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Like a lot of grads, I didn't have a whole lot of luck getting work after college. About a year after graduation, I started working as a freelance writer on a team my mom managed, which brought in a bit of money; no student loans to pay off, fortunately. July last year, my brother alerted me to a listing for a fellowship on the Obama campaign in Richmond, working on data. I managed to get it, and I worked there from mid-August to the election.

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We put our Doberman to sleep today. He was thirteen, and deteriorating. My mother and I cried as the plunger on the anesthetic went down. We'd had him since I was 11. He was a good boy.

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Jack asks “What's the Missouri Compromise?”

The Missouri Compromise was an agreement in 1820 that attempted to split the former Louisiana Territory (a rough triangle from western Montana to western Louisiana to eastern Michigan) into an area that would be incorporated as free states, north of the latitude 36°30”. The rest would be slave states, south of that line, and including Missouri, which was mostly north of the line. It was one of the early steps in trying to keep the nation together without resolving the slavery question. (Spoiler alert: it failed.)

One of the guiding principles of American politics until the late 1850s or so was the equality of slave powers and free powers: for every free state admitted, a slave state had to enter as well, though not necessarily at exactly the same time. The South did not have the advantage of numbers in the House, and likely never would, so pro-slavery forces had to have equal numbers in the Senate to make sure they could prevent restrictions on slavery, except banning the international slave trade, since that had mostly stopped mattering.

When Missouri was up for admittance, there was a slight imbalance in the Senate, having one more free state than slave. The House tried to just make Missouri a state, straight up, but Representative Tallmadge of New York proposed a successful amendment banning slaves from being brought into the state and freeing the offspring of all slaves at age 25, which would obviously cripple slavery in Missouri. The House was fine with this, but slavers in the Senate refused to allow free states a two-state advantage, and the matter was ended until the next Congress.

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Shiningtop asks “How does redistricting work?”

First, a little explanation of the process is in order, I think. Every state has a legislature, and for the most part there are maps dividing the state into as many districts as there are legislators; Virginia has a 100-district map for the House of Delegates, and a 40-district map for the Senate; 100/40 is a common setup, by the way, though there are several variations.

In many cases, Senate maps tended to be based on counties, or even taken directly from them, so that each county elected one Senator regardless of population, but in Reynolds v. Sims in 1964 the Supreme Court ruled that both houses of a state legislature had to be elected from districts based on the population. Districts must also be drawn if the state is populous enough to send more than one person to the House of Representatives, which most are.

New Hampshire is an interesting example for all of this, since the state senate has 24 members and single-member districts, while the house has 400 seats filled from 103 districts. As far as I can tell, each county is split into several districts of unequal proportions, and each district elects between 1 and 13 people. Frankly, I think this system is far more complicated than necessary, and I'm flabbergasted that it passed Constitutional muster. New Hampshire has by far both the largest lower chamber, among the biggest of all legislatures in the world, and the biggest disparity in numbers between upper and lower house in the country.

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I forget how, but some conversation recently got me thinking about coattails, i.e. the phenomenon wherein someone popular at the top of the ticket will draw in voters for downballot races, and presumably an unpopular candidate will also hurt the other candidates.

It is, of course, difficult to measure, but there have been elections in which one party did overwhelmingly well in every area, like 1980, when Ronald Reagan brought 13 new Republican Senators with him along with his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter. This swung control of the chamber to his party until 1986; similar gains occurred in the House, where Republicans gained 34 seats and mustered the support of many conservative Democrats to boot, but remained under 200 members.

However, we also have situations like 1972, when Richard Nixon's 24-point defeat of George McGovern could not prevent the net loss of two seats in the Senate, and the gain of 12 in the House was just under a third of what they needed to take the majority. Oddly enough, House Republicans held 192 seats after each of the elections I've mentioned.

The first step should really be to define this as strictly as possible: what are coattails, exactly? The idea is that someone with high name recognition and race notability will tend to affect the votes of candidates running for less prestigious offices on the same ballot, whether positively or negatively.

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Ashton asks “If Canada moves towards legalization of marijuana, how would that affect things, with alcohol prohibition as a template?”

First, some background. Canada, like the US, had its flirtation with prohibition, and in largely the same time period. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, areas in both countries banned alcohol, fueled in part by the women's temperance movement. Now, that seems like an odd thing for women to want, and I was confused in school until my teacher explained to me what was going on. Basically, a lot of men were working in factories, particularly when the Industrial Revolution got into full swing, and most of the time they had grueling, back-breaking 12-hour shifts; they relieved the stress and exhaustion by getting drunk off their asses in the neighborhood pubs and bars, followed by a great deal of domestic violence. Women figured that getting rid of alcohol would at least stop the drunken wife-beating, and many churches supported this—it probably would have been better to get factory owners to stop exploiting their workers so horribly, but I guess they didn't think that was in the cards yet.

