Big mayoral forum one week from today!
The topic is public safety and you can register to attend now.
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Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above. Become a paid subscriber to receive each Picayune Plus in your email inbox each Tuesday and join our civil and productive commenting community.
I’m really looking forward to co-moderating this exchange — I guess we don’t call the “debates” anymore — a week from today (Tuesday). Wanna come? Click here to register. If you have questions you’d like me or Laura Washington to ask the candidates about the issue of public safety, put them in comments.
Ranked-choice voting, a mini-debate
PS reader Sanford Morganstein is attempting to dampen my enthusiasm for ranked-choice voting, a system of choosing political leaders that endeavors to find consensus rather than putting into office politicians who win a plurality of votes in a multi-candidate field. Here is an edited version of his letter:
Many thinkers believe that ranked choice voting (RCV) solves fundamental problems with voting. It doesn't. You need only look to this past November's election for the House of Representatives in Alaska, which led to thwarting the will of the people.
On November 8, Democrat Mary Peltola got 48.7% of the vote while two Republicans — including former Gov. Sarah Palin — split 49.4% of the vote. (A Libertarian got 1.9%) So more than half of Alaska voters said "no" to a Democrat. Yet because the state uses a RCV system where second and third place votes can end up counting, Peltola was declared the choice of the majority and therefore the winner.
I think voters do not understand what happens when their first choice candidate is removed in RCV. I bet, but cannot prove, that if voters knew that making Peltola a second choice would lead to Peltola's winning, they would have voted differently...maybe by abstaining on the second round.
Short answer: In this case, a system like Chicago's would be preferable: have a first round separated by a campaign period and then a second round. That way candidates can compete for votes in a way that voters will know the results of their vote.
Here is an edited response from Rachel Hutchinson, research analyst at FairVote, an organization that promotes ranked-choice voting:
No voting system is perfect. But RCV is a significant improvement over the single-choice primary and runoff currently used in Chicago (and many other places). Single-choice voting encourages voters to cast their ballots for a candidate they think can win rather than their honest favorite (a familiar problem for Kam Buckner or Sophia King fans). Runoff elections put decisions in the hands of a smaller, less representative group of voters.
RCV allows voters to be more expressive on their ballot, and to designate backup choices should their favorite candidate perform poorly. A consensus candidate is determined instantly, in the election where turnout is naturally the highest.
This is what happened in Alaska’s at-large congressional election in November. Mary Peltola did win 48.7% of voters’ first-choices, a whopping 22.9% points ahead of Palin, her nearest competitor. Some voters whose favorite was third-place Republican Nick Begich or fourth-place Libertarian Chris Bye designated Peltola as a backup choice. In doing so, these voters expressed that they’d prefer Peltola to Palin, should the decision come down to those two. Therefore, their votes counted as they intended.
It’s a reminder that voters are multidimensional, and that we vote for candidates and not parties. Hardly an extremist, Peltola embraced middle-of-the-road and Alaska-centric positions on the campaign trail, cross-endorsed moderate Republican Lisa Murkowski in the US Senate race, hired the late Republican Rep. Don Young’s staff, and reintroduced legislation championed by Young.
Her election is consistent with the Alaska electorate’s independent streak –- with RCV, Alaska re-elected a conservative Republican as governor, a moderate Republican as senator, and the moderate Democrat Peltola as its congresswoman.
I would also note that under a simple plurality system like we have in Chicago and most other place, the Democrat would have won in Alaska anyway.
You know what I think about RCV, but what do you think?
Notes and comments from readers —lightly edited —- along with my responses
Gabe F. — Is it true that “public safety is a civil right” as Paul Vallas said in a statement Wednesday? Aren’t civil rights normally those reserved by the people against abuses of government? Public safety is a critical goal and a public good, but a “civil right”?
What concerns me is that this slogan sounds a lot like “all lives matter,” as in: “You know all those ‘civil rights’ you’re trying to protect by restraining police? Well, we want to take the handcuffs off police because those of us sick of street crime are the real victims of your ‘wokeness,’ and we have our ‘civil rights’ too. These include ‘taking the handcuffs off police,’ and their importance is equivalent to or greater than the importance of police abiding by the Constitution. It’s time for your promotion of constitutional policing to take a back seat to my civil rights. Harrumph.”
I think the use of this campaign slogan is as shrewd as it is demagogic and frightening. And subtle, too. So subtle. Because what candidate would be dumb enough to deconstruct that and push back on it?
I’m intrigued by the use of “civil” in his assertion by Vallas. Brittanica has a useful definition that says:
(Civil rights are) guarantees of equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, or other personal characteristics.
