Voting As Testing

by Bob Goldberg

As I look at my personal ballot for the upcoming local election, it occurs to me that we treat voting almost the same as we treat testing in our schools, which I have the honor of being involved with as a substitute teacher and instructional aide here in Clatsop County, in the upper left edge of Oregon.

Here is the county's compilation of candidate and ballot measure info, and here is the voter's pamphlet in electronic form (which amazingly is not the same as the pamphlet we received in the mail!!!).

Like taking tests in school, voting treats each ballot-filler-outer as an individual, and frowns upon collaboration. Like tests, ballots are the same for each geographical section of a jurisdiction, though the "classroom" is spread out over a considerably larger area. However, given the increasing incidence of remote testing, this slight difference is getting slighter. Like tests, ballots have a time limit for filling out. Though here in Oregon you generally get three weeks to complete your voting, in other areas, the actual act of voting has a supremely short time allowance – typically less than five minutes – until the next voter gets a little impatient at your dallying. And further, like in testing, you often don't know the results of your voting (i.e. whether you got it "right") until some future time.

Standardized testing has a bad reputation in all the schools I've been involved with, in Seattle in the 90s and 00s, and here in Clatsop County since 2005. Teachers and even administrators mumble bad things about state testing, and students generally treat it as they do most other directed activities – with a heaping of sighs. Politicians and pundits, however, love these tests, as they generate a huge amount of data to analyze and to affect punishments and rewards on their disloyal subjects and institutions. So, despite the grumblings of the peasants, testing goes on.

As does voting.

Voting and elections are almost universally reviled by most regular people, while of course politicians, pundits and others involved in the election system directly love them. A necessary evil, most people say – the same thing they say about standardized testing (indeed, most testing in schools and elsewhere). How else would we decide who should have power over us, run our government and do the things needed to be done? How else would we decide where to give money and resources to, if not for standardized testing? How else would we know how Johnny or Emily are doing in school?

I'll bet some teachers and instructional assistants, as well as parents and administrators, have an answer to those two last questions. And I know there are many out there, including you, dear reader, who have some answers to that first question in the last paragraph. Indeed, I hope that the responses to this piece have some ideas in them to solve both problems.

But before getting into some alternatives, let's talk about this ballot in front of me. Like a multiple-choice test (or a survey), this ballot has several questions that have more than one choice (though I only get to vote for one), and many others that have only one stated choice. But all the questions on my ballot except the ballot measures – in this case a referendum to the county to repeal the allowance of short-term rentals in unincorporated parts of the county, and a renewal of a 5-year local tax option of operations of the health care district facilities – have a space for "other" or "none of the above" (though even if I vote for a write-in candidate, the rules disqualify most people from actually receiving a write-in vote!), which some tests also have. Also, especially like standardized testing, where the same test is given to many people, my ballot is machine-readable and doesn't really have any room to write a detailed explanation of my answers. So, like standardized testing – and indeed most testing in schools – most people just spend a few minutes filling out the ballot (if they bother at all, given "turnout" or participation is minimal in these local elections), dropping it off or mailing it in, and forget about it until the next election (unless their livelihood is directly affected by the results).

It's the individual nature of the ballot, and tests, that I want to focus on here. Even in tax forms, my wife and I can file jointly. Now I know that filing tax forms jointly between two people isn't much of a collaboration on how we should tax ourselves – much less how that money gets spent, which is equally important to voting in my mind – but at least it's better than every single person filling out a ballot with no collaboration at all. Like testing in schools, collaboration is anathema to the system, and is to be avoided in all cases. Because advertising, propaganda and marketing is more effective and cheaper to individuals, I think. Hey, if we got to fill out ballots communally, or do tests communally in school, we might find out how our community thinks as a whole, and have an opportunity to affect each others' decisions, and help each other. Can't have that!

