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Mandatory Voting and Automatic Registration

Looking at some ways to improve voter turnout, and trying to take into account their political feasibility.

Oregon is moving to automatic voter registration, and President Obama has mentioned, in the context of making it easier to vote in the United States, that some countries have compulsory voting (as far as I can tell he didn’t actually call for it here, just for better access to voting).

But we have a host of issues around voting, including candidate ballot access and gerrymandering. How much difference would a 10% increase in turnout across the board make versus some other change like moving to a preferential, ranked-voting system?

Like anything in politics, these issues are complicated. They are complicated to study, and even more complicated when you look at what is politically possible at various levels of government. You basically have to either have a hegemony that favors a better system (i.e., puts the true interest of the system at-large ahead of any naïve self-interest) or an idea that sells so well that it cannot be denied by the powerful.

Ideas abound, but few get sold, and it’s a non-market.

A few things are clear enough. Simply enfranchising a group isn’t sufficient to change politics. Non-land-owners, black people, women, and 18-20-year-olds all got their voting rights late, but it did not significantly change the political system directly. Interesting that the Civil Rights Movement did cause a major political shift, but not from voting. Its mere enactment was the mover.

If everyone did vote, or at least if every demographic voted in proportion to their population, it would change things a lot. But that’s exactly why Republicans fear expanding voter access. Of course, a mere political shift on their part would make them a much more popular party, but they’re afraid it would scare away donors.

Could compulsory voting help? The first bar is its chances of being enacted. They are slim, and even slimmer if such a change would require Constitutional amendment. More likely is a system like Oregon is moving to, and Oregon will give some evidence in the future.

It’s clear that their existing vote-by-mail system does improve turnout, so while expanding their rolls by 10% or so will probably see increased turnout, it is unlikely to raise the percentage of registered voters who vote.

Compulsory voting with fines for failing to vote likely would. A lottery system (where you would be entered to win a monetary prize if you voted) might work, too. But the horizon does not show these coming to America. Right now the best hope for expanding access is vote-by-mail expanding beyond the few states like Oregon who have it or something like it (open absentee processes).

Big Data on Small Computers

To have the benefits of big data without giving up privacy will undoubtedly require distributed systems.

US motto, e pluribus unum, on the back of a dime
Shows US motto (e pluribus unum) on the reverse of a US dime.

One of the great emerging fields of computing is the use of big data and machine learning. This is a process whereby large datasets actually teach computers to do things like translate text, interpret human speech, categorize images, and so on. The problem with this is, so far, it requires large amounts of data and a lot of computing power.

The paradigm is largely opposed to the types of computing people would prefer to do and use. We would rather not send our voice data out to the Internet or have the Internet always listening or watching us to get these benefits of machine learning. But while the advances in technology will allow for us to crunch the data on smaller devices, it will be difficult to have the corpus of data needed for training and use.

It remains to be seen whether smaller datasets or synthesized datasets (where a large dataset is somehow compressed or distilled into the important parts) will emerge. So how do we get big data in our relatively small computers?

It is likely that the problem will provoke the emergence of more distributed systems, something many have wanted and waited for. Distributed systems or collaborative computing allows your computer(s) to participate in computing larger datasets. Projects like the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have used such distributed computing for over a decade.

The main challenge will be finding ways to break up data to send to the distributed system that protect privacy. That is, if you send the whole voice capture to the distributed system (as you do, AFAIK, with cloud services like Apple’s Siri), you risk the same privacy issues as with the cloud model.

Instead, it should be possible to break up inputs (video or audio) and send portions (possibly with some redundancy, depending on e.g., if word breaks can be determined locally) to several systems and let them each return only a partial recognition of the whole.

It also remains to be seen whether this piecemeal approach will be as functional as the whole-system approach in all cases. While this splitting undoubtedly takes place in whole-systems like Siri, the reassembly and final processing surely takes place over the whole input. That final step may not be easily managed over a distributed system, at least not while protecting privacy.

Consider asking, “what is the time in Rome?” which might be processed as slightly off, due to pronunciation, “what is the dime in Rome?” In a whole-system approach it’s likely easier to infer dime → time at some late step, rather than if each hands back a partial result and the final recipient has less knowledge of how it was made. In a question case like that, the final text is likely targeted to a search engine, which will correct (though it could take the question literally and say, “It is the €0.10 coin.”).

For situations where the voice command lends insufficient context for local correction, it could be a greater challenge.

The good news is that it does look like it’s possible for us to have these distributed systems replace proprietary cloud solutions. The questions are when and how they will emerge, and where they might be weaker.

A Third Legislative Branch

Some thoughts about what form a third legislative branch might take.

Obviously creating a third branch would require a constitutional amendment, an unlikely prospect. But it is still something that may be interesting to ponder. The idea of a new legislative body would need to add to the process something different enough to justify the extra costs and potential complexity to the legislative process.

We have two branches already. The House represents states weighted by population while the Senate represents states equally regardless of population. They also have some specific duties under the Constitution, including originating appropriation bills (the House of Representatives) and confirmation of nominees to the executive branch (the Senate). A third branch would likely need some novel representative role and possibly some specific duties beyond mere legislation.

One question immediately arises, in the cases where duties are divided between the existing chambers (such as impeachment, where the House initiates proceedings and the Senate decides them), whether the third branch would receive a portion of the existing roles, some new duties related to those roles, or be kept aside.

The second question that arises is on what basis to have the new body’s representation determined. Should it be state-based, or could the be an opportunity for interstate development (possibly using something like a national parliamentary election to give seats in proportion to a popular vote).

One possible answer to both questions is that a new chamber could be non-legislative, or meta-legislative. That is, the new branch could be responsible for overseeing the rules of the two existing branches. That would dovetail with the notion of a more parliamentary design to the election of the branch. If it were proportionally based on party affiliation, it could garner actual representation of third parties. In rulemaking it might therefore be more fragmentative, allowing the people to have a bit more breathing room.

That is, with two pieces of rock, they may more easily lock into each other and prevent the flow of a fluid. Whereas with three or more pieces, a whole deadlock is less likely.

Or a third branch could allow for a write-but-not-vote scheme. The amending article could require that all originating law from a branch not be voted on by it, but be ratified instead by only the other two branches. Decoupling the act of voting from the act of legislating might prove useful.

And another possible method for composing the new body might be through a lottery, similar to jury duty. Registered voters would be drawn from each state at random, and serve for short terms (say six months). In that case, it would likely be best to have the body only be charged with voting on legislation, rather than drafting it.

Given the state of our nation and the rigidity of our governmental foundation, the body of knowledge we now have that was absent at our nation’s founding, the growth in population, and many other factors, it seems a fool’s bet to believe we could not and should not update the structure of our government to accommodate us.

If you trotted out a 200 year old coach and said, “this should do fine,” I could not help but laugh. Surely we can modernize a bit.

As an aside, an interesting reform to the current House that would not require constitutional change (but would require legislative change) is that of multi-seat districts. For information about that see Fair Vote: 7 November 2013: Monopoly Politics 2014 and the Fair Voting Solution, which includes a map of how such a change would play out if states adopted it (again, contingent upon a repeal of a law blocking multi-seat districts).