Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Illinois Business Roundtable says no we can't to improving Illinois government

The Illinois Business Roundtable (a sort of Chamber of Commerce) released some really excellent research on the 2008 question as to whether we voters should exercise our option to improve our Constitution through calling a convention.

The full report is available from their website here.

Really great stuff on the previous three constitutions and the conventions that led to their successive replacements.

Their conclusion, however, is rather tepid, which is that they aren't interested in a convention. Their reasoning is that because the legislature could be solving big picture issues (like creating good schools in poor areas, or ending the reverse Robin Hood regressive taxes we impose, or modernizing our elections), we don't need to amend the constitution. We just need the legislature and the governor to get to work.

In my view there are structural deficiencies to state government (particularly the excessive authority vested in the Office of the Governor, regardless of who happens to hold the seat) that only a constitutional amendment can solve, and thus a convention is an excellent tool to get some amendments on the 2010 ballot.

But more to the point, the notion that simply because a convention isn't absolutely required due to a clearly deficient constitution, we ought to reject the opportunity that a convention provides to create another avenue to improving Illinois government is wrong-headed.

Any chance we get to improve Illinois government we ought to take.

Those chances don't come around very often.

And when we get a chance to change our government in fundamental ways -- to let the people be heard in another venue and a different context -- that's a chance we need to embrace.

It's the politics of hope over the politics of fear and cynicism.

The position of hope is to say yes, let us take this opportunity to make things better.

The position of cynicism and fear is to say no, it will never work or the special interests won't bend or, more fundamentally, we can't ever really change anyway. So just give up and give in.

We'll never get good schools for poor children in Illinois.

We'll never give more voice to regular people in our elections and in our legislature.

We'll never have the politics that is a model for the nation instead of a political liability for presidential candidates.

I reject that defeatist thinking.

I'm sorry the Roundtable embraces it.

And I hope the people of Illinois join the next President of the United States in saying yes, we can.

And voting yes for the chance to change Illinois government.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Two questions for every advocate

1. What do you want?
2. How will you get it?

These are the basic advocacy questions.

1. What do you want?

If a legislator or advocate can't answer that question, then there isn't any actionable request. This is policy development -- the translation from a vague stirring for something better or an end to a particular problem into a specific solution.

This is not easy to do.

2. How will you get it?

Once an actionable improvement or specific solution is created, then the advocate or legislator has to figure out how to implement it.

This is usually a communications and advocacy plan involving the recruitment of messengers, the identification and de-legitimization of opponents, the branding of the solution into an uplifting solution and relentless attacks on the problem that the solution will solve.

Some advocates know what they want but they are not sure how to get it.

Some advocates aren't sure what they want but can figure out how to implement any solution they come to accept.

And some advocates aren't exactly sure what they want and are not exactly sure how to implement it.

That's how Progressive Public Affairs helps our clients.

We help identify what they want and help show them how to get it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Intercity and commuter rail should unite for more federal investment

The federal transportation bill is up for reauthorization in 2009. This time the bill is likely to undergo major revision because the funding source for highways and transit -- the federal gasoline tax -- is not generating enough money to keep up with the escalating costs of maintaining highways and transit networks. Change is coming.

Intercity passenger rail, however, is not now part of the debate on the federal transportation bill.

That's an opportunity to strengthen both commuter rail and intercity rail, because investments in rail infrastructure often benefit both the commuter rail agency and Amtrak.

Take, for example, the stretch of track between Chicago's Union Station and Joliet Union Station. Metra's Heritage Corridor runs on this track (with stops in Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport). Amtrak's Chicago-Bloomington-Normal-Springfield-St. Louis and points beyond (the Texas Eagle and Missouri service to Kansas City) also runs on that track.

And the track needs a lot of work.

We need a few bridges so that intersecting tracks can flow freely. We need tracks and signal systems that allow safe travel at 70 mph as soon as the train leaves the station. And we need safer intersections so that trains don't need to blow their horns all the time.

Investments in that track will benefit both Metra and Amtrak.

We need to build that political coalition around the track infrastructure investments that benefit more than one agency and thus more than one pool of riders and supporters.

That should be a priority for federal investment, because then we get at two-fer.

I think that, at a start, the National Association of Railroad Passengers and the American Public Transportation Association should identify all track investment projects that benefit both intercity and commuter rail. This list of projects should be compiled and presented to the electorate, ideally before the 2008 election, so the presidential and congressional candidates can decide whether funding those projects in total is a priority in 2009.

I'm sure there are other groups that should participate in developing the list of projects that benefit more than one rail service (I just happen to be a member of both of those organizations). The agencies themselves, including Amtrak, should develop the information and the state and federal legislators that are trying to build support for rail investment should be aware of this potential package of investments and help shape it.

