Lawrence Solomon: Informed democracy

(November 5, 2012) In the U.S., too many people’s votes just don’t count.

According to Gallup, an estimated 54% of eligible Americans will be voting in the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday. This level of voter turnout is both too high and too low. Too high because many will be voting for the wrong reasons. Too low because the U.S. electoral system, in its current form, prevents most Americans from meaningfully participating in choosing the next president.

Democracy requires an informed electorate to work well, just about everyone agrees. It follows, then, that ill-informed votes, by diluting the value of the informed votes, degrade the quality of the electoral decision. If so, why the Herculean effort by governments to get the ill-informed to vote, both by bending over backwards to accommodate them and by shaming them? According to Pew, the non-voters who comprise nearly half of the U.S. voting-age population tend to be poorly educated (just 13% have college degrees, one-third the rate of those who do vote) and apathetic about politics: “Non-voters express very little interest in politics or the election. A third of non-voters say they are registered to vote. But they are far less likely than voters to give a lot of thought to the election and follow public affairs.”

Non-voters overwhelmingly favour Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 59% to 24%, but not on social grounds such as abortion, gay rights or immigration — in these cultural areas, where a higher education contributes little to one’s views, the attitude of non-voters closely mirrors that of voters. The widest gap that Pew measured between non-voters and voters — 52% to 39% — comes in their attitude toward government: Non-voters want government to “do more to solve problems.”

The immediate effect, then, of government efforts to motivate the apathetic is to tilt the country away from the smaller government wanted by the informed voter and toward the larger government that the ill-informed want. This intervention by government into the voting patterns of the electorate undermines the proper role of government as an impartial referee in the voting process. Governments, unlike political parties, shouldn’t be in the business of driving people to the polls.

A second-order effect of making it ever easier for the apathetic to vote — by extending early voting, by liberal use of absentee voting, and by allowing numerous methods of registration — is to complicate the vote, require additional hand-counting of ballots, delay the vote, increase opportunities for a fraudulent vote, and generally to undermine public confidence in the competence and fairness of the vote.

Where government fails most of all in encouraging the informed citizen to vote is in the Electoral College system. The vote for president of the United States is in reality the sum of 51 separate contests, for the 535 electoral votes divided among the 50 states plus the three electoral votes in the District of Columbia. Because the winner takes all in 49 of those 51 contests, and because the winner is all but certain in the great majority of states, including most of the most populous states, the great majority of informed citizens know that their vote is unable to influence the outcome. Little wonder, then, that studies show voter turnout to be significantly higher when states become battlegrounds than when little rests on the outcomes of their votes.

A Californian who votes for president does so for purely symbolic reasons — solid Blue State California’s 55 Electoral College votes are sure to go to Obama. Likewise, the 38 electoral votes that solid Red State Texas wields are certain to go to Romney, diminishing the relevance of the Texas voter. To add to the sense of alienation from the electoral system that Blue or Red state voters often feel, neither presidential contender will visit their state to rally voters or even to spend precious campaign dollars. The presidential campaign instead is waged almost entirely in a handful of so-called battleground states such as Iowa, where a mere six electoral votes are up for grabs, giving disproportional clout to the issues important to these states, and short shrift to issues important elsewhere in the country.

To make everyone’s vote count, some advocate abolishing the Electoral College and having the president chosen by a single, country-wide popular vote. This proposal, which would weaken states’ rights and would require a constitutional amendment, is unlikely to prevail. In another attempt to choose the president via the national vote but without need of a constitutional amendment, a National Popular Vote Compact is being organized by which states voluntarily agree to apportion their electoral votes by the national popular vote — to date eight states plus the District of Columbia have agreed to join this compact, and some others may join. But the states that support this plan lean or are strongly Blue — the plan is thought to favour urban voters at the expense of those in rural areas — making the compact also unlikely to prevail.

Two small states — liberal Maine and conservative Nebraska — do point the way forward to meaningful electoral reform, however. They now allocate their Electoral College votes in a roughly proportional way based on the state vote, making for meaningful presidential races in an election that would otherwise be a foregone conclusion — in 2008, Obama won one of Nebraska’s five electoral votes and in 2012 Romney may win one of Maine’s four.

Neither Red nor Blue states would want to act unilaterally in joining these two, since doing so would split their votes, giving the competing party a windfall in electoral college votes. But a kind of mutual disarmament between two or more states, equally matched in their number of electoral votes they would put into play, could extend the map in which the presidential election is fought. For example, Blue Illinois with its 20 electoral votes might agree to go proportional if Red Indiana and South Carolina, with their combined 20 electoral votes, did too.

Each of these states would then be courted in presidential races, giving their priorities national attention. And the cause of having a higher voter turnout based on an informed electorate would simultaneously be served.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.

This article was first published by the National Post.


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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1 Response to Lawrence Solomon: Informed democracy

  1. Gerry B. says:

    The United States is a republic, not a democracy. The founders feared “mob rule”. so they set up checks and balances, including the Electoral College.

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