Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 7, February 2001: "The Greatest Democracy in the World and the Unfairness of American Elections"


The United States of America is the self-professed greatest democracy in the world. Besides the obvious offensiveness of such claim to countries that are equally democratic and that can claim a longer history of civil liberties than the US can, the very idea flies in the face of the actual structure of the American electoral system. This has been painfully demonstrated by the recent squabble between George Bush and Al Gore on who really won the election.

Let’s start with democracy 101. Ever since ancient Athens, democracy means the rule of the people (though for a long time the “people” have not included women, economically “lower” classes and slaves). By that simple criterion, the American system is undemocratic because it allows someone to win the presidential election even though she lost the popular vote—as has just happened to Gore and did happen a few other times before. This bizarre situation can occur because in the US the people don’t really vote, electors chosen by each State do. And since each State is guaranteed a certain number of electoral votes which is not commensurate to its population, rural states are over-represented and Mr. Bush won by acreage rather than votes. As a citizen of New Hampshire put it recently during one of many interviews the media broadcasted after the 2000 elections, “If we went to a proportional system, New Hampshire would count for nothing.” As it should, if this were really a democracy.

According to historians, there was originally a good reason for such a peculiar system. The United States were not really united, but rather resembled a loose confederation of largely independent entities, Swiss-style. Under those conditions, it was only natural to give precedence to the abstract entity of a “State” rather than to each of its citizens. Of course, the United States has never really become a nation—witness the harsh debates and court rulings on the limits of State vs. Federal power, but the fact remains that such a system is anything but democratic.

A second major fault with the greatest democracy of the world is that typically a minority of its population bothers to go to the voting booth. Furthermore, Republicans in Congress have strenuously fought to keep it that way, for example opposing bills such as the motor registration act, which would make it easier for people to register to vote. Now, in real democracies, the percentage of people casting their ballots is much higher than the pitiful American average, and people are automatically registered based on their biographical data (they receive the registration at home when they turn 18—but of course this would mean that the Government needs to know who you are and where you live, God forbid).

The situation is so bad that several years ago the Christian coalition devised a tactic to get their favorite people elected, called “the 12% strategy.” Since about 50% of eligible Americans are actually registered to vote, and of these little more than half bother to show up to cast their ballots, you need to get the vote of half of these (roughly 12% of the whole population) to be insured victory. On top of this, add the even stranger primary system, in which only a tiny fraction of really devoted people vote, thereby dramatically influencing the general election by eliminating candidates that might do well with the population at large but don’t fit the opinions of a skewed minority of activists. Here is some food for thought: twenty more millions of people watched the 2001 Super Bowl than cast their vote in the 2000 elections.

One could go even further and suggest that no current voting system is actually democratic, no matter the country in which it is implemented. A recent article by Dana Mackenzie in Discover magazine (November 2000) clearly demonstrates why. It turns out that people have been studying voting systems for quite a while, and better options than the proportional system adopted by most countries have been clearly devised—indeed, they have been historically used by different cultures in different times.

Perhaps the simplest alternative is what is known as approval voting, which dates back to the 13th century, when it was used in Venice to elect magistrates. In this system, a person casts one vote for every candidate that she considers qualified. It works much like an opinion poll, with the difference that the results are added up to determine the winner. One of the advantages of approval voting is that you can vote for a candidate likely to loose—say, Ralph Nader—and don’t feel like you are wasting your vote: he will get a good percentage of points while you can also cast your vote for somebody who is more likely to actually win. If approval voting had been used in the 2000 US elections, John McCain would have won, based on polls conducted in February. Furthermore, approval voting would have spared Minnesota from electing Jesse Ventura, and New Hampshire from handing the State’s primary to Pat Buchanan in 1996.

Another alternative to standard voting systems is the Borda count, named after a French physician and hero of the American Revolution. This system was actually in use in the Roman senate at least since 105 CE. It is similar to the method used to rank football and basketball college teams: each voter ranks all the candidates from top to bottom. If we take a poll by the Sacramento Bee during California’s open primaries in 2000, McCain would have beaten Gore 48 to 43, Gore would have bettered Bush 51 to 43, and McCain would have surpassed Bush 50 to 45. Overall, the final rank would have been McCain 98, Gore 94, and Bush 88. Quite a different outcome from what actually happened!

In both the approval and the Borda systems voters are asked something that is missing from the current system: they need to choose who they will pick if their favorite is eliminated. More powers to the voters, a better democracy.

Of course, neither system is perfect, but the point is that most people in the US don’t even realize that their way is one of the worst among those currently practiced by the world’s democracies, and serious discussion hasn’t begun in any country on how to improve the actual democratic value of our voting systems. Given that we have to live with the results for several years to come, wouldn’t it be worth taking a serious look at the alternatives?


Next Month: "Game Theory, Rational Egoism and the Evolution of Fairness"

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2000