10 November 2020

Fall 2020: Democracy in Crisis! Week 8


Focus talk: Susan Nulsen
Susan has lived and experienced the voting systems in the UK, Australia and most recently here in the US.

My talk is more on the topic of voting and voting systems in general rather than on electoral integrity specifically.  I want to explain the WomenExplore voting system and how it came about.

First of all, I would like to expand a bit on the voting system in Australia. Like the US, and very much patterned on the US, the Commonwealth of Australia was a federation of a number of states. The Commonwealth is governed by two houses of parliament: the Senate, in which each of the six states has equal representation with a few extra seats for territories, and the House of Representatives, where each member of parliament represents a roughly equal number of constituents. 

Simplifying slightly, in federal elections the voters fill out a ballot for each house by numbering the candidates in their order of preference. (Voting is done with pencil and paper.) For the House of Representatives each district is represented by a single member who is elected by a straightforward ranked-choice vote in which the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their votes go to the next choice of the voter. This process of elimination continues until one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes. 

For the Senate, where each state is a single district usually choosing six representatives, counting the votes becomes more complicated. When choosing six representatives any candidate who get more than one seventh of the votes is elected immediately. Their surplus votes will be redistributed but each of these redistributed votes will only be worth a fraction of a single vote. For example if the candidate received one and a half times as many votes as they needed the redistributed votes will only be worth a third of a single vote, because a third of the votes were surplus. Once this redistribution has taken place the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed at full value. And so on. This is why this voting system is sometimes referred to as STV – Single Transferable Vote. Each voter gets to contribute a single vote to the process, although part of it might go to one candidate and part to another. The Senate system is a very fair way of electing the required number of candidates and results in proportional representation of the electorate. On occasion when all twelve seats are up for grabs in each state it becomes even more representative with smaller parties having more chance of winning a seat. Of course the big parties don't like this but it is what the voters want.  The Senate system is a variation of the Hare-Clark system which you may have heard of.  The Hare-Clark system has been used in the state of Tasmania since 1909. I think that the Senate system is slightly more fair in the way in which votes are transferred. 

After I arrived in America and when the subject came up in conversation I would point out what I regarded as two things in the Australian voting system which produced more representative results from elections, but I soon realized that there was a third which was every bit as important. This was the Australian Electoral Commission and the corresponding state electoral commissions which are made up of civil servants who act impartially in determining the boundaries of the electoral districts as well as in running the elections.  Gerrymandering is a powerful force in maintaining a minority government in power, when its political appointees are able control redistricting.  They aim to create as many districts as possible in which their party has a small but safe majority, thus ensuring that the voices of opposition supporters in these districts are nullified. The remainder of the voters are corralled into districts that are as close as possible a hundred percent opposition supporters. In this way these voters elect as few as possible opposition candidates. Just last year the Supreme Court validated the right of states to gerrymander. In gerrymandered districts the winning candidate is always appealing to a majority of supporters. They have no incentive to reach out to the other side. They just need to gin up their voters to make sure they get out to vote.

Those first two differences I had noticed between the two voting systems were compulsory voting and preferential voting (or ranked choice voting as it's being called in this election). 

Three weeks ago Jenny Mansbridge mentioned that she was leery of preferential voting because it dampened the debate between opposing sides. She might have been thinking of the 2018 election for the mayor of San Francisco which used ranked choice voting. In this election two of the candidates[1] who opposed the front runner[2] and who realized that they had more in common with each other than the front runner decided to join together and swap second preferences. Of course, they can actually only recommend that their supporters put the other second, they cannot compel.  The ability to express a second (or third or fourth etc) preference prevents a third candidate acting as a spoiler as happened in the 2000 presidential election when Ralph Nader's candidacy deprived Al Gore of the presidency. Also, even when courting valuable second preferences, the candidates still need to put their positions clearly and draw a distinction between their policies and their opponents'.  It is true that a candidate is probably less hateful towards the other candidates than they would be in a first-past-the-post election, but I regard this as a plus.  It is much less likely to incite violence in their supporters.  It is much less polarizing.

By the way, in San Francisco the front runner still won. From my experience in Australia, I can say that there is still a very robust debate at election time, and, in practice, about seven times out of eight preferential voting gives the same outcome as the first-past-the-post system, but that eighth time still matters.

