Prepared for the Western Political Science Conference, April 2014

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I have argued that voting is efficacious when it allows individual citizens to play their part in an effective plan for democracy. This account of electoral efficacy might be thought of as a procedural view of efficacy. It does not require that voters achieve particular political outcomes or that elections produce any particular substantive results (such as an electoral mandate). Rather, the efficacy of voting depends on features of the electoral system as a whole; it depends on the extent to which the process of voting fulfills its role in an effective plan for democracy. The importance of plans both for coordinating contributions to the collective project of democracy, and for making manifest the way that political decisions arise from the collective activity of self-rule, suggests that proceduralism will play an important role in a democracy. The collective activity of democracy requires a shared understanding of how the people will act together to achieve their shared goal of collective self-rule.

But the proceduralism of democratic plans differs from the kind of proceduralism that usually applies to elections. A procedural account of democracy requires that decision-making processes conform to a set of rules or expectations. But on the traditional view, whether an election is considered to be a legitimate democratic procedure depends only on design and administration of elections, that is, it is often assumed that procedural rules apply only to the actions of public officials. The account of electoral efficacy I’ve offered challenges this view of proceduralism. Shared plans for democracy do not just apply to public officials, rather they apply to citizens, who are themselves the agents of democracy. The shared plan for democracy tells citizens how they can act so that their actions fit together with others’ to produce their shared goal of collective self-rule. To say that an electoral decision has been made according to the plan or that the system meets the procedural conditions for electoral efficacy, we need to look not just at whether officials have correctly followed the rules in setting up and administering the election, but also at whether citizens have in fact followed the plan for democracy. Given the role of elections in the existing plan for democracy, this electoral proceduralism requires that citizens actually vote.

1 Thus, critics of voting may object that it does not effectively promote citizens’ interests, and is not a very informative form of participation – two things we expect in a democracy - while proponents of voting argue that it instantiates equality, and that majority rule is ultimately the most defensible decision procedure in situations of unresolvable disagreement.

2 Josiah Ober has effectively argued that this is the way we ought to think of ancient democracy – as the power of people to actually do things, to act collectively (Josiah Ober, “The Original Meaning of ‘Democracy’: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule,” Constellations 15, no. 1 (March 1, 2008): 3–9). But many people will probably doubt whether we should really talk about modern democracy in this way. There are, however, I think many reasons for thinking about democracy as a collective activity that will be compatible with a range of conceptions of the value of democracy. Certainly, any democratic theory that emphasizes political autonomy as an important piece of individual autonomy, the distinctly human interest in political activity, or the educative/developmental value of political participation should understand democracy as a collective activity. But thinking about democracy as a collective activity undertaken by all of the members of a community will be important for any democratic theory that emphasizes democracy as a condition for the legitimate exercise of political power under conditions of disagreement. It’s not clear why I should accept an exercise of power that arises from processes that actually involve the agency of only a subset of the community. That those who neglect to participate still have the opportunity to participate may give them a reason to accept laws and policies they’ve taken no steps to oppose, but the apathy and alienation of some of my fellow citizens doesn’t seem to give me a reason to accept the laws imposed on me by a majority of the politically engaged.

3 When the citizens of a political community are committed to ruling themselves democratically, that commitment must be at least somewhat robust to the way in which they accomplish their collective self-rule. Democratic theorists have long recognized the necessity of this robust commitment in relation to the objects of democratic self-rule – if democracy did not entail citizens’ willingness to go along with laws and policies they did not support, then democracy could only apply in the trivial case of total agreement. It would not be a useful concept for our messy world. What democratic theorists often miss, though, is the way that citizens’ commitment to democracy must also be somewhat robust to the means of democratic rule.

