One Step – Write-In Voting Proposal for Electoral Change in America

Well, folks, it’s almost that time again! Election season is in full swing, and it won’t be long until 60% of eligible American voters abstain from voting!

We hear a lot about America being divided into Red and Blue states, but states don’t walk into a booth and cast a vote; people do. Or they don’t, as they case seems to be.

This is what the 2008 presidential election results looked like on a county level, and with just two candidates to choose from, the colors run from hemorrhagic red to hypothermic blue, with lots of purple mixed in there to remind us that, hey, we’re not so different after all.

2012 Election Results photo 640px-ElectionMapPurpleCounty_zps4e21f32a.png

Below is a map more familiar to most voters, the results of the 2008 presidential election. It shows all of those millions of individual voters aggregated into states and assigned a color based on two factors: the majority of votes cast in that state, and the candidate the electors chose. Where’s all the purple? Where are all the individual voices? In this system, states speak; people don’t.

blah blah

What neither of these maps show, however, is how many people didn’t vote at all. In 2008, there were 45 million eligible voters who failed to show up to the polls. The United States Census Bureau wanted to know why, so they conducted an in-depth survey to ask these people why they chose to stay home on Election Day.

Interestingly, the survey divided up non-voters into two categories: voters who registered but didn’t cast a vote, and eligible voters who didn’t register at all. Among registered voters who failed to show up to the polls (15 million people), 26.4% just plain weren’t interested because they didn’t like the candidates. Other responses, like “too busy,” “forgot,” and “out of town” indicate some level of disenfranchisement or disconnectedness from the process. After all, being “too busy” is just another way of saying “voting wasn’t on my priority list;” absentee ballots exist for the very purpose of allowing out-of-town voters to cast a ballot; and “forgot”…that speaks for itself. This combination of disenfranchisement and apathy accounts for over 8 million souls.

Among eligible voters who didn’t even bother to register (30 million people), a majority of respondents said they either weren’t interested or they knew their vote wouldn’t make a difference.

I’m no mathematician, but that’s over 24 million people who specifically avoided voting because they were convinced it wasn’t important enough for them to do so. 24 million American citizens who are so disconnected from the democratic process that they refuse to take part in a pivotal national election. Let that sink in.

Why does any of this matter? If people choose to sit at home, to not exercise their right to have a say in the political process (a right that many people around the world would literally die for, are dying for), that’s their problem. They are disenfranchising themselves, after all. Right?

Kind of. You see, Americans disapprove of Congress more than at any time in history (a whopping 15% approve of the job Congress is doing), and that disapproval is, according to recent polling done by Gallup, nonpartisan. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican…you simply do not trust Congress. And let’s be clear, here: Congress is made up of human beings, and these are perhaps the only human beings Americans prefer to be sitting at home collecting unemployment than to be working. One-fifth (22%) of all poll respondents said the best course of action is to simply throw them all out and start over with a fresh new batch.

Is there such a batch available to voters, though? Or has the system fallen so far down the rabbit hole that voting for “the other guy” is, as my Nana would have said, about as useful as tits on a boar? There is plenty of precedent in recent American history for a wholesale throwing-out of the current political party and bringing in a group with different ideas. How has that worked out for us so far? Did the 2010 endorsement of the Tea Party candidates make anything better? How about in 2006 or in 1994 when one party was exchanged with another due to dissatisfaction with the nation’s trajectory? This method has proven not to work to produce the kind of results people hope for when they cast their votes.

What options do we have? We can’t vote for the other guy (aka, the lesser of two evils) and expect things to change. Doesn’t work. We can’t just abstain from voting and wait for the fruits of our non-efforts. First, 45 million of us already do that, to no avail. And second, if that worked to inspire positive change in the voting system, we’d have the greatest representatives the world has ever seen (considering we have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the world). What we need is another alternative…a way to let our frustration with the current system be known without playing into the system we are frustrated with. What we need, my friends, is a write-in campaign.

The Plan – Using the Write-In Option

Ballots differ slightly among jurisdictions, but a basic ballot looks like this. There is an oft-ignored but ever-present option available to write in your preferred candidate, assuming that person is not present on the ballot.

Write In Ballot Pic

The write-in option has been utilized with some amount of success in the past to elect candidates into office. But amassing enough support to elect a write-in candidate nationally is tough, and the write-in option is as likely to be used to vote for “Lizard People” as to vote for “Ron Paul.”

I don’t advocate using the Write-In option to vote for a particular candidate. Instead, I advocate using the Write-In option as a way to officially make known our dissatisfaction with Congress. Voting as a method of protest. Voting as an act of civil disobedience. Voting as a way to change the country for the better…who would have thunk it?

Here’s how it works:

On Election Day, we walk into the voting booth. We skip over the Republican Party candidate, the Democratic Party candidate, the Libertarian Party candidate, the Green Party candidate, and the Independent candidate, and head straight for the Write-In option. In the blank provided, we write “One Step.”

