Home / General / An Unacceptable Voting System and America’s Federalism Fetish

An Unacceptable Voting System and America’s Federalism Fetish


This is the kind of thing that gets Frum excluded from the Republican gravy train, even if he throws a bone to the “voter fraud” crowd:

In any other democracy, voters nationwide would have cast their votes on the same kind of balloting equipment, subject to the same rules.

The parties would have had a minimal role in supervising the election, and certainly would not have been allowed to ask for rule changes as the vote occurred.

The voting would have been overseen by a national election commission, not by local judges, who might be nonpartisan — but who very well might not.

Americans worry more about voter fraud than do voters in other countries, because they are the only country without a reliable system of national identification.

In no other country, including federal systems such as Germany, Canada and Australia, does the citizen’s opportunity to vote depend on the affluence and competence of his or her local government.

In every other democracy, the vote is the means by which the people choose between the competing political parties — not one more weapon by which the parties compete.

The broken American voting system is a particularly bad outgrowth of America’s federalism fetish. There’s no “local expertise” that’s valuable in terms of accurate vote counting — all it accomplishes is to make it harder to vote and in particular to exclude less powerful people from the vote. Decentralization was absolutely essential to the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans for a century after the 15th Amendment, and the ghosts linger.

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  • Question: Would it be possible–not politically, but legally–for Husted to be found in contempt of court for his Ohio doings?

    • Richard

      He would have to have violated a specific court order. I don’t think he did that. Promulgating rules that a court later found to be illegal (and appealing that ruling) does not constitute contempt of court

      • Steve LaBonne

        There’s a colorable argument that he did violate an existing consent decree. We’ll see where that goes in court.

        • Richard

          Colorable arguments never prevail in contempt of court proceedings. Unless there is a specific court order which he unambiguously violated, contempt proceedings are rarely if ever brought

  • Erik Loomis

    Having just voted in Rhode Island with its gigantic sheets of paper and markers to draw arrows with, I just can’t see how a better system could be designed…..

    • David W.

      Paper ballots marked with a permanent marker that are counted by hand and witnessed by representatives of all parties/candidates is still the gold standard of voting. Incidentally, that’s the standard Canada uses and what Frum grew up with. No wonder he’s appalled with U.S. voting practices.

      • McKingford

        As a Canadian, I have a lot of good things to say about how our elections work. However…

        Keep in mind that in a Canadian federal election, people are casting ballots for 1 race only, so the scale works. The ballot is postcard sized and contains anywhere from 4 to about 10 candidates. By contrast, you have, at the very minimum, half a dozen – and possibly many many more different votes people are casting today (President, Congressman, state congress, state senate, governor, ballot questions, judges, municipal representatives, etc).

        I would commend, as RedSquareBear does, the optical scan technology that we use in our municipal elections (where there are 4+ races: mayor, councillor, 2 different school boards). The votes are tallied instantly, yet retain the paper ballot as a paper trail. In our last municipal election, much to my surprise I ended up in a long line to wait at the end of the day, so that I ended up voting 1/2 hour after the polls had closed (as long as you are in line by the deadline you can vote). By the time I got home at 8:35, all the races had been declared.

        • David W.

          I do vote in Wisconsin myself and we use optical scanning machines to tabulate votes. Thankfully, we also do not hold most local elections in November, which (as you point out) would make for a very lengthy ballot.

        • Emma in Sydney

          In Australia we have multiple races, and a Senate elected by modified proportional representation, which in my state can have over 100 candidates on the ballot paper. Voting is compulsory, so they have to make sure everyone can vote. An independent federal electoral commission, independent redistributing based on census numbers and paper ballots works pretty well. The US ‘system’ is a constant source of amazement.

    • RedSquareBear

      Wisconsin uses the same optical scan technology. You take the pen/marker/pencil (anything that makes a clearly contrasting line on the white ballot will do), you fill in the arrow, you feed it into the machine, it finds the solid line in Region 1/2/3 (where 1/2/3 are, e.g. President/Senate/Congress) and adds one to the tally. If there are more than one filled in arrow (or possibly an incomplete or partial mark, not sure about that) it spits the ballot out, the old one gets set aside, and you get another one.

      There is truly no better system that I am aware of: it’s easy to mechanize but retains the auditability and human-readability of paper and is almost unimaginably simple for voters to understand and fill out.

      That other places don’t all use optical scan technology I have a sincerely difficult time attributing to anything short of malice.

      • Julian

        What about greed?

      • Cody

        In Indiana we use touch-screen booths. It’s incredibly easy. Just click the candidate’s name and it check’s the box.

