I've got your revolution right here

electoral college It’s about that time, every four years, when we begin to look at the dysfunctional methods by which we elect our presidents. We get the obligatory crop of articles about the idiotic electoral college, but of course the problem extends way beyond that.

A couple of weeks ago I was exchanging heated e-mails with a good friend who’s supporting Nader, and of course she was advocating for opening our process up a lot more to third parties. That would certainly be a step in the right direction, but it’s credulous to think that that would bring about any real change. Third parties are successful exactly to the extent that they drain votes from whomever would be the second choice of their voters, usually splitting the vote and handing the election to the least-favored candidate. Some envision a true multi-party system, with five or six factions forced to form ad-hoc coalitions, and nobody operating under the illusion of having majority support. But this is the system they have in Europe, and politics do not work demonstrably better there than they do under our system.

But look: we’re living in a time of some pretty big changes right at this moment, and thinking big about our political system doesn’t seem as out-of-bounds as it might have before. So there are two questions to tackle. One, if we were starting with a clean slate, what sort of system would we want to put into place. Two, how to go about enacting that system.

So, election theory gets extremely thorny extremely fast, with various systems having their various pros and cons (note: the system we currently use is generally considered the least ideal for elections of more then two candidates). Let’s take as our starting point the system that Ze Frank used (transcript here)for electing the winner of the “I Knows Me Some Ugly MySpace Contest” (the silliness of the candidates has no bearing on the validity of the process). The election takes place in two rounds. In the first round, each voter gets ten votes, to be distributed as they choose among the candidates. Take this election as an example. You might choose to give five votes to Obama, three to Nader, and two to McKinney. You might give all 10 to McCain. Whatever. Votes get tallied, results announced, and a run-off election is held with the top two candidates from the first round. This time of course everyone just gets one vote. Under this system, even if you put all 10 of your votes in the first round toward a looser, you have a viable second choice you can vote for in the run-offs. Under this system, the influence of each party is clearly demonstrated even if it does not produce a winning candidate, and that in itself is a boon for democracy.

The classic objection to this system is that voter turnout is already low in our country, and asking voters to turn out twice is unreasonable. The obvious solution to this is internet voting. I’ve argued here here that the concerns over security are at least as easily overcome as security concerns surrounding paper ballot voting, but suffice it to say that if online banking can be secure there’s no reason online voting can’t.

So assuming that’s the system we want to go with, the next big question is how we get there. Since the electoral college is written into the constitution, it’s not going to be by bringing a trial and getting it to the Supreme Court. Procedures for amending the constitution from Wikipedia:

[A]mendments may be proposed by the United States Congress or by a national convention assembled at the request of the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the several states. To become valid, amendments must then be ratified by either the legislatures of or ratifying conventions held in three-fourths of the several states[.]

That’s quite a hurdle, and don’t expect current politicians, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, to go along easily. What’s required is a major grass-roots effort. Since the hurdle for the state-originated amendments is higher then for the Congressional route, what’s required is an effort directed at congressional candidates. Get a movement going, get candidates in close elections on board, and who knows — one day we might actually fix this thing.

Update: Kottke points to another alternative voting scheme that attempts to do something like what I’ve proposed, but in one step: Majority judgement.

Posted: Wednesday October 29, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · · Comment feed for this post: RSS, atom



  1. Miguel Marcos    Oct 30, 04:30 AM #  

    About Internet voting at this point in time: I don’t have concerns so much about security as about penetration. What accessibility is there in rural areas? In poor, highly populated urban areas?

    Would you solve that by having computers available for voting in libraries, for example? If a voter needs to download a certificate this would be a nightmare at a public voting station. How would a voter become elegible to vote online, what identification scheme would be used (hopefully not driver license)? What backup process is there if the connection goes down?

    A voting process needs to be made so that it is equally accessible for all voters. Internet access has grown phenomenally but it’s still an economically stratified access.

  2. alesh    Oct 30, 08:16 AM #  

    Oh, just to be clear, I’m talking about adding Internet voting as an OPTION, not as a replacement for other methods. Like here in Miami, we have regular election-day voting stations, early voting stations, and vote-by-mail. I think all of those should still be options, and barring any objection should be used nationally. Of course if Internet voting works all the other methods will become much less popular. (Also, once the system is computerized, even regular voters benefit — for example, they can vote anywhere, no more of this “assigned voting station” crap.)

    How does registering for, say, mail-in voting work now? Internet voting could work the same way. Or put the registration online. You go in, register yourself, and they mail you your voting registration info, then mail you a pin number from a different location on a different day (like credit cards do).

    That’s just one idea. Presumably you’d get a whole bunch of Internet security folks together to figure out the actual system.

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