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Radicalizing the vote: 10 ideas that just might save democracy | Opinion

From lowering the voting age to casting your ballot using blockchain technology, it's time to reconsider the way our leaders are elected.

Poll workers hand out "I VOTED" stickers during election day voting at the Washington Township Board of Education building in Washington Township, Gloucester County on November 6, 2018.
Poll workers hand out "I VOTED" stickers during election day voting at the Washington Township Board of Education building in Washington Township, Gloucester County on November 6, 2018.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Elections are somewhat like traffic. Many people complain about the problems in their own communities. Few people think, “The drivers here are great!” Similarly, few seem satisfied with how their own elections are run.

But there is actually a lot of good news out there on voting rights and election reform. Some communities are expanding the electorate by enfranchising more people. Voter registration has become effortless and Election Day is now more convenient in certain places. Structural changes to how we cast ballots have reduced voter apathy. Innovative public financing options have made it easier for more people to run for office and actually have a chance to win.

Yes, we can be positive about what’s possible for our elections.

That’s the underlying message of the entries in this story: Each idea below offers pro-voter solutions to our election woes. Some of the ideas are already seeing success in certain places. Others are perhaps more novel. But what might seem radical at first glance might not be all that far-fetched after all.

Take the example of lowering the voting age to 16, which theories of democratic engagement and cognitive brain science both support. When I first heard that Takoma Park, Md., lowered the voting age for its local elections in 2013, I thought the idea seemed radical. But then I learned that other countries allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote and that turnout among these age groups is usually higher than even slightly older teens, which can help to create a whole new generation of engaged voters. I learned about the improved civics education that usually accompanies this reform. I also learned that brains are fully developed for slower, reasoned decision-making — what psychologists call “cold” cognition—by age 16, as opposed to later brain development for “hot” cognition, or heat-of-the-moment processes.

Only a few years later, the reform has spread to about half a dozen cities, with more debating the issue — to the point that over 100 members of Congress recently endorsed the idea. Maybe it’s not so radical after all.

Universal vote-by-mail, also known as Vote at Home — where all voters automatically receive a ballot in the mail a few weeks before Election Day without having to request one — may seem radical for a place like Philadelphia, but it works extremely well in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, all counties in Utah (besides the one that has yet to adopt it), and several other jurisdictions. Notably, turnout is higher in Vote at Home states as compared with the rest of the country, with lower costs and hardly any fraud concerns.

Ranked Choice Voting, a different way to designate one’s preferences on the ballot, has spread from San Francisco to the Twin Cities to Memphis to recent statewide adoption in Maine.

I might not agree with every proposed idea in this story, but I fully endorse innovative thinking about ways to improve our democratic process. As I write in a new book that tells the stories of many of these reforms and profiles the Democracy Champions behind their adoption, “Pro-voter enhancements can provide all of us with hope for a brighter democratic future.”

Philadelphia’s streets may be congested, but it can learn from positive practices in other cities to ease the congestion. Philadelphia’s elections process may seem outdated to some, but it can gain insight from positive, pro-voter policies, many of which work well already in some places and others that are worthy of debate.

Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights, and constitutional law. He is the author of “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting." @JoshuaADouglas

Express line for early morning voters

We make restaurant reservations and we schedule everything from visits to the doctor to visits from the cable guy, and in some states (California and New York among them) you can even make an appointment with the Department of Motor Vehicles. How about ensuring that you can vote at a time on election day that’s convenient for you? There are more than a million registered voters in Philadelphia, so the City Commissioners Office would have to be on the top of its game to pull it off, but the digital technology for it exists. It’s likely that the morning and evening time slots best suited for most people with jobs would fill up quickly, but an “express line” for those voters could speed things up. As Business Insider put it in a 2016 survey of ideas for increasing turnout: “An appointment-scheduling feature would allow people to pencil voting into a specific slot in their calendar long before election day comes around, lending a stronger sense of commitment to the act.” — Paul Droesch, volunteer, Committee of Seventy

A new gig for Rosie the Riveter

Voting has a branding problem. Voting reminds too many people of standing in line at the DMV. But voting is power. Many of your fellow citizens struggled and even died for you to have the right to vote, especially if you’re a woman, a racial minority, young, or poor. Your vote has value.

As I note in my book Political Brands, voters will be bombarded with disinformation about candidates and even the election itself. Pro-voting messages need better branding since voter suppression used clever branding including hash tagging the wrong date as Election Day. As later research revealed, during 2016, American voters, and particularly minority voters, were barraged with communications urging them to “skip the election.”

