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Political Gridlock – There’s an App for That

Two articles give potential solutions to some of our political problems. Both attempt to limit, or at least modify, the power of our currently gridlocked political parties.

In the New York Times is an article “Make Way for the Radical Center” that talks about a new startup called “Americans Elect” that is attempting to use the Internet to create a new third party. Their goal is to get a presidential candidate on all 50 state ballots for the 2012 election. As they put it:

Americans Elect is the first-ever open nominating process. We’re using the Internet to give every single voter — Democrat, Republican or independent — the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012. The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates. And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.

Just like internet companies have increased competition in the marketplace, Americans Elect aims to the same thing to the two-party system that dominates our politics, to remove the barriers to real competition.

In The Atlantic is an article “How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans” on reforming Congress to remove some of the more partisan problems written by former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards. He has some very good ideas, like taking away Congressional redistricting from the political parties, open primaries, and decreasing the partisan influence on committees and amendments. The idea is to make Congress more interested in solving our country’s problems than on advancing a partisan agenda. In an era where Nancy Pelosi said her most important goal was to elect more Democrats, and Mitch McConnell said his primary job was to make Obama a one-term president, this is could be a refreshing change.

© Joel Pett

UPDATE: Speaking of Apps, here’s one that almost all of us will welcome. It is a plugin for the Firefox browser that warns you when you visit a website that is owned by Rupert Murdoch or a member of his family (including, of course, Fox News). You can even set it to block those sites if you want. There is a similar plug-in for Google’s Chrome browser as well.



  1. drew wrote:

    In the short term, I think that we should turn off the air conditioning in the Capitol building and the White House until they reach some sort of agreement on the Debt Ceiling.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  2. Michael wrote:

    “And in a secure, online convention next June [emph. added], the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.”

    Impossible and terrifying. Diebold has years and years of experience making some of the most secure computing systems in existence: ATMs. So many people thought that Diebold would produce a great electronic voting machine. But their machines, along with pretty much every other company’s attempt, have been horribly insecure.

    The problem is that the incentives in voting are significantly more complicated than in banking or other online transactions. Specifically, you must ensure confidentiality (no one knows how you voted), verifiability (you can confirm that your vote was counted correctly), untraceability (you should not be able to prove how you voted to someone attempting to buy or extort your vote), authentication (how do you prove to a remote computer who you are) and integrity (no one should be able to tamper with votes after they are cast).

    The authentication problem is difficult enough as it is. How do you know that the person voting as John Doe is, in fact, John Doe? Because they have a password? Well, where did they set their password? How do you know the computer they’re using hasn’t corrupted their vote? But while these questions are challenging enough, untraceability and verifiability seem to be mutually exclusive.

    So there may be an online vote next June. But it won’t be secure.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    As a computer scientist, I am convinced that it is possible to create electronic voting systems that are at least as secure as conventional voting systems. Michael, you are correct that building a voting system is much different than creating an ATM, so why would we think that Diebold would be any good at building voting machines? Plus, you defined verifiability incorrectly. If you want to look into secure electronic voting systems, just Google it.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Falkelord wrote:

    The first idea is never going to work and here’s why: no matter how many people you get that believe they’re independently minded or believe they are “open”, there’s always going to be a substantial population that will retain their political leanings and it will ultimately lead to the project never getting more than a twitter nod.

    RE: racism. Slavery has been illegal for over 150 years, and yet my grandmother just yesterday proclaimed she has no problem with being discriminatory. She was born in 1940, well after the civil war was over. So why does she have no problem with it? Because racism still existed (and still does) to this day. Her parents’ ideas passed to her, their parents’ ideas passed to them, etc. Also, she’s from Northern California and didn’t live in the south until she was in her late 20’s, which makes it that much more bizarre that she has no problem with it.

