Friday, January 14, 2011

In the hot-seat

It turns out that naming names and calling out legislators gets their attention sometimes!

Instead of just reading my three-minutes worth of prepared testimony in support of Senate Bill 5021, I ended up fielding some very interesting questions - and stimulating some great discussion - among the Republicans on the committee. It wasn't all-out hardball, but it wasn't little-league either.

The need for campaign finance disclosure

You can read my guest opinion piece in the Seattle Times, or watch my testimony before the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee.

Counting the chickens before they've hatched

When it comes to learning the final results of an election, many political geeks get as anxious as children on Christmas morning - they log on to the Secretary of State's website or King County Elections long before the polls close on election night in anticipation, and begin hitting the "refresh" button on their browser repeatedly at 8:00:01 pm until the see numbers on their screen.

What happens when they see results? They wait just as eagerly for the updates - a process that sometimes drags out for days.

Would it be nice to have the results sooner?

Yes - absolutely: Not because it would satisfy the impatience of political junkies, but to bring a bit more public confidence to our political process system. Public perception matters, and it's hard for the public to have faith in a process that leaves itself open to conspiracy theories about delays being due to ballot-box stuffing when the real issue is one of basic logistics.

One idea begin proposed in Olympia is Senate Bill 5015, which would allow the early tabulation of ballots - that is actually counting the votes - as early as 36 hours before an election is actually over.

Since all but one of Washington's 49 counties is all vote-by-mail, elections offices all over the state are sitting on millions of ballots - why not get a head-start on a time-consuming process?

Here's what I told the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee yesterday during the three minutes that were allowed under their rules:

Yes, I have a vivid imagination.

But I've also been around enough political campaigns and watched enough elections to know how things work in the real world. Political strategists are very creative in finding and exploiting every advantage they can to benefit their candidate or cause.

Whatever your politics - do you trust the other side to not do something exactly as I described?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Voting in Kyrgyzstan - like choosing a flavor at Baskin-Robins

Kyrgyzstan, like most of the former Soviet republics (and most nations, for that matter) doesn't do politics like America does.

With a multi-party political system that determines who will server in a parliamentary government, voting in Kyrgyzstan in like picking a flavor at Baskin-Robins: 57 political parties registered to participate in the election, and 29 managed to submit a list of candidates by the August 30 deadline.

In Kyrgyzstan, elections are conducted using a proportional representation system - you vote for a political party instead of a candidate, and the parties get to send representatives to Parliament based on how many votes the party got in the election.

Well, it's almost that simple...

Before a party gets to send members to Parliament, they have to meet a five percent threshold. That is, only parties that get at lease five percent of the vote (actually votes => 5% of the number of registered voters, regardless of how many people actually voted) get representation in Parliament.

Let's say there are 100 voters. A party only gets to send members to parliament if they get at least 5 votes; and that's tough to do with 29 parties on ballot...

Those parties that do get over five percent are then allocated seats in the 120 seat Parliament in proportion to how well they did (compared only to the other parties that broke the five percent threshold).

Let's say that in an election with 100 voters, only four of the 29 parties broke the five-percent threshold:

Party A got 5 votes
Party B got 6 votes
Party C got 8 votes
Party D got 11 votes

Among these parties, the allocation of the 120 seats in Parliament would be:

Party A gets 20 seats
Party B gets 24 seats
Party C gets 32 seats
Party D gets 44 seats

Of course, neither party has more than half (60) of the 120 seats, so at least two parties need to team-up to form a ruling coalition. In this case, there are four possible ways to form a majority: A+D, B+D, C+D, or A+B+C.

In the October 10 election, five parties broke the threshold - and none of them got enough votes to claim more than half of the seats in Parliament, so there's no "ruling party" to control things.

In fact, no two parties combined got enough votes to give them more then 50 percent of the seats in Parliament - so at least three of the winning five parties will have to form a coalition to make things work.

It make for a system of government that's much more dynamic than the American two-party system - though they do have the same post-election arguments that we do.

One party got 4.84 percent - just barely missing out on getting representation in Parliament.

As in America, they complained.

But unlike here, the five parties who "won" the election agreed to a recount!

Like I said - they don't do elections like we do...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign...

29 political parties competed for the 120 seats in the Kyrgyz Parliament during their election on October 10, 2010. Of them, a significant number ran aggressive and viable campaigns - just look at the variety of billboards and posters on display around Bishkek.

