Section III: Electoral Conditions and The Sense of Efficacy
These traditional ways of thinking about the efficacy of elections fail to account for the particular role that voting plays in a plan for democracy. Because voting is a mass form of participation in which political decisions depend on the contribution of all citizens to a collective exercise of political authority, the efficacy of voting cannot be defined as individual or even group decisiveness over outcomes. Instead, individual efficacy in elections should be characterized by a citizen’s actually being able to play her part in the shared plan for self-rule. This means that contemporary communities’ plans for democracy, in which voting plays a central role as a unique form of mass participation, must effectively generate democracy. Moreover, if individuals are actually to play their part in the plan for democracy by voting, then the community’s political reality, its actual electoral institutions and practices, must enable voting to actually fulfill its role in the plan for democracy.
In the remainder of this section, I examine what scholars of political attitudes call a sense of political efficacy. Examining the concept of political efficacy can offer insight into the kinds of conditions that a plan for democracy must meet if it is to provide a reliable guide for citizens’ contribution to the democratic project. In the following section, then, I use these insights to articulate a set of conditions that must be satisfied if voting is to effectively fulfill its role in contemporary communities’ plan for democracy, that is, if by voting, citizens are actually able to do their part in the shared project of collective self-rule, according to their shared plan.
Scholars of political attitudes in the United States have long recognized a construct of attitudes that indicate a broad feeling of political efficacy. An index of questions intended to measure political efficacy appeared on the earliest versions of the NES. In The Voter Decides, the authors define efficacy as “the feeling that individual political action does have or can have an impact upon the political process.”55 This kind of efficacy does not depend on the individual’s ability to get her way in any particular election, but refers instead to a more general sense that the political system does depend on actual citizen inputs. We might say that it refers to a sense that the existing plan for participation actually produces rule by the people.
The sense of political efficacy that interests political scientists is a subjective attitude, and it may seem unimportant at first to objectively assessing the effectiveness of voting within a plan for democracy. After all, an individual can simply be mistaken about the plan’s actual effectiveness. Citizens’ subjective feelings of efficacy are important, though, because shared plans do not exist independently of the beliefs of those who are to carry out the plans. The action-guiding character of plans arises from the fact that they coordinate action and settle the matter about what is to be done. A few individuals may be mistaken about the effectiveness of their community’s shared plan for democracy. But if most citizens actually do not believe that they have an effective plan for democracy, then it will just be the case that there is no shared plan. A plan is only a plan when people actually recognize its action-guiding authority.56 Those who have a low sense of political efficacy are less likely to vote, and less likely even to feel that they ought to vote.57 Thus, if we are interested in whether voting actually fulfills its role as a form of mass participation that formally and concretely establishes the political authority of all citizens, we should be attentive to citizens’ subjective sense of political efficacy and to the objective conditions that underlie it.
Political scientists who study political attitudes generally agree that the sense of political efficacy includes two related but distinct attitudes described as “internal” and “external” efficacy.58 Each of these components affects a citizen’s sense of her ability to contribute the exercise of political authority, but internal and external efficacy have distinct attitude “objects.”59 External efficacy has as its object the political system. It refers to “beliefs about the responsiveness of governmental authorities and institutions to citizen demands,” while internal efficacy has as its object the self; it refers to “beliefs about one’s own competence to understand and participate effectively in politics.”60 Though scholars disagree about the relationship between internal and external efficacy, and how best to measure each of them, there seems to be a consensus that these are distinct sets of attitudes that are differently related to other beliefs, attitudes, and patterns of participation.
These two components of the sense of political efficacy also reflect assessments of different objective features of the electoral system. The relationship between external efficacy and the actual effectiveness of the voting-centered plan for democracy is fairly straightforward. The contemporary plan for democracy identifies voting as a form of mass participation that formally and concretely instantiates the equal political authority of all citizens. If voting is to actually fulfill its role in the plan for democracy, then “governmental authorities and institutions” need to be appropriately responsive to electoral participation. The point of voting is that at least some political decisions should be, not just responsive to, but actually dependent on the actual contribution of all citizens. If the results of elections have little or no effect on governing institutions, then voting cannot be construed as individual participation in a collective project of self-rule.
