Thursday, June 12, 2014

Electoral Reform: Toward Universal Voting, Internet Voting, and Other Sensible Changes

Although Eric Cantor's defeat is news, we seem to be reading the same story over and over again.  A sliver of the electorate, the most passionate and extreme of the eligible voters, are the ones who turn out in the primaries. The impassioned have disproportionate clout because those who are not inflamed opt out.  This now appears to be equilibrium behavior, particularly on the Conservative-Republican side.  It rewards those who play to this extreme audience to fan the flames.  The question I want to get at here is whether a different system of voting might work better.  The aim of the alternative would be to produce outcomes where the median eligible voter matters.   Below are some not fully fleshed out ideas of what such an alternative might look like.

Mandatory Voting

Australia has it.  We should embrace some variant of it.  People who do not exercise the franchise in both the primaries and the general election should be subject to fine, like a parking ticket.  There would need to be exemption for those mentally unable to vote (dementia cases) and possibly other infirmities.  But the system should have in it that voting is the norm and the vast majority of eligible voters should vote.

Internet Voting

I realize that not all states have an income tax, but Illinois does and offers an eFile alternative. I'm going to use that mechanism as a model in discussing this below.   It seems reasonable that if you can file your taxes online, you should be able to vote online. 

First is the ID issue.  eFiling requires a two-piece identification system.  If you've never filed before that is the Driver's License number in addition to SSN  (and, of course, name and address).  If you have filed before then you've been issued an eFile ID number, which should be used instead of the Driver's License info.

The next thing is a separation between the ID and the vote on the ballot.   Voters need to be assured that their vote has been recorded but that those tallying the votes only can see aggregates, not individual ballots.  Every Learning Management System that I know has this sort of capability in the survey tool.  So this should not be an onerous requirement.

Since not everyone has Internet access, the third issue is providing such access for voting.  Public schools after normal school hours and public libraries should be enlisted for this purpose.

Then there is when voting can occur.  The concept of an election day is archaic.  The only ones who really benefit from it are the news media, as it allows them to report on the horse race, do exit polling, and in general turn elections into TV entertainment.  Voting should happen the same way taxes are done.  There is a first day when filing is possible and a last day.  Of course, we have absentee ballots now as part of the process and those can be obtained before election day, but the voter must provide some evidence on why voting on election day is not possible.  In effect, what is argued here is to make absentee ballots the norm and then do it online.

A Must System Coupled with a None of the Above Alternative

The expression Must System comes from boxing.  In a 10-point must system each judge is required to award at least one boxer 10 points for the round.  Here what is meant is that if there are several different races on the same ballot then the voter is required to vote in each race.  The voter doesn't have the option of voting for some races but not others.  Those familiar with Google Forms from the designer of a survey perspective will be aware there is a checkbox for each question to make it required.  The Must System then is like making all questions of the survey required.  Normal eCommerce tools would then be be put in place to alert the voter whether the ballot is complete or not.  Such tools would also preclude the voter selecting more than one option for any given race.

The none of the above alternative may seem odd, initially.  It is there first, for voters to express their lack of satisfaction in the candidates.  In an election that produces a majority none-of-the-above result, the winner would be the candidate who did receive the most votes, but such a candidate clearly couldn't claim a mandate from the voters.  The other reason it is there is to create incentives for the candidates to appeal to middle voters, who'd be apt to vote none of the above if the candidates seemed too extreme.

Voter Education About Candidate Positions and Candidate Character

The current system favors attack ads.  I don't know any voter who likes them.  They are a turnoff.  And they breed anger.  Further, they communicate via sound bites rather than via substance.  The process above is aimed, in large part, at trying for a different sort of communication between campaigns and the electorate, one that is genuinely about the candidate explaining what positions are held and why the candidates holds those positions.

Of course, at present third parties can also communicate messages to the electorate and those might very well be of the attack ad variety.  But with this new system the candidate might very well have to distance himself from the groups running the attack ads, for fear that his opponent won't run attack ads at all and thus capture many voters who'd otherwise vote none of the above.  In other words, the harsh rhetoric wouldn't go away entirely, but its ability to influence elections would be diminished.

Campaign Financing

The hope here is that less negative and more issues oriented campaigns would be less expensive to run, though let me also discuss how it might go the other way.  Right now there is the potential to use social networking tools that are free to reach the electorate.  And if you as candidate only have to reach a sliver of the population, all of whom are like minded, then social networking might actually be more effective than traditional TV ads as a way to reach the voters.

But those who would vote none of the above if both candidates ran negative campaigns might not otherwise be sufficiently similar in their views to be part of one social network.  So reaching those people in an effective way might be harder and that could drive up campaign cost.


The goal of this piece was to get readers to consider an alternative to the current voting system.  Those readers might have issue with one or more of the suggestions for the alternative.  Good.  Those issues should be aired.  I'm not wedded to the particular system I've sketched here.  But I do want to point out that the pieces here are meant to fit together.  For example, from the voter perspective, not going to the polls is similar to voting none of the above.  But from the candidate perspective the two are profoundly different if the latter is coupled with mandatory voting.  For then the candidate has reason to appeal to such eligible voters, while at present they are ignored.  Any alternative system that might be proposed should create incentives for candidates to appeal to moderate voters.

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