Post No.: 0509
Strong arguments for why political representatives should be elected by the public in a representative democracy (via free, competitive, fair and regular elections) include because this should align their interests with the popular interests of the public. A popular vote also gives their power legitimacy.
The public should logically select representatives who’ll serve the public’s goals, and prospective representatives should understand this hence serve the public rather than their own interests, otherwise they’ll lose the public’s vote at the next election or never secure their vote in the first place. Therefore, in principle, the interests of a politician should be tied to the public’s interests via the ballot box.
So elected representatives should be incentivised to serve the public because the electorate should vote with, well, their votes. At least that’s the theory! But in practice, this can lead to a lot of hyped-up promises in order to get elected. Also, existing politicians tend to be judged not according to their decisions but according to their apparent results, even though sometimes it’s not a politician’s fault that something went badly (e.g. they couldn’t get their proposed bill passed through parliament or couldn’t secure enough funding to make their election pledge work) and sometimes it’s not to their credit that things went well (e.g. fortuitously discovering a huge reserve of oil or gas just offshore, which secured energy supply and boosted the economy).
A decent head of government can also inherit a bad situation (e.g. the wake of an economic crash and a mountain of government debt) and so seem inept, or an inept head of government can do things that temporarily boost the figures (e.g. by selling off important public assets) and so seem decent, at the expense of the country’s long-term prospects. We therefore cannot just take the numbers during their time as leader at face value – we must look at what they inherited, and they must be accountable for what they leave behind for future governments based on the decisions they made (that they couldn’t have reasonably decided differently) too. If we don’t then democracies – particularly those with strict term limits – can be fooled by representatives who’ll just do what’s egotistically best to serve their own durations in government without much regard for the future of their countries (e.g. regarding the environmental impact of their policies), and the polity will celebrate or jeer at the wrong people in history. Perhaps we can therefore only really fully judge a leader many years after his/her time in government has ended? And it’s also up to us to not vote based solely on our own short-term interests either. Woof.
Different democracies have different rules and there might be the cost of a refundable deposit but, in general, any national citizen can technically freely stand for election. However, although this is true, save a few exceptions – it costs a lot of money to have a realistic chance of winning a seat in parliament due to high campaign costs, which limits a lot of people’s chances and makes it, in practice, unfair for most citizens who might want to try.
A system of private party donors and uncapped campaign costs favours the existing rich and those connected to the rich (in particular those connected to any giant media corporations for these can provide favourable PR for them to augment their profile and popularity). Incumbent representatives also tend to have a disproportionately high chance of keeping their seats, possibly due to the public’s risk aversion to change, the status quo bias, lazily relying on existing name recognition and existing popularity, and/or prior funding advantages just carrying over to the next term.
So one major drawback with all this need for campaigning is that politicians are open to lobbyists, such as industry lobby groups, who’ll help fund these campaigns in return for having their own narrow interests forwarded in government. Elected representatives should listen to whom have voted for them, yet at the same time they’ll feel like they’ll need to listen to whom have helped fund their campaigns too, otherwise they’ll be starved of funds in the future. The public also doesn’t always know what’s best for them (controversial!) or maybe it’s better to say that it’s sometimes important to protect minority interests rather than always follow populist demands, for instance. These are a couple of arguments for why not everyone in parliament should be elected (like members of the House of Commons are elected but members of the House of Lords are not in the UK) so that there’s a check and balance.
In some places, there are also worries about barriers that unfairly keep the furry poor and socially marginalised from even successfully registering as voters and voting, and worries about gerrymandering (where constituency borders are redrawn to suit particular parties thus making them less competitive ‘safe seats’ and/or to maximise the number of constituencies that can be won in a single-member plurality voting system).
‘Duverger’s Law’ also suggests that elected representative democracies will tend to settle into predominantly two party states because few people are going to ‘waste’ their votes on anybody else but the top two, which means that any non-top-two parties typically routinely receive relatively few votes per election, which in turn causes them to eventually disband or have even less chance of winning the next time, and so on in a self-reinforcing pattern of ‘the top two stay/get more powerful and the rest stay/get less powerful’. This two-party domination reduces competition, which means less effective choice for the voter, which is in turn bad for the voter. (It’s just like monopolies are bad for customers in a commercial context.) A two-party state is as close to a one-party state as one can numerically get without being one!