The relation between the sense of internal efficacy and the objective efficacy of the plan for democracy may seem less obvious at first. A person with a low sense of personal efficacy might simply not feel up to the challenge of participating in the collective exercise of authority, even though he sees that voting would offer him an effective way of doing so. Political scientists and sociologists often treat the sense of internal efficacy as essentially a personality trait – whether an individual feels personally able to affect political life is primarily a reflection of whether he feels generally able to exert a measure of control over his life. 61
But we should not be too quick to conclude that a sense of internal efficacy does not reflect an assessment of the objective conditions of the political context. Internal political efficacy, though it takes the self as its primary reference object, fundamentally concerns the self in relation to politics. The sense of internal efficacy therefore implicitly includes an evaluation of the political system on one dimension that is crucial in a democracy – whether it facilitates the participation of ordinary individuals.
The contemporary plan for democracy identifies voting as a form of mass participation in which all citizens are expected to participate. This role depends on voting’s actually being a form of participation that is suitable for the basic competence of ordinary citizens. Survey questions that aim to measure internal efficacy ask respondents whether they agree with statements about the extent to which “people like me” are qualified to participate in political life,62 but this assessment, of course, depends on what qualifications citizens believe they would need to participate. Thus, though internal efficacy may be primarily an evaluation of the self as a political actor, it must also implicitly include an evaluation of the political context in which the citizen might act.63 If voting is to effectively fulfill its role as a form of mass participation, then it must be designed to foster participation by ordinary citizens.
Section IV: Conditions for Efficacious Voting
The two distinct attitude constructs of internal and external efficacy described by the empirical literature can help us to articulate some conditions for electoral efficacy. That is, thinking about the objective conditions that would need to obtain to generate a sense of both external and internal efficacy, we can articulate some conditions necessary for voting to effectively play the role in the plan for democracy that I described in Section I. This takes up the normative component of constructive interpretation, as these conditions offer a critical standard for assessing existing electoral systems and revising them to render practices more coherent with the best interpretation of the role of voting in the plan for democracy.64
First, and most obviously, the results of an election should decide some political question, and that decision should be counterfactually robust. Voting does not fulfill its role in the plan for democracy if the ruling party holds elections but only plans to heed the electoral results should their preferred outcome prevail. If voting is to fulfill its role as a unique moment in which the entire citizenry actually exercises collective political authority, public officials cannot have discretion to disregard electoral results. This is the key difference between elections and public opinion polls or even many other forms of intentional participation. Votes are not submitted for consideration. Votes are counted equally according to a predefined aggregation rule,65 and electoral returns are decisive.
The second condition for voting to effectively play its role in the plan for democracy is that the impact of elections on the character of public life should be substantial. The plan for democracy focuses citizens’ attentions on a few questions that have been reserved for the people as a whole. The plan identifies voting as the minimum participation necessary for a citizen to actually contribute her part to the collective project of self-rule, and most citizens never participate beyond this minimum. If elections really concretely and formally establish the ultimate political authority of the citizenry as a whole, then it should be the case that the exercise of electoral authority can radically affect the character of a community’s political life.
