Nov 082012

[cross-posted at Alas, A Blog]

I was supposed to be doing this somewhere warmer, like Las Vegas.

Every election cycle, there are organizations that send out lawyers to act as poll monitors in battleground states, observing the voting process and making sure there are no shenanigans. This time, I let the AAJ’s email blitz talk to me into it. They coordinated with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which coordinated with other groups in ways that are opaque to me, which ended up with my contact information being handed off to the Obama campaign. After confirming through e-mail how to get in touch with me and that I still wanted to do this, I got a call asking whether I wanted to go to Colorado or Nevada. Either would be fine, I said, but I’m closer to Nevada. They called back again: Reno or Las Vegas? That was a no-brainer.

I went through a brief training on Nevada election law and what to do and not to do (short version: you’re there to help people vote, if anything gets weird, report it to the hotline) and was told in a couple of days I’d get an assignment and be told where to show up on Election Day. In a couple of days, I got a phone call from Election Protection, but it wasn’t about Nevada. It was a tired-sounding woman from the Ohio campaign. She had my name in their database, she said, and she knew it was a really long shot and didn’t expect me to say yes, but was there any chance I might be able to come help out in Ohio? They really needed bodies.

Several phone calls later and after panic and last-minute regrouping from my husband and mother-in-law, who spent most of the last few weeks of the election like this and were convinced Romney was going to steal the election, and I was on a plane to Cleveland.

The training in Ohio was about the same in substance, but a lot more intense: there’d been actual dirty tricks going on, the margin of error was smaller, the ground game more intense. The Secretary of State had been changing rules at the last minute and trying to defy court orders. The training packet was twice as thick as what I’d been given for Las Vegas. We were warned about specific instances of harassment and fraud that had gone on; it was our job, we were reminded over and over, to make sure that everybody got the opportunity to vote if they were registered to do so. Yes, people who said they wanted to vote for Romney. Everybody. Some of this was of course self-serving – we were told that for every Republican voter kept away by voter-suppression efforts, there were three Democratic voters blocked – but there was also a strong sense that however we may have felt about people voting for The Other Side, their right to exercise that choice was more important than whether we agreed with their choice.

On my way back to Akron, where I was to be stationed, I drove through a heavily black neighborhood in Cleveland. The large church I passed on my way to I-77 had a sign out front, the kind where you can change the letters around to inform people of the schedule every week. This one read:



1:00-4:00 DRIVE TO POLLS

The polling site was a middle school in a quiet neighborhood, not far off the highway. I had been told to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m., as polls opened at 6:30. When I pulled up about ten minutes early, the sky was just starting to lighten. I had my bag of shelf-stable things to eat, a bottle of water and a box of Starbucks coffee for the poll workers. (It was traditional for the senior poll observer to bring donuts, we’d been told, as a goodwill gesture, to the point that poll workers were surprised if we didn’t; I assumed that whoever was the precinct captain would handle that, and besides, I had no idea where the nearest decent donut shop was. But it’s never that hard to find a Starbucks.)

My assignment was to be an outside poll observer. In Ohio, to be an inside poll observer – to be actually present in the voting area with the poll workers – one must be a registered Ohio voter, which I am not. My job was to keep an eye on the lines, to make sure no electioneering was going on within a certain distance of the polls, and to assist any voters who were having trouble getting in and getting to vote. I had crammed on Ohio’s voter ID requirements and forms of acceptable ID and my phone had the voter-protection and information hotlines set on Favorites.

It was at or below freezing most of the time, and I periodically had to run inside to warm up or huddle in my car until I could feel my toes again, and lunch was a handful of snacks or canned tuna when I thought the stream of voters had slacked off a bit, and it’s going to be a few days before my lungs stop being mad at me: but it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.

