Problems with Elections

· Elections

Elections, as currently practiced internationally, are rife with problems. They are inefficient, prone to fraud, and often result in misrepresenting the collective will of the electorate. They succeed only where the good will of most of the people involved is sufficient to overcome the systemic deficiencies. Where good will is absent in even a minority of participants, the results are anything but democratic. Current elections systems are failing world-wide in this regard on an alarmingly increasing scale.

Thanks to modern communication technologies, however, all of the deficiencies of the current systems can be addressed. This essay will present such a system of election management and governance. But first we need to look in detail at the problems of current systems.

Inefficiencies of Current Election Systems

Efficiency is the measure of how well something meets its purpose and can be measured in two ways: first by the benefit, secondly by the cost, and overall by the ratio of the two. As the purpose of elections in democratic societies is to represent the collective will of the electorate, elections can be said to be inefficient to the degree that that will is misrepresented and to the degree that the costs exceed the costs of other approaches.

Elections, as currently practiced, have inefficiencies most obviously in their financial cost. They involve the construction of special purpose enterprises that are active for periods of mere days in intervals that are years apart. The enterprise requires the hiring of personnel, the printing of documents, the deployment of election apparatus, the provision of security, and a myriad of other expenses. The chaos of this period gives many opportunities for fraud. After all the effort, the enterprise is mostly dismantled after every election only to be rebuilt for the next. Often an unexpected exigency, a death or vote of no confidence for example, will require reconstruction of the entire enterprise as an unplanned-for expense.

Indeed the very cost of elections has promoted another inefficiency of modern democratic governance, the long time period between scheduled elections. The United States, for instance, whose election cycle was decided in the eighteenth century, has a presidential term of four years and a senatorial term of six years. Nothing short of death, resignation or impeachment can shorten those terms even when the office holders no longer reflect the collective will of the governed. As efficiency is the measure of how well something meets its purpose and as the purpose of elections is to represent the collective will of the electorate, these long terms are by definition susceptible to inefficiency. European governments, whose election cycles have mostly been decided in more recent times, have a less rigid term length in that a vote of no confidence can force an immediate election.

It can be argued, however, that a fixed term, though inefficient in terms of reflecting the will of the governed is efficient in terms of governance in that the representative is freed to support unpopular but necessary actions in his/her duties. Some would argue that no unpopular action should ever be taken by government in true democracy. This presupposes that the electorate is as fully informed on any issues as any single member of the government. Clearly today this is not possible above the most local of levels, and democratic governments are universally representative; the electorate elects representatives to govern in their stead, balancing efficiencies of representation against efficiencies of governance.  The representative assumes the responsibility of becoming fully informed on the issues and acting accordingly.

Some of the measures adopted by democracies to address the balance of these efficiencies produce yet another inefficiency in governance, divided governance. Divided governance occurs when authority over a single subject is given to more than one party and results, not surprisingly, in confusion, conflict of interest and deadlock. Examples include the U.S. Congress where the House of Representative and the Senate are both given the authority to write laws. When they disagree, the outcome may be an interminable inaction worse in terms of governance than either of their positions on the subject of disagreement. Another example would be the referendum system adopted by many U.S. states whereby voters may decide issues otherwise decided by legislatures directly on the ballot. What does it mean when a proposition is passed by referendum? Does it mean that the legislature can no longer legislate forever in the scope of the proposition? What does it mean when two contradictory propositions are passed? Often only the courts can sort it out. Many a U.S. state government has been crippled by the dual authority of a referendum system.

Many of these inefficiencies in representation and governance are widely recognized yet cannot be corrected because the historical structures of government prevent it. A government is founded on a set of laws, the U.S. Constitution for example. Effective governance requires a measure of stability and that stability is usually provided by requiring super-majorities to effect structural changes. After a history of balancing efficiencies of representation and governance, a state of deadlock can occur that cannot be overcome because of divided jurisdictions or super-majority requirements. The status quo always has its beneficiaries who can block the will of even a large majority. The result may be a total collapse of the government as it falls to the receivership perhaps of a higher level of government or, too often, to other parties such as militaries, foreign or domestic.

These legacy inefficiencies arise from one principal cause, state sovereignty. The government itself defines its own structures and is not accountable to any higher authority. There is nothing to prevent the natural drift away from efficiency as the decades pass as parties, seeking to leverage temporary power into permanent power, alter the structures in their favor.

Inefficiencies may even be built in at the start. Efficiencies of representation and governance are only one of the motives to the founding of a democratic government. The principal and necessary motive of the founders is to win sufficient wide-spread support to establish the government in the first place and compromises are inevitable. The U.S. Constitution, for example, to mollify states that considered themselves independent nations, established the Senate to be a body intentionally misrepresentative of the majority will of the electorate, the result being that today a resident of the smallest state approaches four times the proportionate representation of the resident of the largest. Wyoming with a 2010 population of 568,300 and three congressional representatives (1 rep, 2 senators) has 5.28E-6 representatives per person whereas California with a population of 37,341,989 and 55 congressional representatives (53 reps, 2 senators) has 1.47E-6 representatives per person, a ratio of 3.59 to 1. With super-majority requirements in the Senate, the advantage of the small state resident is further amplified when the small state is negative on an issue where the large state is positive.