The condition of impactful elections is often misinterpreted to mean that effective electoral participation requires that citizens vote on as many decisions as possible. If most people only ever participate by voting, then it might seem that achieving a more robust democracy depends on increasing the number of questions on which the people vote. Many political theorists and political scientists have pointed out the flawed logic that more elections are better elections.66 The point is not, as some people think, that the people are poorly equipped to evaluate technical questions and offices like the local coroner or minor tax measures. Rather, the point is that these questions ought not be decided by voting.67 If voting is going to retain its role as the special, minimum form of citizenship – a unique kind of universal participation – it must not become too cumbersome or burdensome. There will be some kind of upper limit on the number of questions that can be decided by election, and priority ought to be given to more significant questions.68
On the other hand, scholars often misinterpret the impactful elections condition to require electoral mandates: since citizens vote on so few questions, they must be able to use occasional elections to authoritatively decide a range of political questions that do not appear on any ballot. As I argued earlier, though, the mandate conception of electoral efficacy neglects the particular role that voting plays in contemporary plans for democracy as well as the distinctive ways that the participatory practice of voting is embedded in different communities’ plans for democracy that may link electoral decisions with policy outcomes in different ways.69
Though voting is meant to formally establish a minimum connection between political decisions and the participatory contributions of all citizens, voting is not meant to be the only way that citizens exercise their political authority. The best interpretation of the role of voting that is common to most contemporary plans for democracy requires that some important decisions be settled by a procedure that calls for the equal input of all citizens, but this interpretation of the plan does not specify what those decisions are or why they are important. Evaluating whether the impactful elections condition is satisfied will therefore depend on more context-specific features of a particular community’s plan for democracy.70
The third condition necessary for voting to fulfill its role in the plan for democracy is that the choice that citizens face in an election needs to be sufficiently meaningful. That is, citizens should be able to decide between options that will produce different political results. This condition is clearly violated, for example, when citizens can only choose between two candidates who would both be puppets for some shadow ruler.
The question of what counts as a meaningful choice in an election must be sensitive to the electoral context and to the point of voting. To vote is not just to make an individual choice (who will I vote for?), but also to make that choice within a collective context and as part of a collective decision (who will we elect?) The kind of decision that citizens make when they vote is fundamentally different from the kind of decision they would be making if each were a dictator. The conditions for a meaningful choice in the electoral context will therefore be different than the conditions that characterize a meaningful choice in other areas of life in which individual choices are decisive. Elections are massive collective undertakings. They will necessarily involve compromise, not just in the final outcome, but also in how the choice itself is defined.71
The condition of meaningful choice does not, therefore, entail that citizens need to be able to select their most preferred outcome from among the broadest range of choice possible. As I argued earlier, this view of electoral efficacy rests on the deeply problematic idea that there are predefined questions to be decided by voting and an objectively relevant set of choices over which individual citizens might have preferences. Voting is a way for all citizens to contribute to deciding a few questions that have been reserved for the citizenry as a whole, but the questions to be decided by elections, and the options that are to be considered relevant in those decisions have to be worked out as part of the broader practice of collective self-rule in which voting is embedded.72
As with the condition of impactful elections, what it means for voters to have a meaningful choice in an election will depend on the community’s particular plan for democracy, on the nature of the offices and questions to be decided by a popular vote, on the divisions that are most urgent and the political possibilities that are most salient in a particular community, as well as the various political structures and participatory institutions that surround the practice of voting, including the role of intermediate institutions like political parties and interest groups, and the various processes of agenda formation. This doesn’t mean that the condition of meaningful choice can offer us no critical purchase for assessing the efficacy of elections, but rather that critical assessment will be context specific; there is no simple formula for assessing the meaningfulness of electoral choice that can be easily applied across a variety of democratic political systems.
These first three conditions (the decisiveness of electoral results, the impact of electoral decisions, and the meaningfulness of electoral choice) might be thought of as the objective conditions for a sense of the external efficacy of voting. They detail how, for voting to fulfill its role in the plan for democracy, it must be the case that citizens (taken as a whole) can exercise authority over government through elections. The political system must be not just responsive to, but dependent on electoral inputs.
For voting to effectively fulfill its role in the plan for democracy, though, the political system also needs to satisfy the objective conditions that produce a sense of internal efficacy. If voting is to fulfill its role in the plan for democracy, it must be the case that individual citizens are able to effectively participate in the collective exercise of electoral authority. Voting must be a form of participation that is suitable for ordinary citizens. We can therefore articulate two more conditions that must be satisfied if voting is to fulfill its role in the plan for democracy.
The fourth condition on the effectiveness of voting is material accessibility. If voting is to fulfill its role as a unique form of mass participation that formally instantiates the equal political authority of all citizens, then obviously citizens must not be formally excluded from voting (as in the case of felon disenfranchisement laws in some US states). The condition of material accessibility also requires that citizens be protected from informal exclusion. If voting is really to be a moment of mass participation, then citizens need to be able to vote free from intimidation. Moreover, voting should not require a substantial sacrifice of time or resources, nor should it require special “civic skills” (like the ability to successfully navigate a complex bureaucracy) that ordinary citizens do not have. It should be easy to find out when, where, and how to vote. Information about any qualifications should be made readily available to all citizens, along with information and assistance about how to meet those qualifications.
If voting is to be suitable for ordinary citizens, material accessibility is not enough. Voting must also be cognitively accessible to ordinary citizens. It should be the case that citizens are able, without unusual effort, to acquire at least a rough understanding of how their individual votes will fit together with others’ to produce electoral outcomes and how different electoral outcomes translate into political outcomes. To meaningfully participate in the collective exercise of political authority, citizens need to have some sense of how their individual votes contribute to shaping their community’s public life.
I want to make two points here: first, the standard of cognitive accessibility is one of substantial controversy, but I want to argue that cognitive accessibility is not so demanding a standard as it seems. The idea that something like “full information” is necessary to cast a meaningful vote seems quite extreme.73 Politics is a complicated business. Even political experts can’t really predict all of the possible consequences of any given election. I think we overstate the extent to which this is a unique problem for politics, though. Uncertain and unbounded consequences are just a feature of what it means to act into a social world full of unpredictable, agential human beings.74 The uncertainty and complexity of consequences may be more apparent in those activities we typically classify as political. But uncertainty and moral risk characterize all action. The kind and quality of information that is necessary to vote meaningfully is not substantially different from the kind and quality of information that is necessary to make any other kind of decision in our daily lives. Our understanding of the consequences is always incomplete and tentative, but we have to move forward like this if we are not to be completely paralyzed. 75
The second point I want to make is that making voting materially and cognitively accessible does not mean that we have to “dumb down” the process. The plan for democracy need not take citizens’ competence as it is, but can also be designed to cultivate the skills and competencies that might make voting meaningful and accessible.76 It can also be designed to encourage citizens to recognize competencies that they already have. Participatory democrats have made these points for a long time, and there is empirical evidence to support the idea that competence and a sense of internal efficacy do not always proceed participation – participation itself can have positive effects on a citizen’s sense of her own ability to influence politics, because it helps citizens both to develop new “civic skills” and to recognize those skills they already have.77
These five conditions characterize the objective bases for a sense of internal and external efficacy in relation to voting. These are the conditions that must be satisfied if voting is to effectively fulfill its role in the plan for democracy. But these conditions are not fully sufficient for us to say that voting is efficacious. The satisfaction of these objective conditions must be accompanied by the subjective sense of efficacy. Citizens need to actually recognize the effectiveness of voting; they need to believe that by voting they really do contribute to the collective project of democracy, according to their shared plan. Moreover, citizens need to actually act on these attitudes. If voting is to fulfill its role as unique moment that renders the equal political authority of all citizens formal and concrete, then people need to actually vote en masse.
When large portions of a political community feel alienated from the political process – when they feel as though voting does not enable them to contribute to the collective project of democracy – it is not enough to point to the satisfaction on the objective conditions for electoral efficacy. Citizens need to actually believe in the efficacy of voting if voting is to fulfill its role in the plan for democracy. It will therefore be essential that we pay attention to what Dennis Thompson calls the “expressive effects” of electoral institutions. It is not enough that institutions make electoral participation meaningful; they also need to make the meaningfulness of voting manifest to all citizens. Electoral institutions and administration should expressively reinforce the role of voting as a unique form of mass participation in which political decisions actually depend on the political authority of all citizens.
In this paper, I focus on conditions that electoral systems must meet to ensure that voting effectively fulfills its role in the plan for democracy, but the efficacy of voting does not just depend on features of electoral institutions. Voting is embedded within a much broader plan for democracy, and though voting is a very important part of this plan, it is still only one part. If citizens are truly to contribute to a collective project of self-rule by voting, then voting can’t be the only “democratic” element of the political system. When the formally equal political authority in elections masks a system of political decision-making that is dominated by an unrepresentative subset of the community, then citizens do not really share an effective plan for self-rule. Voting alone cannot bear the normative weight of democracy. The distinctive importance of voting as a form of mass participation is possible only because it is embedded within a broader plan for democracy in which citizens use other forms of participation to supplement, contest, and correct the “blunt instrument” of voting.
Section V: Some Practical Implications: compulsory voting, ballot access, and formal abstention
I doubt there will ever exist a real political system that perfectly satisfies any of the conditions I’ve listed here. But that does not mean that we can or should simply ignore the voting centered plan for democracy. Democracy is not an all-or-nothing short of goal. It is perfectly coherent to speak of a community as more or less democratic, and even though the existing plan does not produce perfect democracy, it may still allow the community to come close enough to their collective goal to be considered worthwhile. Even when the conditions for efficacious voting are only imperfectly satisfied, the voting-centered plan for democracy may still provide the most reliable guide for how individual citizens can act, knowing that their actions will fit together with others’ to produce (or at least approach) their shared aim of democracy.
Even though they remain authoritative guides for action, plans can still be reformed and revised. This is the normative component of constructive interpretation. The conditions I’ve offered here provide an evaluative standard that should allow us to assess the efficacy of voting in a political community and to suggest ways in which democratic systems might be reformed to better enable voting to fulfill its role in the plan for democracy. These conditions do not offer a neat institutional formula that can be applied across political contexts. These conditions can be satisfied in a variety of ways, and what they require of electoral institutions will often depend on the way that voting is embedded in each community’s particular plan for democracy. Still, these conditions for electoral efficacy may offer distinctive insight into debates about electoral design and administration and sometimes suggest policies that might be applicable in a variety of contexts. In this final section, I briefly discuss how the account of electoral efficacy I’ve offered here might be applied to a few debates about electoral administration.
The standards for electoral efficacy I’ve offered here suggest a strong case for compulsory voting. Compulsory voting reinforces the role of voting as a particular form of mass participation, by ensuring actual widespread participation. When the conditions for the effectiveness of a voting-centered plan for democracy are satisfied, compulsory voting ensures compliance with the plan, making it the case that voting really does concretely instantiate the equal political authority of all citizens.
The most common objection to legally enforcing the duty to vote – that it encourages uninformed or indifferent citizens to vote, and may therefore produce “bad” electoral outcomes78 – reflects a poor understanding of the role of voting in a democracy. Elections identify decisions that properly belong to the citizens, that citizens are expected to participate in making. Voting is not a privilege granted to those citizens who already happen to have political information and preferences. Rather, voting is a form of participation reserved for the citizens as whole, to formally establish the equal political authority of all citizens in a community that aspires to collective self-rule. If citizens are to contribute to the collective project of democracy, according to their community’s shared plan, citizens should acquire political knowledge and develop preferences with a view to the vote that they are expected to cast. 79
Compulsory voting can help to satisfy the conditions for internal efficacy by clearly and strongly expressing that voting is a form of participation that is meant for all citizens without qualification. Beyond this expressive effect, though, compulsory voting may also have secondary effects on the material accessibility of voting and the meaningfulness of electoral choices. If voting is required by law, then states have additional strong reasons for making voting more accessible. And the expansion of the electorate may affect the kinds of choices that citizens face at election time and might lead to choices that appear to be meaningful to a wider range of society.80 An expanded electorate would also undoubtedly change political messaging, as political groups shift focus from turning out the base to persuading the undecided.
Ballot access and write-in voting
The view of electoral efficacy I’ve presented here is less clear in how we should settle questions about ballot access, but it does suggest that the debate needs to be reframed. Proponents of expanded ballot access and write-in voting often argue that the efficacy of voting requires that voters face the widest range of choices possible. This is usually based on one of two arguments, either that the value of making the choice itself depends on there being a wide range of alternatives, or that the wide range of options is necessary to provide all voters with an option that is very close to their strongest preference. But these arguments neglect the distinctiveness of voting as a form of mass participation.
When individuals vote, they are contributing to a collective decision made on a massive scale. The conditions for meaningful contribution to a collective decision will just be different than the conditions that would be required to say that an individual faced a meaningful choice if she were a dictator. When voting, citizens exercise their choice in light of the fact that they are participating in a collective decision, and the choices they face are meaningful specifically in that context.81 The massively shared project of self-rule will necessarily involve a great deal of compromise to be responsive to the agency of all citizens as equal co-authors of democracy. But this compromise applies not only to the final substantive outcomes, but also to the process of deciding itself. The range and kinds of choices that it is important for voters to face on the ballot will itself depend on the collective process of working out the community’s concerns and priorities and identifying major disagreements.
This doesn’t mean that we have no way to criticize how we determine what goes on the ballot; it seems likely, for example, that the system used by many US states that grants two major parties significant advantage in gaining ballot access could be reformed to better meet the condition of meaningful choice that I elaborated in the previous section. But this system does not fall short simply because citizens only face two options, or because these options are too similar to one another. Rather, it is because the system itself makes it difficult for the people to discipline the parties to consistently reflect the major concerns and disagreements that arise in the community’s public life. The standard for meaningful choice in elections cannot be determined by what would count as meaningful choice if each citizen were a dictator, instead, it must be sensitive to the collective context.
Objections to compulsory voting and limited ballot access, though, may reflect a concern that voters will be forced to choose between options that are not only suboptimal, but unacceptable. As part of a massively shared project, voting necessarily involves compromise and responsiveness to one’s part in a collective project, which means that citizens should not expect to contribute by registering their strongest preference. But there are limits to the compromises that citizens can be expected to accept as part of participation in a collective project, because there will be limits to citizens’ commitment to that project. Democracy is not an ultimate value, and citizens’ commitments to other values may outweigh the value of contributing to the shared democratic project, when they come into conflict. When a ballot presents a citizen with a set of options that she considers seriously unjust, her commitment to ruling democratically with her fellow citizens may not provide a strong enough reason for her to contribute to this collective decision. Even where the value of democracy is not outweighed by values external to democracy, the options a voter faces on the ballot may undermine the value of democracy itself. When citizens may only select from among candidates who all favor suppressing the political rights of a minority group, then contributing to that collective decision simply isn’t a way of participating in a shared project of democracy.
Recognizing that there will be disagreement about the kinds of decisions that might outweigh or undermine the value of democracy, respect for the equal agency of all citizens as co-authors of the democratic project may recommend that ballots include a formal abstention or “none of the above” option.82 In most contemporary democracies, citizens who find all of the options on the ballot unacceptable can abstain simply by not casting a ballot (under compulsory voting systems, citizens can “spoil” their ballots). This is problematic from the point of view of the plan for democracy, since it means that some citizens are excluded from what is supposed to be a moment of mass participation. Including a formal abstention or none-of-the-above option on the ballot allows citizens to distinguish their dissent from apathy or ignorance. It allows them to register their ongoing commitment to be part of an equally shared project of collective self-rule, and ensures that their objections are formally counted as part of the collective decision.