Monday, December 11, 2006

Election Reform, Part 2

Americans have an amazingly and overwhelmingly low opinion of their elected officials. The vast majority of Americans distrust the politicians who represent them, and it appears that that distrust is warranted. Yet, we keep electing the same people, and if not the same people, seemingly the same type of people. Our trust in our politicians is declining, and the democratic process is not working as it theoretically should to reverse that trend.

Why is this? In theory, a democratically-elected representative should be at least palatable to at least a majority of the population that is willing to express an opinion. Ideally, our democratic process would cause the natural leaders who hold broadly-accepted viewpoints and have strong leadership qualities to be chosen for leadershop roles. But this does not seem to be the norm. Why?

There are a few reasons for this that I can hypothesize:

* Our single-vote system forces people into making an economic decision to vote for a least-bad candidate that has a "chance of winning", rather than "wasting" their vote on a more desirable candidate. This forces a "rich get richer, poor get poorer" system where new viewpoints cannot get a fair hearing.

* Reliable and useful information about candidates is too hard to come by. Media spin and advertisements dominate the information landscape. It is not possible to communicate complicated concepts in those environments, so the best marketers get elected, not the best legislators.

* Growing out of the first two, the entire political landscape has turned into a two-sided war of attacks that flow out of protectionism, power-grabbing, and arrogance. "Bipartisanship" requires mutual respect and understanding, qualities which are lacking not only from our politicians but from the majority of the electorate.

Given that, I'd like to offer a few suggestions for steps that I think are plausible (though not likely), which I think would move us toward a more healthy democracy.

It's a bit peculiar to have a "Part 2" to this series when there was no "Part 1". But, you'll have to bear with me, because Part 1 developed itself in comments to previous posts, and I don't feel like rewriting it. :)

In short, Part 1 was my suggestion of switching to an alternate voting process that allows for multiple tiered votes, so that a voter can actually express their support for their preferred candidate, while also hedging their bets with a vote for a "least-bad" candidate. There are a number of suggested systems, and one that is actually beginning to be used in various cities and counties. For more, read the comments from the posts here and here.

For Part 2, I want to suggest a method of improving our knowledge about the legislative abilities of our candidates. I got the idea for this from a post on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, which refers to an article on titled Democrats' New Intelligence Chairman Needs a Crash Course on al Qaeda. Don't misunderstand that article because of it's title... it rightly criticizes Republicans as much as Democrats.

Jeff Stein, who wrote the article, interviewed a number of politicians, asking them relatively basic questions about the political landscape in the Middle East. Their answers, as reported by him, were frighteningly wrong.

So here's my suggestion. Some organization should put together an annual exam for politicians. For national leaders, it could include basic pertinent facts about world leaders that we have interactions with, international dynamics, that sort of thing. There could be a couple of more difficult questions, and an essay question. For domestic issues, there could be questions about the state of Social Security, pertinent details of various significant trade and immigration issues... a test, in short, to show whether our elected officials actually know anything of what they're dealing with, or whether they're just salespeople and marketers making guesses at public opinion (or, even worse, making uninformed decisions because of their love of power).

The multiple choice parts of the test could be easily graded. The rest (essay questions and the like) would simply be published as written. Politicians would have to take the test themselves (no pawning it off on a research assistant), in a monitored and timed environment.

I suggest that the President and every member of Congress should be required to take the exam every year. Imagine how much useful information that would give us! In election years, the test could also be given to candidates.

It would be wonderful, in my opinion, to be able to evaluate candidates not based on policy stances (I will vote for this, but not for that... probably... unless I change my mind once I'm elected), but based on their grasp of the facts that will be critical in making decisions.

Maybe, instead of the written essay part of the exam, it could be a recorded 10-minute speech on a given topic. Then, we would have not only a good read on their knowledge of the situation, but a feel for their ability to communicate and persuade as well.