Why write “One Step”? What does it mean?

“Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” – Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” 1849

“One Step” is both symbolic and concrete. It is a clear statement that Americans are taking the first of many steps to achieve the kind of government that will command our respect. By writing in this common message instead of casting a vote for another politician we know won’t properly and honestly represent us, we are sending a strong message to the powers-that-be that we will no longer take part in a system that isn’t working in our best interests.

Sounds nice, but how does writing in “One Step” change anything?

Writing “One Step” shows solidarity…a solidarity that is sorely lacking in our politics today. It displays strength in numbers, which, with 316 million Americans and counting, is by far our biggest asset. The current two-party system serves to divide Americans into competing factions, pitting us against one another, hiding the forest of our commonalities within the trees of our differences. When 85% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, it’s clear that the issues Americans feel are most important go beyond partisanship. What if that 85% all refused to vote for a single congressional candidate, instead writing in “One Step”? The message that very simple act would send would be more powerful than any vote for any candidate you’ve ever cast.

So that’s one step. What’s the next step?

While there are millions of voters who are apathetic or convinced their vote doesn’t matter and thus abstain from voting, there are millions more who are legitimately disenfranchised by all of the institutional hurdles they must jump over to cast a vote. Then, once they cast a vote, their voice is swept up in the Red or Blue parade and assigned a value according to whatever importance their state holds in the electoral college. Comparatively speaking, the United States voter turnout rate is far lower than most other established democracies.

For democracy to be most effective, citizens must be actively engaged in their government. The American political system has been designed, in a myriad of ways, to limit voter turnout. Other countries have higher voter turnouts, not because they’re just so much more democratic than we are, but because they use a combination of tactics to increase turnout (Election Day is either held on a weekend or is made into a national holiday; same-day voter registration makes meeting registration deadlines a thing of the past; online voting makes it easier for people with limited transportation options to cast a vote). In the Census Bureau survey I mentioned above, I specifically noted the number of apathetic voters, but I glossed over the other millions of Americans who may have voted had it been easier to do so (accounting for 38.5%, or almost 6 million registered voters, and just shy of 40%, or 11.6 million non-registered voters).

Institutional disenfranchisement is a real problem, but it can be fixed with a few tweaks of the law. As this study shows, states that have an Election Day registration option have significantly and consistently higher voter turnout than states that do not allow same-day voter registration. Understanding that hurdles like these exist, we can work to dismantle them, effectively enlarging the voice of the American people, of each American.

I advocate utilizing the write-in option in every single national election until these changes are made. We need not take part in a system that no longer represents us, that actively disenfranchises us, and that pits us against each other. By writing in “One Step,” you are taking the first step towards a solution.

I, like you, feel like I’m not being properly represented by Congress, but I can’t just not vote for a candidate. Doing so means that the fate of the election will be decided by a small portion of the population.

Unfortunately, it already is. During the 2012 presidential elections, 43.5% of voting-age Americans refused to cast a vote. The average congressional mid-term election sees 60% of Americans staying at home. And, even worse, local elections feature a whopping 75% of Americans abstaining from the ballot box. The fate of our nation is being decided by a smaller and smaller slice of the population, despite the immense challenges we face today.

By continuing to do the same thing you’ve always done (casting a vote for the lesser of two evils), you are ensuring that this disappointing and undemocratic trend will continue. By the simple act of writing in “One Step” instead of casting a vote for a politician, you are effecting real, substantial change. You are making democracy work.

There are lots more problems than just low voter turnout. What about money in politics? What about the two-party system? What about state and local elections?

All of these issues are important, and all can be addressed within the One Step movement.

Money in Politics

One Step believes that numbers are what should count in elections, not dollars. A Reuters survey from 2012 found that 75% of Americans feel there is too much money in politics, and 76% feel that money in politics allows the rich to have a greater voice than the average American. Just like there are numerous ways to increase voter turnout numbers, there are numerous ways to ensure that, in the future, numbers matter more than dollars. One Step acknowledges the feeling of the majority of our fellow Americans, and we aim to be a leader in the effort to rid our election process of the corrupting influence of money.

Two-Party System

The two-party system is a direct result of our plurality, first-past-the-post, ‘to the winner belongs the spoils’ voting system. It is not a matter of convincing enough Americans to vote for a third party…just like with voter turnout, there are institutional hurdles that have been erected to make sure the two party system remains entrenched. These can, and should be, dismantled to ensure that more voices are represented. One Step aims to foster a dialogue on this issue and propose solutions that will serve to increase the number of Americans who feel their views are being adequately represented (only 15% of Americans surveyed in 2010 felt the two-party system was doing so).

State and Local Elections

The voter turnout rate for local elections is, by any measure, abysmal (the rate for state elections is affected by the national turnout rate, since state elections are held on national Election Day and presented on the same ballot). The outcome of local and state elections presumably affects the lives of Americans more directly than national elections, from potholes to parks and schools to clean drinking water. Despite this intimate relationship between peoples’ day-to-day lives and the local and state elected officials entrusted to plan, build, and maintain these services, most eligible voters choose not to take part in electing who will direct these vital subjects (one study of 340 mayoral races around the country found that the average voter turnout was 25%).