We need PSAs from election administrators educating voters that memes encouraging them to boycott elections could be from people who do not have their interests at heart, including foreign governments. Perhaps the message should be “value your vote” or “voting is power.” But to be effectively branded, the positive messages about voting need to be repeated. Voters need to be bombarded with positive messages like the Uncle Sam posters that said “I WANT YOU” or the Rosie the Riveter, who repeated “We can do it!— Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, professor of law, Stetson University College of Law and Fellow, Brennan Center

Old enough to drive? Old enough to vote

Voting is among our most fundamental democratic rights, but U.S. citizens have to wait until they turn 18 before they can cast their ballot. Lowering the voting age to 16 could increase the likelihood of voting for both young voters and their parents. Voting is habitual, and young adults living with voting parents are more likely to vote than those living on their own. A study of four Danish provinces also found that parents were 2.8 percent more likely to vote if their child was eligible to vote, particularly if the child was still living at home. Lowering the voting age also would encourage K-12 schools to incorporate greater civics education into their curricula, leading to more informed voters later in life. Most important, political decisions impact the education, livelihoods, and safety of 16- and 17-year-olds, but those under 18 have no way of ensuring that decision-makers are looking out for their best interests. Lowering the voting age would encourage politicians and citizens to listen to young voices. — Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz, Princeton High School junior, advocate for student voices

Weigh each ballot by voter’s life expectancy

We should weight every vote by the voter’s remaining life expectancy. Such a move would align power over decisions with the decider’s expected number of years living with the consequences of those decisions.

How would it work? National average life expectancy would be calculated for every birth year. The longer the remaining life expectancy, the more weight voters would have. Every voter in the same birth year would have an equally weighted vote. And birth years with longer remaining life expectancy would have more weighted votes than birth years with shorter remaining life expectancy. Because everyone with the same remaining life expectancy would have the same weight to their vote, the principle here could be called “one future, one vote.”

On average women live longer than men, as do whites than blacks. And yes, if the weighted voting was based solely on birth year, with no adjustments for sex or race or anything else, then voters from groups with lower than average life expectancies (men, blacks, the poor) would get a higher weighting relative to voters of the same age from groups with higher than average life expectancies (women, whites, the rich). Since the former groups currently vote at lower rates, the rule might actually help overcome existing inequalities by incentivizing these groups to vote.

Note that a voter’s first vote would always be their most impactful, which might create positive incentives for both learning and voting. The diminishing impact of a voter’s vote over time would create a sense of scarcity and an expected boost in the voter’s participation in the present. Because this would be as true for a 20-year-old voter as it would for a 40-year-old voter, the rule might lead to universal increase in voting over time with a resulting increase in the impact of wisdom from experience.

It is well understood that all humans, no matter their age, have a strong tendency to over-value the present compared with the future. This bias, probably more than any other single reason, is why we are doomed on climate change. Sure, greed and power and distraction and complexity make climate policy difficult. But perhaps the single biggest obstacle on our path to averting extinction is that the future has too weak a constituency.

We humans are not likely to overcome our biases, but we can design a democratic process that privileges the votes of those expected to spend the most time in the future. — Mark Alan Hughes, professor, University of Pennsylvania, was founding director of sustainability, City of Philadelphia.

» JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Do you have a radical idea to change voting? Email it to the Inquirer at

Vouchers for democracy

At $5.7 billion spent, the 2018 election was the most expensive midterm in history. While small donors played an unprecedented role, the majority of election spending was furnished by big donors, demonstrating once again that our democracy is defined by the wealthiest Americans.

Luckily, elections fund-raising can be democratized through public financing of elections.

Take Seattle’s public financing program: Each resident receives four $25 democracy vouchers that can be given to any eligible municipal candidate. When pooled together, these people-powered vouchers augment the voices of everyday Americans, allowing them to rival big money interests. Candidates can forgo expensive fund-raisers and sustain their campaigns with community support.

Seattle’s program went into effect for the 2017 elections and the results were extremely encouraging. Compared with previous elections, under public financing the number of donors skyrocketed and more candidates were able to run, and compared with cash donors, democracy voucher users were, on the whole, more representative of the electorate.

Vouchers also increased the fund-raising power of constituents and generated countless first-time local election donors.

