Voters and non-voters

 

Hillary Clinton in Concord, New Hampshire
Hillary Clinton in Concord, New Hampshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump in the US elections, yet she didn’t win the presidency. This has led to many of Clinton’s supporters to cry foul, and talk about getting rid of the electoral college system that they have in the US.

It’s not going to happen. The electoral college is a result of the unique formation of the United States of America. Before the Union all the states were autonomous and had their own laws and regulations and these were protected in the US Constitution. One of the safeguards which was built in was to protect the electoral system within a state from being replaced or modified by those not from that state, and this resulted more or less directly in the electoral college system.

English: 1908 Electoral College
English: 1908 Electoral College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a consequence of this being part of the constitution, it is very difficult to change. To just become a proposal an amendment requires a two-thirds vote in congress, and requires a three-quarters vote by the states to be adopted. Since the two major parties pretty much share the country, it would require all the votes of one party and around half the votes of the other party.

There have been many ways that the leader or leaders of group of humans is chosen, and there are many words that end in the suffixes -ocracy or -archy. All have their advocates and their denigrators. All have probably been tried somewhere at sometime or other.

Countries highlighted in blue are designated &...
Countries highlighted in blue are designated “Electoral Democracies” in Freedom House’s 2006 survey Freedom in the World. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an attempt to define how a person should be treated and the rights that he or she should have, Eleanor Roosevelt chaired a committee which wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a somewhat fatuous document which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Article 21 of the UDHR talks about the right of everyone to take part in the government of his/her country, and implies but stops short of prescribing representative democracy. As such, the UDHR has plenty of “wriggle room” for alternative for other methods of government, as even a dictator could argue, and they often do, that what preceded them was worse and the dictatorship is merely a step towards returning or giving the power to the people.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Many regimes though, don’t even try to argue they are merely filling a gap, but no doubt think that they are doing the best for their people. No one surely sets out to be a blood-thirsty dictator, after all. Arguably, though, a volatile country might benefit from a period with a strong leader, but eventually a strong leader will become succumb to a feeling of hubris and entitlement. Eventually he will be overthrown.

60 th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration...
60 th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2008) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There exists a strong feeling that democracy is the best form of government that humans have tried. Whether or not it is the best system that is possible is another question. In a democracy everyone has a say and theoretically at least the government can be replaced, without revolution or bloodshed, if the population at large decides that it doesn’t like those it has elected.

Most democracies are representative democracies, in that the population do not normally vote on all issues, but elect a person to represent them in governing the country. Ideally such a representative would canvas or solicit views on topics that have to be decided, but in practise a potential representative will lay out his/her views and the electors pick the person who most closely fits their viewpoint.

Women standing in line to vote in Bangladesh.
Women standing in line to vote in Bangladesh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since this is done before the representative is selected, a future contentious issue may find the representative at odds with many of his constituents on the issue. While a good representative will make his views known and may solicit electoral views, and the electors can make the representative aware of their views by various means, the communication between the representative and his electors is to say the least inefficient.

A big thing about democracy is that everyone has at least one vote. In some systems a person may have more than vote, and in almost all democracies the voter gets a chance to vote to fill various roles, such as mayor, or sheriff, or local councillor. A democracy is an involving system, soliciting voter views on a periodic basis, so why don’t people get involved?


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In the recent American Presidential election only just over 50% of the electorate voted, and this was in one of the most controversial elections of recent times. Since each candidate took almost half the popular vote only one in four voters voted to make Trump president. Of course only about one in four voters voted for Clinton (who got more votes than Clinton).

People don’t vote if they can’t be bothered, if they think that their vote will not make a difference and a small number don’t vote because they disagree with the process, maybe for political or religious reasons. The US is not alone in this, as a significant number of voters do not vote in an election in many democracies.


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I would suggest that this is true in most democracies, but I don’t have the data. Some people suggest that making the voting easier by introducing electronic voting over the Internet, but I feel that this will not make a big difference. I feel that the reason for low turnouts is disinterest and a belief voting doesn’t make any real difference.

“For politicians, passing laws is like passing water,” said Narayan. “It all ends down the drain.”
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

Election promises are rarely believed and seldom acted upon. There is unlikely to be a wall built between the United States and Mexico. Trump has succeeded with that promise however, not because people believe that he will do, but because he most aligns with what people would like to do, and I don’t mean build a wall. He has proposed a solution to a perceived problem, and that is good enough for those who turned out and voted. Any solution that catches the imagination of the voters would have done as well.


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Democracy – maybe we should try it sometime


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We in the rest of the world are watching the run up to the Presidential elections in the USA in November. It has now been decided who the two main contenders will be, Hilary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans. In the USA, there are no significant other parties, so it is very highly likely that the next President of the United States will be one of these two people.

An extraordinary fact is that many US citizens dislike both candidates, with one Republican commentator saying that people might be choosing the lesser of the two evils. Trump is seen as brash and unversed in politics and Clinton is seen as being untrustworthy.

