Election.gov: How to Eliminate Political Money and Campaigning

by Benjamin Studebaker

The US presidential campaign is well underway, and many of us are already deeply annoyed. Most of the likely winners are uninspiring if not downright incompetent, and we are already being inundated with endless pleas from various candidates for money and support. The candidates with more money can buy attention even though their ideas and qualifications are mediocre at best, and many good people simply cannot run because they cannot get financial backing. This got me thinking–how could we radically change the way we handle political campaigns to eliminate the role of money and campaigning altogether? I’ve come up with a radical plan, and I’m excited to share it with you.

It is true that the person who raises the most money doesn’t always win elections, but you have to raise quite a bit of money to reach the minimum standard for viability in American politics, and if you have a lot of it you can hang around despite gaffes, scandals, or flagging poll numbers. For example, here’s how much some of the 2016 presidential candidates have raised in the second quarter. The light color indicates traditional campaign money, the dark color indicates funds raised by super-PACs and other outside groups:

Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have raised immense amounts of cash, and this means they can hang around even though the former is low energy, the latter scandalprone, and both are unimpressive on policy. Meanwhile, someone like Bernie Sanders, who has been quite specific and inventive on policy, makes do with a small fraction of that amount because his supporters are less wealthy. But Sanders’ disadvantage is only one small piece of the money problem. It’s not just that some of the people who run cannot raise as much money, it’s that many people cannot raise enough money to run in the first place. Today, being well-qualified on policy is not even a relevant criterion for running for president or any other political office. If you can get the money, you can run, and if you can’t, you can’t. There are many exceedingly smart people out there who will never bother to run because they have no name recognition, no multi-million dollar support system, and they have no clue where to even begin.

Indeed, the skills it takes to govern effectively are almost entirely at odds with the skills it takes to run a successful campaign. Politicians who win elections know how to schmooze, how to dodge questions, how to seem like the sort of person you might want to have a beer with. The people who actually know how to run the country effectively are not socialites. They spend their lives in musty university libraries or in front of cold computer screens, reading, writing, and thinking about complex, sophisticated policy issues. There are academic journals and books packed full of great ideas for improving the country that the average voter never hears about or reads. Most of the people who write this material never run for office or even seriously consider doing so because they don’t have the desire, ability, or inclination to become professional fundraisers. Our society wastes their talent. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can completely eliminate money from politics and create a truly level playing field.

Here’s how we do it. We have the government create a social networking website. Let’s call it “Election.gov”. Every registered voter gets an account, complete with a username and password. Each user gets a profile, where you can display any information you want about yourself. Users can also submit and in turn answer questions about politics, economics, philosophy, specific issues, anything they consider important when electing a candidate. Dating websites like OKCupid already do this, though their questions tend to be geared toward romantic compatibility. On Election.gov, questions would be targeted to measure political compatibility. You would be able to look at any other user’s account and get a political match percentage that would indicate whether or not this person shares your ideological and political beliefs. Users would be free to answer as many (or as few) questions as they wish, and questions could be multiple choice or open-ended (though the latter could not factor into match percentage).

Users could both run for office and vote through Election.gov. To run for office, you would open up a page where it would list all the relevant offices for which you were legally qualified (based on your age, place of residence, etc.). You’d pick the one that interests you, and sign up to run. You would then do all your campaigning through the website at no cost to you. You’d answer people’s questions, and the answers would be public. People could follow your campaign, and you could share your ideas with your supporters in their feeds, much like Facebook currently does with its pages. If you refuse to answer questions or you answer with dodges, people will see that.

When it’s time to vote, you could do the whole ballot from your computer at home. The site would show you the election and the various candidates’ names, and you could click on the names to bring up the candidates’ profile pages, where you could see a timeline of the candidates’ posts, the candidates’ answers to questions, and your match percentages (if you’ve chosen to answer questions yourself). This would enable you to quickly make a significantly better informed voting decision. Today if you go into the polling booth and don’t know where a candidate stands on an issue, you’re just out of luck. No one will help you. With Election.gov, all the information you need is right there.

There would be no need for political parties because there would be no need for organized political campaigns. Many more people with many different kinds of background would run for office. Rather than kick people off the ballot for failing to get enough signatures, we could do runoffs to pare the list down, giving everyone a chance to win purely on the strength of their profile, their posts, and their answers to questions. If a bunch of runoffs sound like a pain in the neck to you, we could alternatively require potential candidates to get some minimum number of “likes” or “follows” to qualify for the ballot.

What about people who aren’t internet savvy or don’t have an internet connection at all? The internet should be a basic right for all citizens, but while a significant number of voters remain unconnected or unskilled at web browsing, we should continue to maintain and use polling places. These polling places could offer both traditional ballots and computers that display Election.gov in more accessible, simplified formats. We could also staff these polling places with attendants to answer questions and help voters use the software (of course, we’d have to make it a crime for these attendants to attempt to influence voting decisions). We’d also need strong cyber security protocols to protect Election.gov from malicious hackers. But this is all very doable–it is already the case that many important government functions are carried out online, at least optionally.

This reform would not solve all of our problems. Even without political money, many voters don’t know enough about the issues and policies to have very well-informed political preferences, and there would still be many elections in which too many voters end up making poor decisions. But by eliminating the need for money, we would level the playing field. With a social network, candidates could interact more directly and more frequently with everyday people. This would be a significant step in the right direction.

If you think this idea is interesting, you should share this post with as many people as possible. Otherwise this will just be another one of those ideas from some guy in front of a cold computer screen that no one ever reads, and we will continue to have anachronistic elections where cash is king and the barriers to entry are insurmountable for most people. We know how that ends…