Saturday, September 19, 2015

Infrastructure Needs - Another Regional Reference

From time to time, I write something about failing infrastructure in the US.  Usually, I complain about how I seem to be living in a completely different country than the one some article is describing.  This week, The Atlantic ran a piece about the problem of combined storm and sanitary sewer systems.  Such systems are prone to overflows of raw sewage into nearby rivers and lakes when it rains hard.  One of the links in that article leads to the EPA map shown here, which identifies the largest of the 770 or so combined sewer systems in the US.

The American Society of Civil Engineers provides annual (very pessimistic) reports on the nation's infrastructure.  Regional cost estimates in their 2013 report reflect the distribution shown in the map: per-capita costs to fix the problems in the Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, and New England regions are much higher than other parts of the country.  Those regions plus portions of the Plains region are the only one where the cost of wet weather overflows is a significant part of future water system spending needs.

Correcting the overflows inherent in combined systems is expensive.  Washington, DC is about half-way through a 20-year $2.6B project to eliminate most of the three billion gallons of untreated sewage released into nearby rivers annually.  The project includes boring some 13 miles of 25-foot-wide tunnels at a depth of more than a hundred feet below the city.  Milwaukee has reduced its sewage releases into Lake Michigan by almost 80% by digging a longer, deeper tunnel -- at a cost of over $3B.  Somewhat over half of the cost of the Milwaukee system, which began construction in 1983, was in the form of federal grants.  The federal government has largely discontinued making grants for these purposes, making loans instead.  The EPA estimates that the total cost of upgrading the combined systems across the country to be about $90B; the ASCE estimates are significantly higher.

In many cases, local governments are not going to be able to afford the kinds of construction needed to fix the problems.  Detroit, poster child for the Rust Belt, is an example.  This Scientific American piece summarizes the situation -- bankruptcy, massive debt, shrinking population, and long-term climate predictions that include more frequent heavy-precipitation events.  There will be pressure to turn a local problem into a state one, and state problems into federal ones.  In the future, I believe, such spending will be an increasing source of friction between different regions of the country.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Voting Stuff

Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran a pair of pieces about voting in the United States.  This one talked about low voter turnout, and how various practices disproportionately increase that problem for the poor and minorities.  This one talked about the aging of voting machines in the US.  I was disappointed, because the word "mail" didn't appear even once in either article.  There's a revolution in voting practices happening in the American West, and it didn't even get a mention.

This graphic from the New York Times illustrates three levels of by-mail balloting.  The lightest shade indicates states where less than 5% of votes cast in 2010 were cast by mail; the middle shade states between 5% and 18%; the darkest shade states where greater than 18% of votes cast were cast by mail.  Those dividing points don't make it clear just how widely used vote-by-mail has become in the West.  Colorado, Oregon, and Washington mail a ballot to all registered voters; in all three, more than 90% of votes cast are cast by mail.  In 2014, more than 60% of all votes cast in Arizona were cast by mail.  That same year, more than 50% of all votes cast in California were cast by mail.

Once instituted, vote-by-mail has incredible bipartisan support from voters.  In a recent poll with the question "Should the state continue to use its vote-by-mail arrangement?", 80% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans answered yes.  Several California government officials seem to be actively pushing universal vote-by-mail as a way to lower the costs of conducting elections.  Both Arizona and California have direct ballot initiatives, so it seems likely that even without action by the state governments, vote-by-mail will become standard within a few years.  That will make vote-by-mail the norm in all of the "big five" western population states [1]; the smaller states seem likely to follow along.

Vote-by-mail directly addresses several of the issues raised on The Atlantic's piece on low voter turnout.  It specifically creates a sizable early voting window.  It fixes the problem of balancing work and other life concerns against taking time off to vote.  Whether it has increased turnout in the three states that have gone the farthest is an unanswered question [2], but it addresses problems that are claimed to contribute to low turnout.  Vote-by-mail also addresses the technology issues that were raised.  Scanners for hand-marked paper ballots are accurate and relatively cheap.  Additionally, the total number of machines of all types needed, and the related expenses, are greatly reduced.

One of the interesting phenomena I have seen with respect to vote-by-mail is geographic.  My friends who are opposed to the idea almost all grew up east of the Mississippi River, and seem to be terrified that vote-by-mail will lead to widespread voter fraud.  The western experience has been that such fraud is almost non-existant -- certainly no worse than the fraud experienced in states without heavy use of vote-by-mail.  There's probably a Ph.D. dissertation in there for some sociology or political science graduate student.

[1] As usual, I use "western" to mean the 11 contiguous states west of the Great Plains (sorry, Texas).  The "big five" by population are Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, which account for about 85% of the total western population.

[2] All three are direct initiative states. There is quite a bit of evidence that having a contentious initiative item on the ballot does increase turnout.