Examples of civil rights include the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to government services, the right to a public education, and the right to use public facilities. Civil rights are an essential component of democracy; when individuals are being denied opportunities to participate in political society, they are being denied their civil rights. In contrast to civil liberties, which are freedoms that are secured by placing restraints on government, civil rights are secured by positive government action, often in the form of legislation. Civil rights laws attempt to guarantee full and equal citizenship for people who have traditionally been discriminated against on the basis of some group characteristic.
A “civil” right is distinct from a simple “right,” either colloquially or formally, by its emphasis on non-discrimination. The adjective “civil” invokes the idea that government must take action to assure that the rights are not denied to certain classes of people, so to call something a “civil right” is at least to imply subtly that those not afforded it are the victims of racial, ethnic, religious or gender-identity discrimination. In that way it escalates the claim.
I agree that all people should feel safe in their homes and while walking the streets. So I’m not particularly wary of the assertion that safety ought to be considered such a worthy aspiration that it be considered a “right.” Similarly I believe that access to quality medical care is so fundamental to the functioning of a decent society that we should also think of it as a “right.”
But when we elevate a social aspiration into a “right,” or, more sensitively, a “civil right,” we can put that aspiration into conflict with other aspirations and even with Constitutional rights. And Gabe is correct to point to a “civil rights” claim as an escalated assertion that amounts to a clever rhetorical ploy, at least, and, perhaps, cynical demagoguery.
Mike F. — Compare the results of the M3 Strategies poll taken February 20-21 with the actual results of the election:
POLL. ACTUAL Paul Vallas. 33.3%. 33.8% Brandon Johnson 19.7%. 20.3% Lori Lightfoot. 18.3%. 17.1% Chuy Garcia. 13.3%. 13.7% Willie Wilson. 9.3%. 9.6%
Given the amount of fluidity in the race (in early February the same pollster had Garcia in second place) and the low anticipated turnout that was a stunningly accurate poll.
Alan D. — I agree with your statement that Brandon Johnson can run from the question about his previous embrace of the slogan “defund the police.” but he can’t hide from it for five weeks. Do you feel the same way about Paul Vallas' residency questions?
No, as I’ve said before I don’t give a pestilential rodent’s nether orifice where Vallas’ actual primary residence is. It might bother me that his wife lives in Palos Heights and his residency has been established by renting an apartment in Chicago if he were parachuting in from, say, Los Angeles and presuming to lead the city. But no matter where Vallas may actually hang his hat, it’s undeniable that he has deep local roots: He’s a former city budget director who oversaw the public schools here for six years and ran unsuccessfully for mayor four years ago. He knows how the city works as well as if not better than the other top contenders and has more major executive experience than any of them. There’s no reason to believe Vallas, for whom I do not intend to vote, is any less invested in the city’s future than his opponent.
Ted F. — Sometime late last year I received a renewal notice from the Tribune that informed me that the paper would automatically renew my paper and digital subscription at $1200 a year, which was about $900 more than I had been paying.
I am fairly certain that they hope some subscribers overlook the notices and are automatically charged those rates. Older subscribers might be particularly vulnerable to that (and I suspect most subscribers are older), and the bill struck me as predatory. I called the paper's subscription serve line and was told--without hesitation-- I could have a rate of $369. I accepted. I learned later that day that a friend got a rate of $269, but I stuck with my rate.
Then, in the last couple of months I was informed that the paper would be tacking on a 15-cent surcharge on every paper delivered, or another $54.75 a year. Then, last week I received a notice that my subscription would renew at $495 a year.
I again called to see if that were the best rate for regular subscribers. Again I was offered $369, the pre-surcharge rate. (I don't know if the paper would have slapped a surcharge on that now.) I said I didn't trust the paper to hold to that rate and I cancelled the subscription.
Today, I received a call from a very nice customer service rep named Doris who asked why I had stopped and whether she could resubscribe me. I went through this saga and said I could not trust the paper on fees with my account.
She said she understood my frustration and would communicate it to her superiors supervisors. She then offered me the $369 rate which she said was the real "regular rate."
So what is the $1200 rate?
The "if we can get away with it" rate?
I declined. There's an offer online for a year of delivered papers and digital for $155.00. I am thinking of grabbing that after a few weeks, but may not.
There are endless reasons for long-time readers to be upset with The Tribune, but its predatory and opportunistic subscription practices are a cheat that hits every doorstep--and perhaps computer and phone-- the paper lands on.
