Making Elections Work

I have to say that my allergy to conspiracy theories in general is starting to get a healthy dose of antihistamine when it comes to elections in the United States. There’s little things to be irritated by: we just switched to electronic polling machines in our district, and when I asked for a printed confirmation of my vote, the two guys manning the machines looked at me with shit-eating grins and told me that’s not the way we do things round these parts. This should be so utterly basic: frankly, I should have gotten the same for all those years that I pulled levers.

More substantially, there’s reports of voter suppression tactics in Virginia and of major snafus with voting machines in Ohio and Indiana (surprise, surprise). The former can’t be anything but deliberate, while the latter could of course just be Diebold’s continuing history of technical incompetence. If there’s anywhere that we should enforce strict standards of accountability and have extremely aggressive federal law enforcement involvement, however, it’s in elections. Contracts with voting machine suppliers should include significant penalties for every hour that even a single machine is not operating properly, scaling up exponentially for every fifteen minutes after the first hour.

Look, there’s no doubt in my mind that various kinds of shenangians on Election Day have an old history in this country, and that urban Democratic administrations have at times engaged in a lot of the same tactics and dirty tricks that we’re hearing about now. All the more reason to have systematic reform and high standards of accountability. We can continue with the state-by-state administration of elections if we like, but there should be a stringent minimal standard set by the federal government and enforced by the most impartial, non-partisan agencies we can call upon. The criminal penalties for voter suppression, vote tampering, and the like should be very unforgiving.

On a deeper level, I’ve also been wondering whether any political scientists or other researchers have experimented with a computer-driven system for redistricting. E.g., if you created a program with some basic understanding of major geographical features like rivers, roads, towns and gave it the instruction to draw district boundaries based on population that were reasonably regular and uniform in their geographic shape, could you get districts that made sense, and were created in accordance with a common guiding principle? If so, what about equipping a relatively non-partisan bureaucracy like the Federal Reserve (or the commissions used in NJ, WA, AZ, ID) with said program and giving them authority over redistricting nationwide, so as to put a firewall between the political process and the districting process?

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16 Responses to Making Elections Work

  1. Miles says:

    You probably already saw this article but:

    I was somewhat confident at least about the House until these past few days. Now I have this awful sick feeling that my confidence was misplaced.

  2. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    Take a look at Brian Hayes’s 1996 article “Machine Politics” in American Scientist. Also, you should be aware of Iowa’s experience with nonpartisan districting.

    There are probably serious constitutional difficulties with an attempt to federalize the election code, though.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a useful article, Neel–thanks. So it turns out that this is an old idea, which I should have suspected, and that the definition of “good districts” is sufficiently contentious that hoping that a machine could save us from ourselves is a false hope.

    The thing that would be interesting is if you could find a method to avoid packing and cracking. To me, one of the attributes of a “good district” would be that it would be potentially a swing district at any time, that you’d look to create a kind of heterogeneity that would force unlike groups and constituencies to negotiate over shared interests and to look to enforce fairness rules. I think the reason is that you need some kind of prisoner’s dilemma situation in order to get people to work for a consistently better standard–some sense that today’s trangressions against fairness and civility might turn around and bite you in the ass tomorrow, and that it’s better if both sides forgo that kind of cheating or manipulation.

    Do you think it would raise constitutional issues for the federal government to more stringently criminalize voter suppression, voter fraud, misinformation and so on? I mean, there’s a report from a polling place in Maryland that I just read on the Washington Monthly site where the Ehrlich campaign is handing out materials that make it look like Ehrlich is the Democratic candidate, and that the volunteers distributing them are homeless shelter residents who were offered a small stipend this morning. Granted that this report could in and of itself be misinformation (it sounds very plausible to me, and I’ve seen some similar stuff myself in the past before I came to Swarthmore), that ought to be an actionable offense of some kind. Some of the more serious stuff out there today goes way beyond that–attempts to intimidate voters into staying home, attempts to interfere with registration efforts, attempts to mislead voters about where their polling places are, and so on.

  4. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    Hi Timothy,

    I don’t think it’s possible to require competitiveness. For example, there’s simply no way to draw districts through Manhattan that will make the Republican party competitive there — there just aren’t enough Republicans living there. You might be able to mix a few blocks of Manhattan with some counties in northern New York, but it would be hard to claim that forms a natural community.

    I think that the best we can hope for is to avoid gratuituous gerrymandering, and I think the Iowa system accomplishes this — their nonpartisan commission submits three proposals to the state legislature, which picks one of them. (The legislature can theoretically reject all three and make their own districts, but if the commission is competent the only reason to do so would be gerrymandering. This is sufficiently embarassing that they just pick one.)

    The sorts of misbehavior you describe could be made federal offenses, I think. But something like a uniform standard for voting machines couldn’t be — that’s explicitly a state responsibility. I think the best we can do is for a federal organ to create a model code that the states could adopt.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    The Iowa system is a pretty classic way to get a “best practices” choice, I guess. Get one person or institution to do the work of making divisions, but get another person or institution to make the choice between possibilities. One person to divide a herd of cows, another person to select which half they want and which half the original divider gets.

