Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Limits of Voting

For many Americans, the legitimacy of the state derives from the fact that state officials are elected by popular vote. In this school of thought, elected officials represent "the will of the people" and use their power to benefit the people as a whole, without preference for any particular subset of the people.

In the USA, we generally use a plurality election system; this means that each voter selects one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Given this election system, the main criticism of the above-mentioned "will of the people" school of thought is that elected officials only represent the majority (actually, the plurality) that voted for them. A less obvious but even more serious criticism is that even in situations where there is a near consensus among the voters, elected officials can still choose to go against the "will of the people", and will not be held accountable at the polls. This produces a systematic tendency for politicians to favor particular interest groups (including themselves) at the expense of the people in general--this is what I will argue below, followed by some suggestions of how we can improve the situation.

In a plurality election system, there is a strong incentive for voters to coordinate their voting and focus on candidates who have the ability to receive about half of the total votes, thereby avoiding the problem of spoiler" candidacies or "vote-splitting". The end result is that two large political parties dominate the elections, and the primary choice facing a voter is which party to support (in general, or for a particular election).

As a consequence of the two-party system, political issues fall into one of three classes:
Class I (accountable): Elections impose accountability for issues where there is a near consensus among the voters and many of the voters feel strongly about the issue. For example, in American politics, open racism will sink a candidacy. The vast majority of Americans would disagree with that candidate, and a large number of Americans would consider that issue so important that they would vote against that candidate regardless of his position on other issues.

Class II (dividers): Elections are largely decided on issues where there is no consensus, but many voters feel strongly about them. These are the issues that make up our day-to-day political discourse: abortion, the Iraq war, gun control, and so on. Since there is no consensus on these issues, it is meaningless to say that the politicians are accountable or unaccountable on these issues; however, these issues have the important role of defining the political parties and making other, less important issues irrelevant to the decision of how to vote.

As a consensus is established or destroyed, an issue can move between these first two categories. Activist judicial decisions often move issues from the first class to the second class.

Class III (unaccountable): Politicians are not accountable on the "small" issues, which are not going to change the behavior of individual voters, and consequently a politician can make decisions that are in opposition to the near-consensus of the people. This produces a risk of corruption, which may be increased by the fact that the voters are generally more concerned with big, impersonal societal issues and less concerned with the specific economic issues that can provide huge rewards to special interests. For example, very few voters will raise a fuss over the frivolous expenditure of $100 million by the Federal government, if the only other alternative is vote for a candidate whom that voter disagrees with on the "big issues" (abortion, Iraq, etc.).

Corruption in the "small issues" is further encouraged by the logic that if one party can get away with a little bit, then the other party can get away with a little more--each political party becomes a little more corrupt than the other. Eventually, this becomes a "big issue" to the citizens, but the differences between the major parties is not big enough for this to form the basis of the voting decision. Hence, we die of a thousand little cuts. This gives new meaning to word "politics", which can be broken down into its component parts: poly (many), ticks (small blood-sucking insects).
Is there any way out of this? Perhaps there are enough "swing voters" who don't identify with either party regarding the "big issues", and consequently are free to base their votes on the "small issues" and enforce accountability on the politicians. Unfortunately, most swing voters do not invest the energy necessary to inform themselves about these issues, thereby placing the burden of spreading information on the candidates themselves. Consequently, the number of voters who can be swayed by a fancy, ubiquitous advertising campaign is greater than the number of voters who can be swayed by a little fiscal restraint. This encourages politicians to collect money from big-time donors and repeatedly decide the "small issues" in favor of those campaign financiers to keep their favor, rather than doing what is in the best interest of the general population. We now see an opportunity for corruption that complements the motive for corruption (fear of competing power) that I pointed out previously in How power corrupts.

Perhaps a more likely solution to this problem is the possibility that our society will build a consensus on many of the divisive issues, which will open up some space for us to vote against this type of corruption. There is some hope in the Porkbusters movement, which may represent an attempt to put the "culture war" behind us and focus a problem that unites us.

Campaign finance regulation is often proposed as a solution for the type of corruption that I am concerned with here, but such regulations are a BAD IDEA (more on that in a future post). We need to focus on eliminating the motive and opportunity for corruption rather than bothering with the form that the corruption takes. One promising approach is to move away from the plurality voting system and adopt a system that allows more political competition and consequently introduces more accountability on politicians. While Arrow's theorem demonstrates that no voting system is perfect, activists such as those at Fairvote (the Center for Voting and Democracy) have a lot of good ideas for how to improve the American voting system.

That may limit the opportunity for corruption, but we can also limit the motivation for corruption by reducing the need for candidates to run multi-million dollar campaigns. We can do this by informing ourselves about the positions of the candidates, which can be aided by Project Vote-Smart. We can also develop a decentralized communication system that allows every person to make a significant contribution to a candidate's publicity campaign (more on that in a future post), thereby freeing the candidates from their reliance on big money.

Extra tidbits: Lani Guinier has done a lot to promote the idea of power sharing in government, particularly with her book Tyranny of the Majority. I suspect that power-sharing reforms will inherently increase the accountability of the government. Another way to increase accountability is to split up power among separately elected offices. In the USA we could essentially make the head of each Federal Executive Department (cabinet secretaries) directly elected by the people rather than having them appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Of course, this would be a major reform, requiring a rearrangement of the departments and a Constitutional amendment. Fortunately, the experience of state governments could serve as a guide for this reform, as many of them have the Treasurer and Attorney General elected independently of the Governor.

For an example of this phenomenon, see What's the Matter with Kansas?. From what I've heard, the thesis of this book is that in spite of the fact that the Democratic economic agenda would benefit many voters in this state, those voters support the Republicans because they consider social issues to be more important.

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