Election reform

From Academic Kids

Election reform is a process for attempting to ensure more fair elections. Although a strictly ideal voting system is impossible to achieve (see Arrow's impossibility theorem), many current voting practices are felt to be very poor measurements of voters' preferences.

Election reform became a popular topic in the United States as a result of the 2000 Presidential Election, which involved considerable debate over the correct result of a presidential vote in Florida. It has also been provoked on numerous occasions by the American electoral college system for choosing a president. This system has allowed a candidate who received less votes overall to win on at least three occasions, including George W. Bush in 2000.

Electronic voting is one reform widely promoted in the U.S. since 2000, in hope that computers can solve the problems of inaccurate counts and improperly cast ballots. The problems with paper ballots are often cited by proponents of election reform. They can include errors in punching the ballots for instance, the famous chads in the 2000 Presidential Election. Other possible errors are poor ballot design, such as the infamous butterfly ballot, and errors in vote counting machines.

Problems with voting are not limited to human error, but include how the voting system is constructed and methods of intimidation and district alignment called gerrymandering that discourage certain groups from voting and encourage others. Many Southern states at one time included fees, tests, or police at voting booths to discourage blacks from voting; these have been abolished.

Other reforms are suggested for resolving the problems the plurality voting system has with deciding races of three or more candidates. One popular method is instant runoff voting, a system of vote counting in which votes for third party candidates can be converted to votes for other candidates if no candidate wins a majority. Many experts believe a form of the Condorcet method (esp. Cloneproof Schwartz Sequential Dropping), a system similar to instant runoff voting, does a better job of deciding extremely close or ambiguous elections involving three or more candidates.

Campaign finance reform and voting rights/suffrage also are frequently cited as arenas in need of reform. In the U.S., reform of the presidential debates also has become an increasingly contested issue as many citizens object to the debates being controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties via their privately controlled Commission on Presidential Debates

Suggested principles for an improved balloting system

The "Gold Standard" for balloting is still the hand-counted paper ballot, and any mechanical or electronic system ought to, at worst, match it in all important principles, and at best, it ought to improve upon it wherever and whenever possible.

An improved voting system ought to adhere to these principles:

  • 1. Privacy. This is the first of the "Australian Ballot" principles. Voters must be allowed to cast their ballots in absolute privacy, with no uninvited observers. It must also be made impossible, or at least as impractical as possible, to trace a vote back to the voter who cast it, without that voter's consent. Without a secret ballot, voters have every reason to fear reprisals from those whom they voted against, regardless of who wins the election.
  • 2. Fairness, the second of the two Australian Ballot principles. It is certainly possible to have a secret ballot that is manifestly unfair. Before the adoption of the Australian Ballot in the United States, political parties, newspapers, and anybody else with a political agenda, could print and distribute "tickets" that would, if a voter placed them in the ballot box, be considered valid ballots. Even after the adoption of the Australian Ballot, it was not until we determined the order of candidates by drawing of lots, independently for each precinct (or at least each county), that US ballots truly became fair in this regard.
  • 3. Lack of ambiguity. There must be no way a reasonably observent and attentive voter can cast a vote for one candidate, while believing he or she had cast a vote for another. This principle became apparent in Florida, when the design of the ballot led an inordinate number of voters to do precisely that.
  • 4. Late Commit Point. With hand-counted paper ballots, the ballot is not truly committed until the voter has released it into the ballot box. Up to that moment, he or she can change his or her mind, destroy the ballot, and demand a new one. In an electronic voting system, it would not be unreasonable to allow voters to return to the polling place several hours after casting a ballot, "back out" that ballot, and cast an entirely different one. All that is required is an impractical-to-forge receipt, by which a voter could positively identify and retrieve his or her ballot.
  • 5. Portability. Likewise, it would be entirely reasonable in an e-voting system for any voter to walk into any open polling place, provide positive identification and proof of address, and remotely cast a ballot for his or her home jurisdiction. Many people today find it difficult to get to their assigned polling place because of work or school commitments; making one's vote portable would remedy the situation.
  • 6. Verifiability. Traditional paper ballots are completely verifiable, as everything about them is completely human-readable. They can be recounted until the paper they're printed on disintegrates. The same is true of some types of punch-card and optically-scanned ballots. By contrast, gear-and-lever voting machines are notoriously difficult to verify, and many current e-voting systems that don't produce any sort of paper trail are even worse. Ideally, an e-voting system should provide the voter with a verification screen before he or she commits the ballot, and a printed receipt summarizing the ballot after he or she does so, and it should also provide, at each precinct, a permanent printed journal of votes cast. After all, the cash registers at any grocery produce both an itemized receipt and a "journal tape"; why shouldn't voting machines?
  • 7. Transparency. Security through obscurity is no security at all, and there is absolutely nothing to be gained, from a standpoint of vote security, from hiding the source code for voting software. The only possible reason why anybody would want to keep it secret would be if he or she had something to hide. Only by allowing any and all citizens to inspect the source code can all be reasonably certain that it is free from bias or sabotage.
  • 8. Finally, the Office Group Principle. Historically, paper ballots arranged in a "party column" format, even if they don't provide a space for casting a "straight ticket" with a single mark, have given undue power to political parties, while those arranged with all candidates for any given office grouped together in randomized order encourage voters to make a thoughtful choice, and to abstain from races where they have no opinion of their own (possibly as a result of having no basis for one). Clearly, informed choices are preferable to "machine" politics where party loyalty dictates most votes, yet gear-and-lever voting machines have historically tended toward the Party Column model, even to the point of frequently having "straight ticket" levers.

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