Yesterday, I attended the festivities in Selma, Alabama marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Voting Rights. Almost every speaker spoke of the threats facing voting rights today, referencing the efforts by various state legislatures making it harder to vote. For example, Obama said: “Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”
However, no speaker made explicit the two stories of what’s really going on here:
STORY 1: If everyone voted, the Republican Party, as it is organized today, would face an existential threat.
Take this Pew Poll of non-voters linked here:
If you bring non-voters into the fold, support for Republican candidates and Conservative ideologies fall:
- 47% of likely voters supported Romney in October 2012 while 39% of all adults supported Romney because only 24% of non-voters supported Romney.
- 51% of likely voters viewed Obama favorably in October 2012 while 56% of all adults viewed him favorably, because 64% of non-voters viewed him favorably.
- 44% of likely voters consider themselves Ideologically Conservative, while only 38% of all adults do, because only 28% of non-voters view themselves as Conservative.
If you bring non-voters into the fold, demographic groups that generally support Republican candidates wane (and vice versa for demographic groups supporting Democratic candidates):
- 74% of likely voters are White, while only 68% of all adults are White because only 59% of non-voters are White.
- 20% of likely voters make less than $30,000 while 32% of all adults make less than $30,000 because 52% of non-voters make less than $30,000.
- 54% of likely voters are over 50, while 35% of all adults are over 50, because only 28% of non-voters are over 50.
- 13% of likely voters are under 29, while 21% of all adults are under 29, because 36% of all non-voters are under 21.
As you might expect from the facts above, if you bring non-voters into the fold, support for left-wing economic policy increases:
- 39% of likely voters believe the government should do more to solve problems, but 44% of all adults do because 52% of non-voters believe the government should do more.
- 49% of likely voters believe that Obamacare should be repealed, but only 43% of all adults do because only 31% of non-voters believe it should be repealed.
These 5-10% differences seem small, but given that most elections are decided by differences of this small size means that this matters: if all non-voters had been voters in the last 10 elections, American politics would be completely different. Specifically, it would be different in the Democratic coalition’s favor.
I don’t mean to be so partisan, but this seems to be the story that the facts are laying out:
- Among likely voters, the party coalitions are roughly balanced, ping-ponging electoral victories back and forth;
- Non-voters skew towards the Democratic coalition; and thus
- If all potential voters voted, the Democratic coalition would have a solid, more permanent majority in American politics.
Given this, it’s not surprising that Republican Party mega-strategists would, at best, not support efforts to have more non-voters vote, and, at-worst, discourage increased voter turnout.
So, that’s what’s probably happening here: Republican-controlled state legislatures are making it harder to vote based on a puffed-up “voter fraud threat”, Democrats are doing their best to parry such attempts, and serious efforts to dramatically increase voter participation are voted down or blocked because only one party has an interest in voter expansion being achieved.
STORY TWO: “Increasing voting rights” today is a technology question masquerading as a political question.
So what do we do about this voting scuffle between the Republican coalition (which has an interest in limiting voting people) and the Democratic coalition (which has an interest in expanding voting to more people)?
Well, the first thing we have to affirm that it’s not our formal democratic system’s problem that the Republican coalition doesn’t have a popular majority. That’s their problem to figure out. The democratic system’s job is to make sure our government is accountable to the will of the People. The integrity of the democratic system should be preserved and fortified regardless of the present consequences for either party coalition. Attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will should be called out for what they are: “attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will.”
The second thing is to remember that the spirit of a democratic electoral process is not the literal act of going to ‘polling places’ and ‘casting ballots’, but rather the general idea of having the People choose their governing officials. Too often, I’ve heard people act as if the literal technological mechanisms of voting are what voting is about: for example, I’ve heard many people say “If you’re too lazy to go to a polling place to vote, then you shouldn’t be able to vote” or “if you don’t have it in you to get an ID, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” But that’s an arbitrary poll test, one that’s randomly based on the technology we happen to use to transmit People’s wills to be centrally counted. Again, the spirit of electoral democracy is that the People choose their governing officials, not any specific literal task that was necessitated by the technology needed to transmit the public Will to a central counting mechanism.
