Image: Trina Dalziel/Getty

What If Everyone Voted on Everything?

Voting rates are abysmal, so let's envision a future where we all vote via an app.

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Apr 20 2016, 5:45pm

Image: Trina Dalziel/Getty

In case you haven't noticed, it's an election year in the United States. But for all the debates and Facebook fighting and media saturation, a huge percent of Americans will not vote in this election. And even fewer of them will vote in the midterm elections that follow. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States lags far behind nearly all of Europe and Asia when it comes to how many of its citizens vote. In 2012, just 53.6 percent of the eligible voting population cast ballots. Only 36 percent voted in the 2014 midterms.

Americans don't vote for a lot of reasons. Election day isn't a national holiday, and for those with multiple jobs and families to take care of, finding time to stand in line and vote simply doesn't happen. According to the Census Bureau, 28 percent of Americans who didn't vote said they skipped the polling place because they were too busy. But the second most common reason, at 16 percent, was that they were "not interested." And eight percent said they didn't vote because they "disliked candidates/issues."

You've probably heard this from someone before. Perhaps you're one of those people. Why vote? It doesn't really matter anyway. Your representative, even if they actually align with your opinions on a topic, probably can't get much done. Right now, many Bernie Sanders supporters I know are declaring that if he doesn't get the nomination, they won't vote in the general election at all. Voters on both sides are frustrated with the system, citing a deadlocked political structure that can't seem to actually do anything.

So what if we did things differently? What if instead of voting to elect representatives to vote on issues on our behalf, everybody writes bills and votes on issues themselves directly. There is still a president who deals with nationwide issues, and foreign politics, but when it comes to bills that today would be considered by the House and Senate, those are now put to directly to voters. What would that United States be like? This is the future we travel to this week on my podcast, Flash Forward.


This week's episode of Flash Forward envisions a future in which we all vote via app.

First, a quick history lesson. The invention of democracy is largely credited to the Greeks, who established a voting system in Athens around 508 BCE. The Greek system was a direct democracy: Every eligible citizen (for the Greeks, that was only wealthy men) cast their vote on each issue. This is a very simple system, but it's untenable if you're trying to rule a large country with a lot of moving pieces like the United States. People can't all go to their polling places all the time to vote and discuss issues. Which is why America, and many other democracies in the world, use a representative system, by which citizens elect officials to represent them in some kind of forum where laws and rules are decided.

But at least some of the issues that representative democracy set out to solve aren't as troublesome today. Large geographic distances can be shrunk down through the internet. And large numbers of votes can be counted by machines. Making voting more accessible, by way of an app that lets you simply register your feelings on each proposal, is technically possible, if challenging.

In the United States, the evidence is very clear that the people who vote do not represent the entirety of the country.

This future where we all vote on issues using some kind of app or online system rather than via an elected official has some clear advantages. The first is the online or app-based voting system. A home-voting system would likely make voting a lot more inclusive. It would benefit folks who are disabled, and have trouble accessing voting stations; people with PTSD, for whom a crowded and noisy polling place can be very stressful; or simply those who can't get time off from their jobs to make it to a voting location.

Sean McElwee, a research associate at Demos, says that there's considerable evidence that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote in elections. And this is particularly true of the United States. "The United States has the most stratified turnout of rich countries based on income and education," McElwee told me. In 2014, 52 percent of Americans earning above $150,000 a year voted. Only 25 percent of Americans earning less than $10,000 a year did the same. Which means that the folks who get elected tend to represent the wealthy layer of American society.

McElwee's research shows that if everybody who could vote did, it would considerably change the political landscape in the country. (Politicians, of course, know this. Several Republican officials have admitted that the more people who vote, the worse things go for their party.) But it's not quite as clear cut as you might think. McElwee says he didn't want to just look at Republicans and Democrats, but rather how individual issues might change if everybody voted. Because when you look at individual topics, the divide between voters and non-voters is even clearer than their red or blue affiliations.

For example, 46 percent of non-registered voters supported the idea of free community college. Only seven percent of registered voters felt the same way. Even more strikingly, over twenty percent of non-registered voters agreed with the statement "government aid to the poor is good." On the whole, registered voters actually disagreed with that statement.

When you break things down by income, the disparity is even bigger. McElwee broke out two groups, those who do vote making more than $150,000 a year and those who don't vote making less than $30,000, and found they had completely opposite answers to most of the questions asked. Poor non-voters wanted the government to increase services, increase spending on the poor, guarantee jobs and standards of living, and reduce inequality. Rich voters opposed, on the whole, every single one of those things.

In the United States, the evidence is very clear that the people who vote do not represent the entirety of the country. Access to voting in the US is not equal, and as a result our government does not represent everybody equally. And if voting access and registration was improved, our government and nation would look radically different. But it's actually not safe to assume that this voting app or online system would increase participation among those who don't vote right now.

Image: Oivind Hovland/Getty

There is a form of direct democracy in the America already. About half of the states in the United States have an initiative and referendum systems, where the public can propose, write and put forward a bill if they get enough signatures. And in states with direct democracy systems in place, voters tend to be a lot happier.