It can also lead to those two parties and their supporters becoming incredibly sharply polarised because hundreds of separate issues are having to be shoehorned into just either one side’s policies or the other side’s policies. Who should you vote for if both of these parties have a bit of something you agree and disagree with yet you don’t feel like you should ‘waste’ your vote on a minority party?
If one party is seen to agree with the other on a particular issue then they won’t really be offering voters an alternative option. And if supporters of one party are seen to agree with the other party on a particular issue that the parties differ on then it could be seen as being disloyal because it’s become about which party one is aligned with more than about the separate issues in question – indeed, when unsure about what to think concerning a particular issue, people have a tendency to just follow what the rest of their ingroup thinks. In other words, voters become heavily partisan.
Then what’s not nice is that it’s often not the case that the election winners were great but the main opposition party shot themselves in the foot somehow, hence people are trying to vote for the best of a rubbish bunch!
Perversely, votes in some democracies don’t always count equally (e.g. the US Electoral College system where some states carry more points than others in a way that isn’t 1:1 related with the size of their electorates, or when every state receives two senators to represent them each regardless of the population sizes of each state). These tend to have no basis in mathematical logic or simplicity but exist due to some historical political reason (e.g. a historical distrust in direct democracies) and then they persist because it remains in the constitution. (In Post No.: 0147 we investigated direct democracies, which contrast with representative democracies.)
Elected representatives are supposed to be the public’s servants – but only if enough voters collectively demand the same thing, otherwise they won’t be listened to. (It’s like ‘the customer is always right’ – well only if enough customers band together to increase their collective power because a lone customer or two won’t be listened to.) And this problem is exacerbated in single-member plurality voting electoral systems because if the candidate you voted for doesn’t win in the constituency you’re in then your vote effectively counts for zero in both the local and total national picture. Many therefore argue in favour of some form of ‘proportional representation’ system so that minority parties or independent representatives will still get at least some power proportional to the absolute number of votes they receive in total, rather than all-or-nothing depending on whether they win or lose in their constituencies. There’ll therefore be no ‘wasted’ votes.
A couple of disadvantages of proportional representation systems that have been argued though are that extremist groups can force their way into the political mainstream, and coalitional compromise isn’t always ideal because it’s sometimes better to go all in one way or another rather than introduce public projects or legislation that are half-measures.
Longer terms in office, or having electoral cycles that are less regular (e.g. a general election only once every ten years), are generally undesirable because representatives can forget about appeasing the public for longer periods if so. But longer terms can allow for implementing longer-term plans that are beneficial for a nation (e.g. public infrastructure plans).
Strict term limits (e.g. two terms maximum) similarly has advantages of restricting power via restricting the duration that a head of government can be in power, but can mean a decent incumbent leader, who would’ve been re-elected by the public if given the chance, cannot stay, which opens the door for a less desirable candidate to grab a chance at the helm. (Note that Prime Ministers are heads of government but not heads of state, whereas Presidents are usually both.)
Electronic voting experiments, such as online voting, have produced mixed, perhaps mostly critical, verdicts so far. It just shifts the potential problems and methods of fraud to elsewhere, and there’s also the major issue of trust. But who knows if it’ll be widespread one day?
Compulsory voting is also highly controversial – on the one paw it’s directly against people’s freedoms, and voters can still remain ill-informed and uninterested. But then voting should perhaps be a duty of every citizen and it doesn’t force a choice because ballot papers can still be spoilt or left blank. Perhaps a bigger priority is therefore to get all citizens to care about politics – to understand enough about the issues, people and manifestos they vote on. But we cannot force people to learn and become better clued-up so maybe we shouldn’t force people to vote either.
It’s somewhat the same with politicians and when they vote in parliament. Here, no one can possibly understand every single subject fully to have enough expertise to vote on every single issue, and this isn’t necessarily due to laziness because the types of things politicians vote on in parliament tend to be quite specific. Not all issues to vote on concern all constituencies either.
Woof. Democracy is supposed to be of the people, for the people, by the people, and thus is in effect a self-government. In elected representative democracies, it’s arguably better to not think of our elected representatives in a ‘them versus us’ way but in an ‘us’ way for we ultimately collectively elect them. Or we could view them as our public servants and we are thus their masters… Well that’s again the theory anyway!