Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Quick Pick Voting vs. the Budget Ballot

While exploring the blogosphere for commentary on the ongoing minimum wage debate, I stumbled upon an article by Chris Lawrence on the Outside the Beltway blog entitled Go Vote, Win $1 Million. The article discussed an Arizona ballot initiative that qualified for the November 2006 ballot which will use unclaimed state lottery money to award one lucky voter a million dollars. I'd heard about this a short time earlier while watching The Daily Show with John Stewart, and I surprised myself by actually reading all the way through Lawrence's article.

As far as the larger issue of the potential benefits of attracting more voters to the polls and the related issue of whether those voters would be stupid voters, I can honestly say that I could care less. However, in discussing the scheme of wooing voters to the polls with cash-based rewards, Lawrence pointed to the fact that voting is an activity that is no more rewarding than playing the lottery. This is something that I have a very hard time explaining to people who just don't get it, so Lawrence had me hooked, all the way through to the end of the article, and as I started reading through the comments, I found myself laughing out loud when I read the second comment (written by one "spacemonkey"):
"I wonder how many will walk in and just ask for the quick pick."
Glibness aside, the act of voting is possibly one of the most pointless things that a citizen can do, particularly if there is no one or no issue on the ballot that said citizen has a vested interest in. As such, the time that someone spends voting and/or educating him-or-herself about the issues and people on the ballot would be better spent buying a lottery ticket. If you win the lottery, that's time and money well spent; if you succeed in voting in your candidate, he or she's the one who wins.

In terms of the individual voter, voting is largely a symbolic act. And speaking as a libertarian, I find voting very depressing and disturbing -- and not just because my candidate usually stands no chance of winning. What I find depressing and disturbing about voting is the fact that every time I cast a vote, I am validating a system that I do not believe in. However, one idea for reform that I had many years ago still makes me think that there is a way to make voting both meaningful and valuable to the individual voter. It's called "The Budget Ballot."

During my first year at UC Davis Law School ("King Hall"), I proposed the Budget Ballot as a transitionary tool between government bureaucracy and libertarian privatization. I got the idea from the one dollar contribution for the presidential election fund on my tax return. However, my idea was fundamentally different in that the members of the voting franchise (as opposed to taxpayers) would decide how the money was spent. Nine out of ten people that I spoke to initially thought that this was a great idea.

During my second year of law school, the Smith vs. Regents decision was handed down, which proscribed the university from allocating or spending student fees on activities that included partisan political speech and/or activism. To my amazement and surprise, the Law Student Association (LSA) at King Hall decided to hold a Budget Ballot all on its own. (I have no idea where they got the idea, so I can't take credit for it.) Law students were given a list of the student organizations chartered by the law school and given the opportunity to allocate the "voluntary" portion of their then $16 student fee to the organizations of their choice.

The results were astounding: First of all, several "unpopular" student groups emerged with a hidden constituency; second, a surprising number of law students -- about half -- voted for the option of letting their student fees be allocated to various student groups by their elected student representatives. In other words, it was a win-win situation for everyone -- or so it seemed: The law school administration would not let the referendum be carried out. Nonetheless, the results of the Budget Ballot carried great persuasive weight in future LSA budgeting decisions.

IMHO, the Budget Ballot would be an excellent default position for any level of government, provided that legislative override or veto was permitted. With a budget ballot, citizens could allocate their per capita share of tax revenue to the programs that they would like to see funded, skipping the intermediate step of letting their elected representatives make these decisions. Conservative hawks could use the budget ballot to vote for military spending; liberals could use it to support social welfare programs; libertarians (like myself) could use it to reduce the national debt. The only programs that would get no funding whatsoever would be those programs that absolutely no one wants in the first place.

The Budget Ballot would give disgruntled individuals a meaningful voice in the allocation of community funds, so (as the old saying goes) those who don't vote would no longer have a reason to complain. And by virtue of the fact that many people would probably leave budgeting decisions to their elected officials, this would give leeway to said elected individuals to fund those "worthwhile" programs that no one is interested in funding. Beyond this, elected officials could be given the right to override or veto the results of the Budget Ballot.

Not all my feedback about the Budget Ballot has been positive. Many people mistrust the "uninformed public" to make decisions that are "best left to well-informed elected officials" (an oxymoron, at best). Still others believe that government funding is inherently "too complex" for direct democracy, that (for example) a Budget Ballet could not accomodate the long-term commitments necessary for many government programs. These objections, however, are not peculiar to direct democracy, and I have (as yet) to hear a specific objection made as to why the Budget Ballot would not work, at least on a small scale.

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