        I just hit “All Democrat Ticket” on the left side of the screen, and was done voting! Obviously, the only concern with this is the reliability of computers. I suppose someone could tamper with them, but paper isn’t tamper proof either.

        • tonycpsu

          Watch out for the “straight ticket” votes — at least in North Carolina, that doesn’t count as a vote for President. Might be the case in other states as well.

          The solution to the voting machine problem is 100% open-source machines and a paper receipt to provide a verifiable paper trail.

          • Murc

            The solution to the voting machine problem is to not use voting machines.

            • Richard

              Yeah because the memory of Florida in 2000 is so comforting

              • Murc

                .. Florida uses paper ballots, marked clearly by hand in pen, counted by hand?

                Because I was unaware of this.

                • Where you are probably plays a big role in things as well. I’m in Maryland, we use touch screen machines, and they’re incredibly easy, quick, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a complaint about them. But yeah, that’s Maryland.

                • spencer

                  When I voted last week (downtown St. Petersburg), I used a paper ballot, marked with a pen … but scanned into an optical reader.

                  Two out of three, I guess.

          • Cody

            I checked all of my answers. I also had to choose to overturn all of the judges… because I don’t trust judges (and with our string of Republican Governors, I can guess who appointed them!).

            I don’t see the problem with voting machines. Technology isn’t magic. They can be easier to use than paper if done right.

            Like I said before, paper isn’t tamper proof either.

            • sparks

              Paper is tamper-evident.

    • BigHank53

      Touch-screen machines, while simple to use, are mostly based on Windows architecture. Malicious code has been introduced to voting machines (under lab conditions) and it’s trivial to write such code that will only ever be active on election day itself. Once a vote is flipped, there’s no way to ever detect it. There’s no way to do a recount. How many poll workers are hackers and could possibly detect a problem? Anyone can detect paper ballot tampering–that’s why there are traditionally poll workers from both parties to keep an eye on each other.

      Statistics nuts claim to have found discrepancies in Arizona vote counts from touchscreen machines.

      The biggest problem is not inherent in using a computer; the problem is that most of the touchscreen machines were built with third-rate technology by grifters following the 2000 Florida nightmare. If they’d been built by the same companies that build slot machines or lottery ticket machines (you know, where money is at stake) I’d be willing to believe in the results.

  • tonycpsu
    • Moleman

      Yep- our local polling place (PA) had some schmuck asking if we wanted to show photo IDs. When I mentioned that it wasn’t necessary except for first time voters (and even then, no photos necessary), he went with a huffy “he’s required to ask.” (which he isn’t, but whatever, jerk)

      Although, the crotchety old white dude with the walker who went ahead of me, and immediately yelled “HOW DO I VOTE FOR THE DEMOCRATS?” from the booth kinda made my day. (Answer: “Press that button at the top, Joe. No, a little harder than that- the lights need to light up.”)

  • I agree about the Canadian election system, but with two comments.
    First, as the population of my riding expanded, the open hours did not change, but the number of voting cubicles and polls workers grew noticeably.
    Second, I know of no national ID like Frum refers to. I used my library card once in Toronto and residents here in Saskatchewan are registered by door to door canvassers, then receive their cards to vote by mail. Rather loose systems, but no cries of voter fraud.

    • McKingford

      I was going to make the same observation about Canada and the absence of a national ID (the closest thing I can think of, but which only affects a tiny % of the population, is a Status Indian card).

      I worked a polling station in our last federal election, and although you need 1 piece of ID with a photo and address, you don’t have to be registered (ie. you can register at the polling station). And failing a photo ID, if you have ID with you address, you can swear an oath or affirmation as to your identity (or also have a person who is registered vouch for you) for the purposes of registering and/or voting.

      • Anonymous

        And they go out of their way to help you if you aren’t registered. I’ve only once in ten years voted in the riding I was registered in, so I do a lot of proving my identity, but it is always fast and pleasant and willing to take the pile of stuff I hand them to show that I am me.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, Canada is in fact an excellent example of the fact that the national ID thing is a red herring.

      • It’s also an example of how the federalism thing is a red herring. Canada has lots of federalism, but it doesn’t entrust elections to politicians, so they work.

        The problem in Canada is intra-party elections. No contested leadership contest in my lifetime has been free and fair.

        • Is the federalism not a problem? I mean, does Canada have annoyingly pointless variance in the mechanism of voting, registration, etc?

          • Emma in Sydney

            Federalism isn’t a problem here in Australia, despite there being different voting systems in several states (optional preferential vs full preferential) for state elections. The Federal Electoral Commission administers federal elections and they are the same everywhere. Indeed, an Australian can vote at any voting booth in Australia — absentee is no problem. It’s possible to organise these things so politicians have nothing to do with them.