"Initiative states have public approval levels that are 15-30 percentage points higher than non initiative states, so it's a sizeable bump," said Kerri Milita, an associate professor of political science at Illinois State University who studies direct democracy. "They like government. More, they feel more efficacious, they're more likely to believe that 'Hey we can do something to change this if we're unhappy about it.' They're more likely to turn out to vote and they're more likely to possess high levels of political knowledge.

But not all states are direct democracy utopias. California is a good example of a state in which direct democracy starts to fall apart. "I would say look to CA for the dystopian future," Milita said. Californians are asked to vote on 10-15 ballot measures every year, and most people simply don't know what they are and either vote no out of confusion, or chose not to vote on them at all. "So what you end up with is a very small level of elite voters that determine the policy, which isn't that much more fair or utopian than having legislators who take big donations from corporations deciding the policies."

And in a 2005 paper, Adam Berinsky of MIT found that electoral reforms aimed at increasing voter turnout actually increased some of the stratification of voters. They seemed to only benefit those who were already motivated to vote. (The exception to this seems to be folks with disabilities, for whom vote-at-home systems really do increase turnout.)

But perhaps most obvious issue with online voting is security. How do you make sure that the system isn't hacked and manipulated? In 2010, Washington, DC was working on an internet voting system that would allow absentee voters abroad to vote online. Before actually launching the system, they opened it up as a pilot to security researchers and hackers, asking them to test out the system. It took only 36 hours for researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to get into the election server, and were able to change every single vote that was cast. What's more, the election officials overseeing the website didn't notice the hack for two days.

The take home from the 2010 voting experiment was, for many in the United States, that creating a secure online voting system is virtually impossible. Even huge companies with long histories and robust security systems get hacked. And when the stakes are as high as an election, an online voting system is an irresistible target for meddlers.

Beyond security vulnerabilities, there are other concerns regarding online voting as well, like the possibility of coercion or voter fraud. Let's say, for example, that you have a really terrible boss, and that boss wants to control how you vote. What's to keep him from standing over you, watching you cast your vote on your app? Or, simply demanding that you hand the phone to him once you've logged in, so he can cast your vote for you?

So while the United States has stepped away from trying to develop and online voting system, other parts of the world already use them. The best example is Estonia, where citizens have been able to vote online since 2005. Today, about 30 percent of the ballots in each election are cast online. There are some things about Estonia that make this a little easier. Each citizen has a government-issued ID card with a chip and pin number related to their online identities. They already use these government issued identities to do things like pay taxes, so the system simply adds another layer onto that.

But the researchers at Ann Arbor who quickly broke into the US voting system say that the Estonian one is vulnerable too. In a 2014 paper, they point out several of the ways in which attackers could manipulate the system. "Based on our tests, we conclude that a state-level attacker, sophisticated criminal, or dishonest insider could defeat both the technological and procedural controls in order to manipulate election outcomes," they write.

But this is just the technological side of things. To achieve a true direct democracy in the United States, you're not just talking about building a secure online voting system. You're talking about constructing a completely different government.

Regardless of how well you think the government works, being a politician is a full time job, if not the most time-intensive one you could have. And that's because the scale of the government in the United States is huge. In 2015, the Federal Register, the daily journal for the federal government that records the goings on in our political system, was 80,035 pages long. According to the Brookings Institute, from 2013 to 2014, the House of Representatives looked at 3,809 bills and passed 223 of them. The Senate considered 1,894 bills, and passed 356 of them.

If you had to vote on all of those, that means considering about 15 different bills every day. And that's just for Congress. That doesn't include your town or county or state politics. Not even a full time politician can keep track of all of that. Plus, to most of us, reading legislative language isn't far from reading French: the words all seem kind of familiar, but together it's hard to get a clear picture of exactly what you're looking at.

Chances are, you only really care about a handful of bills and issues. Maybe it's education, maybe it's reproductive rights, maybe it's the economy. You probably don't care about all 4,000 bills that Congress considers each year. In a recent book, sociologist Paul Burstein looked at public opinion data on 60 policy proposals from 1989 to 1990. What he found was that for 24 out of those 60, nearly half, there was no polling data available. Nobody really knew where citizens fell on the issues.

Even in Switzerland, a country many point to as a good example of direct democracy, most laws are made and voted on by parliament. But in Switzerland any law decided by that parliament can be put to a vote by the citizens if enough people want it. If someone can get 50,000 signatures within 100 days of a new law being passed, it is put to a referendum. But Switzerland is actually the only European country with lower voter turnout than the United States. In 2011, only 40 percent of their citizens who were eligible to vote did so.

There are two ways to envision this future. The first is the utopian version: Voters are empowered to directly choose what they want the government to do. They are engaged in the political process again, and the outcomes truly reflect the wills of the people. Everything is right and just. The second is the dystopian version: Nobody actually votes on all the things they're supposed to vote on, and the polling is flooded with spam votes and hackers supporting bogus bills and candidates who pay them to infiltrate the system. People feel even less empowered than they do now, and have no recourse because they no longer have elected officials to go to.

The third version of this future is one in which it never happens. And that's really the most likely outcome. If the United States wanted to attempt a direct democracy, they would have to fundamentally change the complexity and mechanisms by which pretty much the entire government works. In the end, this future is impossible at best and improbable at worst.