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Look to First Principles To Solve the Voting Problem

Posted byWritten by David

Who can vote and who cannot has been an original fixture of American democracy. This reality is counter to the ideal of our representative democracy.

And now, on the cusp of a presidential election in the middle of a pandemic and social strife, the very act of voting is plagued with uncertainty.

This problem seems incredibly solvable.

But sadly, emotional attachments to hyper-partisan and short-term thinking make solving such a problem very difficult.

What if we pulled back the emotions and eschewed the personalities?

What if we used design thinking and the idea of first principles, could we solve our voting problem?

For the uninitiated, design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving or solution engineering. It “brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.”

First principles are the core truth of a matter. Or as Aristotle stated, “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

For the purposes of this essay and this exercise, let’s keep this high level but specific enough to make the point.

Let’s begin with our first principle. If you are a citizen of the United States, you have the right to vote. There should be no exception to this rule with respect to race, religion, sex, creed, or geography. A singular exception might be that this right is suspended for all convicted and incarcerated citizens.

If we could all start there, then we can move into design thinking mode.

The first principle nicely sets up the human-centered desirability element. For a representative democracy to work as outlined in the Constitution, citizens desire to vote on representation and issues.

Interestingly, the Constitution sets some basic parameters of elections, but leaves the execution to the states. At first blush, this seems brilliant. It puts the feasibility of maximizing voter desirability as close to the voter as possible.

But as we are seeing, the balkanization of voting means and methods is creating partisan tension and chaos in the system. The pandemic doesn’t help. However, we can solve for the challenges of the pandemic without making the pandemic a solution variable.

So, we desire that everyone who is an eligible citizen should be able to vote. The clear issue here is: who is a citizen and eligible. Again, for the sake of simplicity, let’s maintain that every state enables a consistent and regular registration process. Thus, each eligible voter at the time and place of the election has a ballot with their name on it.

Time and place … that’s a term of art. In fact, the phrase in the Constitution is “time, place, and manner”. Here’s where our patchwork of “manner” manifests.

Now we’ve arrived at technologically feasible. Technology does not mean digital, but instead describes the various methods available to fully accomplish our first principle.

If you were experiencing a true design thinking session, you’d likely have a list of all the various ways a vote could be cast, recorded, and counted. If not, you probably defaulted to an ideal of voting in person, at a polling place, on a stated day, at a stated time.

But is that really the box the framers of the Constitution put future generations into? Not if you are being both true to the words of the Constitution and our first principle.

What is technologically feasible? Registered voters could be mailed their ballots and either directed to mail back by a stated date, or deposit the ballot in a designated ballot box by a stated date. Otherwise, the default is to cast your vote in person at a polling place.

A rather important intersection between desirability and feasibility emerges. Although the Constitution provides a relative date for the presidential election, if we really wanted to maximize our first principle, wouldn’t we want to carve out that day as a national holiday?

And, even if we had a national holiday, wouldn’t we still want multiple manners for casting a vote?

We would because we know that during non-pandemic times, people travel, citizens are deployed for military and other service, some are homebound, etc.

Now we have to consider economic viability. If all eligible and registered voters were required to present themselves in person to a polling place on a particular date and in a particular time, the costs of ensuring sufficient polling locations, materials, and people to execute the polling gets quite high.

If eligible citizens are mailed ballots based on registration status and given the option to mail in, place in dropbox, bring to polling place, or vote in parson on Election Day, the economic burden spreads. The first time this wide manner of voting is deployed, the costs will be high. Over time, we would see a leveling of how many citizens would prefer voting in person, by mail, or by drop box.

But, is there a preferred manner? And does it matter? It might for security and accuracy purposes. But it certainly matters if we are trying to make voting as easy as possible for every single eligible citizen.

Today, we have a lot of sludge in the voting process. Sludge is a behavioral economics term from Nobel winner, Richard Thaler. If you do not want people to do something you make it hard to do.

Again, if we are focused and committed to our first principle, we’d take as much sludge out of the process. We’d make voting incredibly easy.

Consider that in 2016 approximately 59% of eligible citizens voted in the presidential election. That seems like a lot. It’s approximately 136M people. But the total eligible population is 230M. A lot of citizens are not participating, either because they don’t want to or they are disenfranchised due to inadvertent or nefarious sludge.

We could keep going here. We could determine that ballot drop boxes are efficient and therefore should be everywhere in every village, town, and city.

But this essay isn’t meant to provide the answer to the problem; it was meant to outline how to solve a very solvable problem using design thinking and first principles.

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