I have received many letters similar to yours about these dodgy practices, but not one letter from anyone connected with the Tribune justifying or explaining them. The best and only defense I’ve heard from some former colleagues at the paper is that a lot of publications play this game with subscribers, exploiting their inattention and inertia. I’ll continue to forward these to publisher Par Ridder in the vain hope that he’ll respond to the concerns of readers.
Ted B. — You'd probably be interested in Dave Hoekstra's 2022 book, "Beacons in the Darkness: Hope and Transformation Among America’s Community Newspapers"
Thanks. Haven’t read it. Happy to give it a plug. Hoekstra’s a good guy and fine journalist.
Connell — I hope Lori Lightfoot turns into a great and helpful ex-mayor. Something all the other ex-mayors could never really accomplish.
True, we haven’t seen a Jimmy Carter-style post career mayor in modern memory. Maybe Lightfoot will be the one.
Peter Z. — The journalistic community needs to get a specific set of ethics and be licensed much like doctors, nurses, lawyers…heck even plumbers. Right now pretty much anyone can claim to be a journalist and can then lie, mislead or just plain be inept with no real repercussions. We have no method of separating fake journalists from real ones.
The Society of Professional Journalists does have a code of ethics, and while I believe everyone who aspires to practice journalism should hew to it, I am strongly against any licensing system that would deny or curtail anyone’s right to free expression. There is the matter of deciding what it means to be a “journalist” now that anyone can publish, and the matter of which institution or government body would issue or deny licenses to practice journalism. I wouldn’t mind if there were some sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval for publications, but even that seems fraught with problems of bias and political intrigue. Open to suggestions, though!
Provocative answer to a common question
@wildethingy is one of Twitter’s resident comedians, but he recently posted this touching and very serious thought:
If I could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, I'd likely choose my gran. I think she'd like to see me all grown up, catching up after all these years.
Generally, of course, when asked “If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be?” people choose someone famous from history, such as Jesus Christ or Abraham Lincoln, or some notable public figure, such as Barack Obama or Tina Fey. But the idea of having an in-depth conversation with a long-departed relative strikes me as far more compelling.
I’d likely choose a great grandparent — someone I never met but whose life and choices had a significant impact on my life. I know only the sketchiest of biographical details about them; almost nothing about how they thought, what their dreams were and what they might think of me. (I suspect I would have a zesty argument with my maternal great grandfather John D. Barnhart Sr, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of downstate Decatur as an ardent prohibitionist more than 100 years ago).
J.D., as he was known, died at age 50 one day before Prohibition went into effect. In his eulogy, the Rev. A. M. Wells noted the irony and said:
It it was the work of such men as J. D. That gave the movement its start and pushed John Barleycorn on his downward path. The overthrow of the liquor traffic has come faster and with kaleidoscopic rapidity.
Many years ago he had the nerve to work for this thing that he knew was right. He stood up and fought the liquor traffic from the beginning when it was not the popular thing to do. When the history of Macon County is written, the name of Barnhart will be associated with the interception of the liquor traffic in Decatur.
I’m not sure what to make of this passage from the eulogy:
He was a student of municipal affairs and it was Decatur's loss that he was never allowed to carry out his ideals after he was elected to the office of mayor several years ago. I said elected mayor and that was exactly what I mean. Although technically he lost, nevertheless the people of this community were benefited by the fight in the struggle he put up in the trial of the recount.
The community was benefited because for every one of the dozens of people who admitted on the stand or were proven to have voted illegally when they returned to their precincts and homes they realized the seriousness of the danger of illegal voting.
Ever since he went through that struggle, the people of Decatur have had cleaner elections and a more efficient handling of the ballot boxes by the officials.
One of my other great grandfathers, Theodore Zorn, was pioneer of the articulated zeppelin back when we thought they were the future of air travel. Had they been, I might today be an heir to the Zorn’s Zeppelins fortune and the owner of Twitter.
Ya gotta see these tweets!
I often run across tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the Tweet of the Week contest (the template I use for that poll does not allow me to include images). Here are a few good ones I’ve come across recently:
Vote for your favorite. I’ll share the winner in Thursday’s main edition.
There’s still time to vote in the conventional Tweet of the Week poll!
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co-moderating this exchange or "cat wrangling"
Sanford Morganstein... I always find reasoning weak when I hear things like "So more than half of Alaska voters (49.4%) said "no" to a Democrat. (48.7%)" But what it really is - Peltola had 48.7 against Candidate A plus Candidate B had 49.4%. This isn't vote for a party it is a vote for a candidate representing a party. Simple party majority votes does declare a race. You could also say nearly 50% of people voted against the Republican candidates.