Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The way we vote in America (repost)

note : the following is a repost of something I wrote in one of my old blogs on 11/4/04. The original post is here.

I've got a lot on my mind lately so I'm going to try to get it out in chunks. This first thought is about voting in America. I've complained a bunch about this issue here in a number of ways, from a number of angles, but here I want to just get it out all at once.

I could complain about voting and elections on local and state levels but I think that by focusing on complaining about and trying to fix presidential elections, any changes that happen will trickle down and help those smaller elections implicitly.

So, there are 4 main issues that bother me about voting and elections. They are (in no order):

- The machines
- The primary process
- The voting math
- The Electoral College

The top two issues should be combined and become sub-headings in a main issue called : "Letting States each have their own process". Lets talk about that first.

I've argued before that there is no need for states anymore. We are way past that phase of our existence. If you think way back to before our founding, you will see that we were simply a group of states, all with similar values but each with different local ways of doing things. Uniting seemed to be a good idea in the face of opposing forces like England so that's what we did way back in 1776. At the time, there were differences of opinion on how things should be handled at the state level so states got to keep a bunch of power and were allowed to make tons of decisions. That made sense and in our infancy as a country it was a good thing because the states had a serious hand in shaping what collectively would be our national focus and image and belief... (see civil war)…

But now, states are about as useful politically as our appendix. In fact, I feel that states end up causing more problems for our growth then they solve. When a group thinks “me first” all the time, the group as a whole suffers. I could go into this more and provide examples, but this is a post about voting and elections, not the abolishment of states, so I will leave it as an exercise. But think about it for a moment, what does having states gain us as a country? Think more about how cool it would be if as a country we had, say, a federal driver’s license, one where everyone driving had the same test. Staying on driving, think how much more competitive the auto insurance business would be if it could offer the same product in all of America instead of tailoring each offer to the states myriad of laws and regulations…

So states have all this power over federal elections and it’s very odd to me. Each state can decide on how to record the peoples votes, they can decide when to hold the primary elections, they can decide how to hold the primary elections, they can decide how to tabulate the votes and all oversight belongs to them. Now, why should a federal election be decided by a bunch of different methods? Why is this logical at all?

So, back to the machines. Says Mark Christian Miller in Salon today:

“Talk to anyone from a real democracy -- from Canada or any European country or India. They are staggered to discover that 80 percent of our touch-screen electronic voting machines have no paper trail and are manufactured by companies owned by Bush Republicans. But there is very little sense of outrage here. Americans for a host of reasons have become alienated from the spirit of the Bill of Rights and that should not be tolerated.”

This is true. 80% of the new computer voting systems are completely unaccountable. If there is a recount, the people who do it press a button on the machine and it spits out the results again. There is no way to be sure that the votes are valid (meaning, what the voters intended). I’m a computer guy and I feel that with some work I could probably personally come up with an ideal voting machine in software, but in today’s climate, that will never happen with Diebold and the other voting machine makers. They have proprietary code that can’t be checked or verified by anyone external to the company. This is just silly. But it is accepted because there is a huge market. There are at least 50 separate groups of people deciding on which machines to use and within those 50 states, there are in some cases individual counties deciding. If we had one standard voting machine, then there would be one debate on which to choose and the chances of it being the best choice would go up considerably.

There are a few resources to check on this issue. First is an article in the Jan 04 issue of wired about the battle over putting new machines into a county in California. Second is a great website called Black Box Voting that is a watchdog over all these different machines. Third is a great article in Scientific American called “Fixing the Vote” (October 04 issue).

The Primary process in America is a mess. These elections are the foundation of the general election and in my opinion, much more important since they determine the candidates. What I don’t like about the process is that it happens on multiple days. This is an enormous problem for two reasons, it gives certain individual states too much say in the process, and it encourages fear in candidates. The two problems are related to each other as you will see.

So, there are a ton of candidates before the primaries. They all have different points of view and different qualities, some agreeable, some not. But each has his or her own agenda, their own plan. Each is a separate candidate. It is up to us, the members of the party to determine who we think best represents us. It’s up to us to decide who we think can win in November. This sounds like an ideal process doesn’t it? It is.

