April Showers Bring May Elections

It’s election season again in Brookline, but it’s a lot different from this past November. This time, the people on the ballot are our neighbors.

For a lot of people, springtime means flowers, the Marathon, baseball, and eating lunch outside. For candidates for local office, springtime means campaigning is in full swing. Candidates are spending their evenings and weekends knocking on doors, stopping in at events, calling neighbors, asking for endorsements, and somehow getting enough sleep to function.

The issues this election season are monumental. Debates are centering around where to build the next K-8 school, how many more affordable housing units we should approve this year, whether it’s time for a debt exclusion, and what services our libraries will provide in the coming years. That’s not even all of it.

When Brookline residents go to the polls on Tuesday, May 2nd, they’ll be voting for town-wide offices and Town Meeting Members.

Contested

The Brookline Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Library Board of Trustees, and Town Meeting Members each have seats up for election this year. As a civic engagement nerd, I’m thrilled that there are more contested races this time than in previous years. That means more people want to get involved in our local government, which is fantastic news. The more, the merrier.

Since there are contested races, we each have some decisions to make. If we follow these simple steps, we’ll be ready to vote on May 2nd.

The 10 Steps to Voting Success

  1. Mark your calendar. Decide now whether you’ll vote in the morning, at lunch, in the afternoon, in the early evening. You can always change it later if your schedule shifts, but it’s important to have a reminder set. Polls will be open from 7:00AM to 8:00PM.
  2. Apply for an absentee ballot if you can’t vote on May 2nd.
  3. Check out a sample ballot for your precinct. They’re available on the Town website. Do you recognize any of the names?
  4. Read about the candidates. The Brookline TAB publishes a bunch of endorsements. Some of the candidates have websites where they spell out their positions on local issues.
  5. Attend candidate forums. The League of Women Voters of Brookline is hosting a forum for the candidates of town-wide office on Wednesday, April 26 at 6:30PM (refreshments at 6:00PM) in the Selectmen’s Hearing Room at Town Hall. Come hang out with the candidates and hear how and why they want to serve the community. The co-sponsors of the forum are the Brookline Neighborhood Alliance (BNA) and the Town Meeting Members Association (TMMA).
  6. Pick up the Voter’s Guide in the Brookline TAB, prepared by the League of Women Voters. Year after year, the League knocks this one out of the park. Shout out to Joel Shoner for putting it together!
  7. If a candidate knocks on your door, greet him or her with a smile. Then, ask them why they’re running and what they’d like to do if they get elected. Read the literature. Maybe you could take it a step further and canvass for a candidate yourself.
  8. If you still have questions for the candidates, ask them. It’s pretty easy to contact candidates. Plus, I’d be surprised if they don’t respond to you, because after all, they do want your vote. What’s unique about local elections is the candidates live in your community. You just don’t get that same accessibility with federal elections. Candidates for local office go to the same grocery stores as you, they take the Green Line with you. You can actually talk to them.
  9. Confirm your polling location. You want to show up at the right location.
  10. Vote! If you have children, bring them with you for a mini civics lesson.

There you have it. Ten is a nice round number. But I would be remiss if I said this list is exhaustive.

Even More Election Fun

Personally, I have some other Election Day traditions of my own. I channel my inner Leslie Knope and geek out about the democratic process.

Image result for parks and rec leslie knope democracy meme

(Gif cred: https://www.good.is/articles/leslie-knope-feminism)

Here are just a few extra activities you can do:

Listen to an Election Day playlist. Tweet about local issues. Reach out to your friends and family members and ask which candidates they support. Go to the BrooklineCAN forum on Monday, April 24 from 4:00PM-6:00PM at the Brookline Senior Center.

If you can swing it with your schedule, work at the polls! You’ll earn some cash, and more importantly, you’ll participate in the election process. It’s a truly moving experience to hand someone a ballot. Call the Brookline Clerk’s Office for more information: 617-730-2010.

See You at the Polls

As we often say in League of Women Voters events, democracy is not a spectator sport. Your vote is your voice.

Our local officials will have many big decisions to make in the next couple years, and we get to decide who will make them. That’s an awesome responsibility.

Plus, you’ll probably get one of those stickers. Who doesn’t love a good sticker?

Breaking Down the Ballot Questions

Simply Civics Information for Voters

[A quick disclaimer: This blog post will not endorse positions on any of the 4 ballot questions. It’s up to you to decide how to vote. With that in mind, let’s make sure you make the right decisions for you!]

When we go to the polls on Election Day, we get to vote for candidates. What’s also exciting, though, is slightly further down the ballot. We get to be legislators for a day, directly influencing policy through the ballot questions.

