future of elections

The Future of Elections: Is it Time for an Overhaul?

New Ideas from Blockchain-protected Ballots to … Entirely Automated Voters?

Free and fair democratic elections are in big trouble. Once the bedrock concept of a functioning democracy, elections are overdue for an overhaul. People on all sides of the political spectrum believe that the existing system is failing as they look out at the 2020 presidential race, and some believe we need to rethink the future of elections.

Many of the challenges that now plague the electoral system are new. The U.S. founders could not have predicted how radically technology and culture would change over 200 years.

The list of problems that people see may yet grow, but it currently includes foreign meddling in elections via illegal hacking, and using social media to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation.

The Rituals that Shape Election Behavior Are in Disarray

The technical aspects of elections and voting are only one part of voting. Rituals and culture play a part in shaping how people behave around elections and implicitly ‘train’ citizens to engage in civic rituals. Many aspects of the 2020 presidential campaign have blasted apart these ritual expectations, including the rancorous first debate between candidates Trump and Biden. President Trump’s suggestion that he might not accept a defeat also departed from American custom.

When election rituals no longer function, the entire institution is set adrift, opening up the question: What next? Should we have elections? If so, how can we preserve their fundamental intention? Or is there another way to engage in our civic duty? Is there a future for elections?

Not least, only a little over half of the voting-age population casts a vote in presidential elections.  The last time that as many as 60% of eligible voters cast a ballot was in 1968. Those that do vote tend to be that least represent the country as a whole. 

Here are a few of the ways that new technologies and cultural practices could make future elections more trustworthy.

Ensuring that elections can be trusted

  • Homomorphic encryption. At Microsoft, cryptographer Josh Banaloh is working on a way to encrypt ballots. “Homomorphic encryption” lets voters remain anonymous while also able to track their ballots.
  • Using blockchain technology to secure voting records. The United States Postal Service recently filed a patent for a system that will combine the mailing system and a blockchain to verify the authenticity of each vote.

The future of elections may rely on solving the disinformation problem

  • Using software to track misinformation campaigns in real-time. A Princeton University-led research team has demonstrated the potential to track coordinated disinformation campaigns by looking at content and meta-content patterns. Troll- and bot-driven campaigns use such information differently from ordinary people sharing information, and these patterns are visible.
  • Inform and empower users to filter their own data. It is already possible to flag automated content on social media platforms in some instances. Users should know how to do this themselves. Tech companies should provide users the tools to filter their accounts themselves.
  • Enhance media and information literacy in the general population. The United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) supports better critical thinking as the first defense against misinformation. People who can understand their own responses to news and information are less vulnerable to disinformation.

Increasing participation in future elections

  • Compulsory voting. In some countries, including Australia, Bolivia, and Peru, it is a crime not to vote. This is enforced with a fine in some countries. University of Chicago political scientist Anthony Fowler believes that compulsory voting could work in the United States. A compulsory system could increase voter turnout among populations that aren’t well-represented otherwise.
  • Voting by mobile app. There was an increase in voting in West Virginia, when it permitted out-of-country voters to cast votes online.

Maybe … Machines Could Do the Voting

Alternatively, why vote at all?

Democratic candidate John Kennedy won the 1960 election by following advice based on the first automated voter behavior models. As Jill Lepore, author of  If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, recounts, this raised serious ethical challenges at the time. “Certainly, the machine turned out to have given accurate predictions, so … what are voters for? At some point, will we just automate our entire democracy?”

Certainly, the machine turned out to have given accurate predictions, so what are voters for? At some point, will we just automate our entire democracy?”

Jill Lepore, discussing the first automated voter behavior modeL

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