Continuous elections

Right now we are the in the midst of the midterms, the news cycle is flying at us like hypersonic shrapnel, and we are bleeding. On the one hand, one does not want to give in to false flag conspiracizing. On the other hand, many of us believe that the 2016 election was significantly affected by manufactured news cycles. The slope between implausible conspiracy (“pipe-bomber dude was planted years ago by the deep state!”) and plausible manipulation of the news cycle (the “caravan”) becomes slippery. It’s not surprising that we all end up in different places, depending on our priors. And this is “just” a midterm. After next Tuesday, the 2020 Presidential cycle begins in earnest.

It feels like election season never ends. But I want to submit that the problem is that it does end, with a very high-stakes election. The integrity of our elections has, thank goodness, become a subject of active public concern. The ways we draw district lines, the ways we form voting rolls, the susceptibility of our voting machines to malfunction or subversion, all demand scrutiny and reform. But there is another vulnerability, hiding in plain sight: the fact that our elections all take place basically on a single well-known day.[1] A short, sharp manipulation of the news cycle, if well-timed, can tilt electoral outcomes. Many people plausibly blame Hillary Clinton’s loss on a letter by James Comey released a week prior to the 2016 election. Perhaps that was not intentional manipulation, but similar events past or future might be.

It seems obvious to me that political actors of every party and creed do their best to exploit this open vulnerability in our electoral system, working to manufacture coverage or even newsworthy events likely to motivate their own electoral base in the immediate run-up to an election. To the degree electoral results turn on this contest, they seem likely to reflect the cleverness (or deviousness) of campaign operatives much more than any colorable expression of the “will of the people”. It’s hard to come up with a justification, even under very naturalistic theories, why this would be a desirable form of democratic deliberation.

Less apocalyptically, the quality of representation is undermined by a predictable election cycle. In the run-up to an election, often inaccessible public figures become suddenly more available and accessible. It is a commonplace that Senators’ willingness to take unpopular votes depends upon whether they are near the beginning or the end of their six-year terms. That might be intended in Constitutional theory, but in practice, in my view, unpopular votes are less likely to reflect dispassionate deliberation on behalf of the polity and more likely to entail privileging the interests of the elites that dominate either political party. Even in theory, however “insulated” we decide Senators should be from vicissitudes of the mob, this cyclicality in time of popular responsiveness seems undesirable. Ideally, our representative would not be “there for us” only during the short season when they are soliciting our votes. They would be there for us all the time.

For a variety of reasons, I think it a good idea that we introduce into our voting system a greater element of stochasticism, of structured, intentional randomness. This may be counterintuitive — sure, a manipulated news cycle may not express the will of the people, but how could a random number? The deep fact of randomness is that while an individual “draw” may be noise, random selection has characteristics that are well defined, widely understood, and intuitively accessible. When statisticians want to examine a population, they take a random sample and characterize that. With good randomness and a reasonably large sample size, it becomes extremely unlikely that the characteristics of the sample will fail to represent the broader population. This fact is already a part of our political process. Pollsters, who affect electoral possibilities as well as characterizing them, seek (very imperfectly) random samples of likely voters. We select juries largely by lottery, on the theory that this is a good way to get a representative sample of ones “peers”. There have been a variety of democratic experiments with sortition, simply choosing by lot, picking random names from the phone book. Perhaps overcynically, many of us might consider that an improvement over our present, professional political representation.

I do not favor sortition for the constitution of our legislatures. There is a lot to be said for choosing among representatives who express an interest in and commit to doing the work, and to some kind of voting process that ideally filters for quality. What I do favor is an idea called “lottery voting” or “random ballot“. I really encourage you to read the first link, a very readable academic note by Akhil Reed Amar which introduced the idea. You should also read this essay by David MacIver (ht Bill Mill). In a nutshell, everybody votes in the way they currently do for their preferred candidate. Then we throw the ballots in a big hat, and draw the winner like a bingo hall door prize.[2] You’d never want to use lottery voting to elect a President. Who knows who you might pick? It’d be totally random. But for a large legislature, lottery voting will predictably yield proportional representation along whatever axes or characteristics are salient to voters, not just formal political parties. Further, lottery voting is immune to gerrymandering, and every vote always has equal influence. (This is decidedly untrue of conventional “first-past-the-vote” voting, where the statistical effect of a vote — the difference in the probability of a candidate winning with and without an additional vote — depends very much on the closeness of the election.) There are lots of reasons to love lottery voting, including the conventional case for proportional representation, which I very desperately endorse. (See Matt Yglesias and Lee Drutman.) Not to let the best be the enemy of the good, I’d favor American experiments in more common forms of proportional representation (multimember districts, party lists), but lottery voting really is the gold standard. It is simple, effective, resistant to entrenchment of incumbents or capture by political parties. The US House of Representatives should be selected by lottery voting today. At the very least, we should start experimenting in some state houses.

One interesting characteristic of lottery voting is there is no need that elections be simultaneous, or even take place at known predictable times. Suppose we had an electoral system that looked like this: Every month, 5% of the voting roll is randomly selected to cast a ballot for a representative. There’s no big election day: Any time during their month selected voters can come in and cast their vote. After the balloting period has passed, one ballot is randomly selected, and then a virtual coin is flipped that comes up heads only one time in 24. If the coin comes up heads, the current representative is replaced with the randomly selected ballot. If not, that month’s ballots are thrown away, and the representative’s term continues. Under this system, on average, a representative’s terms would be 24 months, but there would never be a period when a representative is more or less near an election. Whatever persuasion incumbents (or their political parties or PACs or dirty tricksters) want to engage in to see to their reelection, they’d have to do basically all the time. Challengers also could arise at any time, but would want to make their case continually. That would become a very different enterprise than existing elections, which engender an avalanche of marketing in sprints. People who wish to become representatives would want to become prominent and popular within their communities, or become endorsed by popular civic organizations (including but not just political parties), in ways that are sustainable over time.[3] Is this a good idea? One might argue that it would just make elections more expensive to contest, and so increase the influence of money. But lottery voting by its nature is much less susceptible to vote buying. Your ads can win 60% of the vote and you still have a 40% chance of losing.

There are definitely trade-offs to this idea of continuous elections. I’m much less confident of it than I am of the virtue of lottery voting in general. But stochastic, continuous elections would remedy very real flaws in our electoral system: its nonrepresentativeness of our views over time, its provocative susceptibility to manipulation of our views over short periods of time. You might fear that, rather than eliminating the hypermanipulative, sometimes fictional news cycles that divide us during election season, continuous elections would incentivize partisan provocation all the time, which would be bad. But lottery voting by its nature reduces the incentive of political parties to polarize us. If the major political parties disgust us, under lottery voting one can choose some other party to vote for without throwing away ones vote. The strategy of demonizing “the” other party just doesn’t work in multiparty systems. No one has to vote for least-worst. As Matt Yglesias put it, “It would be better to have a country where everyone is voting for a party they are genuinely enthusiastic about, and then because no such party commands majority support, the leaders need to do some bargaining.”

Also, under lottery voting in any form, turn-taking is likely. Even a very popular representative might have to sit out a term, because of some random throw of the dice. In order to protect local interests, districts would want to sustain institutional knowledge and legislative effectiveness by keeping some professional staff permanently, rather than replacing all Congressional staff with copartisans each time a seat changes hands. Members of even a very dominant political group within a district would experience interregnums during which their interests would be entrusted to the hands of someone whose views might differ quite radically from their own. Even as proportional representation would liberate citizens to vote their very diverse genuine preferences, these institutional facts would encourage compromise and common ground. Certainty of power breeds the confidence to be cruel. Susceptibility to chance reminds us that, whatever our differences, we must all depend upon one another.

[1] Early and mail-in voting complicates this story a little bit, stretching the single voting day perhaps to a few weeks, more a short season than a day. But a short season is not so different than a day, and even in states where mail-in balloting is prominent, traditional election day ballots remain crucial to outcomes.

[2] In practice, we might not use a big hat. There are very robust, almost-impossible-to-corrupt ways of generating public random numbers, involving cryptographic commitments by multiple parties. As long as any of the parties is not corrupt, that is, as long as all the parties do not collude, we can generate a fair random number. We’d use that sort of procedure, and choose a ballot like a winning lottery ticket.

[3] You would want this to be an election among known candidates, not a procedure by which everyone nominates themselves or a friend as write-ins. To prevent that kind of thing, Amar suggests “It might…be necessary to put into the twirling basket only ballots cast for candidates receiving more than, say, one percent of the total vote.”

Update History:

  • 30-Oct-2018, 12:30 p.m. PDT: “under which why this would be a desirable form of democratic deliberation.”
  • 30-Oct-2018, 12:35 p.m. PDT: “…or become endorsed by popular civic organizations (including but not just political parties) within their communities…”
  • 30-Oct-2018, 3:55 p.m. PDT: “…rather than replacing all Congressional staff completely with copartisans…”; “draw the winner from it like a bingo hall door prize”; “The US House of Representative Representatives” remove scare-quotes from “note”

11 Responses to “Continuous elections”

  1. Raver writes:

    Good post.

    Also, how about randomly drawn *virtual* electoral districts, instead of using geography? Everyone gets lumped into a new random district every election. The politicians don’t know who their constituents are? Good. They’ll have to assume they are Americans.