An exam such as this would not bring immediate improvement. Most people would get their information about the exam through the media, and would only hear soundbites from the speeches and brief overviews of the test results. But, those of us who were willing to take the time to learn more would have all that information available to us... and, having the format restricted would allow us to compare and contrast candidates effectively in substantive areas, in ways that are not possible in the current spin-driven political landscape. Over time, the availability of that information would hopefully build an audience for it.

What do you think? Is this at all plausible? Would it be useful, if it were plausible? Do you have other suggestions for ways that we could get more substantive information about our elected politicians and candidates for office?



Douglas said...

I like the idea of tests overall. Sorry to comment and run. Gotta get up at 5 tomorrow. Not easy for this night owl.

brad said...

Education is good, but it shouldn't be overstated. It can't guarantee better government. Hitler had more schooling than Lincoln. If "knowing facts" could save us, the public schools' drug and sex education programs would have given us heaven. Instead, the problems have gotten worse. Too bad there is no test for "character". Remember, Dr. Singer is a tenured professor at Princeton who says a civilized country should be allowed to practice infanticide. Our Supreme Court says the U.S. Constitution sanctions the killing of full-term babies 90% out of the birth canal. Clinton has a degree from Yale Law. Just saying, education without moral character is far worse than the reverse.

purplekanga said...

Interesting ideas. As Brad implied, I'd like to see some sort of information about moral character included, but I'm not sure how that would be done.

BTW, in case you didn't already know it, Mark [since I'm assuming you're the one who "upgraded" the blog...] there are bugs in the interfacing between old and new blogger account in the comments.

So now anybody who has an old Blogger account is likely to have problems commenting, and certainly can't post a new article on this blog. I tried about 10 times just now, without success. It just keeps saying it can't log me in.

We might want to post a note telling anyone who is having trouble commenting to try using the "other" option and just write in their info, or use anonymous and sign it with their username. Right now it's not letting me comment even as "other" or "anonymous."


Kevin said...

I think it was Jeff Stein's earlier article that led me to feel a bit guilty about not keeping perfect track of those Muslim sects myself (here's a FAQ). Of course, I'm not a government official who directly influences policy on related issues (which, granted, involve many factors).

Your goals are noble, Mark, and, in general, your test sounds like a good idea to me. It is not the full solution, but education (and agreement upon relevant facts) is a good start. I don't know how to really test moral character besides life experience.

My primary concerns revolve around practicality, such as who determines the questions and answers? Merely focusing on specific facts over others can have a significant impact. There are also key facts, divisive facts, general facts, and even largely irrelevant facts.

I would have great difficulty constructing such a test myself, but perhaps seeing an actual test of relevant questions would help my understanding and expectations. Heck, I'd like to see such a test for my own edification on the important topics (as well as to learn which specific topics are important).

But even if the tests are imperfect, any valid definition of a politician would be helpful. This leads us to the biggest practical issue: adoption. Unfortunately, it behooves politicians on both sides to avoid defining themselves, including their knowledge, their opinions, and even their record.

NB: collects some interesting material in this regard, including Issue Positions (if the politician is willing to reveal their positions), Voting record, Interest Group Ratings, etc.).

Perhaps if we can flesh out an example test, we can build support for it. Does anyone have ideas on the specific questions or topics that should be on the Political Facts Test?

Besides improving our knowledge of candidates, we could also open up democratic voting on some actual issues, if not basic legislation, providing for a finer granularity of control by voters. I don't want to take the "republic" out of "democratic republic", but when issues which are important to 66+% of voters are ignored, it makes sense to provide another means of representation.

PK: I just converted to the Beta and now use my google account, so I can't test it myself, but have you tried logging in using the old blogger login form before posting here?


Anonymous said...

Mark, I like it.

I agree with Brad that morality is important... maybe the essay portion could address issues of morality. Probably more than one essay/speech would be necessary.

