Gongol.com Archives: April 2022

Brian Gongol

April 16, 2022

News When voting is like toothpaste

To keep a marriage happy, spouses ought to agree on their laundry detergent but keep their toothpastes separate. On certain matters (like how the bedsheets and towels are going to smell), unanimity and uniformity are essential. But it's perfectly tolerable -- in fact, preferable -- if everyone can remain responsible for cleaning up after themselves on those matters that matter almost entirely to themselves. What matters most is that one brushes their own teeth regularly; beyond that, whether you choose cool mint, bubble gum, or lemon and ginseng really isn't all that materially important to anyone else. ■ It ought not to escape notice that both France and Australia are in the midst of elections. France is about to conduct the second round of a presidential election based upon a runoff vote, while Australia's parliamentary elections are both ranked-choice and compulsory. ■ Nobody will deny that both electoral systems are democratic, in the sense that they depend upon the consent and expressed will of the people in order to cement their legitimacy. But the systems are deeply different from one another, and vastly different from comparable elections in the United States. ■ On the matter of seeking the consent of the governed and attempting to reflect the will of the majority, all three countries agree -- like spouses on laundry detergent. On the particulars of how they use ballots to sample and count the will of the people, they are like those same spouses choosing toothpastes. ■ Far too many of the arguments about democracy assume that there is a perfect system to be had. That's not just a bad assumption; it is fatally flawed. Making choices among even small numbers of people is an imperfect science. Doing so when millions of people are involved is absolutely guaranteed to leave large numbers of them utterly unsatisfied. The point is not that the popular will is perfectly expressed, but that it is sought -- preferably under transparent and predictable rules. ■ Rules can shape the outcomes of elections, whether intentionally or not. Ranked-choice voting produces different outcomes from first-past-the-post, but there are literally dozens of ways to parse votes, whether proportional or majoritarian in design. Most sensible people can agree on the need for universal suffrage -- but at what point should people become eligible to vote? There are those both on the left and on the right who argue that right should activate at birth. And then there are rules like representation quotas or reserved seats that can institutionally override majority views. ■ Complaining about systems like America's Electoral College is practically a national pastime. But so is complaining about the voting system in every other democracy. There is no perfect system, and fantasizing that one exists is a mistake bound to lead to chronic frustration. Much better it would be if imperfection were expected by all parties, factions, and individual voters, right from the start.

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