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The End of Voting

January 19, 2012

Margin of US Presidential Elections (Popular Vote)

Margin of US Presidential Elections

As we political animals know, the only way to run a democracy is by voting. We all take that for granted.

But what if voting became obsolete? What if the world changed so that every vote ends in a tie?
What if it already has?

The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor in 1956 prophetically portrays the new use of television advertising to win an election. Since then, we all know how TV/Internet has taken over. But what if the increasing media domination has  an effect unforeseen–the inevitable shrinking of margins, down to a statistical tie? Before 1960, margins under 5% were rare, and near-ties rarer still. Since 1960 near-ties are common, and since 1980, margins greater than 10% face extinction. In the last five years, even primary races produce near-ties, like Obama-Clinton for the Democrats, and Santorum-Romney in Iowa.

What the media does is provide instant feedback, through daily, even hourly polling that lets all sides calibrate and recalibrate. The result is tactics that essentially support both “teams” against the middle. For instance, whenever Santorum shouts how anti-abortion he is, that rallies his troops but rallies the other side against him as well.

In The Highest Frontier, the scenario I explore is that someday all elections end like Bush/Gore. Will voting become meaningless, a coin toss?

If that happens: What other ways might there be to run a democracy? Suppose we just give each party eight years in rotation. Might they act more responsibly, knowing their nemesis will get its turn?

20 Comments
  1. January 19, 2012 9:44 pm

    Or would political parties cease to have much meaning? They’ve shifted so much in my lifetime already.

  2. lightning permalink
    January 20, 2012 12:42 am

    Could it just be a matter of the media wanting a horse race, instead of a blowout? Candidate A falls behind in the polls, so the media makes his coverage a bit more positive. He goes ahead, the coverage goes negative. This certainly seems to be the case in the current Republican presidential primary. We have one plausible candidate, one that is not Totally Out of the Question, and a bunch of raving loons. The media are playing it like it is a real contest.

    • January 20, 2012 8:43 am

      Yes, the media want a horse race. And now that the Internet lets us watch in real time–it’s almost literally a horse race.

  3. January 20, 2012 3:16 am

    If parties had guaranteed terms, they would spend each of their terms entrenching their own positions and making it as difficult as possible for the other party to recover, to the detriment of the citizenry, until the citizens forced a change to the system.

  4. January 20, 2012 3:30 am

    I’m more familiar with typical European political systems, but the same trend can be seen here.
    I think however that the main problem is professional politicians. There are no lumberjacks in parliament anymore, barely anyone who has had a real job is there. The politicians see their work as a career path where becoming prime minister is the sparkling top they aspire to. Polls are used to modify the party programs to gain more voters. There is very little idealism left and the conservatives and social democrats here in sweden are moving so close that border is blurred in most cases.

    This will off course lead to tighter and tighter margins for the winner of any election, since the one in minority will change their program so they gain that tiny fraction they need to get majority – and the scale tips back and forth back and forth. The more accurate the polls will be the faster it will go.

    Political journalists seldom review the ideas or programs anymore, they refer the rethorical skills of the politicians making it more like a sports event than anything else.

    I think the system could be changed for the better _if_ politicians were made into amateurs again – dont let any politician be sitting for more than 2 periods, dont let them earn more than they did in their previous jobs (except for the government positions maybe) and be very strict with forbidding the equivalent of insider trading. Unfortunately I cant imagine any politician that would work for these kind of changes.

    Another alternative is direct democracy, which was impossible when democracy got back into fashion a few hundred years ago, but thanks to the internet would be a fairly trivial matter today.

    • January 20, 2012 8:48 am

      On the state level, in the US, we are indeed seeing “direct democracy” in the form of state-wide referendums. The results are mixed. In Ohio, referendums have achieved the smoking ban, the indexed minimal wage, and the overturn of union-gutting laws. But they also put all kinds of dumb stuff into the constitution, like letting two specific companies build casinos.

      Do we care? At the state level maybe not, but the main constitution; heaven knows what they’d do to freedom of speech and religion. If you held a direct vote today as to whether the US is a Christian nation, it would be scary.