4 Anna R. Stilz, Liberal Loyalty (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 184.; Eric Beerbohm, In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012)., esp. 62-77

5Christopher Kutz, “The Collective Work of Citizenship,” Legal Theory 8, no. 4 (2002): 471–94., see esp. 473, 489-490

6 Ibid., 473.

7 Ibid., 489., emphasis added

8 Michael Bratman, “Shared Valuing and Frameworks for Practical Reasoning,” in Structures of Agency: Essays (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), 9.

9 Scott Shapiro, Legality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 2011), 177. Shapiro argues that plans are necessary for “complex, contentious, or arbitrary activities” – anytime there is any uncertainty about how a goal should be accomplished (see pg.s 132-133 for a more extended discussion of the role of plans in resolving disagreement. )

10 In a democratic collective activity, plans also serve a second function: they contribute to the legitimacy of the democratic system. Political regimes inevitably make demands of people to comply with laws they don’t agree with. But if citizens are committed to the collective project of ruling together with their fellow citizens, then they have a reason for accepting and complying with the laws and policies that the community produces when those laws and policies really are a product of the jointly intentional activity of democracy. A shared plan helps to make manifest the legitimacy of the community’s rules as the product of their joint activity. He plan reflects a shared understanding of how individual contributions fit together to produce the collective aim of democratic rule. When citizens follow the shared plan, then it will be manifest to the citizens that there laws and policies are legitimate products of the collective activity of democratic self-rule.

11 Shapiro, Legality, 177.: “Shared plans must be determined exclusively by social facts if they are to fulfill their function. As we have seen, shared plans are supposed to guide and coordinate behavior by resolving doubts and disagreements about how to act. If a plan with a particular content exists only when certain moral facts obtain, then it could not resolve doubts and disagreements about the right way of proceeding."

12 This is not, of course, to say that a community is stuck with the plan it has. Plans can and do change, via both formal and informal mechanisms, and individual citizens can and should advocate for reform. In fact, one of the reasons we have for thinking it is important to respect communities’ plans for democracy is because we recognize that a community’s particular shared plan for democracy – the principles, procedures, and ethic of participation that enable collective self-rule – is itself the object of political creation and contestation. The project of collective self-rule will always involve trade-offs, not just between democracy and other values, but between various values within the constellation of democracy (between individual influence and equality, between a responsive government now and a robust democracy into the future), and a community’s plan for democracy will reflect the concerns and priorities that arise from the political interactions of its citizens. Democratic plans are themselves products of a political community’s creative determination of the character of their own public life.

13 Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 1986), 52.

14 When I talk about established democracies here, I have in mind large-scale, purportedly “sovereign” communities (nation-states or countries). Local and associational practices of democracy are likely characterized by different plans (though the centrality of voting in the life of the national political community undoubtedly bleeds into conceptions of good citizenship in other areas of life.)

15 Arch Puddington, Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance (Freedom House, 2013), Six of the eleven items on Freedom House’s “political rights checklist” refer specifically to elections (including the conduct of elections, the role of elected offices, and access to suffrage) – see pg. 33 of the report

16 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948, Article 21.3 reads: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

17 See Douglas A. Chalmers, Reforming Democracies: Six Facts about Politics That Demand a New Agenda (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013). See also Marvin Olsen, Participatory Pluralism: Political Participation and Influence in the United States and Sweden (Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1982), 7; R. I. Pranger, The Eclipse of Citizenship (holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968).

18 Belief in the duty to vote is one of the most commonly measured attitudes in studies of citizenship norm, and though the rate of belief has declined slightly over time, In the US and Canada, endorsements of the idea of the duty to vote remains very high: Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007 Pew Research Center report, released March 22, 2007; Andre Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote?: The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000), 94–98. In Europe, belief in the duty to vote is falling faster, though it is still high in many countries: Goerres, Achim “Why are Older People More Likely to Vote? The Impact of Ageing on Electoral Turnout in Europe” British Journal of Political Science (Vol. 9, No. 1) 2007, pp. 90-201

