Voting is an illusion.
Well, at least the purpose that most people assign to voting is an illusion.
There is a lot of handwringing these days about voter turnout and ‘the will of the voters’ with regard to Presidential candidates, especially one in particular. Buried in this worry is the belief that voting is a statistical measurement of popular will. Let everybody choose, and the wisdom of the crowds will choose the best candidate.
But is that the actual purpose of voting, the real reason that popular voting was adopted by the United States in the beginning?
If statistics were the real objective, then we would structure voting differently. We would either require everyone to vote, or we would randomly choose people to vote. We would definitely not have a system of ‘turn out the vote’ which is just a means to bias the sample.
But that assumes we want a rational, proper result.
What if we’re not worried about people’s thoughts as much as their feelings? Who is the most excited? Who cares the most? This fits a little better with what we actually do. Let the parties appeal to emotion rather than reason and see how many people they can get excited enough to turn out to vote. It would also explain the barriers to voting we build: multiple registrations as people move, polling on a standard workday, single polling places, etc. How excited and passionate are you? Will you go through all the hoops? And when you have, do we really want to trust someone elected based on the decisions of people caught up in their passions?
But that really just leads us to real question: do we care what voters think?
Who should answer that? Sounds like a question for the people who came up with this system, or as they’re normally referred to, the Founding Fathers.
Present American: Can you help us? The voting system has been perverted and the will of the people is being thwarted. Please tell everyone that the reason for voting is to get a true measure of the will of the people.
Founding Father: What is this 'will of the people thing', and why would we want it? The tyranny of the majority is always a worry. It's something to fear, as much as something to desire. And why would I think that the ignorant masses would choose the best, most competent leaders?
Present American: Then how do we choose the best leaders?
Founding Father: The same way you choose the best leaders for anything. You use critical thinking and try to build a society with the morals and ethics you want to see in your leaders. They're not magical beings. They're just reflections of the society you've built.
Present American: What does this have to do with voting?
Founding Father: You seem to be too worried about finding 'the best'. Voting is about excluding the worst. As I said, the quality of your society will determine whether the best ever shows up. Voting simply allows you to remove the worst.
Present American: But that means we need everyone to vote, right?
Founding Father: Why does that matter? As I said, it's not about following the majority. It's just that voting someone out tends to be less disruptive than actual revolution. Ballots vs torches and pitchforks. As long as the public accepts whoever is elected, it really doesn't matter how a non-worst candidate is selected. We just found that voting is the most effective way of providing political legitimacy, and if people don't vote, yet are willing to accept the result of the vote, the system has worked.
The fundamental issue is that the purpose of voting has nothing to do with either the will of the people or choosing the best candidate. It’s about having a peaceful means to remove bad leaders and a means to provide political legitimacy to whoever does take power.