Amid all the heated discussions lately of electoral processes here ("here" being both HoF/BJOL and the POTUS/US of A) I’ve realized how naively we all approach the entire concept of elections. I sympathize with all you naïve folks, mainly because I’m very naïve myself in this regard, and for a fairly simple, direct reason: although we all absorbed the basic information about voting very early, it’s actually a complicated and deeply philosophical concept that we were completely incapable of processing as children. A lot of what we processed, however, has stuck with us, and we are naturally reluctant to question concepts that we think we’ve understood perfectly well for our entire conscious lives.
Just take the idea of "qualified voters," which is a gigantic hot-button issue on the national scale in the U.S. right now. We tend to approach this as if the prejudices we bring to the issue are firmly settled facts and those who disagree with our own prejudices are insane, evil, demented, hyper-partisan, hopelessly stupid, hopelessly corrupt, treasonous, jingoistic or any combination thereof. In reality, though, most of us have given very little thought to the question of "Who should be qualified to vote?" I’ve vacillated myself from setting the bar very high to setting it very low, and at various times in my life I was certain that universal enfranchisement or very selective enfranchisement was the way to go. There are reasonable arguments for both cases, and for numerous cases in between those extremes, but no clearly fair way to settle this issue, which is only one of dozens of open issues regarding voting and electoral processes. One of the realizations I’ve taken away from thinking about these processes is that every system we can devise is unfair to somebody, and most are unfair to several large groups of people.
That’s a painful realization, isn’t it? It’s painful because I think one of the first prejudices we have had driven into our tiny skulls when we first learned about elections is that they’re designed, above all, to be fair. Imagine if we taught our kids, "OK, the first thing you have to understand about voting is that it’s unfair, and that it has to be unfair. Our particular system is cruelly unfair to [voting bloc A] and incidentally unfair to [voting bloc B] and [voting bloc C] but other countries’ voting systems are horrible to [voting blocs D, E and F] and blithely dismissive of [voting blocs G, H, I and especially J]. It’s impossible to design a voting system that treats everyone fairly." But without that instruction, and with the opposite of that instruction, we all get brainwashed into assuming that any system is a fair one, and that our system (mirror, mirror, on the wall) is the fairest of them all. That’s got to be fundamentally wrong on its face, since every different voting system in the world, of which there are dozens, perhaps hundreds (depending on what you call a system and what you call a variation of a system), teaches that its system is the fairest one of all.
One irony here is that you might suppose that this question could be resolved—by voting on it. Imagine if you held some sort of nation-wide referendum on "Who is qualified to vote?" Well, who is qualified to vote in that referendum, right? The solution is stymied by the problem it’s seeking to resolve.
How did Americans design their electoral process, anyway? It’s not all that different from how the chaotic unsystematic system of the Baseball Hall of Fame began, which is thoroughly and scathingly covered in chapter 4 of Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, the key clause of which is "the Hall of Fame has never really thought through the issue of how to identify the most worthy Hall of Famers." A small group of self-appointed, educated 18th-century politicians under a lot of time-pressure and without specialized training or experience in electoral design argued about the American electoral process, plus a few hundred other related issues, and swapped, bargained, horse-traded, and compromised on most of these issues to come up with a system that worked. Sort of. Giving the Founding Fathers the most credit possible for wisdom and sound judgment, this is not the ideal way to design anything. Far from it.
Let me give an idea of some critical issues in designing electoral and voting systems that, at least in theory, are open for legitimate debate. (Among the things I’ve learned in doing a little research on these issues is that "electoral" and "voting" processes are two entirely distinct subjects. I’m going to mix them up in the sample questions below. )
Who is qualified to vote?
What evidence of identity does a qualified voter need to supply at the polling place?
Should there be a national standard of qualification, or should every locality set its own standard?
How should candidates for office be chosen?
Should the winner be determined by majority vote or by a plurality?
How shall disputes over election outcomes be resolved?
Should everyone’s vote count equally?
What qualifications must candidates have in order to be on the ballot?
Should voting be mandatory?
Should ballots be open or secret?
Should a system include maximum democratic voting (i.e., referenda) or maximum representative voting, or something in between?
And on and on, with each of these questions containing many valid sub-questions of equal philosophical complexity. You might suppose naively that such questions are self-evidently answerable: "Should everyone’s vote count equally?" for example fairly screams "YES! YES! YES!" like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally but actually our Electoral College screams right back "NO! NO! NO!" and we all live with that.
