixed.

Voter buttons

First the Daily Kos posted a story about the MIT study showing that black and Hispanic voters waited longer to vote than other voters.

You’d think after two hundred years (including some awkward Constitution-patching, here and there) we would finally have this “voting” thing down. Nope:

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysis determined that blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote on average than whites. Florida had the nation’s longest lines, at 45 minutes, followed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Charles Stewart III, the political science professor who conducted the analysis.

So how are states going to fix this?  Maybe by making it harder to register and then harder to vote.

…In states like Virginia, in fact, they’re still trying their level best to make sure certain people don’t have to wait in long lines to vote by making sure certain people aren’t allowed to vote at all. Newly passed legislation would:

eliminate the use of a utility bill, pay stub, bank statement, government check and Social Security card as acceptable identification that can be presented at the polls. Voters would still be able to use a voter identification card, concealed handgun permit, driver’s license and student ID card.

Well, so long as you’re still taking concealed handgun permits.

Since most of those now-banned documents are still perfectly acceptable for obtaining “real” ID’s, like drivers licenses, the possibilities for thwarting rampant voting fraud are approximately nil. The only substantive outcome is to make it ever more inconvenient for certain people (i.e. poor, elderly, and those that don’t have cars, those city-living bastards) to vote.

So I’m not sure that we can depend on states to fix their own problems.

On the heels of the MIT study comes Pew Research.  The New York Times reported on the study which looked at 17 factors.

The flaws in the American election system are deep and widespread, extending beyond isolated voting issues in a few locations and flaring up in states rich and poor, according to a major new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group ranked all 50 states based on more than 15 criteria, including wait times, lost votes and problems with absentee and provisional ballots, and the order often confounds the conventional wisdom.

In 2010, for instance, Mississippi ranked last over all. But it was preceded by two surprises: New York and California.

The project includes an interactive tool that allows rankings by individual criteria or clusters of them.

Some states, for instance, lost very few votes because of shortcomings in voting technology and voter confusion, with the best 10 reporting failure rates of 0.5 percent or less in 2008. In West Virginia, by contrast, the rate was 3.2 percent.

I hope you will click on the interactive link and look up your state.  The study covers the 2008 and 2010 elections and will be updated with 2012 data when it is available.  Massachusetts is only ranked in the middle at 64% overall which is interesting as I would have guessed it would have been higher.

The study also covered the new trend of voting by mail.

The shift to voting by mail, which now accounts for some 20 percent of all ballots cast, tends to eliminate lines. But it has also produced new problems, especially in places where mail voting has soared because the state does not require an excuse or a new ballot request for each election. Arizona and California, where voting by mail is commonplace, had among the highest rates of problems with voter registration and absentee ballots.

In 2010, California rejected absentee ballots 0.7 percent of the time, a higher rate than any other state.

Dean C. Logan, the registrar for Los Angeles County, said the rate was partly a byproduct of the popularity of voting by mail in California and partly a function of how the state defines rejected ballots. Its definition includes ballots that voters requested but that the Postal Service returned to election officials as undeliverable.

“Voter behavior is changing and evolving,” Mr. Logan said. Young people do not sign their names as consistently as older ones, he said, and mail delivery is becoming less reliable.

He also cautioned that statewide results can mask the fact that “the elections process is extremely decentralized.”

Provisional ballots are also a potential problem according to the study.

Charles Stewart III [cited also by the Daily Kos], a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Pew adviser, said that high provisional ballot rates were an important signal of potential trouble.

“Nationwide, a bit over 1 percent of voters are given a provisional ballot,” he said. “In Arizona in 2008, the rate was 6.5 percent. In the battleground state of Ohio, it was 3.6 percent. While these numbers may seem small, in a recount or election dispute, they would be huge.”

There are lots of things to consider as we look at ways to fix things.  How can people more easily register to vote?  What kind of ID, if any, should a voter have to show?  Do we vote by mail?  Online?  In person?  How many options should voters be offered?  I don’t know how many of the issues raised by the Pew study are local and how many can be federally mandated.  I believe that the federal government may have more say if the election is for a national office and is not just a state or local election.

I hope we can tackle some of these issues before 2014 and more of them before 2016.

Professor Stewart said the study should focus attention on the infrastructure of democracy.

“Among all important areas of public policy, election administration is probably the most episodic and prone to the problem of short attention spans,” he said. “What would the world be like if we only gave intense attention to education, corrections, transportation and public health problems for a one-week period every four years?”

An Oregon mail-in ballot for a special electio...

An Oregon mail-in ballot for a special election in May 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do Lincoln and Obama have in common?

We all know that both are from Illinois, but did you know that both were elected on November 6?

Abraham Lincoln was first elected on November 6, 1860.  Barack Obama was elected to his second term yesterday, November 6, 1012.

When my husband mentioned this yesterday, I thought this was another good omen and it, like the 7/Eleven, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic polls was correct.

From This Day in History

Abraham Lincoln is elected the 16th president of the United States over a deeply divided Democratic Party, becoming the first Republican to win the presidency. Lincoln received only 40 percent of the popular vote but handily defeated the three other candidates: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Constitutional Union candidate John Bell, and Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, a U.S. senator for Illinois.