US President Bill Clinton (center with hand up...
US President Bill Clinton (center with hand up), first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to right of photo; their daughter Chelsea Clinton to left. On procession in public. The President, First Lady, and Chelsea on parade down Pennsylvannia Avenue on Inauguration day, January 20, 1997. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, how did the US voter get left with a choice between two unpopular candidates? The US has a candidate selection process which is complex and unwieldy. A special subset of voters vote on the candidates who present themselves, and the sequential nature of the selection process turns the selection into a horse race, with candidates vying to “collect” the delegates in each state and achieve a threshold which means that they cannot be beaten by other candidates.

Each state selects the candidates using a different method, and there are different numbers of “delegates” in different states. Of course a mining state may and often does prefer a different candidate to the candidate preferred by a farming state. Commentators try to out guess each other in predicting the results, state by state.

Map of number of electoral votes by state afte...
Map of number of electoral votes by state after redistricting from the 2000 census. Modified by User:Theshibboleth for the font to be consistent with electoral maps. Edited with Inkscape. Reuploaded by User:King of Hearts to correct spelling (vs. Image:Electorial map.svg). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wonder of the system is that it often throws up a candidate who has a reasonable amount of public support, in spite of the complexity of the process. This time however, it appears that the selection process has thrown up two candidates who don’t appear to appeal to the electorate. The voters do indeed have to select “the lesser of the two evils”.

In most democracies around the world things tend to be simpler. A candidate puts him or herself up for election, and he or she gets voted for or not as people choose. Of course, a candidate who aligns with a party needs to get the party’s approval, and cannot stand under the party banner without it.

English: National Awami Party (Muzaffar) banne...
English: National Awami Party (Muzaffar) banner at opposition rally, Dhaka. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However the above describes the process for electing a local representative. A presidential election raises extra problems. For instance, in the US the president is always a member of a political party. In countries where the president is preferred to be independent and outside of party politics issues arise in his/her selection.

If the president is elected directly by the populace the potential candidates will need to campaign countrywide when seeking election, and this will be expensive. The candidate therefore has to be very rich, sponsored by some organisation or be aligned with a party. The last two options work against the requirement for the president to be independent, and the first option restricts the field to those who have a large amount of money, which may be unacceptable or not achievable in a poor country.

English: Seal of the Executive Office of the P...
English: Seal of the Executive Office of the President of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many countries, including India and the US have got around this by using an electoral college system, though few systems could be as convoluted as the US method of selecting a candidate to stand for election as president. Such a system uses the fact that the population has already elected individuals to government, and uses the already elected individuals to decide on the candidates for president or select the president directly.

While this means that the most powerful political parties select and maybe elect the president, the representatives are doing what they are elected for, which is to make decisions on behalf of their voters. The elected representatives often select someone who may not be the most preferred by the grass roots electorate, but generally the selected person is not too disliked.

English: Sheep pasture The sheep have eaten th...
English: Sheep pasture The sheep have eaten the grass down to the roots, and must appreciate the fodder put out for them in these wheeled feeders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the case of the latest selection process for US president, the Democrats have selected Hilary Clinton as the most likely Democrat candidate to win, and while this is true, polls show that there is a lack of trust in her at the grass roots level. It is unlikely that this factor will weigh too heavily with the voter come the election, though.

The Republicans have selected Donald Trump, in spite of the belief early in the process that he stood no chance. The Republicans believe that he is the best choice of prevailing over Hilary Clinton, but many people dislike his brashness. On the other hand, many people like his approach to some of the issues that are hot topics in the US, such as immigration and the threat of terrorism. The real issue is whether or not his solutions to such topics are reasonable or will be effective.


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While the people get to vote for the person that they want to be president, the process seems to me to not be overly democratic. The sheer number of people in the US and in most other countries means that direct election of a president is never going to be possible. There is always going to be a distance between the President and the populace and this dilutes democracy. As it is, voters can only vote for a few candidates in the election. They have little say in who gets selected to stand.

How much does this dilute democracy? Hmm, good question, Cliff! It depends. Given that “representative democracy” like in many country puts distance between the electorate and the elected, if people do not like the candidates very much, this could reduce voter turn out at the election as people decide not to vote for either of them. If, however, enough people on one side hate the opposition candidate strongly enough this may encourage them to turn out and vote. The president is likely to be elected by the vote of only a few of those allowed to vote.

Italiano: Diluizione-Concentrazione
Italiano: Diluizione-Concentrazione (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is likely that the apathy effect is going to override the hate effect, in my opinion, and voter numbers are likely to drop. If only a small number turn out to vote, then has either candidate got a real mandate? Not really, I suggest.

The US form of diluted democracy means that only a favoured few get to stand for president. Up until Obama, all previous presidents back to the early days have been rich white men. Standing in an election for president of the US costs billions of dollars and few people are able to afford the price.

English: Total public debt outstanding, United...
English: Total public debt outstanding, United States, 1993-2011 (billions U.S $) Français : Dette publique totale des États-Unis en milliards de dollars, prix courants, 1993-2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So we have a rich businessman vying to become the most powerful man in the world, and making ridiculous promises, like a wall between the US and Mexico, and the wife of a previous president vying to become the first female president. While Hilary Clinton is not enormously rich, she is much richer than most of us, and she and Bill Clinton have powerful friends.

US-Mexico border barrier near Monument Road, S...
US-Mexico border barrier near Monument Road, San Diego, California, USA, looking into Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Commonsing ok. knoodelhed 17:53, 4 September 2007 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)