Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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The Economist: “America’s electoral system gives the Republicans advantages over Democrats”

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The Economist writes about how the US Constitution, our first-past-the-post voting system, and demographic changes have combined to give Republicans a significant advantage in legislative elections.

The source of this discrepancy is that Democrats will win their seats with big majorities in fewer districts, whereas Republicans will prevail by narrower margins in a larger number of districts. In 2016 Democrats who beat Republican opponents won an average of 67.4% of the two-party vote in their districts, whereas Republicans who defeated Democrats received an average of 63.8%. This imbalance is partly due to deliberate attempts to create districts that provide such results, and partly just down to the fact that Democrats tend to live more tightly bunched together in cities. Together, these two factors put up quite an obstacle. According to our model, the Democrats need to win 53.5% of all votes cast for the two major parties just to have a 50/50 chance of winning a majority in the House.

If this imbalance were limited to a single chamber of the legislature, or a single election cycle, the Democrats’ frequent carping about a stacked electoral deck might sound like sour grapes. All electoral systems have their oddities. But changes in where Americans live and contradictions in their constitution — a document designed to work with many weak factions that has instead encouraged and entrenched an increasingly polarised two-party system — have opened gaps between what the voters choose and the representation they get in every arm of the federal government. In recent decades these disparities have consistently favoured the Republicans, and there is no reason to think that trend is going to change on its own.

In the past three House elections, Republicans’ share of House seats has been 4-5 percentage points greater than their share of the two-party vote. In 2012 they won a comfortable 54% of the chamber despite receiving fewer votes than their Democratic opponents; in 2014 they converted a 51% two-party-vote share into 55% of the seats.

Such comparisons are harder for the Senate, where only a third of the 100 seats are contested in any election. But adding together all the votes from the most recent election of each senator, Republicans got only 46% of them, and they hold 51 of the seats.

And let’s not even talk about the presidential elections…

In all the world’s other 58 fully presidential democracies — those in which the president is both head of state and head of government — the winning candidate gets the most votes in the final, or only, round of voting. But due to the “electoral college” system that America’s founders jury-rigged in part to square the needs of democracy with the demography of slavery, this does not hold true for America. States vote in the college in proportion to their combined representation in both houses of Congress. This set-up means that a candidate who wins narrowly in many small and smallish states can beat one who gets more votes overall, but racks most of them up in big majorities in a few big states.

During almost all of the 20th century this did not matter much; the candidate who got the most votes won every election from 1896 to 1996. But both of the past two Republicans to win the presidency have received fewer votes when first elected than their Democratic opponents did. In the contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, this margin was a modest 0.5 percentage points. In 2016, however, it was substantial: Hillary Clinton’s lead of 2.1 percentage points was larger than those enjoyed by the victorious John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Tags: politics   USA
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betajames
20 hours ago
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2 public comments
sarcozona
25 days ago
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Elections in America are nowhere close to one person one vote
mareino
29 days ago
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When the British are noticing, you know your system is shit. They haven't had a true majority vote win Parliament since 1931.
Washington, District of Columbia

“Humanitarian Crisis” Looms as Arizona Threatens to Revoke Immigrant Children Shelter Licenses

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Arizona health officials threatened on Wednesday to revoke the licenses of 13 federally funded immigrant children shelters, accusing the facilities’ operator, Southwest Key, of displaying an “astonishingly flippant attitude” toward complying with the state’s child protection laws.

But a day after the state sent its blistering letter to Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez, it became clear that any shutdown would create a tumultuous chain of events for federal and state regulators, who lack options for housing tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who cross the border every year.

“Shutting down the shelters would create a crisis for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is charged with housing children caught at the border,” said Maria Cancian, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families from 2015 to 2016.

Southwest Key is the country’s largest operator of immigrant youth shelters, housing more than 5,000 children in Arizona, Texas and California. As many as 1,600 children currently reside in its Arizona facilities.

The Texas-based nonprofit has become an increasingly critical asset for the federal government as the number of children in its custody has reached record numbers — even as the Trump administration has ended the practice of separating children from their parents. Southwest Key has received more than $1.3 billion in federal grants and contracts for the shelters and other services in the past five years.

Arizona’s investigation showing the company has been lax in protecting children in its care highlights the government’s fraught reliance on shelter operators — and the power those operators have, even in the face of failures. The federal government desperately needs every shelter as tougher immigration policies have put the system near capacity, housing five times as many children as last summer. Former HHS officials said closing 13 shelters in Arizona at once would throw the system into chaos.

It would create a “humanitarian crisis,” said one former official, forcing federal officials to scramble to find safe, licensed housing with trained and vetted staff for 1,600 children.