One way to put it is to say that there are two different concepts that make up elections: (1) The political mission of elections: “Transmit the People’s will for certain candidates into a formal decision of who is elected”; and (2) The electoral technology that is used to achieve that mission: IDs, registration, voting, ballots, counting, election commissions, etc.
We can have a political debate over what the mission of elections should be, over who should be able to vote. For example, I believe every adult citizen should be able to vote. Someone else might believe that the imprisoned shouldn’t be able to vote. Someone else might believe that permanent resident non-citizens should be able to vote. This is a political debate.
But, all this voting rights back and forth — voter ID, same-day registration — is actually discussions about the technology we should use to achieve the mission of voting. It’s masquerading as a political debate, but its actually just those interested in limiting voting using ambiguity around the technological mechanisms of voting to limit voting. It would be the equivalent of a town voting to design a building a certain way and then someone from the losing vote side using ambiguity of brick masonry practices or blueprinting technology to achieve their original intention.
The technology challenge of elections is hard, but simple:
- Your technology system needs to transmit choices from people across a geographic area to a centralized counting mechanism and then publish those results.
- Your technology system needs to make sure that those who are issuing their choices meet certain criteria (above 18, American citizen, from the proper district).
- Your technology system needs to make sure that its counting’s integrity cannot be compromised in an environment where people will have a deep interest in compromising it.
- Your technology system needs to be able to be audited to verify 2 & 3.
This is do-able: Banks protect money in an environment where people want to steal money, the government processes tax information from across the country to a centralized source, etc. But this is a technology challenge that engineers should work on, not politicians. Like with all other technology challenges the state faces (the Pentagon building a tank, the IRS running a website) the officials should set a mission, hire people (like engineers) to achieve that mission and then verify if the results achieve that mission. They shouldn’t use the middle engineering process of developing an adequate technology as a political tool to achieve their own private mission counter to the agreed-upon mission.
Given these beliefs above, you can think bigger about Voting Rights than the small ball that those at Selma50 were speaking to.
We have had the political debate about elections and decided: most every adult citizen should play a role in our formal democracy, having their preferences counted in our elections regardless the color of their skin, their gender, and their income.
Given this political conclusion we should have election technology that lives up to this mission. If we believe everyone should play a role in elections, our electoral technology should work to ensure that. We should see low voter turnout as a technology problem, not as an apathy problem. We should say: “If the government can get every male over 18 to register for selective service; if it can track all our phones and emails; if it can collect taxes from us every year…then it can get our voting preferences every two years.”
Let’s use the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act to start a VOTING APOLLO PROGRAM that aims to achieve 99% voter participation by the 2020 election.
The government wasted almost $5 billion on a failed replacement of Marine 1 Helicopters for the White House. What if we spent $5 billion on election technology that achieved the following:
- Complete integrity: (A) Ensures each voter fits requirements of voting (18, American citizen, proper location); (B) Ensures counting’s integrity is not compromised; (C) Ensures counting is auditable by everyone.
- Easy participation: (A) You can vote online anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election; (B) You can vote offline in various places (post-offices, McDonalds, schools, etc.) anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election.
- Constant reminders: (A) You are emailed constant reminders to vote with direct links to webpages where you can vote; (B) You are snail-mailed constant reminders to vote with direct return envelopes to vote; (C) You are reminded in public to vote and provided with public kiosks to vote right there.
In short, a Voting Apollo Program would achieve full voter participation and integrity protections through election technology fit for the internet age.
Yes, there are thousands of technological details of achieving this mission that are going to be hard. But, there were also a lot of technological details of achieving the mission of inventing the internet and going to the moon. This is beyond achievable by our country.
Full voter participation through serious investment in the technology of voting expansion can be our Edmund Pettus Bridge. Let’s not play small-ball on the sidelines of full voter participation. Let’s cross the bridge.