Change How We Vote – A Proposal

Voting well requires voting indirectly for desirable policies, so why not vote for policies directly? Policy-voting is just that idea. It proposes that voters elect manifesto policies rather than personalities or parties. The anonymous party that earns the most votes and highest ordinal ranks for its policies wins. Such policies include those touted in manifestos already such as how much to invest or what to cut in the NHS, how much to tax or cut for different income groups, and what renewable energies to invest in or divest from. This has the benefit of encouraging manifesto writers to switch from campaign bluster to societal targets. Targets that citizens vote for, rather than for any party or person. Granted, the idea of the woman-on-the street voting in parliament-level decisions can seem bizarre. As laypersons are bound to make so many mistakes.

Politicians themselves nonetheless policy-vote among themselves, and contrary to doing a better job than lay citizens do, politicians also make colossal mistakes on citizens’ behalf. Consider some examples. 

David Cameron voted for proposals from on the one hand his own party members, and on the other, rival party members, to orchestrate a UK independence referendum. Thereby one man chose for every Briton, that Britons must suddenly vote either for-remain or for-leave. Cameron’s individual ‘vote’ to orchestrate that referendum culminated in Brexit, and was a mistake by his own reckoning; he championed the Remain Campaign, and resigned after Team Leave won. 

The new prime minister, Theresa May, voted-for abiding by the referendum’s outcome and forestalled options to hold a referendum again. May and Cameron voted for policies that decided others’ livelihoods and right to live in the UK in the long-run. Their actually aristocratic choices – to hold a referendum, to not hold one, to ally with an under-elected party like the DUP – pre-decided democratic outcomes. 

The allure in taking back control – the slogan of the leave campaign – actually indicates how little internal control Britons feel they have over their communities and their governance. Arguably, high voter attendance at the referendum (compared to standard elections) shows that the electorate care, even foment, when they feel the election is momentous in offering change regarding who has control over them. General election attendance, meanwhile, has waned. Paradoxically, the role May and Cameron played demonstrates how undemocratic British politics is. Indeed, Britain is a representative democracy whereby representatives – those we elect, parliament members – represent our best interests and make decisions on our behalf in coordination with unelected high-achievers, technocrats, who have passed civil service exams.

If you doubt this reality I invite you to read Who Governs Britain? and What Does Jeremy Think? The first concerns British governance and praises its Westminster centrism. The second outlines the biography of a high-powered civil servant, Jeremy Heywood, who served No.10 and five prime ministers—from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May.

So commonly known is the command view of democratic governance that it is lamented from very far afield. The artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Stuart Russell for instance, writes that “The obvious failings of government include paying too much attention to the preferences (financial as well as political) of those in government and too little attention to the preferences of the governed. Elections are supposed to communicate preferences to the government, but they seem to have a remarkably small bandwidth (on the order of one byte every few years) for such a complex task. In far too many countries, government is simply a means for one group of people to impose its will on others.” (p249 Human Compatible).

I actually favoured the representative democracy model in the past where preferences are to be stewarded by wise leaders, because, well, elected members legalised homosexuality and repealed the death penalty, for instances, against the democratic majority of Britons’ wishes or preferences to the contrary at the time. So, the democratic ideal that more minds add up to better choices is not always and universally true. In Russian elections, for example, people actually vote for strongman Vladimir Putin. This is more amusingly and innocuously embodied in the BoatyMcBoatFace effect – whereby British public deliberation to name a ship led to populist joke names instead of sound suggestions.

Moreover, because one habitually trusts experts from pilots to plumbers to look after your needs, leaving politics to politicians who know best has a certain rational appeal. Concentrating on yourself while they take care of the political and economic side seems rational enough. But no, thinking about it, it is not: allowing politicians to make choices for us has not addressed persistent issues in the past, and governance innovation – at least experimentation with new ways – merits attention. Bottom-up innovation has historically led to the invention of good things like the National Health Service, and free days, and minimum income, namely nationalised healthcare and the weekend and holidays and minimum wages.

