2013 Blog Stats

WordPress just sent me this succinct summary of my stats for the year.

My blog was viewed about 19,000 times in 2013, or about the same as in 2012. I authored 24 new posts. My busiest day was December 4, with 232 viewers. The most popular post that day was Bruno Latour via MOOC. Visitors hailed from 127 countries. Most were from the United States; Canada and the United Kingdom were not far behind. Cheers!

Three Observations on the Pennsylvania Department of State

1. First, a personal anecdote. Now that we are living in Canada, my wife and I need to vote by absentee ballot. About a month ago we completed our Absentee Ballot Applications and sent them to the Centre County Election Office as required. Yesterday, we received emails from the Pennsylvania Department of State Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation informing us that our electronic ballots were “available for download.” Below is the text of the email I received:

Dear Voter:

Because you indicated on your absentee ballot application that you would like to receive your ballot electronically for the upcoming election, this notice is being provided to inform you that your ballot is now available for download.  You may access it by logging into the SURE Public Portal website at www.pavoterservices.state.pa.us.  If you have already created an account on this website, you may log in now to access your ballot.

If you have not already created an account on the SURE Public Portal website, you will need to do so by following the steps below:  

  • Go to www.pavoterservices.state.pa.us and select the ‘Login’ link.
  • Select the ‘PAPowerPort’ link located within the page to register.
  • Create an account by completing the registration page and [Register]. Note: Please register with the same first name and last name that are listed on your voter registration record. 
  • Return to www.pavoterservices.state.pa.us and select the ‘Login’ link.
  • Enter the User Name and Password created during the PAPowerPort registration process and [Login].
  • The first time you log in to the SURE Public Portal, you will be asked to provide your date of birth, county of residence, and city of residence as listed on your voter registration record.  Enter the requested information and [Submit].The ‘Welcome to the SURE Portal’ page will appear.  Confirm your voter registration information by selecting the ‘Continue’ link.

After logging into the SURE Public Portal website and accessing your voter registration information, your ballot can be downloaded by clicking on ‘Absentee Ballot Status’ on the left navigation bar, and then on the [Download Ballot] button for the upcoming election.  (If you are not able to access your ballot by following these instructions, please contact your CountyBoard of Elections for assistance.  Contact information for your County Board of Elections is available at www.VotesPA.com.)  For security reasons, you will be required to enter the following Correspondence ID Number: 93462214.  You may wish to write this number down or Copy it now and Paste it into the Correspondence ID Number field when prompted. 

Your absentee ballot will open as a PDF document that contains several pages, including the ballot page(s) with instructions, voter declaration/affirmation, mailing instructions, and envelope template.  Please read the instructions that accompany the ballot carefully.

If the absentee ballot is a special write-in ballot, you will need the district information from your voter record below to complete your ballot.  The list of candidates who are currently qualified to be on the ballot in these districts is available here: http://www.dos.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/voting_and__elections/12363.


To submit the ballot:

1. Once you have completed your ballot, fold and place it in a blank envelope and seal – this will be the Secrecy Envelope for the ballot. PLACE ONLY THE VOTED BALLOT IN THE SECRECY ENVELOPE AND DO NOT WRITE ON THE SECRECY ENVELOPE.

2. Insert the sealed Secrecy Envelope and the completed Voter’s Declaration/Affirmation into another envelope and seal.

3. If possible, print or affix the postage-paid envelope template provided with your ballot on the outer envelope.  This envelope template contains the correspondence ID number, which identifies for your county election official that the envelope contains your ballot. 

4. If mailed using the provided envelope template, your ballot does not require postage when sent via U.S. Mail, APO/FPO or Diplomatic Pouch.  If mailed in a foreign postal system, international airmail postage must be affixed.  In the return address section in the upper left hand corner of the envelope template, enter your name and current complete military or overseas mailing address.  In the “TO” section in the center of the envelope template, enter the name and mailing address of your County Board of Elections.  This must be the same election official to whom you sent your application for an absentee ballot.  Contact information for your County Board of Elections is available at www.VotesPA.com.

Voted ballots must be postmarked no later than the day before the election and received by the County Board of Elections no later than 7 days after the election.  If you have difficulty accessing your ballot and are concerned that you may not return it in time to meet this deadline, you may always use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (available here:http://www.fvap.gov/resources/media/fwab.pdf).

After mailing your absentee ballot, you may confirm your county’s receipt of the ballot by logging into the SURE Public Portal website (www.pavoterservices.state.pa.us) and clicking on ‘Absentee Ballot Status’ on the left navigation bar or by contacting your County Board of Elections.