The 2016 ballot questions seem to be advertised everywhere across Massachusetts: on yard signs, in commercials, on the radio. You’ve seen ads about each of these issues at some point. The ballot initiatives are:

  1. Allow a Second Slot Parlor
  2. Lift the Charter School Cap
  3. Prohibit Farm Animal Containment
  4. Legalize Recreational Marijuana

The ads don’t always give us the whole picture, though. It’s crucial to learn the different dimensions of each question in order to make an informed decision on Election Day.

Luckily, there are a plethora of resources for voter education on the ballot questions. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. The Red Book

The Secretary of the Commonwealth sends a packet called “Information for Voters” to homes or registered voters in Massachusetts. There’s also a digital version online. The book contains basically everything you need to know about the general election, including information about the ballot questions. For each ballot question, the book breaks it down into what a “yes” vote would do and what a “no” vote would do. You can read the fiscal consequences and arguments in favor of or in opposition to the initiative.

If you’d like a hard copy of the book, you can pick one up at the Brookline Main Branch Library. Alternatively, you can visit your Clerk’s office.

2. WBUR’s Election Ballot Debate Series

WBUR covers the ballot questions comprehensively. Radio Boston hosted a 4-week debate series at UMass Boston with the Boston Globe. You can find recordings of each of the 4 debates on their website, along with additional reporting about the questions. You have the option to download or stream the audio from each debate. Listening to these would definitely make your commute or errands go by a lot faster!

3. WGBH at the EMK Institute Tonight (Free Event)

WGBH’s Jim Braude is moderating a second panel discussion this evening at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute about Question #2: Lifting the Charter School Cap. Tickets are still available! Register online now. Here are the details:

Thursday, October 27
7:00PM-8:30PM (Doors open at 6:00PM)
Edward M. Kennedy for the United States Senate, Boston

The panel consists of:

  • Jessica Tang, Boston Teacher’s Union Director of Organizing
  • Chris Gabrieli, Chairman and CEO of Empower Schools, Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, and lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education
  • Michael Curry, President of the Boston branch of the NAACP; and
  • Marty Walz, former Massachusetts State Representative and Principal at Marty Walz and Associates.

If you get there early, I recommend you tour the EMK Institute! In addition to the full-scale reproduction of the U.S. Senate Chamber, the Institute also has a reproduction of Senator Edward Kennedy’s office, as well as many interactive exhibits about the Senate.

4. Vote411

Visit Vote411.org for a voter guide specific to your precinct. Type in your address and you’ll see the races on your ballot and the ballot questions. You can compare candidates’ positions and read arguments for and against ballot questions.

The best feature is that you can select how you’re voting for each race or issue, and print out your preferences to bring with you on Election Day. That way, you won’t get mixed up about what a yes or no vote means for each ballot question. You can always change your mind, of course, but it’s helpful to do your homework in advance of the big day. Just make sure you don’t leave your print-out in the voting booth, to interfere with others’ voting.

5. Myra Kraft Open Classroom

I wrote about the Myra Kraft Open Classroom in a previous post. I’m bringing it up again because it really is a great resource and because it’s relevant to this post!

Northeastern University hosts a free class each week about the election. Next week’s topic is: “Down the Ballot: Key Elections and Issues in Congress and the States.” Attendees will have an opportunity to ask the guest speakers about the ballot questions and congressional races.

Here are the details:

Wednesday, November 2nd
6:00PM-8:00PM
Northeastern University, West Village F, Room 20

To note, the class will continue to meet on Wednesdays for the rest of the semester. Following November 8th, the class will focus on President Obama’s legacy and the lessons learned from the election.

You can read more about the class schedule here.

6. People Around You

Probably the best resources are the people around you. Maybe you don’t want to talk to your friends, family, and coworkers about the presidential race because of the emotions it stirs up. Then don’t. Talk about the ballot questions instead. They’re a low-risk and fun conversation starter, and we all have something to contribute to the debate.

Ask the teachers in your life about the charter school question (#2), or family members about farm animal rights (#3). My roommates have really expanded my thinking about the implications of #3. During your lunch break at work, ask your colleagues about what they think an additional slot parlor in Massachusetts (#1) would add to the economy. When you’re out with your friends, or talking to someone in the public health field, discuss the dynamics of legalizing recreational marijuana (#4).

We each get to be policymakers on November 8th, so let’s work together to see what solutions make the most sense for our communities.

