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Section 60

Memorial Day is about war. I’m fortunate to have never seen war, like my parents or my grandparents’ generation. After they made it over here to the United States, peace was at hand. I have no war photos. I only have photos of war’s shadows.

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War


Section 60 is where the most recent fallen soldiers are laid to rest from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Once a year, Wreaths Across America comes through Arlington Cemetery ahead of Christmas.

I first started watching politics as the Iraq War was getting underway, and like a huge majority of Americans I trusted, though with a little unease, that the consensus was right. As a fifth grader I wasn’t terribly keen on the Bush Administration already, but it was hard to imagine stopping a war when the only world history you’ve witnessed was 9/11 and the smoldering crater in the Pentagon 15 minutes from you.This was my first lesson in politics: much like Warren Buffett’s famous investing advice, “be fearful when others are greedy.” Since then I’ve learned to never trust the patricians when they bang the drums of war. It turned into a catastrophe unknown since Vietnam, draining our nation’s blood and treasure.


This pickup game of badminton between two women in Saigon in 2009 is in no ordinary location. You’ve seen this fence before. But do these women remember? The Vietnam War still hangs over our elections today, but Vietnam’s population pyramid is so much younger that the war is a piece of history to most.


On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell as the North Vietnamese crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace. Vietnamese photographer Khánh Hmoong went to iconic sites all over Vietnam, superimposing the past over the present. How would you know if you had no visual reference, where are no plaques?


Unlike Vietnam, it’s obvious in World War II who shot first. You only win the wars you have to fight. In London’s Churchill War Rooms, where the British leadership was hunkered down, the war is reduced to a series of maps, thumbtacks on the wall. The Map Room told them where they were. Cartography cut through the fog of war.

Today, we honor those that never came back from defending our freedom. Tomorrow, we honor them by never having to go.


Senator Bolo Tie?

I heard today that Senator Max Baucus of Montana is retiring. Rumors are swirling that former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer might run. Why is this exciting? Aside from Virginia’s Tim Kaine, famous for his eyebrow, few Senators have a compelling visual that is instantly identifiable. Brian Schweitzer?


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Photo by Bob Brigham

He loves bolo ties.

So I pulled out by Kaine Eyebrow button for inspiration and using my buttonmaker, minted a certain bolo tie button for a possible candidacy. (I’m not the world’s greatest vector artist.)

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If you’d like one (they’re 2 1/4″ and made in the USA), I’m hawking them for $2.49 each, 5 for $10, 10 for $15. They’re handcrafted with love by yours truly, a procrastinating grad student. Click below. (The one on the right isn’t for sale!)




Bolo Tie 2014 Buttons



Virginia Tech: How do you photograph who isn’t there anymore?

Today is the 6th anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. I grew up in Virginia, and one of the victims, Leslie Sherman, graduated from my high school.

I also won’t forget one photo assignment I had as an intern on Greg Werkheiser’s campaign for Delegate in 2009, two years after the Virginia Tech shooting.

This is Joseph Samaha.


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He agreed to speak out for us and for his daughter, Reema Samaha, a Westfield High School graduate who was killed in the shooting. The mail firm needed a photo, ASAP, and the campaign sent the nearest half-decent photographer they could find. I hesitated at first. How on earth could I, some amateur hack with a camera, do it justice?

For my generation, it’s hard to imagine enduring events like this without social media. For all the jokes you could crack about the banality of Facebook, it was the only lifeline for us trying to find out if our Virginia Tech friends were alright. One by one, everyone I knew at Virginia Tech let us know through Facebook statuses that they were fine, as phone lines jammed and news helicopters circled the campus. You’d be hard pressed to find someone our age who didn’t know someone there.

The photos weren’t very good, but the presumably exasperated folks at Mission Control did use one in a piece calling for gun and mental health reform. I was a kid who hadn’t quite learned the art of good composition, like ensuring lamps weren’t sticking out of your subject’s head, but that’s not the point.


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Reema Samaha was gunned down at 18, exactly how old I was when I took these photos. She’s in the photo frame held by her father, in front of family photos both old and new. She was way too young to be on that shelf of family members who had passed on.

How do you photograph who isn’t there anymore?

I’m posting these photos today because the Samahas fight every day to make sure we haven’t forgotten. I try to play one part in helping to tell their story. Reema’s brother Omar is at the Virginia State Capitol today, fighting for the same reforms he has since 2007.


We haven’t forgotten. Let’s hope Congress and the Virginia General Assembly haven’t either.


How Top Two Primaries Will Crush Montana Grassroots (From Both Parties)

Top-two primaries might seem to be more open on the surface, but they are a corruption of the primary process that gives party bosses more control, not less control over who runs for office. They strongly incentivize reducing the number of candidates, which violates the entire purpose of opening up the nomination process.

Chaos in normally staid legislative chambers can often be caused by abrupt bills on election reform, like the video at right of the Montana State Senate pushing through SB 408, a top-two primary referendum earlier this month (or like this Taiwanese Legislative Yuan fistfight). Montana Republicans have been annoyed since Libertarian candidates spoiled Republican candidates for Governor and Senator last year, handing the offices to Democrats. This spoiler effect is an artifact of our first-past-the-post electoral system, where voting for a third party helps the candidate farthest ideologically from you.

