How do we fix the broken electoral system?

September 19, 2008

Yes, I’m alive, faithful blog readers (both of you). I was in Europe, is my excuse.

While I was there, I had plenty of talks with plenty of my fellow cruise ship passengers on the topic of American politics and the sorry state our nation is in. Yes, we’re in the kind of sorry state where Sarah Palin, a purely politically motivated VP choice who brings absolutely nothing to the table, can give John McCain a big, although relatively short-lived, boost in the polls. Turns out that at least some of the American people finally noticed that she doesn’t actually know anything or have anything meaningful to say.

But that’s sort of the issue with our politics, then, isn’t it? People don’t vote based on information, but rather on vague soundbites and tidbits of misinformation that they get, for example, out of cable news (that’s right, Fox, I’m talking about you, but you’re not the only one). They vote based on what their preachers tell them, what their unions tell them, what the TV tells them, what the internet tells them. As a result, the American people have fallen into the miserable habit of not voting in their own best interests, and this is a problem. There is also a secondary (and surely related) problem, which is that many American people have become so disenchanted with the political system that they don’t turn out to vote.

But for every problem (except perhaps the Israel-Palestine conflict) there is a solution. Here is mine.

It’s necessary to preface the following with this: For my voting system to work, the government (probably the federal government) will need to invest in electronic voting machines for the entire nation. And when I say that we will need to invest in electronic voting machines, I mean three things: no outside contractors, no involvement of elected officials except to authorize and fund the program, and emphasis on the best possible security. Without these, there is no electoral system. That said, carry on.

All registered voters in the United States will receive in the mail a card with, for the sake of argument, 20 statements on it, in the style of this website. That is to say, the card will ask you for your position on these 20 issues — not race, religion, family, whether you’d like to have a beer with the candidate or any of the other meaningless claptrap that invades our elections — by having you to indicate whether you agree strongly agree, disagree, strongly disagree or feel neutral with regard to each and every statement. You can also indicate what issues (up to five, let’s say) are of particular importance to you. The (presidential) candidates get cards too; they submit their views before the election takes place. 

The statements will be created by an independent, non-partisan commission, and will include all the most pertinent contemporary issues, as decided by the commission. They will be clearly worded so as to avoid confusion. Finally, they will require approval by a bipartisan Senate committee where neither party has more members than the other and each party is represented by senators whose views are in line with their party’s platform (yes, Joe Liebermans and Zell Millers of the world, that means you’re out) — and the way we do this is that each party’s committee chair picks the committee representatives.

When the American people go to vote, they take their cards with them. They feed their cards into the voting machines. The voting machines calculate to what degree their views are in line with those of the candidates and display the proper match by percentage. You’re not required to vote for this person; it’s just telling you whose views and priorities are most in line with your own. Then you vote.

Here are the pros and cons of the system as I see them:

Pros:

  • Helps eliminate voter fraud by requiring voters to have the card, which contains identifying information.
  • Should motivate more voters to engage in research on the issues they’re not well informed about. I’m not so naive to think that it would make everyone do this, or even the majority of people, but “more than before” is a pretty good goal for the time being.
  • Lets voters know how they match up with the candidates on the issues rather than on meaningless “issues” created by the campaigns or the media.

The downside is that these statements can be vague; this is probably the biggest problem. If, for example, you had a question that went, “The United States should engage in offshore drilling for petroleum,” many people would say, “Oh, yes, reducing our dependence on foreign oil! Let’s do it!” But that statement doesn’t factor in that it’d be decades before the oil came out of the ground and that even then the potential supply is not very big. Of course, if you included all the details in the statement, things would become much too muddled and confused, and Republicans would of course object because the statement becomes worded in such a way that voters are inclined to indicate the Democratic view. So if you do it one way it’s not fair, but if you do it the other way, it’s still not fair. Problems like this will apply to issues such as taxation as well.

The best possible solution I see to this is to include some manner of pamphlet in the mail with the voting cards that gives verified, fact-checked numbers on every issue that requires it, and statements by the candidates on every issue that isn’t about numbers (or sometimes a combination of the two). And I do mean by the candidates, not by speechwriters or advisors. The most important thing, I think, is that the numbers are independently verified by expert economists and submitted to the public domain so that they can be rejected if there is a legitimate error. Factual accuracy is the top priority here. People can choose to read the pamphlet or not, but either way they’ll have all the facts there for the reading. What they do with those facts is their own concern.

So there you go. It won’t be easy to implement, and the political establishment in our country probably won’t like it, but this is, in my view, the best way to stimulate the American people to vote based on reality. It’s not exclusive like an intelligence test would be and it doesn’t force you to vote in any one way; it just lets you know where you’re at.

I think the American people deserve that.

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