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Frontlines of the Non-digital: the Electoral & Democratic Delagate Systems

As many of you know, I created a game called Political Capital to serve as my thesis at ITP. It’s a game about running for President — or more specifically, the game expresses the electoral system and the political election process at a surface level and plays something like Risk. Lately, because I will be presenting my thesis soon (May 6 at 12:20pm) and also because of the topsy-turvy nomination process the Democrats are serving up, I’ve been thinking a lot about our political election systems. I figured it was time to dedicate a post to them and begin a conversation among game designers of how we can improve what we’ve got. Lord knows there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The Electoral College (why is it a college? Are Ex-Presidents considered alumni?) is a pretty straight-forward system: each state is given a value based on population, specifically one point (or one Electoral Vote) for every member of the state sends to the House of Representatives. The candidate who garners the most votes in a state is (supposed to be) given the state’s Electoral Votes in a winner-takes-all style (except for Maine and Nebraska). Now Electoral Voters are actually people who are representative of their party and state — sort of like Superdelegates, more on that later. There is a possibility that this Electoral Voter has free will and decides to break rank with the popular vote and casts a vote for someone else but this is extremely rare. How one becomes an Electoral Voter is unknown to me although I was once approached by an Hasidic Jewish man on the subway who was trying to gather 50,000 signatures so he could begin the process of applying to become one for the State of New York.

Two weeks ago I went to a panel discussion at The New Museum about politics and the internet. There was some good back-and-forth about what role citizen journalism, user-created content, and all-things networked will play on the political landscape in the years to come. But one thing bothered me and it’s a sentiment that’s been growing ever since Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral Vote in 2000: one blogger on the panel predicted (and approved of) the getting rid of the Electoral System in the next 10 years. I wish I could quote directly, but general comments were made that insinuated that the system would be more “fair” if every vote counted the same (i.e. let the popular vote decide things), that voters in the midwest and south are generally not intelligent or informed enough, and that voters no longer want representation (i.e. let’s all vote on every bill in congress on the internet, yippee!).

Now there is no easier way to alienate the moderate voter by telling him that he is stupid, but leave it to the liberal elitists to do just that year after year. Americans are not stupid, they are just great consumers of media (as Amy Goodman once said). An angry liberal vocalized his frustrations at this talk at The New Museum by saying people pay more attention to American Idol than the Presidential Election. The comment got a good yuk, and if ABC could have its way (based on what I saw in the last debate between Clinton and Obama) we would probably be headed more toward that superficial format. Maybe there’s something to learn from American Idol though… think about it: the show presents itself as a transparent process in a game-like form, where there’s a balance between expert opinion and that of, well, everyone else (anyone can text a vote). Sounds a lot like how the Democrats select their nominee minus the transparent process part. I am certainly not advocating for the advent of a process that’s as silly, commercial, or mindless as American Idol. But developing better election systems that have rules everyone understands while still employing the ideas of representation — and perhaps trustworthy internet or ATM voting — is the best future we can hope for as voters.

Why do I believe we need representation of the Electoral Voters? Well, for one, there’s this thing called the Constitution. Some people will argue that what are forefathers (or is it Four Fathers? Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin?) wanted Electoral Votes to maintain a balance of power between the North and South — and that such considerations are outdated. I’d argue the opposite. If popular vote ruled, the power would shift to metropolitan areas. These cities already maintain the country’s commercial power — and companies already largely influence politics through their money, not to mention the concentrated wealth of residents. The Electoral System balances the interests between the cities (money) and rural areas (more Electoral weight per-vote). This was the idea from the beginning and while our map has changed and demographics have shifted, we still need to preserve such a balance in our election systems.

But what about winner-take-all in the Electoral Process? Maybe here lies the compromise: Maine and Nebraska distribute their Electoral Votes much in the way we are seeing delegates distributed to Clinton and Obama right now. If all 50 states did what Nebraska and Maine do, then the system would be fair to all voters. There would be no situations like Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004 where the difference in votes is such a small margin that the risk-reward for corruption skyrockets and our entire election system is (probably) compromised. Imagine if those states simply split their Electoral Votes 50/50. I think this is the great fix to our current system. Lesser populated states still maintain a strong influence. Every vote still counts. Honesty reigns supreme because now voter fraud would take tens of thousands of votes to alter outcomes. Make it all transparent. Develop ATMs and internet voting that we can trust (if we can file our taxes and trade stocks over computers, surely we can do the same with our votes securely).

As for the Superdelegates and crazy Florida/Michigan situations plaguing the Democrats right now, I offer the following advice: from a game design perspective, you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game. Stick to the situation and work to make it better for the next go around. By that I mean: define how a Superdelegate should vote (should they represent or vote their conscience), develop a better calendar that promises to rotate states every Presidential primary, make the entire process more transparent with a central tally of delegates with defined cutoff dates for Superdelegates (long before the convention), and get rid of caucuses where people can use intimidation to influence.

What suggestions do you have?

3 Comments

  1. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Part of me wonders if the reason Republicans have been such strong presidential candidates for so long is that their primary process is far more similar to the way the Electoral College works than Democratic primaries. Approaching the presidential race as a game, I would say that Republicans far better training.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Frank wrote:

    Interesting thoughts Berkley-san. I am especially sorry I haven’t gotten a chance to play Political Capital yet. I will certainly be coming to your thesis presentation, and please keep me on the list for the next play-session.

    >> where the difference in votes is such a small margin that the risk-reward for corruption skyrockets and our entire election system is (probably) compromised.

    You could make the argument that where small margins exist, the likelihood of corruption determining the outcome increases, but the harm done thereby is minimized. Whenever it’s that close, the outcome is essentially arbitrary anyway.

    >> you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game

    So when can you change them?

    Voting is usually a pretty bad game mechanic. Players are intuitively aware of what philosophers call the “heap problem”. It’s hard to feel the weight of meaningful choice where your choice is just a drop in the bucket.

    I think your list of proposed reforms seems reasonable and well-informed, but I would like to hear suggestions for more radical and fundamental changes.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Bob wrote:

    “If popular vote ruled, the power would shift to metropolitan areas. These cities already maintain the country’s commercial power — and companies already largely influence politics through their money, not to mention the concentrated wealth of residents. The Electoral System balances the interests between the cities (money) and rural areas (more Electoral weight per-vote).”

    True, but metropolitan areas also tend to be a lot more densely populated, so that power-shift would make perfect sense. States like New York, Texas and California might have huge electoral counts thanks to their cities, but it’s always felt rather lopsided to me that elections are won, for the most part, by sweeping lots of very sparsely populated states. Furthermore, it winds up misrepresenting the actual political make-up of the population, coloring the map based on the majority of opinion in a number of districts, rather than the majority of opinion, period.

    Frankly, any electoral system where the candidate who recieves the most votes can wind up losing is just plain broken. National politics should be decided by the nation as a whole, and not the petty factions and pork-encrusted interests that state-politics boils down to. Forget bad game design– it’s bad democracy.

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 5:16 am | Permalink

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