    The other option is the only real viable one, but this brings up another fun example which we actually discussed in a class last semester on Congress. Our teacher assigned us into committees (like Commerce or Ethics) and told us to come up with some bills that we would like to hypothetically pass. Want to know how it worked out? We were given essentially free reign, on anything within our committee that we wanted to draft legislation on, and what do you know? No one strayed much farther from their political leanings than if she had just told Democrats and Republicans to group separately. Our participation determined our grade, not what we produced. Even though this was our only incentive, we still argued and voted along party lines.

    tl;dr I’m incredibly skeptical at easier-said-than-done solutions like these two because from all the experiences I’ve had to this point, I’m inclined to believe that they’re just hooey.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 12:51 am | Permalink
  5. Arthanyel wrote:

    I would love to reform the system (and I am trying to do my part) but I think Americans Elect is taking the wrong approach. You can not make a workable system by giving everyone a megaphone, nor can you get enough people passionately committed to something to push through a change by being an amorphous open microphone.

    Clearly we need to change things pretty drastically, and if I thought I had the right answer I would be pushing it – but I don’t.

    Here’s a quesitn (asked before with no answers) – totally ignoring political parties, if we could nomintre the “best possible person” for President, who would it be? Until we understand how to make that decision, and we can define someone that we can actually find (i.e. isn’t Superman)we’ll just be flailing in the wind.

    I supported Obama in 2008 because I had hopes he would be a welcome change. I will almost certainly be suporting him again next year because all the other choices are far, far worse, but I no longer think he can bring about the change we need. But can anyone? Anbd if so, who?

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:15 am | Permalink
  6. ThatGuy wrote:

    I think this plan would be fantastic for the Republicans. If the most moderate person in the country were chosen as the nominee by this effort, he would look like a democrat,the left of this country is more or less the center in most other countries. As pleasantly idealistic as this is, if it moves forward I only see it benefitting the far right by stealing left and center votes from Obama, who is, if anything, too much of an american centrist.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  7. My husband’s idea of electoral reform amuses me. It also has some good ideas.
    1) Everyone must vote (unless incapacitated).
    2) Voting occurs over several days, with at least one of those days being declared a national holiday and with early voting for a few weeks ahead of time.
    3) One of the options for every contest is “none of the above”
    4) if “none of the above” wins 50% of the vote, everyone in that contest is barred from running again (or for a decade or such) and the election starts again with a clean slate.

    I would add that candidates could not be listed with party affiliation on the ballot, and that they be listed randomly. If anything, that would encourage the candidates to make sure that the voters can recognize the candidates’ names. (Hey, we could possibly get an electorate that could actually name its representatives … what concept!)

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  8. Iron Knee wrote:

    Falkelord, you may be right. It always amazes me that Obama ran on a platform of reducing partisanship in our government, but many of the people who are disillusioned with him now say that it is because he is not tough (partisan) enough against the Republicans.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  9. Arthanyel wrote:

    Thought Dancer – I am not convinced that “making everyone vote” is the right solution either. Democracy is the form of government in which everybody gets what the majority deserves. And to Falkelord’s point, most people just aren’t that smart or knowledgeable and adding them in to the mix only amplifies the current state of affairs rather than fixes it. Maybe the better approach is LIMITING the franchise, but since it will be impossible to get consensus on how to limit it, universal voting is at least something of an improvement.

    The key problems are that money is the true currency (pardon the pun) of our political system and that extremists control the primaries so the general elections are usually choices between extremes that cater to the wealthy. That’s what we have to stop – and adding more parties only adds more extremists, so I don’t like that solution nearly as much as open primaries, alternative voting, and campaign finance reform.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  10. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Arthanyel- I agree on the campaign finance reform, we need it big time. However given the court’s decision it would likely need some kind of constitutional amendment. I’d be in favor of all candidates receiving an equal amount of public money with no private donations allowed.
    On the voting, like you I agree we should not have mandatory voting, however I would be cautious of deterring voters because they “just aren’t that smart or knowledgeable”. Then we get into an Electoral College type scenario for all our elected officials which in turn diminishes the voice of the people. The other downside to mandatory voting is enforcement, which would just add layers of cost and bureaucracy to an already burdened system.

    Falkelord – I agree. Our prejudices and preferences seem to developed by the time we’re old enough to participate in the political process so much so that they are a detriment to sensible discourse. The wiring starts early and is reinforced throughout the primary school period so that its fairly ingrained by college time. But, with time and reasonable discussion I believe we can come to think more openly and take a less opinionated view, at least if the mainstream media and politicians would just let us.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  11. Michael wrote:

    IK, as another computer scientist, I respectfully disagree (somewhat). First, regarding verifiability, I assume you’re referring to the definition from the Internet Policy Institute (e.g., as spelled out at I was only trying for a quick-and-dirty summary of the issues, so I wasn’t trying for full academic rigor. I think my description gets the point across (more or less) to a general audience.