Arizona launched its investigation of Southwest Key’s shelters after news reports raised questions about background checks and other issues. A ProPublica story in August detailed the charges against Levian Pacheco, a former Southwest Key employee who is accused of molesting eight boys at a Mesa shelter over an 11-month period. Pacheco, who is HIV-positive, went without a background check for nearly four months. He was convicted earlier this month of 10 sex offenses connected to the molestation.

In response to media attention and complaints, Arizona health officials reviewed records on background checks at every Southwest Key facility across the state. Of the 13 shelters, the state found two additional facilities also had problems with background checks. In mid-August the company agreed it would verify that all employees had complete background checks by mid-September.

Arizona health officials also found that Southwest Key hadn’t vetted all employees by interviewing their previous employers and hadn’t ensured all employee files contained proof of tuberculosis testing. At some facilities, officials discovered bedroom and bathroom doors missing and problems with the size of residents’ rooms.

In Wednesday’s letter, Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, told Sanchez that his organization had failed to comply with the mid-August agreement.

“Southwest Key’s lack of ability to deliver a simple report on the critical protections these children have against dangerous felons demonstrates an utter disregard for Arizona law,” Christ wrote.

Jeff Eller, a Southwest Key spokesman, said the nonprofit has requested a meeting with state health officials to discuss the matter. “We have apologized to DHS for missing the reporting deadline and are serious about ensuring that never happens again,” he said in a statement. Eller declined to comment on the substantive issues raised in Arizona’s investigation. The state’s move to revoke the licenses was first reported by Arizona media outlets.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office said in an email on Thursday he expects licensed facilities to comply with the law or his administration will hold them accountable.

Federal HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in an email Thursday that the agency was reviewing the letter and working with the shelters and Ducey’s office “to get all of the facts regarding the Arizona Department of Health Services audit to determine the next step.”

Former federal officials said they anticipate HHS will step in to help negotiate an outcome between Southwest Key and Arizona that will allow the children to remain in the facilities. Even Arizona officials acknowledged that the letter represents the beginning of what would be a long process.

In Texas, which has 16 Southwest Key facilities housing about 3,700 children, state health officials say they are not aware of similar issues with Southwest Key.

The Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission said its “monitoring inspections have not produced evidence of a pattern of background check deficiencies within any SWK [Southwest Key] operation, nor any patterns of failure to comply with minimum standard training requirements.”

An official with California’s Department of Social Services said in June the agency re-inspected all known facilities used by the US Office of Refugee Resettlement — including those operated by Southwest Key — and found no licensing concerns. The dust-up comes as the number of immigrant youth in federal custody has continued to grow. Immigrant advocates and former health officials say the record population doesn’t appear to be due to an influx of children at the border, but to the fact that children are staying in the shelters nearly twice as long as in the past.

They attributed that to a Trump administration policy that requires health officials to share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to vet potential sponsors for children in the shelters. As a result, they said, many parents and relatives who have traditionally served as sponsors worry they’ll be turned over to ICE if they come forward.

Matthew Albence, who heads ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, gave credence to that fear at a Senate hearing on Tuesday when he testified that ICE had arrested 41 people who either came forward as sponsors or lived with them.

“Close to 80 percent of the individuals that are either sponsors or household members of sponsors are here in the country illegally,” Albence said. “So we are continuing to pursue those individuals.”

Arizona’s move against Southwest Key is just the latest in a series of bad headlines for the nonprofit.

In addition to ProPublica’s reporting on Pacheco, two other cases involving abuse at other Southwest Key shelters in Arizona surfaced in July. An employee at a Southwest Key facility in Phoenix was arrested on allegations that he sexually abused a 14-year-old girl by kissing her and rubbing her breast and crotch, according to Phoenix news outlets. And The Nation reported in July that a 6-year-old girl, who had been separated from her mother, was allegedly fondled by a boy at a Southwest Key facility in Glendale in June.

At other Southwest Key facilities, police reports and call logs from the last five years detail dozens of runaways, inappropriate relationships with staff, sexual contact among kids, and allegations of molestation by employees, ProPublica found. In one case, a 46-year-old youth care worker in Tucson was convicted of groping a 15-year-old boy who had arrived in the United States five days earlier.

In response to each of these reports, a Southwest Key spokesman said the organization immediately reports any abuse claim to police, that it cooperates fully with all investigations and that it educates children in its care of their right to be free of abuse.

And in August, UnidosUS, formerly known as the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, suspended its affiliation with Southwest Key.

Both UnidosUS and Arizona officials highlighted similar concerns about the Southwest Key officials’ attitude toward the scrutiny it is receiving. UnidosUS said the organization “failed to convey that it understands the gravity and magnitude of the situation” and had failed to apologize to the victims in its care.

