Democracy and Voting

Real work of democracy begins after voting

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-11-03

Voting is a central part of self-government. Blood and tears have been shed in the struggle for voting rights. But voting is an imperfect indication of the will of “we, the people.” And voting is only a small part of political life.

Our system of voting creates problems. The biggest problem is the disparate weight of individual votes from state to state. As a result of the way that Electoral College votes are allocated, the votes of citizens in small states are worth more than the votes of citizens in big states. An individual vote in Wyoming has nearly four times the weight of a vote in California.

The Electoral College also creates the phenomena of swing states — where only a few states are the focus of presidential politicking. The Electoral College system combines with the “winner-takes-all” procedure to produce strange possible outcomes: candidates can be elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. This problem is exacerbated when third party candidates play the spoiler. Game theory shows that when there are more than two choices, less favored candidates can be elected.

In order to prevent such outcomes, we might prefer our two-party system. But what happens when you don’t like either of the two major party candidates? Those who are unhappy with the two main candidates may stay away from the polls. Others may vote in other races that matter, while leaving parts of the ballot blank. By abstaining, these voters may intend to vote “none of the above.” But our system is not set up to register a “none of the above” vote. Abstaining has no impact on the outcome of an election.

Henry David Thoreau explained, in “Civil Disobedience”: “All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it.” Some voters think like strategic gamers, perhaps by voting against one candidate, rather than voting in favor of another. But in our system, in order to vote against a candidate, we also have to vote in favor of another — even if we are not in favor of him or her.

Likewise, when voting on a proposition, we are asked to say “yes” or “no.” But life is more complicated than that. Our lives are not best described in bivalent decisions. In ordinary life, we rank a variety of things in multiple ways as we deliberate about our choices.

Decision-making in ordinary life is also a deeply social process. We talk things over. We listen to each other. We compromise and negotiate. And we aim at a consensus that is satisfactory to everyone involved. But voting is not like that. There is no talking or negotiating in the silence of the voting booth. We do not have to explain or justify our votes to anyone. The process is eerily un-social.

And yet, one reason we vote is that we like to participate in social life. Even though we know our votes don’t count for much, we like to be able to say that we voted. A sort of solidarity develops from voting. We like to wear our little “I voted” stickers throughout Election Day. We smile at our fellow citizens — even those in the other party — and celebrate our shared citizenship.

Voting is only a small part of political life, which also includes talking things over and taking action. We should vote. But we should also explain, argue, and act. Thoreau explained, “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.”

The act of voting occurs in a mere moment of time — as a pause from the tumult of political life. We mark our ballots — in secret and in silence — and then head home to watch the returns, enjoying the political game as a spectator sport.

Sometimes we forget that political life involves more than punching a ballot and spectating on the couch. We also need to exchange ideas and argue about the issues of the day. In a sense, the real work of democracy occurs after the voting is over, as we wrestle with the implications of the election, talk things over and begin arguing again.