The Voting Apollo Program

Yesterday, I attended the festivities in Selma, Alabama marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Voting Rights. Almost every speaker spoke of the threats facing voting rights today, referencing the efforts by various state legislatures making it harder to vote. For example, Obama said: “Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”

However, no speaker made explicit the two stories of what’s really going on here:

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STORY 1: If everyone voted, the Republican Party, as it is organized today, would face an existential threat.

Take this Pew Poll of non-voters linked here:

If you bring non-voters into the fold, support for Republican candidates and Conservative ideologies fall:

  • 47% of likely voters supported Romney in October 2012 while 39% of all adults supported Romney because only 24% of non-voters supported Romney.
  • 51% of likely voters viewed Obama favorably in October 2012 while 56% of all adults viewed him favorably, because 64% of non-voters viewed him favorably.
  • 44% of likely voters consider themselves Ideologically Conservative, while only 38% of all adults do, because only 28% of non-voters view themselves as Conservative.

If you bring non-voters into the fold, demographic groups that generally support Republican candidates wane (and vice versa for demographic groups supporting Democratic candidates):

  • 74% of likely voters are White, while only 68% of all adults are White because only 59% of non-voters are White.
  • 20% of likely voters make less than $30,000 while 32% of all adults make less than $30,000 because 52% of non-voters make less than $30,000.
  • 54% of likely voters are over 50, while 35% of all adults are over 50, because only 28% of non-voters are over 50.
  • 13% of likely voters are under 29, while 21% of all adults are under 29, because 36% of all non-voters are under 21.

As you might expect from the facts above, if you bring non-voters into the fold, support for left-wing economic policy increases:

  • 39% of likely voters believe the government should do more to solve problems, but 44% of all adults do because 52% of non-voters believe the government should do more.
  • 49% of likely voters believe that Obamacare should be repealed, but only 43% of all adults do because only 31% of non-voters believe it should be repealed.

These 5-10% differences seem small, but given that most elections are decided by differences of this small size means that this matters: if all non-voters had been voters in the last 10 elections, American politics would be completely different. Specifically, it would be different in the Democratic coalition’s favor.

I don’t mean to be so partisan, but this seems to be the story that the facts are laying out:

  1. Among likely voters, the party coalitions are roughly balanced, ping-ponging electoral victories back and forth;
  2. Non-voters skew towards the Democratic coalition; and thus
  3. If all potential voters voted, the Democratic coalition would have a solid, more permanent majority in American politics.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Republican Party mega-strategists would, at best, not support efforts to have more non-voters vote, and, at-worst, discourage increased voter turnout.

So, that’s what’s probably happening here: Republican-controlled state legislatures are making it harder to vote based on a puffed-up “voter fraud threat”, Democrats are doing their best to parry such attempts, and serious efforts to dramatically increase voter participation are voted down or blocked because only one party has an interest in voter expansion being achieved.

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STORY TWO: “Increasing voting rights” today is a technology question masquerading as a political question.

So what do we do about this voting scuffle between the Republican coalition (which has an interest in limiting voting people) and the Democratic coalition (which has an interest in expanding voting to more people)?

Well, the first thing we have to affirm that it’s not our formal democratic system’s problem that the Republican coalition doesn’t have a popular majority. That’s their problem to figure out. The democratic system’s job is to make sure our government is accountable to the will of the People. The integrity of the democratic system should be preserved and fortified regardless of the present consequences for either party coalition. Attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will should be called out for what they are: “attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will.”

The second thing is to remember that the spirit of a democratic electoral process is not the literal act of going to ‘polling places’ and ‘casting ballots’, but rather the general idea of having the People choose their governing officials. Too often, I’ve heard people act as if the literal technological mechanisms of voting are what voting is about: for example, I’ve heard many people say “If you’re too lazy to go to a polling place to vote, then you shouldn’t be able to vote” or “if you don’t have it in you to get an ID, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” But that’s an arbitrary poll test, one that’s randomly based on the technology we happen to use to transmit People’s wills to be centrally counted. Again, the spirit of electoral democracy is that the People choose their governing officials, not any specific literal task that was necessitated by the technology needed to transmit the public Will to a central counting mechanism.

One way to put it is to say that there are two different concepts that make up elections: (1) The political mission of elections: “Transmit the People’s will for certain candidates into a formal decision of who is elected”; and (2) The electoral technology that is used to achieve that mission: IDs, registration, voting, ballots, counting, election commissions, etc.

