How to reform the Electoral College to avoid another “loophole president”

A recent poll shows that a majority of Americans who voted in this year’s election want to do away with the Electoral College, that archaic holdover born at a time when the founding fathers wanted to placate southern slave states so they’d get on board with the new Constitution.

The founding fathers had different ideas for the Electoral College. For some, the idea was to ensure smaller population states (like slave ones) wouldn’t be outvoted in every election. (It’s also the genesis of the infamous “three-fifths clause.”) It wasn’t so much about states’ voting power as it was protecting the south from the north.

Another idea was that the College could be a fail-safe mechanism in case the people voted for a criminal, an idiot, a fraudster, or someone who wasn’t qualified to lead the nation.

Whatever the intent was, it’s an idea fraught with problems. The most glaring fault is when the EC goes counter to the popular vote, as it did this year with Hillary Clinton receiving some 2.8 million more votes than Donald Trump, not a small margin. Many feel the current mechanism violates the principle of one person one vote, as it gives people in smaller states much more voting power than people in larger states.

lawrence-lessigProblematic as it is, getting rid of the College would require a constitutional amendment, and that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. But it can be reformed. It can be made fairer. It can be amended so that it more accurately reflects the will of the people.

Last week I spoke to Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the former director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He acknowledged that the Electoral College won’t be consigned to the dustbin of history in the near (or maybe far) future, but he shared a couple of ideas for reform that might correct the faults.

The first way is for states to abolish “winner take all,” the principle where the state popular vote winner (even if it’s just by one vote) gets all of that state’s electors. He said there’s already a group of people preparing litigation to challenge the principle immediately after the election. If the Supreme Court rules that it’s a constitutional violation, and Lessig thinks it would, then the EC and the popular vote would more fairly align. So far, only two states have done away with “winner take all.”

But Lessig was more excited by another idea for change, one that could reform the EC without litigation or a constitutional amendment. He explained:

[…] that change is advanced by the National Popular Vote Project. What that project is, is a compact among states, and what the states have basically said is when states representing at least 270 electoral college votes all join a compact, what they promise to do is to allocate their electors to the person who has won the national popular vote. So if you can get 270 votes together into one, then they will switch their votes to whoever wins the national popular vote automatically and therefore avoid any more questions about the person winning the national popular vote not being sworn in as president.

Lessig said he has high hopes for this idea.

[…] they’re actually on their way to getting to 270, and I’m sure this election cycle is gonna re-energize the movement towards that solution. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time we get to the next election the possibility of this “loophole presidency” will have been removed.

Both of these plans are more workable than abolition, though I must say the best idea is to do away with the Electoral College. Every other elected office in the United States is chosen by popular vote. The presidency should be, too.

(There are some who defend the EC despite its inherent unfairness. The three most common defenses are debunked here. I present the link for additional reading.)

Standoff between China and the US over seized underwater drone

UPDATE: The Pentagon says China has agreed to return the underwater drone. The original post is below.

China has seized a US underwater drone and the standoff is escalating. The US says the drone was a scientific research vessel, the Chinese say it was spying on their submarines in Chinese waters. It’s another in a series of escalating actions China is taking.

Is this because of Donald Trump accepting a phone call from the president of Taiwan and his increasing anti-China rhetoric? Maybe. And it’s interesting to note that a retired Chinese admiral, speaking at a conference sponsored by a state-run newspaper, called out the president-elect by name:

“If Trump and the American government dare to take actions to challenge the bottom line of China’s policy and core interests, we must drop any expectations about him and give him a bloody nose.”

More from the New York Times:

According to a Pentagon account, a Chinese Navy vessel that was shadowing the Bowditch — a common practice in the South China Sea — pulled up not far from the vessel. It then dispatched a small boat to seize the drone as the American crew was recovering it from the water, the Pentagon said. The Pentagon described the vehicle as an unclassified “ocean glider” system used to gather military oceanographic data such as salinity, water temperature and sound speed.

An American naval expert did not disagree with Mr. Wu’s notion of what the Americans were probably doing. “Warfare and surveillance in the age of drones has not yet developed an agreed-upon set of rules,” said Lyle J. Goldstein, associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, in Rhode Island.

“This is increasingly a major problem as both China and the U.S. are deploying ever more air and naval drones into the contested waters and airspace of the Western Pacific,” he said.

