Voting is fundamental to our system of democracy. It is through our votes that we pass initiatives that shape our laws. It is through our votes that we elect people to the halls of government. Without the ability to voice our political desires, democracy does not exist. But, as with so many other facets of our political and social reality, the practice of voting, and of counting the votes, has become an exercise in the ridiculous as voter apathy and party corruption distort the outcome, leaving the average citizen less represented than ever before. The title of this essay, Fixing the Vote, is an intentional double entendre, for it most aptly describes both problems of apathy and corruption while admitting that something must be done.

For many of us, voting as a concept is instilled early in our lives through student council elections. We experience our first campaign slogans, often just clever rhymes, and encounter our first campaign smears, often just childish retorts. We learn the concept of selecting someone to “represent” our class interests, but since as school children we really have few pressing political goals, class elections inevitably turn into individual popularity contests, with the outcome being of little consequence, except for bragging rights to the winners. While this may expose us to the fundamental mechanics of voting, it also creates an impression of what politics in the adult world will be like, and the seriousness of the whole system is lost. Perhaps this kind of political indoctrination is part and parcel to some grand scheme to keep political (and therefore, practical) power concentrated in the hands of the elite classes, perhaps it is just a reflection of what our real life politics have become. Regardless, the result is the same: large numbers of adults eschewing politics and voting because it seems pointless or unimportant in the big picture of life.

The result is predictable: elected officials are selected by a minority of eligible voters and supported by corporations and unions and special interests. As fewer voters participate in elections, politicians become less accountable to their supposed constituents and spend more and more time currying favor with their money mills, passing favorable legislation for their corporate cronies and filling non-elected positions with their sycophant fund raising hacks. The common voter, seeing the corruption sitting at the table of power, loses even more confidence in “the system” and opts out of future elections. As elected officials come from a narrower and narrower sampling of society, they tighten the rules of admission, effectively keeping out those same people who are frustrated with the way things are, leaving fewer options for real change available at the ballot box. The whole circle becomes a vicious feeding frenzy, engorging itself on its own rotten fruit.

What then can we do to change the way things are? The problems of voter apathy, voter disenfranchisement, and political funding must be taken on squarely and addressed with Common Sense solutions. Each must be reformed for the whole to be repaired and for the people of this country to reclaim for themselves real representation in the halls of government, from the smallest towns to Washington, D.C.

Ending Voter Apathy In 2004, 58.3% of eligible voters cast ballots in the national election. In most local and state elections, the percentage was even lower. While this represents an increase from the 51.3% who voted in the 2000 elections, since 1976, the year of our national bicentennial, the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots surpassed 60% only one time- in 1992, when 61.3% voted. Even if all other problems with our voting process were removed, at least 40% of voting age adults in this country do not take the time to make their voices heard. The number one reason for not voting (at nearly 21% of respondents) was because people were “too busy.” Another 20% either didn’t like the candidates they had to choose from or felt their vote would make no difference. In fact, legitimate excuses such as illness, lack of transportation, and inclement weather together only account for 18% of excuses for not voting.

Ending voter apathy clearly will be tough work, but a little creative thinking could reinvigorate the average person to hit the polls, especially if they know that by doing so, they are helping themselves. And in our ever-quickening pace of life, with its increased productivity expectations, making elections a priority has got to be given higher visibility. We should start by making election days official holidays, with half-pay for all employed voters, and free refreshments for everyone. With the exception of medical and emergency personnel, all retail, service, and manufacturing activities would grind to a halt on elections days, encouraging citizens to participate in the running of their lives and deflecting the “too busy” excuse. We can sweeten the pot even more by instituting an election lottery. Create a lottery system that guarantees at least one winner in each state a substantial financial reward for participating in elective democracy, and multiple smaller awards for state and local elections. (The money to pay these awards could be culled from tax receipts earmarked for electoral expenditures.) These two measures alone could draw back many of the so-called “disenfranchised” voters by appealing to their “me” centers. You could further induce voting by adding a “stick” to the “carrot” approach, essentially fining any eligible voter who doesn’t vote. Combined with the reward possibilities, voting would begin to look less and less problematic.

Increasing the number of voter’s casting votes is the first step towards fixing the vote. As larger numbers of people make their voices heard, it becomes increasingly difficult for politicians to claim mandates for their programs that may not exist. It becomes harder to shun accountability when more of the public is engaged in the system. But increasing the number of voters alone doesn’t guarantee a better system. Eventually, those people who always vote and never win the election lottery will need to satisfy their own “me” centers, which is where voter disenfranchisement (and early education about civic responsibility) comes in to play.

Voter Disenfranchisement The way the system works now, by the time an election day rolls around, the choice of candidates is extremely narrow. Through a system of awkward primaries that exclude all but the majority party candidates through a concerted lack of exposure by the media and the electoral commissions, voters often feel as if the only real choices available are not representative of their own political and social goals, and decline to vote at all. The effects of this practice alienate voters and exclude a potentially large body of candidates from getting a chance at all. To the political parties and their poster children, this system has guaranteed a perpetual sew-saw struggle of pathetic proportions, but the reins of power are certain to remain within their spheres of influence, so they prefer the status quo of low turn-out and limited candidate eligibility.

Again, a little imagination could offer a solution to this problem. The primary system should include an independent (or non-affiliated) election primary as well as the organized party primaries, with the top two or three non-affiliated candidates getting a place on the final ballot as well as equal exposure. These “all-comer” candidates could offer viable alternatives to the present cadre of politicians, many of whom would be needed to really get down to the business of creating change.

Disenfranchisement also addresses the problems of voter registration and convenient polling stations. While only 9.5% of non-voters listed these as reasons for abstaining, that still represents several million people who need to be casting their
votes. To erase the problems with voter registration, we should move to an automatic registration program, perhaps using biometric indicators and Social Security numbers to get every person in the voter rolls. If it were a biometric indicator, like fingerprint or retina or DNA, the information could be gathered upon birth, stored in an encrypted data base until one achieved voting age, and then registered with the appropriate state and local jurisdictions automatically at the appropriate time. Upon voting, one would simply match their bio data to that in the record, and proceed to the ballot. Through the Social Security system automatic registrations based on the address of ones job could help establish proper jurisdiction for allocating ones vote. And while the debut of computer or online voting has so far been fraught with claims (both documented and undocumented) of fraud and abuse, the problems of poll convenience could be eliminated through a digital voting system, albeit one with stringent security mechanisms, tangible voting records and receipts (necessary anyhow, for the lottery enticement), automatic count verification, and total transparency.

Political funding is the third leg of reform with regards to fixing the vote, and it deserves an essay all on its own, because it includes reforming how we fund campaigns, how we learn about our candidates, and how we verify that votes are valid. I hope you will join me again as I explore more solutions that will give government back to the citizens.