Everywhere in Bishkek, and in many of the rural towns and villages I traveled through, there were posters urging people to vote for the "Social-Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan" or parties with names like "Fatherland," Motherland," "White Falcon," "United Kyrgyzstan," "Dignity," "Justice," "Generous People," and the "United People's Movement."

Most of the political campaigns act as vehicles for personality politics more than as instruments for public policy formation (sound familiar?) and many of the parties tend to focus on a single figure, or perhaps a small group of prominent party members. In many cases, loyalties are formed and maintained based on clan membership or business interests rather than "party politics." Many parties tend to have regional support bases, stronger in one part of the country or another just like American "red state/blue state" politics.

In some ways, political campaigning in Kyrgyzstan isn't too different than in America - people tend to vote the same way their family and closest friends vote, and the it's somewhat easy to predict which parties will do better in different regions or cities.

What's most different is the ballot - in Kyrgyzstan, the ballot has a list of political parties instead of candidates.

An even bigger difference is how the votes are tallied, and the "winners" determined - more on that later.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Home Again

Just a brief post to let everyone know that I'm back in Seattle after a great election observation mission in Kyrgyzstan.

Over the next few days, I hope to finally be able to post a few comments and photos through which I can share my experiences.

Counting the votes on election night in Karakoo, Kyrgyzstan

Monday, September 27, 2010

There's no tension like ethnic tension

Weeks after political tensions resulted in the president fleeing the country and the opposition party taking power, things got even worse.

By late spring 2010, longstanding ethnic tensions between minority Uzbeks and majority Kyrgyz begin rising, and finally boiled over in the nations second largest city of Osh. On June 9-10 gunfire was reported and a state of emergency was declared, resulting in the deployment of military units to restore law and order.

Many sources, including the UN, have claimed the riots were orchestrated from outside forces, with multiple reports of organized groups of gunmen in ski masks shooting both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz to ignite the riots.

Although damage was widespread, it seems that Uzbek businesses, schools, and homes were systematically targeted. The United Nations has said it believes the attacks were "orchestrated, targeted and well-planned." Human Rights Watch has documented numerous examples of ethnic Uzbeks being the target of detention and torture.

Thousands of people were killed, several thousands more wounded, and tens of thousands of people are now displaced refugees.

Osh is now a city of two divided communities, with suspicion and mistrust between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

The PBS Newshour put together an excellent slide show - Turmoil in Kyrgyzstan - that I highly recommend.

There's a pretty good chance that I'll be working in Osh to observe voting there in the upcoming election - and I'm curious to see firsthand if the tragic events of last spring have an impact on the democratic process there.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Perfectly "safe"

Personal safety is one of the first things that friends ask me about when I tell them I'm going to observe an election in some far-flung country they've never heard of.

Fear not - there hasn't been a riot in Kyrgyzstan in months.

There was a bit of trouble last April, when demonstrations over rising energy prices, the sluggish economy, and the government's closure of several media outlets got a bit out of hand. Protesters took control of some government offices and clashes between protesters and police in the capital turned violent - resulting in nearly 100 lives lost and about 1,000 people seriously injured.

The president fled the capitol in a private jet with his family; opposition leaders formed a new interim government.

A week later, supporters of the president turned out for a rally to demand his return to power; gunshots from unknown sources dampened their mood, and the president fled the country and resigned.

Things were fine - for about two months.

More on that later...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Continuing Adventure...

After recent international adventures with Lisa to Argentina and Italy, it's time for something a little different...

I've once again been offered the opportunity to volunteer with the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe as an international elections observer - this time in Kyrgyzstan!

Kyrgyzstan is a small, mountainous, landlocked central-Asian nation - bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest, and China to the east.

Yes, I know that doesn't help most of you - so here's a map to put it into perspective:

Kyrgyzstan is the tiny yellow country
(it isn't really yellow...)
in the upper right

I'm tentatively scheduled to leave Seattle on October 3, arriving in Bishkek, the capitol of Kyrgyzstan, after a series of flights more than half-way around the world (It would be shorter to fly westward through China, but all OSCE missions rendezvous in Europe en route).

I'll be in Bishkek for a couple of days of briefings on Kyrgyz election law and election observation procedures, and then deploy with a team for a few days somewhere out in the hinterlands to actually observe what will by Kyrgyzstan's first parliamentary election since adopting a new constitution last spring.

