Pun Salad Crackpot Proposal: Congressional "Fairness" Reform

2022 Update

[This is an update to a post originally made in April 2017, triggered by my recent read of a book by Lawrence Lessig, They Don't Represent Us. I still like the idea herein, even though it's failed to catch the attention of the outside world; it didn't even make the cut on Jonah Goldberg's "Remnant" podcast where he invited readers to send in crazy ideas for sharing with his audience. Ah well. The new stuff is mostly at the end, and (beware) it's pretty geeky. If you're arriving here from GitHub, don't worry, we'll get to those scripts eventually.]

Back in 2017, this article in Quanta caught my eye: How to Quantify (and Fight) Gerrymandering. Specifically, this bit (emphasis added):

Partisan gerrymandering — the practice of drawing voting districts to give one political party an unfair edge — is one of the few political issues that voters of all stripes find common cause in condemning. Voters should choose their elected officials, the thinking goes, rather than elected officials choosing their voters. The Supreme Court agrees, at least in theory: In 1986 it ruled that partisan gerrymandering, if extreme enough, is unconstitutional.

Similarly, Lessig's book concentrates on them not representing us. For a whole raft of reasons, including the gerrymandering issue, but also big money, the incentives representatives have to appeal to the most extreme members of their parties, and so on.

My gut reaction to the Quanta article back in 2017, and now: Unfair?! Hey, I'll tell you about unfair!

And after reading the Lessig book: Hey, I'll also tell you about failure to represent me!

I live in New Hampshire Congressional District 1. The November 2016 election results were:

Candidate Party Votes Percent
Carol Shea-Porter Democrat 162,080 44.3%
Frank C. Guinta Republican 157,176 43.0%
Shawn O'Connor Independent 34,735 9.5%
Brendan Kelly Independent 6,074 1.7%
Robert Lombardo Libertarian 5,507 1.5%

At least for the purposes of this post, I don't want to get into the details, personalities, and parties of my oddball district. Instead, let's concentrate on fairness, and what it means to have a "representative democracy", at least for the purposes of the US House of Representatives.

To wit: Carol Shea-Porter sat in the 115th United States Congress, with one whole vote therein. But it's clear from the table: she only "represents" a minority of voters in her district. A large minority, but still.

Specifically: she does not represent me, in any meaningful sense. (I voted Libertarian, if that matters.) I don't bother to write her about my views on the issues, because she doesn't have any interest in representing me. I'm alienated from the political process, and everyone tells me that's a bad thing!

I submit to you, reader, that this is the great unfairness of our current system, far greater than the kvetching about gerrymandering, big money, etc. It's winner-take-all, and if you voted for a loser, it's just too bad, chump. (Lessig has some suggestions in this area, but I like mine better.)

So here's my crackpot notion, which would require some Constitutional tinkering: Any candidate for the US House of Representatives who receives greater than 1% of the popular vote in the general election shall be entitled to a vote in the House equal to the fraction of the vote he or she receives.

So, if the 2016 election had been held under that system, and the same result obtained: instead of Carol Shea-Porter casting 1.00 vote, she would instead be entitled to cast a mere 0.443 votes on the House floor. Guinta would have had 0.430 votes. O'Connor, Lombardo, and Kelly would submit 0.095, 0.017, and 0.015 votes respectively.

Let's also assume that Congresscritter salaries are also in proportion to their votes.

Yes, this would greatly expand the size of the House, probably by a factor of between 2 and 3. This is more of an infrastructure issue than anything else, and arrangements could be made for secure remote voting.

Members not happy with their fractional vote and salaries can quit. Or just not show up for work. This isn't Russia, after all. But don't bother wasting the voters' time in the next election.

Advantages:

  • As long as their candidate got above that 1% threshold, people would have someone in office they thought of as "their representative", decreasing political alienation.

  • Conversely, the elected representatives would have a greater incentive to pay attention to (i.e., actually represent) the people who voted for them. And (for that matter) they also have an incentive to attract voters at the margins for the next election cycle. (Most House districts are "safe" these days, so incumbents feel little pressure to appeal to voters outside their party.)

  • Citizens residing in overwhelmingly "blue" or "red" districts are probably marginally discouraged from voting under the current system. Why bother, when the outcome is foreordained? Under this proposal, they'd have more incentive to get to the voting booth. Maybe even more of an incentive to get informed on issues of interest.

  • Gerrymandering becomes much less of an issue (and my guess it would be negligible), since just about everyone gets "represented" even if they've been shuffled into a district where a different candidate is a safe bet to get more votes.

  • It's far simpler than other schemes I've seen, e.g. ranked-choice voting.

Note: this scheme wouldn't apply to the Presidency. We can only have one President, not (say) a Schrödinger's Cat-like mixture of half-Trump and half-Hillary. (That would be scary, though.)