First, the voters. They showed up before the polls opened and never stopped coming. We had a huge influx of people before the sun came up that didn’t slow down until almost 9 am – probably people trying to vote on their way in to work. Many of them were in wheelchairs or on walkers or canes. Many people brought babies or little children. They drove up in work trucks and vans and old cars with plastic taped over missing windows. They waited in lines that, I was told, stretched up to two hours at one point. (I called the inside observer, who made some phone calls; but there’s only so much you can do when an elderly poll worker has to take a bit of time to check names for the right precinct. As one of the roving precinct captains told me, “I hope I move as fast as they do when I’m eighty.”) They held doors for  each other, chatted, let one gentleman on a cane go to the front of the line because he couldn’t stand for very long and wouldn’t have been able to vote if he’d had to wait. They called the voter hotline to find their precinct and drove home to get a utility bill because their ID was expired, and they absolutely wanted to vote.

Every so often a car or a van would pull up to the curb instead of parking. Nine times out of ten, this would be an elderly gentleman dropping off his wife right at the door while he went to park the car. (Did I mention that, with the wind chill, it rarely got above freezing most of the day? And that the parking lot was so cracked and full of misaligned asphalt that it was a trip-and-fall lawsuit waiting to happen?)

Second was being able to help people vote. I didn’t wear any election gear; I didn’t campaign. I greeted people coming in. If they had questions about whether they were in the right precinct, I directed them to the poll workers’ assistance table and offered to call the hotline for them. I explained to confused voters what ID they could use to vote: do you have a cell-phone bill at home, or a utility bill, or a student ID? One woman wasn’t sure and had to leave for work while she was still on hold with the state voter hotline; I called my group, got her precinct and address and texted it to her. (Thank you, she texted back.) I asked voters who didn’t have “I  [Ohio] Voting” stickers on their coats if they were able to cast their ballot; if they said yes, I thanked them for voting, and if not, I tried to find out what the problem was. Sometimes it was just a lack of time, and I could tell them they only needed to be in the line by 7:30 and encourage them to come back. Almost all of them were very friendly. A couple asked me what I was doing there, but they smiled when they realized I was there to help them vote, not to hit them with one more election message.

One man walked out of the polling place, threw back his head and howled “THANK GOD, IT’S OVER!”

Fourteen hours after I arrived, it was indeed over, at least our little piece of it. The poll workers had printed the results from each of the four machines and taped them up on the doors to the school, facing out, where anyone could review them. (Mike, the inside observer, dutifully reported the presidential and senatorial results to the war room; roughly 2-1 in favor of the Democratic candidates, not surprising in a heavily blue-collar and African-American precinct.) We were supposed to wait around until every last paper had been put away, but as Mike said, did we think these nice old ladies were going to go back and sabotage the memory cards? No, we did not. We thanked them for their service and left, in my case to go find dinner that was warmer than room temperature and didn’t come out of a Zip-Seal package. There was a victory party planned somewhere in Cleveland, but a cold beer was absolutely the last thing I needed.

I’ve seen arguments that something is lost when we turn voting into a mail-in affair, and convenient though vote-by-mail is – I do it by default, since I never know if I’ll be home on Election Day – I am now even more convinced that it is true, that setting aside an official day for people to go to a polling place and cast their vote is a kind of civic religion, that there is value in creating a space where people can step into a voting booth, in private, and add their voice to the democratic process of deciding and our leaders and our laws.

I’m humbled and honored that the people of Ohio let me help them exercise their right to make those choices.

Feb 082012

Following on the heels of David Frum’s excellent takedown of famous crank Charles Murray’s latest book, Andrew Gelman explains why the meme of the rich latte-sipping liberal elites vs. the Pabst-drinking conservative working class is, as with everything else Murray says, utter horseshit.

I would have thought previous takedowns would have ended his 15 minutes, but nobody apparently goes broke catering to the wealthy racist class in America.

