Should Election Results Be Posted in Realtime?

I’ve been watching the 2006 Election Results all night, and I thought I’d share a discussion I had with my uncle tonight. Well, debate is more like it.

So far with this blog, I haven’t really solicited many opinions here. But maybe it’s time for me to try one of those “Tell me what you think” posts.

The question is:
“Will the United States move to realtime election results in the next 20 years?”

I’ll represent some of the key points from the discussion here, and I’d love it if you’d comment with your own thoughts and feedback. (I’ve simplified the arguments and made them more third person for readability)

Me: People are demanding realtime information more and more with the advent of technologies like the Internet. I know many people who want to know election results as they happen, not waiting until the polls closed. I think the United States might move to realtime election results in the next 20 years.

Uncle: Never. Releasing results before the polls close would definitely affect the outcome. It will never happen.

Me: No doubt it would influence the outcome. But it’s unclear to me that it would influence it in a bad way.

Uncle: If your candidate is losing, you might get discouraged and not go to the polls.

Me: Sure, if your candidate is losing, you might be discouraged from voting. Or, it might inspire you to actually go to the polls and vote. It’s hard to say that it would hurt anything, although it would change the dynamic.

Uncle: This country has a long tradition of secret ballots. Voting is a personal thing, it’s not supposed to be disclosed.

Me: It would still be anonymous. You could easily make sure to only report results in an anonymous fashion, not identifiable. Secret ballot is about people not facing persecution for who they voted for, not delayed results.

Uncle: It will never happen. No country reports elections like that, why would we change?

Me: Everything is moving towards more information and more transparency. It’s very hard to argue in a Democracy that less transparency is a good thing (though not impossible in some cases). Just because it hasn’t been historically possible or expected doesn’t mean that now that it is possible, it won’t be expected. The reason I say 20 years is that 20 years will roughly be the time before the “computer generations” – Gen X & younger – outnumber the Baby Boomers.

Uncle: I think you are way to focused on the computer thing. It will never happen.

I’ll give my Uncle the last word… not.

It’s not about computers, it’s about an insatiable demand for information immediately to help inform decisions. As it becomes common in more and more areas of life, it seems to me that people will expect it in others, like politics.

I’m actually not saying this necessarily will happen, but it’s interesting to think about:

  1. Whether it will or won’t happen?
  2. Would it be a good thing or a bad thing?

In 1980, Jimmy Carter conceded at 6:04pm, before the polls had closed on the west coast. Similar issues have taken place over the past two decades.

So, what do you think? Let’s see if we can break my comment record on this blog with more than three on this post! 🙂

2 thoughts on “Should Election Results Be Posted in Realtime?

  1. I think it’s interesting that elections are implemented over a 12-14 hour period. This time frame is essentially the shortest amount of time necessary to ensure that all qualified voters should have the opportunity to cast their ballot (taking into account things like time zone difference, work schedules, etc). I would bet that if there were a shorter time period where the government could essentially ensure that all voters had the opportunity to vote, they would limit polling to that time frame. In fact, it seems clear that the optimal polling time frame is instantaneous — i.e., have everyone make their selection at the same exact time. Of course, this is unrealistic — but it’s not undesirable.

    Assuming you agree with this hypothesis, you probably agree because one goal of the polling process is to avoid feedback loops. But, what you argue for above exactly that…the ability to influence the will of the majority based on a feedback loop.

    One example of the problems that could could occur in your scenario would be the large-scale organization of polling for a party candidate earlier very early in the morning. If one party could convince a large group of people to vote very early, and those results were made available instantaneously, it would likely effect the voting decisions (both whether to vote and perhaps who to vote for) of subsequent voters, giving one party the advantage. As you point out, it’s unclear which party would have the advantage (would voters choose not to vote if they saw their candidate behind, or would they be more inclined to vote?), but after one or two elections using this process, it would become clear how the public would react, and the parties could try to influence the outcome based on the psychological response of the public.

    Manipulating the outcome of an election using psychological predisposition of the public is not what elections are about. And we shouldn’t add these types of weapons to the arsenals of politicians who have unlimited resources to exploit them.

  2. I don’t think the advantage would be stable.

    Let’s say in 2012, they do instantaneous reporting, and Party A is in an early lead. Party B ends up winning, and the press attributes it to the fact that Party B was able to energize people to vote or lose the White House to Party A.

    When 2014 comes around, sure, both parties might try to influence the early polling. Maybe Party A works to tell its people to NOT vote in the morning, just to get their base fired up to win the way Party B did in 2012. But I’m sure Party B, would then use the early lead to reach out and press everyone to not take the victory for granted like Party A did in 2012.

    I think information tends to make markets efficient, like in the financial markets. So as soon as the lesson from one “open” election was learned, then it would be unusable in the future because all sides would base their future actions on it. Thus, no advantage for anyone.

    Naysayers here will call this manipulation – but it’s only manipulation if a minority is somehow producing an outcome to their advantage by distorting the process. Does having stock quotes available every second “manipulate” the market? Sure, it effects it. But historically, hiding information leads to far greater opportunities for manipulation.

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