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New Democracy

Every election will be "The election that technology X changed forever."

Pundits like to point out when some new media technology changes seriously changed politics. When I was young, everybody talked about how the Kennedy-Nixon debates ushered in the era of the TV candidate and changed politics forever. (It did indeed seem unlikely a candidate in a wheelchair from polio could win today, but in fact in Bob Dole and John McCain we have two candidates without full use of their arms.)

No doubt when radio came into play there was similar commentary.

Random audits of ballot generators

Today I attended a session led by Ka-Ping Yee at our Foresight Nanotech unconference on some of his new thinking in voting machines. While Ping was presenting a system to secure the type of voting machines we've been saddled with of late, both he, I and many others like the idea of an open source system which divides the ballot generator from the ballot counter. In such a system you have two machines. One helps the voter prepare a standard ballot that is human readable.

Mutliple candidate voting

Continuing our discussion of the goals of voting systems, today I want to write about ballots that let you vote for more than one candidate in the same race. Many people have seen Preferential voting where you rank the candidates in order of how much you like them. This is used in Australia, and many private elections such as for the Hugo Awards. The most widely known preferential ballot is Single Transferable Vote and its cousin the instant-runoff. Many election theorists, however view these as the worst possible system. I prefer the Condorcet method with the modification that the cases where it fails, it is declared a tie, or a second type of election is used to break the tie. While it has been demonstrated that all preferential ballots have failure modes where they choose somebody that seems illogical based on the voters' true desires, this does not have to be true when a tie is possible.

Multiple candidate votes would provide a dramatic improvement in the US -- they are already used in many other places. They would have entirely eliminated the question of minor candidates "splitting" or spoiling the vote. There would have been no question in Florida of 2000, with Al Gore defeating George W. Bush (and at least by the popular vote, some feel that Bill Clinton would have lost to George Bush the elder, and there's strong evidence the electoral margin would have at least been smaller.) This is in fact what prevents them from being used -- there is always somebody in power who is going to conclude they would have lost has there been a multi-candidate ballot in place. Such people will fight it harder than advocates push it.

Small party candidates want it because it gives them a chance to be heard. Voters who like them can safely express that preference without fear of "spoiling" the race among the frontrunners. Given that, small candidates can eventually become frontrunners. In the 2 party system, as we've seen, any time a minor candidate like Ralph Nader gets popular enough that he might actually make a difference, the result is cries of "Ralph, don't run" and a dropping of support from those who fear that problem.

How valuable is voter turnout?

In my series on the design of new voting systems, I would now like to discuss the question of high voter turnout as a goal for such systems.

Everybody agrees in enfranchisement as a goal for voting systems. Nobody eligible should find voting impossible, or even particularly hard. (And, while it may not be possible due to disabilities, it should be equally easy for a voters.)

However, there is less agreement about trading off other goals to make it trivial to vote. Some voting systems accept that there will be a certain bar of effort required to vote, and don't view it as a problem that those who will not make a certain minimum effort -- registering to vote, and coming down to a polling station -- don't vote. Other systems try to lower that bar as much as possible, with at-home voting by mail, or vote-by-internet and vote-by-phone in private elections. And many nations, such as Australia, even make voting compulsory, with fines if you don't vote.

What makes this question interesting is the numbers. With 50% voter turnouts, or even less if there is not an "interesting" race, not having trivial voting "disenfranchises" huge numbers of voters. The numbers dwarf any other number in election issues, be it more standard disenfranchisements of minorities or the disabled, or any election fraud I've ever heard about. A decision on this issue can be the most election-changing of any. Australia has 96% voter turnout, and it had 47% turnout before it passed the laws in 1924 compelling voting.

Giving up the unprovable ballot

Yesterday, I wrote about election goals. Today I want to talk about one of the sub-goals, the non-provable ballot, because I am running into more people who argue it should be abandoned in favour of others goals. Indeed, they argue, it has already been abandoned.

