The Election is Rigged: Thoughts on Systems and Social Justice

Throughout this campaign, the Republican candidate for our country’s highest office warned that the election was rigged.  Perhaps we should have taken the accusation more seriously.

The election is rigged. The system is rigged. What do we mean when we say those things? At their core, these statements point to a belief – let’s even call it an acknowledgement – that there are inherent injustices built into the election system; and that these serve to empower some people and marginalize others.  Those inherent injustices either exist by default or by design.

To say that the system is unjust by default is to acknowledge that all systems have flaws; and that all systems are living organisms that evolve or need to evolve in order to accommodate new ideas and realities about social equity. We can then acknowledge that systemic flaws can be interrogated without assigning blame to any bad actors. Flaws in the system are not created out of malice.

The alternative is to say that the system is rigged by design. We are then asserting something sinister about power-holders in the system. We are saying that our election system has been designed to purposefully disenfranchise certain communities from participating fully in the system, from holding equal value in the system and from benefitting equally from the system. Is the system rigged?

Let’s face this uncomfortable fact. We are all inclined to believe that injustice is at play when we do not benefit from a system we feel invested in. When our candidate loses, our ballot measure is defeated, we lose out on a job to a colleague, another student earns an award, or another agency wins a major contract we were being considered for, we instinctively wonder if some surreptitious action was at play. We can all too easily fall into blame and suspicion about the “other” side.

So in order to investigate whether a system is rigged, we must necessarily divorce ourselves from the outcome. If we are the principal beneficiaries of the system, then we must acknowledge that we might be inclined to rig the system in our favor, not create equity, not fix what is broken, just break it to empower whatever we perceive “our” side to be.

We, of course, have a perfect case study in this from the current election. From all we’ve read, the Republican candidate for President in 2016 only stated that the system was rigged when polling and public opinion tilted against him, never when it swayed in his favor. And when he questioned the potential outcome of the election, he quite openly admitted that he would only deem it not rigged if he won.

To claim that a system only works when we win is to perpetuate injustice in favor of those who already hold power, those who often win because they can design systems that favor them and the “us” they represent. To be a winner in any system often means that we can willfully avoid confronting injustices in those systems. Because we are not marginalized, we can avoid addressing the ways in which our power marginalizes others. By not interrogating the systems that favor some “us” that we represent, we enable the system – either by default or design – to continue to marginalize those who cannot achieve our level of power.

To acknowledge the need for change is to recognize systemic problems as inherent to the ways systems grow, creakily because bureaucracies are slow and heavy and laden. In fact, we can give due credit to many voices over several generations who have spoken up against the purposeful disenfranchisement of marginalized communities and led to more just elections. Our electoral systems certainly have changed over time to accommodate voices that had been previously disenfranchised by design. But we can also acknowledge that we need to continually interrogate the system because to not do so, to be complacent in the face of ongoing societal change, is to cede responsibility and undermine the health of the systems that form the foundation of our democracy.

Designers, however, are trained to see the possibilities for change. Not only the possibilities but the need for change. Whether you call it innovation or disruption or design for social impact, design is intended to interrogate what is and build something new, and presumably better.

The challenge for designers is to see in the electoral system opportunities for change. Is the system rigged? To interrogate that question we must start by unpacking the system itself and our own power within it.

Question #1. What is the election system and what does it seek to accomplish?

Question #2. What are the beliefs that hold the system together? What happens to cause a breakdown in that belief?

Question #3. Who has power within that system? Who is marginalized by design? To what varying degrees? How are people disenfranchised by design?

Question #4. What are the qualifications for holding power within the system?

Question #5. Who is allowed to question the system? What are the mechanisms for questioning whether the system is functioning justly? What are the mechanisms for affecting change? What would change mean?

Perhaps how we answer these question depends on we see ourselves in the system and how we perceive those who hold either more or less power within it.

To fix the system means to accept challenges to our own power. It means the willingness to accept that we will not always win or gain or benefit. It means having the heart to accept surprise defeats and recognize that the system functioned as it needed to in that moment. But perhaps it also means that you, and I and everyone have the right to question the system at any time and to interrogate how and why and whether it works to the benefit of all stakeholders. And to define and question who the stakeholders are and whether they are truly qualified to uphold, defend and maintain the system or if they too have become so entrenched that they cannot see the injustices within it.

In fact, this question of who holds power is an essential aspect of our interrogation. We must face that we expect people who represent our most fundamental systems of government to act in good faith. Once we accept that, that our fellow citizens are generally, genuinely acting in good faith, we must interrogate further what elements of identity and bias play into their view of the system and their role in it.

As designers devote themselves to all manner of social impact design, this is a space that cries out for action. Not in the design of ballots or Get Out the Vote posters or even voting booths.

218 million eligible voters in the U.S. should demand a call to action. Designers can be the force for positive change so that in the next election, the central debate can stay focused on the issues that matter and not on whether or not we are being held hostage by a non-functional, rigged system.