A very practical issue that arises right about here is whether we must, in fact, live with what we have. There are those here on BJOL, for example, whom I’ll refer to, slightly insultingly, as "Hall of Fame apologists," by which I mean that their argument seems based on the assumption that since historical HoF voting has yielded results that mostly seem admirable or at least acceptable, nothing about the voting needs to be different, or ever needed to be different. It’s just peachy-fine the way it is. I’m sure there are those who feel the same about national elections, or even different national elections in different countries. "It’s what we have, it’s what I’ve grown up with, it’s had certain results over the years, and there’s no point to questioning this system" is my characterization of the apologist position, which I obviously am puzzled by, to say the least.
I apologize, not only for the slightly insulting term, but also for ignoring this position. If you think we’ve got a peachy-keen system, or several peachy-keen systems, working right now, then this article will simply not speak to you, as it inherently offends your sensibilities by suggesting that there is much that is flawed in our voting system, and in every other system. Personally, I think we must assume a profound sense of humility in even broaching this subject, because a lot of people a lot smarter than I am have devoted their lives to these issues and have come away with ideas that are very challenging to me. Take Kenneth Arrow, for example, a Nobel-Prize winning economist who just died a week or so ago: Arrow worked on the problem of having an utterly irrational system of voting, summarized here: https://stanfordpolitics.com/kenneth-arrow-on-the-irrationality-of-our-voting-system-84c40aa39ef4#.lo7d9jjqm . For those who don’t wish to open that link, I’ll summarize the summary: Arrow proposes four straightforward conditions of rational voting systems, but when they’re combined, as they must be, every voting system violates at least one or more of these conditions. In other words, every voting system in the world exhibits irrationality. If you must begin an analysis of voting systems with the understanding that all systems are inherently irrational, as Arrow insists we must, then the whole process of voting must begin under a thundercloud of suspicion. Bring your umbrella.
Arrow’s thesis, which has been around a little longer than Bill has (Arrow first came up with this concept in his doctoral dissertation, written in the very late 1940s and very early 1950s), makes clear that all voting systems contain irreconcilable flaws, but this needn’t stop us from picking one that, as someone once said, is "more perfect." (That solecism always cracks me up, the concept of various degrees of perfection, much as the idea of various degrees of uniqueness cracks me up. This one is especially good in that it appears in a document that many patriotic Americans assume to be itself perfect, if not actually composed by the hand of God. What Gouverneur Morris, the actual "Penman of the Constitution," meant by the expression "more perfect" is something like "less screwed-up than those goddamned Articles of Confederation," though "more perfect" does, I will admit, have a more noble ring to it.) In other words, we can decide which flaws to accept and which ones to reject.
This decision rests on our agreeing to revisit the voting systems ab ovo, as it were, to be willing to reject and to accept anything we choose, regardless of what the Constitution or our childhood understanding of the Constitution says, as well as reconsidering the voting system of the Hall of Fame, and other institutions. I like a system which demands that regular reconsideration take place at frequent intervals, because the assumption there is "Yeah, we probably screwed up something, we’re far from the sharpest mustard in the delicatessen, and future voters probably will be able to fix some of our inevitable screw-ups, if we let them."
To think otherwise strikes me as arrogant, but I’m not here to abuse anyone. I have a little practical experience, in that I served for several years on the By-Laws Committee of the English Department, chairing the committee for a while, which believe me was a trip. It was like a Marx brothers routine, only funnier. Our By-Laws clearly state that every ten years, we must convene and revisit the By-Laws, which condition we chose to ignore, putting us of course in violation of the By-Laws. We met after about eight or nine years but couldn’t come to any sort of agreement as to the changes we wanted in the By-Laws—we know only that we all wanted different changes, and we wanted them very badly, but we couldn’t reach an agreement on how to vote for these changes. There was just enough ambiguity (and downright contradiction) in the By-Laws themselves to make concordance impossible. (Topping the comedy routine, it turned out when we couldn’t come to an agreement, the dean of the college stepped in to inform us that our departmental By-Laws in several places didn’t meet with her approval, so essentially we were told that anything we did according to the By-Laws could be voided by her refusal to accept the By-Laws’ validity, and she needn’t strive for consistency in her rulings.) Among the simpler issues of contention (while we were under the illusion that we needed to have By-Laws in the first place) were such things as "voter eligibility." Some professors argued that voting should be limited to tenured faculty, others to full-time faculty, still others to all faculty. A few of us thought that only "full" professors should vote, or that their votes should count more than those of professors at lower ranks. Still others insisted that we appoint student representatives and that they, too, have voting rights.
There was a good case made for each position, which I won’t bore you with here, but will simply use it as my example of a fairly simple argument on a straightforward subject that proved incredibly difficult, complicated, and contentious. Another needlessly difficult issue that occupied this very small group for days was that of absentee voting: Could one voting member cast a proxy vote for an absent voting member? If so, would that absent voting member’s vote need to be written before we discussed the matter, or could the member holding the proxy just cast a vote as he or she saw fit for the absent member? Stuff like that took forever to get straight, and even then was settled only by majority vote, not by any unanimity or agreement or concord. In the end, the decision about proxies was decided by proxy votes that some on the losing side felt were illegitimate votes which, if disallowed, would have changed the results of the voting. My side won, but, man, were those losers cheesed off! I believe the ultimate and winning argument was "Let’s vote for my nonsense, which is no more nonsensical than the other side’s nonsense, and move on to other nonsense, okay? Please?"
