The perilous state of democracy in America is nothing new. But beyond crushing partisan gridlock and the stunning impact of money in politics has emerged a subtler threat to the bedrock of the American political process: representative democracy is seriously endangered by chronic public under-engagement with political systems. Commitment to democratic principles mandates systems that empower as many Americans as possible to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Immediate innovations in our voting processes will be necessary to revive and sustain our democratic system of government.
This Tuesday, individuals who waited in unreasonably long lines to register and vote in the midterm election overwhelmed an understaffed New Haven City Hall. Voters stood in line for up to three hours while hardworking staffers verified IDs and rang other towns to verify that new registrants had not already cast a ballot elsewhere. While voter fraud fears were assuaged by City Hall’s diligence, the long wait discouraged some voters from ultimately casting ballots. Particularly frustrated were individuals who had mailed in voter registration forms weeks earlier, only to discover at the polls that their forms had not been properly processed. They were sent to join the City Hall circus.
Many unregistered voters soon calculated that hours in line was too high a price and left without voting. To top it all off, state laws mandated that the office turn away anyone who had not registered by 8 p.m., including some individuals who had waited in line for up to two hours. About 100 dejected voters streamed out of City Hall, some still clutching their completed registration forms. Though the crowd was diverse, one particular frustration ran electrified through the crowd of students, working professionals, and retirees—the experience had not been very user-friendly.
The great revolution of consumer capitalism is user-centered design. User-focused and user-friendly systems proliferate rapidly, redefining the new normal. While this attitude adjustment is probably most drastic among a younger generation of certain means, it will surely reach others in a society in which companies expect to compete for user satisfaction by racing to offer user-friendly services. From automatic bill payments to custom TV-viewing experiences, non-user-friendly experiences can expect to be left behind.
The paradigm shift to User-As-King seems likely to accelerate as the generation of iThis and iThat matures politically, and future generations grow up knowing no alternative. The strengthening baseline assumption of user-friendliness and growing impatience or intolerance of processes that aren’t quick and easy do not bode well for representative democracy. Responding to this pressure, many are quick to call for the iVote.
I consider the iVote to be anything that makes voting more user-friendly. In the world of quick and easy, three aspects of traditional voting are sure to be less and less palatable to the user-friendly generation: the necessary pre-Election Day preparation, the effort of filling out physical registration paperwork, and the actual time it takes to vote. To be sure, each issue has received varying amounts of attention from dedicated volunteers and city departments, among others, but the reach of their local efforts is unlikely to effect widespread change, and their good work may be fast outstripped by changing attitudes.
Considering the burden of completing and mailing registration paperwork, it seems curious that we have arrived in 2014 with Bluetooth, the iPhone, and Google Glass, but without a comprehensive system of online voter registration in every state. While the incentives clearly encourage innovators toward work that results in financial reward and other intangible forms of fulfillment, it is hard to believe that the technology and brainpower does not exist in the world today to erect a system that would allow voters to register at least partially from the comfort of their own homes. If concerns about verifying voters’ identities truly cannot be addressed by an existing measure (though skeptics might be inspired by fingerprint matching technology that unlocks many smartphones), there may be a way to complete the bulk of the voter registration process beforehand and complete the verification process in person on Election Day by bringing the necessary identifying documents. Such a step, while certainly not without logistical challenges, could dramatically reduce the burden of registering new voters.
Notoriously long lines at polls impose high costs that voters may be less and less willing to bear. In addition to taking aggressive steps to bolster existing infrastructure, anticipating complications at the polls, and establishing more polling locations wherever possible, expanding early voting could relieve the congestion that deters many voters and imposes unreasonable costs on those who do stay to vote. Already, 33 states allow some form of early voting, but these initiatives ought to be expanded and proactively promulgated among those populations who are most likely to benefit from the opportunity.
Expanding early voting does not necessarily mean extensively lengthening the period during which one can cast an early ballot. Some caution that extensive early voting encourages individuals to vote prematurely, but anyone who argues that point must concede that in no world will all voters be perfectly informed or in touch up until the moment they cast their ballots. Voters have and always will employ heuristics, no matter when they vote. In expanding early voting, policy-makers must weigh the risks of premature voting against the virtue of expanding voting opportunities to unduly burdened populations, who would then be the subjects of concerted efforts to publicize the details of early voting.
A final burden on traditional voting lies outside the 11 states that allow Election Day Registration, with the foresight it requires. Registering to vote weeks before an election may be less and less compatible with the user-friendly generation’s attention deficit aided by media overstimulation and other forces. Today, we can make a last minute reservation, order dinner to be delivered on a whim, spontaneously purchase a flight across the country with earned miles, call a ride across town with a few swipes, and so much more. With world time racing faster than ever, we are less conditioned to plan in advance for certain kinds of events. Overstimulation means constant prioritizing. With all the other burdens on traditional voting, registering to vote may soon fall further down the list.
This same overstimulation and hyper-connectedness brings a host of new possibilities for social change and mobilization, but it must be managed carefully if it is not only to remain conducive to, but also actively enrich representative democracy. The eventual ubiquity of social media alone presents an enormous opportunity to diffuse positive social norms that may fade as we transition from strong ties/small networks to weaker ties/large networks. Facebook reminded all of its users to vote in the midterm elections this past Tuesday and allowed users to share this activity with friends. Social media’s weak networks may be perfectly suited to dissipate a culture of civic engagement, creating its own rewards for voting. From publicly sharing one’s own voting habits to spreading celebrity efforts to “Get Out The Vote,” the preferred tools of the user-friendly generation are not necessarily hostile to the democratic project, and may in fact inject it with renewed vigor.
American-style democracy is still the envy of much of the world. Our commitment to the democratic process is a fundamental element of our national character. A great many brave men and women sacrificed a great deal to secure for us all the privilege of voting. Our duty is to proactively and intelligently adapt our systems in order to keep our representative democracy alive and well. Coretta Scott King reminds us, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” It’s up to us to win it again.