What is the point of elections and what do they have to do with democracy?

by Thomas R. Wells

ScreenHunter_2385 Nov. 21 11.47The relationship between our electoral institutions and our democratic ideals is surprisingly obscure. Many systems rely on counting votes, but only in such a way that each vote does not count equally towards the final outcome (as in America's electoral college or in parliamentary constituency systems such as Britain's). But even where each vote is counted equally, the idea that the result represents the will of the people is undercut whenever the minority is substantial. Britain's Brexit referendum was 52% to 48%. My new prime minister has declared this a revolution, and that she intends to govern for the 52%, but what about the rest of us? And what can she even know about the 52% from their binary choice?

One defense of vote counting is just that it works. Politics is about managing conflicts of interest and ideological disagreements in a way that is seen to be legitimate. Because everyone (except Trump of course) accepts the rules of the electoral game in advance as a way of deciding the fundamental political question ‘Who's in charge here?', we have a moral responsibility to accept the results however much we dislike them. And a liberal democracy ensures the right of the minority to keep their own opinions and try again in a few years (again, something Trump's ‘lock her up' promises seem to undermine – but that's enough about him now). In this way, electoral democracy allows us to disagree about particular issues while retaining our overall commitment to a political regime, the rules of the game. Unlike say China, we can be against our government without being against our country.

Still, if it isn't the decision process but its acceptance that matters, rock, paper, scissors could work just as well.

Two other arguments are advanced for the peculiar institution of adding up votes. First, that it is instrumentally effective because of the wisdom of crowds, and second that universal suffrage is intrinsically valuable – a matter of respecting the equal dignity of all citizens. These contradict each other and our present institutions. Depending which we value most, we should either introduce a ‘driving-test' to screen out incompetent voters or we should convert the act of voting from a liberty right to a duty.

I. A driving test for voters

It is one of the most foundational and repeated findings of political science that the overwhelming majority of the adult population know almost nothing about politics: whether that be political parties and their official ideologies, the constitution and how their vote works, or the controversies of particular elections and the policy platforms being contested. And economists have pointed out that their ignorance is entirely rational. Given how infinitesimal the chance that one's vote will actually decide anything it is not worth doing the research to decide how best to vote. Hence the national conversation about an election carried on by the nerdy political commentariat about tax rates and trade policy and so on is almost entirely irrelevant to the outcomes of elections. Facebook memes or tribal loyalties matter far more. Election results do not capture the wisdom of the crowd but the whims of the ignorant masses.

Now it might still be the case that elections represent a very crude analysis of how an incumbent government is doing. Even idiots can tell whether they are happy or unhappy, and vote the government of the day up or down accordingly (like a Yelp review). This seems to play a significant role in most elections, hence governments' near pathological obsession with short-term economic growth. Still, though, while this may encourage governments to attend particularly carefully to keeping citizens happy, most of the relevant factors – like the price of gas or fear of terrorists – are outside their control. And the system clearly breaks down when it produces results like Brexit, Trump, or PiS that are manifestly worse for economic prosperity.

And this is the point. Voters have an enormous collective power to determine who will rule and by which policies and laws. Yet those who know more about the options – those who may possibly have some wisdom to contribute – are massively outnumbered by the noise voters voting for foolish reasons. This electoral noise is the reason democracies don't make wise decisions – why we so often either choose idiotic policies or choose idiots to choose policies for us. And why our election campaigns are so much more concerned with prodding lazy know nothings to bother to turn out and scribble an x in the right place – generally with the sticks of anger or fear, rather than substantial arguments.

We do not allow people to have command of a motor vehicle without demonstrating minimal competence to handle it because we recognise that a 2 tonne vehicle in untrained hands is an unacceptable danger to others. Likewise we should not accept the right of incompetents en masse to put us all at risk by trying to drive our society off a cliff. At the least, voters should have to answer 7 out of 10 simple multiple choice questions about the constitution and political economy before voting machines allow them to cast a ballot. Questions like, ‘Who is the president now?' and ‘What is medicare?'

II. Voting as a civic duty

The alternative justification for counting votes is that it follows from the liberal principle of respecting every citizen equally as a political agent. Governments and opposition politicians must be accountable to all the people they claim to represent – all must have their say.

Unfortunately it turns out that lots of people can't be bothered to have their say because, as already noted, they recognise that their individual votes are vanishingly unlikely to matter. (In many cases, elections are decided while vote-counting is still going on, as in the recent American election.) However, there are large demographic biases among those who do bother to vote. Older people, for example, are much more likely to vote than young people just because they are less likely to have anything better to do on a Tuesday. And older people have systematically different interests and worldviews which are then over-represented in the counting of votes.

The result is that elections fail to respect each citizen's political agency equally. Political parties compete to please certain ethnic, geographical, age, gender or class demographics rather than others, because they recognise that in practice they are more accountable to certain parts of the population. For other demographics they focus on motivating turn out, primarily by negative advertising about how their opponent wants to destroy the country and eat your children. That negative advertising is itself very expensive, and, in countries with weak campaign finance laws, leads to a dependence of all political parties on the even tinier demographic of rich individuals and companies interested in having politicians owe them a special kindness and understanding in their future dealings. (Eventually creating a perception of politics as a swamp of corruption that goes a long way to explaining Trump's attraction as an outsider.) In extreme cases, politicised electoral agencies may be enlisted to reduce turn out by demographics linked to one's opponents, as voter ID laws are used in America.

Note that the ethical problems of our current electoral institutions – of miscounting citizens and mistreating their political agency as an obstacle to be overcome – follow directly from leaving open the decision of whether or not to vote. Because voting is a liberty right, i.e. something nobody can compel you to do, electoral competition shifts from the content of your decision to whether you will make one.

The solution is obvious. Election days should be public holidays. Universal voting should be reconceived as a civic duty of all adult citizens, and made compulsory against payment of a small fine, as in Belgium and Australia. (Religious and political fringists can opt out, but protecting their special sense of their own specialness can't be allowed to determine the general policy, just as in related cases such as compulsory motor insurance.)

What this would achieve is not necessarily smarter, more competent politicians and government policies. (Australia and Belgium are not impressively wise democracies!) But it would greatly reduce the bias in who gets to have their opinion counted, and redirect electoral competition from scare tactics towards more positive attempts at persuasion.

One further benefit is that a universal duty to vote implicitly includes a universal claim right to vote (i.e. it is the duty of governments to positively ensure that every citizen has the chance to vote). This is something that very few democracies currently guarantee and it is this gap that allows the creation of obstacles to voting like closing down polling stations or making it hard to get the right kind of ID. In addition, the problem with a liberty right is that it is hard to tell whether people who don't vote actually have the right or not. One cannot easily tell whether someone failed to vote because external circumstances prevented them (such as having to go to work or not knowing how to register) or because they freely chose not to. Making turning up at polling stations compulsory makes low turn out the government's problem to fix, rather than something to be passed off as the laziness of voters.


Many elections are close. Median voter theory suggests that this is a feature of electoral competition in systems with two main parties, as both parties push as close to the centre as possible so as to be the closest realistic option for as many voters as possible. That means that the outcomes of elections don't represent the will of the people as a whole, but a narrow victory for one faction over another. All sides have to accept that this is a legitimate way of deciding political controversies. That sense of legitimacy would be enhanced if the process were less arbitrary, and that brings us to why counting votes matters in the first place. If one wants a wiser politics then one needs to count only the votes of some people. If one wants a fairer politics then one needs to ensure that the votes of everyone get counted.

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