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Maine’s ranked-choice recount controversy, explained

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The drama over America’s first ever ranked-choice federal election — Maine’s Second Congressional District — continues, with a hand recount beginning on Thursday at the request of losing Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin.

It’s just the latest challenge to a new voting system that has withstood challenge after challenge, but this one could take as long as four weeks to resolve — possibly leaving the seat empty when the new Congress is sworn in January 3.

The election was the first time Maine has used ranked-choice voting for a federal election, following a ballot box law passed by Maine voters in 2016 (the system cannot be used for gubernatorial or state races until after Maine changes its constitution, something Governor-elect Janet Mills has vowed to do).

The new system allows voters to number the candidates on their ballot; their alternate choices come into play if no candidate receives the majority (50 percent plus 1) of first preferences. If that happens, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes redistributed to whomever those voters ranked second. This is repeated in rounds until one candidate reaches a majority. It resembles the run-off style elections held in states like Mississippi, but without needing to hold a whole new election — in a sense, simulating a series of runoff elections.

Depending on whom you ask, the new method of voting is either a push toward a more democratic system or a logistical hellscape. Despite the fact that it’s used in multiple countries around the world with little fuss, in Maine, it’s proven more the latter, thanks in part to political resistance and legal challenges from the state’s Republicans.

Where the race for Maine’s heavily contested House seat stands

In its first federal election debut in the US, ranked-choice voting made a splash: Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden each received around 46 percent of the first-preference vote, with Poliquin around 2,000 votes ahead. But after the lower vote-getters were eliminated and their votes redistributed, Golden came out 3,500 votes ahead.

Since his defeat, Poliquin has been looking for ways to contest the results, from challenging the new system’s constitutionality in federal court to demanding a recount. US District Judge Lance Walker has yet to rule on Poliquin’s lawsuit against the state, but is expected to issue a decision this week.

In response to the lawsuit, Golden’s campaign manager Jon Breed said that Poliquin should have sued before the election, not after the votes were cast, if he felt the system was unconstitutional.

But Maine Republicans were opposed beforehand. Gov. Paul LePage — whom the system was, in part, introduced in reaction against (he was elected twice without winning the majority of the vote) — called the new voting system “the most horrific thing in the world” in June, and threatened not to certify the results of the primaries. And it’s taken multiple successful state referendums to get to this point. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported in June:

Maine Republicans are very mad about instant-runoff voting, saying it’s unconstitutional for the government to set up an entirely new system of voting. To underscore that point, Republicans in the state Senate tried to sue Secretary of State [Matt] Dunlap to stop the process from going forward. But their proposal to halt it died on a tie vote in the Senate and was also thrown out by Kennebec Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy in an April ruling.

Workers from Maine’s Secretary of State Office have now begun the arduous task of recounting of the 300,000 ballots, the full cost of which will be covered by Poliquin if the result does not change. Ben Grant, a Golden attorney working on the recount, said the recount should help establish confidence in the system, confident himself that the result would not change. “It’s an unfortunate delay, but it does help with the public trust in the process,” he told the Portland Press Herald.

Ranked voting is controversy-free in other parts of the world

Ranked-choice voting has been used in very few places in the US — mostly just in a handful of cities for their municipal elections — but the system is surprisingly common and drama-free in other parts of the world.

It’s been used in Australia for federal lower house seats since 1918 and in Ireland for presidential elections since 1937. A number of countries began adopting ranked-choice or “alternative” voting in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and parts of Hong Kong. British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, and all Australian states use ranked choice for state or provincial elections.

As explained by Fair Vote, the system is intended to help “elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters.” Ranked-choice advocates say it allows voters to genuinely express their preferences, without having to vote strategically for candidates they think have a better chance of winning in order to make their vote “count.”

A large part of Poliquin’s issue with the outcome seems to be that he came first on first-preferences and then didn’t win the election, telling media outlets “I won the election fair and square.”

But that’s not how ranked-choice voting works. It’s about electing the candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters, not just a plurality.

In fact, in an election in the Australian state of Victoria in November, a Greens party candidate who came third on first preferences ultimately ended up winning the seat on distributed preferences. That’s not seen as unfair or un-square — it’s seen as democratic.

America’s (very) slow turn to ranked-choice

Though its well-established in other parts of the world, ranked-choice is viewed with suspicion in the US, as any new voting system is wont to be by those elected under the status quo.