We can have a political debate over what the mission of elections should be, over who should be able to vote. For example, I believe every adult citizen should be able to vote. Someone else might believe that the imprisoned shouldn’t be able to vote. Someone else might believe that permanent resident non-citizens should be able to vote. This is a political debate.

But, all this voting rights back and forth — voter ID, same-day registration — is actually discussions about the technology we should use to achieve the mission of voting. It’s masquerading as a political debate, but its actually just those interested in limiting voting using ambiguity around the technological mechanisms of voting to limit voting. It would be the equivalent of a town voting to design a building a certain way and then someone from the losing vote side using ambiguity of brick masonry practices or blueprinting technology to achieve their original intention.

The technology challenge of elections is hard, but simple:

  1. Your technology system needs to transmit choices from people across a geographic area to a centralized counting mechanism and then publish those results.
  2. Your technology system needs to make sure that those who are issuing their choices meet certain criteria (above 18, American citizen, from the proper district).
  3. Your technology system needs to make sure that its counting’s integrity cannot be compromised in an environment where people will have a deep interest in compromising it.
  4. Your technology system needs to be able to be audited to verify 2 & 3.

This is do-able: Banks protect money in an environment where people want to steal money, the government processes tax information from across the country to a centralized source, etc. But this is a technology challenge that engineers should work on, not politicians. Like with all other technology challenges the state faces (the Pentagon building a tank, the IRS running a website) the officials should set a mission, hire people (like engineers) to achieve that mission and then verify if the results achieve that mission. They shouldn’t use the middle engineering process of developing an adequate technology as a political tool to achieve their own private mission counter to the agreed-upon mission.

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So, what?

Given these beliefs above, you can think bigger about Voting Rights than the small ball that those at Selma50 were speaking to.

We have had the political debate about elections and decided: most every adult citizen should play a role in our formal democracy, having their preferences counted in our elections regardless the color of their skin, their gender, and their income.

Given this political conclusion we should have election technology that lives up to this mission. If we believe everyone should play a role in elections, our electoral technology should work to ensure that. We should see low voter turnout as a technology problem, not as an apathy problem. We should say: “If the government can get every male over 18 to register for selective service; if it can track all our phones and emails; if it can collect taxes from us every year…then it can get our voting preferences every two years.”

Let’s use the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act to start a VOTING APOLLO PROGRAM that aims to achieve 99% voter participation by the 2020 election.

The government wasted almost $5 billion on a failed replacement of Marine 1 Helicopters for the White House. What if we spent $5 billion on election technology that achieved the following:

  1. Complete integrity: (A) Ensures each voter fits requirements of voting (18, American citizen, proper location); (B) Ensures counting’s integrity is not compromised; (C) Ensures counting is auditable by everyone.
  2. Easy participation: (A) You can vote online anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election; (B) You can vote offline in various places (post-offices, McDonalds, schools, etc.) anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election.
  3. Constant reminders: (A) You are emailed constant reminders to vote with direct links to webpages where you can vote; (B) You are snail-mailed constant reminders to vote with direct return envelopes to vote; (C) You are reminded in public to vote and provided with public kiosks to vote right there.

In short, a Voting Apollo Program would achieve full voter participation and integrity protections through election technology fit for the internet age.

Yes, there are thousands of technological details of achieving this mission that are going to be hard. But, there were also a lot of technological details of achieving the mission of inventing the internet and going to the moon. This is beyond achievable by our country.

Full voter participation through serious investment in the technology of voting expansion can be our Edmund Pettus Bridge. Let’s not play small-ball on the sidelines of full voter participation. Let’s cross the bridge.

The Millennial Prison Reform Network

This week, we at StrongReturns.org launched the Millennial Prison Reform Network.

The MPRN aims to serve as a catch-all network for students, faculty, administrators, advocacy organization members, and prison system entities interested in Millennial-driven prison reform to connect and share with each other.

10462540_361903423979213_3419448200980252347_nThe Network consists of:

  1. A wiki database at StrongReturns.org/wiki which has a searchable, browsable, networked profile for every member.
  2. A series of email lists for members to connect with each other: for example, a college student-specific list, a faculty-specific list, a Texas-specific list, etc.

If you are interested in Millennial-driven prison reform, we hope you can join the network.  To officially sign up, fill out an MPRN sign up form as one of the following links:

Signing up will create a profile of you on the network’s wiki database as well as route you to the right email list. Let’s not reinvent the wheel on each campus! Instead, let’s link up, share, and support each other! For more information, visit our network page.


