At SURHUL, the Student’s Union of Royal Holloway, University of London, we have a problem. I’m sure it’s not an uncommon one, particularly at student’s unions.
Our electoral system is essentially a popularity contest. Manifestos, campaigning and student outreach have very little impact on the results. Many positions are uncontested and whoever runs wins by virtue of being the candidate who is running; people assume that this means that they care about the position enough to run, and that’s enough for them.
I don’t think this is a good way to run elections, and it’s not something that should be encouraged. But it’s something that can be very easily fixed, or at least I think so.
Essentially- why not make the candidates unlisted? Let’s say there’s a candidate running for a position- let’s call them John Smith. They’ve been out hard campaigning throughout the week, and you’ve just gotten canvassed by this candidate on your way to the library. You sit down and decide you should probably vote, so you grab your laptop or a public terminal and load the website up, log in… and vote.
But here’s the crucial bit. We use alternative transferable vote for most of our elections, which requires you to put a number by each candidate, ranking them in priority. There are also two meta-options: re-open nominations (RON), and no further preferences (NFP). The way this is presented to you is as a list of all candidates, followed by the NFP/RON options, and you just type in a number by each option in descending order of preference.
The lazy voter just sticks a 1 by the only candidate and hits vote. If we’re lucky (in terms of improving democracy) they vote for RON as their second preference, or maybe they even vote RON for first preference. In terms of improving democracy by encouraging people to go out and canvass for their position (which is more likely to discourage people running for the sake of running/sticking it on their CV and encourage people who care enough about the position that they’re willing to go out and get people voting for them), the ideal option is that people vote for people they’re aware of through canvassing (online or in person) and vote RON for any positions they’ve not had any contact from people over.
So how can we encourage this over the default impulse to vote for whoever’s running? Simple- we remove the candidate’s names from the ballot. “What on earth is he on?”, you may well be thinking. Well, here’s the thing- if we remove people’s names and require people to actually enter the name of a candidate they want to vote for, people cannot just vote for people because they’re running; they won’t know who is running, if anyone. Of course, they can go find out who is running by looking at the candidate and manifesto listings. But this encourages people to find out more about who they’re voting for, and discourages lazy voting- both good things for democracy. Canvassing gets your name into people’s heads (and, through flyers etc, into people’s hands, making the process of voting even easier).
And because our votes are 100% online, the process of typing in someone’s name can be made easier – if we want to vote for John Smith, we type J and are immediately autocompleted to John Smith. This entry is now an entry we can put a preference number by (or in perhaps a better UI, we could have draggable lists to make specifying preference easier). This stops people with complex names from being disadvantaged against other candidates in elections.
So with this system, the view that would greet you on any election position vote page would be “Hello, this is the election for the position of X. Type a candidate’s name in below, re-order the entries so the option you most want to win is at the top and no further preferences is above any entries you don’t want to cast a vote for, and press vote”. Voters would either just click vote to vote for re-open-nominations, or could go look at the manifestos etc and see who’s running and why, type in the people they want to vote for, drag the markers around, click vote, confirm their vote after seeing a screen detailing their vote, and then they’re done. Simple as that.
I figure I might do a quick proof of concept system that demonstrates what I’d imagine a voting UI to look like that used this system. I don’t see any major downsides to this system, but I’d love some feedback if I’m missing something obvious. And if people think it’s a good idea, who knows- maybe we’ll get this to a general meeting and see about making it the standard, or at least get it trialled.