Tales of our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
My offhand polls of some dozen friends, family, and townsfolk echo the national polls. Millions of voters agree with the lists of complaints that dominate today’s political scene. Millions of voters agree that talk between the parties is useless—the parties each have their own codes, they never listen, and they have no common interests.
Yet, the No. 1 interest of either party is its own survival, that is, how many votes it can pull in elections. This statement can be seen as either a necessary fact or a useful insult. It is both.
Both parties often call voting systems the soul of democracy. Then we hear each party label the other party the ultimate threat to democracy by citing the other’s narrow efforts on voting systems. Republicans work to make voting systems more secure. Democrats describe this effort as “restricting voter rights,” in hopes this coloring will win votes for the Democrats. Likewise, Democrats work to make voting systems more accessible. Republicans describe this effort as “harvesting ballots,” in hopes this coloring will win votes for the Republicans. The parties show mutual scorn. Voting systems, like many issues, involve more key parts than can be hashed out at a party convention. Systems engineers fill the bill … MIT Lab on Voting Technology.
I talk to strong boosters in both parties. The double surprise is how commonly these partisans say that either party’s control of voting systems is itself a clear conflict of interest. But they see no alternative that will be fair in avoiding all the many forms of bias. They make a good point.
Consider the scene:
Of the 47 secretaries of state, 37 are the state’s chief elections officer. The applicable election laws in states are set by state legislatures. In 35 states, the secretary of state is an elected position. When election campaigns are in the air, public debates are sometimes held between each party’s candidate for secretary of state. Republican vs. Democrat debates can be quite civil or not so much, but the debates always suffer from being 2-dimensional. Very few system designs ever get perfected by choosing one of two narrow views.
We badly need a practical step that can start to move ideas and information across the impasse that has grown so solid between the parties. Third parties don’t pass the “practical” test. Even less useful are appeals to “ethics,” “justice,” or regard for “country.” So, now what?
All these factors helped shape a small idea that is worth trying, or at least thinking about. “Small” means conceivably testable by the New Mexico elections officer, the Los Alamos League of Women Voters, and/or the top-notch Los Alamos High School Speech & Debate Team.
A real tryout would build knowledge. The idea is to broaden a debate between candidates for the elections office by adding a third speaker who is neither a candidate nor even a debater. The third speaker would be a professional in the field of voting technology systems, which adds a whole new dimension to the debate. The public would hear directly about the continuing work on voting systems to make them both more secure AND more accessible. Voters would hear why both virtues are vital to the spirit of democracy.
To be fair, my rough idea has key details that need to be worked on, such as:
- ways to select the third speaker
- the subject matter and time allotted to the third speaker
- format—is the third speaker’s text known to debaters beforehand? Can debaters question the speaker?
Imagine the possible shift in dynamics. Could an addition so small shine a light on the creeping spoilage of our election climate? So many interests could gather the fruits of democracy.