Five Creative Solutions

Out-of-the box approaches to vexing problems, from raising cattle to choosing a president

The National Popular Vote Compact

Citizens want their votes to count equally, but the winner-take-all laws of the Electoral College system mean that swing-state voters have outsize clout.

Use a strategy adapted from interstate lotteries to reengineer the system, without altering its foundation in the Constitution.

The invention of the scratch-off lottery ticket may soon enable the people of the United States to transform the Electoral College system and elect presidents by popular vote—without changing a word of the Constitution.

In 1966, John Koza—then a graduate student in computer science—created a board game called Consensus, in which players plotted out Electoral College strategies. Koza was responding to the politics of the era, marked by lawsuits challenging state requirements that electoral support go to the winner of the state’s popular vote. The game was too complicated and sold poorly (though one devotee was a young future electoral strategist named Mark Penn). By the 1970s, Koza had turned his attention to running a company that manufactured another of his ideas—the scratch-off lottery ticket—for state lottery commissions.

Then, during the 2004 election, he came upon a new way to play with the voting system. Barry Fadem, an attorney he had worked with on state lottery legislation, had gotten involved in a Colorado ballot measure to split electoral votes according to candidates’ shares of the popular vote. Koza had an epiphany: the same “interstate compacts” employed by states to coordinate lottery games could be used to replace the winner-take-all laws behind the Electoral College.

Koza’s plan, under the auspices of his National Popular Vote initiative, is elegant and audacious. Get state legislatures to agree to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the national, rather than the state, popular vote—much like how states contribute lottery revenues to a shared jackpot. Collect enough states to account for 270 electoral votes. And that’s it: while leaving the Electoral College intact on paper, you’ve just blown it up. New York signed on in April, joining nine other states and the District of Columbia. Together, they command 165 electoral votes. Support is bipartisan, since no states—red or blue—would be mere campaign afterthoughts.

“Most inventions aren’t usually out of the blue,” Koza says. “They’re combinations of two or three things that were fairly well known but then are combined in a new way.” That’s how to reinvent politics.

— Eric Liu, founder and CEO, Citizen University

MLB Instant Replay

Baseball fans want a fail-safe against umpire mistakes—but a drawn-out video-review system like the NFL’s or the NBA’s would bog down the already slow-paced game.

Create a centralized, high-tech instant-replay center to make faster calls using home-viewing technology, without pulling officials off the field.

When Major League Baseball created MLB Advanced Media in 2000 to establish its presence online, the league was so late to the Internet that it had to obtain the domain name from a Philadelphia law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. But the new company made rapid progress, with the insight that baseball fans—obsessive enough to follow a season with more than 2,000 games—would pay for the privilege to stream them, at ever higher speeds and definition. Soon, watching games from your desk at work gave you a better view than attending in person, and a decade later, MLB Advanced Media (a co-founder of Sports on Earth, with which I am affiliated) was bringing in more than $600 million a year.

Meanwhile, baseball was confronting another challenge of the digital age: lower tolerance for human error. Major League Baseball was the last professional sports league to introduce an instant-replay system, in 2008, and used video review only for home runs. After some high-profile umpire mistakes, fans pleaded for improvement. But in a game that already has pacing issues, stopping every inning or so to let umpires duck into a closed-circuit-TV booth—the method used in the NFL—wasn’t feasible.

Baseball executives formed a committee to come up with a better system, and discovered that, almost by accident, they already had. MLB Advanced Media “gave us everything we needed, in one room,” says Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who serves on the committee. Using the company’s camera and streaming technologies, in 2014 the league created a replay center in MLB Advanced Media’s Manhattan offices. Umpires now monitor ballparks across the country on dozens of high-definition screens, with technicians on hand to summon any angle at any speed. By the time a call is protested, the umpires have already started their review—and can make judgments more accurately, and minutes faster, than ever before. “When [an NFL] referee leaves and disappears under the hood, you lose a certain connection to the game,” La Russa says. With the replay center, nobody steps off the field.

The NFL has plans to replicate parts of the MLB’s system. Baseball’s idea for a new revenue stream that wouldn’t fundamentally change the game is now revolutionizing it: for once, the other sports leagues are playing catch-up.

— Will Leitch, contributing editor, New York; senior writer, Sports on Earth

Los Angeles Public Library/ High School

(1) In an age when hardly anybody checks out books anymore, libraries are struggling to stay relevant. (2) A quarter of adults in Los Angeles never earned a high-school diploma.

Turn the L.A. Public Library system into a high school.

In the digital age, no public library can afford to think of itself as a mere repository of material anymore, or even, for that matter, of information. That reality was at the front of John Szabo’s mind two years ago when he took over as the chief librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library system. One of Szabo’s biggest successes from his previous job, as the head of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library system in Georgia, was convincing county commissioners that by expanding a GED prep program at the library from 100 graduates to 542, he had effectively created a new high school. He realized that elected officials love nothing more than quantifiable results they can brag about, and that they will heap funding on programs that produce such results.

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