Editor's Note: I welcome another contributor to the blog this week as I try and keep the blog going during this particularly busy period. Tim Johnson is an Assistant Professor at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Willamette University.
Earlier this month, President Obama claimed that mandatory voting “may end up being a better strategy” than campaign finance reform for those who want to remove money from politics. Like clockwork, a partisan divide emerged on the topic, with conservatives arguing that mandatory voting violated the First Amendment and the Huffington Post running the unambiguous headline “President Obama Is Right: It’s Time for Mandatory Voting.” This predictable partisan split, like President Obama’s idea, raises ire without offering any new thoughts about how to spur turnout. So, here’s an idea I don’t think any party has ever considered: election officials should adopt an open-source, publicly-verifiable computer program that randomly-assigns votes to uncast ballots.
Yes, you read that right, the ballots of non-voters should be filled out for them.
Now, needless to say, this proposal has no hopes of ever being implemented, but I think it would increase turnout. By randomly assigning votes, the computer program would not affect election outcomes. It would simply create noise around the popular will signaled by citizens who actually registered their votes. Yet, that noise would create an incentive for individuals to actually cast a ballot.
Not making sense? Let me explain further.
First, remember that randomization assigns an equal probability to each of a given set of outcomes. Thus, if our outcomes represent, say, candidates running for a political office, then randomly-assigning the votes of those who don’t cast ballots would simply mean that every candidate would get an equal uptick in their final vote tally. Thus, if 10,000 voters failed to turnout in a two-candidate contest, then each candidate would get, on average, 5,000 additional, randomly-assigned votes. Those random votes, however, would be added to the votes of folks who actually cast ballots. As a result, the random votes would effectively cancel out and the voters who cast ballots would continue to determine the election outcome.
And I bet the latter group of voters would grow if this system were implemented. Think about it. If you are an anti-deficit, Duck-Dynasty watching, faith-based Tea Partier, could you sleep at night knowing that your ballot has some probability of adding to the electoral count of a big-spending, latte-drinking, politically-correct Democrat? Not a chance. Same goes for the latte drinkers thinking about the John Birchers getting their votes. The revulsion of supporting a personally-objectionable political cause would encourage folks to take the active step of casting a ballot.
Therein rests the beauty of this system. Whereas mandatory voting takes away the right to abstain from an election and coerces participation through the threat of sanction, a system of randomly-assigning votes coerces participation by highlighting the link between casting a ballot and advancing a political cause that one supports. That is to say, mandatory voting scolds the citizen, whereas a system that randomly allocates votes reminds the citizen that ballots carry political consequences.
Of course, to realize such a system, a variety of potentially insurmountable technical hurdles would need to be overcome. Somehow the randomization algorithm would need to be rigorously verified and insulated from hackers. Also, there might need to be an escape clause for close elections in which randomization might very well tip the scales arbitrarily for one candidate. Such problems would be vexing and should probably doom this proposal; indeed, I’m not even sure I would support it. Still, I would rather have our national political discussion focus on a system that convinces individuals about the political consequences of their votes, instead of a system that reprimands citizens for not casting them.