But for some Americans — like voters in Fargo who recently introduced a new “approval voting” system — a new method seems increasingly necessary.

As Vox’s Kelsey Piper writes, experts consider America’s “first-past-the-post” system among the worst voting systems:

First-past-the-post favors two-party systems. It makes it unnecessary to appeal to a broad share of the electorate in multi-candidate races. Voters often have to vote strategically — for the major party candidate they dislike least — rather than honestly — for the candidate they actually want.

But while Maine Republicans have been stubborn about accepting ranked-choice, perceived by some as resistance to something that might disadvantage them politically, it’s also seen by many as too complex for the United States to switch to.

Stephen Lutz, an electoral analyst and director of Above Quota Elections, an independent company that administers elections for non-government organizations in Australia, was asked to testify before a Los Angeles council considering implementing ranked-choice in 2008. He told me he was met with complaints that the system was too confusing, and too hard for people to understand, especially for an area with many non-English speakers.

Even most Democratic leaders feels no great desire for this switch, Lutz said, because it actually makes it easier for independents and minor parties to get a seat at the table (as it has in Australia and Ireland).

But Maine voters were interested, and the Second District’s result — whenever it’s settled — will be a step forward for both the state, and US voters who are intrigued by the idea of improving our political processes.

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What happens when a gothic lit expert moves into a haunted house

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Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of May 19, 2019.

Another thing about that first workshop was that I heard something about myself that I had never heard before: that my story was protective and civilized and carefully managed. These to me seemed the primary virtues of fiction that I loved and that I wanted to write. There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be. I left the workshop that night feeling like I had been struck by lightning. I was angry and ashamed.

Become a literary citizen of the world. Spend time in a foreign literary community by hatching an insane plot to launch a new Holy War against the infidels of Egypt, a plot so deeply deranged that when you finally manage to present your plan to Louis XIV, a king who enthusiastically led France into four major wars, he’s so appalled by the idea of a new crusade that he literally responds, “I have nothing to say.” Do all of this just to live in Paris for a bit.

“I don’t think the Times has ever seen this number of requests,” a veteran editor concurred, adding, “For department heads, it’s become almost impossible to manage.” The glut of big newsy projects that require essential beat reporters to take book leave is especially tricky. For one thing, there’s always concern among editors about balancing reporting that’s exclusive to books with reporting that can be published in the Times. More practically, as another Times journalist put it, “It’s kind of made the editors stand up and realize, holy shit, we have all these people writing books, and that’s an awful lot of man- and woman-power off the daily report in a pretty significant way.”

Books can be aesthetic signifiers, colorful set pieces of sorts, their spines telegraphing a certain gravitas — or a certain playfulness, depending on how they’re arranged. “I like to compare physical books to candles,” Mr. Blackwell said. “Light bulbs do the job, but there’s a strong aesthetic of a candle that puts soul into a room. Books do that, too. They create theater and drama.”

It is lined with red, marbled paper. On the inside cover, two skeletons hold a banner reading: “Statutum est hominibus semel mori,” or “All people are destined to die once.” It’s Hebrews 9:27, and it wouldn’t be nearly as ominous if it wasn’t next to 10 little drawers labeled with names of poisonous plants, and a mirrored shelf holding several little glass bottles.

The compartments bear the German names for hemlock, wolfsbane, foxglove, and more—all lethal, properly administered—and the suggestion seems to be that the little vials are there for a would-be poisoner to mix up their own deadly cocktails.

Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.

Of course, bookstores sell books, but these shops often serve other purposes as well. Leftist bookstores in particular commonly act as multipurpose spaces for local activists as well as stops for progressive and leftist authors’ book tours. In some smaller towns, these bookshops can be neighborhood or even city strongholds for locals who may not have many other places to safely and comfortably organize, or even just hang out. Bookshops that are not expressly political in their mission still frequently host authors whose work is political, and thus when these authors are targeted, often bookshops are as well.

This is the problem with white people, as Eddie Murphy assesses it in his 1983 standup comedy special Delirious: we stay in haunted houses, like idiots. We don’t heed the warnings; we don’t read the signs. In pursuit of the American dream of homeownership—the middle-class domestic ideal, the manicured lawn, the 30-year mortgage and its promise of equity and upward mobility—we colonize spaces, nominally vacant and hauntingly occupied, as if we belong there. As if it is our right.