The program is still nascent, but early data from the 2019 municipal elections suggest its second round will likely be even more transformative. — Adam Eichen, author, “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want”

Take a cue from July 4th

The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November became Election Day in 1845. Lawmakers thought it would be an easier time of year for farmers to take the time necessary to travel to a polling place. It was, in part, an attempt to increase participation. It’s time to recapture that spirit by making Election Day a national holiday. In a U.S. Census Bureau survey of millions of voters after the November 2016 elections, 14.3 percent of voters polled said scheduling issues prevented them from voting in that election, a condition that was worst among nonwhite and younger voters. If we want a democracy that’s more representative of more Americans, we need make voting easier and less economically risky. If Election Day was a holiday (or a weekend, as in other countries) it could boost voter turnout. Plus, a public celebration of voting might make it feel more valuable and fun. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found 65 percent of Americans support making Election Day a national holiday, an idea favored by 71 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans polled. Such a holiday has been proposed in Congress but never advanced. If our electeds fear a more people-powered democracy, that should tell us just how much they respect us. — Ashley Hahn, journalist and Election Day celebrator

Bitcoin for voting

Think of it like Bitcoin for voting. You’d vote using a secure online platform that provides transparency into elections results — and you could do it all on your phone. You wouldn’t have to go to the polls or mail in an absentee ballot, and election boards wouldn’t have to hire and train nearly as many poll workers. And you’d be able to follow your vote until it’s counted, but no one else could. It’s possible thanks to blockchain technology. Of course, you’d have to prove who you are, and election officials would have to know that it’s actually you who’s voting on your phone. Those are among the questions that scare many security experts, but the technology that currently exists is good enough for Estonians, and blockchain-voting technology is being tested in Switzerland, South Korea, Kenya, and Colombia, not to mention West Virginia, where overseas voters (military and civilians) used it in 2018. — Paul Droesch, volunteer, Committee of Seventy

Make registration automatic

Section One of Article Seven of the Pennsylvania State Constitution guarantees the right to vote for most Pennsylvanians 18 and older. However, 2.3 million Pennsylvanians are not registered to vote, and therefore cannot exercise their constitutionally protected right. Although state lawmakers and bureaucrats have made it much easier to vote, via online registration, it still remains a problem for many eligible voters.

To ensure equal access to the ballot, Pennsylvania should adopt an automatic voter registration system. This would automatically register every citizen – 18 and older – to vote, so that every eligible Pennsylvanian would have the opportunity to vote. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already adopted forms of automatic voter registration system, and because of it, they have all seen voter participation increase substantially.

As it is done in other states, this would require the Pennsylvania Departments of Transportation, Revenue, and State to work together. These government agencies would send voter cards to all the eligible unregistered citizens, who will have the option to register with a party or opt out. — Josh Portney, Upper Dublin High School senior, aspiring politician

Mail it in

Currently, Pennsylvania is one of just 18 remaining states requiring an “excuse” to receive a mailed-out ballot for an election. And that number is shrinking.

Most other states have recognized the ability to get a ballot in the mail, and then vote on your schedule, is good for a wide cross section of voters: older or disabled voters with trouble getting to the polls; rural voters far from a polling place; parents working two jobs; families with sick kids; first responders; students. For all of them and others, mailed-out ballots put voters first. The model gives everyone equal access and allows substantial time for voters to research the candidates before they vote.

The results are impressive: In the 2018 election, the top seven states for turnout were either 100 percent mailed-out ballot states (Colorado, Oregon, Washington) or “no excuse absentee” or “permanent absentee” states (Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin). And those states have demonstrated how proper implementation makes for highly secure elections, including detailed ballot tracking and signature verification.

And mailed out doesn’t necessarily mean mailed back. In fact, in the 100 percent states, more than 50 percent of voters actually vote in-person, either into secure 24/7 drop boxes, or staffed vote centers that look like traditional polling places, but without the lines.

Mailed-out ballot voting is proven, secure, saves money, and engages more voters. It’s time for Pennsylvania to adopt this reform. — Amber McReynolds, executive director, National Vote at Home Institute

Ranked voting

Despite an increasingly polarized political narrative, I think that most Philadelphians (and Americans) are more united than our election results would lead us to believe. Our voting system exacerbates this problem by allowing us to elect candidates who achieve less than 50 percent of the vote. When more than two candidates run, votes are split, and a candidate without majority support ends up victorious.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) solves this problem by revealing the candidate with true majority support. A voter can rank their choices, and when the total first-choice votes are tallied, if no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote -- the candidate with the lowest total votes is eliminated. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their second choice vote is automatically counted. This process continues until a candidate achieves a majority.

Additionally, in crowded primaries with multiple candidates (see Philadelphia City Council-at-Large), RCV is an important tool to make sure that the candidates with the broadest support are elected.

The way we vote changes the way we relate. If City Council at large candidates were incentivized to build broad coalition support, the dialogue would be elevated. If third-party candidates could run without being demonized as spoilers, our democracy would benefit. Ranked Choice Voting is a structural change, but a change that allows voters to find common ground and improve our democracy. — Liz Roggio, political and government relations attorney, Kleinbard LLC

» JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Do you have a radical idea to change voting? Email it to the Inquirer at