Seldom goes by a major election without allegations of rampant fraud, and last week’s presidential poll in Afghanistan went as per the usual in that respect.
Unfortunately, these allegations tend toward the particular while entirely missing the general case: Most elections, in most places — places with considerable tax revenues or the equivalent, anyway — are fraudulent, if not by design or intent, at the very least by default.
The prize generally goes to the politician who can most convincingly rattle off outrageous whoppers to voters from one side of his mouth, persuade his major campaign contributors that they’ll make their money back a thousand-fold on government contracts and similar graft out of the other, and most deftly suborn the mechanical aspects of the polling to his will by fair means or foul.
But the fraud goes deeper than that. It’s built into the very foundation of democratic politics. The notion that one individual, elected by majority vote, can in any way be said to “represent” the entirety of a constituency based on mere geography is absurd on its face.
Let’s take, for the sake of analysis, a random district from the US House of Representatives.
The state I’ve chosen, for no particular reason, is California. The district I’ve chosen, by grabbing a random number of arbitrary counters out of a container, is the 9th. It’s actually an atypical district — Democratic candidates never poll below the mid-60% range and often hit 80% or more — but that’s fine. It may actually represent the point I want to make even better than a “close” district. The district is “represented” in Congress by Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
I put “represented” in scare quotes because even per standard majoritarian doctrine, that’s a highly questionable claim. The district’s population, per the 2000 census, is 639,088. Since 2000, Lee’s highest vote total (in 2008) has been 238,915 — 86.1% of the vote, but only 37.3% of the population.
Right off the top, Lee can reasonably said to “represent,” at most, a little more than 1/3 of the people who live in her district. 62.7% of the district’s residents voted for another candidate, or chose not to vote at all, or weren’t allowed to vote. Under what rationale could Lee plausibly be considered their “representative?”
Of those who did vote for her, it’s far from obvious that all of them agree that she “represents” them in any meaningful sense of the word.
Only three parties (Democratic, Republican and Libertarian) were allowed to place candidates on the ballot in that district in 2008.
A few voters wrote in the name of a Green candidate or an alternative Republican candidate, but how many voters actually knew that they could do that and expect that their votes would be honestly tallied?
How many voters chose Lee as merely “the least bad” of the available options?
I suspect that if each of Lee’s votes and substantial actions as a US Representative were laid out before the voters of the district, fewer than one in 10 would honestly respond that yes, Lee had acted as they would have had her act on their behalves in each and every instance.
I’m not interested in picking on Congresswoman Lee in particular here. You’ll note that I’ve neither lauded nor criticized any of her particular actions. On the point that matters here — whether or not she’s “representative” of her district’s population — she probably charts higher than most of her 434 co-“representatives” in the US House. She’s rather a bit of a “best-case scenario.”
That’s the problem with vesting a monopoly on the use of force in a central institution like the state, even one based on a process like “representative” democracy. It inevitably results in a small number of people, representing a small portion even of their own alleged constituencies, dictating to 100% of the population subjected to the powers theoretically delegated.
Yes, improvements could be made to the system. “Representation” could be non-geographic and based on subscription such that each “representative” is freely chosen by 100% of his or her constituents (with a built-in power of instant recall), for example — the technology to achieve this exists now. And representative bodies could be required to function on the basis of unanimous consent and within a very narrow policy range allowing only for the defense of, and never the violation of, rights.
But then, that wouldn’t really be a “government” as most of us usually think of one, would it?
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