November 16, 2012

What To Do When You Get An Election

Something tells me that's not his real name. Or the real date.
Well, more than a week has passed since the election in the US. Whether you liked the result or not, it's over. Thank God. I know everyone wants to put all the campaigning, the onslaught of media coverage, and the relentless commercials out of their mind for as long as possible (4 years, ideally), but I had some thoughts to share. My ideas here aren't about the results, but the process. If you don't feel like reading them, that's fine, but let me live in my fantasy world for at least a few more paragraphs.

The main reason I'm even writing this is because I've observed other electoral systems in other countries. I've lived in Germany and Costa Rica for various elections and noticed some differences in how they Take Care of Business. No system is perfect, and of course ours in the US isn't perfect, either. But I think that we could still take a few ideas from other systems to make ours better (and vice-versa, frankly). So, in no particular order, here are my thoughts about...


1. Make it easier to vote. In general, really. In Costa Rica --and keep in mind this is considered by some to be a "third world" country-- people don't even need to register to vote. They have a list of people, and on election day you simply go to the closest polling station and they cross your name off. That seems much easier than the registration process I have to go through in Colorado. And actually, if you think about it, why do we even have to register? If it's really a democracy, shouldn't the assumption be that everyone should get a chance to let their voice be heard, if they want it heard? 

On the other hand, if someone doesn't want to vote, I'd say that's his or her business (or loss, if you want to see it that way), and I wouldn't support laws like in Australia that fine non-voters. To me forcing someone to vote is just like trying to eat soup with a fork. I honestly have no idea how this particular metaphor works, but that's just the image that came to mind when I thought of electoral officials trying to force apathetic people to care about an election. If they're not inclined to vote, let them be lazy, I'd say.

2. A Tuesday in November? Really? In many countries (again, including Costa Rica), elections are held on Sundays and/or Saturdays, and the election day is basically treated like a holiday. No one who wants to vote should be prevented from doing so because he or she couldn't get time off work, because they had to take care of the kids, or because of inclement weather.

3. Keep promoting mail-in and internet voting. This election I voted by mail, and the previous one I voted by overseas absentee ballot (it was sent to me here in Costa Rica, a small miracle knowing the Costa Rican mail system). I think both of these are great steps in making the election more inclusive and accessible, but they could help kick it up a notch with online voting. If I had voted as an overseas voter this time, I could have actually voted by email, but I would have had to sign a statement that I accepted my ballot wouldn't be secret or private. I didn't care as much for that, plus I spent a lot of time in Colorado this year, so I just voted by mail. But still, why can't anyone vote by internet, and securely, too? I recognize that would require a verification regime, so that could indeed make things more complicated. But if Estonia can do it, why can't we?

An additional benefit of both online and mail-in voting is of course that you don't need to wait in long election lines. In all the elections I've voted in, I never had to wait in line terribly long, but one time in Colorado I did have to wait about an hour and a half. It's not tragic, but for some people a wait time like that could prove a deal-breaker, especially if they had to go to work, pick up kids, or wait in crappy weather.

My most-recent mail-in ballot.

4. Limit the money. This idea seems to enjoy support from most sides. The money being spent on all types of campaigns, from President down to Dogcatcher, has become astronomical. And it doesn't even seem to make that much of a difference in the end. The only thing I did notice is that every 4 out of 5 commercials I saw in Colorado in October were about the election. At least if we limited the amount of campaign funding, the campaigns wouldn't be able to afford to annoy me as much.

5. Get rid of the electoral college. Seriously, it's confusing as hell and not even most Americans know what it's all about. And have you ever tried to explain it to a class of English students in a foreign country? Don't.

The point is, it's a weird system that most people say isn't very fair. If you're promoting a democracy, "unfair" and "confusing" are two adjectives you'd probably prefer not be attached to your system. I actually do understand (somewhat well) how it works, but I still think it's stupid. For a national election, why not just let the popular vote rule? You may know the "fun fact" that four former presidents have been elected through the electoral college, but lost the popular vote. That just doesn't make sense.

6. Introduce proportional representation. Either that, or some kind of threshold a party needs to reach to govern, like 65% or something. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, one thing's for certain: almost half the country disagrees with you. Plus, there's the old adage that voting for a third party is throwing your vote away. I do agree that you should vote your conscience, not your fears, and all those other sayings, but seriously, do you really think that just two (2) political parties can represents the wishes, needs, and beliefs of an entire country?

If we had a system that implemented proportional representation, we wouldn't have to deal with the downsides of a winner-take-all system. The main downside of course is that if a party can win a presidential election with 50.1% of the votes (and yes, even less than that, as we all know), then there's still a huge swath of the country that will feel their voice isn't being heard. 

Imagine, for example, that in order to govern a country, a party had to get 65% of a vote, or to form a coalition with another party to reach that percentage. Or it could be 60%. Or 70%. In any case, it would encourage political parties to work together to make decisions and to get things done, while also enabling a larger percentage of the population's voice to be heard.

So, those are my ideas. I know that some of them --actually, most likely all of them-- will never be implemented in the US in my lifetime, but a guy can dream, can't he? Of course, I'm not a political scientist, and I've never studied these topics seriously. I therefore realize that some of these ideas may come off as impractical or even stupid, but this is just a sort of brainstorming device for me. But if an armchair political hack like me can sit back and come up with these six ideas in a few minutes, surely our greatest political minds can come up with more, even better ideas. After all, if the founders of the country talked about forming a more perfect union, it seems like we should at least be able to get rid of some of the most obvious imperfections. 

What's your take? Do you think any of these ideas would work? Do you have other ideas? I'd love to hear your thoughts or other input in the comment section.

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend, and don't forget: Vote (well, at least in 2016)!

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