Living in Oregon, I’m a pampered voter. Ballots are lovingly gift-wrapped and placed on our doorsteps by county bell-hops with little hats. The foil-embossed voting card comes with an artisan cake: voter vanilla swirl, ballot buttercream caramel, or “choice is yours” chocolate. Later, friendly creatures of the forest retrieve the ballots and do a little dance for democracy when we submit our votes.
For real, though: not only do Oregonians have automatic voter registration at the DMV, but every state resident mails in their ballot and avoids the Election Day hullabaloo. Not surprisingly, we have one of the best voter turnouts in the country. Roughly 61.5 percent of eligible voters in Oregon came out in the 2018 midterms—the fifth-highest percentage of any state. And by extension, our elected leaders better reflect the interests of our people.
If I were a non-voter, it actually would be difficult to avoid exercising my constitutional right in Oregon. The ballots arrive weeks in advance; if I don’t have a postage stamp, there are drop boxes everywhere; and our 2016 “Motor Voter Act” made it so we must opt out of automatic registration at the DMV.
Sounds ideal, right? Like that type of responsive democracy we all learned about in grade school?
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that strong, widely supported ideas should have power in determining our future. When voters show up, political candidates are forced to pay attention to their constituents’ demands.
There are several features of our nation’s “democracy” that have perverted the process. Recently—perhaps more than ever in the wake of the disastrous Citizens United decision—our policy-making has reflected the interests of a few greedy, mean-spirited donors.
Here are examples of several recent changes which have been unpopular with a majority of Americans:
The immigrant internment camps, which have separated thousands of desperate children from their parents
- The erosion of EPA measures protecting our clean air and water
- The shrinking of national monuments to open them up to private development
- The decision to make wildlife hunting trophies (e.g., lions, elephants) legal again
- The watered-down “gun control” bill, which didn’t do anything about assault weapons
- The gutting of ethics rules in the House of Representatives
- The closing of women’s health clinics across the country
Garbage bills become law when wealthy political donors with cruel and unusual tastes are allowed to become kingmakers.
Instead, let’s return our democracy to its purest form—one in which every eligible person gets a say so that the most widely supported ideas inform policies.
I can already hear groans from my cynical friends:
But Jocelyn, there’s too much entrenched power!
Why would politicians willingly adopt these policies when the broken system is already working for them?
You’re so naive. Don’t you know how politics works, darling? Nothing will ever change.
Tell that to my great-great-grandmother who couldn’t vote. Tell that to my grandmother who had to get her husband to co-sign a credit card even though she was a working nurse. Tell that to my close friend Derek who married his husband in 2014.
Oregon isn’t perfect, but it’s a great template for increasing the number of eligible people who vote—the first step to strengthening our democracy. The second step is ensuring that our leaders are responsive to the needs of their constituents, which is difficult but not impossible.
I’ve given this a lot of thought and here’s a casual roadmap to making those two changes:
The Pampered Voter’s Guide to American Democracy
Make voter registration automatic when you receive a license or ID card from the DMV. Similar to Oregon, this should be an opt-out system rather than opt-in.
Have everyone vote by mail and all states should offer same-day registration. Having mail-in ballots is another policy that has made Oregon such a strong voting state. It makes it easier, especially for people who live in more rural areas, have to work on Election Day, or have other commitments which make visiting a polling place cumbersome. For those without home addresses, there would be alternative arrangements. Having same-day registration is another policy that increased the 2018 voter turnout in seven of the top ten states. Also, cheers to Colorado, which enjoys both voting by mail and same-day registration. It had the second-highest voter turnout (63 percent) in 2018, just behind Minnesota (64 percent), which has SDR. Notably, none of the worst ten states for voter turnout have VBM or SDR.
Ensure that political districts are drawn by bipartisan committees—not the people currently in power. This is obvious and helps prevent partisan gerrymandering. (We’re looking at you North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, West Virginia…)
Shorten the campaign cycle to twelve weeks. If it takes longer than twelve weeks for a candidate to tell people what they stand for, they probably won’t be an effective policymaker. Also, this allows our current leaders to actually govern rather than constantly worry about wooing enough campaign donors to get elected—not to mention the stress it removes from American citizens’ lives who are tired of the interminable election season.
Limit overall political contributions and limit the overall amount of money a candidate can spend. There are several countries with commonsense limits on how much money a candidate can receive and spend. These include Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, and South Korea. As it stands, wealth continues to dictate who runs for office and wins American elections. This does not lead to the best policies or to a democracy that provides what Americans need and want from their government.
Presidents should be elected by the popular vote. The Electoral College is anti-democratic. It’s not fair that during presidential elections, the vote of a person in Wyoming is worth more than three times that of an average American. One person, one vote.
Centralize all political campaign information by creating the “BetterBallot.” We have algorithms that match us with the people we marry. Why can’t we have a centralized system match Americans with local, state, and national politicians in the same way?
I propose making a website (BetterBallot.gov) with an easy-to-follow questionnaire that takes 15 minutes to fill out. Each question would have two parts. For example:
Do you believe in banning assault weapons such as AR-15s and AK-47s?
How important is this issue to you?
O Extremely important
O Very important
O Not that important
Depending on a person’s responses to questions and the value they assign to each issue, they would be matched up with percentage scores with various candidates. There would be both an overall percentage match, as well as percentage matches with candidates on various issues, such as:
- Public Healthcare
- Environmental Protection
- Public Education
- Gun Control
This data-driven method has been used on the dating website OkCupid with great success.
Having this information about political candidates also would help eliminate wasteful campaign spending and interminable fundraising—freeing up our country’s leaders to actually work rather than worry about raising enough money to get reelected.
Furthermore, it would help cut down on negative campaigns. We should be voting according to how well our beliefs match with a prospective legislator—not how much we hate the other candidate.
I suspect some might see these proposals as too simple and unrealistic—that I’m waving my flimsy pen at a tidal wave of political tradition. But why can’t it be simple? And at earlier stages in history, weren’t many of the freedoms we now take for granted also “unrealistic?”