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Unhack the vote: How the vote got hacked and what we can do about it

Updated: May 12


This is part of our ongoing series dedicated to strengthening our vote. We explore ways to answer these questions:


  • Do you wonder how the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a symptom of a much deeper problem?

  • Do you wonder how our political system could change to address the problem?

  • Do you wonder what the Founding Generation would think of our current political system?

  • Do you wonder how social media distorts our political system?

  • Do you wonder how our own brains contribute to the problem?


This article and others found in our Empower Your Vote series answer these questions.


Before we discuss (un)hacking the vote, we need to explore the environment that provides motivational incentives to hack the vote in the first place. 


About the author: Jeff Hulett is a behavioral economist and a decision scientist. He is an executive with the Definitive Companies. Jeff teaches personal finance and the decision sciences at James Madison University. Jeff is an author and his latest book is Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions. His experience includes senior leadership roles in banking and bank risk consulting. Jeff holds advanced degrees in finance, mathematics, and economics. Jeff and his family live in the Washington D.C. area.


Political disclosure: Please see the author's political disclosure and business profile.

 

Innovators need the vote

 

Innovation is how our society improves. Without innovation, we would still be in the stone age and struggle to survive. The market economy is the way by which resources are distributed for innovation. But it was ultimately the innovators that enabled the innovations. Individuals can be found along a risk and return continuum. Some of us are willing to take risks. These are risks enabling invention, innovation, and creating solutions to improve humanity. Many of us wish to improve humanity. The challenge is a matter of the degree to which an individual is willing to absorb that humanity-improving innovation risk.


Some societal improvements require great risk, energy, effort, and creativity to do what is necessary to improve humanity. Humanities’ large improvements are the domain of the world‘s great innovators. In many ways, the success of the United States links back to the American legal and capitalistic social environment. This environment taps into humanity's natural creativity and encourages society to innovate.  That environment includes risk-encouraging backstops for those willing to take significant risks. Those backstops include risk-mitigating bankruptcy laws, limited liability organizing structures, and tax incentives. For capturing the returns of great societal innovations, the U.S. capital formation environment includes investment banks, hedge funds, venture capital, and angel investors. 


The great inventor and innovator Thomas Edison is credited with saying:


"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."


It is perspiration that relates to the risk of innovation.

 

But many, if not most people are just not wired with the innovators’ higher risk and return mindset.  They may not have grown up in an innovation-encouraging environment.  Many are uncomfortable with taking outsized risks and absorbing uncertainty. They would rather have a known life where hard work is rewarded by a fair salary.  People are found on a risk-return willingness and ability spectrum.  It doesn’t mean one cannot change, but everyone is located somewhere on the risk-return spectrum at any given point in time. As a result, this creates a natural tension. Since we have a single set of laws, how do lawmakers maintain a balance?  Lawmakers need to provide for those found somewhere on the risk-taking vs. risk-averse spectrum. Each end of the spectrum is anchored by:

  1. Those willing to take risks to achieve great innovation and

  2. Those benefiting from innovation, are employed by innovators, but are less desiring of the risks and uncertainty associated with innovation.

 

For about 200 years, the US mediated the natural tension found in that social environment with our vote. This means our elected representatives, whether the President, Congresspeople, and state and local representatives were elected with the incentive to find an innovator’s balance. They recognized that the needs of the risk-averse majority needed to be balanced with the societal benefits provided for by those with an innovators’ risk-taker mindset. For about 200 years - from 1776 to 1972 - America was able to find that balance with the broad-based vote.

 

1972 was the year our founders rolled over in their graves

 

Then, in the early 1970s that environmental balance significantly changed. That 200-year balance changed by the skewing of voting power toward the minority and away from the majority. With the increasing minority power, it also increased a class of people benefiting from the innovation but not necessarily innovating and creating societal benefits. Economists refer to these people as rent-seekers.


What caused the big change impacting the power of our vote? 

 

The McGovern-Fraser Commission's recommendation to implement America’s primary and caucus system is what happened. This well-intended change to our voting system is a root cause of diminishing the power of our vote as well as creating an increasingly unequal and unfair society. [i-a]

 

Why the primary and caucus system creates wealth inequality is relatively straightforward. Before the primary caucus system, it was the parties that filtered candidates seeking public office.  The purpose of the party filtering system is to ensure those running for office are:

  • qualified, 

  • represent the needs of the majority electorate, as well as 

  • best represent the political philosophy of the party. 


The party candidate filtering system is focused on which candidate is most likely to win in a general election. 