Feb 082012

Apropos of the 9th Circuit’s ruling on Proposition 8, rather than raise the same arguments again we can just turn to Ampersand’s analysis of why same-sex marriage won’t make incestuous marriage more likely, particularly his brilliant analysis of why there is a rational basis for prohibiting incestuous marriages between adults:

In my case, I’d first say that marriage is a kin-making institution, which by definition transforms two unrelated (or at least not closely related) people into close kin. It makes no more sense for marriage to turn close kin into close kin than it does for an alchemist to transform gold into gold. It’s already gold.

Second, I’d point out that limiting incestuous marriage to adults would not solve the problem of child abuse, and could conceivably make it worse. Legal recognition of incestuous marriage could give sexually abusive fathers (or mothers — but in most cases, sexually abusive parents are fathers) a strong incentive to sexually abuse their daughters, in hopes of crushing her will before she comes of age, so she’ll agree to marriage.

Finally, I’d argue that child health and child abuse are not the only harms of incest. Importantly, legalizing incestuous marriage between the infertile would transform currently existing families, by introducing the possibility of marriage into relationships that have never had that possibility. It fundamentally changes the relationship between father and son, or between sister and brother, if we add the possibility of marital union to those relationships.

Feb 082012

Over here on Earth-Alpha, you may have heard of today’s big appellate court decision. No, not the one on regular Earth about same-sex marriage; we’ve had that on our parallel timeline pretty much forever. No, in our alternate reality, the Ninth Circuit struck down a law forbidding left-handed people from marrying each other. This law was passed through a popular initiative, to get around the meddling of the courts, and let me tell you, we are not happy about the damage this will cause to our traditional view of marriage.

First was the whole nonsense about “discrimination”, as if left-handers had any different treatment than their right-handed counterparts. A lefty could, if he or she wanted, marry a righty, just as a righty can marry a righty. Tell me, how is that discrimination? Nobody said they couldn’t marry at all; they just want special treatment. (Don’t ask about the “ambidextrous.” They don’t exist; that’s just a phase a lot of people go through until they make up their mind as to whether they’re righties or lefties.)

Then they ignored the fact that left-handedness is not only rare, but something we would like to discourage. Of course many left-handed people can’t help the way they are, but they may be more likely to have left-handed children. And those children will struggle to get along in a right-handed world geared towards right-handed people in everything from pens to circular saws. It’s also well-known that being left-handed increases the risk of everything from ADHD to schizophrenia. Don’t we want to protect our children from the negative effects of sinister marriage?

The court’s decision also spit in the face of millennia of tradition favoring right-handedness. The same word for the majority of people’s hand orientation even means “correct” and “proper” in English. Multiple languages recognize the left side, and left-handedness, as being unlucky or evil – “sinister” in English and “gauche” in French, to pick two easy examples. Many cultures also treat the left hand as unclean or disfavored, useful only for unpleasant tasks. Yet the activist judges in the majority saw fit to set aside a hallowed cultural tradition held by human cultures going back to the dawn of time.

Don’t ask me if the opinion makes any legal sense; we don’t like the result, and that’s all we right-minded folk need to know that the court got it wrong.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make a donation to a religious charity that helps train left-handed people to hold a pencil in the correct hand; with time and effort, many can write their names legibly, and accept that they should marry a right-handed person, as all right-thinking people do.

Labor Day

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Sep 052011

Growing up, half the people I knew swore that a great-uncle or cousin or grandpa was on the bridge that day:

Battle of the Overpass

And while I also like the Great Big Sea version this is hard to beat:

Aug 222011

To everyone’s profound nonsurprise, various pundits and public figures are attributing the UK riots to the old favorites: lack of parental discipline, and the degenerate culture of Those People. (You know; the ones who don’t need as high an SPF rating on their sunscreen.) In typically remote fashion, the Economist goes back through historical Kids These Days panics in recent history.