Here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!

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Introducing the Exclusive ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar

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Meet the brand new ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar. Wrapped up in an exclusive print from designer of the moment and ELLE friend Richard Quinn, and housing no less than 24 luxury beauty products worth £340, the ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar is the only Christmas present you need this year. Buy yours now: https://bit.ly/2Rhdg2b

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Whales dying from plastic bags: The alarming trend, explained

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Another dead whale has washed ashore with a belly full of plastic.

This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.

In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.

“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”

In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.

As the quantity of plastic humans dump in the ocean has reached obscene proportions, we’re seeing more and more sea life — including birds, otters, sea turtles, and fish — choking on it.

But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.

To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.

There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean

The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.

Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.


Prince Charles, Prince of Wales stands beside a huge Whale made from plastic bottles as part of the Sky Ocean rescue Campaign, outside the Queen Elizabeth II building at Westminster on April 17, 2018 in London, England.

Charles, Prince of Wales, stands beside a huge whale made from plastic bottles as part of the Sky Ocean rescue campaign, outside the Queen Elizabeth II building at Westminster on April 17, 2018, in London.
John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” researchers wrote. “[G]lobal debris surveys, the majority of which are focused solely on surface debris, have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation.”

And the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is surging. Our current trajectory puts us on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

So for the largest, hungriest animals in the ocean, plastic is becoming an unwelcome part of their diets.

Different whales face different risks from plastic

Whales are among the more intelligent creatures in the ocean, so why aren’t they smart enough to avoid eating plastic?

Well, one reason is that often plastic is in their food.

Small crustaceans like krill and tiny fish like anchovies often end up inadvertently consuming microplastics. Whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed, have a voracious appetite for these critters. A blue whale eats between 2 and 4 tons of krill per day.

Whales like the blue whale have baleen plates in their mouths that act as filters, trapping their small prey as well as small bits of plastic. This means they are less likely to ingest larger plastic waste items like bottles and containers, but the small plastic bits they consume quickly pile up.

“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”

Microplastics are unlikely to obstruct the digestive tract of a baleen whale, but as they build up inside an animal’s tissues, they can leach toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors that make the creature sick. This problem can affect all ocean filter feeders, including manta rays and whale sharks.


Rescuers found a baby dolphin in distress in Fort Myers, Florida. After the animal was euthanized, officials found two plastic bags and a piece of a balloon in its stomach.

Rescuers found a baby dolphin in distress in Fort Myers, Florida, last month. After the animal was euthanized, officials found two plastic bags and a piece of a balloon in its stomach.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

That means there could be large whales dying of plastic poisoning without obvious culprits like flip-flops and food containers in their stomachs, according to Bejder.

A study published this week in Royal Society Open Science also reported that plastic pollution is more dangerous to baleen whales than oil spills. “Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to [baleen whales] from plastic pollution than oil,” the authors wrote.

Toothed whales like sperm whales and dolphins normally catch bigger prey, like squid. But since they can swallow larger animals, they are vulnerable to larger chunks of plastic, like bags and nets.

“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said. A plastic container in murky waters could resemble a fish to a toothed whale, or a sperm whale may inadvertently swallow plastic garbage as it hunts for a meal.

Once ingested, the plastic piles up in the whale’s stomach. It can then obstruct bowels, preventing whales from digesting food and leading them to starve to death. It can also give a whale a false sense of being full, leading the whale to eat less and get weaker. That leaves it vulnerable to predators and disease.

We’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the whales being harmed by plastic

Part of the reason we pay so much attention to whales killed by plastic is because the whales themselves are very big and the plastic culprits are startlingly obvious. Large animals decay slowly, giving people plenty of time to figure out the cause of death, whereas smaller fish and crustaceans dying from plastic decompose quickly and are rarely investigated. Even for casual observers, a dead whale blocking a beach vacation photo is pretty hard to ignore.

Still, we’re missing a big part of the picture.

“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”

Many more whales could be dying from plastic poisoning without our knowledge. Around the Gulf of Mexico for example, 2 to 6 percent of whale carcasses end up on a shoreline. That means the vast majority sink to the ocean floor. This is likely the case for most of the world’s waters.

And the fact that whales are suffering shows that our marine ecosystems in general are in peril. “Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”

But with more plastic waste pouring into the ocean, the prognosis for the most mega of megafauna is grim.

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