Nor would it apply well, I think, to the US Senate: Senators represent states, not people.

And I don't have any smart ideas how this would play out in House procedures, like committee assignments and the like. My hand-waving impulse would be to treat a district's representatives as a unit for the purpose of committees. So instead of having Shea-Porter with 1.00 vote in the House Armed Services Committee, it would be (again) Shea-Porter, Guinta, O'Connor,... with 0.442, 0.429, 0.094, ... votes respectively.

Office budgets? I dunno. Probably they'd need to be expanded (and, unfortunately, paid for). Maybe each representative would get a bare-bones staff, which could be increased based on their fractional vote.

The natural question: how would that have worked out in an actual election? I handwaved that back in 2017, but I made more of an effort this time around. I found an (allegedly) complete CSV file for US House elections between 1976 and 2020 at a page maintained by the MIT Election Data + Science Lab. I wrote a Perl script (also a Python script) to suck in the data for a specified election year, and output the results and party breakdown in the resulting Congress, assuming this crackpot scheme was in place.

For example, given the 2020 vote breakdown, here are the Congresscritter-counts and votes for each party that grabbed a vote fraction over 1%:

Party Representatives Votes
DEMOCRAT 440 219.85
REPUBLICAN 422 203.16
LIBERTARIAN 111 3.10
WORKING FAMILIES 24 1.25
DEMOCRATIC-FARMER-LABOR 3 1.17
CONSERVATIVE 24 0.93
INDEPENDENT 30 0.92
UNENROLLED 3 0.31
DEMOCRATIC-NONPARTISAN LEAGUE 1 0.28
GRASSROOTS - LEGALIZE CANNABIS 4 0.21
LEGAL MARIJUANA NOW 3 0.20
GREEN 9 0.14
CONSTITUTION 6 0.13
NO PARTY AFFILIATION 6 0.12
INDEPENDENCE 7 0.10
WORKING CLASS 4 0.09
INDEPENDENT AMERICAN 4 0.09
UNITED UTAH 2 0.04
PACIFIC GREEN 2 0.04
NO SLOGAN FILED 2 0.03
VETERAN FOR CHANGE 1 0.02
ALOHA AINA PARTY 1 0.02
WRITE-IN 1 0.02
SOCIALIST WORKERS 1 0.02
EDUCATION COMMUNITY LAW 1 0.02
D.C. STATEHOOD GREEN 1 0.02
INDEPENDENT PARTY OF DELAWARE 1 0.01
AMERICAN VALUES 1 0.01
BUILDING YOUR LEGACY 1 0.01
JUSTICE MERCY HUMILITY 1 0.01

Whoa, that's a lot of parties, many with funny names. Googling them can be amusing. For example, that last line in the table for the "Justice Mercy Humility" party reflects the strong showing of Jenna Harvey, in New Jersey District 2. She got 1.1% of the vote, beating the tar out of the Libertarian Party candidate, Jesse Ehrnstrom, who only got 0.8%.

I don't know anything about the Justice Mercy Humility Party, other than they are apparently based on the teaching of Micah 6:8. They sound nice.

Further: There are lot of ways of saying "Independent". And you'll note a few "Democratic-Farmer-Labor" members; they are from Minnesota, and they are as pure-Democrat as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. I don't know why MIT codes some Minnesota candidates as Democrats, others DFL.

Anyway, the grand total: 1117 representatives with 432.31 votes. Bigger than the current House size of 435 by a factor of about 2.6.

I.e., the Democrats had a slight edge in 2020 over Republicans in this alternate-fact universe, and a slight majority of overall votes. (The actual 2020 results were 222 Ds, 213 Rs.)

But I hasten to say: if the election had been held under this scheme, the voting incentives would have looked a lot different, so too the results.

Now into the semi-geeky weeds on the scripts I wrote to produce that result. You can peruse my scripts at GitHub. Don't like the details of my scheme? You can twiddle the scripts to your heart's content!

Further notes:

  • There are lots of columns in the MIT CSV file, but I only used a few: year, candidate, candidatevotes, totalvotes, party, district, and state.
  • I decided to ignore "undervotes" in the CSV data. These are people who failed to vote for anyone. That's fine, but you don't get represented. Similarly, I also ignored votes for "other" and "writein". (I assume if a write-in candidate had garnered a significant number of votes, he or she would have been identified by name.)
  • I wrote the Python script after I wrote the Perl script; it's a rough translation and (probably) not very good. It's my first (maybe my last) non-trivial Python script.
  • I did a lot of "how do you do this in Python" Googling. I found I really liked Python's command-line argument handling. The Python script is also noticeably faster than the Perl one. That's probably due to me slurping the entire CSV file into an array of hash in the Perl script, while the Python script just iterates over the file.
  • But why doesn't Python just have a printf function? Some religious reason no doubt. (It turned out to be easy enough to add.)
  • I was a little baffled about how to handle the party_vote and party_count dictionaries in Python. In Perl, non-existent hash entries will get auto-created when you use them. In the equivalent "dictionary" Python structure, apparently, you have to create entries with initial values first. A little clunky.
  • And I learned the hard way that there are no ++ and -- operators in Python. Another religious design issue.