Passenger rail -- both intercity and commuter -- will be stronger when we work and advocate together.

[cross-posted at Improving Amtrak Incrementally]

Barack Obama explains to an undecided voter why she should vote for him instead of Hillary Clinton

This is a succinct explanation from Senator Barack Obama to an undecided voter in a large town hall meeting why she ought to vote for him instead of Hillary Clinton.

I think it's a great opportunity for undecided Democratic Party primary voters to hear directly from Senator Obama why they should vote for him. Check out the seven minute video right here.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How does proportional representation in delegate selection for the presidential campaign work?

Today is the nation's biggest exercise in using a modern election system -- proportional representation -- in recent political history.

It's a fantastic day for people who believe that our politics suffer from using winner-take-all elections for most of our government, as millions of civic Americans for the first time are coming to understand how proportional representation works.

Let me try to explain some of the nuances.

The Democratic National Committee (the organization that runs the Democratic Party) decides every year how they are going to nominate their candidate for President of the United States. This is not a government decision. Neither the Constitution nor Congress decide how nominations work (unlike elections in November to actually elect the leaders of government where laws structure the entire process). The Democratic National Committee (and the Republican National Committee) are private, non-profit organizations and they get to decide how to run their own affairs.

The DNC has decided that every state will use proportional representation. The RNC has decided that each state can use whatever system they want.

Some state Republican parties have decided to use the winner-take-all rule. That's the way most states award their electoral votes in the Electoral College: whichever candidates gets the most votes in that state gets all of those delegates (or electors).

And *that* means that a state is fiercely contested between candidates if it happens to be close. If it isn't close (like Idaho isn't close in the general presidential election, or Illinois isn't close in the Obama-Clinton campaign), then the candidates basically ignore it because the result is a foregone conclusion. The winner will take all the delegates, whether he or she wins by 65% of the vote or 75% of the vote, and that will be that. There is no incentive to bring out more voters in a winner-take-all state and there is no incentive to increase the margin of victory.

That's the experience of every non-battleground states in November during the presidential election (no one cares if you vote in Texas or in Rhode Island, everyone cares if you vote in Missouri or in Pennsylvania) because only those winner-take-all states that are close count.

Because we only elect one Member of Congress per district, that means every congressional election is winner-take-all. And that means most congressional elections are also forgotten and foregone conclusions. No one cares if you vote in San Francisco or in the Republican small towns of Wyoming, because with winner-take-all rules, those Members of Congress are going to win their November elections no matter the ratio.

Because the presidential nominating content is about electing delegates who support Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton at the Denver convention (and not about actually voting for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton), we are using multi-member districts.

This is key.

For Congress, we use single-member districts. That means we elect one person per congressional district. And it is inherently winner-take-all (because only one person can win, the minority must lose out and gain nothing but the vain hope that the winner will return their phone calls).

For the primary elections, we elect several delegates per congressional district. If we elected just one, then we'd be stuck with winner-take-all. Because we elect several per congressional district, we can use proportional representation.

That's the rule that the Democrats use for every state and territory in the nation: proportional representation.

So consider every congressional district a pizza. And all the Democratic voters in each congressional district getting together to decide what they want on that pizza.

If half the people in a congressional district vote for Obama and half the people vote for Clinton, then that pizza will be half Obama and half Clinton. Half the delegates from that congressional district will go to the Denver convention ready to vote to nominate Obama and half the delegates will go ready to nominate Clinton.

But it doesn't have to be an even split. If three-quarters of the voters in a congressional district vote for Obama and one-quarter vote for Clinton, then 75% of the delegates will be pledged to Obama and only 25% of the delegates will be pledged to Clinton.

That's why bringing out more voters matter, because in your congressional district, more votes for Obama can mean the difference between a 50-50 split and a 66-33 split.

Let's take Illinois as an example.

On page 5 and 6 of their Illinois Delegate Selection Plan, the party decides how many delegates are elected from each of Illinois' 19 congressional districts. In my congressional district (#7, proudly represented by Danny "The Voice From Heaven" Davis) there are 8 delegates to be selected.

That means for (roughly) every 1/8 of the vote earned, Barack or Hillary will get 1 of the 8 delegates from the 7th congressional district.

Now that matters for turnout!

Barack is clearly going to get a majority of the vote in my congressional district. But Hillary supporters have a chance to win 1 or 2 or maybe even 3 of those delegates. So get out the vote! And similarly, Obama supporters (like me) want to keep Hillary from getting even 1 of those delegates, so get out the vote and increase Obama's percentage victory!

The difference between earning 50% of the vote and 62.5% of the vote isn't that much in a primary (and thus the difference between earning 4 of the 8 delegates or 5 of the 8 delegates from that congressional district), so that's why every vote counts.