Now, the idea behind individual testing in schools is to both assess the student's progress in learning the subject at hand and to provide individualized resources to those students who need them. Unfortunately, with state standardized testing, these results are gathered into a school or grade average, and the results used to punish or reward the school district or school – just like voting!. In a way, this is good, as it does consider schools or districts collectively, but this is not the way to go about getting the results, as the test is not administered collectively. With regular testing, tests can be administered by each teacher tailored to their students at the time, giving a better assessment of each one and allowing for administration of resources more coherently for schools or districts. (However, as I have observed in actual classroom situations, the shuffling around of students to special educational classrooms creates a disruption to both the students involved and their peers and teachers. Not sure how to resolve this.)

I would argue that individuals taking tests that determine their grades and prospects in life in competition with other students is not the optimum way to learn, nor to assess the effectiveness of the educational program. But that's an argument for another piece in the future. Let's go on to ballots and voting. What's the idea behind individual ballots? Why do we like the concept of secret ballots? Why do we hate the idea of people trying to persuade us to vote in a certain manner? What's wrong with poll watchers and influencers? Why do we consider it cheating if someone copies off our ballot?

I would argue that we were conditioned in school to take testing seriously, competitively, and not challenge others' thinking, especially the teacher's or the authority figure's. And the trends toward standardized testing, machine-readable results and agglomeration have spilled into voting and elections. Thus, our ballots can be filled out quickly, we don't really have to think about it, studying materials have been standardized and outsourced to the people who benefit from the system, and perhaps most egregiously, we've come to think of the whole system as rigged, not required, and we more and more ignore the whole thing, thinking that our vote, as with testing, doesn't matter. I mean, look at all those high school and college dropouts that are millionaires and billionaires! And look at all those losers that are powerful figures in government and corporations! Look at how many students just fill in any answer (or none!) on the computer-screen tests that we use for testing more and more these days! And look at the low participation in especially local elections, like the one we're voting in now here in Oregon – even if you are officially counted as having filled out a ballot, many don't bother to vote in races where there is only one official candidate (or none!) and in ballot measures that they don't think affect them. Why bother? Your vote doesn't really mean anything anyway, just as your test result doesn't.

Well, does anyone have any advice for this Astoria, Oregon voter who needs to decide who will be on the board of education for the local community college, the board of directors for the bankrupt local bus agency, the Astoria School District school board, and the local health district board? Can you help me decide whether I should vote to repeal the allowance for short-term rentals in the rural parts of the county? Or whether I should vote to renew local taxes for the aforementioned health district to operate? Exactly three (3) of the sixteen (16) races I get to weigh in on have two (2) candidates running. One has none. More incumbents on this ballot than usual have decided not to run again, and one or two are running again but challenged. Progress?

In a community where most people know most other people, I find it amazing that there's only one (1) name on my ballot that I recognize and know reasonably well. How do I make a decision on those who will be determining how our college is run, how our port is run, how our transit system is run, and how some of our nursing homes are run? I find this akin to figuring out how to answer questions on a test that you know are probably important, but you're just unfamiliar with the concepts or backstory of the material involved. But in our world, in both cases, you don't get to take back your uninformed and tentative answer, and have to suffer the consequences of your decision (or indecision) and those of the others in your class or jurisdiction.

In the end, voting seems to me to be much more important to society than taking a test in a classroom. Yet, voting is not compulsory. You don't have a fill out a waiver form like you can here in Oregon to avoid taking a standardized test. Your ballot is not graded, and you still get to go on with your life the next day if you don't fill it out at all or get all the answers "wrong" (as in none of your candidates or ballot measures win). Seems like there's something inherently wrong with that.

In both voting and testing, I think a possible way forward is to make it more collaborative. Seems to me that actions and projects done collaboratively are just so much more fulfilling, and often even fun! Imagine a test given in class where the class works on a few problems together, over time, and gets graded based on how well they worked together and the insights that came out of the project. Imagine that mistakes are considered a good thing, and graded accordingly. Imagine getting to present the project collaboration to the community, even if it proved that some idea was not workable. Imagine an election where people collaborate to find the most appropriate candidates for a position and, if more than one are chosen, they get to work together. Imagine no losers (and hence, no winners)!