It is argued that the current structure of the U. S. Senate and its super-majority rules protects the rights of the minority against the otherwise unlimited power of the majority. Of course, this is only possible when the minority and majority divide geographically such that the minority is the majority in some states. Otherwise the minority is totally unrepresented, a serious inefficiency by our definition. Further, can a system that decides a proposition in favor of a mildly supportive 51% majority against a strongly unsupportive 49% minority said to be truly representative?

The lack of minority representation arises whenever an election is one-winner-per-office as practiced in the U.S. The lack of even majority representation is possible whenever an election is additionally first-past-the-post, winner-take-all also as practiced in the U.S. If the majority sentiment is split between two candidates, a minority sentiment candidate can win the election, an egregious inefficiency of representation. Some European governments somewhat solve the problem of minority misrepresentation with a mixed system where some multiple winners per office are elected sometimes at large.

All of the inefficiencies described so far arise even when all participants are well-intentioned supporters of efficient representation and governance. When some participants are otherwise intentioned, they can game the current systems or even perpetrate fraud to introduce even more serious inefficiencies to representation and/or governance.

In the U.S. 2000 presidential election in Florida between Al Gore and George W. Bush, for example, the ballots of strongly-Gore-leaning counties were gamed by the addition of spurious candidates for the purpose of making that ballot confusing as compared to the ballots of Bush-leaning counties. The resulting diminishment of Gore’s votes by that act alone was sufficient to throw the election to Bush.

The host of tactics and frauds used to defeat democratic election efficiency are well known to any reader of history. They include the following:

Technical disqualification of select registrants, voters or candidates

  • Misinforming select registrants, voters or even candidates
  • Physical obstacles to registration or voting of select voters
  • Intimidation of select registrants, voters or candidates
  • Ballot stuffing and phantom voters
  • Gerrymandering
  • Miscounting ballots
  • Buying votes

These actions are often carried out or enabled by governments themselves for the intent purpose of throwing elections. As they are generally deemed illegal, they are done mostly in secret and are possible only where governance is opaque. Unfortunately government world-wide seems to be trending towards opacity and these practices are wide-spread to the point of blatancy.


The most fundamental problem identified above is that sovereign governments define and alter their own structures. Given all the demands made on governments, it is their nature to be expedient, and the imperative for structural alterations is seldom to maintain or maximize long-term efficiencies of representation and government. The solution to this conflict of interests is to remove government from the process. It is proposed that an independent international facility accessed through the internet be created to define structures of a government that maximize efficiencies. Participating governments would then negotiate among a menu of offerings and pledge to follow the guidelines. Generally accepted democratic principles concerning qualifications for office, minority rights, etc. would also be included. Of course, as sovereign entities, subscribing states would be free to unsubscribe at any time but would then suffer the potential opprobrium of the electorate or of other governments.

The European Union has followed this approach in defining certain democratic criteria for its membership. The benefits seem to have been enough to persuade quite a few sovereign states to join. Likewise, the proposed internet election facility (hereafter called the Facility), would need to provide benefits as well were it ever to get off the ground. Like all accreditation entities, the major if not sole benefit of membership in the Facility would be its credibility and prestige. To achieve that, it would itself need sponsorship, oversight and accreditation from prestigious organizations such as the U.N., NGOs, and major democratic nation states.

Plan A:

A system of election and government that corrects the inefficiencies of current approaches to representation and governance is here proposed. It may seem overly complex, but the complexity is necessary to guarantee that all possible outcomes of an election are handled instantly. In actual practice,most election events would reduce to simple cases. In any event, computers can easily manage any level of complexity wherever all cases have been anticipated.

On the issue of the financial cost of elections, it is proposed that the election process be continuous rather than continual. The government institutions associated with elections would then operate on the same scale at much the same level at all times and would mostly be involved in voter and candidate registration. The voter would always have a standing vote for any office and would be free at any time to reassign his or her vote. Further the voter would have the option to specify second, third, etc. choices among candidates for the office. This would all be done through the internet on servers operated and maintained by the Facility. Each registrant would have a password-protected account in which votes can be entered and changed at any time (perhaps with a little latency to prevent certain gaming tactics). The registrant would have to access the account at least once in the election interval to remain active.