The seizure was possibly another demonstration by Beijing that it can irritate the United States in a gray zone, just under the threshold of actual hostilities, Mr. Goldstein said. He said it was a time for “cooler heads to prevail,” to halt a cycle of escalation that “cannot end well for either side.”

Another mountain lion killed on a southern California freeway

The National Park Service has confirmed that mountain lion P-39 was struck and killed on the 118 near Chatsworth.

I spoke with Kate Kuykendall, a spokesperson with the National Park Service, who told me that only the damaged GPS tracking collar has been found, but they have been informed that the remains were taken to the sanitation district and disposed of nearly two weeks ago. It has taken the park service that long to confirm P-39’s death. She was reportedly killed on December 3.

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P-39’s litter of kittens aren’t old enough to have the hunting skills they need to survive on their own. (Photo: National Park Service)

P-39 leaves behind a litter of three kittens who aren’t old enough to fend for themselves, but the park service doesn’t know where they are and can’t help them. P-50, 51, and 52 have been ear-tagged, but aren’t wearing tracking collars. Even if they knew exactly where in the Santa Susana Mountains they are and could get them, captivity wouldn’t be the best life for them, either.

Kuykendall told me that at six months’ of age, the kittens probably don’t have the hunting skills they need to survive.

Now is a good time to remind drivers to be careful when driving through mountain lion areas. And if you accidentally hit one, please let the authorities know about it.

Cassini will meet its doom in Saturn’s atmosphere

By any definition, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been a massive success. The 20-year-old planetary probe has studied Saturn, its moon system, and its rings, since 2004. The mission was originally slated to last only four years, but it’s been extended twice, and the damn thing is still going.

Cassini is finally running out of gas, and it will meet its doom in Saturn’s atmosphere in September of 2017. But before then, it may uncover a few more mysteries.

A couple of weeks ago Cassini began a series of maneuvers that will take it very close to Saturn’s outer rings, just barely grazing them to take measurements of their densities and that of some of Saturn’s moons.

But next April, Cassini will go where no spacecraft has gone before — in between the planet and its inner rings. There, it may solve a big mystery: the mass of Saturn.

Scientists have known the mass of Saturn and its rings, but Cassini will solve the mystery of the mass of the rings themselves and that of Saturn minus the rings. Here’s what Cassini’s daredevil orbit will look like from its point of view:

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Then, in September, Cassini’s final suicide mission will end in the planet’s atmosphere, once again going where no space probe has gone before. On its way down, it will take readings and attempt to send them back to earth. However, NASA scientists caution that the spacecraft’s thrusters weren’t designed for that maneuver, so it’s unclear if any data will get back to us.

But we’ve already received a treasure trove of information: We’ve seen Saturn’s hexagon-shaped south pole up close:

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Cassini also found evidence of an underground ocean on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons. We learned how new moons could form out of Saturn’s rings. Cassini found surprisingly Earth-like geographic features on Titan, including great lakes of liquid natural gas that outweigh all the oil and gas reserves here at home.

The probe has lasted far longer than scientists and JPL mission specialists had expected, but these final maneuvers may end it before its suicide plunge into Saturn. Rocks and debris from near the rings may destroy the craft or damage it enough to disable its ability to gather information or send it back to Earth.

But even if that happens, we’ve learned a few lifetimes’ worth of lessons from the ringed planet and its moons. Here’s hoping that humankind one day gets to see them with its own eyes.

WATCH: War for the Planet of the Apes trailer

The next installment in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise arrives this summer, and 20th Century Fox has just dropped the first trailer.

While the rebooted Apes movies can’t match the iconic 1968 “Planet of the Apes” movie, the new franchise is light years ahead of the old in terms of story and quality (I won’t say special effects because OF COURSE THEY ARE). Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Caesar is phenomenal. He deserves an Oscar.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” stars Serkis and franchise newcomer Woody Harrelson, and follows the events of 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which saw peace between apes and humans broken, and a final war on the horizon. Caesar, played again by Serkis, and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (Harrelson). The movie is directed by Matt Reeves and is scheduled to hit theaters July 14.

Greg Lake, RIP

Greg Lake, one of the founding fathers of progressive rock, has died of cancer at the age of 69. He was the vocalist, bassist & guitarist of Emerson Lake & Palmer, and fronted King Crimson on its 1969 debut album.