What about compulsory voting? Why should I be forced to vote? You can all think of reasons why that is a good thing.  Just think of all the money and effort that is spent on trying to get out maybe 60% of the vote, money and effort that could be much better spent on explaining policies. One of the techniques used is to scare voters to the polls by portraying the opposition as monsters.  This has the effect of further polarizing the electorate.  I also suspect that compulsory voting would act as another hurdle to bad actors disenfranchising voters.  When everyone votes it goes without saying that the result is much more representative of the people.  Voting is not very onerous, and actually, in Australia, you are not required to cast a valid vote, just to turn up. I saw recently that people were fined $55 for not voting in state elections in New South Wales.  When I left Australia I think the fine for not voting in a federal election was only $20. Still who wants to pay $20?  Voter turnout in Australia is around 95%.  It could probably be better.   I believe that voting is not only a privilege but also a duty. 

In a representative democracy the aim of voting should be to select the most representative representatives. Impartial districting, ranked choice voting and compulsory voting all do that. In addition, it turns out, they all have a tendency to decrease the polarization of the electorate which is a welcome benefit.

All of the above explains where I am coming from, what informs me with regard to voting systems.  Now to WomenExplore.

In 1896 Anna Parker Lowell, the wife of a Harvard professor, started a group called the Society of Harvard Dames which met on Thursday afternoons for a talk followed by afternoon tea. You might be interested in this notice [5] that I found in the Harvard Crimson from nearly a hundred years ago.

Published: Thursday, May 10, 1923
The Society of Harvard Dames will be addressed by Professor L. J. Johnson '87 on "Proportional Representation" in Phillips Brooks House at 3 o'clock this afternoon. The feature of the meeting will be a mock election to illustrate the subject of the speech.

Clearly the subject of voting systems has been with us for a long time and is not going away.

In the late 50s the divinity school resurrected the Society of Harvard Dames as Ladies Lectures. In 1973 Brita Stendahl with a small advisory committee reformulated these lectures as the Theological Opportunities Program (TOP).  Like the Ladies Lectures they weren't just open to Harvard wives but to any women who were interested. TOP evolved into the WomenExplore we know after Liz Dodson Gray became coordinator in 1978. She opened the advisory committee up to all who attended, developing our unique method of devising a lecture series through the topics that are on our minds. She then introduced the idea of an existential focus to ground the topic of the day in the experiences of one of the women who attended. Today I am that woman. These two features are what distinguish WE from the myriad of other lectures that are available to us.

In 2003 TOP/WomenExplore cut its ties with Harvard, becoming an independent non-profit. This legally required us to have a board which was initially selected by Liz, who became the executive director and president of the board. In 2008 Liz asked whether we, the Advisory Committee, could set up a committee to nominate potential new board members. I was on that committee along with Louise McMurray, the chair, Erica Kenny and Sandy Wayne. What Liz was looking for was a list of volunteers in the order of preference of the Advisory Committee. We decided on the procedures for running an election whenever it might be required, and I volunteered to come up with a voting system, because I was intensely interested in ensuring that our board members truly represented the Advisory Committee and that the elections were as fair as possible.

From what I have just been telling you about my background, you might guess that I would choose a system like the Senate system and you would be right. However when I looked closely I realized just how unwieldy that system could be, even for such a small group as WomenExplore. I dreaded the thought of trying to explain how to count the votes to all the future generations of WE members. Then I had the idea of just averaging the order of preference numbers that each candidate received (or simply just summing them). The result would give an overall order of preference of the candidates, with the most preferred candidates having the lowest numbers. It was immediately obvious that this had some advantages over other systems I have mentioned. You can imagine the situation where there is a compromise candidate, I'll call her Claire, who is liked by all the voters, but not quite as much as they like their first choice candidate. So everybody ranks her second after their varied first choices. Under other systems she would be the first candidate to be eliminated, and the voters would lose the opportunity to have elected a candidate that they are all happy with. This method of counting the votes tends to select consensus candidates which is very much in line with the philosophy of WomenExplore which always looks for consensus in its decision making. As a way of making it easier for voters by allowing them to number only as many of the candidates as they like we give the unnumbered candidates the average of the numbers that the voter missed. This is equivalent to saying that all of the unnumbered candidates are equal last in order of preference. It does not distort the result and encourage voters to game the system (or “vote strategically”), not that I think anyone in WomenExplore would deliberately do that. Still it is what we all do when we vote Al Gore rather than our first choice, Ralph Nader. [This method of using the average of the missing numbers can also be generalized to allow voters to, for example, give two candidates equal second preference. This would translate to each getting a preference of 2.5 and the next candidate in order of preference would have a preference of 4. It is somewhat like awarding places in a running race.]  Preferential or ranked-choice voting is one thing. Interpreting those votes for all the voters in a district is another.

