We haven't heard the last of the Florida mess. They're doing a recount and the chads continue to pile up. It is still a source of amazement that at a time when we can dispense cash from a hole in the wall and consume our cheese from a spray can, we can't guarantee a citizen's most cherished right…to have one's vote recorded and counted correctly.
Which leads to the intriguing question, what if we were to put the voting system and its polling procedures in the hands of those who know how to do it right, the marketing professionals…somebody from, let's say, Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, Charles Schwab or the NRA. Marketers already influence or control a significant chunk of the election process. We've established the rules for raising the money; our advertising messages, particularly the negative ones, carry great weight in influencing opinion about the candidates; and we've provided the research technique that leads to the overnight polls that in turn guide the candidates on an issue-by-issue, region-by-region basis. It's logical, therefore, that we should manage the actual polling process as well.
Remember, less than 40% of the eligible voting electorate has chosen to go to the polls in the most recent Presidential elections. No self-respecting marketer would accept that level of trial and/or repeat purchase in a product category of such importance to so large a potential target audience.
As any good marketer knows, we should always view the transaction through the eyes of the consumer (the voter). With that fundamental shift in mind, one can easily understand the need to make the existing process much more voter-friendly. Specifically:
Extend the time: One day is not enough and the absentee ballot process is simply too hard to navigate. It had to be designed by Rube Goldberg. Why can't we extend the period to a week? That gives business travelers, harried moms and the lame and the infirm an equal chance with the early risers, the civil servants and those with time on their hands. What's so important about cramming it into one day anyway, a Tuesday no less? Why not a weekend day? Why the rush?
Easier locations please: I want polling booths at supermarkets, post offices, banks and shopping malls. Any place I normally visit or at which I congregate, except bars. Will somebody please explain why the local high school gym is such sacrosanct territory?
Ignorance is not bliss: Give the voters information to peruse before they commit. Candidates should be seen expressing their opinion on video loops that can run on a simple television monitor (every candidate gets a set three-minute time limit). Get the candidates to answer the same set of questions and post the responses on large bulletin boards at the entrance to the polling booths. We may know the policy difference between a Bush and a Gore, but I suspect that the vast majority of voters have no understanding whatsoever of the policy differences between candidates for the position of tax commissioner. In fact, they probably don't even know the names of the candidates. The local daily newspaper tries to do a "compare and contrast" with all the candidates, but who reads the daily newspaper anymore?
Give them an offer they can't refuse: I know it sounds tacky and tawdry, but why not a promotional offer, the equivalent of that dollar-off on a bottle of detergent. For example, local retailers could offer an additional 10% off with proof of voting; how about a line item deduction on next year's federal tax return. Put the best marketing minds to work and I guarantee that they will find an inducement that will bring out the disenfranchised, the disconnected and the "don't cares." Incidentally, in Britain and Australia they really put teeth into the offer. Voting is mandatory. Failure to do so results in a fine or a prison term.
No exit surveys: They don't allow pre-polling on Survivor II and they shouldn't allow it in Presidential elections. It kills the mystery and, God forbid, we have little as it is now that the candidates are all playing to the center. To add insult to injury, the poll results are quite often wrong as was evidenced in the Florida debacle. The networks are destroying the process.
Give technology a try: We need a consistent system nationwide that does away with anything printed that can be fondled, punched, mutilated, abused or lost. Ultimately, we need to go to Internet voting. Already a 135 million Americans have Internet access from home or work. It's convenient; it will increase participation; we will get the results more quickly and efficiently; and we won't have turn-of-the-century chads to clog the process. Initially, Internet voting will discourage some turnout, particularly with the technology illiterate and the little old ladies who associate byte with the mandible rather than the keyboard. We'll have the inevitable security/hacking problems and, worse still, any sense of commonweal that was exhibited as we all got together at the physical polling place will be supplanted by the chat room thread. But can any of that be any worse than the dysfunctional system that is currently in use?
Of course, it won't be cheap to develop the system. But, if corporations can give close to half billion dollars in soft money to influence policy and candidate selection, let's hope that we can call upon their good graces to put some of that money into designing a system that actually works. Let's at least test the concept of Internet voting before 2008.
By the way, let's use technology to make it easy to register. More states should adopt registration at the same time as one applies for a driver's license. The Democrats love it; the Republicans hate it. But the bottom line is, that if participatory democracy is to have substance and meaning as opposed to being a hollow platitude mouthed by media and politicians alike, then make it easy to get on file. After all, I can receive a $25,000 credit card offer in the mail and accept it with a signature and verification of social security number. Why shouldn't registering to vote be just as easy and appealing?