35 States

Ballot questions are not unique to Massachusetts, of course. 34 other states have ballot initiatives this November. Ballotpedia is a great resource for the election in general and has a lot of information about the ballot initiatives by state. At a glance, here are some of the big issues to follow on November 8th:

  • 9 states have questions about marijuana
  • 5 states have questions about the minimum wage
  • 5 states have questions about healthcare
  • 4 states have questions about gun laws

In addition to Ballotpedia, NPR’s Meg Anderson published a very thorough and well-researched article about ballot initiatives by state. Check it out.

Get Your Questions Answered

Research your state’s ballot questions before you get to the polls, because this is your chance to influence policy directly. Sort out the pros and cons ahead of time.

If you find any additional resources, please share them with me via email and I’ll tweet them out.

Enjoy your policymaking!

3 Civic Things To Do Today

Today will be chock full of civic opportunities, and here’s why:

  1. It’s the last day to register to vote in the November 8th election.
  2. The League of Women Voters of Brookline is hosting a Ballot Question Forum tonight at the Brookline Main Branch Library.
  3. The final presidential debate is tonight.

Voter Registration

If there’s one thing you gather from this post, I hope it’s this: make sure you’re registered to vote. We wouldn’t want you to get to the polls on November 8th and find out that you’re not on the books. To confirm your voter registration status, check out this handy tool on the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s site.

Today is the very last day to register in Massachusetts to be eligible to vote on November 8th. That said, here’s the online form. Alternatively, if you don’t have a Massachusetts driver’s license, learner’s permit, or RMV non-driver ID, head on over to your City or Town Hall this afternoon.

Once you’re all set, check with your family members, friends, colleagues, and other people in your life to make sure they’ve registered, too. If they’ve changed addresses recently, have them look up their voter registration status.

Exercise your civic duty by assisting others with theirs.

Ballot Question Forum

Next, there will be 4 ballot questions this November in Massachusetts. You can read the full ballot question text here. Briefly, here are the topics:

  1. Expanded Slot-Machine Gaming
  2. Charter School Expansion
  3. Conditions for Farm Animals
  4. Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana

Do some research ahead of time so you can make informed decisions on November 8th. One way to get informed is by attending the League of Women Voters’ Ballot Forum tonight! Here are the details:

Speaker Mary Ann Ashton, Voter Service Chair of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, will present both sides of the ballot questions with an open discussion. The event is free and open to all.

Where: Hunneman Hall, Brookline Library, 361 Washington Street, Brookline

When: October 19, 2016, Refreshments at 6 pm, Program at 6:30 pm

We’ll conclude with plenty of time for you to get ready for the debate tonight.

Final Presidential Debate

Lastly, tonight is the final presidential debate. Coverage starts at 8:30PM and the debate kicks off at 9:00PM. If you don’t have cable, there are plenty of ways to watch it online.

The League of Women Voters has a debate watching kit to help us get the most out of our debate-watching experience.

Furthermore, the NPR Politics Podcast team will be live tweeting their fact checking throughout the debate. They’ll also release a new podcast afterwards with debate analysis. I find their podcasts extremely informative and easy to listen to. I highly recommend you subscribe, because they’ll be releasing podcasts every day for the whole week leading up to the election.

Have a wonderful, civics-filled Wednesday!

A Day at the Polls

Simply Civics Election Worker

What’s even better than exercising my civic duty? Helping others to exercise theirs.

On Thursday, September 8th, I beat the sunrise and drove to the fire station in South Brookline. I spent the full state primary day there, from 6:00AM-8:40PM (with an hour lunch break), learning the ropes of election administration.

I loved every minute of it, from taping the sample ballots to the walls in the morning, to tallying up the completed ballots in the evening. In order to learn every aspect of the role, I alternated between the check-in and check-out tables, looking up voters’ addresses in the books, handing them their ballots, and passing out “I Voted” stickers.

Turning Out

Several times, the warden, clerk, and other election workers told me that the primary was nothing like the November Election Day. They referred to a drastic difference in voter turnout between the two days. I believed them, that the primary day would be slower. To be certain, I’m bracing myself for the never-ending line of voters checking in on November 8th.

Yet the people I met all day on September 8th proved to me that every election matters. Sure, the voter turnout was low. But precinct 15 was energized.

I met people who set aside their many work and family responsibilities to participate in the primary process. Some voters swung by on their way to work, and I bet they had set their alarms a little early just for the occasion. I met people who were just walking by throughout the day and popped in to vote.

Several voters came to vote on the ballot initiatives. The ballot initiatives will be on the November ballot. They voted anyway. (FYI, you can read up on the ballot initiatives here.)

Perhaps my favorite part was meeting parents who seized an opportunity for a civics lesson and opted to bring their kids to the polls.

Also, even though there weren’t any contested races for a couple parties, I spoke with residents who wanted to vote anyway. More than once, a voter took the ballot from my hands and told me, “I never miss a chance to vote.”