As I noted, our primary goal is that voters cast their true desire, independent of outside pressure. If voters can't demonstrate convincingly how they voted (or indeed if it's easy to lie) then they can say one thing to those pressuring them and vote another way without fear of consequences. This is sometimes called "secret ballot" but in fact that consists of two different types of secrecy.

The call to give this up is compelling. We can publish, to everybody, copies of all the ballots cast -- for example, on the net. Thus anybody can add up the ballots and feel convinced the counts are correct, and anybody can look and find their own ballot in the pool and be sure their vote was counted. If only a modest number of random people take the time to find their ballot in the published pool, we can be highly confident that no significant number of ballots have not been counted, nor have they been altered or miscounted. It becomes impossible to steal a ballot box or program a machine not to count a vote. It's still possible to add extra ballots -- such as the classic Chicago dead voters, though with enough checking even this can be noticed by the public if it's done in one place.

The result is a very well verified election, and one the public feels good about. No voter need have any doubt their vote was counted, or that any votes were altered, miscounted, lost or stolen. This concept of "transparency" has much to recommend it.

Further, it is argued, many jurisdictions long ago gave up on unprovable ballots when they allowed vote by mail. The state of Oregon votes entirely by mail, making it trivial to sell your ballot or be pushed into showing it to your spouse. While some jurisdictions only allow limited vote by mail for people who really can't get to the polls, some allow it upon request. In California, up to 40% of voters are taking advantage of this.

Having given up the unprovable ballot, why should we not claim all the advantages the published ballot can give us? Note that the published ballots need not have names on them. One can give voters a receipt that will let them find their true ballot but not let anybody who hasn't seen the receipt look up any individual's vote. So disclosure can still be optional.

Goals of Voting Systems

This week I was approached by two different groups seeking to build better voting systems, something I talk about here in my new democracy topic. The discussions quickly got into all the various goals we have for voting systems, and I did some more thinking I want to express here, but I want to start by talking about the goals. Then shortly I will talk about the one goal both systems wanted to abandon, namely the inability to prove how you voted.

Many of the goals we talk about are actually sub-goals of the core high-level goals I will outline here. The challenge comes because no system yet proposed doesn't have to trade off one goal for another. This forces us to examine these goals and see which ones we care about more.

The main goals, as I break them out are: Accuracy, Independence, Enfranchisement, Confidence and Cost. I seek input on refining these goals, though I realize there will be some overlap.

Anti-gerrymandering formulae

A well known curse of many representative democracies is gerrymandering. People in power draw the districts to assure they will stay in power. There are some particularly ridiculous cases in the USA.

I was recently pointed to a paper on a simple, linear system which tries to divide up a state into districts using the shortest straight line that properly divides the population. I have been doing some thinking of my own in this area so I thought I would share it. The short-line algorithm has the important attribute that it's fixed and fairly deterministic. It chooses one solution, regardless of politics. It can't be gamed. That is good, but it has flaws. Its district boundaries pay no attention to any geopolitical features except state borders. Lakes, rivers, mountains, highways, cities are all irrelevant to it. That's not a bad feature in my book, though it does mean, as they recognize, that sometimes people may have a slightly unusual trek to their polling station.

Can the big web sites save the political system

I've written before about one of the greatest flaws in the modern political system is the immense need of candidates to raise money (largely for TV ads) which makes them beholden to contributors, combined with the enhanced ability incumbents have at raising that money. Talk to any member of congress and they will tell you they start work raising money the day after the election.

Switching to popular vote from electoral college

A proposal by a Stanford CS Prof for a means to switch the U.S. Presidential race from electoral college to popular vote is gaining some momentum. In short, the proposal calls for some group of states representing a majority of the electoral college to agree to an inter-state compact that they will vote their electoral votes according to the result of the popular vote.

Nascar Stickers for Political leaders

We all know that racecar drivers wear jumpsuits plastered with the logos of the companies that have sponsored them.

