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The Wonders of Democracy: The Missing 10 Percent

February 6, 2013

It is an article of faith that democracy is the best form of government, but even amongst it’s biggest fans there is always a recognition of the problems and challenges of trying to aggregate the sentiments of a large number of people into decisions concerning who will ultimately guide the policies of a country or region. One of the most famous quotes about democracy was made by Sir Winston Churchill in a speech in the House of Commons in 1947 (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill).

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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All over the world, finding a way to elect leaders fairly, and in an unbiased fashion, is a major challenge. Sometimes there are active campaigns to suppress votes from certain regions, or certain kinds of people, so as to tip the scales in favor of one candidate or the other. In the old days land ownership was sometimes used as a pre-condition for voting, or gender. These days it’s generally accepted that everyone gets to vote but still there are controversies. Should someone who has been convicted of a crime get to vote? Most of the time we feel that manipulations or biases, where they exist, will only affect a relatively small percentage of the vote and will not affect the overall outcome. But there are many examples of narrow victories that might easily have swung the other way if the process had been better. One of the most controversial elections in modern times was the 2000 US Presidential election. Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush became President, partly due to the electoral college system in the US (which seems somewhat anti-democratic, since it allows a person with fewer votes to win the election if he or she manages to distribute the votes more favorably across different states). What made the situation even worse in 2000 was that the election came down to who won Florida, and a few hundred votes in a particular county in Florida, where the ballots were so poorly designed as to make interpretation of voter intent extremely questionable. So in the end the 2000 presidential election was decided by 9 people on the US Supreme Court and that became the only vote that mattered. So Bush won the election 5-4.
Hanging chads in Florida in 2000, long lines in Ohio in 2004, and of course a timely tape recorded message from Osama Bin Laden in 2004 during the election campaign. There are so many little perturbations which in the end may jointly determine how a particular electoral process ends up. But perhaps we have systemic problems too. In many modern countries only half or fewer of eligible voters actually vote. Sometimes this may be due to laziness or apathy, but in many cases it may be simply that the system throws up too many barriers. Why can’t voting be as simple as buying a book online? We have a whole online payment system that is meant to guarantee that the person paying the money is who they say they are. And why don’t we receive voting receipts in the mail to confirm that our vote was recorded as we intended? The current system of voting in most democracies is antiquated and opaque. And we are paying the price. Some of today’s missing votes are probably due to apathy. But, as the following graphic (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/05/us/politics/how-states-performed-in-the-2008-election.html)shows, probably around 8-10% of voters in the U.S. are discouraged from going to the polls by deficiencies in the current system, and this problem is probably occurring in many other countries as well. Democracy may not be ideal, but echoing Churchill it seems to be the best system available to us, provided that we make the effort to ensure that votes are collected, and then tallied, fairly.
It is said that we get the leaders who we deserve, but maybe we don’t. It is by no means clear to me that leadership would improve one jot if people were able to vote more easily for their choice (we could go on for ours about how misleading news coverage of political campaigns is) but it seems that at the very least we should get the voting system working as well as possible.
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