Last Modified 2022-05-12 5:51 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2022-05-11

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

  • And nobody puts babies in a corner? Kevin D. Williamson corrects the record: Without Roe, Nobody 'Dictates' Abortion Policy.

    For various reasons, many journalists and so-called journalists have written many columns about my views on abortion. But the only one of them to ever bother asking me about my views on abortion has been Jane Coaston. We recently had a short email exchange on the question, which she mentions in the New York Times. She writes:

    In response to an email, Williamson told me, “Returning abortion policy to the democratic theater does not empower the pro-life movement to dictate abortion policy — nor should we want it to.”

    But have no doubt that the people who oppose abortion will, in fact, be dictating abortion policy in dozens of states . . . .

    Coaston is one of the many writers on this subject who, for whatever reason, keeps missing one of the central points: In a post-Roe world, nobody gets to dictate abortion policy to anybody — rather, abortion policy will be decided by democratically elected lawmakers. That is not dictatorship, but democracy. The importance of that point should be easily understood by all intelligent observers, including those of our friends and neighbors who support abortion rights. It is wrong to treat laws enacted by democratically enacted lawmakers as equivalent to the undemocratic settlement we currently have. It is also wrong to fail to acknowledge that this is a big part of what is being disputed.

    KDW makes a good point. But:

    1. Some believe that abortion is a "right" (or derives from a right, variously claimed to be privacy, bodily autonomy, or self-ownership.)
    2. And, as KDW himself has said, rights are "Stuff You Idiots Can’t Be Trusted To Vote On".

    Now, I don't believe that abortion is a "right". But it's tough to argue with people who do.


  • A point of wide applicability. Timothy Sandefur expands on his views about Debt and Demagoguery.

    “The Federalist Papers” can be dry reading. Calm, scholarly, sometimes needlessly erudite, this classic examination of the U.S. Constitution by three of its foremost advocates—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay—generally strikes a detached pose, focusing more on how bills become laws than on any specific political agenda.

    But there’s an exception. In the middle of the book’s most famous essay—Federalist No. 10—Madison briefly drops his tone of political neutrality in order to call three kinds of laws downright “wicked.” These three are laws creating paper money, laws that redistribute private property and laws “for an abolition of debts.” This trio, he explains, are the types of laws the proposed Constitution is designed to prevent.

    Today, as a loud minority of voters is calling for President Biden to “cancel” or “forgive” billions of dollars in federal student loan debts—shifting the costs of higher education onto the backs of working taxpayers—it’s worth pausing to consider why the Father of the Constitution reserved such harsh language for laws abolishing debts.

    Sandefur recounts the long history of wise people pointing out the "wickedness" of debt cancellation.


  • Little Marco provides yet another reason to vote against him if he tries to run for president again. Joe Lancaster keeps his eye on his latest bad idea: Marco Rubio Wants To Fight Abortion and Trans Battles in the Tax Code.

    With the passage of state laws intended to restrict access to abortion, some companies like Bumble, Yelp, and Salesforce have announced programs to assist employees who have to travel to other states in order to obtain the procedure. After the apparent leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion which would overturn the right nationwide, Amazon announced that for any employees who have to travel in order to receive an abortion, it would reimburse up to $4,000 annually.

    Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) responded by threatening legislation.

    Employees' health care costs are typically tax deductible as business expenses for their employers. Rubio's bill, the No Tax Breaks for Radical Corporate Activism Act, would bar a company from deducting the costs of reimbursements not only for abortions but also for gender-affirming medical treatments for transgender children. In a statement accompanying the legislation, Rubio said, "Our tax code should be pro-family and promote a culture of life."

    A more sensible policy would be to treat all employer-paid medical benefits as taxable income. It's regressive, and a major factor in why health care is so expensive in America. But that's a non-starter.


  • PolitiFact is awful and should apologize ad go away. OK, you probably knew that. But Andrew Stiles describes another reason to despise it. PANTS ON FIRE: PolitiFact Defiles the Truth.

    PolitiFact, the allegedly "independent" fact-checking website, is soliciting donations to fund its "fact-based, unbiased reporting." Unfortunately, these fundraising efforts have already been tainted with disinformation.

    "Help us hold politicians accountable," PolitiFact's audience director, Josie Hollingsworth, wrote in a fundraising email on Monday.