This battle for a higher proportional share of the delegates in each congressional district is happening in every state and caucus in the nation.

Turnout is encouraged and people are coming out -- because they know that their vote can count whether they are in the majority or minority.

This is how we should elect the Congress of the United States. We should use multi-member districts -- and elect 3 or 4 or 5 Members of Congress from larger districts -- so that turnout matters and so that the majority and the minority have representation.

For more on proportional representation, see FairVote, a great organization I represent in Illinois as part of my advocacy firm's lobbying practice.

Think about your city council or library board or school district. Maybe that's a place where you already use multi-member districts. And maybe that's a place where the winner takes all. So maybe that's a place that can use proportional representation instead.

Keep in mind, most democracies in the world already use proportional representation. Most democracies don't use single-member districts like we have been doing for a long time.

If you're interested in seeing how proportional representation could apply to the governments where you live, or have any other questions, post a comment.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Economists' data: best way to lower crime is less enforcement of prohibition

Three economists recently published a paper titled "What do Economists Know About Crime?" that studied crime rates over the last 80 years or so. They measured crime rates and compared it to a range of crime-fighting policies that have changed over time to see which policies actually resulted in higher and lower crime rates.

They looked at a larger police force, a higher arrest rate, higher gun ownership, higher incarceration rate, legalization of abortion, lead poisoning and enforcement of prohibition of drugs or alcohol.

One would assume that the best way to lower crime is with a larger police force and a higher arrest rate. I would, just based on my gut.

As it turns out, only one of these policies consistently changed the crime rate. All the rest had mixed effects -- so that they are not that strong of a policy to fight crime, according not to intuition or anecdotal evidence, but hard data over many years and several countries.

That policy is the level of enforcement (if any) on prohibition.

When the government cracks down on the prohibition of some drug or alcohol, people die and crime spikes. When the government does not, crime goes down.

One of the main reasons is because when a product goes underground, and large illegal companies develop to manufacture, distribute and market the product, anytime there is a dispute among rival companies (often known as gangs). the companies don't go to court or call their lawyers to send a threatening letter. They get violent and innocent people die.

The economists in the paper call this gang violence an "alternative dispute resolution process." We would all be a lot safer if the major companies that are manufacturing and distributing drugs acted like the major companies that manufacture and distribute alcohol. I'd rather they fight it out in court than on street corners.

Other explanations for the connection between the amount of prohibition enforcement and the crime rate are that when the police are focused on the companies making and selling the product and the jails are full of the customers, salesmen and manufacturers of the product, the rapists, robbers and other felons are not the focus of the police and they are not the ones in prison. Instead, they are committing crimes.

It would be great to be a part of a crime-fighting movement that advocated for policies that reduced crime. We seem to be missing that in our politics. I hope our next Cook County State's Attorney will lead on the question.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Radio appearances on WGN, WLS

On the eve of Tsunami Tuesday, I'll be on Bruce DuMont's Beyond the Beltway with GOP operative Dan Proft and RealClearPolitics.com founder Tom Bevan where I will continue to boldly predict that our next President of the United States of America will be Chicago's very own Barack Obama. The program will air live this Sunday from 6 pm to 8 pm CST on lots of radio stations around the nation, including WLS, and will be on television later that night (and on Monday in the suburbs).

I also just came across an mp3 file of my appearance on WGN's Milt Rosenberg show from late December where I debated Mark Stricherz, the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue who tries to make the case that by using proportional representation for delegates in the Democratic Nominating Convention and a 50% rule for female delegates, the party has been a losing proposition. (It's a great read for fans of procedural politics, to see how the McGovern Commission convened and drafted democratic rules for delegate selection in the late 60s and early 70s that we use to this day). His thesis is flawed, in my view, as we're in the midst of a Democratic resurgence and we're a stronger party with participatory procedures rather than exclusionary rules.

One neat thing about the interview: at the end of the show, Congressman Dan Lipinski calls in as a pro-life Democrat and take Mark's view of the world that the Democratic Party is not friendly to pro-lifers. He also mistakenly calls MoveOn a pro-choice organization and blames the pro-choice movement as the force behind the campaigns of his opponents (mostly referring, one would think, to Mark Pera who is a more progressive candidate than Jerry Bennett).

Using first names of candidates improves likeability

This is good stuff (courtesy of US News and World Report's Washington Whispers blog: apparently the operatives at the RNC are following good language discipline and are not permitted to refer to "Barack" and "Hillary" but rather only "Senator Clinton" and "Senator Obama."

If people are used to calling a politician by their first name, it evokes a friendlier, warmer relationship than calling them by their title and last name.

That's one small reason why Arnold does so well in California. (I usually write Arnold because I'm too lazy to type out Schwarzenegger). Campaigns should cultivate the habit of referring to their candidates by their first name.