Kevin brought up an interesting question: who would write the test? Writing the test and, in some cases, determining the correct answer, would make all the difference. Whoever (or whatever committee) did that would have a lot of power.


Mark Congdon said...


If the questions needed someone to "determine" the correct answer, then the test isn't what I'm envisioning. "Is al Qaeda aligned with a particular sect of Islam? If so, what sect?" The answer to that question requires no interpretation... it is either right or wrong.

I'm afraid no test can give us any idea about moral character, so I don't think any essay questions along those lines would be useful. Moral character can only be determined by examining how someone has lived their life. We're able to do that now, to some degree... our difficulty primarily comes in obtaining reliable information. The vast majority of immorality (selling out for power or money, for instance; taking bribes; lying to get ahead; selfishness and greed) is hard to pinpoint, difficult to prove, and easy to conceal. I don't see any way around those problems currently, but I'd love it if we could find a way... I'm just afraid that an essay question won't cut it.


To say that moral character without knowledge is better than knowledge without moral character is... well, it may be true, but it doesn't get us very far. A leader that will have any positive effectiveness at all has to have significant amounts of both. Most of our leaders today seem to have very little of either.


Douglas_Coombs said...

It looks like most of my concerns have been addressed already. The power to create those tests would be significant. The mere phrasing of questions greatly affects how most people answer them, as polls on abortion amply demonstrate. The only way I see it working is by committee and even then there would be significant horsetrading regarding the wording of questions.

Also the temptation to sneak the questions/answers out to the candidates would certainly be powerful. I can't imagine it running problem free, but I suppose nothing political does.

So, how do you plan on getting this implemented. I want to see it by the next election!


steviepinhead said...

As usual, heh heh, I don't know much about them, but aren't there certain organizations which already seek candidates' answers to sets of questions?

League of Women Voters?

I think the kind of test that Mark has in mind would have to be administered in a setting where there wouldn't be time for preparation/"cheating." Er, closed book as compared with open book.

Which would require some administration and "rules" in addition to the usual LWV approach. But maybe it would be easier to implement something like this via an existing "platform," as it were, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel from the ground up (mixing a few metaphors, butcha gnaw whut ah mean...).

Even "open book" responses to certain kinds of questions would be valuable, forcing the candidates to "commit" to certain positions. While politicians always learn artful dodges around whatever past positions they've staked out, still such commitments confer opportunities to hold their feet to the fire, particularly where the underlying context surrounding the committed position has not changed significantly.

("Um, Congressperson Wallet, didn't you commit to not seek re-election?" "Yes, ma'am, but that was before I realized that incumbents acquire experience, seniority, and fund-raising and name-recognition advantages. Now that I've figured all that out, it would be plumb foolish for my constituents to trade all my advantages for the rank inexperience of my esteemed opponent!")

Mark Congdon said...

Doug and Stevie,

You both seem to be thinking of questionnaires about political positions... about the issues. The League of Women Voters will ask candidates about their positions on various issues, and publish the responses. That's not at all what I'm referring to here.

Doug, you spoke of abortion. Let me give an example of a question from the test I'm envisioning, if questions were written pertaining to abortion.

* What pivotal Supreme Court ruling regarding abortion states that the concern for the health of the mother includes "all factors - physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age - relevant to the well-being of the patient"?

Now, is there any ambiguity there? Is there anything tricky about the wording of the question that makes it difficult to answer? Not at all. It is a simple question of fact, an analysis of how much of the pertinent facts of the situation a candidate has command of.

I am very interested to know whether candidates have an intimate knowledge of the Supreme Court history of abortion, or of recent major scientific studies about current abortion practice. Such questions are factual, not prejudiced.

Certainly a committee approach to creating the questions would be warranted... but if the questions became slanted or political, the entire purpose of the exercise would be lost.


steviepinhead said...

I wasn't so much thinking of asking the same type of questions as the LWV already asks, as starting with a well-respected existing question-asking organization and building off of what they've already got going on, outward, in the direction that Mark has been discussing...

