June 4th, 2007

Teddy's favorite color, 'caging' and _The Wisdom of Crowds_

Teddy seems to have a favorite color. He preferentially carries around the yellow balls from the inflatable pool that came with 100 balls (4 colors, so this does not appear to be an accident). He also prefers to chew on the yellow train car (again, 4 colors to choose from).

There's been some discussion on a politics list I'm on about attempts to disenfranchise voters during the 2004 election. There was a poor summary of it. Others on the list dismissed the story, saying it seemed unlikely, because mail in the US gets forwarded to people serving overseas. Here's the real deal.

Conyers (yeah, that guy -- head of the House Judiciary Committee) produced a report in the wake of the 2004 election called _What Went Wrong in Ohio_, published by an academic press. I have not read it; I've read stuff that referred to it. This appears to be a major source in the story. Some people, possibly the Republican party, sent out _registered mail_ to targeted voters. They were trying to get voters who were homeless, posted overseas or otherwise Not At Their Registered Address for the few days after the letter arrived. The mail was marked DO NOT FORWARD. Registered mail cannot be given to anyone but the addressee (so grandma can't hold it for you until you pick it up). If it is marked DO NOT FORWARD, it will not be forwarded, even if you have moved (see USPS 503 4.1.2). The mailers which were not signed for (because the addressee did not want to sign for something from the Republican party, or who were not available at the time, possibly because they were posted overseas) bounced back and those addresses were challenged and may have then been struck from the voter rolls. The Secretary of State in Ohio, Blackwell, was either an active participant or at least willing to play along.

Needless to say, this particular practice (called 'caging') relies on a detailed understanding of some arcane aspects of the postal system. One of the more inventive explanations for why this was actually the victims fault on the mailing list I'm on was that they should not have been ignorant of or too lazy to (direct quote) use the USPS' premium forwarding service. It is not clear to me this would have had any impact on the behavior of registered mail marked DO NOT FORWARD. It is clear that that service was not available during the lead up to the 2004 election, because it was announced as new in August of 2005.


The Washington Post did a poor job of covering this problem around the time of the election. They did not supply enough details to understand how it worked, referring only to "undeliverable mail", which sounds a lot more innocent than this practice actually is.


There is a (disputed, may wind up deleted) article on wikipedia about the practice:


Greg Palast has been pursuing this online and in books vigorously, but it was also described in some detail in Mark Crispin Miller's book _Fooled Again_, which I will probably eventually finish reading.

Most relevantly, Conyers (remember him, head of the House Judiciary Committee, currently interviewing people like Monica Goodling) asked Goodling about caging, and names like Rove and Griffin have surfaced. In a twist that I would never, ever, ever dare invent in a novel, someone sent a whole bunch of e-mails to the BBC on the subject, e-mails that they claimed were lost and therefore NOT available to turn over to congress. (Well, not directly to the BBC. They mis-sent them to someone sympathetic to this stuff getting exposed to the light of day who passed them along to the BBC.) Some of the details can be found here:


The relevant bit is that Conyers' has asked for those e-mails from the BBC, and said that even tho Griffin resigned, they are not done with him yet. There some hope wafting around that if Conyers is willing to pursue this, Rove will go down with Griffin. Certainly Goodling has already testified that McNulty knew about this (and testified incorrectly when he said he did not).

Why should you care: here's the simple form of the accusation. Highly placed officials in the Bush administration (Rove?, Griffin, McNulty, Goodling, etc.) produced lists of predominantly black voters who were posted overseas, on vacation, homeless, students living elsewhere part of the year. They used these lists to send letters designed to bounce. Then they used those bounces to "prove" that those were not legitimately registered voters and disenfranchised them. Once again:

Bush administration officials (including some in Justice) systematically disenfranchised black voters serving overseas in highly contested districts during the 2004 election.

While Conyers knew voter disenfranchisement was happening (shortly after, and, probably, before the 2004 election), he did _NOT_ know who was involved. With all the rest of the scandals swirling, it's been hard for Palast to get heard (he's been talking this up since February when he received the e-mails). But he _has_ been heard. Finally. And now we have a chance of finding out if it's really true.

To present the other side of this (since it's entirely possible that Palast has taken this farther than it should be taken), here is a skeptical progressive's take on the e-mails that Palast has been talking up:


Oh yeah, I'm reasonably certain this is why we're being terrorized by the guvmint about that particularly stupid terror threat against the _diesel_ pipeline serving JFK. The timing is. . .precious.

I. got me three books for my birthday. The first that I read, _Poison Study_, I have already reviewed favorably. The second, _The Wisdom of Crowds_ by James Sorowicki (Sp?), I liked just as well. He's like Gladwell, but less glib and goes a bit further in-depth on each of his topics. His thesis is simple. Groups do a better job at just about everything (coming up with the right answer to an answerable question -- like how many marbles in a jar, or how much the cow weighs; coordinating the actions of numerous people; fairly distributing stuff; doing all of the above with imperfect information) than any individual, so long as certain basic requirements are met. The requirements themselves merit a good deal of discussion and most of the book is divided into three parts that dig into those three requirements (a method of aggregating the input, diversity in the group and independence amongst the voters) and what happens when they are not met (completely or incompletely). His discussion of the behavior of small groups in particular has given me furiously to think. I may post more later. But in the mean time, get thee right out and buy it. It's in paperback.

Or at least get it from the library and read it soon.