Hence I propose policy-voting. Policy voting, as I envision it, entails a digital ballot-sheet but instead of votes for people or parties there are anonymous votes for an arbitrarily capped number of policies (the trade off of not featuring all policies admits what ones are valued and feasible in an election cycle) such as, for example, how much funding for the NHS, votes for sixteen-year-olds, sectors that should be prioritised.

This has beneficial reasons behind it:

  1. Policy voting abolishes partisanship: as voters learn they align with agendas of parties to different percentage points, without the tribal affiliation having as much priority. There is also a cost-saving in avoiding wasting campaign money on defeating the opposition through fake news or personal-attack smear campaigns
  2. Policy voting bypasses human fallibility: vote outcomes are predictable from superficial concerns like the height, gender, and jawline of leaders, stage charisma, sheer screen-time exposure. These biases are averted if appearances and affiliation are screened-out from relevance. 
  3. Policy voting energises voters’ participation: voters will decide on the policies that matter to them and so will by necessity have to take a stance on political issues that are otherwise absent from the big picture. This, by-design, ensures that voters know what they are actually voting for, and if they do not know (as some do not know already and nonetheless vote in the status-quo system) it discourages them from holding forthright opinions about ‘who is better’ in power
  4. Policy voting reveals true or sincere outcomes: some parties may better align with a voter than others and, in a policy-voting system, if a majority aligns with policies of a non establishment party, that party stands a decent chance at victory 
  5. Policy voting ensures long-termist concerns gain a high-standing into subsequent election cycles. So, issues like funding the NHS and funding a Green New Deal, that have popular support from citizens on both sides of the political spectrum, cannot be derailed by lobbying power or vested interests wielding power within or against any one particular party in any one particular cycle
  6. More votes cast. Using digital interface voting has security risks, but the net gain in ease of voting outweighs risk; there is already digital vote corruption with social media influence swaying preferences further up the pipeline, like pro-brexit Twitter bots. Yet enough people accept the results. Digital votes can still be counted by address and identity matched through an app, and any corruption in one postcode or county can be detected and accounted for, without risk beyond the risk already accepted in, for instance, banking transactions. Nonetheless, a smartphone application vote is risky compared to just using paper ballots with the efficiency of supervised machines reading them; a pragmatic compromise between machine efficiency on the one hand and human security on the other.

Another way to ensure voters vote is to charge them money to opt out from voting each time. If voters do not wish to contribute even a spoiled vote to the society they rely on, charging them for the privilege makes sense. Making votes obligatory is liable to generate more participation and more money for public service for those who pay to opt-out. Compulsory voting is already a law in Australia, and has been since 1915. If voters are subject to laws of the land regardless of their wish, then, a law whereby they pay to not contribute to deciding such laws’ makers is still rational, consistent, and fair in a society where those same laws take tax money from them.

This proposal for a revised policy voting system, does not propose we switch overnight nor that voting this way is better in every way. Every voting method has problems, but some have more problems than others.

A Princton study into voting shows that ordinary voters’ preferences have near zero predictive power on policy making in the USA. So, experimenting with alternative methods need not be perfect: it just has to be an improvement on status-quo alternatives, not a high bar to reach. A vote by election experts, at The London School of Economics and Political Science, in 2011 voted the current voting method (plurality voting) the worst, at the bottom of the list. Policy voting meanwhile offers new opportunities. Opportunities worthy of testing with public groups in terms of interface-design, simulated elections, and debating the least-bad choice in light of deliberated objections.

A less radical alternative, approval voting, already has currency in voting methods literature and has the virtue of simplicity. Instead of one box on the ballot instructions, one can tick one-or-more candidates and thereby a. select optimal candidates b. signal what candidates and priorities also have non-binary, compromise, appeal. This is a step in the right direction, and I believe the UK and USA should trial such a system. But arguably it does not go far enough — policy voting exactly because it is radical has more potential for making a society fairer, more representative. As it walks the road between entrusting in politicians too much (like the UK) or entrusting in citizens too much (like California), by having voters decide the agenda after politicians offer targets. 

Approval voting candidates is the beginning; approval voting policies, one hopes, is the end.

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