After observing the election and filling out reports, we'll return to Bishkek for debriefing and a post-election reception before flying home. I should be getting back to Seattle around October 15.

Two glorious weeks of...

Well, not so glorious. It's plenty of hard work.

On election day we'll be traveling over rough terrain from one village to another to watch people vote, and then staying up all night long to watch election officials tabulate the results - by hand.

Did I mention I'll be doing all of this on a 13-hour jet-lag, after sitting on planes for about 15 hours?

Still, it's extremely rewarding - I can't wait to eat some "besh barmak," drink some "kymyz," and play an invigorating game of "Buzkashi!"

Much more to follow!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

I took my girlfriend to a Roman brothel...

Since it's discovery nearly 250 years ago, archeologists, historians and tourists alike have been fascinated with one site in Pompeii more than any other - the Lupinar.

Translating to "den of she-wolves," the Lupinar is purported to be the world's oldest surviving brothel - and is the most often visited site in Pompeii.

As popular as ever...

When originally excavated, many places in Pompeii were thought to be brothels due to the erotic frescoes painted on their walls. Later research concluded that these were simply the homes of people who appreciated erotic art, which was greatly appreciated in the ancient Roman Empire.

The Lupinar, however, held several tell-tale signs of being a "professional establishment." The building has far more bedrooms than would be expected for a structure of its size, and along with the frescoes were graffiti left by satisfied customers.

I've slept on rock-hard mattresses before, but never one where the pillow was actually chiseled from stone

Fresco over a bedroom doorway showing the "services offered"

Not much explanation needed here...

Nor here...

Friday, June 25, 2010

This Place is a Mess - It's in Ruins!

Lisa and I took a day trip to someplace that I've always wanted to visit, and which we both found completely fascinating - the ancient ruins of the city of Pompeii.

Buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24 in the year 79 AD, the ruins of Pompeii were long forgotten. It wasn't rediscovered until 1748, with many structures and building eventually being excavated to reveal a city frozen in time.

It has been a popular tourist destination for 250 years, attracting as many as 2.6 million visitors a year from all around the world - although the Lisa and I had no trouble at all getting and and wandering around during our visit.

The central forum of Pompeii
with the remnants of Mount Vesuvius in the background

Many details of everyday life for citizens of Pompeii can be appreciated by exploring the ruins of bakeries, fast-food emporiums, and ordinary homes.

An ancient Roman bakery - the stone mill for grinding grain into flour is in the foreground, with a brick hearth for baking bread in the background

An "fast-food" joint - the holes in the counter held pots of food,
warmed by fires underneath

Among the ruins of Pompeii are some of the victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. They died an excruciating death, inhaling hot gases and ash, and eventually buried under the fallout of pumice along with the entire city.

By the time Pompeii was eventually rediscovered, all but their bones had rotted away - leaving voids in the hardened volcanic ash that echoed when engineers walked over them. Holes were drilled into them, and the empty spaces were filled with plaster - preserving the gruesome postures of the dead.

A display case containing a victim of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius

The death pose

Bits of bone show through the plaster cast of a former citizen of Pompeii

Next up?

A visit to the most popular place in Pompeii...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Off with their Heads: a tour of the Vatican Museum

Although I'm not a big fan of religion I do have an insatiable curiosity of art and culture, so a visit to Rome wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Vatican Museum.

The first word that describes the experience is “overwhelming.” Seven hours of non-stop art covering everything from ancient Egyptian artifacts, Greek and Roman sculpture, Renaissance tapestries and maps, ending with the religious works commissioned by various popes and cumulating with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Of course, that’s just about the only liberal policy the Vatican has – even when it comes to classical art, they’re prudishly conservative in their attitude towards displaying artistic expressions of one of the most glorious things in nature, the human form.

Fig leaves abound, and not just in paintings of Adam & Eve. While the rest of Europe was enjoying the Renaissance and Enlightenment, a series of popes decided that certain parts of the human anatomy were obscene and directed hundreds of sculptured crotches to be covered with fig leaves.

This isn't Adam... so what's with the fig leaf?

In some cases they even went so far as to have the offending anatomical features chiseled away – off with their heads!

That had to hurt!