    Ignoring the pedantry, though, I agree that we will have secure voting machines in the future, but we’re not there yet. See the work of Avi Rubin, Alex Halderman, Dan Wallach, et al. Every audit that I’ve seen of existing implementations has shown major flaws. There are a lot of good ideas out there about how to design secure e-voting machines, but there’s still a gap between theory and practice.

    More to the point, though, you missed the key word for my criticism: online. They’re not planning on building some secure e-voting machine. They’re planning on deploying the technologies used to enable online banking. And nothing bad has ever happened with those technologies. Similar to your point about Diebold, even if these technologies had established bullet-proof online banking (which they haven’t), it’s not evident that they could be easily applied to address all of the security concerns of online voting. So until I see a thorough, independent audit of the actual implementation, consider me very skeptical.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  12. Michael wrote:

    IK, I’ve tried to post a response a few times, but it isn’t showing up. Did I trip up some sort of spam filter because I used several links (to make a point)?

    [Yes, you included so many links that your comment(s) went into moderation, and coincidentally I was out of town yesterday on business, so I didn’t approve your comment until this morning. Sorry about that. I only approved the first one, since the second one seemed to be mostly an attempt to repost what you said in the first one — hope that is ok. And I think you missed my point: it may be impossible to build completely secure online voting, but it is impossible to make anything *completely* secure. My goal is only to make online voting at least as secure as traditional voting (which is not secure). See also Falkelord’s comment below that Americans Elect is NOT trying to implement online voting for real elections, just for their version of a primary. –iron]

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  13. Michael wrote:

    What he said.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  14. Falkelord wrote:

    Ok, after doing some reading and actually trying to not be cynical for once, I started trying to participate in Americans Elect.

    Their plan is not to vote online (like voting by home, as Michael believes), but to get candidates ONTO ballots that people will then vote from their normal polling places. That’s the key difference, and it majorly changes my opinion of the successfulness.

    I believe it has a chance to go places, but it’s going to be easy to hijack it if they’re not careful.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  15. Michael wrote:

    Thanks for handling the moderation, IK. I share your sentiment that it’s impossible to guarantee complete security (what that actually means is a separate discussion…), especially when there are people using the machines. But existing systems have just had such egregious holes that they aren’t even passable. See Halderman’s dismantling of the DC voting system within 36 hours. I just think it’s unrealistic to expect the system to be completed and demonstrated secure by June. I could be wrong, but until I see sufficient evidence otherwise, I remain skeptical.

    Falkelord, isn’t a system that involves “millions of registered voters” “vot[ing] in the online convention” a form of voting online? 😉 I understand that it’s a primary (hence, the vote is in June, not November), and the purpose is to get a third “party” candidate onto the main ballots. But it’s still voting online.

    Honestly, while I’m skeptical about how well this attempt will work, I’m more worried about the precedent it sets if it is successful. If it does work, many people will immediately start demanding online voting for general elections. But how will the security model scale? Was the success due to the fact that most people participating were technically savvy (since they are obviously first adopters)? Also, the stakes are higher in a general election, so there’s significantly more incentive to corrupt it. What possible paper trail is there?

    To me, there are some things that are just too critical and delicate to put on the Internet. The voting process is one of them.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  16. Iron Knee wrote:

    Oregon (where I live) has vote-by-mail and I love it. You have several weeks to vote, you can vote in your own home at your leisure, refer to documents or even call friends to inform your vote, etc. Plus there is no temptation for losing politicians to run negative ads at the last minute (when there is no time to rebut them), since by then most people in Oregon have already voted. If you don’t trust the mail you can drop off your ballot at any library or election office, or even vote in person at the county office using a voting machine.

    Vote-by-mail has most of the advantages of online voting and way fewer security issues. I think the whole country should adopt it.

    Changing the subject, saying that most people don’t know enough to be informed voters, so voting should not be mandatory is a bad argument. We should work toward making people better informed voters regardless.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink