Earth Matters

Economists don’t bother to calculate the value of a habitable planet when they model the economy. That’s because an uninhabitable planet makes all production and other economic values drop to zero, and the value of habitability is therefore invaluable, like the laws of physics, or the existence of mathematics.

With every passing year, we see the consequences of climate change. We still have not taken the necessary steps to deal with it. As November’s midterms approach, one wonders how an augmented reality election would work. One could see the future that they are voting for displayed in the voting booth. In places like Miami, Florida, certain candidates’ realities might be a city abandoned to the ocean.

But we don’t have future-vision technology. We have to rely on public reports of the science and the meaning and what candidates say and whom they align with. There is guesswork. But the Republican Party has made it clear that they do not stand for or with the planet. They do not take the question of habitability seriously. They take earth for granted. They believe it will always be habitable and that people will just have to suck it up and die if their area is flooded or poisoned.

They certainly don’t believe that people whose homes are uninhabitable have a right to cross imaginary lines in violation of laws. If your crops wither and your soil turns to dust, that’s your problem (unless you’re their constituent, in which case, welfare).

The risk of all of earth becoming uninhabitable is low. The risk for parts of earth, currently inhabited, becoming lost, is a certainty. The longer that Republican policies remain in effect, that we do not take real action on climate change, the worse the consequences will be.

The Republican Party is free to abandon their broken thinking any time they want. They can choose to support the planet we need to survive. They should take the chance to do it before the public opinion climate changes on them, permanently.

Mandatory Voting and Automatic Registration

Oregon is moving to automatic voter registration, and President Obama has mentioned, in the context of making it easier to vote in the United States, that some countries have compulsory voting (as far as I can tell he didn’t actually call for it here, just for better access to voting).

But we have a host of issues around voting, including candidate ballot access and gerrymandering. How much difference would a 10% increase in turnout across the board make versus some other change like moving to a preferential, ranked-voting system?

Like anything in politics, these issues are complicated. They are complicated to study, and even more complicated when you look at what is politically possible at various levels of government. You basically have to either have a hegemony that favors a better system (i.e., puts the true interest of the system at-large ahead of any naïve self-interest) or an idea that sells so well that it cannot be denied by the powerful.

Ideas abound, but few get sold, and it’s a non-market.

A few things are clear enough. Simply enfranchising a group isn’t sufficient to change politics. Non-land-owners, black people, women, and 18-20-year-olds all got their voting rights late, but it did not significantly change the political system directly. Interesting that the Civil Rights Movement did cause a major political shift, but not from voting. Its mere enactment was the mover.

If everyone did vote, or at least if every demographic voted in proportion to their population, it would change things a lot. But that’s exactly why Republicans fear expanding voter access. Of course, a mere political shift on their part would make them a much more popular party, but they’re afraid it would scare away donors.

Could compulsory voting help? The first bar is its chances of being enacted. They are slim, and even slimmer if such a change would require Constitutional amendment. More likely is a system like Oregon is moving to, and Oregon will give some evidence in the future.

It’s clear that their existing vote-by-mail system does improve turnout, so while expanding their rolls by 10% or so will probably see increased turnout, it is unlikely to raise the percentage of registered voters who vote.

Compulsory voting with fines for failing to vote likely would. A lottery system (where you would be entered to win a monetary prize if you voted) might work, too. But the horizon does not show these coming to America. Right now the best hope for expanding access is vote-by-mail expanding beyond the few states like Oregon who have it or something like it (open absentee processes).

Identifying Voters

Conservatives, with their majorities in a dozen states, have pushed for new voter identification laws and got them. The requirement is that an elector produce a piece of government-issued identification including a photograph of said citizen before casting their ballot.

Strange, that the majority winners of the previous election allege rampant election fraud. They either admit to illegitimate election victories (unlikely), or they believe their margins of victory were smaller than they ought to have been (equally unlikely in most cases).

Unidentified electors may cast provisional ballots, returning later (within a few days) to present their photographic identification. In some cases, if they know the poll workers, they can skirt the identification requirement by having the workers swear to their identity.

Critics claim that the requirements attempt to reduce opposition voting. That is, to derive political advantage through limiting the ability of the electorate to vote in opposition. This claim comes from the fact that their political opponents’ constituents tend to be in situations where they may not possess existing viable identification documents.

A variety of voters may be harmed by the requirements. Newlyweds and the divorced whose names have changed (more common amongst women), and do not yet match their identification, for example. Also affected are minorities and the poor, fewer of whom are licensed to drive.

The problem may not be the requirement for identification, ultimately, but the lack of access to the identification. It would seem reasonable to require that polling places be augmented with the ability to issue photographic identification that meet the new laws’ requirements. This is no different than the capacity to obtain a library card at, wait for it, a library.

But taking it a step further, we should move away from the current identification-issuance systems. Digital cameras are widely available in mobile devices, and the requirement to verify identity can be done in a variety of ways, including via notaries public, post offices, banks, and other businesses and institutions that already have need to verify identities.

Take your picture (or take 20 of them, since bytes are cheap) and send them to the registration system. Then, at your leisure, take five minutes with an identifying institution to provide them with proof of residence and they can vouch for your photograph. When we (eventually) move to cryptographic signatures, they could also digitally sign your identification.

But none of these improvements to the identification laws were considered, because the design of the laws are malignant. Unbalanced laws, that do not consider both how to accomplish their stated purpose and how to minimize harm are laws not worth the paper they’re written on.

Had they considered both sides of the issue in passage of these laws that disenfranchise, we might still have to show photographic identification at the polls, but we would have a stronger identity system for the trouble. That stronger system could bootstrap small businesses and create positive economic impacts, rather than simply allowing a doomed party to meander a few more years.

The Republican party needs to modernize their positions and, in doing so, align themselves with growing demographics. Instead they continue to try to hang on and deny the reality of voting trends.

Voting as an Activity

In the field of design, one of the most useful paradigms is the activity. It might also be called the unit of behavior. It is divisible into subordinate activities, to some extent, and may be composed as a member of a superior activity.

A brief example will serve.

Cooking, as Always

If you are making a cake, it is unlikely you are planning merely to eat cake. You are likely causing the cake with the expectation that you (or whomever the cake belongs to) will enjoy it following some greater meal. You may be responsible for preparing or procuring the greater meal, or it may merely be an expectation.

The cake is a piece of a larger activity, either a meal, a party, what-have-you. Likewise, the cake making has smaller activities inside it. The icing. The layers. Icing the cake. Assembling the layers. Buying or bartering for the ingredients. Planning the cake.

Activities are Goal-oriented

Humans are goal-oriented, and activities are their attempts to achieve goals. Computers help humans complete activities. In some cases, computers can eliminate whole activities.

For any activity that a computer can eliminate, it ought be eliminated unless the human gains some value in completing it. That value could be the computer working on some less-desirable activity, learning from the activity, doing a better job than the computer, or something else.

These caveats are all goal-oriented. If you exercise to stay fit, having the computer do your exercise would preclude the goal, so eliminating that activity wouldn’t be sensible.

The goal is what’s notable. It’s what’s important. And now to the goal of this post, to talk about voting as an activity.

The Background to Voting

We’ve established the goal-nature of activities. What is the goal-nature of voting? Let’s step back and say what voting is. And as per usual, we can start with a dictionary definition and etymology.

From Wiktionary: vote: noun:

A formalized choice on matters of administration or other democratic activities.

From Online Etymology Dictionary: vote:

mid-15c., from L. votum “a vow, wish, promise, dedication,” […]

So to vote is to make a definite proclamation of one’s wish for some group choice. The goal being to establish the collective wisdom on the matter at hand. The best right ??? choice. Here we run into a problem.

We can’t really say the choice is anything but that which had consensus. Which is tautological. If the choice is unanimous, maybe we can go slightly further, but even then we cannot state it’s the best or right choice.

Now up the chain, to the agreement to choose based on voting. Again, we cannot say this is the best method of choosing, but merely the agreed upon method. If we had a better method, we would need not rely upon voting.