 

The primary and caucus candidate filtering system (“P&C system”) is different. The P&C system incentives are for candidates to win the party nomination by appealing to the most extreme 5% or so of society. Today federal elections are won and lost in the primaries and caucuses. The breadth of political ideas and choices, which were formerly available to the majority, is now sculpted by the most extreme minority interests of our society. Those candidates best able to sway high-powered minority interest groups are those who succeed in representing their party in the general election.  That sway often results in politician capture by high-powered minority interest groups. The general election provides the veneer of an egalitarian vote. The reality is, that the P&C system skews much of the voting power to the most extreme minority interest groups of society.  The P&C System is where the majority's ideas and choices go to die at the hands of the minority.


It is the great minority monied interests that can afford to sway the candidates. The minority includes risk-takers providing for our great innovations, but it also includes the already wealthy seeking to protect their wealth, the capital providers, and rent seekers who benefit from the great minority. Minority power attracts minority interests to govern the majority.


In the P&C system, the needs of the majority are much less relevant for a candidate seeking office. Voting power and candidate funding have been consolidated to minority interests. While unseemly, the great minority are behaving rationally given their environmental incentives. From their standpoint, they are just playing by the rules to win a competitive game. If they did not play by the rules, someone else would beat them by playing by the rules. If we want a different outcome, it is time to change the game's rules and revitalize the vote. 


Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said:


“The genius of the American constitutional system is the dispersal of power,” he said. “Once power is centralized in one person, or one part [of government], a Bill of Rights is just words on paper.”

 

Scalia points to another, more scary outcome of our hacked vote. The consolidation of power afforded by the hacked vote will lead to the undoing of our democracy. As it stands today, America's three branches of government are slowly being reduced to two. Power is being consolidated in the executive and judicial branches, with the legislative branch becoming increasingly marginalized. Congressional polarization and gridlock lead to marginalization. There is a reason why presidents increasingly issue executive orders and the Supreme Court increases its legal oversight... it is because Congress is weakening.


All this - started in 1972


How do we know McGovern-Fraser is a root cause for hacking our vote?


Upon reviewing the data, there is an obvious correlation between:


1. Pre-and post-1972 both in terms of the likelihood of Congresspeople to vote along party lines [i-b], and 


2. The increasing wealth inequality in the United States [ii]

 

Historically, major legislation based on significant societal needs has been more likely to receive bipartisan support across political parties. For example,


  • The 1964 law authorizing the Civil Rights Act, a program preventing discrimination in public affairs and federally-assisted programs, received 64% Democratic party-based legislative support and 80% Republican party-based legislative support.

  • The 1965 law authorizing Medicare, a medical care program for older Americans, received 84% Democratic party-based legislative support and 49% Republican party-based legislative support.


More recently, major legislation has been less likely to receive bipartisan support. Today lawmakers are more likely to vote along party lines, also known as "party unity" voting.


For example,

  • The 2010 law authorizing the Affordable Care Act, a program providing medical insurance coverage for most Americans, received 89% Democratic party-based legislative support and 0% Republican party-based legislative support.


While these are notable examples, the operative questions are:

  1. When did the decline in bipartisanship occur?

  2. What was the catalyst that changed how lawmakers vote?

  3. Across all legislation, how powerful is this catalyst?


The 1972 McGovern-Fraser Commission candidate selection rules change is that catalyst. Please see this article for background:



Of course, if political infighting, annoying commercials, and self-important political theater were the only outcome of the P&C system, it would not be such a big deal. But there is a direct line between how our government functions and income and wealth inequality across our society.

 

Nibbling around the edges

 

The challenge is that today we nibble around the edges of fixing this problem. There are several modestly funded non-profits focused on ending gerrymandering, implementing campaign finance reform, enacting rank choice voting, and related initiatives. Those initiatives focus on the symptoms of our hacked voting system. Addressing symptoms does help mediate the two-party oligopoly and the hacked voting system. However, these symptoms are not the root cause. Where systemic incentives are concerned, water will find its own level. If one symptom gets remediated, the powerful minority will just find another path to consolidate power.


Focusing on voting symptoms is like playing a never-ending and never-winning game of whack-a-mole. Focusing on the voting symptoms is like addressing a brain hemorrhage with dim lights and an aspirin.


For background on how the two dominant political parties maintain oligopolistic power, please see:


 

If America wishes to return to the intentions of the founding generation, where those men and women shed blood and lost lives in a courageous fight to protect our vote, then we need to take back our vote.

 

The Undoing Project - How to undo the voting hack


The next graphic shows a perspective on how to change our system from the inside. Systems are just a set of rules. Change the rules and you change system outcomes. This is a different approach. We do not discuss hot-button issues like the health system, guns, or immigration. We consider those as unfortunate symptoms. Sadly, those symptoms may be leveraged for political theater. While addressing these concerns could be helpful, we consider them as addressing symptoms .... not the systemic root cause itself.

Take back the vote

We offer a political system's view and solutions to help resolve America's legislative branch systemic vote-weakening crisis. If we correct the system's rules, the symptomatic issues will naturally improve.


