Election month…

I’m old enough to remember a time when we had an election day in America. On the Tuesday after the first Monday in November everyone showed up at their designated poling place and voted. By 11:00 that night the results were reported on the three major networks and everyone went to bed more or less satisfied that the results were the results.

What we seem to have now is an election month instead of just a day. We have early voting for a few weeks, then we have actual election day, then the batch of ballots that someone finds unsecured somewhere, then there’s the inevitable batch of recounts and legal challenges that stretch out for God knows how long. It doesn’t feel like we’re making progress on this front. In fact I tend to think we’re making the opposite of progress.

I don’t foresee a circumstance that will take is back to a place where we all agree to just show up on one day to register our vote in the local elementary school, or fire hall, or church basement… but I think we should. We’ve overcomplicated the plumbing on what should be a very simple exercise of the franchise. We’ve over complicated it and everyone is busy looking for the perfect way to stop up the drain.

Sometimes the old ways aren’t better because they’re the old ways – they’re better because they’re just better.

You ain’t seen nothing yet…

There are approximately 76 million news and commentary sites you can go to today that are perfectly happy to drone on and on about what they expect Democratic control of the House of Representatives, a more entrenched Republican position in the Senate, and the host of other election results to mean. What’s going to happen when the 116th Congress is gaveled into session on the 3rd of January? Opinions will range from the president and congressional leaders finding some compromise on massive infrastructure spending to a wildly vindictive House leadership that will investigate the president to within an inch of his political life and then impeach him. On this Wednesday after election day, either one feels like it’s within the realm of possibility.

What’s really happening, though, is that across the country 435 current and elect-members of the House are waking up, smiling at their good fortune, and kicking off their fundraising efforts for the 2020 election cycle. Current and future senators will be doing the same thing, although some with a slightly less focused sense of urgency with their next election cycle as far as 6 years off. Political pros from across the spectrum are dusting off their presidential election year plans and looking for ways to fill up their war chests. Those with an eye towards the presidency in 2020 have already been building their machine, quietly, for two years or more.

Campaigns are never really over. There may appear to be a pause between one and the next, but that’s just because the news cycle focuses on something else for a little while – Firing an Attorney General is an especially effective distractor if you have one you can spare. The fundraisers, staff, and key volunteers who under-gird elections in this country are hard at work laying the groundwork for the next iteration of Who Wants to be a President.

If you thought 2016 was bad, or 2018 made you clutch granny’s pearls, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Election eve…

It’s election eve in America… and for most people who go through their day happily oblivious to the machinations of electoral politics, that largely means that the wall to wall TV and radio ads are about to give it a rest. At least for a little while. With partisanship cranked up to 11, whatever the outcome is will be sure to be met with a new wave of blistering commentary sweeping across social media. That’ll be fun to watch for a day or two, but it’s not the big story.

What I’m most focused on is seeing if our friendly neighborhood pollsters have managed to work the kinks out after being so patently bad at their jobs in 2016. The vote will be what the vote is, of course, but I remain enough of a student of political science to be academically curious about how we’ve gotten so awful at prognosticating those results in advance. I’m even more curious to see if someone has cracked the code on a way to make polling data worth a damn again or if the whole concept is one that’s been hopelessly upended by changes in technology, society, and demographics.

I won’t bother you tonight with anything trite like “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just go vote,” because I obviously think it’s incredibly important who gets your vote. Instead, I’ll encourage you to educate yourself on the issues important to you. In my mind the only thing worse for democracy than an apathetic electorate is one that goes along with whatever their friends, family, or favorite celebrity say or what the ads tell them to do because they’re too lazy to do their own homework. Elections aren’t a time for blindly following the herd, they’re one of the few moments when standing on your own convictions actually matters.

Birthright…

For most of the history of the republic there have been three main pathways to citizenship. You could be born to parents who were American citizens (citizenship by blood), or born physically inside the territorial boundaries of the United States (citizenship by soil), or you could go through the process of naturalization by renouncing your allegiance to a foreign country and swearing allegiance to the United States. That seems simple enough, right?

Except, of course, nothing is ever that simple. Maybe it was once, but from our seat here in the 21st century, when every aspect of government has been bureaucratized and politics has been almost weaponized, it’s not as simple as it seems. Or perhaps it’s not as simple as it even should be.

The complexity arrives in the form of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which says, in part, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States…”

At first glance, it’s straightforward enough. If you’re born or naturalized in the United States, you are a citizen. Except maybe not. The argument here rests on what the phrase “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” means. Is the physical act of being withing the boarders of the United States sufficient to meet the threshold of being subject to the jurisdiction? Does it apply only to those who find themselves lawfully within the jurisdiction (green card holders, for example)? If you are in the country illegally does that in itself create a situation where you have placed yourself, by definition, in a position of being not subject to the jurisdiction by virtue of not abiding by the laws and statutes governing immigration.