In response to UnidosUs, Eller told the Austin American-Statesman in August that the company was disappointed in the group’s decision and said any insinuation that Southwest Key didn’t take allegations seriously was grossly incorrect.

A former HHS official with knowledge of how the refugee resettlement agency operates said the recent developments with Southwest Key raise serious questions about the organization’s ability to meet the government’s needs.

“It sounds like, based on their inability to respond or even communicate in a timely fashion that they have really significant internal operating challenges and that may or may not be indicative of the quality of care the children are receiving,” the former official said.

Nonetheless, other former officials said shuttering the facilities might not be in the best interest of the children. The state might have more effective options, such as increasing unannounced visits to shelters.

Claudia Flores, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School who has studied the conditions faced by immigrant youth at the border, highlighted the difficult position the federal government and Arizona are in with Southwest Key.

“It’s not a response to say we can’t shut down the facilities when there are reports of abuse taking place,” she said. “It’s really not the kids in these facilities that should be suffering.”

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Department of Health and Human Services lost track of another 1,500 immigrant children

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In addition to the “lost” children, funds are being diverted from AIDS and cancer research to jail immigrant children and ICE held nearly 1,500 US citizens as “aliens.”
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Puerto Rico's Tap Water Often Goes Untested, Raising Fears About Lead Contamination

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Drinking water samples from homes in southwestern Puerto Rico are tested at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico in San German.

People in Puerto Rico don't trust the water supply, and with good reason. Local systems aren't adequately tested for contaminants, including lead.

(Image credit: Rebecca Hersher/NPR)

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The dangers men don't see

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Three high-profile murders in recent months shared two common factors: 1) The victims were women engaged in physical activity outdoors; 2) They were killed by men, seemingly at random.

Why it matters: The past few years, most recently the #MeToo movement, have exposed a major gap in what men know about what women face — and the common knowledge women are taught about how to deal with these dangers.


Between the lines: It’s not a new phenomenon for women to feel unsafe being outdoors by themselves. But recent instances are reminders of how often women feel targeted or singled-out in a variety of settings, even those that are most familiar. 

This ranges from catcalling on the street, to harassment in the office, all the way to physical violence against people who are just trying to live their lives.

The big picture: This is what women are talking about when they wear headphones while walking down the street, take a cab short distances at night, or when they persistently check with their friends to be sure they got home all right.



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on Sloan and Sherlock

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The super-cool Robin Sloan has a super-cool newsletter — only occasional, alas, but Robin has many irons in the fire these days. He even makes olive oil. But anyway, in a recent edition of the newsletter, he makes in passing a fascinating point:

There’s something happening in fiction now, and to a degree in film and TV too: the time in which stories are set is scootching back, with writers fleeing to the safety of 1994 or 1987 or much earlier. Why? Because we didn’t have smart phones then. We didn’t have social media. The world didn’t have this shimmering overlay of internet which is, in a very practical way, hard to write about. Writers of novels and teleplays have well-developed tools for the depiction of drama in real space. Drama that plays out through our little pocket-sized screens is just as rich — but how do we show it? We’re now seeing film and TV figure this out in real-time. Novels have been (oddly?) less successful. Because digital action relies on so many Brands™, it feels risky and/or distasteful to send your narrative too deep into that realm. Who wants to be the person who called it wrong and wrote the Great MySpace Novel? (Actually, the Great MySpace Novel would be amazing. But see, that’s not now anymore! MySpace has stabilized into historical artifact. We can look at it; describe it; maybe even understand it. That’s not the case with the systems we’re using right now. We’re lost inside of them.)

Remember the first episode of Sherlock? Came out eight — yes, eight — years ago, and one of the most-discussed elements of the first episode was its use of texting. Sherlock texted and received texts all the time, and the content of those texts was regularly displayed our TV screens. For a thoughtful take on how the series did this, see this video essay on “Visual Writing in Sherlock” — visual writing that is by no means confined to the display of texting. I believe there’s general agreement that the makers of the series not only got this right but also used it to great dramatic, and sometimes comic, effect.

I don’t want to take Robin’s point too far, but I’m taken by the suggestion that a particular technology only becomes available for artistic representation when artists and audience are not “lost inside of it.” In this context it might be worth noting that Sherlock’s representation of texting happened right after the first widespread availability of smartphones, and therefore right after people began regularly interacting with the phones in non-textual ways (especially through photos and video). Sherlock’s representation of visual writing is, then, what BlackBerry use looks like when you have an iPhone.

You know what else appeared in 2010? The Social Network — a movie about Facebook that showed up just when people were dismissing Facebook as uncool and turning instead to Twitter — and then to Instagram (which was also released in 2010, though it didn’t become huge right away).

One more artifact from that same year: Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, much of which is told through emails.

So: what technologies are going to dominate the books and movies and TV shows of 2020?

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