On a meta-note, I do think there is need to create a generic open-source technology for this type of connection: between nation-wide communities of people working on similar issues.  We are trying to piece together the need for flow (the email lists) and stock profiles (the wiki) with this here, but an integrated technology is needed.  Hopefully the Laboratory for Civic Technology will be able to build this in the coming years.

Harvard Thinks Big 5 & 6

Harvard Thinks Big, the Harvard event we founded that brings together all-star professors for one night to share their big ideas, has reached its sixth year. The Crimson had a good rundown.  Open Culture had a piece on Harvard Thinks Big 5 with each video from the event.  Here’s the Harvard Thinks Big youtube playlist:

Plus, here’s the link if you’re interested in following Harvard Thinks Big on iTunes.

A Gap in Our Representation

There is an under-appreciated gap in our representative democracy: the fact that there is very likely no news source that covers the week-to-week activity of your Congressman. Local newspapers tend to cover the week-to-week activity of local government (at best, hard-hitting investigations of the mayor, but rarely the Congressman) and national newspapers tend to cover the big players, ignoring your run-of-the-mill representative. 10359555_826558480688070_897153686022742689_nOccasionally, when there is a big issue — Obamacare, a war vote, etc. — we find out what our Congressman’s position is on something, but this is rare.

This means that there are only two ways we find out about our Congressman: (1) from his or her opponent in the few months before an election, usually in over-dramatic television ads (and this only when he or she has a serious opponent, which is increasingly rare); and (2) from the Congressman himself!

The result: Congressmen are not really accountable to their week-to-week, month-to-month actions, inactions, positions, co-sponsorships, votes, etc. They are not only partially unaccountable in the sense that everybody back home knows but nobody back home cares, but more deeply unaccountable: nobody back home even knows!

I am facing this in my push to raise the federal minimum wage: there are six GOP congressmen who are in deep pro-minimum wage districts and have signed passionate pro-minimum wage pleas in the past, but are now refusing to act. They can keep ignoring our questions, because they know that their constituents will never find out, in the moment, about their inaction. If it’s brought up in the election six months from now by the digging of an opposition researcher, they can fudge the message in a campaign ad.

How do we solve this? I have an idea. We need an entity in each district, independent of the Congressman and his staff, that is responsible for mediating the representation between a district and its Congressman. This can be a creative two-way institution: (1) Congressman-to-District: reporting on the actions of the Congressman to the constituents, putting it into context by explaining bills, policies and initiatives, hosting forums for the Congressman and national policy experts, etc.; (2) District-to-Congressman: commissioning polls of the district, commissioning district forums for constituents to ask questions and share thoughts (currently Congressmen run their own forums!), hosting district debates for the Congressman to sit in on, publicizing insurgent constituent opinions and demands, etc.

Even better would be to not have only one of these “Congressional District Leagues” in each district, but to have many wards per district, which could facilitate this two way conversation: informing ward members of Congressional action and forcing Congressman to hear ward members. It would add a new layer to Congressional politics. You could imagine: aspiring Congresswomen not rising through party establishment or big donors, but rather through ward activity and leadership; campaigns being facilitated not through ads but through forums hosted by wards (With this new layer of democratic institutions, we could achieve something even deeper than campaign finance reform: not just democratizing financial access to running campaign ads, but ending the reign of campaign ads altogether!); causes not starting with random hodge-podge letters and calls and petitions, but rather through “Go to your Congressional ward meetings and get a resolution passed to ask your Congressman about X or Y issue.”

It’s not that hard of an idea to make happen: less than 10 people could get make this happen in their Congressional district and fill this gap in our representative democracy!

Local Civic Halls of Fame

I just had a guest commentary published in the Falls Church News-Press about setting up a “Falls Church Hall of Fame” in Cherry Hill Park:

When Albert Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department about what schools should emphasize, he responded: “in teaching history, there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgment.” The genius was right: We need role models to look both back and up to. As citizens, we need civic heroes to remind us how much can be achieved when we embody our communal values in the way we live our lives.

I, for one, was greatly influenced by my exposure to the work of Annette Mills and Dave Eckert, Falls Church civic heroes of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. I remember as a kid hearing about and benefiting from their seminal help in so many tremendous Falls Church projects: the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, Watch Night, the Blues festival, the recycling program, their Tripps and Four Mile Run stream advocacy, the neighborhood tree program, Operation Earthwatch, and much more. Because I was exposed to their work, I was inspired to get more involved in Falls Church civic life in the hopes of being a tenth as civic as the couple who Tom Whipple once called, “F.C.’s Dynamic Duo.”

