Voting Should Be Inconvenient, Laws Should Expire

Since election reform is a hot topic in Washington, I figure I should throw in my suggestions. At the moment I'm a permanent absentee voter because I work in Oregon, 38 miles from my home. Obviously spending the 2–3 hours necessary to come home and head back to work in the middle of the day is out of the question for me.

Or is it?

I agree with L. Neil Smith. Voting should be inconvenient. It should never be trivially easy to give your rights away. It should never be the case that people vote without really understanding what they are voting for.

For example, here's what he thinks about majoritarianism, from an essay called “The Tyranny of Democracy”:

Some claim that majoritarianism, despite its faults, is an alternative preferable to physical conflict. They're wrong: majoritarianism is physical conflict. Elections are a process of counting fists, rather than noses, and saying, “We outnumber you—we could beat you up and kill you—you might as well give in and save everyone a lot of trouble.” Majoritarianism, to put it straightforwardly, possesses the full measure of nobility manifested by any other form of extortion.

He goes so far to point out that the best system is one where those who haven't voted for something can opt-out of the effects of whatever was voted in, similar to those who order pizza as a group.

That's pretty far afield. However, a piece of that analogy holds. Trying to be all things to all people often results in bad decisions. If everyone is forced to abide by bad decisions people are dissatisfied with the result. It should be harder to make bad decisions.

So I oppose vote-by-mail. I oppose vote-by-phone. I oppose vote-by-Internet. I don't oppose mechanisms that make voting more accurate, but I oppose mechanisms that make voting easier. Not because of the security risks of these remote voting schemes, which are certainly tangible, but because when it is too easy to vote people don't pay attention.

People who know me recall that I prefer bodies divided by multiple factions and the requirement of a supermajority to pass measures that usurp the rights of the membership. I always err in favor of having a minority voice be heard, but I also always favor having rights be retained by the membership. For example, I push for members having the final say on bylaws changes, not some shadowy board. This is a foreign concept to the OHSU Student Council. It's held with some skepticism by ASLET.

In Oregon and Washington the initiative process is pretty strong, but has been hamstrung. In Oregon there is a less-than-ethical Secretary of State, Bill Bradbury. In Washington we have the “emergency” clause that I mentioned here before.

What makes me believe in voting is how much people have tried to circumvent bad laws by changing them directly through the initiative and referendum processes. Perhaps what we need to change in the Constitution is the concept of inertia. it should be hard to add things to law, and easy to remove them. I'm not talking just line-item veto stuff. I want bad laws to go away automatically.

A long time ago I suggested the idea of expiration dates based on the how large a majority a law enjoyed. For example, a unanimous law like outlawing murder would have a one hundred year lifespan and would need renewing infrequently. A popular law with 75% support, like the outlawing of gay marriage, would last fifty years. A barely tolerable law, like a tax increase, just eking out at 51%, would last until the next legislative election (two years in some states, six years for the Senate).

At any rate, the reason I mention L. Neil Smith is my memory of a meeting of the Confederate Congress in The Probability Broach. The location of the congress was in the middle of nowhere, because it made it harder to vote. Admittedly, it also featured a proxy-voting system that made it easier to vote as well, so maybe the Confederacy isn't perfect either in his utopia. Stories about perfect worlds are boring, anyway. links:

Josh Poulson

Posted Monday, Feb 7 2005 10:41 AM

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There are 5 comments on this entry.

How do you feel about election law being elevated from local jurisdictin to something higher? Just wondering.



Posted Monday, Feb 7 2005 01:08 PM

I do believe in consistent election standards, to be sure, but local jurisdictions (in our case in Washington, the counties) should be able to apply the same standard without this much difficulty.

This past election suffers from the fact that there were not established standards for certain things, like validating signatures on provisional ballots. I'm not happy that there were no people motivated to correct such problems.

So, yes, votes should mean the same thing from place to place, but how they are conducted does not have to be a state-run or federally-run affair.

Josh Poulson

Posted Monday, Feb 7 2005 03:24 PM

Expiration dates based on the how large a majority a law enjoyed? You must be kidding! What kind of connection is there between those two factors?

Gay Man

Posted Monday, Feb 7 2005 05:09 PM

The more well-written and noncontroversial a bill is, the higher the majority by which it should pass. Therefore the law should last longer before mandatory review.

Imagine if the compromise over slavery that led to the creation of the United States had a deadline based on the division of the country at the time. It therefore would have required revisiting relatively soon, say twenty years.

While a ban on gay marriage has popular support now, which is why I quoted the 75% figure, in 50 years it's likely to be quite different. Also, if popular opinion swings faster than that it can certainly be revisited before the expiration date .

What I like about the scheme is that every law has to be revisited. The more controversial the law, the more frequently it would have to be revisited. Look at the Assault Weapons Ban as an example. It was controversial, accomplished nothing, and expired. It took adding an expiration date to even get it passed in the first place. Under a mandatory expiration system, there would be no need to do that kind of horse-trading. Instead you'd go for the most support possible in order to get your law to last longer.

My article here is all about trying to make better decisions. I believe systems that require garnering more support for bills makes for better decisions.

The next problem to tackle after this would be the “omnibus” bills where everyone tacks on their pork in order to get it passed by a large majority. Line-item veto is one way to combat it, I suppose, but that doesn't prevent a bill from overreaching.

Josh Poulson

Posted Monday, Feb 7 2005 05:36 PM

The folks at Contrariwise threw a link my way for this article here chatting about majoritarianism.

Josh Poulson

Posted Tuesday, Mar 1 2005 08:14 AM

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