Political systems are tricky. We live in them so we naturally come to embrace them as "normal." Even if we recognize something is wrong, it is a challenge to understand how to change the system. We also naturally align ourselves with the systems of our life. Our biology is geared toward tribalism. Our tribalistic nature desires affiliation. This systemic affiliation may make us feel like we are somehow being disloyal when questioning a system. Frankly, our politicians leverage this feeling of loyalty.


As it stands today - a minority of political party insiders with little incentive to change are controlling the very large group of normal people that are desperate for change.

In our article, Your vote does not matter as much as it should! we address our weakening vote as the systemic root cause keeping us from making effective legislative branch-enabled changes. In this article, we address America's founders' intent regarding political parties, consider our own neurobiology, and investigate the impact of social media. We discuss "game theory" and how economists consider system or "game" rules to determine game theoretical equilibrium outcomes. Armed with this context, we then explore the 1972 McGovern-Fraser Commission recommendation to implement the primary and caucus system. We show how the primary and caucus system is the great unintended catalyst enabling political parties to cede our voting power for over 50 years. We show how the voting system created by McGovern-Fraser has elements of biological systems leading to cancer. We present the data that clearly shows the party-line congressional voting changes after the primary and caucus system was implemented.

primary and caucus system

We need to take our vote back. James Madison, John Adams, and the other founders fought to make our vote the cornerstone of our society. The vote is the foundation of a well-functioning democracy. A strengthened vote enables:


  • Accountability of our elected officials to consider, debate, and implement new laws to strengthen the U.S. and

  • Reduce the divisiveness impacting our legislative branch's effectiveness.


In a 2020 article by the Brookings Institution [iii], they suggested an approach to recast the primary and caucus system. The recommended approach enables the parties to act as a means of quality control. The parties would serve to vet the candidates to ensure they are fit for the primary or caucus process. This seems like a reasonable root cause-focused suggestion. It aligns with the balancing system architecture such as our 3 branches of the federal government or our bicameral legislature.


“[T]wo filters are better than one. Electoral and professional perspectives check each other’s excesses and balance each other’s viewpoints[.]”

Political systems reinforce general social inequality.  Political systems and general social inequality are like two sides of the same coin. Their interaction creates a reinforcing feedback loop. Those politicians with motive and opportunity to increase the power and wealth of the political party participants change rules causing more income inequality for the general population. Robert Solow, the Nobel laureate economist said:


"Great wealth attracts great political power and a society that tolerates extremes in inequality of wealth also tolerates extreme differences in political activity and political power.... It’s the interplay between economic inequality and political inequality. You start with some economic inequality. It generates political inequality. Well, the holders of political power, the beneficiaries of that political inequality, are going to pass laws and cultivate customs that help themselves."

The following graphic demonstrates the feedback loop between political and social inequality. It also shows the starting point for increasing political inequality and the reinforcing of social inequality. It all began in 1972 with the McGovern-Fraser Commission's recommendation to create the caucus and primary system.


It is time to change the rules and take our vote back. The horrifying scene from the January 6th, 2021 attack provided a powerful warning shot:


"If we do not change the rules from the inside, they will be changed for us by those disaffected from the outside."


Changing the rules from the inside will not be easy. The Republicans and Democrats are incentivized to keep things just as they are. They have consolidated their power by reducing the majority vote power. Plus, the political parties are outside the government's checks and balances system to provide for what Justice Scalia called "The genius of the American constitutional system." In many ways, the political parties are like the fox guarding the hen house. James Madison was certainly correct in being very afraid of political parties. It would seem his worst nightmare has come true. Ideas for overcoming the political party hold over our vote are provided in the article:



Notes


[i-a] For more information on the McGovern-Fraser Commission recomendation, please see section 3: "The Building of our Political System and a Call for Vote Strengthening" in:


Hulett, Your vote does not matter as much as it should!, The Curiosity Vine, 2022


[i-b] Vital Statistics on Congress, Chapter 8, 8-3 Party Unity Votes in Congress, 1953 - 2016 (percentage of all votes)


[ii] World Inequality Database (WID), access 5/9/2024


Wealth inequality and income inequality are different. Income inequality was chosen to demonstrate the McGovern-Fraser impact - with the expectation it is likely to lead to wealth inequality at some point. Income inequality is a direct effect of changing laws and tax incentives impacting innovator / non-innovator balance. Income is an immediate flow from those environmental changes, whereas wealth is a more stable stock subject to inertia and compensating income sources. For example, if someone is already wealthy and their annual income decreases, they have other sources of income from their accumulated wealth. If someone is not wealthy and they lose income, their wealth is not impacted because they had so little wealth before the income change.


Paradoxically, income change is a more relevant wealth impact indicator than wealth change.


[iii] La Rja, Rauch, Voters need help: How party insiders can make presidential primaries safer, fairer, and more democratic, The Brookings Institution, 2020

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