Category Archives: Politics

The national story behind the 2020 Washtenaw County prosecutor’s election

To fully understand the 2020 election for Washtenaw County Prosecutor, it must be seen in the national context, where a split over how to improve the criminal justice system is playing out in prosecutorial elections in counties all across America. Ours is just one of those.

In the last few years, activists across America have sought to elect progressive district attorneys who come from outside the system and openly pledge to disrupt it. The highest-profile case is that of Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, who compared his 2017 election as district attorney to “the pirates taking control of the ship.”

Here’s his response after already assuming the role of Philadelphia’s district attorney – as to what the role of prosecutors has been in the disaster that is the criminal justice system in America:

WATKINS (Interviewer) : Prior to this you were a lifelong defense attorney and something of an antagonist of the system. You had a front-row seat to what you’ve called in a couple places, “the slow- motion car crash of the criminal justice system.” What role do you think prosecutors played in this car crash, one I suppose we now call mass incarceration?

KRASNER: I would say that they built the car, maintained it poorly, tuned it incorrectly, and deliberately drove it into the wall at the highest speed possible while intoxicated. I would say they played a pretty big role in causing a slow-motion car crash and they did it in their capacity as prosecutors working in the office. But also very often, they then went on into politics where they had sway over legislation or where they had discretion as elected officials to do things in positions other than chief prosecutor, and frankly, continued to do bad things.

Continue reading The national story behind the 2020 Washtenaw County prosecutor’s election

It’s time to hit pause on proposed I-94 Operational Improvements

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is considering possible improvements to I-94, south of Ann Arbor. The timing is lucky: they were still in the study phase when the impact of COVID-19 emerged and there’s time to hit the pause button. For fiscal and environmental reasons, and to meet its stated goals, the state should indefinitely halt any investments in this stretch of highway.

Background

This project would add capacity to the stretch between Ann Arbor-Saline Road and US-23 pictured here:

Source: MDOT

MDOT’s objectives for this stretch include accommodating an increased volume of traffic. They seek to “reduce recurring peak period congestion along the corridor and improve travel time reliability” as well as “provide reasonable capacity to address existing and 20-year forecasted 2045 traffic demand along the corridor.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the case for spending millions to improve traffic flow on this stretch. We can no longer afford this project, but luckily, we also no longer need it.

Continue reading It’s time to hit pause on proposed I-94 Operational Improvements

The Factions of Ann Arbor City Politics and Why They’re A Problem

One might look at the makeup of Ann Arbor’s city council, or candidates running for a ward seat, and think that the partisan battle has been decided: they’re all Democrats.  But under the Democratic label, there are two dominant, warring factions in Ann Arbor politics.  Together they occupy a share of local power and attention similar to that held by Democrats & Republicans on the national scale.  That is to say, nearly all of it: votes, endorsements, donations, who runs for office, and which resolutions even come to the table.  The last non-factional candidate to hold office, Sabra Briere, stepped down in 2016.

This dynamic is the driving force in all aspects of city politics.  It’s invisible to those who aren’t active observers, yet it’s impossible to cast an informed vote without this knowledge. If you’re choosing which candidate to vote for, knowing which faction they align with tells you more about how they will caucus and vote than what’s on their website.

It’s trickier to explain than the well-understood labels of Democrats vs. Republicans, though.  Other articles have acknowledged the factions, but not in a way that is both comprehensive and seeks to be objective.  Here I attempt to describe this dynamic and its consequences.

The Main Takeaways:

  1. Ann Arbor politics are dominated by two camps, the Protectors and the Strivers.
  2. Factional alignment is the best indicator of how an elected official will caucus and vote, more so than what’s stated on their website.
  3. This dynamic is toxic and impedes good governance.
Continue reading The Factions of Ann Arbor City Politics and Why They’re A Problem

I voted today, early and without cause

Today’s the New Hampshire presidential primary. That got me thinking it would be a good day to vote in Michigan’s presidential primary, even though it’s not for another month.

