Voting technologies have not substantially changed in the last 150 years or so. In fact, the last significant change in voting was the introduction of the secret ballot in the United States. Prior to the secret ballot, voting was conducted orally, in which male voters–women, of course wouldn’t get the vote for many more decades–gathered at the town square and cast their ballots in front of their friends and neighbors. As you can imagine, oral voting resulted in all sorts of problems including intimidation and bribery. The secret ballot was introduced to curb the high levels of corruption then endemic to voting, by substantially changing how we approach the ballot.
This claim, that the secret ballot was voting’s last great technological change, might come as a surprise to some listeners. Afterall, isn’t electronic voting the most significant technological change in the last century? Well, not really.
A significant change needs to alter both the ballot and how we approach the ballot. Electronic voting still made use of the same technology that made possible the secret ballot: namely, a standardized ballot and a singular place that you could vote without interference from the prying eyes and deep pockets of your neighbors. Electronic voting didn’t change that, it merely replaced a pencil with a stylus, and a paper with a piece of glass. And you still had to go to the polls.
Despite recent media attention surrounding Utah’s outdated electronic voting system–a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune found that most of the machines will be worthless over the next few years–electronic voting never significantly changed how we voted, but the secret ballot did. It made us stop voting.
An article in the Atlantic last year actually argued for abolishing the secret ballot. Why? Because voter turnout tumbled significantly after the ballot became secret. In fact, previous to secret voting, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent, after it’s introduction it dropped to 65 percent. Today, it hovers around 50 percent. So the Atlantic offered some compelling advice for raising voter turnout–if you can’t abolish the secret ballot, we should at least abolish the secret voter.
In fact, research suggests that shaming citizens into voting by threatening to publish in the newspaper lists of non-voters can be an effective way of increasing voter participation. As a culture, we’re still vitally concerned about what our neighbors think about us. If you didn’t vote in the last election, you’re likely to pretend like you did when the topic comes up with a neighbor. However, voter shaming doesn’t solve the problem of the value of a vote, and it wouldn’t necessarily alter the way we approach the ballot, either.
Voting isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality. An engaged populace needs to not only be voting, but they have to be talking about voting, too. That’s why something like universal mail-in ballots, like those in Oregon and some cities here in Utah, would be a substantial technological change–and could be a fitting replacement to the technological non-starter that is our electronic voting machines. So could voting online. These kinds of shifts in voting technologies would substantially change the way we approach the ballot. Both give you the opportunity to compare candidates side-by-side, to text your friends and neighbors and see how they feel about a particular referendum, all while your ballot is in your hand (or on your screen). And if voting online, you could automatically share with your social networks that you voted in the election–thus leveraging a little of the shame factor.
This is the sort of technological change that will need to occur if voter participation rates are ever to improve. Namely, we have to substantially change how voters interact with their ballot–including where and how long. Touchscreens, though perhaps interesting, just aren’t the necessary change. Perhaps its good they’re becoming obsolete.