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Time for American Idol to replace the electoral college

The recent news about American Idol diving deeper into using Twitter to determine its winner has got me thinking that they could actually serve a very practical purpose. My modest suggestion is that we should use their system to replace the venerable electoral college the next time we have to vote for our President in 2016. Think this is crazy? Here is why it could work.

Idol allows people to vote up to 50 times for their favorite singer. You can vote in a variety of ways: online, telephone, using Twitter or their own smartphone app. What if we took this model and used it for our political elections? You can split your 50 votes any way you choose: you can put all of them on one candidate, if you feel that strongly. Or if both candidates offer some appeal, you can devise your own weighting system and split your votes.

It takes the “chicago style” voting model (vote early, vote often) and celebrates it. No more worries about checking voter IDs to ensure that someone didn’t vote twice: come on down and stay all day at the polls if you want to cast your 50 ballots one at a time, or run the whole lot through at once! (Let’s see those hanging chads deal with that situation.) My plan eliminates the whole notion of having certain states become pivotal battlegrounds (I am talking to you, Florida and Ohio) because of electoral oddities. Now there are plenty of votes to spread around.

Having Idol-style voting could make the whole notion of PACs irrelevant, because you have to assume that most people aren’t that passionate about their candidates and want to give multiple people props. And think about those debates leading up to the big vote: we could have instantaneous feedback as the candidates prattle on. No more waiting for the Sunday morning talk shows to find out who “won” which debate: the People Have Spoken! It could save us a lot of time, and we could get that instant feedback that we all crave.

Or it could be a disaster, and we could have people who bundle votes just like they bundle contributions to the PACs, and more power could be concentrated into a few. It is hard to tell which way this would go. I admit that I don’t have all of this figured out. Not to mention getting our Constitution changed too.

At least in our last election, we had the popular vote match the electoral vote (which it usually does, except the 2000 Bush/Gore election and a few others). And while there are certainly good reasons for keeping the electoral college, maybe it is time we brought voting into the 21st century with a more interesting mechanism. It might get more young people to vote knowing that have now 50 times to do it. Or maybe we need to run the actual elections during the Idol live TV contests, and have various singers represent the candidates to make the entire voting process more entertaining. The candidates already court Hollywood and Nashville stars for their endorsements, this just takes it a step further. It is the obvious next step of politics and entertainment, ever since Clinton played his sax on late night TV.

In fact, while we are eliminating institutions, we could replace the entire Congress roll call with Idol-style voting in real time on particular bills. Everyone could watch TV and vote on legislation: this could really punch up CSPAN’s viewership. As Senator Windbag would get to the podium, the online naysayers could have a field day, and his time would be cut off after reaching a certain threshold.

This vision of our future where we control the outcome on the small screen from the audience voting  isn’t all that new. I think it was in the movie Lawnmower Man which posited something similar many years ago, although somewhat more grisly circumstances.

Of course, we could go in the completely opposite direction, as the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote in one of his stories called “Franchise,” where the predictive powers of computers have gotten so good that only a single person needs to actually vote on election day. Maybe we should put both ideas to a vote.


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More Stories By David Strom

David Strom is an international authority on network and Internet technologies. He has written extensively on the topic for 20 years for a wide variety of print publications and websites, such as The New York Times, TechTarget.com, PC Week/eWeek, Internet.com, Network World, Infoworld, Computerworld, Small Business Computing, Communications Week, Windows Sources, c|net and news.com, Web Review, Tom's Hardware, EETimes, and many others.