Democrats in that chamber have plenty to be angry about, but if I were a Republican activist I’d be cranky too. Rather than fix the spoiler effect of third-party candidates with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), they’re trying to adopt a top-two primary that concentrates power in state parties and provides even more powerful incentives to quash grassroots primary challenges from both parties. It’s already happened in Washington State, will soon happen in California, and will happen in Montana if top-two passes. Let the charts below explain why.

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A top-two primary combines candidates from all parties into a primary anyone can vote on and allows the top two (even if they’re of the same party) to proceed to the general election. Top two, in effect, solves the third party spoiler problem by introducing an intraparty spoiler problem. If too many candidates from one party run, they might split the vote so much that the other party wins the seats. A blanket primary which uses IRV would take the same candidate list and have voters rank them, eliminating the need for a second round, and crucially is unaffected by the number of candidates running on each side.

The partisan effect of the top-two system in Montana is caused entirely by the state’s unique political conditions: the Libertarians siphon off votes from the right without a corresponding effect on the left, and it is the partisan effect which receives the most attention. Since Libertarians are the most common spoilers in Montana, Republicans would benefit from a top-two primary, but there’s nothing inherent to the top-two primary that helps them, it’s an underlying condition.

The systemic effects, however, are neutral to the balance of power between the parties but have powerful impacts on the parties themselves. A top-two primary encourages both major parties to increase central control of candidate recruitment and stamp out intraparty challenges to avoid the clown car effect. Especially among the dominant party in a state (Democrats in Washington, Republicans in Montana) where more candidates might be inclined to run to begin with, this incredible incentive to centralize party control undermines the entire purpose of primaries, which was to take the candidate selection process out of the hands of party bosses and place it into the hands of voters.

It’s already been proven in Washington State, where Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz lamented that, “I, as party chairman, have to go and talk people into not participating, and I think that’s really unfortunate.” A 2012 paper by Gonzaga University’s John Beck and Kevin Henrickson uses a logit model of candidate counts in state legislative districts before and after the adoption of top-two and find that the number of Democratic candidates fell by 0.15 per seat, and that the probability that more than one Democrat would run fell by 8.6%. They did not find a similar result for Republican primaries, but speculate like I do that the dominant Democratic position in Washington State contributed to this. Fewer Republican incumbents can lead to fewer challengers.

California adopted top-two primaries in the same year they adopted radical non-partisan redistricting changes, scrambling the pro-incumbent impact of top-two. But as 2014 rolls around, you can bet that the state and national parties will be keen to quash as many primary challenges as they can to prevent the California 31st debacle from happening again. It’s cheaper to quash candidates from your ow party than to put up front candidates of the other party to try to achieve the same effect. Party activists at odds with their establishment have the most to lose. They already face the task of convincing a primary electorate that electability concerns don’t apply when nominating an activist, non-incumbent, or more ideological candidate, but with a top-two primary their very existence harms the electability of all candidates of their party.

What American voters need is a rational way to vote for a candidate that represents their interests, regardless of party or positioning within a party, without harming their own cause and handing offices to candidates they would’ve ranked last. Instant Runoff Voting, successfully used by Australia for years, does this and maximizes the voter’s choice. Top-two primaries, in contrast, are a half-assed solution that undermine the very purpose of primary elections with a deceptively open format on the surface that in reality grants even more power to state and national party insiders. Hopefully even the Republican grassroots will see what the problem is.


PHOTOS: Florida College Democrats Convention 2013

Florida College Democrats from all over the state came to the University of Florida in Gainesville to elect new officers, hear trainings, and schmooze.


Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
Gainesville City Councilman Thomas Hawkins.

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Convention delegates at the Swamp.

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Florida Democratic Party Deputy Communications Director Eric Conrad delivering a communications training.

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
UF College Democrats treasurer Will Mazotta and an FCD t-shirt.

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
Some of the crowd.

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
Michael Lucas on social media.

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
Questions and answers during Mike Lucas’s social media training.

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
FIU’s Natalee Toledo and James Hall hold an impromptu dance party.

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
USF laughs it up!

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
FCD President Elana McGovern spells “VAN”.

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013

Florida College Democrats Convention 2013
The Rick Kriseman campaign for mayor of Saint Petersburg recruiting interns.


JPEG Compression Shows Success of Viral “Equal Sign” Profile Picture

If you’re friends with enough political activists on Facebook (as I am), you may have noticed your friends switching their profile photos by the hundreds to a red equals sign ahead of the Supreme Court oral arguments on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. Like a game of digital telephone, every time an image (especially this small) is saved as a JPEG, it is compressed again and again, causing artifacts to be more and more visible. In a sure sign of its viral success, as time goes on the equals signs in my Facebook newsfeed grow increasingly degraded.

This process reminds me of this video that was uploaded to YouTube 1,000 times, using its compression method to transform the video into something entirely different. In 1969, composer Alvin Lucier came up with the concept by repeatedly playing and re-recording his voice.

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Follow me on Twitter – @kentonngo


Interactive Map: Gainesville Mayoral Election

Results by precinct from the March 19, 2013 election for Mayor of Gainesville, Florida are below. The top two candidates in this nonpartisan election will proceed to a runoff.

Mouse over the map to display labels for precincts and roads. You can also use the legend or data table to select precincts by clicking on them.