In 2018, Michigan voters approved Prop 3, allowing for no-cause absentee voting. Previously, you could only request an absentee ballot if you met certain specific conditions: you’d be out of town, you were over 60 years old, you were in jail awaiting arraignment or trial, etc. Now, in a win for voting access, anyone can request an absentee ballot without stating a reason.

So today I celebrated my birthday by walking over to the city clerk’s office, obtaining an absentee ballot, voting, and submitting it. I avoid any lines on Election Day (March 10th) and can rest assured that my vote is cast. I don’t have to worry about the potential for an unexpected emergency or rush at work. And candidate campaigns can see in their data systems that I’ve already voted, leaving me in peace as they focus their resources elsewhere. (Who has requested, and returned, their absentee ballots is a matter of public record).

Happy Birthday to Me

This isn’t as good as official early voting, like what Illinois has. And it’s not as good as official voting by mail, like Oregon has. But it can be those things in practice if you take advantage of it. Here’s to winning expanded ballot access – and using it!

Imagine a world without oil and gas

It’s stuck with me since I saw it in the Myrtle Beach airport in July. A young man wore a drawstring backpack printed with the slogan “imagine a world without oil and gas.” Under that it said, “IOGA WV”.

I first read this phrase the way I would if I had uttered it: as an aspirational call to imagine a world without oil and gas. Something like AOC’s “Message from the Future” or the Transition Handbook, whose featured blurb notes that “most of us avoid thinking about what happens when oil runs out (or becomes prohibitively expensive)” [more on this later].

When a search for “IOGA WV” revealed it to be the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, I realized the phrase was meant differently. There aren’t many hits when you Google that sentence, but they mostly come from oil & gas interests. The phrase on the backpack is meant not as a serious call but as a statement of ridicule: life is unimaginable without oil and gas.

The phrase captured my imagination, in part because I’m amused by its Janus word nature: its two meanings are opposites. But also because in the way I first read it, it’s a succinct, elegant clarion call to dream as we must. In the effort to move beyond fossil fuels and preserve a habitable planet, it’s likely that our imagination, not technology, will be the limiting factor.

Continue reading Imagine a world without oil and gas

Open letter to Ann Arbor city council ahead of climate funding vote

Tonight, March 4th 2019, Ann Arbor City Council will be discussing a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Jane Lumm to divert funding away from fighting climate change.  The city had planned to use almost $1 million/year to fund its Climate Action Plan.

Here’s what I wrote to my council members (Ali Ramlawi and Chip Smith) as well as Mayor Taylor and the rest of council.

————–

Dear Ali, Chip, and other councilmembers –

I hope this finds you well.

I’ll be candid with you: some days, I’m terrified of climate change. In the abstract, I’m worried about the most vulnerable, say, the many millions in Bangladesh who will flee their homes by 2050 as the seas rise. But what terrifies me, what I think about when I pace with my youngest son in the middle of the night, is what could happen here in Ann Arbor, to my family.

Science is clear: if we don’t make radical changes, at all levels, climate change will destabilize the planet. Ann Arbor may be one of the last places to be affected, but in a worst-case scenario, a collapse of global civilization would spare no one. What happens if food and goods stop arriving? If power goes down, if medical supplies are gone, if we descend into dystopia? Our society is too complex to be unwound back to pre-industrial times.

But I try not to dwell on that possibility. Both because it’s unproductive – even paralyzing – and because that dystopian future isn’t written yet.

On my more optimistic days, I feel lucky to be alive now, at the time of reckoning. We are privileged to be the ones at the wheel as the bus hurtles toward the cliff. And a low-carbon world doesn’t mean austerity – it could be even more beautiful than what we have now, if we get their on our own terms.

To take the path toward paradise, or even survival, we must act on all levels. We must cut carbon emissions in half by 2030*. Of course, federal and state governments must lead on massive tasks like the switch to renewable energy, and individual actions will add up. But cities play a critical role, too. You are best positioned to lead us toward fulfilling the goals of our Climate Action Plan, and you can pull on levers like housing, zoning, construction code, parking, and more. Climate change touches, and is touched by, everything.