My Fellow Election Workers

During the lulls, when few people walked through the fire station doors, I listened to my fellow election workers with awe. It’s amazing how sitting in a polling place can inspire such fascinating conversations among strangers. Now we’re friends. We talked about our neighborhoods, the towns we grew up in, our school system, our working experiences, our families, our favorite past-times, and even our values. You all know how I feel about civic conversations.

Don’t worry, though. We didn’t discuss the candidates.

To my fellow election workers: Thank you for making my first election working experience so enlightening! I can’t wait to see you all again on November 8th.

Ballot Security

At 8PM, our clerk walked to the middle of the voting place and he closed the polls. I thought we were almost done. I was very, very wrong. Actually, that’s when a lot of the work started. We matched up the check-in list with the check-out list, and compared those to the ballot box print-out receipt of tallied votes. We crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s, carefully accounting for every vote and sealing up the envelopes.

While some people claim that ballot fraud exists, I find that very hard to believe, especially after participating in this process. No one could possibly “stuff” a ballot box. In fact, our warden and clerk approached ballot security incredibly seriously. We double- and triple-checked every tally. We followed each protocol by the letter. If that’s not enough, a police officer stood by as we opened and transported the ballots.

As a result, we stayed awhile that night, until absolutely everything was done. I can’t imagine how late we’ll stay on November 8th! It’ll be worth it.

Counting Down the Days

Surprisingly, November 8th is already right around the corner. However, it’s not too late to sign up as an election worker! If you can swing it, I highly recommend it. Just to note, the Town of Brookline compensates election workers for participating in the training and working at the polls. So that’s nice! More importantly, election administration is a great way to serve your community. To learn more or sign up, contact your Town or City Clerk’s office. Here’s the contact information for Brookline.

Precinct 15 of Brookline, see you again soon!

How I Spend My Wednesday Evenings

There are two main reasons why I love living in this “college town”:

  1. I get to tailgate and cheer on the BC Football team each fall (Go eagles!); and
  2. There are tons of free lectures, events, and opportunities for intellectual growth.

This past Wednesday evening, my roommate, Brooke, and I ventured to our first class at Northeastern University. We found our way to West Village F, descended the stairs into the lecture hall, and pulled out our notebooks. I felt a deep nostalgia for that “first day of school” energy. The thing is, we’re not actually matriculated in a program at Northeastern.

The Choice: Election 2016

Each semester, Northeastern University hosts the Myra Kraft Open Classroom Series. It’s free and open to the public, and was established in memory of Myra Kraft. The course this semester is titled “The Choice: Election 2016.” It’s held on Wednesday evenings from 6:00PM-8:00PM in West Village F, Room 20. It started last Wednesday, September 7, and runs through December 7. Even if you missed the first class, you can still come!

The lead faculty is really what sold me on the class. Once I heard it, I thought, “YES! This is exactly how I want to spend my Wednesday evenings.” Here it is:

  • The Honorable Michael Dukakis, distinguished professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, former Governor of Massachusetts, 1988 Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and Brookline resident (For more info about Governor Dukakis, check out my recent post about the health policy forum in Brookline)
  • Christopher Bosso, professor of public policy and director of the Master of Public Policy at Northeastern University

Each week, there’s a panel of professors speaking on a different topic. The first hour of the first class was lecture. The second hour had a Q&A format.

What are the Choices?

As Professor Bosso explained last week,  the class is meant to be an exploration of the upcoming election. He introduced the course with a few guiding questions:

  • Where are we?
  • How did we get here?
  • What are the choices?
  • How do we look at the choices?

Clearly, this election season has been….different. Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking what it all means and what my role is in promoting a healthy democracy. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I hope this class will provide an academic framework to think productively, rather than emotionally, about the political reality today. Through this class, we’ll get to hear from experts in the field, and we’ll all unpack it together.

Up until November 8th, the class will focus on the election, candidates, and issues. After November 8th, we’ll study President Obama’s legacy.

Paths to the Nomination

Each week, there will be a panel of experts. Last Wednesday, we heard from Dr. Rachael Cobb, Associate Professor and Chair of the Suffolk University Department of Government, Dr. William Mayer, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, and Governor Dukakis.

First, Dr. Cobb taught us about the Democratic Party’s nomination process and how Hillary Clinton was nominated. Next, Dr. Mayer spoke about the Republican Party’s nomination process and how Donald Trump was nominated. Lastly, Governor Dukakis offered some reflections and observations about the nomination processes and why he thinks Americans overall are unhappy.