Lets look at who I could vote for in my primary in Pennsylvania… John Kerry. That’s it. By the time the election got to me and the rest of America, every other candidate had dropped out of the race. Why? Because in the first few primary elections, they lost, or didn’t come in first or second. So they figured they would have no chance. They got scared and their money dried up (since the backers got scared) and had to stop campaigning.

So, because we let some states hold primaries well in advance, the election is held mostly in those states. The rest of America has its choice made for them by Iowa. We are, in a sense disenfranchised from the process. How is this the best way to hold an election? It should be on the same day, the same way, everywhere in America.

Now, I know you’re going to complain and say, “Well those states would otherwise be ignored by the candidates”. I will counter and say this “of course they will, they have low populations”. But I will add this statement to that. In America, with television and the internet and radio, we are in touch with the candidates messages like never before, we don’t need them to come and pander to us. I could care less if a candidate came to my state. I have their websites. I can read their messages and make my decision on my time, in my own home.

So, in my world, we’ve got 10 candidates running together. Can we have a fair election with 10 candidates on the ballot? Have you ever thought about this? Say there are 1001 voters and 7 candidates got 100 votes, 2 candidates got 90 votes and the 10th got 120. In our current system, that candidate (with 12% of the vote) would be the winner. Is this fair? Let’s look a little bit deeper at this…

Say your candidate in the above election was one of the ones with 90 votes, let’s call her candidate A. The winner, candidate X, is someone you, and a bunch of your fellow A supporters, completely despise. If you, and they, knew he was going to win, you would have supported candidate B which was one of the ones with 100 votes and you may have swung the election. This is analogous to the Nader factor in the 2000 election. Most of those voters would have voted for Gore if they knew Bush would win. In a sense, by voting for someone they wanted, they helped someone they didn’t want get elected. Their vote had more power than it should have.

This is a very well understood problem and one that is very heavily studied by mathematicians. There is an amazing article on the subject in the March 2004 issue of Scientific American titled “The Fairest Vote of All”. It seems that most experts on the subject agree that the plurality system we use now is the worst of all the possible choices. This needs to be studied not by mathematicians but by election boards.

And lastly my favorite whipping post, The Electoral College. I won’t go into this too much since it’s been brought up so many times by so many smart people and, like the vote counting systems, it is roundly considered antiquated by the math people. In the 10/15/04 issue of “The Week”, they have a briefing on the College and say that it was developed as a way to stop bigger, more populous states from using their population to elect one of their own as the commander in chief:

“When the founding fathers were drawing up the Constitution, in 1787, there were no political parties, and no real national media. The founders feared that uninformed citizens would simply vote for “favorite sons” from their own states. This prospect particularly alarmed small states and the South, who assumed that Virginia, New York, and the most populous states would elect their own leaders as chief executive every four years. To dilute the big states’ power, James Madison and several other framers devised the elector system. They assumed that the electors would be selected from the ranks of the educated and politically involved, so their choices would presumably be more high-minded and less provincial. To ensure this, the electors were required to submit the name of at least one out-of-state resident in their choices for president and vice president.”

Well, we see that the intent of the system, while good, is a) not how it works today and b) hardly necessary now. If you agree that states are not as useful now as they were in 1787 and agree that every persons vote should count equally (which it doesn’t by the way with the EC.. the same article in The Week explains “a sparsely populated state such as Wyoming—with just 500,000 residents—has one elector for every 165,000 people. California—with more than 33 million residents—has one elector for every 600,000 people. In other words, a vote cast in Wyoming has about four times the weight in the Electoral College as a vote cast in California.”), you would think that the system should be scrapped, or at least changed in some significant way. The election of 2000 and a few others were won by people who didn’t even get the majority of the vote. Is this right? Hardly.

So, that’s my rough outline of what I don’t like about the way we vote here in America and if you agree with me in any way, you have to do something about it. You can’t just sit back and say “yea, totally the way I feel”. You have to amplify this message. You have to write about it yourself, or talk to others about it, or contact your senator or congressman or sate government. We as a people have to change the system for the better and by just reading about it and saying to ourselves that things are fucked up we do nothing. I know there are a lot of people who agree that we need to change the system. The roots of change are certainly becoming evident, but we have to do more. So do something people. Link to this post if that’s all you can do. We need to change things and I’m sick of just getting mad about it.

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