With a little bit of research I discovered that the WE voting system is just one of a family of voting systems called Borda counts, named after Jean-Charles Borda who devised the method in 1770. A number of these variants are used in different places around the world, including the Harvard Undergraduate Council which, in 2018, adopted one of the Borda variants for its elections, after finding the Hare-Clark system too complicated, following in WomenExplore's footsteps.

The following slide takes the example of a small district which needs to elect one of three candidates. The first two candidates, Adele and Brooke are very polarizing. Supporters of one would do anything rather than vote for the other. Our friend Claire is the third candidate. Some of her supporters favor Adele as their second choice and some Brooke.

The slide shows how the different systems can give different results with the same votes for a simple case of 100 voters.

And the second slide shows the tally sheet from a real WE board election. The names are changed to protect identities.

Thank you.

[1] Jane Kim and Mark Leno     [2] London Breed



Main lecture:  Eitan Hersh

Eitan Hersh is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His research focuses on US elections, voting rights, and civic participation. Hersh is the author of Politics is for Power (Scribner, 2020), Hacking the Electorate (Cambridge UP 2015), as well as many scholarly articles. Hersh earned his PhD from Harvard in 2011 and served as assistant professor of political science at Yale University from 2011-2017. His public writings have appeared in venues such as the New York Times, USA Today, The Atlantic, POLITICO, and the Boston Globe. Hersh regularly testifies in voting rights court cases and has testified to the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the role of data analytics in political campaigns.

Note: Naakh Vysoky, Ukrainian immigrant, died peacefully on 31st December 2019, just three days shy of his 99th birthday.

04 November 2020

Fall 2020: Democracy in Crisis! Week 7


Timothy Patrick McCarthy is an award-winning historian, educator, and human rights activist who has taught on Harvard's faculty since 2005. Dr. McCarthy currently holds a joint appointment in the undergraduate honors program in History and Literature, Graduate School of Education, and Kennedy School of Government, where he is Core Faculty at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He is also Stanley Paterson Professor of American History in the Boston Clemente Course, a free college course for lower income adults in Dorchester, where he has taught since its founding in 2001.

He is the author or editor of five books, including the forthcoming Stonewall's Children: Living Queer History in an Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love, and a frequent media commentator. Dr. McCarthy has devoted his life to public service and social justice. He currently serves as Board Chair for Free the Slaves, a leading global NGO in the fight against modern slavery, and also hosts and directs A.R.T. of Human Rights and Resistance Mic! through the Tony Award-winning American Repertory Theater, where he serves on the Board of Advisors.

Click here to play lecture (54 minutes).

Crystal Lucas-Perry plays John Adams in the 2020 revival of the musical 1776 by the American Repertory Theater.

As we embark on our journey together on this production, we find ourselves reckoning with our country’s history, reexamining the pivotal moment of our nation’s founding portrayed in 1776—the writing of the Declaration of Independence, a ‘promissory note,’ that, in Martin Luther King’s words ‘America has defaulted on.’ Our cast includes multiple representations of gender, race, and ethnicity that allow this revival of 1776 to more broadly reflect today’s America, our America.” 

– Diane Paulus, Director of 1776 / Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director

Is Anybody There? is the song that John Adams sings when he's referring to the rest of Congress not seeing his way on Independence after the South walked out on Adams' defending Jefferson's clause against slavery. These are the lyrics by Sherman Edwards from previous productions.

John Adams:

Is anybody there?

Does anybody care?

Does anybody see what I see?

They want to me to quit; they say

John, give up the fight

Still to England I say

Good night, forever, good night!

