Friday, February 4, 2011

A Reinvented Election System

We consider democratic elections among the highest goods. Even in an era of incomprehensibly high federal deficits, the U.S. government, whether under Republican or Democratic control, spends billions of dollars to ensure democratic elections not only in the U.S. but worldwide.

Another example of our commitment to highly democratic elections is that literacy tests have, for almost a century now, been virtually eliminated so citizens now need no more qualifications to vote than to have passed their 18th birthday.

I want to argue here that a voting-readiness test should be reinstated. Why? First, because it's much more difficult today to cast a wise vote. Candidates' positions on issues are more much difficult to understand because much more complex issues are at play in our global, information- and technology-centric society. At the same time, candidates are spending enormous sums on highly sophisticated Madison-Avenue messaging consultants from Frank Luntz on the right to President Obama's dream team of influencing experts on the Left. Every campaign commercial or speech is based on computer analysis of focus groups' dial ratings of every word. Such efforts not only dwarf the election propaganda techniques used when voter literacy tests were banned, those efforts dwarf even the efforts of Josef Goebbels, Hitler's infamous Minister of Propaganda. It is extremely difficult to vote wisely.

So it's no surprise that we mainly elect lawyers and even occasionally actors (e.g., Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger,) and comedians (e.g., Al Franken and Tom Ammiano.) All that, at a time when truly wise, brilliant, ethical leaders are ever more important.

I believe those factors tip the scales in favor of requiring a voting-readiness test. More valid than a literacy test would be a test of the ability to critique a political campaign ad, commercial, and debate.

A high level of sophistication would not be required to pass the test--merely enough that a voter demonstrates the ability to acquire basic knowledge of the candidates and issues. That way, the benefits of a broadly participating democratic electorate could be retained while significantly improving the quality of the electorate's decision-making, and in turn, the quality of our elected leaders.

A nice side effect is that some people would prepare for the test, thereby making them better voters and, overall, better thinkers.

Of course, a voting-readiness test would bring liabilities. Obviously, there is the significant cost of even once-in-a-lifetime testing of each voter. More serious may be the alienation and disenfranchisement of people who fail the test. Exacerbating that alienation,
even if scrupulous care were taken to ensure the test was fair to all racial and ethnic groups, if disproportionate members of such a group failed, it would yield accusations of racism and thus increase tensions.

Yet I believe the benefits of a voter-readiness test would far outweigh the liabilities. We would see better quality leaders, and in turn, better, fairer laws, a better quality of life for the citizenry, and even perhaps fewer wars.

To further improve the quality of our elected officials, as I've written previously, I advocate replacing our current election financing system with a 100% publicly funded system, which would allow only two- or three-week-long campaigns consisting only of televised debates and job simulations (e.g., running a meeting) plus an online/printed statement of voting records and positions on key issues.

Do you think America would, net, be better if a voter-qualification test were required and campaigns were the few-week-long publicly funded system I propose here?


Jeffrie said...

I think that the 2-week publicly funded system might make a difference, but the literacy test will not. Why? Because even smart voters can be lazy & easily swayed.

Not nearly enough of us do our homework when it comes to electing our leaders, including the smarter among us. We might be more likely do it if we had to, and I see such a possibility in the 2-week process you describe.

As for the test, as I said before, smart voters can be lazy & easily swayed, too. They can also be pressed for time and not have enough time to do the research that might be needed to vote for the right leader. They can also go with their gut feeling, just like anybody else, and vote for the candidate they just like the most.

I think one thing that must be done to reinvent the election system is to abolish the party system. This is a major reason so many voters vote on autopilot, because many are not willing to give a candidate a chance if they are affiliated with the party the voter opposes, no matter how good their ideas may be.

It appears that there are an increasing number of voters who refer to themselves as "independent" of a party, and it's these voters that candidates need to convince to vote or them, not those that vote the party line no matter what. What if the candidate treated EVERY voter as independent? They would have to work harder to get elected (and hopefully in office as well to be be re-elected) if no vote was guaranteed.

Lightning Bug's Butt said...

Interesting as always, Marty!

Yes, I think the voter-qualification test would make for better voters. I also know it would never work.

Remember the criticisms for standardized testing and IQ testing: they're racially biased; they're culturally biased; they're gender biased.

OF COURSE they're biased; people didn't do equally well. There's your proof!

Imagine denying higher percentages of a particular race or sex the right to vote -- based on a "biased" test.

Add to that all the partisan bickering over how unfair the test is. My God, we couldn't agree on a BALLOT FORMAT in Florida back in 2000. That mushroomed into a Constitutional crises.

I see nothing but upside to your 100% public campaign funding idea. Great idea.

Peter said...

I certainly agree with you that a large number of voters don't have a clue who, what or even why they are voting, and that all elections should be publicly funded.

However, I think another reason why so many American voters are confused about who to vote for is simply because we have so many elections.

Americans elect everything from the local dog catcher to the president. In Canada and Europe, voters elect a member of parliament, (sometimes a member of their regional parliament), and a member of their local council. It's much easier to hold politicians accountable when there aren't too many of them so they can just to blame each other when things go wrong and avoid taking any responsibility themselves.

Shawn said...

I am sure people would call such a commonsense proposal "racist" because it would disparately impact Blacks & Hispanics.

Seraphim said...

Who would elect the test writers?

Marty Nemko said...

I'd trust some entity like the College Board or Educational Testing Service to come up with the exam, and then have it reviewed by a diverse panel.

cole said...

Excellent ideas, to be quite honest, I think passive selection of decisionmakers is the way to go. People are too emotional, too busy to read and too easily manipulated. I'd add psychological testing to the mix. U. of Michigan showed that sociopaths are overrepresented in top ranks in industry and government, and that is something that could be filtered out.

National leaders should be as carefully selected as astronauts.