Tag Archives: voting

5 Ways to Get More People to Vote

This past Tuesday was Election Day! Or as some people call it, “second Halloween”. Corny people call it that. I haven’t found the voter turnout for this week’s elections, but, given the tradition of political malaise in modern American politics, it was probably pretty disappointing. People have pretty good reasons for not voting: one party advocates evil, the other party is nothing, and the third party can’t win. Until we can get some people we actually want to vote for, how can we get more people to vote?

5. Universal Voter Registration

Right now, it’s your own responsibility to register to vote. But it’s a bureaucratic burden that is easy for people to lose track of – amid all the other bureaucratic burdens placed on individual citizens. There is no good reason why the burden of responsibility for registering voters cannot be placed on the state. The state has numerous records that it can cross-reference to build a reliable voter list. Anybody who fell through the cracks can just register at the polls. (Because same-day registration is just common-sense.)

In fact, removing the costs to voting, whether in terms of money, time, or filling out forms, will probably improve voter turnout. Such cost-savings include: moving Election Day to a weekend or making it a holiday; ride public transit for free on Election Day; secure online voting; or even just pay people to vote, like the ancient Athenians.

4. The Basic Right to Vote

According to the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), the United States constitution does not guarantee the right to vote. Thus, states can put up all the barriers to voting they want, as long as they can pretend that everyone can get over those barriers. A constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote would make barriers like voter ID laws illegal, or at least become the duty of the state to help citizens pass them. Congressional representatives Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan introduced such a constitutional amendment this past June 14th, to the deafening indifference of Washington, DC.

3. The Basic Duty to Vote

A right is just a permission, however, and rights can be ignored. But perhaps the least act of self-government – voting – should not be allowed to be ignored. Voting is a citizen’s duty, like jury duty, military service in wartime, and paying taxes. Because voting is literally the least we can do to participate, the penalty for failing to go to a poll can be negligible. Most people wouldn’t give up $20 just not to vote. The only people who would do so are conscientious objectors and people trying to make a point. The first can be handled the same as conscientious objectors in military conscription. They demonstrate that they have a sincere religious or philosophical belief against voting. The second do not get that consideration, but they do get the benefit of making a stronger statement than they can today. If political non-voters were penalized for their non-voting, they won’t get lumped in with the confused and the apathetic.

2. Proportional Representation

At the moment, the United States uses an electoral system called “plurality” or “first-past-the-post”. That just means that whomever receives the most votes wins. It’s intuitive, but has bad results if we want the legislature to represent the voters. In electoral races with more than two candidates, the winner may represent only a minority of the population. Even if there are only two candidates, only the majority is represented in the legislature. The losing minority has “wasted” its votes. If you know that your district has gone to a Republican for the past ten elections, then Democrats might as well stay home.

Many nations have used proportional representation (PR) methods to make sure that everyone’s vote counts. In most PR systems, political parties create party lists of candidates for the electoral district, and voters choose a political party. This is a pretty good reflection of how most people think about modern politics anyway. Other systems, like Germany or New Zealand, are mixed between voting for individual candidates and political parties. The result is a legislature where the proportion of political parties resembles the proportion of political parties among the voters. If the Democrats received 45% of the vote, the Republicans received 45%, and the Green Party received 10%, then those percentages would be present in the legislature. This often does not happen in our current plurality voting system. With PR, everyone’s vote would count, third parties would have a voice, and so people would be more likely to vote.

Of course, PR assumes that political parties are themselves “representative” of the population, and that representation of political party preference is what should be represented. The genuine common will of the people might in fact be obscured by political parties. This makes a different sort of representation attractive.

1. Participatory Representation (or, let the people set the agenda)

What if we could set the agenda for our representatives? If the public had the power to establish policy priorities for their representatives, rather than having policy handed to us from a party elite, then voting would be much more attractive. I’ve been thinking about an electoral system that creates just such a popular power; I’ve called it “participatory representation“. In participatory representation, citizens are not confined to approving one branch of the ruling class or the other. Instead, popular assemblies gather locally to decide the needs of their communities and to nominate candidates from their own ranks that understand these needs. The assemblies send to delegates to policy assemblies for the whole electoral district, which both reduces the slate of candidates and establishes general policy goals and priorities for the district and their future representative. The voters choose their final representatives at the polls.

