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Existential Voting

by Aaron Houck

May 7,2008

I have a confession to make. Though I consider myself pretty well educated, I am totally unqualified for the job I was recently given. I was entrusted with the authority to hire people who will affect the lives of millions. But not only did I not know much about the people who had applied for the jobs, in many cases I did not know a thing about the jobs themselves.


Where did I perform this gross negligence, you ask (eager to steer clear of what’s sure to be imminent disaster)? In the voting booth, of course. I was told to choose among candidates for not just President, Governor, and County Commission, but for State Auditor and Commissioner of Labor. Huh? According to the Board of Elections, eighty-one elected officials represent each Charlotte resident.

In theory, I could and should educate myself about the offices and the candidates. But how much can any voter realistically learn in between other obligations – how much information is really out there? I don’t doubt that these candidates are vying for offices of critical importance to my everyday life. In fact, I’m sure that they are – that’s why I should have no hand in their selection and make the claim to you that we have too many elections.

Before you chastise me too severely for my undemocratic tendencies, consider the following. First, let’s take up the argument of economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. He says that given the infinitesimal impact of each of our votes, it’s irrational for me to expect my vote to have any effect on policy. Why vote then? Out of some sense of moral obligation, some feeling. And, likewise, how will I vote? Again, my vote has no consequences (in economic terms, the cost of a “bad” vote is zero), so I need not make a rational determination of my true interests; rather, I vote based on some feeling. So instead of aggregating the interests of our diverse population, voting can exacerbate cognitive biases and errors that we all share. Caplan makes his argument about democracy generally, but it’s especially applicable to elections in which the voters have insufficient information.

Second, our government is a representative democracy. That means that we permit elected officials to make policy rather than requiring every public issue be put to a referendum. This suggests that there is some limit to our tolerance for elections.

The country’s founders envisioned a lot fewer elections (it’s true that they also envisioned a lot less voting, and we can be glad that suffrage has been extended to minorities, women, and those over 18). With respect to federal offices, only the House of Representatives was initially elected directly by the people. Senators were chosen by their states’ legislatures. The President was elected by electors also selected by the state legislatures. Supreme Court justices were appointed by the President.

Why so many elections today? We, the people, have only ourselves to blame. Early in our country’s history, state legislators began campaigning based on who they would support for the Senate. After the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the ballot did not include Lincoln or Douglas's name, but rather two slates of candidates for the Illinois legislature – one slate pledging to send Lincoln to Washington and one supporting Douglas. These indirect elections evolved to the point where many states adopted the “Oregon Plan.” Under this plan, a state took a non-binding poll of the electorate regarding their preferences for the Senate. Candidates for the state legislature were then required to file a document indicating whether they would support the people’s choice or not. Which box do you think most candidates selected?

We have been given the burden of electing so many officials because we have demanded it and have taken it away from the bodies and individuals originally required to do so. Because all power in this country derives from the people, it is our prerogative. But from now on let’s be a little more thoughtful about what all we put to a vote. Making these decisions is an important task, and someone’s got to do it. I’m just not so sure I’m the right person for the job.

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