Among the many things I’m not is a constitutional scholar, but I am an avid student of history. The president, it’s reported, intends to test the limits of the 14th Amendment with an Executive Order. Since the court has been silent on this particular constitutional detail for the last 120 years, the administration seems to feel the time is ripe for a test case. Sure, it will cause both sides of the political spectrum to lose their minds even more than usual, but the discussion of constitutional merits by people who can manage to keep their heads will be fascinating.

For years studying history and politics all I heard was “how could you do that” or “oh, it’s so boring.” It’s 2018 and if you’re bored by politics do you even have a pulse?

The point of the exercise…

After scrolling through my twitter feed and Facebook timeline this afternoon at lunch, I’ve come to the not-particularly-surprising conclusion that social media isn’t fun any more. Maybe it never really was fun, but it was once new and interesting and held loads of promise of being the for people to communicate in the new century. Now it’s become something more like a never ending grudge match of who can shout loudest, post up the most toxic memes, and get the most reverb from their echo chamber of choice.

Although I have occasionally learned new things thanks to a random post on social media, I can’t think of a single time that Facebook or Twitter have gotten me all turned around on an issue. The way in which we discuss our politics or other issues of the day on these platforms leaves me wondering if anyone has every actually changed their mind based on what they hear and see. It feels more like the perfect tool for those with their minds largely made up to entrench and find others who agree with them.

Look, I know I’m as, if not more mouthy and opinionated than the next guy… so if I’m managing to glam on to the idea that beaming these electrons back and forth at one another is an exercise in futility maybe there’s a thin layer of hope that things could improve. Given the absolute and total rage being thrown by the left and right and the moment I don’t see how any of it ends well. Maybe seeding that kind of division is the point of the whole exercise. If that’s what our benevolent electronic overlords were going for, well played.

The dam…

According to local news reports over the last day or so, the State of Maryland wants the energy company that operates the Conowingo Dam to pick up the tab for cleaning debris that washed down stream into the Chesapeake following two weeks of heavy rains. It’s a fine thing to blame the dam for causing this. The dam, hundreds of feet of concrete 2880px-Conowingo_Dam_and_Power_House,_near_Bel_Air_and_Havre_de_Grace,_Md_(73856)standing astride the Susquehanna is a large and convenient target for the ire of politicians and activists. Blaming the dam, though, misses the point entirely.

Since it was put into service in 1928 the Conowingo bought about 90 years of reduced sediment flowing into the Bay, trapping decades of pollution behind its imposing concrete walls. The fact is that without the dam, every bit of that debris, silt, and chemical contamination would already be laying on the Bay’s floor or washed up on its shores. That’s 90 years’ worth of accumulation versus the two weeks’ worth that was washed through the spill gates last month. Sediment reduction wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye in the 1920s, but it has been a fortunate consequence of having the dam managing water flow downstream to the Bay.

Of course now that the Conowingo pool has reached or at least gotten close to the maximum amount of sediment it can impound upstream we’re seeing debris washed more frequently downstream into the Bay we’re identifying it as an emergency. I’ve been back now seven years and for at least that long the state and federal government have been wringing their hands on this issue without giving any real sense that they have a clue what to do. Even assuming for a moment that they do know what to do, they seem utterly flummoxed by deciding who’s going to pay the bill.

That’s all a long way of saying that I don’t blame the dam. It’s doing exactly what a dam is designed and built to do. I blame generations of regulators, legislators, governors, government officials, and corporate board members who let the situation develop and then fester. I blame the states up stream for not adopting practices and policies that would reduce their impact on the river and Bay.

If you were new to the world of environmental discussions about Chesapeake Bay, you might think the time is now ripe to launch the long needed effort to dredge the sediment impounded behind the Conowingo, haul it away, and prepare the dam for another 90 years of service. Since, of course, this is taking place in my beloved home state of Maryland, though, I know what’s really going to happen is that we’re going to have another blue ribbon panel, commission another study, and call in dozens of experts to tell us that which we already know to be the case.

I’d almost dared to hope that a raft of storm tossed debris driven ashore at the foot of the statehouse might garner some action on getting on with the job that needs doing. Shame on me for being so optimistic in the face of our political masters in Annapolis.

Enclosed spaces…

The world is currently in the grips of a minor fascination with the rescue of a Thai soccer team that managed to get themselves trapped in a cave. The situation feels ripe for a comment about going considerably out of our way to prevent Darwin from protecting the gene pool, but I’ll let that go for now.

Maybe I’ve just led a charmed life, but I can’t remember a single time when I looked at a hole in the earth and thought, “Self, what you need to do is grab a flashlight and climb down.” That’s especially true when I have no special knowledge, skills, or abilities that would in any way prepare me for leading or participating in such an activity. Hell, I mean I don’t particularly like being in a small room – in a building above ground. While my record of doing dumb shit as a kid is not spotless, we managed to keep away from the biggies – like falling down a well or getting trapped in a flooded cave. There but for the grace? Maybe, but it also feels like maybe they were not paying nearly enough attention to the quiet voice of self preservation.

It is well that the latest global human interest story seems to be trundling towards its end, but it hasn’t yet answered the question about why anyone thought dragging a bunch of kids into an enclosed space was a good idea in the first place.