Pennsylvania Department of State
Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation 

Setting aside the potential user experience problems inherent to this process, even after one jumps through all these hoops it doesn’t work. Despite being registered to vote, it is not possible to download an absentee ballot. At this point, we called the Centre County Election Office, and learned this happens all the time! Now we are waiting on paper ballots to be mailed to us. According to our informant, these problems with the absentee voting system are well-known and longstanding, but the Pennsylvania Department of State has so far neglected to fixed them.

2. Second, a larger observation. Obviously, the problems I’ve experienced firsthand with Pennsylvania’s absentee voting system are a mere fly in the ointment compared with what some see as recent attempts to suppress voter turnout. In fact, Pennsylvania’s Voter Identification law faces a crucial courtroom decision today that will impact potentially hundreds of thousands of registered voters. For a concise and accessible history of Pennsylvania’s controversial legislation, see this New York Times blog post.

3. Third, a scholarly frustration. As part of a research project I have been trying to answer a seemingly simple question: How many people were registered to vote in each of Pennsylvania’s municipalities over time, specifically, for the time period 2004-2011? I have been alarmed to find that such data are apparently unavailable. The most granular information provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State Voter Registration Statistics Archives is at the county level. But voting in Pennsylvania takes place on a much more local basis, and so, one would think that data reflecting the granularity of this underlying phenomena would and should be available.

Good Work

A colleague recently forwarded these words to me, which are written in the Tao Te Ching and attributed to Lao Tzu:

Fill your cup to the brim
And it will spill.

Keep sharpening the knife
And will become blunt.

Chase after money and security
And your heart will never unclench.

Seek the approval of others
And you will become their prisoner.

Do your work, and then step back.
That is the only way to serenity.

Congressional Committee Sizes

In today’s New York Times, Tom Friedman writes:

Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery. One consumer group using information from Opensecrets.org calculates that the financial services industry, including real estate, spent $2.3 billion on federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than the health care, energy, defense, agriculture and transportation industries combined. Why are there 61 members on the House Committee on Financial Services? So many congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street.

What an interesting proposition: The size of a Congressional committee will be directly related to the availability of campaign contributions and lobbyists. Growing (shrinking) committees are related to increased (decreased) campaign contributions and lobbyists.

This same logic suggests that: The total number of committees and committee memberships will likewise be directly related to the availability of outside funding. As total spending on contributions and lobbyists goes up (down) the number of committees and committee memberships with increase (decrease).

To follow the money, simply follow the ebb and flow of Congressional committees over time. Taken together the propositions above suggest that Congress functions like a market, and not a ballot box.

Numbering the Discontent

The graphic accompanying a recent New York Times article seems to capture in numbers the sentiments so many have been trying to express lately. Among 31 OECD countries ranked on social justice, the United States is among the bottom 5 overall (just ahead of Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey), and in the bottom 5 or 10 countries on 7 out of the 8 indicators ranked. For those of us who were (a) once children, (b) enjoy remaining healthy, or (c) hope to grow old someday, the news is a sobering reality check.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/29/opinion/blow-americas-exploding-pipe-dream.html

Washington Initiative 1183

I find the stark differences between the distribution and retailing of alcohol on the one hand, and almost any other consumer product on the other hand, to offer a fascinating commentary about US society. No doubt the contemporary wine and spirits industry remains a potentially interesting, if unwritten, chapter in the history of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

In a previous post, I discussed the bizarre shipping prohibitions that still encumber many wine buyers. Today, my attention was drawn to a Wall Street Journal article on a ballot initiative in Washington state aimed at replacing “hundreds of state-run liquor stores with private retail outlets” while also allowing “retailers to buy liquor directly from distillers and negotiate volume discounts.”

To add to the intrigue, rather than an instance of grassroots mobilization, the initiative is being sponsored primarily by corporate interests. Costco has funded almost the entire “Yes” effort, while the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America have funded almost the entire “No” effort. The State is involved too, seeing privatization as a chance to generate more revenue. As a result, “[i]t isn’t clear whether a consumer buying a bottle of whiskey would see prices go down.”

In other words, no matter who wins the initiative, consumers may not come out ahead, even though their “interests” are allegedly at the heart of the matter. Instead, what appears to be at stake is simply how the liquor pie gets divided. Costco and Washington state want a bigger piece, while the existing wholesalers and retailers are reluctant to give up what they have had since the end of prohibition. How’s that for reform?