The Candidate/Policy Ballot: A Simple Way of Connecting Governments with the Preferences of their Constituents.
Written by: Nikola Serafimov, Master of Global Public Policy
Making public decisions has never been easy. In fact, when candidates run for office it is impossible for them to be aware of every single one of their voter’s desires. Every voter has a personal story, character and what’s relevant for our political candidate– a variety of preferences on unlimited number of issues. In representative democracies elected officials represent their voters and following this logic – their preferences. But the problem with this notion is: if candidates don’t know what their constituents want, how can they actually represent them? Moreover, what happens when you want to vote for certain candidates due to their history of moral integrity and deliberative capacity, but you disagree with their views on “handling stray dogs” and “mandatory conscription”?
This problem might be solved by the “Candidate/Policy ballot” which could potentially help local and central governments alike improve their decision making process by bringing their actions closer to their voter’s desires. How will this ballot look like? Voters on Election Day will not only vote for a candidate that will represent them in office, but also they will have the possibility to vote on how they feel about a variety of issues (presumably pressing ones that could be expected to be high up on the policy making agenda). One side of the ballot has the list of candidates while the other contains questions related to proposed policies. An example question would be: “Do you agree in this neighborhood for a new mall to be built? YES/NO” or a more specific one “Do you agree for 2.000.000$ to be spent on reconstructing the facade of historical building X?” Moreover, even if the policy part of the ballot does not contain specific questions on policy issues, it might have a list of problems that the government faces and it might ask the voter to rank them based on his perception of urgency (which one should get priority) – number 1 being most urgent matter that the government needs to tackle, number 2 is an important issue but less than issue number 1 and etc. Will these preferences be binding (in the same way that direct referendum is)? Not necessarily. They could only serve as “advice from the people”. If they are not binding and the candidate does not wish to follow whatever the majority of the public wants, potential consequences can be public shaming, loosing votes and popularity, protests and etc. This may not look as much but it could potentially make it more difficult for a politician to go against the tide of the public mind. Also, the public preferences could be made mandatory if they fulfill particular criteria (for instance if a certain threshold is fulfilled).
For this measure to be successful obviously there are certain requirements that need to be fulfilled. The ballot should be tailored based on the particular political context in which it is supposed to be implemented. On top of that, the public must be informed well in advance about the issues included in the ballot. The political climate must allow for free and fair elections, inclusion of opposition in the crafting of the questions, clear and unambiguous questions and other prerequisites that might allow this policy to bear fruit. Other criteria that might be used to evaluate whether this measure has been successful or not should be determined based on the particular time and place where the measure is implemented.
What could be the possible gains from introducing the Candidate/Policy ballot? Firstly, the negative level of trust in governmental institutions across the globe evidenced by the Edelman Trust Barometer[i] might be mitigated. If a government is more responsive to the interests of its citizens there will be less reasons for the average voter not to trust it. Political polarization and citizen’s distrust in public institutions make the success of reforms more unpredictable[ii], so it is fair to say that the level of responsiveness to citizen interest directly determines policy outcome. Second, the Candidate/Policy ballot will create incentives for elected officials to follow the will of the public so that they will be reelected. Thirdly, if the society is generally polarized this ballot might actually decrease the gap of that polarization. How? By building political preferences based on issues rather than solely on candidates, it is more likely that there will be a multiplicity of alliances instead of the traditional bipolar political division (left/right). This takes away the boxing ring out of politics and creates the foundations of an arena for mature public deliberation. Finally, it is more likely than not that the Candidate/Policy ballot will improve the quality of public decisions because it has the potential to empower experts in the public discourse. Rather than building preferences on the issue of pollution based on what your favorite candidate believes, now you could be incentivized to listen to biology professors, economists, lawyers and doctors that have experience with the causes and consequences of the issue and its nomenclature. They will help build voter preferences on this matter, without necessarily engaging in mindless political scuffle. Moreover, they will not only influence voters but also elected decision makers. If the constraint on political decision making is set by well informed public – then it is fair to conclude that the informers (in this case the experts) will have bigger role in the policy making process which could eventually bring better decisions. This brings me to my conclusion.
Will the Candidate/Policy ballot help governments better connect with their citizens? I am not entirely sure, but my intuitive guess is that to answer affirmatively it would pretty much depend on the context of the place where this measure is being introduced. However if it will bring even an incremental change for the better in any part of the world I welcome its implementation. Voting is useless unless the person you elect reflects the opinion of a well informed and publicly engaged public. Only then I feel that we will have the right to claim that we truly live in democracies.
[i] Edelman Trust Barometer – Global Report 2018
[ii]OECD (2017), Government at a Glance 2017 – pg.17, OECD Publishing, Paris