For I have crossed the Rubicon

Let the bridge be burned behind me

Come what may, come what may


The croakers all say we'll rue the day

There'll be hell to pay in fiery purgatory

Through all the gloom, through all the gloom

I see the rays of ravishing light and glory!

Is anybody there? Does anybody care?

Does anybody see what I see?

I see fireworks! I see the pageant and

Pomp and parade

I hear the bells ringing out

I hear the cannons roar

I see Americans - all Americans

Free forever more

How quiet, how quiet the chamber is

How silent, how silent the chamber is

Is anybody there? Does anybody care?

Does anybody see what I see?

23 October 2020

True Expression

— by Karen Sheahan

Tim McCarthy's talk on the subject of "The Perils and the Pride of Patriotism" awakened Karen Sheahan's spirit and renewed her beautiful poem "True Expression".

True Expression  

A Phoenix is rising.

A Phoenix is rising in the the flames of the candles 

I’ve lit, through the silent retreats of my life.

It’s growing, 

Growing a deepening spirit, a new sense of myself.

The two-winged bird is here, 

Its quiet center truth,

Its balanced wings balancing courage, 

Balancing the ups and the downs, 

The good and the bad,

The judge, the protector, 

Joy and sadness,

Creating dreams of a true life,

Expressed truthfully.

Written by Karen Sheahan

October 1989 and I am still dreaming.

Keep dreaming, Karen!  And keep writing.

This in turn reminded me of Dorianne Low's dreams of a utopia the previous week.  "Dreams of a true life" echos some of the ideas we are looking at for the Spring 2021 lecture series.         Susan

Please add your comments below.

17 October 2020

Fall 2020: Democracy in Crisis! Week 6

Week 6 15th October  

Focus talk: Dorianne Low

Main lecture and discussion:

— Lylah Alphonse:
Lylah Alphonse is a former Managing Editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she revamped their Special Reports section, coordinated news coverage of national issues ranging from politics and policy to higher education and health care, and led a diverse team of journalists in measuring government performance at the international, national, state and community levels.

Before joining U.S. News, she worked as a senior editor and writer at ‪Yahoo.com‬, where she wrote about politics, health, career, and parenting trends, created and curated the “Women in Politics” section of Yahoo News. While there, she covered the First Lady's office, interviewing First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden, Dr. Tina Chen, Valerie Jarrett, and other administration leaders multiple times.

Before joining Yahoo!, Lylah spent 16 years as an editor and writer at The Boston Globe, editing in the National News, Living/Arts and Sunday Magazine departments and writing book reviews, news features, and other content, including a parenting column for ‪Boston.com‬. Next week, she returns to The Boston Globe as the editor of their Rhode Island initiative, expanding the Globe's top-notch coverage into other parts of New England.

She wrote a twice-weekly column about work-life balance for Workitmom.com from 2007 to 2011, and is the author of “Triumph Over Discrimination: The Life Story of Dr. Farhang Mehr” (2000), a biography of the first non-Muslim deputy prime minister of Iran. She is a frequent guest on GBH-TV’s “Beat the Press” and "Greater Boston," has taught at Northeastern University, and speaks at conferences and in classrooms around the country. She earned her Bachelors of Science in Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and was inducted into their alumni hall of fame in 2000. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and teenage children.

Lylah's slides  Try looking at the slides as the audio plays.

Links from Lylah:

15 October 2020

Fall 2020: Democracy in Crisis! Weeks 7 to 10

Week 7,  22nd October:  The Perils and Pride of Patriotism                  Timothy Patrick McCarthy

08 October 2020

Fall 2020: Democracy in Crisis! Weeks 1 to 5

Week 5,  8th October:  The Death of Democracy                                              Jane Mansbridge

Week 4,  1st October: When Do Women Buy In To Misogynist Ideologies      Elizabeth Rucker

Week 3,  24th September: The State of Hate in Massachusetts                          Melissa Kraus

Week 2,  17th September:  How Would Plants & Animals Vote?                      True Story Theater

Week 1,  10th September:  Invisibled & Excluded: What Can We Learn from the Suffragettes?
                                                                                                                             Fredie Kay

07 July 2020

This is what you shall do

—Walt Whitman

This is what you shall do
by Walt Whitman

"This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

"This is what you shall do..." by Walt Whitman, from the preface of Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition.  Public domain.