Tuesday, June 28, 2011

For the sake of democracy, we should have no more votes

No, I'm not being ironic. It's counterintuitive, but true.

It's easiest to explain why we shouldn't need to vote if, first, we consider why we do it anyway.

So why do we vote? At the very heart of any democratic system is the notion that public opinion should be the primary determinant of government policy, at least on some level. Democratic leaders serve at the pleasure of the governed.

That seems simple enough. But democracy poses a practical problem: how do we discover what the governed really want, anyway?

Once upon a time, the easiest way to get a sense of the public opinion on a question -- e.g., "Would the country rather Martin Van Buren or William Henry Harrison be the next president?" -- was to set up polling places around the country, tell everyone to come by on the appropriate day, and get tallies ready.

Then everyone would vote (well, not everyone), and that's how the people would exercise their power over the state.

We still do the same thing today. In fact, the concept of "voting" has become so deeply intertwined with the concept of "democracy" that we often use them almost interchangeably.

But of course, that's not quite accurate, is it? It's like if you mistook "talking" for "communication," or "driving" for "travel." It's just one means towards a much more important end.

Today, there are other means towards the same end. I am, of course, talking about scientific sampling. It's not difficult for a reasonably talented pollster to get an accurate read of public opinion on an issue -- particularly a simple, binary issue like "John McCain or Barack Obama?" The vast, vast majority of the time, polls reveal current preferences without much ambiguity.

In fact, even when a poll result can't be considered an utter certainty, it would still provide a more accurate picture of public opinion than a traditional election testing the same issue. That's because voting elections systematically and predictably undercount certain groups of people -- dramatically so, in many cases. Minorities, young people, the poor: voting elections continually underrepresent all of them. By contrast, even if a poll undersamples one social group or another, the relative proportions of each group in society are a known quantity and poll results can be (and generally are) weighted accordingly. The poll, quite simply, is the superior method for finding public opinion.

Everyone is forever concerned with upping voter turnout, because that makes elections better and more accurate. Instead, we could make elections better by getting rid of all the voting, and making turnout a non-factor. Far from being unfair, it would be much more fair.

"Still," you might say, "how can polls be that reliable? Everyone knows pollsters don't always predict election winners. They thought Barack Obama was going to beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire!" And you'd be right. But there's a tremendous difference between determining the public's preference between two candidates, and accurately predicting which of those candidates will win a vote. Because we're using an antiquated system full of turnout quirks, election pollsters are forced to dilute their advanced sampling and weighting techniques with extra variables to account for turnout. Pollsters with different turnout models often predict completely different results.

There's also something a little silly about the practice of using extremely complex statistical models to forecast something as primitive as a voluntary vote. It's like if we got into the habit of racing ships across the Atlantic to find the fastest methods overseas. Then, eventually, someone invented airplanes -- and immediately set them to work flying to check on the ships, so we'd have a better idea of which ship might win. But it shouldn't even be about the ships anymore! Just use the airplanes instead!

So let's use them. Polling day will still be election day, but the polls will be surveys instead of votes. It wouldn't be that different, even. Campaigns would continue more or less as we see them now, except, the emphasis would be less on turning out voters and more on making a persuasive case to as many people as possible. On the appointed date, a very rigorous, very thorough survey will be conducted. The results will determine who advances into office and who does not. If the results are ambiguous -- no poll, whether conducted with samples or votes, is 100% accurate -- there's no reason another could not be commissioned. A recount, if you will.

I suspect some people will also object on the basis of "civic participation." We sometimes think of voting as being a duty, and a responsibility, as much as it is a right, and a privilege. If you start with that premise, it's easy to convince yourself that the participatory element of self-governance cannot be excised without somehow diminishing democracy itself. The system I'm proposing is unquestionably a government for the lazy, or at least, a government that includes the lazy.

The premise, however, is wrong, and its logic is circular. The only reason participation plays an important role in democracy is because, up until now, we've only been able to build democracies that functioned when people participated in them. If you live in one of those democracies, you may indeed have a civic responsibility to vote. But it's a second-order responsibility, reflecting only on the values of that particular form of government. It doesn't reflect at all on the larger purpose of all democratic states, which is to ensure that the government of a body of people is an instrument of those same people.

In fact, it's that larger democratic purpose -- far more fundamental than latter-day notions of civic engagement -- that is diminished every time a group is governed without any say in the direction of government. Modern technology has given us means to rectify this problem. Shouldn't we use them?


  1. #DictatorshipOfThePoll-etariat

  2. Yo, you put the effort in to write this blog, so I'm going to put some energy in to discussing this.

    I think I understand what you're trying to say here - that polling could easily supplant voting as the way in which people register their opinion as to how government should be run. I would argue that many of our problems, however, run a little bit deeper than people not voting. An extremely statistically accurate picture of which corporatist party (oooo uh oh, haha) people prefer to have in party at the moment isn't going to fundamentally change government or make it more representative. The things that make our government unrepresentative - capitalism, lack of access on the part of the average citizen, cronyism, revolving private/public officeholders, and so on - have nothing to do with the form of government, but are rather consequences of larger societal patterns (not that these patterns couldn't be addressed through government, but that's beside the point).

    In any case, I'd say that what we need is more participation and awareness of government, not less. People exercising democracy through town halls, unions, sit-ins, protests, and the works. Your proposition would seem to encourage the exact opposite.