If, for example, we were choosing which key to use to open a lock, we would surely not vote. We would pick the key that fits the lock.

We are often faced with more complex choices than those with one-to-one correspondences. But, if we choose to join together in the first place, as a self-governing institution, for example, we do so under an agreement to have the institution run based on the consensus vote.

We may also provide for prerequisites, limits to the authority, in entering into this agreement.

The Integrity of Voting

Once we establish the vote, what is the nature of the activity itself? It is to have the eligible voters, in whatever allotment of votes they may have, cast their ballots. The ballots, tallied, give us the result. We have our choice.

We can imagine numerous ways to allot votes, to cast votes, to tally votes. We can even create perverse eligibility requirements prior to the agreement, in the form of prerequisites.

But once we have established the agreement, barring interim amendments conforming to the agreement, the activity of voting is fixed.

What I’m getting at is the fact that there is nothing inherent in the system of voting that gives it even a modicum of integrity.

If we are to have a voting system with integrity, it us up to us to provide it for a given institution.

The Voting Activity

Which finally arrives at the activity of voting. We have a fairly robust system, with a good bit of built-in integrity. This integrity arrives in the form of eligibility requirements for office, such as residency. In the form of allotment of votes, driven by a census. In the form of eligibility of voters, in terms of age, without restriction for the poor, and only removing the vote from duly convicted felons (we lose integrity here) and the mentally incompetent (we may lose some here as well).

But we lose a lot of integrity when we issue requirements that make the act of voting more onerous without concomitant gains. This includes extreme restrictions of the time and place of voting. It includes making the voting process needlessly complex, or requiring extra, unnecessary bureaucratic interactions.

If we approach the voting activity as an activity, to be designed for smooth and orderly action, we would not choose these severe limits on the times, places, and extra requirements for voting.

For example, take the issue of these draconian voter identification requirements being passed around the country. If they were based off of an existing, robust system for authentication, it would be acceptable. But it’s almost solely based off of the driver licensing scheme, which is already ineffective for a large number of authentication purposes.

We have a dire need for a good authenticating system for a variety of other purposes, but these too are neglected. As a society we lose non-trivial amounts of capital because of our lack of authentication.

In a similar manner, we have existing infrastructure (and could build more) that could be used for voting purposes, including ATMs and (where they still exist or where new ones may be added) phone booths.


Design problems are ubiquitous. The tendency to highlight design problems in software (both backend and user experience/user interface) is caused merely by the proximity we have to these systems and the immediacy of the relationship between the problems and their results.

If we design our larger systems with more rigor, we can do far better than we have. But we run into the same problems in software that we do in systems such as voting and banking. These include the same competing interests between marketing and engineering, for example.

It remains to be seen exactly how we can overcome these issues on the large scale. Continuing to examine these issues should prove fruitful, though.

Open Voting Solution

Via a Slashdot story about evidence of voting machine errorsOpen Voting Consortium:

(1) a prototype of open-source software for voting machines (2) an electronic voting machine that prints a paper ballot, (3) a ballot verification station that scans the paper ballot and lets a voter hear the selections, and (4) stations with functions to aid visually impaired people so they can vote without assistance. Open source means that anyone can see how the machines are programmed and how they work.

Very cool stuff. You can even try a ballot via this web-based demonstration. The demonstration allows you to cast a fictional ballot and then generate a printable document. The document is approximately what you would get out of the real system if this were actually used.

This is the thread in the Slashdot article about Open Voting Consortium.

You can read the  comments on Slashdot that discuss the OVC.

A few points worth mentioning:

  1. The actual hardware can be cheap, commodity systems.
  2. The actual ballots are printed, submitted ballots that are readable by both computers and humans.
  3. Ballots that have not been submitted are of no risk to anyone.

The nice part about this is you don’t necessarily have to vote anywhere. You could vote on your cell phone, print it, and submit it. Some jurisdictions in the USA already allow (and encourage) voting by mail.

The goal of the new voting movements (some of which aren’t so new) are generally to increase turnout, simplify the process, increase integrity of the process, and enhance the results of voting. I’m all for it.