Why not have the same system for members of the legislature? When they vote on bills, they would need to wear a suit with patches from Halliburton, Exxon, AT&T or any other companies that have given them major contributions. Larger contribution, larger patch.

Wanted -- a system to anonymously test the support of radical ideas

How often does it happen? There's an important idea or action which is controversial. The bravest come out in support of it early, but others are wary. Will support for this idea hurt them in other circles? Is the idea against the "party line" of some group they belong to, even though a sizeable number of the group actually support it? How can you tell.

YA Call for preferential ballot

We see the talk of an America divided in 2, but in fact it's not. There are more viewpoints than that. Normally a 2 party system tends towards the middle, this election was unusual in having a larger than normal difference among the candidates.

But perhaps now is the time to take the Democratic energy and try to push it into a movement for real reform. Not ballot recounts, not crazy dreams that can never happen.

On the merits of the Electoral College

There has been much writing (including here) about problems with the Electoral College in the USA, and I've even proposed solutions such as a tiebreaking system for close votes. I also noted the amazing coincidence that in the 4 times the winner of the college lost the popular vote, 3 were the 3 times we had a son or granson of a President elected.

But I thought it might be worth exploring the merits of the college, even though most individuals want it abolished. (Though no smaller states want it abolished since it gives them disproportionate power.)

Why do elected officials preside over what voters don't care about?

A lot of our democratic process involves our elected officials voting and presiding over things that voters are not going to change their vote over. Oh, they are important things, and the voters actually do care about them, but they are not going to change many votes.

That's especially true now. In deciding whether to re-elect your congresscritter, is how they voted on say FCC spectrum policy going to make a difference to you, compared to their stance on bigger issues like the war and the economy? Even when spectrum policy matters a lot to you?

New computer enabled legislative body

One of my interests is "new democracy" -- concepts of governance that could only exist due to the revelution in the technologies of organization that computers have brought. (I feel that one way to view the purpose of government is as a technology of organization.)

Official Candidate Picker

I recently tried one of those online surveys that tries to tell you which candidate is actually most in line with your policy beliefs. These are fun, but subject to bias.

In keeping with my New Democracy category, I started wondering if there was a way to make this process official, and unbiased. It's an interesting process because often these surveys surprise the voter, who, based on campaign ads or peer pressure don't realize they are highly in agreement with a smaller-party platform.

Political Spam == Campaign Finance Reform?

I've maintained for some time that while most spam is commercial, whether something is spam is not dependent on it being commercial. Charity spam, religious spam and political spam are just as bothersome as Viagra spam.

However, fellow EFFer Larry Lessig challenged me on this by asking whether we might want to allow political spam. Spam is super-cheap to send (that's one reason it's a problem) but as a very cheap form of advertising it could be an equalizer when it comes to campaign expenses, since a candidate would low-funding could spam almost as well as one with boatloads of special interest money. That's unlike TV advertising, where the better funded candidate wins the game.

I have to admit that the current way elections are funded and political influence is bought and sold is a much more important problem than spam, so this is a question worth looking at.

Of course, it would be stupid for a politician to spam, even though they have exempted themselves from the spam laws. Spam generates such ill will (appropriately too) that I think a spam campaign from a candidate would backfire. Plus, I really don't like the idea of regulating spam based on what it says -- If it says one thing it's banned, if it says another it's OK.

But is there a germ of something worthwhile in here? What if the election officials managed the mailing list and voters had to be on it, for example.

Open Source voting machines

As I noted earlier, there are all sorts of risks with remote voting over the internet, even if I suggest a way to make it doable. However, this is different from the question of voting machines. Like the folks at Verified Voting I believe that a voter-verifiable paper ballot is the simplest way to make computerized voting more secure. And I like voting machines because they can improve access and even make preferential ballot possible down the road.

Secure Internet Voting

In general, I agree with the recommendations several security experts wrote condemning the new overseas military voting system SERVE, because voters used unsecure Windows PCs to vote.

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