I spent the last two days at the Voting and Elections Summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by the U.S. Vote Foundation, the Overseas Vote Foundation, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, and Fairvote. I’ve long had an interest in civic and political education, and came to the event to get a better sense of that ecosystem.
I was glad to find a very diverse range of groups present at the conference. I mean ‘diverse’ in the sense that the various groups had different niches and approaches, even though they mostly shared a left-of-center sensibility. Some of the talks were excellent, most were informative, and all brought good energy to the problems of electoral reform and civic engagement.
That said, it was frustrating to see how much of that energy was directed towards technology — mainly apps. As an example, one speaker advertised an app that acts as a plug-in to provide instant polling at the bottom of news articles, so that by getting users to vote on policies associated with the story… I really don’t know. It seemed very underpants gnomes to me.
The fact is kids these days have every opportunity they need to comment on (or like or +1 or upvote) stories and ideas that matter to them. There is no shortage of ways for people to express their opinions – and no shortage of apps to help them do it. And it’s great that so many people are doing it. #AppTheVote
The problem is the technology that connects those people and their opinions to government. In a political culture where policymakers routinely ignore carefully-crafted, rigorously-validated polling – not to mention actual hard science – in favor of whatever evidence is more convenient to their ideology, it’s not clear how yet another app will make any difference at all. This is less true for the many voter-ed apps that help people find polling places and learn about candidates, but those apps still don’t answer voters’ doubts that their votes matter or even count.
Where the machinery of elections was specifically addressed, there was yet more enthusiasm for flashy tech over efficient policy. One of the speakers gave a talk on end-to-end verifiability in voting — the basic problem being that voters in the U.S. have no idea whether their votes are actually counted correctly. Because vote counts happen in a black box, unscrupulous election officials and voting computer vendors can change the results without being detected.
Verifiability would fix this, but it depends on cryptography so complicated for the average user that it is not viable. It doesn’t work — at least for right now. When I had a chance to chat with the speaker, I asked him: how much of the problem goes away if you don’t assume a secret ballot? Answer: all of it.
If we don’t have secret ballots, the verifiability problem disappears. Election officials can post the results online, and voters can check to make sure that their results — and everyone else’s — are correct. And the fact is that most people’s voting choices are easily predicted, thanks in part to all the data generated by apps that track their shopping, browsing, and viewing habits.
There are lots of good reasons for open voting (this link again) but verifiability is foremost. And it can be done in a way that allows people to opt-in if they want a secret ballot. People should be allowed to choose between secrecy and verifiability — and maybe someday the tech will catch up so that we can choose both. Right now we feel secure in our vote, but we don’t actually know that it is doing anything.
The enthusiasm for technology overshadowed some of the less sexy — but more substantive — ideas shared at the conference. Fairvote in particular talked about efforts in Maryland cities to give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote in local elections. I think this is a fantastic idea (full disclosure: I have applied to work at Fairvote, which is how I learned about the conference).
In discussing the idea in the day two workshops, someone pointed out that it is quite common in other countries for residents of cities to be vote in local elections, even if they are not national citizens. This is a ‘best practice’ in developed democracies, according to some participants.
It seems to me that there is a way to integrate these ideas, which I think can be called ‘graduated voting’. The phrase is more often used to describe schemes by which corporate shareholder voting rights are apportioned, but here I’m using it to describe a process by which people with no real voting rights can increase their participation in the electorate.
The basis for graduated voting is that the (implicit) Federal right to vote for citizens older than 18 does not prevent local jurisdictions from establishing different rules — and restrictions — on voting in local elections. So it is perfectly legal for a local jurisdiction to say that 16-year-olds continuously enrolled in high school for the last two years are allowed to vote in school board elections.
So a local jurisdiction or state could — perfectly legally — create a process which applied both to high school students and non-citizens, granting them local voting rights if certain criteria are met. For example, let’s imagine a county called Voterdale: the County Board creates a civics class focused on local citizenship that is taught to all 9th graders in Voterdale County schools. Students who complete the class are then allowed to vote in all Voterdale elections.
Meanwhile, non-US-citizens living in Voterdale — after meeting a four-year residency requirement — can take an adapted version of the same civics class in adult ed. Once they complete the class, they too enjoy voting rights in Voterdale, along with the full range of county services allowed to US citizens living in Voterdale. This helps immigrants assimilate and be more engaged, while side-stepping some of the problems created by Federal immigration policy.
The best part is that what counts as a ‘citizen’ of Voterdale is left up to the citizens of Voterdale. Granted, they can’t restrict U.S. citizens from voting in local elections, but they at least have the option to include anyone else. Keep in mind that any U.S. citizen who moves to Voterdale might be able to vote a matter of weeks after. It seems fair to extend similar rights to a non-citizen resident who has lived in the community for years — and especially to a teenager who has spent their entire life in Voterdale.
Graduated voting could help answer two significant problems: getting young people involved, and getting immigrants engaged. It’s a simple, easy-to-understand policy change, that will require actual work because of entrenched interests. That makes it a lot less sexy than a flashy new app — and which one gets the money and the buzz?
The worst part of the conference — by far — was the fact that people hardly said the word ‘politics’ except as an epithet. The apps presented were mostly based on technological fantasies about human behavior, not political realities. One speaker called politics “warfare” — the tired Prussian lie — without any challenge from his fellow panelists.
A significant set — maybe a majority — of the speakers seemed indifferent or ill-informed about politics as politics (as opposed to party politics). And because they could not apprehend the problems in our voting and elections as political problems, they could not undertake the strategic thought necessary to address those problems. I reckon we’ll be having these Summits every year until the Emperor bans them, but at least we’ll still have apps.
The problems around voting and elections in the U.S. are mostly — and firstly — political problems, and solving them takes political work. But it also takes knowledge of politics, in the broadest and most liberal sense. The fact that such knowledge is so scarce is a serious liability for our reformist and dissident classes, and gives me some measure of despair.
On the other hand, one more highlight from the conference: I met Krist Novoselic, bassist for Nirvana and chair of Fairvote’s board. He seems cool.