Friday, April 4, 2008

An Exercise in Democracy

It's a crazy election year. Results actually matter in states besides Ohio and New Hampshire. In Washington, there are caucuses and then there are more caucuses. And, for Democrats, there's also a primary that doesn't count for anything.

Tomorrow (April 5th), we have the Legislative District caucuses to elect delegates for the next level. The delegates to the district caucus were chosen at the precinct caucuses. Since it's so exciting this year with two great candidates still in the running, there's an interesting problem -- almost everybody wants to be a delegate at the county convention, which is the next level (and presumably beyond that). In the caucus that I'll be in, there will be more than 300 delegates and the early estimate is that 200 of those delegates will be candidates for the county convention. We'll elect about 20 delegates, half of whom must be men and half of whom must be women. The vote is complicated. Roughly, here are the requirements:

  • If we're electing 10 delegates, each person votes for 10 delegates.
  • On the first ballot, we narrow the field down to 30 candidates (3x the number of delegates to be elected). I would guess that this was added this year because of the large number of interested candidates.
  • On the second ballot, we elect the actual delegates from the reduced field.
  • The ballots must be secret. No raised hands.
  • The ballots must be traceable. If there there is a dispute, (yeah, this seems to go against the secret ballot aspect).
  • Voting is by numbers, not names. Each candidates writes down the appropriate numbers for the candidates they wish to vote for. Not sure this is an actual requirement, but it's a given.
  • Each person can only vote for a given candidate once. For example, you can't vote for yourself 10 times.
  • Everybody votes for the same number of men and women. You can't use all your votes for just men or just women.
  • No complex technology -- there's not enough prep time to create anything, and no time for training people.
  • There is money available, if necessary, for printing, copying, etc.
The obvious problem is time. The gating factor is the number of voters and votes, not the number of candidates. Let's suppose you have 3,000 votes to count and it only takes 1 second to count each vote. That is 3,000 seconds or 50 minutes. For each ballot. That's a lot of waiting after the ballot to find out who won.

What algorithm would you propose?

At this point (Friday night), I know what's planned for tomorrow. It isn't what I suggested (because I was initially told that there computers couldn't be used, and the plan does involve some computers), but I think the plan is reasonable. There are risks, however. After the caucus, I'll report back on what actually happens and how it goes.


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