I wanted to talk to the Pope about this but I don't think he was home - I didn't see his car in the Vatican parking lot.

No Pope-mobile... he must be on tour.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Eternal City

Photos just don’t do some things justice, including the ruins of ancient Rome.

The Colosseum – so called not because of its size but because of the colossal statue of Nero that once stood nearby – is so enormous in scope that it can only be taken in by your own eyes.

According to legend, the nearby Palatine Hill is where the city was born. The centermost of the seven hills of Rome, it’s where the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf that kept them alive. They grew up to slay their great-uncle, who had seized the throne from their father, and eventually Romulus killed Remus in a violent argument. The city that rose up bares his name.

Remnants of an aqueduct on Palatine Hill

In fact, Rome sprang from settlements of the Sabines and the Albans on the Palatine about 1,000 BC, and by the time of the Roman Republic the Palatine was the home of many of Rome’s most distinguished citizens.

Nearby is the Roman Forum, where many of the most important structures of the ancient city were located and around which the ancient Roman civilization developed. The Senate, government offices, Tribunals, religious monuments, memorials and statues cluttered the area – along with the complex where the Vestal Virgins resided and performed their duties.

The Forum

All of these structures have, over time, been damaged by earthquakes, looting and scavenging for stone and marble for other uses. The Pantheon, however, still stands much as it did in ancient times thanks to its adoption and continued use by successive religions.

The Pantheon was originally built and dedicated by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC on what was then the outskirts of Rome on the Campus Martius, which served as a gathering place for elections and the army. Rebuilt twice after fires devastated the area in 80 AD and 110 AD, the Pantheon eventually passed to the popes who converted it to a Christian church, which saved it from the abandonment, destruction, and the worst of the spoliation that befell the majority of ancient Rome's buildings during the early medieval period.

The Pantheon

After thousands of years, the Pantheon still holds the record for the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome, and has served as an architectural inspiration for St. Peter's Basilica to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to the U.S. Capitol.

While most tourists do a hit-and-run visit to the Colosseum – getting their picture taken with a gladiator before running off to have pizza for lunch – and don’t bother with the rest, Lisa and I spent an entire day taking it all in and roaming the paths where Augustus, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian once strolled.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


As we planned our trip Lisa and I realized that we had an extra night between our departure from Tuscany and our arrival in Rome - and agreed that it was my responsibility to surprise her with a special destination.

Italy is known for it great red wines, but there is one white wine that we've always enjoyed, and since the town where it's made is in Umbria - right along our route to the Eternal City - I decided that it was the perfect place for a layover.

Orvieto is a town rich in history: its position high on a steep hill made it a defensible position that was valued as far back as the Etruscan era, and it continued to be a place of strategic significance through Roman times and the Middle Ages, eventually becoming the refuge of five popes during the 13th century.

Being high on a hill is only one of the benefits of Orvieto's location - the other is the kind of hill it's on, composed of a soft volcanic rock called tuff that is easy to tunnel through and excavate.

The result is that the town sits atop a complex labyrinth of caves and tunnels that have served a variety of purposes for centuries.

Lisa descending into Underground Orvieto

Our tour group inside one of Orvieto's many underground galleries

Niches carved into the walls were nesting spots for domesticated pigeons, which were a source of meat, eggs, and income for Orvieto's noble families until as recently as the 19th Century.

Many of the chambers beneath Orvieto descended through several levels beneath the homes of their former owners, and had openings through the cliffside through which the pigeons had access to the surrounding countryside.

An ancient well dug hundreds of feet below the surface - many of these were long forgotten, and only discovered generations later when the digging of new tunnels bisected them.

Of course, history wasn't my only reason for choosing Orvieto as a place to spend some down time...

Lisa and I enjoyed wandering the narrow cobbled streets of the ancient little hill-top town, and sampling the great local food and wine - more on that later!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Getting Around - Italian Style

Enough of the food and wine - here are some travel-related images from our trip...


The Cable-Car up to Orvieto

The Metro in Rome

Instructions for using the Metro in Rome


Giro d' Italia, the bicycle racing's grand tour of Italy, promoted in the window of the finest restaurant in Montalcino

A "Critical Mass" bicycle protest poster, outside a Metro station in Rome

Some serious "bikes" hanging from the wall of the Cafe Ducati in Rome


The Appian Way, south of Rome

"Propaganda Way" in Rome