    The email asserts that PolitiFact is dedicated to "holding our leaders accountable." The claim lacks crucial context, and grossly misrepresents the truth about the organization's priorities, according to a Washington Free Beacon analysis of nearly 300 PolitiFact posts dating back to March 10, 2022.

    Our analysis found that more than half the PolitiFact fact checks published in the last two months involved random content posted on social media. More than a third (112) of the website's 290 fact checks over that period involved content posted on Facebook, which has enlisted PolitiFact and other so-called nonpartisan organizations to "identify and review false information."

    PolitiFact has been "holding our leaders accountable" by devoting it resources to fact-checking the asinine claims of random Facebook users: that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive and leading QAnon, that "paying taxes is optional," and that Hillary Clinton is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. All three were given a "pants on fire!" rating, in case you were wondering.

    "Help us debunk random Facebook users" is not a strong fundraising slogan.


  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the latest in a series of pundits who don't like the DGB: The desperation of Biden's Disinformation Board.

    In 1918, Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic administration passed a piece of legislation it hoped would accelerate the end of the First World War. The new law didn’t directly concern the military — nor was it a revolutionary act of foreign policy. Rather, its target was ordinary American citizens.

    Passed shortly after the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act made it a crime to “wilfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States”. In other words, it was intended to stifle dissent. And by all accounts, it was immensely effective: it was used to convict 877 people between 1919 and 1920.

    In the century since it was passed (and swiftly revoked), the Sedition Act has largely been viewed as a legislative artefact, an embarrassing quirk that’s best forgotten. In recent weeks, however, its spirit appears to have been rekindled by another Democrat President — one who may not be at war, but nonetheless finds himself under siege. Late last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the creation of a sinister-sounding new unit called the Disinformation Governance Board. When asked to justify its formation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained: “It sounds like the objective of the board is to prevent disinformation and misinformation from traveling around the country in a range of communities, and I am not sure who opposes that effort.”

    And so the mask slips. As became clear in the following days, the Board has been established to legislate fake news and mistruths out of existence, as if they were draughts of toxic air, wafting out of laptops and cell phones into the eyes and ears of unsuspecting citizens. It’s hardly surprising that the Board was swiftly condemned as the ill-disguised attempt at state censorship it is.

    Ms. Ali notes that in addition to the DGB being a bad idea, the person picked to head it up, Nina Jankowicz was an enthusiastic promoter of the Steele Dossier misinformation. So, even worse.

A Confederacy of Dunces

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Another book plucked from the New York Times shortlist of fiction whence they asked their readers to pick "the best book of the past 125 years". Nine to go!

And, compared to those other 24 books on the shortlist, it's pretty funny. Funnier than Beloved, anyway.

The protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, and he's not really a dunce. He is (to use our preferred non-judgmental language) several sigma off the mean on a number of personality traits: he's delusional, an inveterate liar, antisocial, and very rude. He also dresses oddly. He records his oddball thoughts on numerous Big Chief writing tablets. He lives with his momma in New Orleans; she's at her wit's end, demanding that he get gainfully employed. He makes a couple efforts at that, but things don't go well, thanks to his insistence on using the jobs as springboards to hatch various crackpot schemes.

Ignatius's odyssey involves numerous colorful characters and situations, described in amusing detail. Many of those characters spin off their own subplots. Are they actually all dunces, as the title claims? It seems cruel to say so, but yeah, probably. Ignatius is probably the smartest of the bunch, at least he has the biggest vocabulary.

I couldn't help but notice one of Ignatius's plots: to "Save the World Through Degeneracy". Specifically, as he describes it:

Our first step will be to elect one of their ["degenerate"] number to some very high office — the presidency, if Fortuna spins us kindly. Then they will infiltrate the military. As soldiers, they will all be so continually busy in fraternizing with one another, tailoring their uniforms to fit like sausage skins, inventing new and varied battle dress, giving cocktail parties, etc., that they will never have time for battle. The one whom we finally make Chief of Staff will want only to attend to his fashionable wardrobe, a wardrobe which, alternately, will permit him to be either Chief of Staff or debutante, as the desire strikes him. In seeing the success of their unified fellows here, perverts around the world will also band together to capture the military in their respective countries. In those reactionary countries in which the deviates seem to be having some trouble in gaining control, we will send aid to them as rebels to help them in toppling their governments. When we have at last overthrown all existing governments, the world will enjoy not war but global orgies conducted with the utmost protocol and the most truly international spirit, for these people do transcend simple national differences. Their minds are on one goal; they are truly united; they think as one.
Hm. Are we so sure that plot isn't being carried out right now?

The book's history is tragic: published posthumously a few years after the author's suicide. Especially interesting is the Wikipedia section describing efforts to bring it to the screen. Who should star as Ignatius?

John Belushi! Uh, no.

John Candy! Darn.

Chris Farley! Oops.

Divine! A bold suggestion, but… also no.

I don't believe in curses, but…