First read Wisdom of the Crowds (and Voting).
There are in this great land of ours some 315 million souls. Citizens, I mean. Another 12 millions (or so) are, as the euphemism goes, undocumented. If democracy is defined as one-man-one-vote then democracy does not exist in the USA for the very simple reason that only about seven out of ten are permitted to vote in national elections. And even those eligible are not allowed to vote on everything.
It’s true, I promise. Somewhere around one-third of all people are forbidden to vote for candidates for office. And the numbers barred from casting ballots in other governmental matters? Monumental.
Are you scandalized? Is this an affront to Equality, that great and noble goal? Should we march?
In a “pure” democracy everybody votes on everything. We are thus not a pure democracy, but something else (we used to say “republic”). Some think a pure democracy undesirable because it is absurd. It is absurd because most of us do not want infants and children voting (but then we’re not all progressives), and we do not want citizen-wide votes on every matter which arises.
Ask yourself what receives more praise than Democracy, that system as bad as all the others except somehow superior? Why, it even garners more veneration than diversity! It is so wonderful we’re intent on exporting it by force. Peoples will be democracies, we say, even if it kills them.
So we’re not a democracy, but we aim towards one. Take a gander at this:
Onwards and upwards!
The percent of citizens eligible to vote in presidential (a position of increasing power) elections has been inching ever upwards, and so has the percent of voters who showed up.1 Some of this increase is due to structural changes, such as the fifteenth (race) and nineteenth (women) Constitutional amendments, but more interesting to us is the twenty-sixth (extending the vote to 18-year-olds); and some change is due to shifting age distributions (the greater the proportion over eighteen, the more eligible to vote).
Citizens have also been encouraged to vote in more matters, such as latterly for Senators (seventeenth amendment), or directly for legislation, thus far only at the State level (right, California?). This is all in the direction of pure democracy; however, nobody, except possibly academics, thinks we’ll ever get there.
It’s become a staple of talk radio to quiz dazed-looking folks as they exit polling stations in presidential elections. Oddly, few of these voters can name the Vice President, almost none know the Secretary of State. How many can define (say) the difference between the deficit and the debt? Or could name the ambassador to China? Ignorance abounds, but still people vote. And let’s don’t forget ardor: voters sure love their man.
Why vote? Because there are disagreements. Why are the disagreements? Because there is uncertainty in the sense that people base their decision on different information. People also have differing near-term or small goals, though presumably voters share the meta-goal of “making a better country” (or whatever).
And so finally we return to the Wisdom of the Crowds, which has (as we showed) three forms. Averaging votes—here, as a guess of the best man for the job—can work when the crowd is operating on (largely) unbiased information, when they have some clue about the real answer but have uncertainties that vary from person to person. Elections for small-town council members are a good example. So is voting where to go to lunch.
Wisdom of the Crowds can also be a formal fallacy. When a crowd is ignorant of its subject matter it cannot reliably provide accurate guesses, i.e. good votes. Darts thrown blindfolded are just as dependable. Votes of ignorant crowds will in general be harmful. High school seniors escorted to the polls on a bus driven by democracy-loving teachers is an example of a voting bloc best stuck in traffic.
The third and most insidious form is biased information. Averaging biased votes gives biased resultes. Now a good proportion of populaces in democracies imbibe willingly drafts of information from sources far more dubious than the moustachioed man from our last example. Bias therefore abounds.
And must, necessarily. As the proportion of a population eligible to vote increases, both ignorance and susceptibility to bias must increase. This result assumes the tacit premises that intelligence is subject to variation, which most accept, and that the young are less wise and more swayable than the old, which everybody believes.
The result is that the closer a state comes to a pure democracy, the larger the mistakes it is capable of making in voting.
I think many already know this, but mentioning it is considered gauche.
1Population data was compiled from the US Census Bureau, with linear extrapolations between decades prior to 1900. Turnout was found here and here. The percent turnout differs in different sources: it is often an estimate, which means it is the product of statistical models, the precisions of which I don’t know. Meaning, all results above are not entirely certain.