Anyway, there was sort of a patchwork system of wet areas and dry areas across North America, until booze was banned entirely in the US in 1919, with the ratification of the 18th Amendment and passage of the Volstead Act; amusingly, Utah provided the 36th and last vote to ratify the 21st Amendment, ending the whole thing in 1933. So alcohol was illegal, with some exceptions, in the states, but more loosely regulated in Canada until 1918, though it was banned in Alberta and Ontario (and several provinces repealed it in the 20s). Smuggling quickly became a profitable sideline, and a haven for organized crime, considering that while many considered the demon rum to be immoral, quite a few also enjoyed a nice buzz now and then, or a glass of wine with dinner. In any case, prohibition likely reduced the use and sale of alcohol, but did not eliminate it by any stretch of the imagination, and also took the taxes that would have gone into government coffers and placed it into the pockets of the mob.

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My mother asks “What exactly was the War of 1812 about? How did it start?”

The War of 1812, which lasted until 1815, was the only part of the whole mess with Napoleon that actually reached our borders. There was no one main reason why we started fighting with Canada, it was more a sum of several irritations and fears, including American ships and sailors being forced into the British navy and rumors that Great Britain would support an independent Indian state in the Midwest, which would naturally not mesh well with American expansion.

The war began in June 1812, when James Madison sent a message to Congress saying, basically, “Man, the British are being total jackasses right now, aren't they?” Congress subsequently declared war on Great Britain, and prepared to attack Canada; it is worth noting that the states close to Canada opposed the invasion, though in Federalist New England this was likely due in part to an opposition to the Democratic-Republican James Madison. His critics labeled the conflict Mr. Madison's war, though when it became popular eventually that didn't work so well.

The hilarious thing was, at the beginning neither of us really had any troops to send to the front. Great Britain was busy with their war against France, and couldn't really spare any men for Canada, and the American army was roughly ten thousand guys. Congress authorized the recruitment of twenty thousand more, but nobody wanted to do it, and the militias that did exist were against invading Canada. The first real action was a month later, when the equivalent of a couple thousand guys with shotguns and pickup trucks surrendered Detroit to a mixture of British soldiers, Canadian volunteers, and Native Americans.

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Hanskey asks “How come governors get presidential nominations more often than people in other offices?”

That's a good question, and political scientists have been talking about it for decades. Barack Obama notwithstanding, the last time a sitting senator was elected was 1960, with John F. Kennedy, and Warren G. Harding in 1920 before him. Bush, Clinton, Carter, and Reagan were all governors, and Bush Sr. and Nixon were Vice President, though Ford was the House minority leader and Johnson and Kennedy were both in the Senate.

Now, you have to keep in mind that the current system has only existed for about sixty years; it used to be that the party leadership decided the nominee, and the few primaries that states held decided a very small portion of the delegates. Heck, until the turn of the century or so it was considered gauche for presidential candidates to campaign themselves, whether for the nomination or in the general election.

To be fair, it is a little unseemly to talk yourself up as the best person for your party to put forward, but whatever.

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Fri Mar 30, 2012 at 04:26 PM PDT

Ask the Political Wonk #1

by Ponder Stibbons

Well, I'm trying to get this column syndicated (and thus have a decent job), but for now, you guys get it for free.

My mother asks “Why do we have Congress instead of a parliament?”

Basically, one of the guiding principles when various people wrote the Articles of Confederation and Constitution was “don't be like England, the dirty oppressing bastards”. More seriously, James Madison and John Jay and the others did want to be different from England, both in correcting things that the Westminster system did badly and in distinguishing themselves from the monarchy. The specific idea here was the separation of powers, and the creation of distinct legislative and executive branches of government.

See, the English Parliament is tasked both with making laws and enforcing them, with the King at the time not having much of a set role —which caused about as much turmoil as you'd expect until the institution devolved into largely ceremonial duties. The framers separated those two roles: the House and Senate debate and pass laws, and the President enforces them. More accurately, the President oversees the various Cabinet departments and agencies that enforce the law, like FDA inspectors and FBI agents, but the President is the avatar of the executive branch far more than the Speaker of the House is for Congress.

Unlike Parliament, where the majority party or coalition of parties chooses a Prime Minister, who thereafter is in charge of pretty much the entire government, control can be split in our system, as it is at the moment. Democrats control the Senate and Presidency, and Republicans control the House, with cooperation between the two being required for anything to happen, including the yearly budget, without which the government shuts down. Whether or not the possibility of divided government is a good thing is up for debate (personally, I'm fine with it), but our government was deliberately set up to decentralize power, so as to prevent the rise of a new king or other unitary wielder of power.

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Yup, this is the end. Two short sections from near the beginning, and they're the only ones I haven't posted. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

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I may put the last two bits of this in as one diary on Friday. Thoughts?

Anyway, enjoy!

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Another very short section, with really only two entries in it.

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