Ever since I fixed baseball a few years back, the public has been clamoring for me to fix our political system. Well, I’m not sure I can fix everything, but we can start with the process of running elections.
Here are my top five recommendations, to start:
1) Dump the electoral college. This one is obvious. People vote for presidents; states don’t vote for presidents. I’m not sure there was ever a good reason for the electoral college, but there certainly isn’t one now, in a country of 300 million people and just 50 states. People in about 47 of those 50 states cast essentially meaningless votes, because their states are tilted red or blue enough that the outcome for that state isn’t really in doubt. But if you live in Ohio, Florida or Pennsylvania, and occasionally a few other states, you get to decide who will be president for the rest of us.
And another thing: we all grow up learning the principle of one person-one vote. And yet in our most important election, we leave it up to “electors,” who are bound to vote for whoever wins their state, but don’t always do so.
2) Reduce the binary nature of our politics.
The two major parties have a stranglehold on our system, and that situation has never been less popular than it is this year. One might think that it would be a great year for an alternate party to rise, but it’s just not going to happen. Reasonable voters’ hatred of The Other Party keeps them from considering anyone else, because they know if they vote for someone besides their own party, then the Others get into power. Democrats have to look back only to 2000 for an example of how a third-party candidate can screw up their election; Republicans, possibly, to 1992.
There’s gotta be a a way around this. One idea that seems to have a lot of promise is instant runoff voting: you vote for your favorite candidate, as usual, but you also get to say who your second choice would be; if nobody gets a majority of the first choices, the second-choice votes are factored into the result. That way, at least in theory, you can cast a ballot for your favorite third-party candidate, but also vote to ensure that your least-favorite candidate doesn’t win. Instant runoff voting, or some other form of ranked voting, or even runoff elections if no candidate gets a majority: all of those would help to raise the viability of third parties, and make our political system more vibrant and hopefully more effective.
3) Require—and make it easy to get—voter IDs. I have always presented a driver’s license when I’ve voted. I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked for it, but I’ve just done it. It has always seemed perfectly reasonable that you should be able to prove who you are when you cast a vote.
On the other hand, I think the suspicions of widespread “voter fraud” that have led to all kinds of voter-ID requirements recently are extremely overblown; in my opinion, they are just a naked excuse for those on the right to restrict voting to as few lower-income people as possible. The thinking, of course, is that people of means have no difficulty in getting the necessary ID, but it’s a lot tougher if you are poor and can’t afford to get a copy of your birth certificate or whatever documentation is needed.
The solution is that everyone, automatically, gets a national ID card, for free. If people have difficulties getting them, then the government provides no-cost assistance in recovering the necessary documentation, whatever it may be. Sure, the government will incur some expense. But if people are using the integrity of our election system as an excuse to deny other people the right to vote, then it’s worth whatever it costs to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote is also able to.
4) Improve and standardize voting machines, with voter-verifiability. This should be ridiculously easy to do in the second decade of the 21st century. Here’s how it should work:
- The voter makes the choices on a touch screen.
- After all contests have been voted on, the voter hits “confirm,” and the votes are put in the system.
- At the same time, the machine prints out a paper “receipt” that shows all of the choices the voter made.
- The voter verifies that what shows on the receipt is what he/she actually chose. (if not, the previous entry can be canceled and the process started over again).
- After having verified that the choices are correctly printed, the voter places the receipt in a secure ballot box.
- The votes are counted on the computer at the end of the day. But also…
- A certain percentage of the precincts (1 percent? 5 percent? whatever) are selected at random to have the printed receipts counted, to verify the counts on the computer.
- In case a recount is required, all of the receipts are available to be counted.
Where I vote, the machine prints a piece of paper, but the paper stays inside the machine, so the voter-verifiability part of the equation is somewhat in question.The ridiculously easy and obvious solution outlined here allows the voter to actually verify that his/her choices are correct, and trust that the proper votes are going into the ballot box. Bonus: no hanging chads!
5) Make Election Day a national holiday. The day of the presidential election is the biggest voting day we have in this country, so many voters end up having to wait in long lines to cast their ballots either before or after work. This is particularly true for those of us who live in states that don’t have early voting. It would be a lot easier if the day were a national holiday, and we could vote whenever in the day is most convenient for us.
And while we’re at it, it would be nice if we could nationalize other aspects of the election as well—like having uniform voting hours, standardized rules for early voting, etc. Right now it’s all up to the states, so we have a patchwork of different voting rules across the country.
So those are my recommendations. They all focus on the actual voting process, not touching on the really tough stuff, like campaign finance reform or the challenge of getting accurate information to the voters. Even so, all of these recommendations require extensive legislative action at the very least, and in some cases constitutional amendments. Which, almost by definition, means they probably won’t happen.
In my next post, though, I’ll offer another solution that requires only individual action—OK, collective individual action—and will improve the quality of elections for everybody.