19 ISSP Research Group (2012): International Social Survey Programme 2004: Citizenship I

(ISSP 2004). Variable Report(released 6/27/2012), available at, 31-44, Related to the data set: GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA3950 Data file Version 1.3.0. The results for East Germany are actually reported separately here. East Germany is one of the three countries where less than 50% of respondents rank Always Voting in the top 2 categories. The other two are Slovenia and the Czech Republic. In general, former Soviet Republics tend to rate the different categories of citizen duty lower across the board. This might indicate a different (more contestatory) plan for democracy at work in these countries, but it could also indicate a more fragile commitment to democratic governance (see Christopher J. Anderson et al., Loser’s Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005).

20 In six of the ISSP countries, more citizens even rate “always voting in elections” in the top two categories of importance than “never evading taxes” and “always obeying the law.” (ISSP Citizenship I Variable Report, 31-36)

21 Russel J. Dalton, “Citizenship Norms and the Expansion of Political Participation,” Political Studies 56, no. 1 (2008): 76–98.

22 Campbell, David Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), especially pgs. 34-35 and 157-176;

23 Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)., 23-24.

24 Angus Campbell, Gerald Gurin, and Warren Miller, The Voter Decides (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, and Company, 1954), 194. The rate of agreement with this and the other questions in the ANES citizen duty index have remained fairly consistent over time (see Warren Miller, Arther H. Miller, and Edward J. Schneider, American National Election Studies Data Sourcebook 1952-1978 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 263–264.)

25 Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote?: The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory, 95. In Quebec, 99 percent of respondents agreed with this statement, while in British Columbia, 96 percent of respondents agreed, with over 75% of respondents in each survey saying they “strongly agreed”

26 This language is from the ISSP citizenship survey, but the questions measuring citizen duty on the ANES similarly reflect a belief in an unconditional duty to vote, asking citizens whether they agree that they ought to vote even when the election isn’t important, their candidate can’t win, lots of other people are voting, and when they don’t care (see Campbell, Gurin, and Miller, The Voter Decides, 194.)

27 David Campbell, Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006)., esp. 34-35. Campbell actually finds that the relationship between political heterogeneity and voter turnout can be represented by a U-shaped curve – turnout is highest at the extremes, which leads Campbell to posit a “dual motivations” theory of voting. In politically heterogeneous communities, citizens may be “politically” motivated, believing that their individual action is more likely to affect the outcome, while in homogeneous communities, citizens may be more “civically” motivated, wanting to do their civic duty.

28 Christopher Achen and Andre Blais, “Taking Civic Duty Seriously: Political Theory and Voter Turnout,” 2010,, 11. Since surveys respondents typically endorse the duty to vote at a very high rate, Achen and Blais identify those who have most strongly internalized the belief in the duty to vote by asking respondents whether voting is for them “first and foremost a Duty or a Choice.”

29 Frankal, Elliot “Compulsory Voting Around the World” The, 4 July 2005, (accessed 18 March 2014)

30 Though most do not enforce it, the fact that they have this unenforced law suggests that the point is to express affirmation of a civic duty to vote than to achieve a particular outcome.

31 Dalton, “Citizenship Norms and the Expansion of Political Participation.”

32 The Constitution of the Republic of Italy 1947(English version), Article 48, LegislationOnline,

33 Given the debates about voter qualifications in the United States, it may not seem that we are all that interested in making voting accessible to all, but the fact that we have these debates at all is fairly extraordinary when compared to the more limited accessibility of other forms of participation. Debates about the accessibility of voting are premised on the expectation that all citizens be able to vote.

34 See Lester W. Milbrath, Political Participation: How and Why Do People Get Involved in Politics (Chicago, IL: Rand McNally and Company, 1965); Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics.

35 The expectation that all elections will be moments of actual mass participation informs and structures the rest of political life. As many political theorists have pointed out, elections discipline officials to be responsive to other forms of citizen influence and public sphere activity. In a political system in which periodic elections define the rhythm of public life, mass participation in elections also reinforces democratic legitimacy – demonstrating that political decisions are based on citizens’ actual exercise of authority. Low turnout elections do not make the legitimacy of a decision manifest. We cannot always assume that citizens who fail to vote are exercising reserve agency – that they are indifferent to the outcomes, or trust the judgment of their fellow citizens. Instead, nonvoters may be ignorant, alienated, or apathetic – they may not vote because they do not think the electoral decision properly belongs to them. But if this is the case, then those who do vote, but find themselves in the minority might doubt whether there is really good reason for them to accept the electoral outcome – since it simply reflects the will of another minority. Elections as moments of mass participation are valuable for securing democratic legitimacy because they make manifest the way that political decisions really do arise from a collective project that respects the equal agency of all citizens. It is important, therefore, that citizens vote, even if they participate in other ways.

36 Kutz, “The Collective Work of Citizenship,” 489.

37 Dennis Thompson, Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process in the United States (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2002)., 34; Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999)., 301; Loren Lomasky and Geoffrey Brennan, “Is There a Duty to Vote,” 2000, 62–86., esp. pg. 80-81

38 William Riker and Peter Ordeshook, “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting,” The American Political Science Review 62, no. 1 (March 1968): 25–42. See also Lomasky and Brennan, “Is There a Duty to Vote.”, esp. 66-68, and Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky, Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 22-23.

39 Of course, the political context can certainly affect the “enjoyment” a person gets out of voting, but if a person’s enjoying the sense of fulfilling her civic duty, or of expressing herself on a matter of political consequence depends on elections actually being effectively democratic, then we’ve built in another standard of efficacy.

40 See Derek Parfit, Reasons and Person (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1987); Alvin Goldman, “Why Citizens Should Vote: A Causal Responsibility Approach,” Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 16, no. 2 (1999): 201–17; Richard Tuck, Free Riding (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

41 See Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 17–19; Lomasky and Brennan, “Is There a Duty to Vote,” 75–76.

42 Of course, this is not to say that losing doesn’t affect citizens’ sense of efficacy. Individuals who consistently find themselves on the losing side of elections may perceive (perhaps correctly) that electoral decisions are not actually responsive to those who find themselves in a permanent minority. See Anderson et al., Loser’s Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy, for an extended discussion the effect of losing on support for democracy, especially in new democracies.

43 See esp. Stanley Kelley Jr., Interpreting Elections (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

44 Robert A Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory, expanded edition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 128.

45 Chalmers, 66-67; Olsen, 5-7.

46 The Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem shows that for any group with more than three individuals with well-behaved (complete, transitive) preferences over a choice set with more than three options, there does not exist a rule for aggregating these preferences into a single collective decision that satisfies the normatively desirable conditions of unrestricted domain, non-dictatorship, and strategy-proofness. See Allan Gibbard, “Manipulation of Voting Schemes: A General Result,” Econometrica 41, no. 4 (July 1, 1973): 587–601; Mark Allen Satterthwaite, “Strategy-Proofness and Arrow’s Conditions: Existence and Correspondence Theorems for Voting Procedures and Social Welfare Functions,” Journal of Economic Theory 10, no. 2 (April 1975): 187–21. Though Arrow’s theorem is more famous, Gibbard-Satterthwaite is more immediately relevant to the case of voting since it involves the production of a single winner, rather than a complete ranking of social preferences.

47 see Richard D. McKelvey (1976): “Intransitivities in Multidimensional Voting Models and Some Implications for

Agenda Control”, Journal of Economic Theory 12, 472-482

48 See, e.g. Philip E. Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in a Mass Public,” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David Apter (New York: the Free Press of Glencoe, 1964); Angus Campbell et al., The American Voter (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1960); Kelley, Interpreting Elections. Joseph Schumpeter anticipated many of these results in his criticism of the “classical” definition of democracy (Joseph A. Schumpeter,
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