Among other topics, we learned about: the history of primaries in the U.S., the value of endorsements, the “invisible primary” (prior to the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary), the history of business people in politics, the consequences of unpopular party leadership, celebrities in politics, bias in press coverage, and candidate field size. Professor Cobb showed us some endorsement data from fivethirtyeight.com and Professor Mayer passed around a handout about, “Who Voted for Whom in the 2016 Republican Primaries.”

The Q&A session was interesting, too. Northeastern students and members of the broader public posed very insightful questions about third party candidates, political rhetoric, and unsuccessful candidates. It’s uplifting to witness other people, particularly young students, caring so much about the political process.

The Semester Ahead

As I’m writing this, I’m getting excited for class #2 tonight: The Economy, Jobs, and Opportunity. I wonder if political scientists are thinking differently about the economy than they were when I was in college a couple years ago. Next week will be about globalization and the age of migration. For a complete schedule and to read more about the topics and professors, check out this page.

I know that not all of my wonderful readers live in Brookline or Boston and can attend this lecture series. But, other colleges have classes that are open to the public as well. Visit your closest university’s course listing or calendar. There may be open lectures about the election. Moreover, there are a plethora of online free courses, through platforms like EdX. For one, Harvard has some free online classes about the election, which you can find here. If you find any good classes near you, let me know so I can share them with other readers.

This class seems very promising. I may be out of college, but I still get to spend my Wednesday evenings in class and my Saturdays watching football. Not too bad!

Simply Civics Ballot

What You Might Not Know About Ballots

I was eating dinner with my parents and one of my sisters, Alley, a couple weeks ago. Not surprisingly, our conversation shifted to the upcoming election.

My mom asked me about what determines ballot order. I didn’t have a clue.

Are candidates listed alphabetically, by candidate name or party? Is it random? What impact, if any, does the ballot order have on the election outcome?

Embrace your Individuality

As it turns out, it actually varies a lot state by state. In my Political Science classes at Boston College, I learned that in our system of federalism, oftentimes we see a plurality of policies at the state level. States get creative in how they approach various policy issues, such as school systems, tax structures, etc. On Election Day, too, states like to show off their own individuality.

Since the federal government doesn’t dictate how states organize election ballots, we see a plurality of ballot laws across the country. The University of Virginia Center for Politics released a super handy list in 2009. It’s fascinating to see the states’ different approaches to handling ballot order.

Lotteries & Incumbent Advantage

A lot of states seem to place value on the outcomes of previous elections. In Massachusetts, the incumbent is listed first, followed by the other candidates in alphabetical order by last name. Some states, like Connecticut, base the order on previous election results. For example, if the Democrats won the previous election, their candidate will appear first. Interesting, right? So in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, whichever party had the most success in the previous election will appear first.  The underdog is indeed the underdog.

Some states take a similar approach, with their own variations. For example, in Wisconsin, the party that won the most votes in the previous gubernatorial election will be listed first. Whereas, in West Virginia, the party that won the most votes in the last presidential election will be listed first.

In Maryland, the party with the most registered voters is listed first.

Some states leave it up to the official printing the ballots (Illinois) or the State Election Commission (South Carolina) to decide.

Still other states, like Virginia and Washington, have lotteries to determine party order. This sounds both exciting and stressful.

Unclear Bias

Thanks to Political Science academics, there are a ton of studies out there about ballot order.

As it turns out, the candidates listed first may have an advantage. Surprise, surprise! Larry Sabato, the Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, calls this phenomenon the “first-listing bias.” Voters who are still on the fence might pick the candidate listed first. However, he says the bias produces fewer additional votes for offices at the top of the ballot, such as president or governor, than towards the bottom. The more highly visible the office, the less likely the order of the candidates matters. For more of Larry Sabato’s insights, check out his article, Who’s on First.

Things Aren’t Random

Academics have brainstormed solutions to this dilemma, too. In First Among Equals, Yuval Salant, assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and Marc Meredith, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania propose one solution. If we could somehow randomize ballots, we might be able to improve the fairness of elections. For example, on Election Day, I might see one candidate listed first, and you might see the other candidate listed first. That could be cool….but extremely costly. Towns, cities, and states already spend a ton on each election, without randomizing ballots. Would the benefits outweigh the costs? It seems like for now, officials have decided it doesn’t.

When The Ballot’s In Your Hands

So, the jury is still out on ballot order. There is some evidence to suggest that ballot order matters. Each state has used its own approach to remedy the issue, but no state is perfect.

As always, the best solution is voter education. Make sure you do some research on the candidates before you get to the polls. That way, you’ll vote for the candidate you most identify with, regardless of where they appear on the ballot.