In the scale of what action is needed, tonight’s funding vote – 880k/year? – is just a tiny step. While I ask you to vote tonight to preserve the climate change funding, my real ask is that you dive into the fight for the survival of humanity, of other species, and of our families, in the months and years to come. It may be humanity’s most important decade as we turn the ship of civilization around toward the light. With our values, skills, and resources, Ann Arbor is one of the best-positioned communities in the world to lead the way.

If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to facing the climate crisis – or if you think I’m wrong, and immediate city-level action isn’t crucial to preserving humanity’s future – I’d love to meet for a cup of coffee to discuss. My kids are counting on you. Here’s to a thriving Ann Arbor, and Planet Earth, in 2100!

In hope,

Sam

* – In private: I’m not confident we’ll hit this 2030 target.  But we must try, as even if we miss, it matters how close we come.  As David Wallace-Wells writes to start this article, “It’s not too late.  In fact, it never will be … This a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop. Which means that no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.”

Ride Your Bike In Traffic and Live Longer

Summary: Your life expectancy is higher if you get in traffic on a bike instead of in a car.  Biking alongside cars might seem dangerous – and this misconception may deter potential cyclists or lead them to risky behavior like riding on the sidewalk – but the health benefits greatly exceed the dangers of crashes and other risks.

—–

Last week, The Ann (an Ann Arbor magazine) showcased a story by a local NPR station about bikes and cars co-existing on the road.  The Ann added their own more-provocative title: “Who owns the road: drivers or cyclists?”

Their framing succeeded in drumming up conflict-oriented comments from readers.  Reading the comments, I was struck by two things:

Continue reading Ride Your Bike In Traffic and Live Longer

Can a Twitter bot increase voter turnout?

Summary: in 2015 I created a Twitter bot, @AnnArborVotes (code on GitHub).  (2018 Sam says: after this project ceased I gave the Twitter handle to local civics hero Mary Morgan at A2CivCity).  I searched Twitter for 52,000 unique voter names, matching names from the Ann Arbor, MI voter rolls to Twitter accounts based nearby.  The bot then tweeted messages to a randomly-selected half of those 2,091 matched individuals, encouraging them to vote in a local primary election that is ordinarily very low-turnout.

I then examined who actually voted (a matter of public record).  There was no overall difference between the treatment and control groups. I observed a promising difference in the voting rate when looking only at active Twitter users, i.e., those who had tweeted in the month before I visited their profile. These active users only comprised 7% of my matched voters, however, and the difference in this small subgroup was not statistically significant (n = 150, voting rates of 23% vs 15%, p = 0.28).

I gave a talk summarizing the experiment at Nerd Nite Ann Arbor that is accessible to laypeople (it was at a bar and meant to be entertainment):

This video is hosted by the amazing Ann Arbor District Library – here is their page with multiple formats of this video and a summary of the talk.  Here are the slides from the talk (PDF), but they’ll make more sense with the video’s voiceover.

The full write-up:

I love the R programming language (#rstats) and wanted a side project.  I’d been curious about Twitter bots.  And I’m vexed by how low voter turnout is in local elections.  Thus, this experiment.
Continue reading Can a Twitter bot increase voter turnout?

Expertise vs. Emotion at Ann Arbor City Council

Removed from scientific context, vaccinating your kid sounds crazy.  Let’s stick a needle in their arm and put disease and chemicals into their body.  To prevent an illness nobody you know has ever gotten.  And on top of your kid crying, and your own lack of experience with the disease, you have neighbors whispering in your ear (or posting loudly on social media) how dangerous vaccines are.

Instead of putting it to a popular vote, though, or listening to the loudest voices on your Facebook feed, you listen to your child’s pediatrician (I hope) and bodies of experts like the AMA and CDC, who unanimously cite overwhelming evidence in favor of vaccinations.

For every decision, there are gut feelings and personal opinions about the issue, and then there are the scientific arguments – what does the evidence say?  Most often, these come from experts in the field, who have devoted years to mastering the topic.

Would #a2council vaccinate?

The greatest  conflicts in Ann Arbor politics are often driven by clashes between gut feelings (either voiced by citizens or held by CMs) and expert opinions.

Continue reading Expertise vs. Emotion at Ann Arbor City Council