Saturday, April 2, 2016

When is Democracy Not Democracy?

The ongoing battle within the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential nomination is the most recent exemplifier of this question, but I have been thinking about it since President Obama’s 2012 victory. The question itself has been around for ages. 

--At what point is an election’s outcome a legitimate expression of the people’s will? In other words, can a winner who has received less than 50% of the vote, but still more than the other candidates, really be considered the valid winner?--

The United States is a republic which basically means we have a constitution (rule of law) that protects the rights of all, even the rights of a single individual, from the whims of the majority. It helps to keep our nation stable and largely defends us from mob rule. But when it comes to electing the president, the people have no real legal guarantee to vote. All the Constitution says is that the president is the person who gains the majority of electoral college votes and that each state appoints electors to serve that function; it doesn’t say how a candidate might receive said votes.

Logically the best method would be to apportion the Electoral College in a certain way that is then tied to the direct voting of the people. In my state of Tennessee there are 11 Electoral College votes, so if the majority of voters pick candidate A, he/she would get those 11 votes. 

From 1828 onward, the average voter turnout in the US stayed in the 70-80% range until the 1896 election, from there it plummeted to a mere 48.9% in 1924. After that, things went back up to the 60 percentage range, and have now fallen – but stabilized – to the 50s ever since 1972 (with one exception, 49% in 1996).

In the US, there have been four elections, 1824, 1920, 1924, and 1996, where the turnout was under 50%. And while having a low turnout is never good, winning with a minority of votes is even worse. There have been 18 elections where the “winner” received less than 50% of the popular vote. John Q. Adams got the lowest amount, 30.92%, and Lincoln the second lowest at 39.65%. The most recent example was G. W. Bush in 2000 and he joined three other presidents to not only win with less than 50%, but to actually win by coming in 2nd in terms of the popular vote.

So far I have focused on voter turnout and votes cast. But what about looking at things in terms of how many adult citizens voted? In 2012, voter turnout was 54.9%, and Obama won 51.1% of the vote, but that also means that only about 30% of eligible voters voted for the winner. Thirty percent got to decide what the other 70% had to live with.

Certainly the obvious solution is to increase voter turnout, but it also raises other questions. Before I get to those, I quickly want to look at local elections.

Local elections tend to have an even smaller turnout despite the fact that what goes on at the local level has a greater impact on the lives of citizens than just about anything that could occur at the national level. 

Using my state of Tennessee again, our most recent gubernatorial election had a turnout of approx. 25% - meaning Gov. Bill Haslam won with only the support of 17.5% of the adult population. Even worse, in my city of Murfreesboro, only 11.32% of registered voters actually voted. That means the mayor won 7.7% of registered voters, or roughly 5% of the adult population. FIVE PERCENT.

Some countries have an election threshold. So long as the “winner” (either a party or individual candidate) hits that threshold, then the election is valid and they actually win. In some multi-candidate contests, if a candidate fails to reach 50% (for example), then the top two candidates will go to a “run-off” election. But the rules vary widely across the world and even in the US. And within America there is no uniformity, with many states and municipalities lacking any kind of real threshold. 

Taking part in the election process is everyone’s right and that includes the right to not exercise one’s ability to vote. But when someone can win while being rejected by a large majority (such as the case of Trump), or when you win simply because most people didn’t show up to vote (like Tennessee’s governor), it really calls into question the legitimacy of the whole system.

President Obama had no election mandate just because he “won” a second time – he only won 30% of eligible voters. I fully recognize that in a multi-party system it would be extremely difficult for anyone to win a true majority of all eligible voters (turnout will never equal 100%), but the idea that the winner wins with fewer than 30% of the vote, or just 5%, appalls me – and it opens wide the door to corruption and everything bad in politics. 

Low turnout favors the “good ole boy” system, it favors big money, the politically well connected, and it can effectively cut entire communities out of the process – thus deepening whatever divides (racial or otherwise) that may already exist. And then there’s the extreme cases where little known nut jobs win 40% of the popular vote and go on to invade Poland. Or you have a staunch anti-gay candidate win the Democratic nomination, as happened in Tennessee’s 2012 senatorial race, by getting 30%.

Making voting compulsory doesn’t necessarily solve the problem and it opens up a whole other debate about the meaning of freedom (including the freedom to not do something). There are several additional complex and equally important debates within the concept of compulsory voting too. In the end people have the right to not participate, but I don’t think anyone would agree that allowing 10% of the population to determine who will lead everyone is a good thing either.

Given the importance of having a representative government and the potentially grave repercussions of allowing a minority to decide for the majority (even if that choice is based on silent acquiescence), I feel it’s very important to bring up this topic as our own election process is heating up and to have this conversation.

--Jacob Bogle, 4/2/2016 

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