Government claims, as its source of legitimacy, “the consent of the governed.” Its most sacred ritual for for demonstrating that consent is the periodic election of public officials and, in some areas, referendum voting on particular issues.
In a recent column, I examined claims of elections as a basis for claims of representation and found them wanting. Buried within the information upon which I based that analysis was the core of a far more damning finding upon which I’ll now elaborate. Simply put, not only do elections not provide meaningful representation, they also fail to make the case for anything approaching universal consent to accept representation at all.
My data set last time consisted of statistics on the election of a particular congresswoman. This time, I’m going to use focus on an American county — the county in which I live, St. Louis County, Missouri (not to be confused with the city of St. Louis, which in Missouri’s political scheme is treated as a county in its own right). I’ll use numbers from 2000, the latest year for which I can easily compare different variables.
Per the 2000 census, the population of St. Louis County was 1,016,315.
Of those more than one million inhabitants, only 726,325 — 71.5% — were registered to vote.
Of those 726,325 voters, only 488,400 — 67.2% of those registered, 48% of the county’s population — turned out to participate in the ritual.
To put it a different way, 28.5% of the county’s population boycotts elections entirely by not registering to vote, and 52% (including nearly a third of registered voters) boycotted the 2000 election in particular.
From this fact we can derive two conclusions, one indisputable and one debatable but reasonable.
The indisputable conclusion is that because a majority of the population didn’t vote in that election, neither a single politician elected to office nor a single measure put up for public ratification can be honestly advertised as having secured majority approval.
The debatable but reasonable conclusion is that in declining to vote in the 2000 election, 52% of the population withheld consent to be bound by its outcomes or ruled by its winners.
The conventional wisdom has it otherwise: Refusal to participate in an election, we’re told, constitutes consent to be bound by that election’s outcomes and ruled by its winners. Silence is consent — especially since non-voters make use of “public services” delivered to them through the whole process. Non-voting is a sign of “apathy” or “laziness,” not of alienation or opposition.
This is akin to saying that by slamming my door in the face of a magazine salesman, I’m consenting to pay for subscriptions to Time, Scientific American and Playboy … and that proof of this claim may be drawn from the fact that when those magazines begin to arrive, I read them rather than sending them back or throwing them away.
There are, of course, two flaws in this analogy, neither of which reflect well on the electoral system.
The first major difference between the state’s ritual and my hypothetical magazine subscription experience is that any small claims court would likely reject a frivolous a suit by the magazine salesman claiming that I owe him money for subscriptions I neither asked for nor consented to pay for. Any tax court, on the other hand, would likely find that a non-voter owed payment for those “public services” that some portion of 48% of the populace outside his door had voted to purchase for him without his consent.
The second major difference is that when it comes to magazines, my choice of titles and vendors is limited only by the market’s offerings. I don’t have to buy Time, Scientific American and Playboy from the door-to-door guy. I can go to the newsstand or log onto the Intarweb and buy Newsweek, National Geographic and … well, something a bit more righteously smutty than Playboy, if you know what I mean … or for that matter I can eschew magazines entirely. For the most part, I’m forbidden to buy (or not buy) my own road system, postal carrier, army or navy. Not only do I have to pay for the brands chosen by some portion of that 48% of the populace, but I can’t buy my own on the side and use them instead. There are exceptions (private schools, for example), but they are exceptions. The rule is “one size fits all, cough up and pipe down.”
One objection I’ve encountered in this line of thinking is that many non-voters are non-voters because they’re not allowed to vote. They’re under 18, they’ve previously been convicted of a felony and barred from voting, or they originally came from elsewhere. My reply: Bollocks! If they’re not allowed to participate, they can hardly be said to have consented to be bound by the outcomes. Exclusion, like boycott, negates claims of consent.
The question of whether or not majority rule is a valid measure of consent is an interesting one, but one we don’t have to reach here. The dirty little secret of “majority rule” is that it’s no such thing. Rather we are governed by (usually) “representatives” chosen by a majority of a minority, in most cases plausibly representing no more than 25-30% of the population.