What I’m trying to say by these examples is that every single issue regarding voting makes some sense to some people, and raises other issues, and we don’t even understand the purpose voting is intended to serve. Mostly, voting exists in order to settle issues (like my department’s proxy war) so they don’t linger and fester and remain in dispute. Even the people who lose an election can at least say, "Well, we had it out, we lost, and now we can move on." Voting gives closure, or at least the illusion of closure, for a while, and we all seek that. It settles not so much what choice is the right choice, or the moral or ethical or legal or appropriate choice, but just the choice that the people voting on that particular day opted to support, for reasons good or bad or indifferent. That is ultimately all the electoral process is designed to do.
But we don’t trust the electoral process very much, do we? By "we" I mean "humans," though Americans will serve as a convenient example—we set up our peculiar electoral process out of fear of "the mob," which makes sense in Al Capone’s Chicago, but in the late 18th century "the mob" was—well, what we would call "voters" now. Women. Blacks. Recent immigrants. Servants. Those lazy worthless slobs who rent rooms instead of owning property. And though we’ve expanded the franchise greatly since then, there is still a great hue and cry over unqualified people who are still able, somehow, to cast an undeserving ballot. Fear of the mob is still with us, and although the mob may have changed, that fear is only growing stronger.
And fear of the mob makes some sense—don’t get me wrong. Someone just (like five minutes ago, as I write this) quoted in "Reader Posts" Churchill’s line about the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, and I’m sure that someone else is thinking now that the best counter-argument to that is Churchill’s "Except for all the others" line. I’m pretty sure that there are Democrats who secretly favor giving people votes based on the number of advanced degrees they have, while many Republicans would like to award voting privileges based on income—there are dozens of alternative systems that would be favored, like my two examples, based on current perceptions of winning elections, not on any high-minded or well-thought-out principle, and I think all of these proposals have a certain merit. Honestly, one of the major driving forces behind our current, contested notions of voter eligibility is just simplicity: you don’t have to produce much documentation to vote in this country (though there are those who want more stringent documentation standards), and thank God for that. It would be hell to have to bring in all your graduate diplomas or your past tax returns to show your level of education or your current income, and it would turn becoming eligible to vote into a legal process that would take days instead of minutes. (I don’t remember what I had to show in order to become eligible. The first ballot I ever cast—for George Stanley McGovern, natch—was during my sophomore year of college, and I can’t even imagine what documentation I possessed proving I was me, and I was born here, and all that. Did they operate on the honor system on the upper West Side of Manhattan then? Is it basically an honor system now? That is, did I have to sign something swearing I was born here, and that I wasn’t a felon? How could I have proven a negative anyway? For the felon part, I can’t imagine there is any proof that’s even possible, much less required, so I guess they took my word for all of it. I was trying to become a felon in those days, but my heart wasn’t in it.) Both privileging higher education and privileging wealth would be called "elitist" (certainly by the uneducated and the poor) but I don’t mind being called an elitist so much anymore. I’ve gotten kind of used to it, in that I actually do believe that some people are better at certain things than other people. That, after all, is why I like major league baseball—what an elitist scam THAT is! Just because these guys are the best baseball players, do we really have to watch them and pay them and applaud them so much? Talk about elitism!
For that matter, what’s the big deal about the secret ballot? We’ve been arguing here, for example, about the Hall of Fame voters having their ballots revealed to the public, and most people, by my count, are protesting this change on the basis of ballots being secret. After all, they argue, isn’t the secret ballot a sacred and necessary part of voting?
Is it? Not really. We are accustomed to seeing how our representatives vote on various bills, aren’t we? We accept—no, we demand-- that their votes be cast in public, and that each vote cast goes into a permanent record. The HoF voters seem much more analogous to me to the U.S. Senators whose votes are public, than they are to voters in a polling booth—both the HoF guys and the Senators are a small select group representing a much larger group (the fans and the public, respectively), but even there I would question why we venerate the secret ballot for the general public. It would be WAY different to have our votes a matter of public record, of course, and some things that I can’t even imagine would be worse, but in a lot of ways that would be better. I’m supposing that a major downside would be retribution, shaming, intimidation, pressure—I get that. But the secret ballot has its drawbacks, too, among which I number a lack of responsibility for your vote. My point is that "The Secret Ballot" is sacrosanct but we haven’t really given a whole lot of thought to whether it’s desirable or not.