        • jamie_2002

          What is the problem with closed intra-party voting?

          If you want to influence who the party puts forward, join the party.

  • Oh yes yes yes. This. Of all the stupid federalisms, voting is perhaps the stupidest.

    Absentee balloting is stupid if you’re an ex-pat. First, why do I have to stick with my last place of residence if 1) my US “home base” (i.e., family) is elsewhere and 2) I don’t even get to vote locally?

    So my beloved votes in PA (which is convenient) but I vote in MD (which is not). We have to navigate two different systems which change from year to year (early on, we both got unsolicited, complete absentee ballots; no more!)

    There’s some sort of weird federal back up ballot. I mean, wtf.

    And why variance in getting on the ballot? Etc. etc.

    Laboratories of stupidity and assholishness.

    • Weird, I’m expat and vote in Indiana, but I had local options. I didn’t have those options in 2004, just president, senator, and governor and/or representative.

      • This is the first time I didn’t have local options. Who the hell knows why? I didn’t get to vote for gay marriage either!

  • Craigo

    Blame Levi Morton. We could have had federally-administered elections over a century ago.

    • John

      Could you elaborate on how this is Levi Morton’s fault?

      • rea

        I don’t know what Craigo had in mind, but Morton, as Benjamin Harrison’s Vice President, was criticized for failing to stop a filibuster of an early voting rights bill that would have recognized federal power to ensure fair state elections.

        • Craigo

          Yep. See Wawro and Schickler for the ful story. There were defections late in the game, but basically Morton’s refusal to help break the filibuster (or allow another presiding officer to take the gavel) delayed the bill for months and allowed the Democrats to pick off a few Western Republicans.

          It’s was not ony the one serious attempt at federalizing elections, but the last serious effort to protect the rights of African-Americans for decades.

  • Jerry Vinokurov

    I was very confused by that link going back to 2007 and started looking for which California initiative on the ballot this year was trying to do that… May be worth a clarification.

  • tonycpsu

    How do we undo the decentralization mistake? It would require a constitutional amendment, right? That seems like a high bar to clear. Is there any way to make it happen via some sort of inter-state compact the way the National Popular Vote movement is set up?

    • Craigo

      Congress has full authority to regulate elections for federal Representatives and Senators under Art. I.

      Presidentiale electors are a bit trickier, but there’s always the equal-protection clause.

      • tonycpsu

        Interesting. Seems like it’d be hard for states to justify a separate electoral apparatus for the Presidency if Congress were able to successfully exercise its power over the congressional elections. Of course, that probably fails for the same reason, with “states’ rights”-motivated senators/reps voting to kill it.

  • Bloix

    If there’s something about America that doesn’t seem to make sense, the reason is usually slavery.

    • chris

      Or class. In this case I’ll go with class as the primary factor. Poor people get poor democracy in exactly the same way they get poor education — i.e., the people who have the wealth don’t want it spent on Those People. Making the funding and management of voting/education/other public institutions inconsistent based on local jurisdictions and then having all the affluent people flee to a different jurisdiction is just the most convenient way of achieving this.

      There’s a strong unstated — or occasionally stated — racial component to this too, so maybe it’s a little of both.

  • Chester Allman

    Agreed – decentralization of voting laws is deeply stupid, as is the Glen Weyl proposal to let voters pay to vote as many times as they want.

    As a counter-proposal, I suggest that voters be allowed to vote one time for every 20 minutes they’re kept waiting in line at the polls.

  • Adrian Luca

    Why the fuck do people want to vote for everything from animal control rangers to judges?

    Does anyone really think elections lead to a better judiciary or dog catcher?

    • Craigo

      Nope. But better government is not a priority for many people.

  • Jameson Quinn

    Yay! A top-level post called “An Unacceptable Voting System”.

    But wait… it’s not about plurality voting?

    Yes, voting federalism is stupid. But at it’s very worst, it might produce a 2-3% swing in results, and usually far less. Meanwhile, plurality voting completely distorts the incentives and results of every single election and allows keeping entire popular issues off the agenda entirely.

  • Njorl

    We have the finest voting system our 50 laboratories of plutocracy could produce.

    • The Dark Avenger

      Hiram Johnson, a Progressive of the conservative variety, stated that his objective in having the initiative, the referendum, and the recall available to California voters was to prevent a Democrat from gaining the California governorship.

      It worked so well that there have been only 4 governors from the Democratic party in Sacramento since then, 3 of them in my lifetime.

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