Guided Voting

Eugene Volokh has an interesting post about guided voting over at the Volokh Conspiracy (also discussed at Edward Felten’s Freedom to Tinker).

Guided voting already exists in basic form. I’m knowledgeable about a few political issues, but when it comes to local candidates or ballot initiatives outside my area of expertise I rely on party affiliation or endorsements from friends or organizations I trust to “tell” me how to vote.

Prof. Volokh’s point is that, like it or not, Internet voting will lead to a much greater role for guided voting. Today’s ballots have a candidate’s party affiliation printed on the ballot, but if I want to know how, say, the National Organization of Women feels about a candidate I need to do my homework in advance and bring a cheat sheet. Volokh paints a future where I could go to a trusted third-party site, say, and check off the organizations I would like to guide my vote. The website would then produce a suggested ballot that aggregates all the recommendations of the organizations I picked, possibly weighing organizations differently in case they conflict on a particular issue. Then with a single keystroke my suggested ballot could be filed. The advantage of such a system, so the argument goes, is that the influence currently held by our two main political parties would be diluted and the political process would become more diverse.

While I like the idea in principle, I think there are two improvements that could be made to Prof. Volokh’s scenario:

First, there is no reason to have a third-party gatekeeper such as More general and egalitarian would be for election boards to publish a standard XML ballot and then any interested party could publish their own itemized recommendations. I would be able to subscribe to recommendations from,, or even just like I currently subscribe to RSS feeds to read several blogs at once. Of course, a site like could still offer to host RSS or similar recommendation feeds for anyone who doesn’t have their own website.

Second, I am quite frightened by the concept of one-click voting. Behavioral psychologists have repeatedly shown that people will tend to do what an interface makes easy to do (see The Adaptive Decision Maker for a nice analysis). This is why there are heated debates about things like motor-voter registration and whether voting booths should allow a single lever to cast all votes for a single party, policies that would be no-brainers if changing the convenience of voting didn’t also change who votes and for what. Given that any change we make will affect how people act, I want the system to encourage thoughtful individual contributions to our democracy, not a constituency of sheep.

This is not to say there should be no voting guides at all, but rather that people should still be forced to actually see and touch every ballot measure, even if it is only to find and check the their favorite party nominee. Each ballot measure and candidate would be accompanied by labels representing endorsements by each guide the voter has chosen, possibly with links from the endorsement to a short argument explaining the group’s reasoning. Rather than follow an automatically aggregated recommendation, voters would judge for themselves who to follow on each individual issue. Voters might even choose guides from organizations with whom they explicitly disagree, either to vote against their measures or to see opposing viewpoints. This system would not be that much more inconvenient than the one-click voting Prof. Volokh suggests, but would insure individual voter involvement while still giving the main advantages of voting guides.