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What's Wrong With Elections These Days?

2016-11-12 4 min read General marco

Elections are a simple affair. You go into a booth with a ballot, whether paper or virtual, you punch a series of fields, and you walk out. At the end of the period, the votes are tallied and then – surprise!

In fact, surprise has been the element of the past many elections. Upsets are common, and catastrophic changes more frequent than you would expect. It seems that the new age of polling and constant feedback has made elections less predictable, not more.

Two particularly surprising elections in 2016 were the Brexit vote in Great Britain and the American Presidential election. In both cases, polling had indicated a likely victory of the eventual loser: I was with the most pessimistic of number crunchers, Nate Silver, and saw Hillary Clinton’s probability of winning go from the initial 75% to 0% over the course of hours.

Also in both cases, the victory was won by lopsided participation rates. In both cases, older people got their way because younger people didn’t vote. Older people were turned on by a celebration of nostalgia, of the good old days that Brexit and Donald Trump would bring back. Younger people, of course, didn’t know what the old folk were talking about, having learned how awful those days were in school.

Everything has been discussed, the results dissected, the consequences of non-voting deplored. It seems, though, that the two pillars of the voting process that have stood since antiquity have not been thoroughly questioned. Which is a real problem, because those two pillars are precisely what makes young people consistently not show up.

What are those pillars? The first one is the privacy of the vote: no voter’s intention can be recorded by name, so as to not make it possible to intimidate anyone into a particular preference. That has always been a safeguard against tyrants, and the stories of Hitler and Stalin punishing places that voted against them are legion.

The second pillar is the secrecy of the vote: the outcome of an election is to remain secret until everyone has voted, to prevent people from gaming the system. Only the final tally reveals how things went, partial tallies are forbidden.

Those two pillars were sacrosanct during times of crisis, but they clash directly against the realities and possibilities of the modern world. In America, for instance, what used to be attacks on the fairness of the vote have turned into attacks on the process: long lines at polling places dissuade people that have to take time off and lose pay; arbitrary eligibility requirements make it harder for some groups and easier for others to vote.

In the 21st Century, voting needs to change and be brought in line with other processes. How is it possible that we vote like we sent letters, when everyone stopped doing the latter decades ago? Isn’t it time that we learned how to vote in the age of email?

How would modern voting look like? First of all, the two pillars of voting would be jettisoned: the voter would always be able to check their vote, because partial tallies would be available at all times. The vote would be a period of time – say, one month – and during that month, anyone could go and check the partial results. After seeing those, people could make up their mind on voting.

As an added bonus, people could change their vote as many times as they like until the final tally, because ultimately it’s about the desired outcome, not about the first instinct.

Safeguards would have to be put in place: for instance, the closing moment of the vote would have to have a safety valve allowing for a continuation of the election if too many people vote at the very end – to prevent a “sniping” scenario like at eBay.

The security aspect of this type of election is paramount.There would have to be a good way to identify voters when they make a choice, and a good way to verify and validate the election results to prevent impersonation and hacking of the election. While these are very real concerns, they can be addressed with enough caution. Also, the paper ballot process is even more fraught with issues of security and tampering.

An additional benefit of the new process is that it allows for new forms of voting like instant runoff and proxy voting. The former is the ability to designate a series of preferences and to have the result reflect preferential voting, allowing “winner takes all” elections to be more nuanced. The latter is the ability to designate the vote to follow some designated party (person or institution) so as to make voting simpler and more focused on issues that matter to the particular voter.

Preferential voting, incidentally, is usually associated with elections of people and the ability for third parties to emerge. In reality, preferential voting is even more important in referenda, which are currently posed in Yes/No form, but could have a much deeper ability to reflect popular opinion if they were stated in a series of options.