Election then becomes a state of being rather than an event. An election event would occur in the instant between terms of office as the servers counted the standing votes. Means to access internet accounts securely through cell phones as well as computers would be made available. With cameras now ubiquitous on computers and cell phones, identity verification by photo or fingerprint would even be feasible. Internet security is always a problem but if it can handle personal bank transactions then surely it can handle an election. Since money is not involved, correcting any fraud anytime after the fact is feasible.

It should be recognized that elected officials themselves are in reality electors more than operators in that they do little of the actual work of governance. Instead they effectively elect the people with the necessary skills who elect others in turn to meet the task at hand. One way or another, then, the electorate already really votes for electors. Generalizing this concept, it is proposed that a voter should be able to vote for anyone qualified to vote who is willing to accept their vote rather than just the office candidates. The person receiving the vote, if not a candidate, would be an elector who would automatically pass the vote to his or her selection who likewise may or may not be a candidate. This could repeat to any number of levels though it would be anticipated that most voters would place standing votes for actual candidates. Actual candidates would receive all votes passed to them and could apply them to a bid for the office or, if they withdraw or fail to win in the election event, pass them to other candidates. However, a voter could not assign a vote in a way that would create a circular path with no real candidates.

The idea here is that in reality the electorate generally does not know how to govern in detail or have any desire to, but its voters do know with whom they agree. A spouse oblivious of politics could pass the vote to the other spouse confident that his or her political desires are likely being met thereby. A change of mind is easily remedied as either can reassign at any time. To minimize the potential for coercion or vote buying, the identity of the voter assigning the vote would not be made known to the receiver through the system. To minimize deception, the standing vote preferences of anyone receiving votes would always be visible to those assigning. Anyone receiving votes could at any time disable or restrict additional assignments to prevent assigning for the purpose of snooping.

Assigning votes can correct another glaring deficiency of elections as currently practiced, the excluded participation of children and others deemed incompetent to vote in their own interest, a clear instance of denial of representation. Presumably a child’s parents have their interests at heart. The votes of children could be assigned to a parent, preferably by default to the same-sex parent to reflect the gender-specific political interests of the child.  Or each parent could be given a half-vote for each child.

Any candidate would be required to rank all other candidates for the same office as second, third, fourth, etc. choices for vote assignment. This ranking information and a candidate’s current assigned vote count would be public data freely available at any time. The public would then always be informed of a candidate’s affiliation and political strength.

In practice, at the moment when a candidate meets the requirements of office (typically a filing, often with a fee and a minimum number of signatures of endorsement), the candidate would be added to the lowest rank in the lists of all other candidates. Likewise the new candidate’s ranking of the other candidates would be initially in the order in which they became candidates. Of course all candidates could then immediately rearrange their list to their liking.

The strongest candidates for an office would most often be the first to meet requirements and would appear higher in the default lists, a better outcome than current practices where often advantage is given to a candidate simply because their name is closest to the start of the alphabet. The need for high fees to limit candidate numbers would also be lessened by this procedure since even an extremely long list could no longer drown out the serious candidates.

At some time before an election event, the candidate lists would be frozen to allow time for the voters to react to any changes. At a somewhat shorter time before the election event, the preferences of any voter representing other voters would likewise be frozen for the same purpose.

The process of collecting endorsements for a candidate’s run for office could be handled by the facility as well. All voters would be free to nominate any single person for an office, with or without solicitation. They would be free to change their nomination up to the point if and when their nominee submits their name on the endorsement list to register as a candidate. The cost of entering a campaign for office would then be greatly reduced and the campaign’s prospects would be evident earlier. Further candidates would then more often be “drafted” to run rather than motivated by their ego, vanity or avarice.

For reasons of stability and efficiency of governance, the current officer would hold office until the next election event regardless of current support. To limit unrepresentative legislation by officers who have lost support as a body, non-emergency legislation would as-a-rule not take effect until after the next election. Emergency legislation would necessarily require a re-vote after an election. With these limitations on legislative overreach, decisions could be made by a single body by simple majority eliminating divided jurisdiction and the problems of deadlock therein.

For any elected office, at least two candidates should be elected, one to represent the majority and the other, most often, the minority. At the moment of an election event, the Facility’s servers would tally the votes assigned to each candidate. If more than two candidates were bidding for the office, the votes of the candidate with the least votes would be reassigned to the second choice of the voter for each vote or to the candidate’s first choice if the voter made no second choice. The process would repeat until the election was resolved and all votes were assigned to the two winning candidates. With two officers, personnel turnover as a result of an election would be greatly reduced without limiting political turnover. This would allow a new term to begin much sooner than otherwise, limiting lame-duck effects.

Note that minorities too small to win either position by themselves would still have their influence felt by this system: a minority candidate could transparently negotiate channeling minority votes to a winning candidate in exchange for considerations of special importance to the minority. Indeed a candidate could win solely by a coalition of small minorities.