We cannot let the example of Falls Church civic heroes like Annette and Dave be lost to history. Our grandchildren should be exposed to the stories of citizens like Jessie Thackery, E.B. Henderson, Howard Herman and others. This is why I am calling upon our community to come together to create a permanent home for our Little City’s civic heroes: a Falls Church Hall of Fame. Just like how the mission of the Baseball Hall of Fame is to “preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball,” the Falls Church Hall of Fame’s mission will be to: “preserve the city’s history, honor excellence in civic action and character and make a connection between the generations of people who call Falls Church home.”

BostInno on CommonPlace

BostInno, a Boston innovation blog, just spotlighted CommonPlace:

Founded by former Harvard roommates Peter Davis and Max Novendstern, CommonPlace was inspired by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. In the book, Putnam highlights how disconnected we’ve become from our family, friends and neighbors, warning that our stock of social capital and community connections have drastically decreased.

At the end of the book, Putnam challenges young people to invent new ways to get involved in their community. And that call to action was just what Davis and Novendstern needed to build the foundation of CommonPlace.

“We were sitting on that challenge,” Davis says. “The Boston startup scene was taking off, the iPad came out, The Social Network was being filmed.” The timing couldn’t have been better, as more people began thinking of college students as those who had the power to create these various networks and platforms. “We were thinking community needs to be revitalized,” Davis admits, and they wanted to use “the tools of the Internet” to do just that.

They launched the first CommonPlace in Davis’s hometown of Falls Church, Virginia. Through the platform, community members can create a profile and post conversation starters, requests and events, propose a meet-up or publicize a service or organization. Other members in the community can then respond publicly to any thread or click on the poster’s profile and send a private message.

‘Bring in the Nerds’

Seth Riddley had an op-ed in The Crimson on tech-minded innovators, Bring in the Nerds:

I’m calling it now: Within forty years, the American people will put a computer science major in the Oval Office. Twenty years ago, around the time most current Harvard College students were born, this prediction would have seemed unlikely at best. But, now, as a generation that came of age alongside the personal computer transitions into seats of power, it is inevitable.

He was nice to mention Eric Hysen me as a tech-minded student creators:

Off the top of my head, I can think of several prominent student leaders just here in Harvard College who represent the type of person who may be leading the United States in the future. One is Peter D. Davis ’12, who started Harvard Thinks Big, and, with Max D. Novendstern ’12, founded CommonPlace, a Web site for civic engagement.  He has been a reasonable voice of the Occupy movement, and he exemplifies the kind of computer-literate leader that will become the norm in the next decades. Another is Eric Hysen ’11, former vice-president of the Undergraduate Council, computer science concentrator, and current software engineer at Google. On campus, he was the most efficient and methodical leader I’ve seen here, taking the problem solving skills one learns in CS and applying them everywhere. Leaders like Eric and Pete will become more common in the coming decades, as it is natural for members of our generation, who grew up with computers, to apply technological solutions to age-old problems.

Harvard Thinks Big 3

Harvard Thinks Big has reached its third year. The Crimson covered the event:

The audience in Sanders Theatre heard speeches on topics ranging from symmetry in Beethoven’s music, to incarceration in the U.S., to genetically modified food on Thursday evening, all in the space of an 80-minute event.

At the third annual Harvard Thinks Big forum, eight esteemed Harvard professors addressed a packed house for just ten minutes each in a whirlwind tour of big ideas in academia.373067_314614091913883_1158655183_n

We had a great Motown band to play in between the acts, too:

Peter D. Davis ’12, who hosted the event, said, “My goal was for this to solidify Harvard Thinks Big as a tradition, for it to be something that people look forward to, something that makes Harvard, Harvard.”

He added, “Like the Oscars, we like to add something new.”

That added touch at this year’s iteration of the event was performances by the student band The Nostalgics throughout the evening.

“In my three years at Harvard, Harvard Thinks Big is one of my favorite events,” said K. C. Jaski ’13. “Harvard Thinks Big is like an intellectual rock concert, complete with inspiration, goose bumps, and great music.”

The Harvard Political Review had a rundown:

Doug Melton shared with the crowd how we could create better, healthier bodies if we began to target and stimulate stem cells.  In the case of muscle stem cells, he suggests that we simply find ways to remove or reduce the influence of the inhibitor that helps to control the cell’s growth.  Similarly, he argued that we should be looking to find food that will help to stimulate nerve stem cells that can help us grow smarter.  Making stronger, smarter, and generally better people is how Professor Melton thinks Big.

