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Fixing Our Broken Democracy

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A large number of Americans, perhaps a majority, recklessly refuses to conform to the views of virtually all established political leaders on an important national issue. They take a position scorned by the mass media and by almost all respected pundits. Fortunately, since very few viable candidates in the last election took this position, no harm was done as these odd-balls had no way to express their outlandish views at the polls.

But wait a minute, maybe I got that wrong! If a lot of people hold certain views, shouldn't they have a chance to vote for candidates promising to implement them? Isn't that a basic democratic premise? It happens that the issue I have in mind is single-payer, Canadian style, health care, but it could have been any of several other important issues. We could argue about whether or not single-payer supporters constitute a majority, but there is no doubt that there are a great many of them (us) [1]. What kind of democracy do we have if a proposal supported by so many people is not even "on the table" for consideration by the executive or legislative branches of government?

With respect to the health care issue, the problem is that the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, principal beneficiaries of the current system, wield enormous influence via campaign contributions, lobbyists, and advertisements. Almost every other important issue is also the subject of similar pressure from corporate interests. Big money also wields political power via its control of the media. This is the likely explanation of the fact that so few newspapers or prominent media pundits support single-payer.

Along with the large role that money plays in distorting the democratic process, there are several other damaging factors. These include e-voting systems, the plurality voting system, and the electoral college. How can we fix our broken democracy? Let's start with campaign finance.

Reduce the Role of Money At Least a Little

A first step toward reducing reliance of candidates on moneyed interests would be to offer every valid candidate sufficient public funds to wage a reasonable campaign. In order to qualify, we might require a candidate to raise some modest amount of money from constituents, each contributing perhaps $5. This idea has been implemented for state offices in Maine, Arizona, and, more recently, in Connecticut [2, 3]. Recipients who choose this option must agree not to spend additional money in the campaign. If an opponent who has not accepted public funding significantly outspends a recipient, then the public grant is increased to close the gap, up to some limit.

Public support might also include a requirement that TV stations provide some free broadcast time for candidates, possibly some in debate format. Giving all congressional candidates the privilege during election campaigns would reduce slightly one of the advantages held by incumbents.


Ideally, strict limits should be imposed on how much a candidate can spend. But there are two problems with this. One is that organizations or people other than the candidate may spend money to publish material supporting the candidate during the campaign. The other problem is that the Supreme Court has ruled that the candidates can spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their campaigns. The Court expressed the view that the first amendment's free speech and press provisions imply that restricting monetary expenditures would amount to restricting freedom of speech and of the press. Money = speech seems like a strange equation to me, but its currently the law.

Another fundamental problem is that those who control the mass media can bias election results by slanting their news coverage to favor particular parties or individuals. This is neatly stated by, McGill University history professor Gil Troy: "like it or not, rich people also have the freedom to throw their money around just as the masses have the freedom to throw their collective power around." So, in our "democracy", the phrase, "government by the people" really means, "government by the dollar and the people".

The situation may get even worse as the Supreme Court will soon be hearing a case that could lead to the end of laws prohibiting corporations from making campaign contributions directly. [4]

Giving candidates access to public funds will not really level the playing field. But it would be a significant step in reducing the advantage that wealth can convey. Those without the backing of big money would at least have enough resources to reach significant numbers of voters and perhaps have a fighting chance to win.

Even politicians successful in raising campaign funds in the conventional manner would benefit by switching to public funding, since they would not have to spend so much time fund raising and would be relieved of the burden of kowtowing to donors. Many very capable people unwilling to devote a major portion of their time to fund raising would become available as candidates. "Clean election" laws in Arizona and Maine have indeed been successful for more than a decade. At least one governor and a number of state legislators have been elected using publicly supplied campaign funds.

Getting the Count Right

Even if all other election problems were solved, the mechanics of casting and counting votes must be such that we can be confident that the results have not been corrupted by fraud or error. There is indeed a long history of crooked elections typified by those controlled by Boss Tweed or the Daley machine. Bribery, intimidation, stuffed or stolen ballot boxes, multiple voting, votes cast by cemetery residents were among their favorite tools. In modern American elections, where e-voting systems are common, the same techniques can be, and are, used. But e-voting systems are also vulnerable to much more powerful cheating methods, many of which are nearly impossible to prevent or detect [5].

Given the widespread, successful, use of computer technology, e.g., email, EZ-Pass, ATMs, credit cards, it may seem strange to question the use of computers in the election process. On the face of it, this seems to be an obvious, simple, arena for them to operate in. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Unlike most other computer applications (such as those listed above) involving transactions by individuals, there is no feasible way for voters to verify directly that their transactions were properly processed (i.e., that their votes were properly recorded and actually counted). Furthermore, as is the case for all computer applications, there is no feasible way to verify that the hardware and/or software does not contain concealed features allowing corruption.

Whereas most old fashioned election cheating methods are of a "retail" nature (e.g., each vote corrupted by a bribe involves an interaction between the briber and the bribee), wholesale fraud is possible with e-voting systems. Clandestine features that could be installed or activated by one or two people, could affect scores, hundreds, or even tens of thousands of votes.

So what can be done about this? Surprisingly, this is a matter in which the best direction to move is backwards! Elections based on hand-marked paper ballots, counted by ordinary people, work just fine, as long as the process is carried out openly [6]. The key is that every step must take place under the watchful eyes of representatives of competing organizations (ROCOs).

This requirement is sometimes difficult to satisfy. It necessitates some minimal level of political organization. The warning, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty", applies regardless of the election mechanics used. It is important to understand that technology cannot be substituted for this vigilance; if Boss Tweed were left in charge of the polls, he would regard an e-voting system, not as an impediment, but rather as a labor saving device. The good news is that ordinary citizens, serving as ROCOs, have no difficulty monitoring hand-counted paper ballot (HCPB) elections. All aspects are simple and can be made transparent. This approach is used in most other industrialized nations and in large numbers of precincts in several states, including New Hampshire and Maine. We rarely read about election fraud in HCPB jurisdictions. This is not the case for e-voting systems of any type, where even computer experts cannot effectively see what is happening under the hood. It must be emphasized that, in election situations, technology cannot be substituted for citizen alertness. E-voting systems do not deter, they actually facilitate, cheating where citizens are not paying attention, and make corruption feasible even in election districts where there are active ROCOs and where most election officials are honest.

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http://www1.cs.columbia.edu/~unger/myBlog/endsandmeansblog.h

I am an engineer. My degrees are in electrical engineering and my work has been in the digital systems area, mainly digital logic, but also computer organization, software and theory. I am a Professor, Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical (more...)
 

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Thanks for keeping this in the forefront. Seems t... by Nick van Nes on Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009 at 9:58:23 AM
...are first priorities, with economy, war, health... by Gustav Wynn on Thursday, Dec 17, 2009 at 4:33:11 PM
I like your transparency idea. That would certainl... by Stephen Unger on Friday, Dec 18, 2009 at 10:58:29 AM