In office, the two winning officers, if legislators, would have as many votes as their actual election vote totals on any voting issue to guarantee proportional minority representation. Their votes might be further scaled by the actual population of their district. It would be expected that each officer would join either a majority coalition in support of the governing executive or a minority coalition in loyal opposition. Note that the two holders of any single office could end up on the same side as easily as on opposite sides. Executors elected by the officers would also be elected in pairs, one by the vote of the supporting coalition, the other by the opposition coalition. Each executor would choose his or her own deputies. Executive decisions, would be made by the supporting executor or deputy with all briefings and deliberations observed by the opposition executor or deputy. The same would apply for executor pairs directly elected. This shadow government approach, somewhat on the British model, would hopefully minimize government opacity and the inefficiencies that flow there from. Further it would provide for a smooth and quick transition when majority support switches to the opposition or election events occur (either as scheduled or from a no confidence vote).

Any candidate for office would have to publicly designate a successor. Should the candidate win the office and then die, resign or otherwise lose office before the end of the term, the successor would replace him or her and finish the term — no special elections required nor motive for assassination, character or otherwise.

It is anticipated that a typical voter would need one representative at each level of government: local, regional, national, (super national). Of course, this presumes the peculiar needs of the electoral subdivisions divide geographically. To a large extent, they do and this is not unreasonable. It is not so reasonable when the divisions do not match actual geographic divisions as seen with gerrymandering or just to meet the requirement that each division contain nearly the same number of people. However, if legislators are elected in pairs as previously described, the advantage of gerrymandering disappears; the equal population requirement disappears as well if legislators’ votes are scaled by their actual votes and population. Geographical divisions are then much more likely to represent the political divisions of the electorate. Gerrymandering can be further disfavored if needed by requiring that subdivision lines follow natural or political boundaries (rivers, city limits, etc.) or are otherwise drawn without concavities or discontinuities.

Or the election district lines could be drawn algorithmically.  If the geographical co-ordinates of the residence of every voter are available, any geographically entity can be divided into any number of projected rectangles, all containing an equal number of voters.  Computer algorithms exist to do just this.  A similar approach using circular districts also exits.

It would desirable at all higher levels of government that some number of legislative offices be available at-large. This would allow minority views that cannot get even the minority office in any district a chance at representation. In national elections, it would also provide a pool of future potential executive office holders with national recognition, not tied down by a history of regional affiliation. Likewise for the other levels. The ideal balance between at-large and sectional representation would depend on the nature of the state involved: principally the distribution and number of distinct minorities.

It might seem that there is no room for political parties in this scheme, but that need not be the case. Parties today are private enterprises in most democracies, and, as such, can select their candidates by whatever means they choose. In the U.S., the dominating two parties choose their candidates principally by preliminary rounds of voting by party members. For this they often make use of government apparatuses. But it is solely the prestige of a party that gives any power to its endorsed candidates. That would not change (though major parties would likely endorse two candidates wherever they thought they were strong enough to win both the majority and minority seats). The Facility would be open to any party to conduct primary elections on democratic guidelines. Eventually any other election, from school council to Mr. Universe, could be conducted through the Facility as well if so desired.

Moving the election to an international institution like the proposed Facility by itself defeats most of tactics used by governments to throw elections. The election data is no longer in the hands of the government but is available to all (with the necessary privacy protections). All voting history is retained and available for statistical analysis to spot fraud and to correct the election at any time after fraud is detected. Further the election data can be examined by the participating governments (or individuals) at any time in any depth (again with any necessary privacy protections) to assure themselves that there is no fraud in the Facility itself. The two institutions are thus accountable to each other and heaven on Earth is achieved.

Unfortunately, there is no way, given legacy concerns, that existing legislatures, parliaments, congresses etc. would ever transition to the above approach.  So maybe we can create a new one.  Currently there is no global governmental democratic congress.  (The U. N. is a congress of national state governments, not people.)  It is therefore proposed that a new global congress be formed to implement these reforms and serve as the model for what can be achieved.  Elections would be held as described above with the following specifics.

The constituency of the World Congress would encompass every human being on the planet.  Every person on Earth would be eligible to create an account through the internet to vote for representatives to the congress.  Every person could also create proxy accounts for their minor children in which the other parent could claim equal standing (half vote).  Further every person of age on Earth would be eligible to serve as a representative of any single district regardless of residence if receiving the nomination endorsements at least 1% of the districts voters and having so registered.

Each nation state would be divided algorithmically into rectangular districts so that no district would contain more than 10 million residents and each nation state would have at least one district.  100 global at-large positions would also be created.

Elections would be held yearly naming the top two candidates in each district and the top one hundred at-large candidates to the congress.  The congress would operate internally as described above and would initially meet on-line and establish its rules and procedures and select its officers.

Of course, the congress would have no powers or purview initially.  Hopefully such would accrue to it over time as the only democratic institution representing humanity as a whole.



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