Democracy on the Cheap

What if they held an election and nobody came? That pretty much happened in New York City in September. According to the New York Times, "...
by | November 4, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

What if they held an election and nobody came?

That pretty much happened in New York City in September. According to the New York Times, "fewer than 8 percent of the city's roughly three million enrolled Democrats voted in an election that cost the city $15 million and the four candidates millions more." In some polling districts, zero ballots were cast.

Democracy isn't cheap. Holding an election can be costly, and it can seem a waste of money if almost no one comes. But that is often the case in primary elections, which many people are unaware are even taking place.

With money short, Minneapolis is taking a different route. In this month's elections, voters there are choosing a mayor, city council and other municipal officials without a primary first, using a voting system called ranked choice voting or instant runoff voting.

In races in which there are more than two candidates, voters will mark their ballots in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority, the votes of the lowest scoring candidate will be distributed to the candidate marked second on those ballots, with the process repeated until a majority is obtained.

How will voters in Minneapolis handle the new complexity? After all, this is a country that saw confusion over a "butterfly ballot" in the 2000 Presidential Election.

If the San Francisco experience is any guide, probably pretty well. In 2002, voters there passed a charter amendment making the switch to ranked choice voting. The first time it was employed was in 2004. After the vote, the Pacific Research Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, issued a report on the San Francisco experience based on exit polling. The report found that more than 86 percent of voters felt they understood the RCV approach fairly well or perfectly well, and preferred RCV to traditional runoffs by 61 percent to 13 percent.

Changing the rules on how votes are counted in an election can change the outcomes, maybe in a good way. Advocates point out that ranked choice voting can reduce the "spoiler" effect.

Consider the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Illinois. Initially, the race was between Rod Blagojevich and Paul Vallas, at that time the popular superintendent of Chicago's public schools. When Roland Burris jumped into the race, the dynamics changed. Burris, an African-American, ran strong in Chicago neighborhoods expected to vote for Vallas. In the primary, the final tally was Blagojevich 37 percent, Vallas 34 percent, and Burris 29 percent -- which meant Blagojevich was declared the winner. But if ranked choice voting had been in place, it is likely that most of the Burris voters would have had Vallas as their second choice, meaning Illinois might never have had a Governor Blagojevich -- or a Senator Burris.

Unfortunately, switching to RCV can be costly and comes with some initial confusion. Pierce County, Washington, moved to RCV in 2006, and there is some dispute regarding how much RCV is saving. Higher voter education costs, new equipment and other factors have put cost savings in question, and the approach may be repealed.

If greater efficiency is the goal, why bother with traditional paper-based, in-person voting anyway? Does it really make any sense to have an election result depend on people looking for "hanging chads?" Why not simply use completely digital voting techniques instead?

Hawaii is way ahead on this front. In May, the city and county of Honolulu used all-digital polling via Internet and telephone to elect members to 33 neighborhood boards across the island of Oahu. According to Everyone Counts, the San Diego firm that provided the technology, this is the first all-digital election held in the United States, as voters had no access to a paper channel.

The technology was cost-effective, as election costs dropped from $220,000 to roughly $100,000. But what about turnout?

These neighborhood boards are all-volunteer positions with little formal authority, mostly providing policy input to other government entities. Turnout has historically been low, with many races uncontested. This year, turnout was even lower than usual as return rates dipped below 10 percent. But it was an important step in the learning curve for digital voting, and election officials expect that future all-digital elections will see turnouts return to normal.

"It seems intuitive that digital voting will expand in the future," says Bryan Mick, a spokesman for the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission Office, which oversees the election of the neighborhood boards. "People transmit millions of dollars over the Internet every day. They'll get used to voting online as well." Observers believe that this will be a particularly effective tool for military and overseas voters in the future.

The right to vote is the essence of democratic government. It may be time to reconsider upgrading how we vote.