Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Vote is Not Enough

Must we go along with every decision that is backed by the majority of votes cast because that is the democratic thing to do? But is it democratic if some who will be affected by that decision are denied a vote? And what if the vote is given to people who for whatever reason cannot comprehend what the vote is about and will use it arbitrarily? In any case, should the ballot be secret to prevent votes being cast under duress, or open to ensure transparency? What if only a small proportion of those eligible to vote have come forward to cast their vote? Which case should be decided on a simple majority, two/thirds majority, or unanimity? Would it make more sense in some cases to limit the vote to electing people who will then make the decisions? If so, should whoever gets the most votes in a single round wins, or would it be fairer if second/third etc. preferences be transferable in determining who would get the greatest support overall?

For anyone who thinks that ‘the majority are with me’ is a simple cast-iron licence to act, answering the above questions is just a start. There are numerous other factors that may affect the legitimacy of decision-by-voting under different conditions. For example, if a juror who refuses to pay any attention to or cannot follow the evidence presented in a trial may be disqualified, should there not be some form of independent overseeing to ensure the proceedings leading up to any vote are not derailed by ignorance, unreliable information or deception? To what extent should those with more money or other forms of power be allowed to use them to get what they want by coercing, bribing or deceiving others to vote accordingly? If formal education and the media generally are failing to help people understand how they are to vote responsibly on different occasions, should these be given a specific duty to raise citizens’ awareness about social and political issues? And where the vote is to elect a representative who will go on to take specific decisions, are we clear what the appropriate qualifications are for standing as a candidate; if there should be a limit to how many terms they can be elected for; and what arrangements should be in place for recalling them or revoking a decision they make?

To understand how these issues are to be addressed, we need to recognise there is no universal blueprint that can be applied to all individual cases. Instead, we have to comprehend what improvements democracy is meant to deliver, and hence consider in different circumstances what conditions have to be in place to maximise the likelihood for those improvements to be realised. There are three main improvements that a move towards democracy will render more likely to happen:

1. Curbing Oppression: to prevent some (a dictator, an elite group, or a large mob) from imposing their decisions on others and making them suffer without ever being held to account, democracy requires decisions to be authorised only when those affected by the decisions give their consent on an informed and un-coerced basis.
2. Correcting Errors: to stop any individual or group of individuals from claiming infallibility and making mistakes that can have undesirable consequences for themselves and others, democracy opens the way for everyone with any relevant idea or evidence to contribute to collective judgement.
3. Cooperating to Build Consensus: to resolve differences and facilitate give-and-take trade-offs without some being placed in a disadvantaged bargaining position, democracy provides a level playing field on which agreement can be reached between people through respectful deliberations.

By assessing how well any given decision-making arrangements help or hinder the three democratic objectives outlined above, we can determine how authentic they are in embodying the spirit of democracy, and what needs to be reconsidered and further revised.

So instead of proclaiming every majority vote as inviolable, or rejecting all attempts at democracy as inherently flawed, we should examine the voting arrangements put forward for local and central political decisions, elections, referenda, etc., and identify the areas where changes need to be made if the core democratic objectives are to be attained. Where voting outcomes have been arrived at as a result of one or more critical distortions, far from invoking democracy in validating those outcomes, we should stay true to our democratic commitment and question their legitimacy.

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