Most media attention is directed more towards national elections than state and local elections, so it is no wonder that people turn out to vote accordingly (when they turn out to vote at all). It is the belief of One Step that when confidence rises in government at the national level, that celebration of democracy will manifest itself in local elections. People will want to get involved and stay involved, because they will see that their involvement, no matter how small, makes a difference. Conversely, when people demand that their local government be responsive and representative of the community, that expectation will filter itself up to the state and federal levels. All levels of government will be affected positively by the One Step movement.

The State of Nevada has a “None of the Above” option on their ballots. If this kind of thing worked, Nevada should have a far more representative government than the other 49 states, but it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work for one state, how will it work for the United States?

It’s true that Nevada’s ballots feature a “None of the Above” option, the only state ballots to do so. When chosen, it acts as a protest vote…a way of showing the voter’s disapproval for all candidates appearing on the ballot. So, what happens if a majority of voters choose “None of the Above”? Does the candidate selection process begin anew, requiring new candidates to appear on a future ballot? Does the office remain vacant until the next election cycle, or until a new election is held?

None of the above. (See what I did there?) The next-highest vote-getter is selected as the winner. Voting for “None of the Above” has literally zero effect on the outcome of the election.

Nevada’s “None of the Above” system doesn’t work to create a more representative government because it’s not designed to create a more representative government. It does not serve as precedent for this movement.

Let’s be crazy here and say that One Step carries the day throughout the country and not a single congressional candidate receives a majority of the votes. What happens next?

American congressional elections are characterized as a plurality-majority system. What this means is that the candidate who garners the most votes wins regardless of if they win a majority of the votes. When there are only two candidates vying for an office, a majority is easy enough to get…just get one more vote than the other guy, and you’re in! When there are three or more candidates running for the same office, however, it becomes less likely that one will receive 50.1% of the votes. In that case, the candidate who received the most votes (a plurality), wins.

On Election Day, millions of Americans skip the proffered candidates and write in “One Step.” The beauty of this idea is that, regardless of whether One Step actually wins the election, the message will be received. One Step will be recorded as receiving x% of the vote. It will have made its voice heard, it will have made its presence known.

If One Step achieves a plurality, though…if One Step actually wins the election, what happens next? It’s unclear how the electoral system will handle this outcome as it has never happened before. Certainly, write-in candidates have won plenty of elections in the past, but those candidates happened to be, you know, human beings. The most likely outcome (since procedures are already in place in case of resignation, impeachment, or death) is that a special election will be held sometime before the newly elected representatives take office in early January.

Let’s say you’re Candidate Jane Moneybags and you’re running against Candidate Joe Greedman for a seat in the House of Representatives. The election results come in, and both of you lose to One Step, which receives a plurality of the vote. One Step (i.e., the American people), in solidarity, in one voice, has just stated loudly and clearly that it demands better representation, a dismantling of the institutional roadblocks that have been put in place to make voting harder than it should be, and a legislative body that represents people instead of dollar bills. Not only does One Step demand that, but not a single vote will be cast for a single congressional candidate until it happens. Would you, Candidate Jane Moneybags, all of a sudden be all ears? How about you, Candidate Greedman? Would you feel keenly motivated to push for those very legislative changes that One Step proposes? You would if you wanted to ever wanted to hold elected office again.

This is why One Step works. It puts pressure upon our representatives and would-be representatives to listen to the voice of the American people, which is calling in unison for better, fairer, more responsive elected officials. Let’s say on November 4, not a single soul writes in One Step and either Candidate Moneybags or Candidate Greedman wins the day. What would incentivize them to make the electoral process fairer and easier for Americans to take part in? Why would they opt to change the very system that got them elected when, no matter what they do, people will still cast a vote for one or the other?

When people stop playing into a system that is designed to be unrepresentative and unresponsive, when people stop rewarding candidates who have no desire to make the system more representative and responsive, that’s when you will see real change.

Who is behind One Step? Who is funding One Step?

As of now, just me. I’m a 32 year old female who grew up in a suburb of Dallas. I studied politics as an undergrad (receiving a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas in Government & Politics), and received a Master’s degree in International Political History from Southern Methodist University. Aside from studying politics in school, I worked at the local, state, and federal levels during my professional career. In school I learned the theory, or the way government should work; in my career, I learned the reality.

Growing up, I was taught that you can let the world change you, or you can change the world. I prefer the latter. I saw the reality of our political system at all levels of government, and it was, in a word, disconcerting. And so I’ve constantly asked myself: how can I make it better? How can WE make it better?

One Step is my proposal for how we can make it better. I hope you’ll join me in spreading this idea far and wide. I believe it’s time has come.

Election Map used above created and published”ElectionMapPurpleCounty” by Mark Newman – Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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