  5. SFreader permalink
    January 20, 2012 10:47 am

    A couple of comments …

    Real-time media coverage and increasingly widespread social-media reported poll results now allow parties to better employ get-the-vote-out tactics. Election days were and still are one of the trickiest supply-line type problems.

    Elections are one of the oldest forms of ‘surveys’, i.e., hands up everyone who wants ‘A’. Despite the total number of individuals who qualify, only a ‘sample’ actually bothers to vote even though the outcome will affect everyone including abstainers. Given the decline in voter turnout, this itself should be a sufficient reason for reviewing and overhauling ‘voting’ mechanisms in most participatory democracies. There are probably a number of different ways of doing this – from going to continuous real-time ‘surveying/polling’ to how votes are recorded. Most democracies are still using fixed electoral poll locations paper-and-pencil voting despite the increasing access to online. (If Smartphone access/usage continues to grow as expected virtually everyone on the planet will have online access within the next 20 years or so.) Security against election fraud will always be an issue, but online security is probably easier to fix than changing people’s attitudes toward the mechanics of how ‘real voring’ should be done.

  6. Mid permalink
    January 20, 2012 10:48 am

    I’m seeing it shift more to a “counsel” type run government.

  7. January 20, 2012 11:08 am

    I don’t particularly blame democracy as a system. One thing to realize is that democracy happens on all levels, from local planning groups and juries all the way up to the President. If we’re not willing to participate when called, we’re perhaps not the ones to be complaining about how others aren’t doing their share either?

    The biggest problem right now is that there’s too much money floating around (see this chart, for example). The Super-PACs flooding airwaves with junk ads are just one symptom. I don’t think you can regulate it, either. Money is effectively a geologic force by now, which is bizarre when you realize that it doesn’t really exist (explanation: fiat money is given value by government fiat, backed up by threatening people with legal penalties if they don’t treat it as having real value. The values of various types of money are set by negotiation on financial markets, not by any inherent worth in a piece of paper or the bytes in a computer account). Think of it as a real-world manifestation of the noosphere.

    As with carboniferous coal, which arose because plants invented wood before decomposers figured out how to eat it, I suspect the only solution is to embed money in the equivalent of a geological layer, where it can be strip-mined periodically for a bit of value, but is otherwise isolated from the rest of life. I’m not sure what the equivalent of a million-year bond is, but we need it right now. Otherwise, we need the equivalent of a decomposition cycle for money, and I’d hate to have one of those eating my bank account just now.

  8. SFreader permalink
    January 20, 2012 3:59 pm

    “The biggest problem right now is that there’s too much money floating around … which is bizarre when you realize that it doesn’t really exist ” – agree and whereas governments used to be able to control the growth of money via financial institutions, they can’t any more.

    The last boom-bust cycle, people in general talked about bartering, becoming self-sufficient, etc. – basically opting out or at least scaling back their participation in the overall economy. Haven’t heard much of that this time around and not sure why not. Any ideas?

    • January 21, 2012 10:12 am

      Perhaps because people are actually doing it, this time?

      A couple of examples: it sure looks to me like portions are getting smaller in restaurants, and people are getting more thoughtful about what they spend money on (which I saw at a Conference last weekend). I routinely pick up trash in a park where mountain bikers go to have fun. A few years ago, every week or two I could find bike computers lying, in pieces, where they’d fallen off someone’s bike during their epic ride. I haven’t seen that kind of debris in over a year. Now I more often see kleenex.

  9. January 21, 2012 11:54 am

    Today I’m wondering if my thesis needs correction. In the long run, media will actually drive elections to absurdity, leading to wide swings in the margin. For example, the last presidential margin would have been a lot smaller without Sarah Palin, a bizarrely inappropriate choice both driven–and driven under–by the media.

  10. January 21, 2012 1:55 pm

    Since I think this may be behind a paywall now, I’ll post part of this article in a recent Science News

    My short take is that it benefits opinionated extremists to get as few people to vote as possible. The problem may not be democracy, but the fact that we get too easily disgusted by negative tactics, and we don’t participate if we’re not strongly committed to the issues du jour.