In talking about the “Negro music” aspect of this panic, dzik makes a spot-on observation about jazz that should be tattooed on the inner eyelids of all cultural snobs:

Of course, the real scandal of Miles, Sun Ra et al was that they took these “deplorable”, “tribal” roots and cultivated an art form capable of engaging with the European classical tradition and commanding respect on its own terms — that is the negro’s revenge and that is the negro’s revenge. To listen to the critics you’d think some people would have been less offended if they’d merely destroyed Western Civilization.

Damn straight.

Take the credit

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Jan 082011

The real puzzler isn’t why Jared Loughner shot Congresswoman Giffords and a bunch of innocent bystanders. It’s why the politicians and demagogues who have encouraged violence are backing away from him.

Certainly, one would expect them to condemn the shooting of people other than Giffords, in much the same way that the military expresses regret when a strike on a military target kills innocent civilians. But why are they condemning his shooting of Giffords? Why aren’t they doing what politicians usually do when something they support comes to pass – rushing in to get a camera-op and claim all the credit, even when nothing they did actually cased the result?

From Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map and urging her supporters to “RELOAD” to Shannon Angle’s suggesting “Second Amendment remedies” to “take Harry Reid out” if she lost the election to Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck openly exhorting people to violence, reactionaries expressed their wish quite clearly, and they got it. Why are they now having second thoughts?

I can think of only two possibilities. Either they were so stupid and immature before (hurr, look how much this upsets the libruls) and never gave a moment’s thought to what would happen if, in fact, some disgruntled nutjob decided to put the “four boxes” into action, as if they were immature teenagers rhapsodizing about the “cool” violence in their favorite video-game shooter suddenly getting a look at real-life violence. If this is what’s going on – they were just so in love with their own imaginary tough-ass self that it didn’t occur to them for a second that, like, shooting at people just because you’re mad at then is bad – then they have no place in public discourse, and need to slither back under their rocks with the rest of the simple, muck-dwelling lifeforms, and leave political interaction to the humans.

The other possibility is that they’re pleased as punch that Giffords was shot; but they know that a lot of people who used to chuckle over their imaginary gun battles are really in group number one there. That is, it’s not a popular viewpoint to say “We deeply regret and condemn the killing of innocents, but as we said before this incident, if Congress continues as it has been, people are going to shoot Democrats, so take Giffords as a warning.” So instead of proudly standing behind a “crosshairs” political map or leaping into the photo-op to prattle about how right-thinking Americans will come out shooting if the wrong Senator gets elected, they trip over each other to pretend they probably never said any of that stuff and certainly never meant it.

Which is to say, they’re wormsucking cowards who care about nothing but their own political and financial futures, and are too craven to take the credit they’re owed. Unsurprising.

Nov 142010

John Scalzi links to a New York Times online feature called “You Fix the Budget“, which purports to let you eliminate various categories of spending and raise various categories of income to come up with a ‘projected’ budget. Of course, despite the impressive credentials, this is an online exercise put together by journalists, which means it has one moderate problem and one extremely serious problem:

The moderate problem is that the descriptions of each category are oversimplified, in some cases are policy statements having not much to do with reality (such as medical malpractice ‘reform’) or are laughably vague (what are those ‘other’ cuts going to look like, exactly?), and considers nothing but the net effect on the deficit – ignoring externalities, societal costs and, really, anything except ‘deficit, plus/minus’.

The serious problem is that, as you can see from comments not only at Whatever but elsewhere on the Internet, people are completely oblivious to the existence of the moderate problem. “Why, that was easy,” they say. “Why can’t our lawmakers figure this out? It’s not hard!”

Indeed, it’s not hard to push numbers around and come up with a surplus, when you’re working with extremely limited information and don’t have to care one way or the other about anything other than whether the “projected” result helps the deficit. It’s quite a bit harder in the real world, where things like public safety and unemployment are also important considerations.

It’s an economics version of  “My kid could paint that!”

Oct 292010

And I may get around to posting a longer one when I’m not about to dash off to Sacramento, but:

There are many subjects on which reasonable, well-meaning people can disagree, often with no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ on either person’s part. Birthright citizenship is not one of those subjects.