April 13, 2024

Two cheers for limited democracy in New Jersey

When I voted last week in Princeton, New Jersey, here were the choices I faced, all on one “page”:

I had to vote in 7 contests, total: for Senator, Congress(wo)man, County board, County board unexpired term, City council, Statewide referendum, School board.  Put another way, I had to select 13 choices out of 27 options (not counting write-in options).  The ballot is so short because: New Jersey elects its governor and legislature in odd-numbered years, does not have initiative-and-referendum by petition, does not elect judges.

In contrast, a voter in Los Angeles was given a 76-page packet, in which the 9-page ballot contained optical-scan bubbles to fill in.  The voter had to select 55 choices out of 229 options.

The founders of our democracy designed a Constitution in which (at the Federal level) voters elect representatives and executives who pass legislation, nominate and confirm judges, and so on.  That is, we have limited democracy, in the sense that it is representative.  But some States, especially California, ask voters to decide legislative questions (“propositions”) and elect judges.  Political scientists and informed citizens debate whether that’s a good idea.

Here I’ll consider a particular aspect of that constitutional difference:  Auditability of elections.  It is a clear scientific consensus, and it is becoming a consensus among the citizenry and the States, that we should vote with paper ballots that are recountable by human inspection, and we should have random audits by human inspection of (a random sample of) those paper ballots, just to make sure the voting machines are not malfunctioning or cheating.

Random audits take time, effort, and money–not an enormous cost, but not trivial either.  The cost and difficulty of risk-limiting audits surely increases as the number of contests on the ballot increases.  Auditing New Jersey’s 7 contests (more or less, in different towns) will not be very difficult.  Auditing Los Angeles’s 52 contests will be quite a chore.  Surely that’s one argument for keeping the ballot short.

In practice, risk-limiting audits of California elections are likely to be done in such a way that Federal, statewide, and countywide contests are checked to a specified risk limit (perhaps 5%), but on all ballots examined, all contests are audited.  That will audit many more contests to a risk limit that is not predetermined, and may or may not be small, but will at least be reported as a result of the audit.  In that manner, even LA’s long ballot can be audited.

Why only “two cheers” for New Jersey?  Well, in New Jersey we have “limited democracy” in a different form as well:  we use paperless direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines.  The computers in those machine get to decide what to report about the buttons we pressed, and there are no paper ballots to recount.  We have delegated our representation to whomever was the last to install a computer program in those machines, whether legimitately or illegitimately.  Surely that’s not what the founders intended by “representative democracy.”




  1. fjohn reinke says

    The Pepuls Republik of Nu Jerzee shouldn’t bother with elections. Just have an auction for the highest bid!