  6. hestal says:

    In keeping with my redesign of the Supreme Court in which there would be 9,000 justices and 9 would be selected randomly for each case. After the 9 heard and voted, their SCOTUS careers would be over. Likewise I replace all representatives and senators with a randomly selected panel of 2,000 citizens who would vote on one bill. The drafiting of bills would be distributed among high school juniors and seniors in history and english classes. The present permanent staff of congress would be maintained to support the legslative process, much like they do today. By selecting these 2,000 people for each bill, we would eliminate elections. This process is more elaborate and feature-rich than I sketched here, but students would learn much in drafting bills, which would be published on the internet as the drafting takes place. Approximately 2,000,000 citizens would serve each year for about 5 weeks to study and vote on bills. We would have no more elections, no more lobbyists, no more campaigns, no more cash floating around, and our national discourse would be about issues rather than horse races. The technology exists and is proven to be extremely reliable. All it takes is someone to sell it. Remember, nothing ever happens until someone sells something to someone else. And to add one more comment, the process I propose changes our educational system more dramatically than it does our Federal government.

  7. engelcox says:

    To just riff off your first line, Tim, I think it was Teresa Nielsen-Hayden who wrote (I quote from memory, so no assurances this is exact), “I hate how this administration makes me think like a paranoid nutso.” Casting my ballot into the bit basket a few minutes ago, the technodweeb in me cringed. Trust is a commodity that’s running pretty low in my household.

  8. dmerkow says:

    I spent the whole day as a pool worker in Ohio and talking to others around the state . . . the issue is not conspiracy . . . it is incompetence . . . period . . . until the people who bitch about the voting process start volunteering or getting paid a pittance to spend the day working the poll . . . it is one day and I imagine undergrads wouldn’t be sad if they had a day off so their prof. could work at the polls…

    This may be a little off topic but it was a long day with in a very liberal precinct with everyone swearing that we were stealing their votes . . .

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s usually my assumption as well, that competence is the main issue. But you know, voting machines performing badly technically isn’t a question of the competence of volunteers. And incompetence isn’t what causes organized attempts at voter suppression.

  10. withywindle says:

    Rigged Elections [Jonah Goldberg]
    Oh, by the way, I’d just like to say that all of you lefties who were sooooooo convinced the GOP rigged its elections and would do so again? You look like paranoid idiots now (most of you did then too by the way). That goes for you RFK Jr.

    If the GOP was going to steal any elections it would have been these, no? Though I’m sure the Moonbats will keep the complaint handy for the next time they lose an election fair and square.

    My apologies if this violates the admirable sunniness and lack of rancor around here. I just thought it needed to be said.

  11. hestal says:


    Was that a slip: “convinced the GOP rigged ‘its’ elections.”

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Like I said, Withywindle, I think this ought to be a bipartisan concern.

  13. withywindle says:

    Or a matter of bipartisan unconcern. Maybe, just maybe, y’all lost honestly before, and we lost honestly this time.

    That said, I’m all for having paper records, paper ballots, blah blah blah. But to guard against incompetence, and to guard against suspicion of shenanigans, not because I actually much fear shenanigans.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Really? I think there’s actually pretty good reason to fear them here and elsewhere–demonstrated cases of shenanigians, actually. 1960 comes to mind.

  15. withywindle says:

    Yeah, that’s our Republican Talking Point election. Just that once, maybe the irregularities on both sides didn’t cancel each other out, and the Daley machine was crucial. But ya know, maybe the Republicans just should have won by a big enough margin that the Democrats couldn’t steal the election. And anyway, Daley’s effect was pretty minor compared to the Democrats getting the entire South by dint of racial disenfranchisement. And who knows? maybe the shenanigans of the St. Louis machine this year delivered Missouri to the Democrats? — I’ve read mutterings to the effect that the Democratic vote there was a wee padded. But I don’t think the padding made the margin of difference, and maybe there was Republican padding out in the small towns I haven’t heard about. All in all, even when the votes are extremely close as they are this year, I tend to think of them as roughly honest. I also tend to think of the paranoiac rejection of the validity and authority of the voting booth as not only factually wrong, but bad for the country. (Insert praise for Sens. Allen and Burns for *not* challenging the results of the election.) So I’m all for a non-paranoid concern for voting booth honesty; and I’m willing to see a few marginal races get miscalled to keep democracy on an even keel. I still think Nixon did the right thing in not contesting the 1960 election–although I’m glad the truth of the Daley shenanigans has made it into the history books.

  16. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    In the academic computer science community, there is tremendous interest in making our voting systems work better. The electronic voting systems that we’ve seen are widely regarded as a disgrace to our profession — they are much less secure and reliable than the sytems they are replacing. There’s no excuse for this, not when we have the techniques to make voting systems that are simpler, easier to use, and more resistant to fraud than the old ways.

    However, this is still academic interest, rather than activist interest — there are numerous papers about voting systems and attack modes on them. We haven’t yet(?) seen some well-known professors deciding to get together and design a model system that the states can adopt.

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