I encourage everyone reading this and everyone else to work together to achieve a better community and a better world, which maybe won't have testing or voting as competitive ways to eliminate people and ideas from consideration or influence. And in the meantime, anyone who knows more people in the Clatsop County area and more about short-term rentals and nursing home funding than me, please let me know how to vote! I've got until May 16th.

So, it's May 14th, and I still haven't filled out my ballot. Opening it up again today, and having a quick read of the voters' pamphlet put out by the county, I am more perplexed than ever. Since the filing deadline for the positions up for grabs in this election, there have been several events that have raised concerns in the community, and yet the ballot stays the same.

Our bus system has been off-line for the last few weeks, as bankruptcy hit the agency, its director quit, and the board scrambled to get emergency loans to get the buses running again with a much-reduced schedule. I haven't heard anything about contentious board meetings, but I can't imagine life on that board has been pleasant lately.

Then I heard last week that the president of the local community college had quit, received a severance package from the board, and that three (3) members of the board had also quit. I can only imagine the board meetings leading up to this fracturing of the college's leaders. Again, all this happened prior to the election, but after we got our ballots, though it seems it was brewing for a while.

And then, reading the voters pamphlet in more detail, I noticed that a block of candidates were running for the Arch Cape Water District board – positions I can't vote for, since I don't live there. This is actually quite an interesting development, as blocks of candidates had run for local offices in the past, but they didn't advertise it to the masses through the voters pamphlet. As far as I can tell, this block is a business-oriented, right-wing, Republican group of candidates, seeking to roll back the conservation efforts of the previous board and local activists. They are asking voters to vote for them as a block, with each one of them having the same voters pamphlet statement. This seems to me to be the end result of our broken (was it ever not broken?) system of electoral politics and voting – people outwardly and vocally saying vote for us so that we can do what we want, regardless of what the local community thinks as a whole, or what other local groups are doing. For these people have figured out what should be obvious – in an election/voting system where the plurality of votes gets you victory, with a small turnout and with no collaboration of voters, you can hijack the system and do what you want, in the name of democracy.

I think I've decided, as I have in recent local elections, to only vote in the contested races, as my vote in the other races has no meaning. In fact, these races are like the races we used to talk about in far-away commie countries where the party didn't allow opposition, and voters only got to vote up or down on the people on the ballot. When the party-sponsored candidate got 80% or more of the vote, the party would put out a media release that portrayed their democratic election in a positive light. How is this different from the ballot I have in front of me?

In addition, it's extremely obvious that we need electoral reform, at least locally, if not universally, here in the US. Voter's pamphlets like the one delivered to our door, which have races in it that we can't vote in, but exclude statements from candidates that didn't provide them, and have no objective information about the candidates, or even endorsements, are not something I want to pay for with my county taxes. We used to have better voter pamphlets. Why have they deteriorated so much?

And ballots like the one above are just not acceptable. In fact, I feel it's obvious that voting individually for important public board positions and ballot measures is just not democracy. How can we have government by and for the people with this sort of system? What we need is, at the very least, citizen assemblies that meet to discuss the policies of these local public entities and decide on recommendations to the public that are then voted on in a town meeting-type setup, where the whole community votes together, after even more discussion, questions and idea exchange.

I will try to implement these citizen assemblies, based on the models of these groups from other jurisdictions, here in Oregon and elsewhere. And then comes the next step – citizen assemblies and town meetings to decide on the bigger issues involved in the even-year local, state and federal elections.

It's time that voting – and testing – be updated to use present-day thinking and technology. Our current voting and election systems are not working, in the sense that they are not producing results in the public interest, and they need to be replaced. This may seem radical, but it's American as apple pie, and has been tried and proved effective all around the world.