Notes Book


The paper ballot is going to disappear. It is happening now. The race is on to find a system that will replace it. There are problems of credibility with the new electronic systems coming online, and there are problems with the system the electronic gismos are trying to replace. Since we are facing a period of controversy about the process of voting, we should use this opportunity to upgrade to the best system we can devise.

The cost of information, and information processing is falling rapidly. The average computer user now has access to information services much better than even heads of states had 30 years ago. Voting is a problem of processing and distributing information, so it should be both cheaper and much more convenient than it was 30 years ago, but it is not.

I think the problems with making voting a lot easier are more political than technical. The establishment is not eager to find out how the political landscape would change if voter participation went from its current low of less than 50% to 80% or 90%. Those who don't vote are largely the young, the poor, and the rebellious. That provides a powerful incentive for the old, rich, and conservative people who control our society to keep the system the way it is.

But the whole question of voting is coming under scrutiny, and now is an opportunity to change the system for the better. What would an ideal voting system be like?

There is an inherent problem with the secret ballot. The details of how the ballots are counted are secret from the voter. There is no way for an individual voter to go back and check to see if his vote was actually counted in the way that he intended.

The problem with an open ballot is that of voter coercion. Aggressive groups could coerce timid voters. Faced with a choice between vote counting chicanery with secret ballots, and the open ballots possibility of coerced elections, we have chosen chicanery, but now perhaps we could have a better system with less of both problems.

In the ideal system, the voter would be able to check that her ballot was counted the way she intended, but no one would be able to know how any individual voted except the person who cast the vote. That is an information security problem that may or may not have an elegant solution, but there are certainly practical systems that could get a lot closer to that ideal than the current mess.

The other problem with the current system is the lesser of two evils dilemma. A vast number of voters don't agree with either of the two major party candidates, but if they vote for the person they would truly like to see elected, they stand a good chance of helping elect the person they view as the greater of two evils, as in “A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.” That can be solved with some form of instant runoff voting where a voter has the option of selecting a first, second, and third choice for any office.

The other major problem I see is with the timing of elections. If a corrupt and inept politician is elected to office for four or six years, he can do a lot of damage before the voters have a chance to cast him out, and he may become so rich and powerful through graft and corruption that he can buy the election when his term is up. If the voters had the means to cast out a bad actors immediately when his characters flaws became apparent, then that danger would be greatly reduced.

So the best voting system would allow the voter to check that her vote was counted correctly with a reasonable probability that no one else could find out how she voted. It would use some variation of instant run off voting to minimize the problems with the two-party system, and elections would be held as often as possible to give voters real-time control of their government. Actually, modern technology should allow voting 24/7, 365 days a year. Just set down at your computer, type in your password, and vote anytime you get the urge. The votes could be counted hourly, at least.

Vote slamming could be a problem, just as phone service provider slamming is now, so the system would probably need to send out an email every time someone voted, saying they had voted, but not who for.

We could also have a system of national voter initiatives that would form a living constitution. Voters would be able to un-pass an initiative if it turned out to be a bad idea.

Such a system might initially cause a lot of changes in government personnel and this might weaken the government. Personally, I don't think that would be a bad thing.