I have recently been the recipient of an interesting gift: the voter’s pamphlet for the Washington State 2016 elections. It is an eye-opener into the problems of the American version of democracy.
I gather that Washington State does not run traditional elections with polling places. Everything is done by mail-in ballot. You get your ballot in the mail, along with an explanatory pamphlet. You read the information, you mark your ballot (in about 50 places), and you mail it in. On Nov 8 you find out what happened. Sorry. You find out the results. You have no idea what happened. More on that later.
This is a 151-page document. It explains the various initiatives that voters are being asked to approve. Including the various provisions of each initiative, with a financial impact, prediction of results, and tables of pertinent data. Then there is a summary of arguments for and against, with a rebuttal from each side, including a brief resume of those who wrote the arguments. All obfuscated in a fog of legalese and technical terms.
“Initiative 1464 (I-1464) repeals a retail sales tax exemption for certain nonresidents on purchases of tangible personal property, digital goods and digital codes that will not be used in the state.”
The pamphlet also lists all the candidates for every position for at least three levels of government, from President down to School Board. With policy statements from all of them. (Interesting that the Democratic Presidential statement is an outline of policy that uses the pronouns “we” and “our” 23 times. The Republican statement contains nothing but glorification of the candidate, with the name “Trump” 8 times and “he” or “his” 5 times. “We” is used once.)
Interesting also that only the Presidential candidates are recognized as “Candidate of the –––––– Party.” All other candidates merely say, “Prefers Republican Party” or “Prefers Democratic Party.” Somehow the word “prefers” seems out of step with this year’s campaign.
In order to make an informed contribution to the election, the voter must read and understand 150 pages of legalese. While on the surface this seems to indicate an informed electorate, a deeper look shows quite the opposite.
Government by Plebiscite
The first thing that strikes me is the lack of trust, earned or not, in elected representatives to make decisions. Everything important seems to be decided by the voters. By singularly uninformed voters, as I argue below. I thought the idea was to elect someone you trusted to do the research and figure out the proper course of action.
The Omnibus Bill
Another weird element of American politics. Better called “Throw the baby out with the bathwater” legislation. One initiative listed this year would create a campaign-finance system, repeal the non-resident sales-tax exemption, and restrict lobbying employment by certain public employees. Vote “Yes” or “No,” please.
Think of the effect of this flood of extraneous data on the voter, especially the less educated, and (dare I say it?) the less intelligent. Faced with this confusion, there is a simple solution: choose a party and vote the party line. Swamping the people with too much information is just as powerful a technique for autocracy as giving them not enough. The result is the same: extreme polarity. When you combine this element with a radically two-party system, you end up with the dysfunctional government that runs the US today. Instead of educated voters making informed decision on important matters of policy, you have confused voters solving their confusion by professing blind loyalty to one party, which leads to blind aversion to the other party.
If we go on the theory that the less we know, the more we let our emotions run our lives, it explains the Trumphenomenon rather neatly.
While I’m sure this is an inexpensive way to run such a complicated election, I wonder whether that sort of thing lends credence to the charge that the election is rigged. With the traditional balloting system, there is a certain openness where everyone can see that at least some part of the election is happening as it should. With a mail-in ballot, you drop your vote in the mail, and some time later the results are posted, with nobody knowing what happens in between.
Who Actually Elects the Winners?
While an amazing 83% of registered voters usually cast a ballot in the US, only 54% of eligible voters are registered. This means that only 45% of eligible voters actually vote. Which means that a president who gets a 52% win has been elected by a whopping 24% of the possible voters in the country. And that’s democracy? No wonder there are so many disaffected voters.
And we wonder why there is such a strong reaction in the US against “Big Government.” If anything demonstrates the lack of connection between the government and the people it governs, this ballot fills the bill.
Looking at this method, I can see what a lot of Republican voters are going to do. They will vote for Clinton or not vote at all for President, but will vote for their Republican candidates for Senate and House. Which, unless the Republicans figure out the effect of their obstructionist policy is having on the country and on their party, will lead to another 8 years of undemocratic government, as the President uses every power she has to get something, anything done.
Appendix: Canadian Voting
For the benefit of our American friends, this is how we do it in Canada. It’s not perfect, but we’re working on it:
- We only elect representatives to legislative bodies at three levels of government: Federal, Provincial, and Municipal. All other positions (judges, prosecutors, and garbage collectors) are appointed by the elected representatives or other designated bodies. Face it, who knows enough about the candidates to elect the Public Prosecutor?
- The three different levels are all elected at different times. For each election, voters can focus on one candidate.
- We rarely hold a referendum and even more rarely would there be more than one referendum on any given ballot. We trust our legislators to do their job.
- We have three or four valid parties. To be sure, only two parties usually have a realistic possibility of forming a Federal government, but the third party has enough clout to make sure the other two don’t get silly. None of this “I hate both candidates” stuff. There’s always a third possibility.
- We are desperately trying to get away from the “first past the post” or “50% + 1 vote” election system. Canada and the US are in a very small minority of developed countries who use this vastly undemocratic method of voting. 50% + 1 is a great way to find out which team is the most powerful in a hockey game. It is a lousy way of finding out what the voters want.
The Bottom Line
Is an election a power struggle to find out who is strongest, so the winners do what they like for the next four years, or is it a way of finding out how the public wants the government to act? The American system creates a power struggle for the places at the top, leaving a huge pool of voters at the bottom who feel that they have no say at all. Perfect targets for any demagogue willing to tell them what they want to hear.