Many assumptions we make about the voting process are similarly sacrosanct, but in my view, worthy of questioning. I said before that fear of the mob, resulting in an Electoral College, is a reasonable fear—but under examination, doesn’t that principle violate the essence of voting? It seems to me that if you’re afraid of what the mob can do, and you need to have a check on it, even a check as toothless and nominal as the Electoral College has proven itself to be, aren’t you then saying that you fundamentally disapprove of the idea of democracy? It’s not a bad position, disapproving of democracy, though it is elitist in the extreme: we need to have some group of smart (or capable, or rich, or land-owning, or something) people who can reject the electoral process if the people decide to do something colossally stupid, or self-destructive, or ill-advised?
What does it mean that everyone’s vote counts equally? A bedrock of democracy, it asserts flatly the equality of everyone—but then how can we have a system, like the Electoral College, that asserts that all voters do not have an equal voting power? Mind you, I’m not complaining about the Electoral College (not here, anyway) but I am pointing out how certain maxims that seem self-evident are equally self-evidently defied by actual practice, and no one seems to mind this contradiction very much. It’s almost as if the ballot, the sacred ballot, isn’t something we find important enough to devote a lot of thinking to. In some ways, "thinking" is considered too difficult for most people to manage, which is why we tend to reduce complicated processes to simple slogans and maxims, which then get applied and misapplied and misunderstood. "All men are equal" uh, kinda. Sorta. Sometimes. Not really.
This misunderstanding and reduction to slogans isn’t limited to the electoral process. In much the same way that the "secret ballot" and "one man, one vote" get bandied about without much reflection, "innocent until proven guilty" is applied so broadly that we often forget that it’s a maxim specific to felonies in courts of law, and not necessarily or desirably applied to everyday life. It really makes no sense to apply it, say, to an inter-office dispute. Someone steals your favorite Bic pen off your desk in plain sight of the whole office, and you demand that he give it back to you. What’s his defense? "Innocent until proven guilty by a jury of my peers," he might respond idiotically enough, meaning that the pen is his, and you are in the wrong for asserting his guilt, until a fair trial has taken place. We all can see that this example is ludicrous, and that the pen-thief is not only dishonest but criminally stupid, but the same principle also applies to other non-legal situations as well. It’s ONLY in a courtroom, and ONLY for a felony, that we raise the bar so high as to force ourselves to suspend our conclusions until a fair trial has been conducted. In most other circumstances, you’re a jackass if you suspend all your good judgment and common sense until a trial, which isn’t even possible for 99% of transgressions, takes place. Yet you hear this very specific charge being demanded in everyday situations all the time.
Maxims about elections substitute for real thought about the issues. They free us up from having to think long and hard about the principles behind the maxims, which many folks find painful, and free us up from having to think about why we have elections in the first place.
When this question is asked, which is rare, the usual answer is negative: what, would you have us ruled by a dictator? A king? The first hundred names in the Boston telephone directory, as Abbie Hoffman once asserted? Okay, it was William F. Buckley Jooooniah whut said that he’d prefer to be ruled by those 100 alphabetically privileged Bostonians than by the Harvard faculty, but the question remains: if we don’t vote, what alternative is possible? How can society decide what its laws should be, and who will administer those laws, without an electoral system?
I have a very good friend who (I’m serious now) is so far to my left politically that I can’t even understand what he’s saying half of the time. (He gets into intense disagreements with the American Communist party, various Marxists, extreme left-wing groups of every stripe, always on the grounds that their positions are too supportive of a capitalist free-market society.) This friend is adamantly opposed to the concept of voting (which takes the form of bemusement rather than anger, because he’s a witty and gentle guy), so much so that he refuses to supply a practical alternative to it: voting is a cornerstone of capitalism, and since the entire building must come down, my friend prefers not to get bogged down in petty details before we (you and I) agree in principle to raze the building. While it’s crumbling to the ground, my friend seems to believe, we can argue about the design of the building we would like to construct after the rubble is cleared away. But after an hour or two of badgering on my part (in the Museum of Modern Art the other day, as he and I toured all sorts of great art and silly repulsive art) he offered the model of American Indian tribal structure, which went on for millennia without elections, without campaigning, without politics as we know it—his point (I think) was that our society is not as dependent as we think it is on the apparatus that’s been handed down to us. We just need to think outside the box we’re in, and outside of the box that box is in. Actually, now that I think about it, it was Abbie Hoffman who said that he’d prefer to appoint any full-blooded American Indian, even if he’s an imbecile, to rule over this country, as a token of repentance for virtually wiping out the indigenous people on this continent.
Hey, that’s got to make at least as much sense as having Donald Trump in charge, doesn’t it?
Don’t answer that.