published: March 2, 2020 - last updated: February 2, 2024
Our current elections occur as discrete events with arbitrary deadlines and a fixed outcome. Changing that to instead make our elections adaptive or continuous could solve many of our political problems, and would work especially well when combined with other systems like Quadratic Voting (opens new window).
At any time, a polity would have some set of positions that were decided by elections. These positions could be for anything, even matters traditionally decided by representatives such as legislation or budgets. For now however we'll focus on political offices.
Rather than having scheduled elections, citizens could update their votes for any of the positions at any time. So for example, if Quadratic Voting was also being used, citizens would allocate their voting credits onto their desired candidates instead of spending them in elections.
With systems other than Quadratic Voting, another additional mechanism would be needed to determine which candidates were on the ballot, which would have to be resistant to "noise", such as would happen if some group flooded the ballot with nonsense candidates. Quadratic Voting wouldn't need any additional mechanisms, since the limited number of credits would make flooding the selection set prohibitively expensive.
To prevent rapid switches of power if there was a narrow margin between two candidates, some stabilization mechanism would be needed. An apparent mechanism is a "stable period" wherein a newly winning candidate would have to maintain their advantage for some period of time before they officially took power. The length of that stable period could be decided in many ways, here are two simple ones:
The stable period would reset if a newly winning candidate lost their advantage before the period had elapsed.
Neutralizes some hacks in Quadratic Voting.
Consider a hypothetical posed by Vitalik Buterin on the 80,000 Hours Podcast (opens new window), where some majority can casually but repeatedly propose a measure that is harmful to some minority, in the process exhausting their credits and eventually preventing them from stopping the measure.
Also, it's possible for some group of extremists to take advantage of an election where most people assume there will be a tolerable result and so don't participate highly in that election (opens new window).
An example of an election where this might actually happen is for director of some important but unglamorous administrative agency, such as the FCC or the patent office. It's easy to imagine some interested extremist group (such as executives of large telecom corporations) colluding to quietly hijack this particular election, and successfully seating an industry lackey for a long five years of market exploitation. In a normal discrete election, this could be a disastrous outcome, since the harmful candidate will likely take some arbitrary amount of time to be removed. Only a devastating torrent of public outcry and use of whatever recall or impeachment machinery exists could remove them before significant damage was done.
These are theoretical cases, and in practice they would likely even out and not happen terribly often. But since the consequences could be severe, it doesn't hurt to bolster the system to prevent them.
Allows "auto-pilot" democracy.
In our current discrete system, voter turnout is a critical issue. The time sensitivity of elections means that people who don't participate (or can't practically participate for whatever logistical reason) effectively have no voice in the democratic process. Outcomes chosen without them are virtually irrevocable for some arbitrary period of time, and these people just have to endure negative outcomes. In our nation, voter turnout is strongly correlated with socioeconomic class (opens new window), which exacerbates many of our deepest economic and social problems.
Since Adaptive Voting uncouples voting from some arbitrary schedule, it's much more likely that the poor can manage to arrange the time and resources to vote and fully express their views.
However, Adaptive Voting has an even better property: voter turnout becomes essentially a nonissue. If some concerned minority makes most of the electoral choices, and everyone else is perfectly fine with those choices, then the majority can simply not participate without worry. And if the concerned minority begins making harmful or foolish choices, the rest of society can easily override the minority before great harm is done.
The suggestion of auto-pilot democracy raises an interesting question. Which is better?
This question seems like an obvious one.
Avoids potential problems with long term strategizing.
If the scheduling of elections requires citizens to save their credits across elections in order to not exhaust them, then there are suddenly tricky long term strategies that aren't accounted for by the Quadratic Voting models. To avoid this, all elections in which some citizen might allocate votes would have to be synchronized to the same time period, which seems impractical.
A adaptive scheme neatly avoids this, and allows the political landscape to evolve over time. The messiness of reality is gracefully tolerated.
Reflects the reality that our political discourse and culture is continuous and not discrete.
Citizens don't form their opinions in episodic bursts of activity and then stop thinking about the matter. People are continuously talking, proposing ideas, persuading others, and shifting their beliefs. Adaptive Voting merely changes the process to reflect reality.
Decrease the tactical time sensitivity of elections.
There are numerous ways in which our discrete event elections produce perverse results. Election hangovers (Brexit), meme engineering (swiftboat veterans for truth), disinformation campaigns (pizzagate), and marketing blitzes by candidates (Bloomberg (opens new window)), are all excellent examples of situations where some artifact of an episodic election produces undesired results.
In Adaptive Voting, since the electorate can always update their preferences in real time based on the political landscape, the cost of strategically gaming an election is dramatically increased. A deluge of media appearances or advertisements may be able to elect a candidate, but they can't prevent the electorate from becoming dissatisfied with that candidate's performance and choosing someone else.
If some decentralized cryptographic system was used to administer Adaptive Voting, then the only logistical problem would be updating the network code to reflect the change. But to change our analog system would be difficult. Our electoral processes would have to be reworked essentially from the ground, and our culture and institutions would need time to adjust.
To fulfill the promise of making Adaptive Voting fair across class and socioeconomic divisions, each polity would need some highly accessible electoral office that was open almost all the time. This is a logistical challenge and would require some government employees to have dramatically different working schedules than most government employees are used to. The fine details of how Adaptive Voting could be instituted in practice is a deep one that deserves a future post.
And of course, Adaptive Voting would do nothing to solve the many existing problems with election transparency, accountability, and security. We already have immense trouble ensuring fair and efficient elections, and Adaptive Voting wouldn't change that fact.
With any exciting idea it's tempting to extrapolate how our current situation would change. But with mechanisms so transformative as Quadratic and Adaptive Voting, it's likely pointless to even compare our current reality to what we would have. The entrenchment (opens new window) of the two-party system (opens new window), closed (opens new window) party primaries (opens new window) with arcane rules (opens new window), spoiler candidates (opens new window), and all of the media-related problems discussed above are issues that would largely evaporate. The election dynamics would completely change, and all strategies politicians and institutions have adapted would also need to completely change. Quadratic Voting would make third party and independent candidates much more viable, and would dramatically decrease the tendency to strategically choose more extreme candidates in order to win elections. With the allowance of more nuance and idealogical diversity, the "us vs them" dynamic that's taken hold of our current discourse would be much less alluring.
Of course, some problems aren't so easily solved, even by large reforms. Intense prejudice or hatred by a large majority, pervasive misinformation and ignorance (opens new window) by large portions of the population, and sustained propaganda by for-profit media (opens new window) or antagonistic foreign intelligence agencies (opens new window) are all endemic problems that distort the very beliefs of the electorate.
But our best hope of defeating these problems is to transform our electoral processes to finally operate in a truly fair and democratic fashion. With a strong foundation of democratic legitimacy, it would be more difficult to fracture and mislead a populace who has resigned any hope of actually exercising political power. With our current processes, it's difficult to fault people who distrust institutions and clamor for anyone with some semblance of confidence who promises to remedy the situation. Actual representation will go a long way towards changing our political culture, and therefore every other facet of our society.