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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/9/20

How Electability Frustrates Democracy

Author 1890
Message Paul Cohen

Democracy is desirable and important. Clearly there are some who disagree, displaying their objection through quips about the tyranny of the majority or perhaps with assertions that this is a republic and (with a hint of superiority and disgust) not a democracy. Doubt about the value of democracy seem rooted in the perception, probably based on just a few experiences, that the vast unwashed/unwise population just cannot be trusted with important decisions. From this authoritarian standpoint, important decisions must be left to an elite few. In conformance with this viewpoint, Winston Churchill once observed that:

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

But despite such reservations, there remains a widespread support for the concept of democracy. No doubt some have witnessed among the elite some similar confusion within the confines of a five-minute conversation. But more importantly there is a suspicion that decisions by an elite few will tend to benefit only an elite few. Perhaps thinking better of his other witticism about democracy, Winston Churchill also considered that:

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

As a working definition here, let us take "democracy" to mean a form of government that is generally responsive to the public will. At a minimum, surely under that definition, a democracy would have to, on occasion, take the trouble of determining the public will. Elections being the traditional approach for doing this, surely we should at least use care to design elections to take measure of actual public sentiment. This is an important concession to democracy, even if only in regard to selection of a leadership that will make important decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Sadly, with our elections using plurality voting, it is clear that voters often decide how to vote based on considerations quite apart from merely which candidate would be the best to serve in office. Which political party the candidate represents plays too much of a role in this regard, for example, but let us put that consideration aside for the moment on the assumption that rigid party loyalty should diminish as balanced voting comes into use and there are more parties in competition.

In an earlier article, we argued against any form of voting that requires voters to make choices among the candidates. We argued instead for evaluative systems of voting that ask voters simply to evaluate each of the candidates separately. At first glance, this approach to voting may appear motivated only to relieve the discomfort voters sometimes have in choosing between similar candidates, but there actually is a deeper concern.

From a more important perspective, forcing a voter to make an arbitrary choice also diminishes democracy. When voters are forced to seek out extraneous ways to justify a choice among candidates, an election cannot serve as a clear measure of voter sentiment. An election should cleanly measure voter opinions about the suitability of a candidate for office but our experience teaches us that electability also plays a very large role in how votes are shaped. Perversely, the voter learns the habit of taking electability into account even when not forced to do so; under plurality voting, perceived electability seems arguably to be established as a consideration in the minds of voters of at least as much importance as perceived suitability for office. I suspect voters often wish this were not so true.

There is surely no virtue in contaminating voter responses with considerations such as electability and we are fortunate that there are voting methods that will let us deflect such contamination. An evaluative-voting system asks the voter simply to evaluate each candidate with respect to suitability for the office. Significantly, the voter is in no way asked in any way to compare candidates to one another, but simply to consider each candidate alone. Voters are given no reason to compare candidates on the basis of electability or on any other basis and they are given no easy way to express such a comparison on their ballot. Producing a good, clean measure of voter opinion about who should best serve in office is a much more significant benefit to expect from evaluative voting than simply avoiding voter anguish.

Adopting an evaluative-voting system such as Balanced-Approval Voting (BAV) may not lead to a perfect democracy, but it should inch us at least a bit closer to that elusive ideal. BAV, in addition to being an evaluative-voting system, will surely lead to voters being offered a wider selection of candidates and that is the important advantage BAV has over Approval Voting. With BAV comes the benefits to democracy of balanced voting along with the benefits of an evaluative-voting system.

The wisdom of a democracy lies not with any single individual voter but rather in the aggregate judgment of all of the voters. Ultimately, a choice of one candidate has to be made; but with an evaluative-voting system, no individual voter has to confront that choice. Rather the choice is made jointly by all of the voters on the basis of how the voters evaluate candidates and in turn, voters are encouraged to make their evaluations of candidates only on the basis of suitability for office.

 

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A concerned citizen and former mathematician/engineer now retired and living in rural Maine.
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