Eleanor Duckworth presented the topic “Confusion, Play, and Postponing Certainty” in which she shared with the community gathered in Sanders her thoughts on education and how children should properly be taught in school.  She not only condemned teaching to the test, but also argued that “students are being deprived of a good education.”  Furthermore, she was able to demonstrate through an example of examining poetry that what matters in the classroom is that students are constantly thinking and supplying their own ideas.  Teachers may supply their own.  But their main role is simply to lead students through thought processes.  She encouraged Harvard to think big on education.

Nicholas Christakis gave a short lecture about “How Social Networks are like Carbon.”  The professor and Pfoho House Master made the point that “connections matter” in every aspect of life, and he talked about how connections between people have an effect on the happiness of others or even the success of a Broadway show.  In the end, Kristakis drove home the point by comparing graphite and diamonds, both made of carbon.  Though they are both made of carbon, they have very different properties.  Thus, he made the point that how these elements appear collectively changes the properties that define it.  He encouraged us to apply this principle to our daily lives.

Daniel Lieberman gave his talk on “Making the World Smaller,” in which he argued for the return of an old Harvard tradition which existed from 1920-1970, a four hour per week fitness requirement.  Lieberman pointed out that obesity has been and is becoming a much greater problem for the United States and the world.  And so, in light of the fact that we cannot simply change our biology, and because drugs, therapies, and education are often not enough, the single best tool that we have to fight obesity is coercion.  Lieberman said that “If we can’t change our biology, we must think about changing our environment.”  To do so, Lieberman advocated for the return of the fitness requirements for Harvard undergraduates.

Donhee Ham gave a rousing lecture on what he called “broken symmetry.”  By demonstrating his own piano talents through per-recorded videos, Professor Ham was able to demonstrate for us the symmetry that we often experience in life, particularly in music, and how wonderful it usually is.  But then he also was able to demonstrate how asymmetry also could be used to create an even more profound outcome, as demonstrated through a photo of Maryland Monroe whose beauty was enhanced by a mole on just one side of her face and through Beethoven’s Third Symphony which was very fiery and quite pleasing to listen to.  And through these demonstrations, he educated the crowd on his grand theory of broken symmetry.

220724_1268777_630x418Jill Lepore took on what was dubbed “a very modest topic.”  Her presentation was on the meaning of life.  Throughout her segment, Lepore brought us through the history of board games about life with her starting point being Checkers, created by Milton Bradley who was a Harvard drop-out.  This original checkers set had a board with half of the squares containing different events in the typical life of a person starting from infancy.  She compared this to older games like the Indian “Game of Knowledge,” which later became “Snakes and Ladders,” and later “Chutes and Ladders.”  And she brought us to the many evolutions of the game called “Life,” for which the main goal is to make money.  In the end, she concluded that board games have changed as our conception of life has changed.  And she thought big by challenging us to think of what our board game of life might look like.

Stephen Geenblatt presented to those gathered in Sanders Theater his thoughts about “Speaking with the Dead.”  By giving us the examples of so many hundreds of words that Oxford Dictionary credits to Shakespeare, particularly in Hamlet, Professor Greenblatt was able to covey how important it was to connect with those that have passed on through that which they say, write, and create.  It is through literary works much like Hamlet that we are able to see the dead more clearly and come to understand them as people more fully.

Finally, Kaia Stern gave an exhilarating speech entitled “Act Big: Dare to See.”  In this final segment of the night, Professor Stern recounted for the audience her many experiences in prisons and the kinds of dehumanizing behaviors that happen there and all around the world.  She even expressed her concern that today more than one in  thirty-one people are imprisoned in the United States.   Stern may have been one of the most compelling of all of the speakers in her call for Harvard students to make a difference and to stop such injustices from happening.  She very boldly stated at the end: “What will you do in the face of dehumanizing behavior?”

Here’s what I told them about the purpose of the event:

Current Harvard Senior Peter Davis came up with the idea of Harvard Thinks Big just three years ago, and it has been a success ever since.  Davis says that he believes that professors should share their talents and ideas with Harvard students.  He sees Harvard Thinks Big as an opportunity for students to think about the problems of our day in a whole new light.  In a sense, he wants Harvard students to think big.

As Harvard President Drew Faust stated in a video introduction to the show, “Harvard faculty are heirs to the great innovators of Harvard University.”  President Faust was spot on when she called on the faculty at Harvard to be as innovative as possible and to engage in the kind of grand thinking that Harvard is renowned for.

Peter Davis put it best when he said that the goal of Harvard Thinks Big is to bring these grand “ideas back to the center of undergraduate life.”

Here’s the original promo video for the event:

And here’s one of the more popular talks, by Professor Jill Lepore on the history of the board game Life: