Wednesday, 31 December, 2008

Minority is ok

Many tears are shed for callous citizens who never vote. Someone gets elected in spite of only 60% or so voting. Worse, he may have the support of the minority of those voters.

I can't understand what the hullaballoo is all about, because a little thought shows that the damage, if any, is only to the losing contenders. For the citizens, both non-participation and election with minority support are immaterial.

For why do we need to know each voter's preference when a representative, random sample should give us a very good idea of what people want? In a populous country like ours, even the voters in a municipal election will yield a sample size that's large enough to give a truthful picture of the population's preferences.

It may be argued that the voters do not usually constitute a representative sample. For instance, poor people are more likely to vote. So the richer classes would be underrepresented.

However, it can just as easily be argued that those who stay away have reasons for doing so. If an electorate (those who can vote) is 1% rich and 99% poor, does it really matter if its electors (those who do vote) are 0.75% rich and 99.25% poor? Is it unreasonable for the rich to believe that their concerns won't count in the elected body? Or that they will have to use something other than votes to make themselves heard?

In fact, it is the insistence on making every vote count that keeps many away from politics. Let me explain. Let's say the poor decide to vote en block for a certain candidate (and agenda). They vastly outnumber the rich. So some lazy poor decide to stay at home believing, rightly, that their absence will make no difference, more so because the rich will be underrepresented.

The rich, on the other hand, know that for their votes to count, they must turn out in full force. They are, to begin with, marginal. Now, let's say Rich Guy A says, "What is the probability that my neighbour will vote? 15%. That's slim. And the chances of my other neighbour's voting? Well, 20%. That's bad. I wanted to vote, and I know it's my duty, but thanks to the callousness of my class, my vote won't count. So, why should I waste my time? Let me watch a movie instead."

His neighbours have more or less the same thoughts and stay away, not just from the polling booth but also from the entire election process. In short, they are doubly damned: first, for being a minority; second, for thinking cynically.

Of course, you cannot have election an electorate formally divided by class, religion, caste, and the rest. That would divide our already fragmented society even more, and we'd forever be at each other's throats. So, we better not insist on representative sampling. But we can insist on random sampling, hoping, again very reasonably, that the sample that yields will be representative as well.

This may, who knows, bring the added benefit of improving overall interest in politics among the previously 'doubly damned', who should get rid of their cynical reasoning (for staying away) once they don't have to bother about 100% turnouts any more.

Let's look at the problem of getting elected by a minority. This is slightly complex. But let's take an imaginary situation where there are 5 candidates; 3 get 20% each; 1 gets 19% and the winner gets through with 21%. Only about 1 in 5 voted for him; 4 in 5 didn't want him. Bad? Yes, if you want a simplistic answer. However, if you take a step back, it hardly looks horrible.

The split of the vote says that while none of the candidates was very good, none were very bad either ('good' and 'bad' merely being measures of ability to align oneself with the electorates' preferences). So, how does it matter to the voters who won!

Perhaps no important legislation was to be decided in parliament. So the choice of legislator became a popularity contest. While who proves most likable matters to the contestants, it makes little difference to the public.

Perhaps the legislation was important, but debating it wasn't. For example, let's say a bill proposes, "No person can be executed without proper trial." It's critical, but scarcely debatable.

Or take a verdict that goes thus: Winner-31%, runner up-30%, spoilers-29%. Wouldn't we like voters to have indicated their second and third preferences in such cases? Such methods are actually followed in quite a few elections. But it may be quite unnecessary.

Because the moot question for the voters is not Who won? Instead, it's What happened because he won?

If you got through by the narrowest of margins, and wanted to improve your (or at least your party's) chances next time around, what would you do (Only a mad electorate will elect someone who doesn't want to be re-elected)? Would you become very biased? Not unless you can indulge in some large scale ethical cleansing. If you can't, you'll look after everyone's interests. In either case - can or cannot commit mass murder – your getting a minority vote is, by itself, no major tragedy. (If the winner can commit mass murder, elections and elected bodies have long ceased to make any difference.)

The complacency about winners with a minority of the votes becomes more justifiable these days because many of our governments are post-election alliances. The very fact that politicians can get into bed after blooding each other's noses in public shows that they were fighting for power (which concerns them) and not principles (which concerns us).

Actually, in a democracy with a diverse population, it's high turnouts and overwhelming majorities that we should be worried about.

When everyone turns out to vote, they are probably worked up about something. Either riot is in the air, or revolution. And an overwhelming majority can only be a goon's. 

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