July 19, 2020 · not software engineering

4 Changes To Voting That Will Empower Everyone

Voter turnout in the US is dismal. Since the 70s, turnout for presidential elections has bounced between 50% and 60%. Key words there, "presidential elections," the most marketed election in the land to the highest office in the land. Imagine what's happening at the state and local level! You can google it, go ahead.

Back? Not great, right?

The closer an election hits to home (local being the closest, obvi) the more impact folks on the ballot will have on your day to day life so, although it makes sense that presidential elections are the focal point, it's a little odd that local turnout should be so low.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself... "Well Carter, this sort of makes sense, people are lazy and apathetic when it comes to most things, especially politics, right? In that light, 50% seems normal."

Look, I'm about as pessimistic as any of us. I tend to assume the worst in people until they prove otherwise (one of my many failings, I'm workin' on it OK?) however, I'm also aware of the effect a broken system can have on its adherents.

One thing I've learned from my career as a software engineer is that seemingly tiny hurdles can cause massive reductions in participation. I've seen it in data. Signup rates dropping massively by adding an extra field to the signup form, new features getting no attention because they take a second to load (seriously milliseconds matter, check out Performance Is A Feature from ye olde Coding Horror if you're interested in some nitty gritty).

There are a lot of needless hurdles to voting and they're causing real harm. Yes, some people are just lazy or apathetic and will never vote but it ain't 50% of the voting age population.

So, what can we do? Simple, make it easier to vote. Here's how.

1. Change The Election Day

Elections are held on Tuesdays in this country. As far as I can tell it's because this was a convenient day in the early 1800's. One of the simplest changes we could make would be to move voting to the weekend.

What day of the weekend? Saturday or Sunday? I don't know, why not both? Many religions no work to be done on one of these days, having it on both would give them all a shot too.

Arguments Against

I'm not even sure why anyone would think this is a bad idea. My guess is we don't make this change because of inertia.

Now, I think there are some fair arguments against multi-day voting. Mostly it just requires a lot more resources. Ballots need to be secured overnight, you'll need more workers etc. These are solvable problems though.

Why They're Wrong

It should be obvious why, but I feel I have to say it... BECAUSE FEWER PEOPLE WORK ON THE WEEKEND. When you aren't working you have more opportunity to get to the polls which means more voters.

Weekday voting disenfranchises most people.  Particularly lower income people who more often have jobs that do not allow them to take time off to vote. And, due to a whole other host of messed up history, low income often means black and brown people. A racist policy if I've ever seen one.

More Info

There's a campaign to change election day called Why Tuesday. Check it out: https://whytuesday.org/

2. Mail-In Voting For All

This is basically what it sounds like. Every registered voter in the system, absentee or not, would receive a ballot by mail prior to any and every election which they can fill out and return by mail. Voters can also continue to vote in person if they choose.

The main benefits are:

  1. People who cannot otherwise get to the polls have a new opportunity to vote.
  2. Voters get a period of time over which to vote instead of a single week-day.

Arguments Against

The biggest argument against is voter fraud. Mail-in voting does provide new opportunities for shenanigans (like someone else filling out your ballot and mailing it in).

Why They're Wrong

To be sure, this is a system that would require some real effort. States would need notch book-keeping to make sure addresses are up to date and dead people aren't getting ballots. However, just because something is difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. The biggest proof, in my opinion, is that five states have already implemented mail-in voting with great success. Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, Oregon and Washington.

If you'd like to understand exactly what steps these states have taken I'll leave that as an exercise for you, dear reader. However, one thing I thought was interesting is that, at least in Colorado, votes are compared with those of other states that allow mail-in ballots to make sure people aren't voting in multiple places.

More Info

For Colorado specifics (since this is where I live) this articl from 5280 is pretty solid: https://www.5280.com/2020/05/no-fraud-isnt-rampant-in-colorados-mail-in-voting-system/

And for a more general write-up, including detailed pros and cons check out: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/all-mail-elections.aspx

3. Automatic Voter Registration

Voter registration, as it currently stands, is a scam. We generally believe that being born an American citizen and reaching voting age imbues us with the right to vote. This is only sort of true. There's one more step... getting accosted by some rando at REI and having to fill out paperwork to get said right. That's how it went for me anyway.

Regardless of how you register to vote, it puts undue onus on the voter when it should be on the system. For most people the government has enough information to automatically register you from things like the DMV. If they don't have enough info then at that point they could reach out, like Oregon does with post cards.

And if you want to opt out, sure I guess allow that too. Who are you anyway, Ted Kaczynski?

Arguments Against

I think the main argument is that this might require states to keep more information on people than they already do when it comes to voter registration because EVERYONE is registered instead of just some people.

I've also heard arguments that automatic registration doesn't effect voter turnout.

Why They're Wrong

We're told voting is a right. If this is true, give it to us unencumbered. It's as simple as that.

With regards to automatic registration not effecting turnout. I hardly know what to say to that. Even if it doesn't affect turnout (I'm dubious), if we say it's a right, it should be applied to everyone by default.

Let's remove a barrier that need not exist. People deserve straight-forward voting access and forcing us to opt-in ain't it.

More Info

A rundown on the concept with pros and cons: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/automatic-voter-registration.aspx

4. Repeal Voter ID Laws

Voter ID laws require that voters show some form of identification when showing up at the polls. The types of identification required vary from state to state. 14 states currently have no voter ID requirements.

Arguments Against

Voter fraud, again.

Why They're Wrong

Personally, I find this one less straight-forward than every other item on this list. I can see how it makes sense for someone to have evidence of who they are when they show up at the polls. Combining this with other things like automatic registration (which might mean we don't have signatures on file for registered voters) could make it particularly tricky. HOWEVER, voter ID laws function mostly as weapons to keep minorities and poor people from voting (since these are the folks who most likely do not have identification that fits ID law requirements).

It turns out that the sort of voter fraud these laws are meant to prevent is almost non-existent (oh you want a citation?? google it, this ain't a goddamn thesis). The disenfranchisement this causes far outweighs any theoretical benefit we get from it. It's un-American and immoral, to be frank. I believe there is a solution here and in my opinion it's a moral imperative that we find it.

More Info

A rundown of what it is and perceived pros and cons: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id.aspx

The ACLU's stance on voter ID laws: https://www.aclu.org/other/oppose-voter-id-legislation-fact-sheet

John Lewis on voting rights: https://johnlewis.house.gov/issues/voting-rights

An interesting article on algorithmic evidence of voter ID law racism: https://www.wired.com/story/voter-id-law-algorithm/

A Note On Online Voting

You may be wondering why I did not include online voting in this list. Why is it, for example, that we can bank online and not vote online? Online voting would give more people power to vote and since voter fraud doesn't really exist we should try to figure it out, right?

I'm not so sure.

Banks for example build fraud into their business model. Turns out, fraud happens there all the time, they haven't solved it.

More importantly I think, just because fraud doesn't currently happen in elections at a meaningful level doesn't mean it won't start if online voting becomes a thing. It would effectively open our system up to the entire world and seeing what harm Russia, for example, has been able to cause, the idea of online voting makes me a little nervous.

I could be wrong. Maybe there is a solution, and if there is we should find it. As many people should be able to vote as possible and allowing online voting would be a powerful step forward. I'm just not convinced it's possible yet.

What Can We Do

First, I'd suggest you research these and other reforms (like ranked choice voting or felony voting laws, for example). Form your own opinions, don't just take my word for it.

If you find reform you are interested in there are many ways to contribute. Maybe it's a letter writing campaign or donating money. You don't have to run for office, just pick something small and take a step forward.

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