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Friday, November 15, 2002


Saddam may go out with a whimper, not a bang.

Over the years I've closely observed a number of political scandals unfold here in California and elsewhere in the country. For example, California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush resigned last year rather than face impeachment or recall after his corrupt fundraising practices became public. Locally we had Ventura County Community College Chancellor Phil Westin recently resign after engaging in some wholesale expense account padding and other improprieties. In these and other cases I have noticed that a sure tip-off that the miscreant was about to go was when he started repeatedly denying to the press that he would even consider resigning.

These events follow a trajectory. The politician lashes out at his critics and denies that he's ever done anything wrong. He insists that he will defend his honor and reputation and never give up. The pressure grows and grows, until it becomes obvious that his ouster is only a matter of time. The media begins to focus on questions of how and when he'll depart. The politician's protestations of innocence grow louder and louder, as does his defiance of all his enemies. But the louder he shouts, the more desperate he sounds. His staunchest supporters distance themselves from him. He appears delusional and cut off from reality, as he frantically tries to convince anyone who will listen to him that he'll never give up.

Then suddenly he cuts a deal and resigns and it's all over. Some of his more emotional critics complain that he got off too lightly. But most people are just happy to see him go, and happy to see it happen with much less mess and bother than they had feared it would take.

Saddam Hussein is not precisely comparable to a U.S. politician, and I admit this is stretching the analogy a bit far, but we may be on the verge of a similar situation in Iraq. The U.K. Times is reporting that Hussein wants to pay Libya $3.5 billion to provide a bolt hole for his relatives and associates.

It's a bad, bad sign for Saddam when stories surface about him trying to arrange for a safe haven. His power could begin unravelling really fast.

I know it seems too wonderfully optimistic a scenario, that Saddam's dictatorship might collapse with barely a shot being fired. But the early signs are there.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002


Voter turnout in California was abysmal, with good reason.

On the state level, our choices for Governor were pathetic. Most of the voters who dragged themselves into the polling booths are still walking around a week later with severely pinched noses.

The only state-wide race which was competitive was the contest for Controller. As of this date we still don't know for sure who has won. My own spreadsheet projection indicates that Tom McClintock will cut into Steve Westly's 26 thousand vote election-night margin, but Westly will probably still hang on for a narrow victory. If so, I'm personally very disappointed. But in any case this down-ticket race was not enough to motivate people to get out and vote.

Nor was there much of an incentive to get out and vote in State Assembly and State Senate races, since they were so grossly Gerrymandered as to all but disenfranchised 90% of the population in California. We should institute either a formula-based redistricting system (e.g., start at one corner of the state and computer-generate equal-sized districts precinct-by-precinct, irrespective of city boundaries or political registration or ethnic considerations or any other arbitrary characteristics), or we should hand the redistricting task over to a group of retired judges or other reasonably-objective special masters. But we should not leave it up to the politicians themselves; that's insane.

Last year both Republicans and Democrats cooperated in passing an incumbent protection scheme that made most of the "contests" last week irrelevant. That also meant that the very few contests which were competitive had humongous quantities of money thrown at them from all over the state, simply because there was no point in spending that money anyplace else.

A related issue is the nature of the primaries which select each party's candidates. Should we have open primaries or closed primaries or non-partisan elections or something else?

There's an important freedom-of-association consideration that argues against open primaries: Those people who share a broad set of ideas and come together to form a political party should not have their party's nomination hijacked by other people who either do not share those ideas or wish to actively sabotage that party's candidates. (This is the Supreme Court's basic position.)

However, there is no fundamental reason why elections must be "partisan". We have non-partisan races on the local level. Either the top vote-getter(s) win outright, or there's a runoff between the top two vote-getters (if no one receives an out-right majority). An initiative measure implementing a similar methodology may well be placed on the 2004 ballot.

Why should political parties be enshrined in state law? Political parties can be voluntary associations which endorse and support their candidates, without having any special ballot access or status. And elections can use a system of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to allow voters to rank their preferences and efficiently select a winner, regardless of party.

A good compromise might be to hold closed primary elections as we presently do, to select an official nominee from each political party. But everyone (including the losers at their option) along with independents would still be placed on the November ballot. However, only the primary winners would be able to list their political parties after their names. Voters would then rank their choices using an IRV system to pick the ultimate winner. This preserves the goal of the open primary advocates, to allow all the voters an opportunity to vote for less "extreme" candidates from each political party. At the same time it preserves a "beauty contest" for members of each political party to indicate their preferences.

Such a system would make statewide and legislative races far more competitive, and would motivate a much higher voter turnout. Who knows, it might even result in better people being elected...

One of the few bright spots of California's election last week was the resounding defeat of Proposition 52. Competitive races and superior candidates are vastly better solutions to low voter turnout than election day registration.

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