The Washington Post

Problems with early voting, and the promise of future voting

In the State of the Union last night, President Obama endorsed the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, designed to address lines at polls and related issues. One of the recommendations was expanding the use of early voting, which is already more widespread than one might expect. As it happens, my colleague John McGinnis and I have a piece in POLITICO today arguing against early voting. Here’s an excerpt:

For all its conveniences, early voting threatens the basic nature of citizen choice in democratic, republican government. In elections, candidates make competing appeals to the people and provide them with the information necessary to be able to make a choice. Citizens also engage with one another, debating and deliberating about the best options for the country. Especially in an age of so many nonpolitical distractions, it is important to preserve the space of a general election campaign — from the early kickoff rallies to the last debates in October — to allow voters to think through, together, the serious issues that face the nation.

More fundamentally, early voting changes what it means to vote. . . Voting then becomes an incoherent summing of how various individuals feel at a series of moments, not how the nation feels at a particular moment. This weakens civic cohesiveness, and it threatens to substitute raw preferences and momentary opinion for rational deliberation. Of course, those eager to cast early will be the most ideological — but these are precisely the voters who would benefit most from taking in the full back and forth of the campaign.

The advantage of early voting is making access easier. In the future, however, there may be no need for early voting – everyone will participate in all decisions all the time. The excellent Welsh science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds has a series of novels involving a society of Demarchists where the nanocircuitry that will inevitably be in everyone’s head constantly polls everyone about every decision and aggregates the results. Policies are set by this constant neural vote – no lines at the polling place. Constant voting leads to pretty good decisions in Reynolds’ world.

Robert Wilson introduces a twist on this in the novel Vortex, with a world populated by “cortical democracies” and “limbic democracies.” The former, much like Reynolds’ Deamarchists, reach decisions by constant background polling of the reasoning areas of the brain. In the latter, the chips connect to the structures responsible for emotion – a constant vote on how you feel. The two factions are regularly at war. I understand this as a discussion on the inherent difficulties of democratic preference aggregation, along the lines of Arrow’s Paradox.

So far, we only have the ability to vote early, not often (or constantly). But is early voting a step towards limbic or cortical demarchy?

Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and an expert on constitutional and international law. He also writes and lectures frequently about the Arab-Israel conflict.



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