Which is why I (impliedly) characterized the LVW's approach as an "open book" exam and Mark's as more of a "closed book" approach.

Of course, Mark also wants to ask a different type of question, more fundamental-facts oriented than position-oriented.

But, of course, that's the downside of starting with an existing entity and approach. Someone like the LVW might not want to mess with what they consider to be a successful format.

Mark Congdon said...


You're right that my type of test would have to be "closed book", whereas the type of test LWV and so many other groups give is "open book". That's because the tests have completely different purposes.

The LWV-type test is to answer this question: "Are you willing to go on record saying that you either agree with us or disagree with us?" In general such tests are binary, for-us-or-against-us in nature, and are intended to identify the candidate with the proper positions on particular issues.

My type of test is intended to answer the question: "Do you understand the nature of the situation well enough to have a truly informed opinion about it?" That is a completely different type of question, and so requires a completely different type of test.

I don't know of any non-partisan entities that offer position tests to candidates. Since the tests seem to be partisan by their very nature ("do you agree with our position?"), that doesn't surprise me. It also means that such organizations would be very bad places to start from in implementing a more fact-oriented, issue-neutral test.

A respected (by most) testing organization such as the Educational Testing Service might be the best place to oversee the test creation process.


steviepinhead said...

I understand and agree as to the distinctive nature and purpose of the non-partisan, real-world knowledge test you are proposing, Mark.

I'm not sure that all the current well-respected "political questionnaire" entities, like the LWV, may fairly be characterized as "partisan," agree-with-us-or-not, organizations though. At least in my understanding, the LWV is supposed to be non-partisan, at the same time as they attempt to rate the qulaifications and solicit the views of the candidates.

In short, my impression was that the LWV doesn't itself take a position on whatever view the candidate expresses. Though, admittedly, I haven't double-checked my impression in that regard.

In any event, they don't do what you want to do.

How relevant a politician's actual knowledge is about an area or issue is open to at least some discussion, in my view. If--and these are all big "ifs"--a candidate is not particularly solid or well-educated with regard to names, dates, underlying scientific, legal, historical, or sciopolitical "facts," he or she might still make effective judgments if he or she recognized the limits of their learning and the deficits in their education, and surrounded him or herself with knowledgeable staff and advisors.

To use an (admittedly-overused) example, our current president has never claimed to be much of a scholar. His lack of empirical background knowledge might not have been much of a handicap to him, however, had he at least respected the degree to which "common sense" needs to be supplemented with an accurate and up-to-date knowledge-based context when making many kinds of decisions.

Unfortunately, in my view, Mr. Bush not only lacked knowledge in many critical areas, but he seems to have prided himself on a sort of "know-nothing" attitude: he lacked any real respect for in-depth knowledge and those who have worked to acquire and extent it. And even a leader who, hypothetically, had great common sense and excellent judgment, could wind up making many poor decisions if his or her decision-making failed to take account of the critical facts. (To the detriment of his performance and our nation's recent course, I would argue, in the case in question...)

Needless to say, some here may not agree with my characterization as to this particular politician. But assuredly we've all known people of the type I'm attempting to describe (whether we would agree that the example I picked properly falls into that "type").

But there are many equally-"uneducated," "uninformed," or downright "ignorant" people who nonetheless make sound real-world decisions, because they are honest enough about the gaps in their knowledge to surround themselves with capable advisors--let's call them "conduits of knowledge"--and they are humble enough to respect the knowledge that's conveyed to or summarized for them, and they are then wise enough to take such "externally-stored" knowledge into account in making their decisions.

While Mark's test might "discount" this kind of politician, I still think it would be worthwhile. At minimum, it would be increasingly difficult for the factually-challenged politician to pretend to an astuteness that he or she lacked.

Or, for a certain segment of voters, Mark's test might serve to identify precisely those ignorant, "person-of-the-people" politicians that such voters would prefer!