Sunday, December 02, 2007

Voting by transaction

This thought process started as a desire to vote on elections from my computer. This was not the first time I had wondered why electronic voting means having a machine at the polling center. Then I thought about the fact that we are comfortable banking online. What is so fundamentally different about banking online that makes this process more accountable? I pondered for a while the possibility of having regional servers and email confirmations to voters as a way to remove systematic gaps in trust, but then I returned to the model of money.

The reason why we feel comfortable banking or shopping online is because there is a natural duality to a transaction. I will complain if my account balance is too low, the other party will complain if their balance is too low. This assumes that money cannot be created or destroyed, only exchanged, which is tied to our understanding of physical currency and our mental abstraction of the real bills. In truth much of our economic resources exist solely as entries in a database, but we trust the system enough and the system has proven itself to be suitably monitored.

So if we base a hypothetical voting system on our existing monetary system, then we have to create some mirror of transactions. Essentially we have to bank our votes, and then transmit them directly to the candidate, who then presents his votes and the candidate with the highest totals will be awarded victory in the election.

So how do you receive votes in your voting bank? Unlike our economic system where you have to exchange your labor for currency, in the current system you are rewarded with votes for being a citizen, so I will propose that all citizens receive there votes before the election. During the election timespan, voters transmit there votes to the candidate they select, just like you can give money to support a candidate now. The bank makes sure that they subtract dollars from your bank account when they process your check. The candidates staff will complain if the bank fails to increase their account balance by the appropriate amount. This system works extremely well for transmitting resources.

As soon as I had created this system in my head I began thinking about the problem of differentiating a vote by each election. This combined with a seperate idea: would it be appropriate to exchange vote types. Let's say that one voter feels very strongly about a presidential candidate but has little knowledge about the senatorial election. Another voter in the same region feels very strongly about the senatorial candidate but is ambivalent about the presidential race. Could these two essentially swap their unwanted resources to increase their influence in their positions of passion? Of course I managed to blow my own assumptions apart when I looked back at my old friend the dollar. You don't have to exchange your food dollars for entertainment dollars to buy a movie ticket; there is just one type of currency. What if votes utilized the same type of flexibility. This would allow voters to spread there votes based on priority. Obviously this is a radical departure from our current voting system of one vote per person per election race, but it is an extremely common model in our economic lives.

Let's say that we take a step back technology-wise in order to pave the right future. What if the US Treasury department actually printed votes. They could be distributed to registered voters once per year and "spent" at polling centers on election day, where members of the candidates staff would greet voters and collect vote certificates from voters. Then the candidates turn in their votes, the votes get checked for counterfeits (something we cannot do so frequently with economic currency), and the winner is declared.

Pretty quickly vote banking institutions are going to be created to store your votes and get rid of the necessity to physically travel to the polling station. These may be extentions of existing banks or entirely new operations. The distribution of votes can be done by sending a "check" that you deposit and that process will go move to internet transfer incredibly quickly, like a direct deposit. Next you send a "check" to your candidates address to vote for them. This process will also go online without a lot of delay, but I think to transfer the process we would need to go through the intermediate step of having a physical vote currency so that the abstraction can have meaning for people that are seeing this for the first time. Once it becomes "normal" younger generations will simply accept the conventions as they do with the economic system they inherit.

A few questions arise out of this discussion. Firstly, where is the benefit for the vote banks, for industries do not rise out of complete altruism. Banks hold your money because they can make money with it through interest based loans. Vote banks could either charge a small monetary fee, or even a small vote fee. The first is easy to understand, a fee-based service is straight-forward. The second is a bit harder to wrap our heads around since we haven't spent our lives thinking about votes as a type of currency, but I can see an organization building around the idea of exchanging a service for political capital. My best guess is that some of each would arise and time would shake out what is the best situation for the market as a whole.

The second question that arises is related to the first because it also stems from the comparison to currency. If a voter feels uninspired by candidates in a particular year, can they save their votes? Furthermore, could they loan out their votes. Perhaps someone is willing to pay 1.03 votes next year for a vote this year, when their favorite candidate is fighting a tough opponent. How would this change the political landscape. It would certainly shake things up, although for better or worse I cannot say.

Out of all of this brainstorming a semi-coherant idea has emerged and as I look at it one thing strikes me: this could potentially be the answer to the negative campaign focus. After all, if a person is not required to vote for either you or your opponent, how does slinging mud at them really help you get people to send you votes? Think of advertising for companies that want your economic votes, they tend to focus on creating a positive brand image of themselves though they might occassionally toss in a negative comparison of the other guy. Maybe that is naivete, but I posulate that this may create an about-face in campaign strategy. Time would tell!

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