A number of years ago, a friend of mine proposed an interesting idea for promoting voter turnout in Canada during one of our writer’s group meetings: turn voting into a lottery. The idea is relatively simple: each ballot cast is also a ticket for Canada’s largest lottery. Every voter is only allowed one ticket but if you don’t vote, you are not entered in the lottery. The winning voter would be entitled to something like $100,000,000 – a large sum for us Canadian lottery players, as the weekly draws never get that high.
A member of the same writer’s group had actually proposed an amendment to lottery practices that is relevant here: he suggested that instead of playing the lottery for one prize of $34 million, we should play the lottery for 35 prizes of $1,000,000. The reason for this is economic: the country would be far better off economically with 35 new millionaires than one new multi-millionaire. (This proposal was made before Super7 became Lotto Max but Lotto Max is just a compromise with this idea, as the individual prizes of $1 million only start once the main prize hits $50 million.)
So to combine both we get the idea that each voter to properly complete a ballot would get a ticket to win one of 100 $1 million prizes. This is certainly less of an incentive than a prize of $100 million, but how many people would actually turn their noses up at a free ticket for $1 million? All it requires of you is that you spend 5-20 minutes at a polling station; not a very big sacrifice.
My objection to this proposal at the time – and to this day – is the same for all incentive or punishment voter turnout strategies: just because someone votes, doesn’t mean they will vote well. (‘Well’ meaning vote with their head or vote with their heart, depending on your point of view.) The danger with fining people for not voting is the same as the danger for rewarding people for voting: chances are many of these people will just randomly select their candidate(s) and, if enough people do so, the election could be drastically skewed towards someone nobody actually wants.
Of course, this already happens with many elections, even those without carrots or sticks for the voter. But my fear is that this problem will be greatly exacerbated by rewards, especially rewards which encourage anyone and everyone to vote simply to get a lottery ticket. People who don’t care about elections aren’t going to be made to care by a lottery ticket. (The same problem exists with plebiscite democracy, but it is the result of routine, rather than monetary incentives.)
A Potential Solution?
I was discussing my friend’s proposal and my objections to it at the most recent Toronto philosophy dinner, which I attend regularly. The organizer, Glen Brauer, had an interesting idea, which had never occurred to me:
Using new technology we can ask voters to answer poll questions as they vote, telling even the most politically ignorant of voters which candidate most aligns with their beliefs. For example, say I had no idea what was going on politically at the federal level but I wanted that lottery ticket. I show up at the polling station and go to use a voting machine. Instead of asking me who I want to vote for, the voting machine asks me a few questions:
- What do you think the government’s role in the economy should be?
- Government should have no role in the economy
- Government should have a very limited role in the economy
- Regular government action is necessary for a smooth functioning economy
- Government must do everything it can to stop the economy from creating winners and losers
- Government should control every aspect of the economy
- What say do you think the government should have in morality?
- Government should have no role in morality
- Government should only get involved in morality to prevent harm to others
- Regular government action is necessary to keep society moral
- Government must do everything it can to prevent immorality
- Government gives society its morals
- How important is individual choice to you?
- Choice is paramount
- Choice is important but not the most important freedom
- I don’t have an opinion
- Choices are conditioned by others, circumstances are more important
- Free will does not exist
I respond to all 3 (or 5, or 10) questions. Then, the voting machine presents me with the following options:
- Candidate X: You and candidate X agree on 87% of issues
- Candidate M: You and candidate M agree on 63% of issues
- Candidate D: You and candidate D agree on 42% of issues
The candidates would be ranked in order of agreement with my responses. (Obviously, the local candidates would have had to answer these questions in order to run.) The machine would not make the choice – I would still vote for whomever I choose – but I would have suggestions. If I was an informed voter, I could ignore the suggestions, if I so chose.
This could even be combined with preference ballots – as an aside: Toronto’s city council is sane after all! – so that satisfies me, as I have long been a proponent of preference voting instead of first-past-the-post. Sounds good, right?
Problems with Polling Voters Before They Vote
There are actually many problems with this idea, but the two most immediate to me are:
- There is no guarantee that a person with no political interest who votes for the candidate most similar to them in terms of ideals will actually like that candidate
- Voting machines are still, in this day and age, extremely problematic.
Let’s deal with them one at a time.
[Note: a third problem with the idea that I failed to note at the time is twofold:
- people are incredibly prone to suggestion meaning that they may just vote for the first candidate name they see;
- voters may vote for the candidate they think they agree with most, not the one they actually agree with most, or the candidate they think their family or friends think they should vote for.
Both of these problems affect voting without a lottery, though.]
The Voter and the Candidate Will Likely Not See Eye-to-Eye No Matter How “Perfect” the System
Cognitive dissonance is a real thing: no matter how much the system tries to approximate the ideals of the voter and candidate, the voter may not actually support the ideals they claim on every specific policy issue, nor will the candidate necessarily stick to their stated ideals once elected. Human beings are involved in this: lots of people claim to be proponents of one thing in theory and its exact opposite in practice.
Just look at the Republic Party in the United States – or pretty much any “conservative” party in North America – which at the same time claims to be both the party of small government and is actually responsible for the creation of gigantic government debts. I suspect that voters will get angry when the machines “tell” them to vote for a candidate and then they later feel betrayed by that same candidate when that candidate inevitably does something they don’t like. These voters – who, based on current election turnouts, we must guess to be close to a plurality of the population of any democracy – will not blame themselves for their lack of knowledge; they will blame government.
Voting Machines Encourage Electoral Fraud
I am a huge backer of Canada’s paper and pencil voting system for one simple reason: it is a lot harder to stuff ballot boxes than it is to program voting machines to make small errors. This is demonstrated every time the United States and Canada have elections: voter fraud is rampant in the United States; voter fraud in Canada is limited to “robo-calls” and the like. (And encouraging someone to vote for the wrong party, or at the wrong place is not quite in the same league as rounding errors which actually change the actual results.)
Though the technology exists to run this system, governments around the world have shown an unwillingness to use the best and most secure voting machine technology available. Rather, they use contractors that usually have political connections – immediately throwing the whole process into doubt – and these contractors rarely provide the best available technology. (An anecdote: I have heard that, in the United States, slot machines are usually built with far more sophisticated security than voting machines.) Until a free and fair election – validated by third parties – is conducted in a major democracy entirely with voting machines, I will remain deeply skeptical as to the use of these devices. And until then I don’t think this idea will work.
Should We Turn the Vote Into a Lottery?
So if we can’t get machines to tell the voters whom they should prefer, we are left with any voting-rewards system having the inherent problem that many if not most voters will only be doing it for the reward, and not because they want to vote. And I don’t really know why that would be better than 40% of us voting. We might luck out some elections but others we would not. Rather, we would end up with a candidate that is not only disliked by some of the population but most of it, and that is hardly better than the system we have today.