Last Friday, my wife and I locked eyes across the table from each other. I studied her face, and she studied mine. Between us lay the objects of our conflict: five Blu-ray movies, and we had to decide which one to watch. We’re not Millennials, so there was no way we were watching a double-header. That would have meant staying up past our usual bedtime (which gets closer to 7:00 p.m. every year). Laugh now, you 20-somethings, but call me in thirty years, after your children and grandchildren have taken their toll, and I’ll taunt you in the line at the early diners’ buffet.
We had to make a decision. There was no clear-cut favorite, so we resorted to a system we’d devised early in our marriage: Toss Out The Worst, Then Second And First. This is a simple process. Each of us vetoes one film from the pile, something we just don’t want to watch. That leaves three to choose from, and each of us points out our first and second choices. This makes it easy to find middle ground, and we don’t end up watching something one of us really dreads (I’m looking at you, “Steel Magnolias”). Many times, we have different first choices but a common second choice—an easy decision.
Why am I bringing this up on a technology blog, you ask? Simple. As a technologist, I’m dismayed that we don’t use technology to better enable our democratic process. We force people to choose one candidate per party without narrowing the field with broad involvement by everyone.
Here in the US, we’re in a presidential election year. It dominates the old-style media, the middle-aged blogosphere, and the newly minted social media channels. We have many ways to communicate with each other about any sentiment we have, including political views, but the election process is stuck somewhere between 1804 (when the 12th Amendment was ratified) and 1984 (when computer terminals were rare and never owned by individuals).
Without any political leaning, I’d like to suggest what many have suggested before me. Why don’t we apply some technology to the process? Some ideas are:
- 1Use smartphone apps to certify and receive votes for primaries. Why force people to go to central locations when technology allows at least as good, if not better, validation through individual devices? According to Pew Research, 64% of us have smartphones, and 84% have a home computer. That’s a great argument for most of us using that technology instead of being required to be there in person. It would discourage fraud, as identities could be kept secret, but the physical device (PC or phone) would be discoverable in case of widespread misdeeds. And there would be ample options at libraries or public buildings for those without tech at home. We could use the same approach for general elections.
- 2Rearrange the primary and caucus system to allow voters in more states to weigh in earlier. There is no modern reason to keep the current “Iowa First” system. Or even a system that allows each state to weigh in only once for each party. We could have two rounds of nationwide primaries that whittle down each party’s field—or suggest candidates to draft into running. The technologies we have make this a simple proposition. (If you think I’m out of line here, you should read the original political papers that supported creating the electoral college. They were put in place to suppress political parties and have “offices seek the man, not the man seek the office.”)
- 3Allow primary voters to show who they won’t support, as well as first and second choices.
- 4Allow independent voters to vote in one or the other parties’ primaries, but only one. Again, certified identities would be key to this.
- 5Allow voters to see candidates’ stated views on a large number of topics. How can it be that I can share and view sentiments on the last Will Ferrell film more easily than I can a presidential candidate’s stands on issues? Polling would be obsolete (we’d have actual data from actual voters). And let me be clear: this should be done within the parties and not serve as another way for us to publicly bash each other.
- 6Outside of an election cycle, allow voters to share their opinions with their representatives on the issues of the day on an ongoing basis. Maybe there’s a senator or representative somewhere that allows online polling on topics on their web page and then responds with their views and voting record. But I’ve looked and can’t find any. Why can’t we use technology to express ourselves to our elected officials? Isn’t that what representative democracy is supposed to be like?
A quick side note here. The US is a republic, not a democracy. A direct democracy allows citizens to vote on issues and decide policy by popular vote. A republic has popular voting to choose representatives who then vote on policy. Currently available technology would allow any country that chooses to do so to enact a partial or complete direct democracy. Switzerland is the only nation I’m aware of that does this at any scale, and even Switzerland puts limits on it.
I could list another dozen ideas about using technology inside or outside of election cycles, but you get the gist. This is one of the last frontiers where technology use is extremely limited. It’s time to break down the walls around this process.
Now forgive me, as it’s time to watch another movie with my wife.