Earlier this year, I started a series on fixing U.S. democracy. Today let me look at the problem I identified as #3: Voter turnout and the excessive power of GOTV.
In a big political campaign, fundraising is king, and most of the money goes to broadcast advertising. But a lot of that advertising, a lot of the other money, and most of the volunteer effort goes to something else called GOTV or “Get Out the Vote.” Come to help a campaign and it’s likely that’s what you will be asked to do.
US elections have terrible turnout. Under 50% in the 1996 Presidential election, and only 57% in more recent contested elections. In off-years and local elections, the turnout is astonishingly low. Turnout is very low in certain minorities as well.
Because turnout is so low, the most cost effective way to gain a vote for your side is to convince somebody who weakly supports you to show up at the polls on election day. Your ads may pretend to attempt to sway people from the other side, or the small number of “undecideds,” but a large fraction of the ads are just trying to make sure your supporters take the trouble to vote. Most of them won’t, but those you can get count as much as any other vote you get. So you visit and phone all these mild supporters, you offer them rides to the polling place, you do everything legal you can to identify them and get them out, and in some cases, to scare the supporters of your opponent.
Is this how a nation should elect its leaders? By who can do the best job at getting the lukewarm supporters to make the trip on election day? It seems wrong. I will go even further, and suggest that the 45% or more who don’t vote are in some sense “disenfranchised.” Clearly not in the strong sense of that word, where we talk about voter suppression or legal battles. But something about the political system has made them feel it is too much of a burden to vote and so they don’t. Those who do care find that hard to credit, they think of them as just lazy, or apathetic, and wonder if we really want to hear the voice of such people.
GOTV costs money, and as such, it is a large factor in what corrupts our politics. If GOTV becomes less effective, it can help reduce the influence of money in politics. It’s serious work. Many campaigns send out people to canvass the neighbourhoods not to try to sway you, but just to figure out who is worth working on for GOTV.
Many countries in the world make it compulsory to vote. If your name is not checked off at the polling place, you get fined. Australia is often given as an example of this, with a 91% turnout, though countries like Austria and New Zealand do better without compulsory voting. But it does seem to make a difference.
Compulsory voting would severely reduce GOTV if the penalty were high enough. If combined with making voting easier, it could come close to killing GOTV’s power. It should also be pointed out that a person who votes for this reason should have the right to submit a blank ballot (usually they already can) and that if voting is made very easy, they can even be encouraged to submit a blank ballot if they truly don’t care. But anybody who cares mildly — the targets of GOTV — would just vote if it were easy and compulsory.
You may feel we don’t want these lukewarm voters to be deciding our elections, but they already are, or worse, whoever has the bigger GOTV machine is what decides our elections by exploiting them. As much as we might like it, “Elections should be decided only by those who care enough to make the effort” just isn’t an option on the table.
Compulsory voting would probably have to be enacted by individual states, not federally under the constitution. Some argue the constitution still forbids this — that you have a right not to vote as much as you have a right to vote — but this might be addressed by the explicit blank ballot. And Obamacare recently showed you can kludge around this with a tax rather than a fine.
Easy voting at home
The states with the highest turnout make it easy to vote. Oregon has all vote-by-mail and has the 6th highest turnout. Minnesota is the consistent winner with 67% turnout due to same-day registration, as does Maine at #2. But Oregon’s 60%, while 8% above the national average, is hardly a great victory.
This has made me reconsider something I’ve had a longstanding opposition to, namely electronic voting, and beyond that, electronic voting at home.
We’ve been fighting electronic voting for a long time because it’s very hard to make it secure. Most voting machine designs have been terrible, and create a real risk that somebody could corrupt them to alter elections in a way we couldn’t detect by auditing. There are much better designs used in a few places, but the first wave of machines were clearly flawed and had to be fought.
Electronic voting at home has always been a non-starter. Your home computer, your phone and the public data networks are insecure. They can be easily hacked and made to steal or corrupt your vote if you used them. Electronic voting at home also must be counted in a purely electronic central computer which can be corrupted.
But electronic voting offers a number of advantages. US elections are hugely complex compared to the rest of the world, with dozens of races on typical ballots. A nice screen based UI can guide voters through the process, and work in many languages or even with voice for the illiterate. The millions of disabled, notably the blind, also feel voting machines are a blessing, allowing them the fundamental right to vote in private for the first time.
Voting from home would offer huge benefits as well. It eliminates many types of voter suppression around polling places, or people who don’t have enough time to vote on a workday. It eliminates the hour-long waits found at many polls in busy elections which clearly disenfranchise or discourage many. The difference is so huge, I’ve decided to give electronic voting a second look.
Hybrid paper/electric voting
In brief, voters are issued paper ballots in the mail or at polling stations in the weeks leading up to an election. These ballots, for each race, show a short code number beside each choice, and a second response code number. You can go up to any terminal, even a hacked, corrupted one, and vote by entering in the code number for your choice. The computer must then show the response code and if you see it, your vote was counted at the central server — if we can trust the central server. Voters are allowed to request extra ballots and declare only one of their various ballots to be functional. This lets them pretend to sell non-functional ballots to those who would buy or coerce their ballots.
An alternate version of this puts the secrets into a SIM card. You can take the SIM card and put it in any SIM phone — yours or a friend’s or one down at a shop, and run the election app to cast your vote securely, as long as the SIM is not hackable.
This system would work, though it’s not perfect. Parties would generate their own voting apps to encourage their faithful to vote straight up and down the ticket, discouraging dissent. People would still hack into computers to tweak the UI to encourage certain candidates. People would do fear campaigns — as they already do with other systems — to sway how people vote. Work would need to be done to fight these and other issues.
As noted, this still needs to trust the central voting server, which among other things knows the secret keys behind the ballot codes. Naturally we would work extra hard to secure this machine and its keys, but we would also ask voters to mail in their marked paper ballots as well, though they can mail them after the election. Then, random audits can be conducted to assure that these ballots were correctly recorded. (An additional check number from the server would assure that fake ballots are not considered in this.) More challenging is reliably detecting the creation of false ballots for people who never voted, but this can be mitigated with states pulled during the day.
The result would be quite dramatic. I believe a lot more people would vote. Combined with a fine for not voting and an easy way to cast a null vote, turnout could approach that of the more dedicated countries (like you, Austria with your 92%.)
And GOTV would be a thing of the past, and candidates would need to go back to winning votes by swaying voters, which is how it’s supposed to work. Of course they would continue to raise money to try to sway those voters, which is what I’ll address in other elements of this series.
Making voting too easy
There is one counter-factor worth considering. If voting is super easy, it becomes easier to convince somebody to vote. If you get easy voting but still low turnout, GOTV becomes cheaper. Of course, if GOTV becomes very cheap, then that possibly is positive because candidates don’t need to raise a lot of money to do it, and the real issue is that they feel they must raise lots of money to be elected. The issue with money in politics is that as long as money can be turned into votes, all candidates are forced to spend and raise lots of money. If votes are cheap, and a modest sum can GOTV all the low-hanging fruit lukewarm voters, there is no longer a big difference bought by raising a lot.