Voting Doesn't Have to Suck in America
By Joel P. Engardio
For a nation that prides itself on democracy, we sure make voting inconvenient — having to register, find an obscure polling place and stand in line on a Tuesday.
We like to make it confusing, too. The variety of voting methods — punch cards, levers, touch screens, pens (black only!) — encourage user failure. District boundary maps look like Rorschach ink blots. And candidates with the most votes can lose the election (see Al Gore and the Electoral College circa 2000).
The confusion is compounded in San Francisco, where ballots ask us to rank three choices instead of simply picking the one candidate we want. It’s supposed to save time and money by creating an “instant runoff.” But everyone hates it.
No wonder voter turnout is so low.
Dominic Paris understands our frustration. Paris is the newest appointee to the San Francisco Elections Commission, and he agreed with my ideas to boost voter participation: move Election Day to the weekend, let people vote at Starbucks, send everyone a vote-by-mail ballot and automatically register 18-year-olds to vote for life.
Paris also agreed that voting equipment must be standardized and that gerrymandered district boundaries make a farce of democracy. When I mentioned Gore’s “loss” to George W. Bush, he really lit up.
“That’s what got me into voting as a teenager,” said Paris, 31, a self-described “super nerd” with two master's degrees who consumes voting theory with the passion of a devoted Comic-Con fan. His one outside interest is Frontrunners, the LGBT running club. “I couldn’t believe what I saw happening in Florida. That led to my big realization: the voting system is what picks the winning candidate.”
Paris sort of agreed with me when I said we have to dump ranked-choice voting. While he acknowledged it drives voters mad and wants to see it go, he said there is a promise of voting nirvana on the other side of the ranked-choice madness.
Paris said ranked-choice is a transitional system meant to get us closer to the ultimate goal of proportional representation, which would eliminate voting districts. Paris said districts served a purpose 40 years ago when Harvey Milk would become San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor by living in a district with lots of gay people. But everyone is more mobile and dispersed now.
“Someone who shares your ideas can physically be anywhere today and is more likely to represent you than someone who lives in your neighborhood,” Paris said. “For example, Republicans have no representation in San Francisco even though they are 14 percent of the electorate. If they pooled their votes together under proportional representation, San Francisco would have one Republican supervisor. The same goes for all dispersed voters who share a common interest.”
So when will this proportional paradise arrive? Not anytime soon. The industry that drives voting reform is divided over which voting system will make the transition to proportional representation easier. The group Fair Vote is a proponent of ranked-choice, while the Center for Election Science prefers approval voting.
Paris wants to use approval voting because he said it is more intuitive. He compared it to Yelp, which actually uses something called score voting.
The complexity of voting theory can make your head hurt. Thankfully, Paris showed me a cute video featuring animated fruits and vegetables that explains how approval voting works. The video at electology.org made a solid case in less than three minutes.
“It has to be both mathematically sound and intuitive, otherwise voters will get fed up,” Paris said. “People need to understand the system to give it legitimacy.”
If democracy suffers when people don’t vote, perhaps the solution is more people-centered voting.
“Simply put, approval voting is better for voters and ranked-choice is better for candidates,” Paris said. “I think the voter is more important.”