  2. Brett writes:

    I’m surprised we don’t see more experiments in elections and voting at the state level, where a bunch of states allow constitutional amendments by referendum. Lottery voting could be one of those things that passes that way, if somebody would just get the ball rolling on it.

  3. Bolt writes:

    “In order to protect local interests, districts would want to sustain institutional knowledge and legislative effectiveness by keeping some professional staff permanently, rather than replacing all Congressional staff with copartisans each time a seat changes hands.”

    This strikes me as the biggest flaw in this idea, it’s the same problem as with term limits. When all congresspeople are relatively new, the experienced people that stay in the capitol as a career (lobbyists and party apparatchiks) are the ones who know the system in and out, and have an outsized influence in “guiding” the newbie representatives.

  4. […] Randy Waldman on making lotteries out of elections. Most examples and priors draw from the US system, but most of this can be applied to any […]

  5. […] That is from Steve Randy Waldman. […]

  6. Roman Konstantinov writes:

    “The politicians don’t know who their constituents are? Good. They’ll have to assume they are Americans.”

    Sure… a 25 year-old working in Silicon valley has the same problems than a 60 year-old farmer cowboy. Both are Americans. Why should they get specific governors? Let them get the same random governor. Not like there they should have specific sets of knowledge for different constituents.

  7. I’m intrigued by this idea but am having a tough time imagining how “lottery voting” would work or why anyone would bother to vote if there is a 1 in 24 chance of the outcome no mattering. Could you provide us an example of lottery voting in a non-political setting?

  8. Detroit Dan writes:

    The Comey effect was discredited almost immediately after the original reportage by Nate Silver.

    A 2016 Review: There’s Reason to Be Skeptical of a Comey Effect

    But it’s now clear that Mrs. Clinton was weaker heading into Oct. 28 than was understood at the time. Several other polls were conducted over the same period that showed Mr. Trump gaining quickly on Mrs. Clinton in the days ahead of the Comey letter. And the timing of these polls — particularly the gap between when they were taken and when they were released — has probably helped to exaggerate the effect of Mr. Comey’s letter on the presidential race…

    Most important, the polls taken before the letter were as bad for Mrs. Clinton as those conducted after it. Again, there aren’t many of these polls, but taken at face value there’s a case that Mrs. Clinton had nearly or even completely bottomed out by the time the Comey letter was released. Even if she had not, the trend line heading into the Comey letter was bad enough that there’s no need to assume that the Comey letter was necessary for any additional erosion in her lead…

    In retrospect, there is virtually no evidence to support the view that Mrs. Clinton really had a six-point lead by Oct. 28, even if it was a very reasonable interpretation of the polls that had been released to that point. She didn’t have a six-point lead in any of the 16 (sometimes low-quality) national surveys that went into the field on or after Oct. 23 and were completed before the Comey letter, including her steadily shrinking lead in the ABC/Washington Post tracker.

    A new report from the American Association of Public Opinion Research on 2016 polling reached a similar conclusion.

  9. Unanimous writes:

    In by-elections people typically vote more against the party in power. Wouldn’t continuos elections be subject to the same phenomenon so that there would more often be changes in the governing party and so we’d end up with more “crunch” times and even bigger problems with manipulation of news etc.

    Also, you’ve assumed that if it takes more manipulation to achieve an outcome, people will give up on manipulating, probably due to not being cost effective. But possibly, they’d increase manipulation efforts until they are effective and so we’d be subject to more selective and sensationalised news.

    Most poor media coverage is due to the need for media to catch people’s attention so they can sell that attention to advertisers. That’s going to be there regardless of electoral system.

    The problem with most sortition systems is that in the short term they exclude most of the population from the process. This creates a large market for media stories about unqualified people making poor decisions, and an insignificant market for stories about the randomly selected people doing good things. So sortition would be underminned very quickly in the modern world. It’s a pitty because some sortition systems (part way between juries and parliaments) would give a much better combination of expertise and accurate public interest.

    Perhaps like juries, if everybody has the chance to be involved in a sortition body for a few days say two or three times in their life there might be enough public by-in. This would mean each legislative act would be something like a trial where people for and against present their arguments. Public appointments could be similarly made.

    This might not give optimum time for the randomly chosen people to build their own competancies, but whatever you have needs to be widely supported and have wide involvement.

  10. […] going in over my head into the depths of political science, I did find this idea of continuous voting by Steve Randy Waldman fascinating. Part of the problem is that elections are predictable – […]

  11. Tg writes:

    Here is a small German contribution to the idea of drawing lots for elections: “Draw lots for election dates”.