Elections, Representation, and Accountability

Doug Chapin says I am just an old crotchety guy.   I’m old and I’m crotchety, but I don’t think I’m being unfair. I just get worried when something is oversold.

Here’s what TurboVote promises:

If voting were easier, more people would do it. And if more people voted, we could reinvigorate local and primary elections, politicians would be held more accountable, our leadership would be more representative, and our democracy would work better.

Making voting easier helps, but it’s only one link in the chain of accountability.  Przeworski, Stokes, and Manin write in the introduction to Democracy, Accountability, and Representation, when describing the difficulty in disentangling competing notions of representation, accountability, and democracy:

Yet, there are some things we have learned.  Perhaps foremost is the importance of information.  The main difficulty in instructing governments in what to do and in judging what they have done is that we, citizens, just do not know enough.

Vastly increasing votes without simultaneously improving the quality of the vote could easily do more damage than good, particularly in an age where we can be micro-targeted down to our underwear size.

I am not trying to be crotchety; I hope I am instead constructively critical.  My worry is buyer’s regret. Transforming the American political system will take place in decades, not in months.  Once we make voting easier, it’s time to make politics easier.  Then we may witness a true sea change.

P.S. The link above lists a great sounding job for someone interested in election data (although there are 3810 counties, not election jurisdictions. The latter number exceeds 10,000 when you take into account townships and municipalities).


3 thoughts on “Elections, Representation, and Accountability

  1. Eli Poupko

    This is a real interesting argument. Of course turnout levels are also determined by the institutional structure of elections (as alluded to in the previous post comparing US turnout to other democracies). I sometimes wonder if the institutional structure in this country, particularly the system of voluntary registration, might function to improve the “quality” of the vote by reducing turnout levels (presuming that more informed people people are more likely to be motivated to pre-register).

    But there is another school of democratic theory that is more interested in broadening participation, and less concerned about the “quality” of voter decisions. Beyond questioning whether vote quality can (or should) ever be assessed, this line of theory might further question how much and what type of information is realistically needed to vote. Using a more minimalist approach to representation, voters need not necessarily be able to “instruct governments in what to do” or even to “judge what they have done,” but rather must simply identify the candidate who most closely matches the voter’s own preferences/values. Party cues, etc. could largely be sufficient. Elite levels of political knowledge might not be needed.

    I’m fascinated by what I take as these countervailing democratic theories, and in the way they are reflected in electoral institutions. But the two approaches seem to have deeply normative foundations that may be impossible to prove or disprove. I’d be grateful for any advice on how to construct a research project that could somehow test between these theories!

  2. SB

    Accountability…what’s that? Oh you mean that thing that is a foreign concept to those that are charged with being our public servant leaders. The lack of accountability and the fraud (voter fraud and other fraud) just makes me sick. And while on the topic of voter fraud, a jurisdiction in Florida is now inadvertently setting itself up for an election fiasco that involves a corrupt judge and several of his co-conspirators. On a related side-note regarding public corruption, Florida just ranked as one of the most corrupt states in a highly publicized February 2012 corruption report. The fraud and corruption is both sad and endemic. You can’t make this stuff up. Take a look at http://www.complaints.com/2012/march/14/Corrupt_Judge_David_P._Kreider_now_taints_the_ele_264712.htm for more information.

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