Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good reads from the New Yorker

A few months back CVF's board chairman, Prof. Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, sent me two articles from the New Yorker that I have been meaning to read and finally got around to finishing yesterday.

The first one, "Small Change" by Malcolm Gladwell, considers what effect, if any, Twitter and Facebook might have had during the civil rights struggle.  He describes the differences between hierarchical and network structures in social change, and how ultimately a hierarchical structure (such as the one Martin Luther King and his colleagues built) is more effective than a decentralized network structure.  Even more interestingly, Gladwell summarizes the essential difference between today's online social activism and that of the 1950's and 60's:
Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
The entire story is available from the New Yorker's web site (thanks, New Yorker!).

The second article is "Win or Lose", a book review by Anthony Gottlieb from last summer (like I said, I am behind on my reading), the book being "Numbers Rule:  The Vexing Mathematics of Democracy, from Plato to the Present" by George Szpiro, a journalist and mathematician.

Apparently mathematicians have been plotting the math behind voting systems for a long time, at least since Venetian elections dating back to 1268.  Gottlieb's story delves far into the mathematical differences between "winner take all" or (as they call it in Great Britain) "first-past-the-post" systems where the person with the most votes wins even if he or she fails to get a majority, proportional representation and instant run-off systems that are used in many places today and something entirely new to me called "range voting".  

Hearing about the benefits and drawbacks of different voting systems from the perspective of mathematicians gives the whole debate a different and fresh perspective.  Gottlieb's story is available online from the New Yorker's web site.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

SoS Bowen unveils four-year strategic plan, priorities

At her inauguration ceremony today, Secretary of State Debra Bowen made a point of acknowledging the important role her agency's staff play in her success.  She also highlighted the fact that she is only the sixth woman to be elected to California statewide office, and how happy she was to be sworn in by the seventh woman to join the ranks, Attorney General Kamala Harris.  

She was joined on stage by her agency chiefs, and several of them spoke during the ceremony.  The auditorium was nearly full, and the ceremony appeared to be well-attended by agency staff.  

Secretary Bowen's comments were fairly brief.  She announced her office was implementing a four-year strategic plan focused on three priorities:  ensuring fair and secure elections, doing business, and protecting rights and state treasures.  She also listed six values that will guide the work of the office of Secretary of State: service; integrity; teamwork; openness; innovation; and consistency.  She concluded by saying that standing up for the workers in her office is the most important thing she can do to make sure they deliver excellent public service, so "let's get back to work."   

Gov. Brown's inaugural speech highlights importance of the people's trust in government

Much of the commentary about Governor Jerry Brown's inaugural speech focused on the heavy themes of our state's budget crisis, and that's not so surprising given the yawning deficit our state faces.  But what I noticed, and appreciated, is how Governor Brown continues to focus on the importance of the public's trust in a democratic system.

In his 1975 address, he remarked early on in his speech about the fact that less than half of the Californians who could vote in the election did so, and that "our first order of business is to regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve."

Yesterday he spoke again of how important it is the public have trust in the government.  After describing the inability of Democrats and Republicans to agree on a path forward on the state's budget deficit, he suggested that this is perhaps "the reason why the public holds the state government in such low esteem.  And that’s a profound problem, not just for those of us who are elected, but for our whole system of self-government. Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle; and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void."

Of course solving the state's budget problems is the biggest crisis on the governor's plate, but the need for improvements in the ways Californians participate in elections and government need attention as well.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Inauguration week in Sacramento - a look back, a look ahead

It's a new year and there's a sense of "back to the future" in Sacramento.  Jerry Brown will be inaugurated this morning as California's new Governor at 11 a.m.  and is even taking up residence in an apartment within walking distance of the Capital, just as he did the last time around.  

I first met Jerry Brown in Santa Barbara in 1989, shortly after working for state Senator Gary K. Hart's campaign for Congress. We talked back then about how to get young people more involved in politics.  

In Brown's 1975 inaugural address, dug up recently by KQED's John Myers, he begins by noting the lessons learned from the last election, namely, that "More than half the people who could have voted, refused, apparently believing that what we do here has so little impact on their lives that they need not pass judgment on it. In other words, the biggest vote of all in November was a vote of no confidence. So our first order of business is to regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve." 

Although turnout in the November 2, 2010 election was higher than it's been in the past 16 years, it's still the case that less than half of Californians who were eligible to participate did in fact vote. I'm hoping election reform and expanding voter participation will also be on his agenda in this go-around.

Gov. Jerry Brown does in fact have a longstanding interest in election and political reform.  He served as Secretary of State, California's chief elections officer, before being elected Governor, and championed the Political Reform Act of 1974, which established campaign finance disclosure laws for California.  

Meanwhile tomorrow, across town, another constitutional officer will be sworn in for another term.  Secretary of State Debra Bowen will take her oath of office on Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the Secretary of State's auditorium with a live webcast.  I plan to attend and am eager to hear what will be on Secretary Bowen's agenda.