    The article: Uncommitted newbies can foil forceful few; Decisions can be more democratic when individuals with no preset preference join a group
    By Susan Milius

    Odd as it sounds, adding wishy-washy members to a group can wrest control from a strongly opinionated minority and make collective decisions more democratic.

    At least that’s what happened in an experiment with schooling fish and three kinds of computer simulations described in the Dec. 16 Science. “Quite counter-intuitive,” says study coauthor Iain Couzin of Princeton University. “What we’re trying to do with this paper is put out a new idea.”

    Couzin is not arguing that there’s a benefit to a poorly informed electorate. But he does call for experiments to clarify the role that uninformed people with no opinion on a choice play in human consensus building.

    “Maybe the optimum state isn’t everybody being highly informed and having very, very strong political opinions,” Kearns speculates. Perhaps an ideal world would still need a little ignorance. “Maybe the role of these ignorant individuals, whether they be fish or American voters, is to provide a stabilizing, mediating effect,” he says. But whatever the ideal dose of ignorance may be, current levels clearly exceed it, he says. “I think we’re very, very far from the optimum.”

  11. SFreader permalink
    January 21, 2012 2:38 pm

    This sounds similar to the ‘wisdom of crowds’ concept, i.e., a truly representative sample of people will provide accurate assessments.

    As you say, the failure is likely not getting the middle or less technically informed groups out to vote. One remedy might be to popularize this ‘wisdom of crowds’ concept so that the non-extreme opinion holders/experts can be persuaded that their opinions do add value.

  12. January 21, 2012 4:31 pm

    Yeah, I’d love to get more people out to vote. I’m just trying to figure out whether the better motivator is:
    –it’s your civic duty
    –you get to vote for Party A or Party B
    –the sooner you vote, the sooner the crap stops
    –Why are you letting Them trying drive you away from using your real political power? Better, if you can tolerate their BS, They’ll bleed themselves dry trying to drive you away.

    Hmmmm.

    • January 22, 2012 12:01 pm

      What you said before: “we get too easily disgusted by negative tactics.” By analogy: Do we stop eating just because of all the junk food? No, we find good food to eat.

      What we need to do–and fail, because it’s “uncool,” is to acknowledge the good jobs that leaders actually do. For instance, Romney did a good job running Massachusetts, and Gingrich with Clinton ran a great economy. And Obama is objectively the most effective top executive we’ve had since FDR.

      Two tactics help me to avoid discouragement:
      (1) Never watch television. Never see the ads.
      (2) When Tea Party callers reach my phone, I turn the questions around and try to convince them instead. Once I actually succeeded. 😉

      • January 22, 2012 6:47 pm

        Wow, congratulations on convincing a Tea Partyer! Since the only thing the pols do here is swing by for more money, I’ve been able to miss most of the onslaught.

  13. paws4thot permalink
    January 26, 2012 6:01 am

    In the general case, I can’t remember the author or title now, but I did read a story where opinion polling nad reached a stage where, instead of actually holding an election they selected one “Mr Average” voter, asked him a series of questions, and selected the winner on the basis of his answers.

    On the specific point of “avoiding disilusionment and discouragement”, I applaud your tactics!

    • January 26, 2012 9:34 am

      Thanks; a friend reminds me that your story is “Franchise” by Isaac Asimov:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franchise_%28short_story%29
      I don’t recall consciously using this story as a model, although I directly referenced Seldon.

      What I find ironic is that Asimov thought elections would become predictable, whereas I argue they’ll become essentially unpredictable; a tossup. Perhaps the emotional swings caused by the Mule were closer to where we are now.

      • paws4thot permalink
        January 27, 2012 6:09 am

        I’m pretty sure that is correct, after reading the Wikipedia entry, not least because I own or owned both of the cited collections (probably bought in the early 1980s when Galsgow got its first ever specialist F&SF bookshop).

        What I’d like to see more about from the THF World is the idea of gambling your taxes in a casino instead of writing a cheque to $government.

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