Voting For The Winner

It is one thing to give every adult the right to vote, but it is something else when it comes to counting their votes.  For a single-seat election (such as the presidency), the most common system is the "winner-take-all" method.  Thus, even if a candidate gets 49.9% of the vote, it will all be for nought if someone else gets 50.1% of the vote.  The unfortunate consequence of the "winner-take-all" method is that the majority voice will drown out the minority voice.  For example, if there is a country with two religious factions in the proportion of 60-40 and voting always occurs along religious lines, then one group will always win and the other group will always lose.  Such a result will brew trouble if the interests of the minority group are perpetually suppressed by the elected government.

Another consequence of the "winner-take-all" method is that it leads many voters to cast ballots for a probable winner, even if this not the first preference and just the lesser of two evils.  Alternately, if the leading candidates all stink to the high heavens, the voter may decide not to vote; and if voting is compulsory for all citizens, the vote may cast a blank vote.

In the United States of America, the "winner-take-all" method is used in presidential, senatorial and congressional elections.  Not by coincidence, voter turnout in the United States is about the lowest among western democracies.  In Europe and in local areas of the United States, there are multi-seat contests in which more than one person is elected to the legislative body, with the parties being represented in proportion to the votes that they receive.  Thus, in the above example, if 100 legislators were elected, there will be 60 representatives from one religious party and 40 from the other.

We will now look at some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  During 2003, 8,907 persons between the ages of 20 to 64 years old were interviewed for this study.  When presented with the statement, "I always vote for the probable winner in an election", 13% said that they agree.

The chart below shows the incidences by socio-economic status and educational level.  The agree rate is a strong function of affluence and education. 

To the extent that there is a bandwagon effect for people to want to be on the side of the winner, this means that polls assume an important role in the decision-making process.  This is not a good civic thing, because one would have liked people to vote on the basis of considering the issues and positions and not poll numbers alone.  But if isues such as financial budgets and government expenditures are too weighty except for the highly educated, then this is where universal suffrage falls short of the ideal. 

(posted by Roland Soong, 03/10/2004)

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