Look Out! Here Comes A Swarm Of Voters...

November 5, 2008

National Geographic inspired Quixote Foundation recently with an article about the potential genius of collective behavior—how ants, bees, birds and other creatures use simple solutions to overcome complex obstacles. The theory of “swarm intelligence” argues that a group can produce effective behavior quickly when its members constantly gather and exchange local information. By following a few simple rules, they’re able to self-organize and self-correct even as they move.

Sound like a great basis for U.S. democracy? We think so. We also think our current electoral system falls short on three critical elements needed to produce “swarm intelligence.”

  1. Seek a diversity of options: Technically, anyone meeting a few requirements can pursue national political office in the U.S. Realistically, you have to be mobbed up in one of two parties for a viable run. By the time each party’s machine spits out “electable” candidates, all but a few inspiring exceptions have been mashed into homogeneous shapes. To behave intelligently as a group, we need leaders who bring the same range of backgrounds and ideas to their work as the voters who choose among them.
  2. Encourage free competition among ideas: Instead of focusing on policy, campaigns spend their energies stirring up controversy. Advertising is sold at millionaire-only rates with no meaningful standard of truth. Media “news and commentary” outlets say next-to-nothing about ideas, shouting instead about who tripped over words or spent donated money on clothing. Along with election reform, we need media reform that supports independent and factual journalism so each candidate’s ideas—not the fears conjured up by his or her campaign—can compete.
  3. Use an effective mechanism to narrow choices: Paperless electronic voting machines, sadly still in use in many areas, are not an “effective mechanism.” They are difficult to use and voters can’t see whether their choices have been recorded correctly. Election officials can’t verify the count is accurate or conduct a recount. Vendors who sell the machines have resisted independent security and reliability tests, which isn’t surprising since the machines are easy to hack and prone to failure. In every recent election, electronic voting machine breakdowns have resulted in miscounts and losses of votes large enough to decide the outcome of specific races. In other words, to invoke the name of an organization that recently rolled back use of these machines in the Netherlands: We Do Not Trust Voting Computers.

To help protect our democracy, Quixote Foundation is seeking creative ways to elevate leaders from all sectors of society. We’re putting money into media reform and into the Election Verification Network, an informal group of organizations and activists who promote effective solutions for recording, counting and verifying each vote. Personally we think the best solution is a good old-fashioned paper ballot and a counting process that favors accuracy over speed. As exciting as it is to hear Election Day results on the same evening’s news, it’s more important to get those results right.

What ever the ultimate voting mechanism is, we’re grateful for everyone working to build diverse leadership, develop independent media and ensure verified voting. THANK YOU!

Don’t forget to share your intelligence with the swarm: VOTE Tuesday, November 4th!

Read the full text of the article referenced here in the July 2007 National Geographic.

Be sure to check out Quixote Foundation’s anniversary web site. Chime in with a vow and you might even win some chocolate to go with your democracy.

—written by Keneta Anderson for Quixote Foundation