A version of this process took place in Cartagena des Indias, in Colombia, for the mayoral elections of 2011. It was the initiative of one of its candidates, Dionisio Velez, whose respect for the electorate won him the mayor’s office in 2013.

Of course, the process was dependent on the whim of a single politician. Likewise, political parties may create empowered deliberative spaces for their partisans, as the Chavistas do in Venezuela. But again, that may change. When a party’s political fortunes wane, its popular aspect will vanish as partisans are told to follow the word of those who knew better all along. While participatory representation may work with political parties, a constructive, deliberative process of popular power must eventually replace competitive elections. The biggest obstacle to voter turnout may be the politics in the political system.

These solutions assume that increasing voter turnout is an actual goal of the political system. However, one political party is downright hostile to voting rights, and the other party is apathetic to protecting the voting rights that exist. As long as voting is weighted against the public, the people may have to resort to more forceful methods of getting what they want.

Democracy: Talking or Voting?

We generally conceive of democracy in terms of voting, either for public officials to govern us, or even directly, for the laws or policies that we prefer.  The majority rules by counting up a record of each citizen’s preference and acting upon those preferences receiving the most (a plurality) or over half (an actual or “absolute” majority).  This has been the dominant conception of democracy since Aristotle, who, in Book Six (Part II) of his Politics, wrote that “democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just”.  (Note that in Book Four, he claims that in a democracy the free rule, even if they are the minority.)

In the history of philosophy, I think only Rousseau conceived of democracy in terms other than majority rule, and in that case he did not consider himself to be describing democracy.  He believed that the law made by popular assembly was the only basis for a rightful state, even a monarchy.  Furthermore, he was more inclined towards an “elective aristocracy” than what he considered to be democracy (a city something like Athens).  In Rousseau’s vision, popular assemblies were expressing the general will of the people.  Do not confuse this with “the will of all”, which is the summed preferences of every citizen, as voting is supposed to reveal.  The general will is something more like the objective public good of the community.  The general will may be identified by a single citizen, which thought spreads through the assembled community.  Voting and majority rule only affirms the general will.

In other words, the general will is assessed not by counting up preferences, but by discussion.  The role of discussion has been the overlooked aspect of democracy, and only corrected in the last half-century.  In philosophy, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of communicative action from the philosophical schools of pragmatism and hermeneutics.  “Communicative action” refers to the fact that language has a coordinating function.  If I tell you that there’s a bucket by the well, the well will be one of the places you look for a bucket if you want a bucket.  In our everyday life (which Habermas calls “the lifeworld” for short), we coordinate our actions through communicating with one another, specifically by ‘discourse’, the act of reason-giving.  Psychology confirms this: we are motivated to act by the reasons that others give, at least when we can identify with them.  (One study shows that we may even act when the reasons are ridiculous, such as when an experimental plant asks to use the copier ahead of someone else, “because I need to make copies”.)

In political science, attention has been given to the effects of deliberation on the preferences of deliberating individuals.  Voting is premised on the idea that we bring stable and consistent preferences to the voting booth that are all our own.  Research on deliberation (for example, from James Fishkin) has shown that people’s political and social beliefs and preferences are altered by the process of having to give reasons for their claims.

Discourse and deliberation are necessary to democracy – people assemble for a reason.  Ideally, the democratic state would reproduce the Habermasian lifeworld of coordination through public reasoning.  However, we just don’t know how to structure such a society.  This is why we have what Habermas calls “system” – institutions providing roles, assignments of rights and duties, and rewards and punishments.  These are non-discursive methods of organizing behavior.  Voting is a part of ‘system’; it is a means to deciding specific action on the basis of the majority perception of where the current dialogue is.

So we find that what is fundamental to democracy is talking to one another, and voting is simply a convenient mechanism among others for promoting that.  The aim of the democrat is to promote, as far as our knowledge of society is capable, the organization of society as a forum for public reasoning.