Anonymous Candidates: An Electoral Thought Experiment

Imagine, for a moment, that the rules of the game were different.

No, I’m not talking about the Electoral College, although there is good reason to bemoan their continued role in the American electoral process. I’m not even talking about changing to a single transferable voting system, which is an electoral reform I wholeheartedly support. I’m talking about a more fundamental change.

What if, in future elections, we didn’t know anything about the candidate for whom we were voting?

Wait, what?

It’s a crazy and unworkable idea, but hear me out. Imagine if, in the next election, you were handed a ballot. However, instead of listing the candidates names, imagine that your ballot simply listed “Person A” and “Person B” and so on as your candidates for President. At the ballot box, you would choose your nameless candidate, turn your ballot in, and wait for the results. On election day, in addition to discovering which candidate won, consider what it would feel like to also finally discover the identity of “Person A” or “Person B.” What consequences would this have on our electoral process?

No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, I think most people would agree that this was an exhausting election. Perhaps more than any other, this particular election seemed to drag on forever. There were twelve Republican primary debates, nine Democratic primary debates, and three general election debates, which adds up to a grand total of twenty-four debates overall. Additionally, there were thirteen Democratic primary forums and nine Republican primary forums, totaling up to twenty-two forums between the two major parties. The grand total of debates and forums is forty-six, which still doesn’t account for the Vice Presidential debate or any third party debates or forums. This also doesn’t account for the twenty-four hour news cycle or any candidate’s forays into the Twitterverse.

We live in an age of unprecedented access to news coverage from both mainstream and independent media sources. Yet, my gut feeling is that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of news coverage we have access to and the quality of that coverage. A consequence of having access to so many sources of news, or “news” (depending on your view of the source) is that one must decide which sources one has time to pay attention to and which to ignore. The intense competition among media outlets for our eyeballs inevitably results in an emphasis on aspects of campaigns that have little to do with the nuts and bolts of running the country.

Let’s come back to our thought experiment. Imagine if we could strip away all this nonsense. If our choices were merely “Person A” or “Person B” and so on, we would have no preconceived notions about the people who are running for office. Does Person A like to wear pantsuits? It wouldn’t matter. Does Person B have an affinity for gold plated bathroom fixtures and for plastering his last name on everything he owns? That, too, wouldn’t matter.

Instead, imagine if all we knew were each respective candidate’s policy positions. Perhaps we’d get a list showing us that Person A wants to increase the federal minimum wage and Person B wants to build a wall on our southern border with Mexico. In this thought experiment, the candidates are not allowed to reveal anything about themselves personally. They can only anonymously inform the public of their policy positions and their rationale for those positions. How might an election look if all we could do was examine the plans of those people who are seeking office? Would our priorities change if we didn’t know who, but only what we were voting for?

I’m willing to grant that there are perfectly valid reasons for wanting to know the identity of the person seeking the highest office in the country. Among those reasons is the simple fact that a person’s history and their current entanglements do matter. Examining how a candidate has performed in her or his other roles, public or private, is a worthwhile endeavor. But, it is also true that much of that examination tends to focus on details that distract us from the bigger picture. Additionally, all people are drawn to particular candidates for biased reasons, including attractiveness, personality characteristics, etc. The pull of these variables is often far stronger than any of us are willing to admit. In fact, we probably aren’t even aware of how they influence us.

Maybe a solution is to scrap what we know about the person so we can focus on the what instead of who is running for office. As I said, it’s a radical — even batshit crazy — idea that implicates a whole host of other potential problems. But, perhaps, if there are even just a few good qualities that we can derive from this electoral thought experiment, we can think creatively about real-world reforms for future elections.